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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Renewal of Education
GA 301

III. Understanding the Human Being: A Foundation for Education

22 April 1920, Basel

I have tried to give you some insight into the nature of the human being and thereby into the nature of the developing child. For pedagogical artists, such insights are quite practical in that they enable us to guide this human material into life in a fruitful way. From what I have already indicated, you can see that the question I posed in the first lecture can be at least partially answered. I believe that question is particularly important for today’s teachers. The question is: How is it that we have, on the one hand, such a wonderful science of teaching, with all its well-thought-out principles and, on the other hand, so much justifiable public criticism of education and current teaching methods?

The reason is that although pedagogical geniuses developed our principles through a kind of instinctive intuition, although we have many theories about how to teach, this recently assembled collection of principles that has permeated our entire worldview is not related to a genuine understanding of human nature. We cannot develop an art of education from the sciences as they are practiced today. I certainly do not want to trivialize the great progress and triumphs of modern science. Nevertheless we must understand the developing human being from a very different perspective. The sciences have remained theoretical and have created a contradiction between external physical existence and the spirit-soul. We can therefore say that they offer no support or help to our pedagogical principles. Putting those pedagogical principles into practice depends upon teachers who are highly skilled at practicing them instinctively.

Pestalozzi, Diesterweg, and others obviously had a marvelous pedagogical instinct and developed an instinctive understanding of the human being. However, we live in a time when we can go no further on instinct alone. In older patriarchal societies, we could survive more or less instinctually. However, we live in a time when we must become more and more conscious of everything, and we therefore need to consciously understand human beings. We can do that only by bringing the practical perspective needed for teaching into a closer connection, a systematized understanding of human nature. What science tells us about human physiology or biology offers us no basis for the development of pedagogical principles. What modern science tells us gives us no direct help in seeing how we can best use a child’s talents when they are unequally developed.

For that to be possible, our understanding of the human being must be different than that of modern science. I have already mentioned some basic goals for such an understanding. We still need to learn what can create a bridge to a genuine art of education. I would like to stress that in this age of materialism, we are less and less in a position of genuinely understanding the physical human organism. On the other hand, we have hardly anything other than language as a means of approaching other human beings. Although illustrative materials can be very useful in certain areas of education, the method of teaching through illustration should not be the only one used. We need to ask whether language, when used as the primary means of communication with growing children, can really bring us closer to the nature of the child. We cannot answer that question without penetrating a little deeper into the nature of the human being.

Everyone who attempts to form a picture of the human being from normal pedagogical texts or texts on psychology, who attempts to fill education with principles from natural science or psychology, ends up with the idea that a human being is just a collection of various forms. Such people would have the perspective that here we have a human organism, and within the skull there is a firm brain (or at least a semi-solid one). They would also think here are the other organs, the liver, the lungs, and so forth. If we look at things superficially or clinically, the drawings we see would convey the idea that these firmly delineated organs are the only things that exist within a human being. But remember that people consist of at least 80 percent fluid, that they are actually a column of fluid; therefore they consist of only a very small amount of something solid. Is it really possible to assume that a human being really consists only of sharply delineated individual organs? The human being is a column of fluid and is moreover filled with gases. Yet these texts describe the nervous system as more or less solid strands, or possibly as a somewhat softer solid. They have no awareness that these are in fact imbedded in liquid or even in gas, a gas that exists in the human organism in the form of vibrations or rhythmic movements.

Aside from the gaseous aspect, the human being is actually a liquid column and the brain is imbedded in cerebrospinal fluid; indeed much of the life of our organs is connected with the up-and- down motion of the cerebrospinal fluid as we inhale and exhale. If we become aware of these things, we will not ascribe parallel organic processes to spiritual and soul facts; we will not assume they are firmly delineated. Instead we will form a picture that describes how while I am thinking, while I am feeling or willing, the moving fluid portions of my organism take on certain liquid structures which again dissolve.

We need to ask ourselves why, for example, we should connect the process of thinking with some vibrations or similar processes in the nerves. Of course they are not. Why shouldn’t they be connected with the vibrations within the liquid portion of the human being? This is a question natural science, under the influence of our materialistic period, have not even asked. We can be satisfied with what science discovers when we accept its common goals. Modern science has brought about numerous practical results in the area of solid or liquid technology where the liquid exists in an external form in space. It has also been very successful in working with gases, such as in steam technology, where the steam exists in space and can be worked with there.

When we are working with the results of conventional science in a technology, working with inorganic substances, we need to take into account how things operate. For that reason, conventional science in this era of materialism has had such great success, since it has had to closely follow advances in technology. Consider this example: if someone constructed a railway bridge using the principles of mechanics incorrectly, we would very soon see how such a bridge would collapse when one or two locomotives went over it. Such a catastrophe would occur because the proven results of conventional scientific testing were not applied; this is how incorrect principles are corrected in practice.

The further we go into areas where inorganic technology can no longer have a correcting effect, the less we can base our practice upon theory. We need think only of how slowly medicine has advanced in comparison with modern technology. You can very quickly see the significance of incorrect principles in the process of building a railway bridge or similar things. However, when a physician treats someone, it is not at all common to try to determine whether the physician has done everything necessary to restore the person’s health, simply because that is impossible to determine. Here the situation is very different; it is simply not possible to correct theories through practice. You will forgive me if I make a comment here, but I think it is important for teachers, since everything in life is important for teachers. In the areas of jurisprudence or economics, for instance, if we followed the way people’s principles were applied, we would very quickly see how lame the concept of control through practice is. What is officially determined in legal matters is then made correct through laws. This is true in all countries. Whether we can justify such things from the perspective of a genuine understanding of human beings is a question that is just as neglected today as it was when Goethe gave Faust the question of which rights we are born with.

Furthermore people have not the slightest interest in finding out how our use of externally superb pedagogical principles relates to what then transpires with the developing generation. That, however, is just what I want to draw your attention to. We hear a great deal about the terrible social things now occurring in the eastern part of Europe and in Russia. The things being done in Eastern Europe under the influence of Lenin’s1 and Trotsky’s2 theories are horrible. However, people today give no thought to what is actually happening. People today have no idea of what the results of those things being done today will be in twenty or twenty-five years, what kind of barbarism will fall upon Europe. It is, however, the task of teachers to observe what will happen to human development.

Now here is something unusual. You see, in Zurich, Avenarius, an honest and upright citizen, once taught philosophy. Somewhat later, Vogt, a student of Ernst Mach, taught together with the philosopher Adler, who was the same Adler who shot the Austrian Minister Stürgkh. We can certainly not say of Adler that he was as honest a man as Avenarius, but Avenarius was an honest, upright man. Nevertheless he taught a philosophy that was possible to teach only because of the materialism at that time. If you now look into the “state philosophy” of Bolshevism, you will find it is none other than that taught by Avenarius. After two generations, what was once taught in Zurich as an appropriate philosophy has become the theory the Bolsheviks put into direct practice.

People pay no attention to the relationships of different periods because they are not at all clear about what happens when the views of one generation are inherited by the following generation. Of course, I do not mean just physical inheritance. The honest and upright Avenarius taught a philosophy which, after a relatively short time, led to the barbarization of Europe. It is important not to simply accept abstract judgments when we want to see what value a viewpoint has for human development. Instead we must look into the way that viewpoint takes effect. An important responsibility of all education is to look at what will become of what we do in the classroom in twenty or thirty years. All education has the task of placing itself consciously in human development, but we cannot do that without a thorough understanding of the human being, an understanding that spiritual science can give to a renewed natural science. A natural science renewed through spiritual science will not be some fantasy or figment of the imagination. Rather it will provide a good understanding of the material human organism as the physical vehicle for the soul and spirit.

Today I want to mention an important aspect of our soul life that you all know well and that will prove particularly important as we move on to the actual pedagogical subject. The phenomenon I refer to is how what we think about as children eventually becomes memory. You all know that to maintain a healthy soul, we must properly transform the ideas we develop from our sense impressions, that result from our judging and so forth—we can discuss the details of this later—and that we must take the results of this thinking into our memory. When we then describe something, we recall from within our souls what we previously experienced in the external world or in our interactions with other human beings. We bring it back into our consciousness. But what actually takes place here?

The general view has moved more and more toward looking at this process in a one-sided, abstract way, as simply a process within the soul. People ask, what becomes of our thoughts once we take them into our soul? What have they become, once they are taken in and returned to us as memory? How does this process take place? We cannot study this process if we have not first looked into the relationship between the spirit-soul and the physical body in some detail. There are some so-called idealists who might say spiritual science is basically materialistic, since it is always referring to physical organs. To believe that, however, would be an enormous error. Spiritual science recognizes the great effects of the soul on the formation of the organs. It sees the soul as having a greater influence than simply working on abstractions, and in fact sees the soul as actually having the power to form the organs. Spiritual science primarily seeks to understand the soul during childhood, when the spirit-soul continues to work upon the formation of the organs after birth.

In my opinion, Goethe’s color theory offers the first beginning of a really reasonable consideration of the soul and physical life, something that has been previously unrecognized. Yet today all one needs to do to be immediately branded a dilettante is speak about it in a positive way. I believe, however, that physicists will soon see it much differently from the way it is seen at present. I do not intend to go on praising Goethe’s theory of color today, I only want to direct your attention to the wonderful chapter where Goethe begins to speak about physiological colors, and to another chapter toward the end, where he speaks about the sensory and moral effects of colors. Physicists have attempted to refute the portion in between. The beginning and the end have been of more interest to people with an artistic nature, and they can more easily understand them. However, for us to develop a scientific foundation of education, we need to accept some of the help offered by Goethe’s considerations of the world of colors. In the beginning, Goethe draws our attention to the lively interaction between the eye and the external world. That lively interaction exists not only while we are exposing the eye to some color process in the external world, but also afterward. Goethe specifically discusses the after-images that result from the direct impression. You all know these after-images, which occur in the eye itself. You need only expose your eye to, say, a green surface and then turn away from this sharply delineated green area. You will see the same area as an after-effect that is subjectively red. The organ is still influenced for a time by what it experienced in the external world. This is the basic process as it occurs in the sense organs. Something happens in the sense organs while they are exposed to a process or to things in the external world, and something else happens afterward, which then slowly subsides. From an external perspective, we also can see a certain similarity between what briefly takes place in a sense organ and what happens in the human organism in regard to memory. Just as the green surface continues for a short time as red, a thought with its associated images resulting from a direct experience exists in our organism, only the time periods are quite different.

There is another difference that brings us closer to an understanding of the difference in duration. If we expose the eye to a color impression and then see an after-image, it is something partial, an individual organ on the periphery of the human organism that brings forth that after-effect. When a memory arises from within the human being, it reproduces something that existed years before. This is something we can feel, that is apparent, that participates in this reproducing—thus it is the entire human being that participates in this after-effect.

What actually occurs within the human being? We can understand this only when we have a detailed understanding of certain interactions within the human being. Here I want to draw your attention to a fact that our modern scientific way of thinking has put into an incorrect light, namely, the function of our heart in connection with the whole human organism. You now find the heart described everywhere as a kind of pump that pumps blood throughout the organism. Actually, the blood circulation is forced upon the heart. The fact that embryology contradicts the standard view and more detailed observations of the heartbeat and such things also offer contradictions is something modern people still do not want to hear. Only a few people have noticed this: for example, the physician Schmid,10 who wrote a treatise about it in the 1880s, and the criminologist Moritz Benedikt. That was not enough, though. There are only a few who have realized that the movements in the heart are a result of the movement of the blood, and that the blood circulation itself is what is fundamentally alive. Thus the heart does not pump; rather its movement is due to the influence of the living movement of the blood. The heart is nothing more than the organ that creates a balance between the two blood circulatory systems, that is, between that of the upper human being, the head, and that of the limbs. These two movements of blood form a pool in the heart. The blood, however, is not something dead; it is not simply pumped like a stream of water. The blood itself has an inner life and is subject to its own movement. It passes that movement on to the heart, which simply reflects the movement of the blood in its own movements. Just as we can say that there is a parallel between the more or less solid organs and processes in the soul, there is also a parallel, which I mentioned yesterday, between the movements of the blood and soul processes.

What is the task of an organ such as the heart in relationship to the soul? I would like to ask that question in the following way. If, under the influence of a genuinely correct science, we say that the blood itself has life and the movements of the heart, the entire activity of that organ results from the blood circulation and are only inserted into the living blood circulation, then what is the task of the heart?

Unprejudiced observation shows that if we expose the eye to the external world, the eye’s experiences create an afterimage that soon disappears. When we develop the world of feeling, that world has a close connection with the circulation of the blood. It has a connection with other things also, but here I am speaking only of the blood circulation. Recall for only a moment that when we feel shame, we turn red. Everyone knows this is because the blood comes to the surface. If we are fearful, we turn pale as the blood moves toward the inside. The physiologist Lange12 from Copenhagen has done a number of good studies about the connection between blood circulation, and other organic processes, and processes in the soul. Just as in the extreme cases where the soul’s experience of fear or shame has an effect upon blood circulation, the normal life of the soul also continuously affects our circulation. Our feeling life is always active, but it influences normal circulation toward one direction or another only when our feelings move toward one extreme or another. Just as we are continuously breathing, we also continuously feel. Just as our blood circulation is uninterrupted, our feeling is uninterrupted. If we were to follow these processes further, you would see that we even feel during sleep.

What circulates in the blood is the external physical expression of our feeling. Furthermore, our feeling is connected with our thinking. What we imprint upon the circulation also vibrates within the heart. Goethe used the word “eye” to mean an inner, living organ, and the heart is just as much a living organ. It does not just move the blood. It has an enormous significance within the entire organism. Whereas the eye is affected for only a short time by light outside it, the heart continuously responds to feeling and thinking as it relates to feeling with small vibrations that are then carried into the blood. After a time, the heart’s vibrations include what lives specifically in feeling and in feeling-related thinking. The heart is a part of the body that influences us when we remember experiences. All human organs that partake of the currents of organic human fluids, that are included in the liquid currents—whether it is the kidneys imbedded in this flow or the liver connected to it in the digestive stream—all these organs vibrate in unison, vibrate with our feeling and willing in circulation and metabolism. Just as an after-image arises in the eye, in the same way a memory arises within the entire human being, though in differentiated and specific ways; it is a memory of experiences in the outer world. The whole human being is an organ that vibrates, and the organs people normally say are placed next to each other are there in reality so that human beings can process and retain spiritual-soul experience in a certain way. We will see that this only appears to be a materialistic perspective. We will see that it is precisely this that allows us to properly recognize the human being as a spiritual being. Today, however, now that I have mentioned this, you can see how we can grasp the entire human being through such a perspective. We can comprehend the human being not only in the way materialistic science does, by placing the individual organs alongside each other, even assuming that they interact mechanically. The spiritual-scientific perspective shows that the entire human being is unified as body, soul, and spirit, but our thinking separates these three perspectives. In reality, body, soul, and spirit are always interconnected within the human being.

You need learn only a little embryology to learn that the heart slowly develops in the organs of the blood circulatory system, in the system of vessels. You can see that the heart is not there first, with the circulatory system developing from it, but that the circulatory system develops slowly, with the heart as the final result. You can see directly from embryology that the situation is just as I have described it. Therefore, when we consider things from a spiritual-scientific perspective, we need to think of the human liver not simply as a liver, the human spleen not simply as a spleen in the way these things appear when we dissect a corpse in the laboratory. Instead we need to try to investigate the significance of these organs in the spirit-soul life. We do not see the eye, or any of the other organs, as merely some physical tool. Although it is commonly believed that the liver is only an organ in the digestive system, it has a great deal to do with human spiritual life.

We can often learn much from language itself. Ancient peoples, who still had a kind of primal, instinctive knowledge, did not always consider things as abstractly as we do. Take, for instance, hypochondria, which in Greek means “below the cartilage of the breast bone,” an anomaly of the soul that has its origins in the human abdomen, which is indicated in the word itself. In the English language, which in comparison to the languages of Central Europe is still at an early stage of development, the word spleen, as an emotional state, has something to do with the soul. However, spleen also refers to an organ, and for good reason, since the spleen of the soul has much to do with the spleen organ. Such things are nearly all lost. Materialism has nearly lost an understanding of the physical organs, particularly those of the human being. How can we work with a human being if we are not in a position to understand what the human being is physically? We must first understand that the human being is built up piece by piece out of the spirit-soul, so that there is nothing physical that is not a revelation of the spirit-soul.

We need to be able to see the physical properly if we are to have a solid foundation for education. When I say such things, some people may think I want to throw out everything in the world that has been learned through hard scientific work. I certainly do not do that light-heartedly, you can be certain of that. In general, it is much more comfortable to play the same tune as everyone else than to counter prevalent views from genuine understanding and from the realization that a true cultural renewal in our decadent times requires such an understanding in the area of spiritual life. Personally, I would much prefer to present all the scientifically recognized perspectives rather than argue against many of them, particularly where the concern is an understanding of the human being.

We also need to resist the standard scientific perspective when we consider human interactions in practice. Instruction and education are essentially a special case of human interaction. We need to differentiate human life before the change of teeth and then again until puberty. I have attempted to characterize how different the forces are during the first period of human life in comparison to the second. It requires a very different kind of soul experience for these two periods, for the simple reason that the forces connected with imaginative thinking are directed toward an inner hardening of the human body during the first period of life. This activity culminates in the change of teeth at about the age of seven. The most important means of communicating with human beings during that time lies in the principle of imitating the surroundings.

Everything a person does during the years before the change of teeth is done out of imitation. What occurs in the surroundings of a child is enormously important, since the child only imitates. Imitation is one of the strengths of children at that age, and that imitation is directly connected with the same forces that produce the second set of teeth. They are the same forces, and, as we have seen, they are the forces of thinking, of inwardly picturing and understanding the world around us. Thus the forces associated with representational thinking are also the forces connected with physical development. These are the forces active in the child’s motive for imitation. Imagine what it means when you grasp that not only intellectually, but when with the entirety of your being, with your soul, when you have a universal, human understanding of it. It means that when I do something in front of a child who is not yet seven years old, not only do I do it for myself, but my doing also enters the child’s doing. My deeds do not exist for me alone.

I am not alone with my deeds, with my willing, with my feeling. I am not alone with my thinking; there are intangibles that also have an effect. There is a difference in whether I live alongside a child with a good attitude and allow the child to grow up alongside of me, or whether I do it with a poor attitude. These intangibles have an effect but they are not yet recognized. If we do not honor the connection between the spirit-soul and individual physical human organs, then we do not honor what exists between human beings as a real force, the spirit-soul itself.

When we look at the period between the change of teeth and puberty, the will begins to predominate in the way that I characterized it. With boys, we experience this eruption of the will in the change in the voice. In girls, this is expressed in a different way that we will discuss later. What is active in children at elementary school age shows us that it is connected with the will. Something wants to enter the physical body from the will; something wants to become firmer. There is more than simply a desire to imitate, although, as we will see, that remains important in the curriculum until the age of nine. Something more than simple imitation wants to develop, and that is the desire to honor authority. If I do not live as an authority alongside a seven- to fourteen- or fifteen-year-old child whom I am to bring up and educate, for the child that would be the same as if I cut off a finger or an arm so that he or she could no longer physically behave in the way natural to children. I would take something from the child that wants to develop, namely, the experience of having older people nearby, people who, as genuine authorities, are to educate and raise the child.

We now come to something we will have to make understandable to growing children in a way other than through example or through language. We now come to the role of love in education and upbringing. One of the intangibles we are justified in exercising in educating a growing child is authority over that child, and that our authority be accepted as a naturally effective force. We will not have that authority if we are not permeated in a certain way by what we have to present to the child. If, as teachers, we carry our knowledge within us just as some dry, memorized facts, if we teach only out of a sense of duty, then we have a different effect upon children than when we have an inner warmth, an enthusiasm for what we are to teach them. If we are active in every fiber of our soul, and identify ourselves with that knowledge, then the love for what we carry in our souls is just as much a means of communication as demonstrations and language. An education made fruitful through spiritual science enables us to understand the importance of this kind of intangibility.