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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Practical Course for Teachers
GA 294

XII. How to Connect School with Practical Life

3 September 1919, Stuttgart

We must not close our minds to the fact that the relations of man to his surroundings are far more complicated than the part of which we are always conscious. I have attempted to make clear to you from the most various angles the nature and significance of the unconscious and subconscious soul-processes. And it is especially important in the sphere of education, and of educational method, that man should be educated in a way suited not only to his consciousness, but also to his subconsciousness, to the subconscious and unconscious forces of his soul. In this sense, if we are to be true educators and teachers, we must enter into the subtleties of human nature.

We have learnt that there are three stages of human development traceable between the losing of the first teeth and puberty (seven to nine, nine to twelve, twelve to fourteen). We must realize that particularly in the last of these stages of life the subconscious plays a great part along with consciousness — a part which is significant for the whole future life of the individual.

I should like to make the position plain to you by approaching it from another angle.

Just think how many people to-day travel in electric trains without the ghost of a notion of the real nature of locomotion by electric rail. Just think how many people to-day see even a steam-engine, a railway-engine, steam past them, without any suspicion of the physical and mechanical processes involved in the motion of the steam-engine. But think further, in what relation, in view of such ignorance, we stand as human beings to the surroundings of which we even make a convenience. We live in a world produced by human beings, moulded by human thought, of which we make use, and which we do not understand in the least. This lack of comprehension for human creation, or for the results of human thought, is of great significance for the entire complexion of the human soul and spirit. In fact, people must benumb themselves to escape the realization of influences from this source.

It must always remain a matter of great satisfaction to see people from the so-called “better classes” enter a factory and feel thoroughly ill at ease. This is because they experience, like a shaft from their subconsciousness, the realization that they make use of all that is produced in the factory, and yet, as individuals, have not the slightest intimacy with the processes taking place there. They know nothing about it. When you notice the discomfiture of an inveterate cigarette smoker going into the Waldorf-Astoria tobacco factory without any idea of the process of manufacture to provide him with a cigarette, you can at least notice the satisfaction that human nature shows of being itself worried through its ignorance. And there is at least some pleasure in seeing people who are completely ignorant of the workings of an electric railway, get in and out of it with a slight feeling of discomfort. For this feeling of discomfort is at least the first glimmering of an improvement in attitude. The worst thing is participation in a world made by human heads and hands without bothering in the least about that world.

We can only fight against this attitude if we begin our fight as early as the last stage of the elementary school course, if we simply do not let the child of fifteen or sixteen leave school without at least a few elementary notions of the most important functions of the outside world. The child must leave with a craving to know, an insatiable curiosity about everything that goes on around him, and then convert this curiosity and craving for knowledge into further knowledge. We ought, therefore, to use the separate subjects of study towards the end of the school course as a social education of the individual in the most comprehensive sense, just as we employ geography on the lines already described as in a resume. That is, we should not neglect to introduce the child, on a basis of such physical, natural-history concepts as we can command, to the workings of at least the factory systems in his neighbourhood. The child should have acquired some general idea at fifteen and sixteen of the way a soap-factory or a spinning-mill is run. The problem will be, of course, to study things as economically as possible. It is always possible, if a comprehensive process is being studied, to arrange some kind of abbreviated epitome and very primitive demonstration of complicated processes. I think that Herr Molt [General Managing Director of the Waldorf-Astoria tobacco factory and founder of the Waldorf School as a school for the children of his employees.] will agree with me when I say that one could teach the child, in an economical fashion, the entire factory process for preparing cigarettes, from beginning to end, in a few short sentences. Such shortened instructions of certain branches of industry are of the very greatest benefit to children of twelve to fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. If people at this age were to keep a kind of notebook containing: manufacture of soap, spinning, weaving, etc., it would be an excellent thing. There would be no immediate need to teach him mechanical or chemical technology, but if the child could keep such a notebook he would derive a great deal of benefit from it. Even if he lost the notebook the residue would be there. The individual, that is, would not only retain the knowledge of these things, but, most important of all, he would feel, in going about life and in his own vocation, that he once knew these things, that he once went into them. This influences him, as a matter of fact, and gives him the assurance with which he acts and the self-possession with which the individual effects a footing for himself in life. It is very important for the individual's will-power and his capacity to make decisions. In no profession will you get people with real initiative unless their relation to the world is instinct with the consciousness that, even about things which do not fall within their province, they once acquired a certain knowledge, however elementary. Whether they have remembered it or not, they have the residue, the traces. Granted, we learn a good deal in the average school. But there, in the object lesson, which so often degenerates into platitudes, the child learns many such things, but it probably happens that he does not retain the feeling that he went into a thing with pleasure and felt himself lucky. On the contrary, he feels: I have forgotten what I learnt about that, and a good thing, too. We should never be responsible for producing this feeling in a person. When, later, we go into business and other walks of life, innumerable recollections will flicker up from our subconsciousness if we have been taught in our childhood with the care which I have described. Life to-day is exclusively specialized. This specialization is really fearful, and the excess of it in practical life is chiefly due to the fact that we begin to specialize already at school.

The gist of these remarks might well be summarized as follows: All that the child learns during his school years should ultimately and in some way be so applied that he can everywhere trace its connections with practical human life. Very many features, indeed, which are unsocial to-day could be transformed into social ones if we, at least, could have glimpsed an insight into things not immediately connected with our occupation.

For example, certain things should really be respected by the outside world which are, in fact, respected in spheres still dominated by older, better, if perhaps rather atavistic principles of teaching. In this connection I should like to refer to a very remarkable phenomenon. When we, now elderly folk, went through the senior school in Austria, we had relatively good geometry and arithmetic textbooks. They have disappeared now. A few weeks ago I ransacked all the imaginable bookshops in Vienna to get older geometry books, because I wanted to see again, with my physical eyes, what gave us young fellows such joy in Vienna-Neustadt, for instance: when we got into the first or lowest class of the senior school the lads of the second class always used to come into the corridor the first day and yell: “Fialkowski, Fialkowski! You'll have to pay up tomorrow!” That is, as pupils of the first class we took over the Fialkowski geometry books from the boys of the second class and brought the money for them the next day. I have hunted up one of these Fialkowskis again, to my great joy, because it proves that geometry books written in this older tradition are really much better than the later ones. For the modern books which have replaced them are really quite horrible. The arithmetic and geometry books are very bad. But on thinking back only a little way and taking the generations before us as our models, there were better textbooks then. They nearly all came from the school of the Austrian Benedictines. The mathematics and geometry books had been written by the Benedictines and were very good ones, because the Benedictines are a Catholic order who take a great deal of care that their members receive a good education in geometry and mathematics. The Benedictine feeling in general is that it is really ludicrous for anyone to mount a pulpit and address the people unless he is familiar with geometry and mathematics.

This ideal of unity, inspiring the human soul, must pervade our teaching. In every vocation something of the whole world must be alive. In every vocation there must exist something of its very opposite, things which we believe are almost inapplicable to that vocation. People must be interested in more or less the opposite extreme of their own work. But they will only feel the desire to do this if they are taught as I have described.

It was, of course, just at the time in which materialism reached its final expansion, in the last third of the nineteenth century, and penetrated so deeply into our educational method, that specialization came to be considered very important. Do not imagine that the effect is to make the child idealistic if you avoid showing him in his last years at the school the relation of subjects of school study to practical life. Do not imagine that the child will be more idealistic later in life if, at this time, you let him write essays on all kinds of sentimentalism about the world, on the gentleness of the lamb, on the fierceness of the lion, and so on, on the omnipresence of God in nature. You do not make the child idealistic in this way. You will do far more, in fact, to cultivate idealism itself in the child if you do not approach it so directly, so crudely. What is the real reason why people have become so irreligious lately? Simply because preaching has been far, far too sentimental and abstract. That is why people have become so irreligious — because the Church has respected the divine commandments so little. For instance, there is, after all, a commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” If people respect this and do not say “Jesus Christ” after every fifth sentence, or speak of “divine Providence,” accusations are immediately levelled against them by the so-called Church-minded people, by those who would be happiest hearing “Jesus Christ” and “God” in every sentence. The reverent surrender to the presence of the divine Immanence, which hesitates to be for ever saying “Lord, Lord,” is sometimes considered an irreligious attitude. And if human teaching is pervaded by this modest divine activity, not just a sentimental lip-service, you hear people say on all sides, because they have been wrongly educated: “Ah yes, he ought to speak far more than he does about Christianity.” This attitude, even in teaching, must be clearly kept in mind, and what the child learns at thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen must be given less of a sentimental turn; on the contrary, it must be directed into the channel of practical life. In fact, no child ought really to reach the age of fifteen without being led from arithmetic to a knowledge of the rules of at least the simplest forms of book-keeping. And in this way the principles of grammar and language-teaching should be applied instead of that form of essay which represents human mind by introducing phrases.

Yes, indeed, this “sort” of essay which children have to write between thirteen and sixteen, is often employed as a sort of improved edition of the mentality arising when men gather round their beer in the evening or women have their chitter-chatter at tea-time. Far more attention should be given to applying language teaching to the essay of a business type, to the business letter. And no child should pass the age of fifteen without taking a course of writing specimen practical business letters. Do not say that he can learn this later. Certainly, by overcoming great difficulties, he can learn it later, but the point is: not without overcoming these difficulties. You do the child a great kindness if you teach him to apply his grammar knowledge, his language knowledge, to essays of a business nature, to business letters. In our day there should really be no single individual who has not learnt to write a decent business letter. Certainly he may not have to apply this knowledge in later life, but there should not be one single individual who has not been at one time trained to write a respectable business letter. If the child has become satiated with sentimental idealism from thirteen to fifteen, he will later experience a revulsion from idealism and become a materialist. If, at this early age, he is introduced to the practical side of life, he will also retain a healthy relation to the ideal needs of the soul. But these will just be extinguished by senseless indulgence in them in early youth.

This is extremely important, and in this connection even certain externals, such as the division of subjects, might be of great significance. We shall have to make compromises, as you know, with regard to religious instruction, which will have the disadvantage that the religious element will not come in close connection with the other subjects. But even to-day, if the religious parties would make the same compromises from their side, much might be achieved by the close association of religious instruction with other subjects. If, for example, the teacher in religious instruction condescended now and then to take up some other aspect of study; if, for instance, he were to explain to the child, as an incidental part of his religious teaching, and connected with it, the steam-engine or something of a quite worldly nature, something having to do with astronomy, etc., the simple fact that the teacher of religion is doing this would make an extraordinary impression on the consciousness of the growing children. I am mentioning this extreme case because in the other subjects things must be noticed which unfortunately cannot in our case be observed in the course of religious instruction. We must not have to think, like pedants: Now teach geography, now history, and don't care two pins for anything else. No, we must remember, when explaining to the child that the word “sofa” came from the East during the Crusades, to find room for some explanation of the manufacture of sofas as part of the history teaching. Then we proceed to other more Western fashions of furniture and extract something quite new from the so-called “subject.” This will be a tremendous boon to the growing child, particularly from the point of view of method, for the reason that the transition from one subject to another, the association of one fact with another, has the most beneficent influence imaginable on the development of the spirit, the soul, and even the body. For one can say: A child to whose joy, in the middle of a history lesson, the teacher suddenly begins to talk about the manufacture of sofas, and perhaps from that goes on to discuss designs of Oriental carpets, all so that the child really has a survey of the whole topic, will have a better digestion than a child who simply has a geometry lesson after a French lesson. It will be healthier for the body, too. In this way we can organize the lessons inwardly according to the principles of hygiene. In these days, as it is, most people have all kinds of digestive troubles, bodily indispositions, which come about very often from our unnatural methods of teaching, because we cannot adjust our teaching to the demands of life. The most badly organized in this respect, of course, are (in Germany) the High Schools for Girls (höhere Töchterschulen). And if someone were to study some day, from the point of view of the history of civilization, the connection between women's illnesses and the educational methods used in the Girls' High Schools, it would form quite an interesting chapter. People's thoughts must be directed to things of this kind simply so that, when aware of much that has grown up recently, healthier conditions may be brought about. Above all, people must know that the human being is a complex being, and that the faculties which it is desired to cultivate in him must often be prepared beforehand.

If you want children to gather round you so that you can convey to them in profoundly religious feeling the glory of the divine powers in the world, and you do it with children who come just anyhow from anywhere, you will see that what you say goes in at one ear and out at the other without touching their feelings. But if, after the children have written business letters in the morning, you have them back again in the afternoon and try to regain what was in their subconsciousness while writing the business letters and you then try to instil religious ideas into them, you will be successful, for you yourself will then have created an atmosphere which craves for its antithesis. Seriously, I am not making these proposals to you from the point of view of abstract didactic method, but because they are of enormous importance for life. I should like to know who has not discovered in the world outside how much unnecessary work is done. Business people will always agree if you say: “Take a person employed in some business; he is told to write a business letter to some branch connected with the firm or to people who are to take a matter in hand. He writes a letter; an answer is received. Then another letter has to be written and another answer received, and so on. It is particularly in business life a very deep-seated evil that time is wasted in this way.” The fact simply is, that by this means public life is carried on with colossal extravagance. It is noticeable, too. For if, with nothing but ordinary sound human intelligence and common sense to your credit, you get hold of a modern duplicating book and carbon-copy belonging to a business, you literally endure agonies. And this is not in any way because you feel disinclined to show sympathy for the jargon of words or dislike the interests represented there, but you experience agonies of exasperation that things are written down as un-practically as possible, when the copy-book in question could be reduced to at least a quarter of its size. And this is simply and solely because the last year of elementary school teaching is not suitably organized. For the loss during this year cannot be made good in later life without almost invincible difficulties. You cannot even repair in the continuation schools (Fortbildungsschule) the omissions of this period because the powers which develop in it become choked as with sand and are no longer active later on. You have to reckon with these powers if you wish to be certain that a person will not just superficially concoct a letter with half his mind on it, but that he will have his mind on the work and will draw up a letter with discretion and foresight.

The point in the first stage, when the child comes to school until he is nine, is that we should be well grounded in human nature and that we should educate and teach entirely from that point of view; from thirteen to fifteen the point in drawing up the time-table is that as teachers and instructors we should be rooted in life, that we should have an interest in and a sympathy for life. I had to say all this to you before going on to the ideal time-table, to compare it with time-tables which will concern your teaching as well, because, of course, we are surrounded on all sides by the outside world and its organization.