Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Child's Changing Consciousness and Waldorf Education
GA 306

Lecture IV

18 April 1923, Dornach

In our previous meetings I have tried to direct you into what we understand as knowledge of the human being. Some of what is still missing will surely find its way into our further considerations during this conference. I have also told you that this knowledge of the human being is not the kind that will lead to theories, but one that can become human instinct, ensouled and spiritual instinct that, when translated into actions, can lead to living educational principles and practice. Of course, you must realize that in giving lectures of this kind, it is only possible to point the way, in the form of indications, to what such knowledge of the human being can do for the furtherance of practical teaching. But just because our primary goal is toward practical application, I can give only broad outlines, something that is very unpopular these days. Few people are sufficiently aware that anything expressed in words can, at best, be only a hint, a mere indication of what is far more complex and multifarious in actual life.

If we remember that young children are essentially ensouled sense organs, entirely given over in a bodily-religious way to what comes toward them from the surrounding world, we shall see to it that, until the change of teeth, everything within their vicinity is suitable to be received through their senses, thereafter to be worked on inwardly. Most of all, we have to be aware that whenever the child perceives with the senses, at the same time the child also absorbs the inherent moral element of what is perceived through the soul and spirit. This means that at the approach of the change of teeth, we have already set the scene for the most important impulses of later life, and that when the child enters school, we are no longer faced with a blank page but with one already full of content.

And now that we are moving more toward the practical aspects of education, we have to consider that between the change of teeth and puberty nothing entirely original can be initiated in the child. Instead, it is the teacher's task to recognize the impulses already implanted during the first seven years. They have to direct these impulses toward what is likely to be demanded of the pupils in their later lives. This is why it is of such importance for teachers to be able to perceive what is stirring within their pupils; for there is more here than meets the eye in these life-stirrings when children enter school. Teachers must not simply decide what they are going to do, or which method is right or wrong. It is far more important for them to recognize what is inwardly stirring and moving in these children—in order to guide and develop them further.

Naturally, this is bound to raise a question, which we have thus far been unable to answer in the Waldorf school since it has not yet become practical to open a kindergarten. The work entailed in bringing up and educating children from birth until the change of teeth is certainly most important. But since in the Waldorf school we are already facing great difficulties in coping with the demands involved in teaching children of official school age, we cannot possibly think of opening a kindergarten, because every year we also have to open a new class for our oldest pupils.1The first kindergarten in the Waldorf School was opened a short time later under Steiner's direction. So far we have started with an eight-year course in the Waldorf school. At present we could not possibly entertain the idea of also opening a kindergarten, or something similar, as a preparatory step for our first grade. People who take a somewhat lighthearted view of these things may be of the opinion that the only thing needed is to begin with a nursery or kindergarten, and the rest will surely follow. But things are not that simple. A fully comprehensive, yet detailed program is needed that covers both the pedagogical and practical aspects of teaching in a nursery class. To devote oneself to such a task is impossible as long as a new class has to be added every year.

The seriousness and responsibility involved in the so-called movements for school reform is recognized by far too few people. To unprofessional, although well-meaning persons, it seems enough to voice demands, which are easy enough to make. In our day, when everybody is so clever—I am not being sarcastic, I am quite serious—nothing is easier than to formulate demands. All that is needed in our society, which is simply bursting with cleverness, is for eleven or twelve people—even three or four would be brainy enough—to come together to work out a perfect program for school reform, listing their requirements in order of priority. I have no doubt that such theoretical demands would be highly impressive. These programs, compiled in the abstract today in many places, are very cleverly conceived. Because people have become so intellectual, they excel in achievements of an external and abstract kind.

But if one judges these matters out of real life experience and not intellectually, the situation is not unlike one where a number of people have come together to discuss and decide what the performance of an efficient stove should be. Obviously they would come up with a whole list of “categorical imperatives,” such as that the stove must be capable of heating the room adequately, it must not emit smoke, and so on. But, though the various points made may be convincing enough, knowledge of them alone would hardly result in the necessary know-how to light it, keep it going, and control its heat. To be able to do this one has to learn other things as well. In any case, depending on the location of the room, the condition of the chimney and possibly on other factors as well, it may not even be possible to fulfill the conditions so competently set forth.

But this is how most of the programs for school reform are arrived at today—more or less in an equally abstract manner as the requirements for the hypothetical stove. This is the reason why one cannot contravene them, for they no doubt contain much that is correct. But to cope with the practical needs of an existing school is something very different from making demands that, ideally speaking, are justified. Here one does not have to deal with how things ought to be, but with a number of actual pupils. Here one has to deal—allow me to mention it, for it is all part of school life—with a definite number of teachers of varying gifts and abilities. All this has to be reckoned with. There is no problem in planning a program for school reform in the abstract. But the concrete reality is that only a certain number of gifted teachers are available and it may not even be possible for them to fulfill the demands agreed upon in theory.

This fundamental difference between life as it is and an intellectual approach to it is something our present society is no longer able to appreciate. Because it has become so accustomed to an intellectual interpretation of life, it can no longer perceive this quality, least of all where it is most patently present. Anyone who is aware of the great difference between theory and practice will detect the worst excesses of impractical theories in our present business life. In reality the structure of today's business life has become as theoretical as can be. Those in control grasp power with robust hands. They use their elbows and often brutally push through their theoretical policies. This goes on until the business is ruined. In the economic sphere it is possible to proceed intellectually. But in a situation where one meets life in the raw, such as in a school (where it is not simply a case of helping oneself, but where existing impulses have to be worked on) even the most beautiful theories are of little use unless they offer the possibility of working pragmatically and out of a truly individual knowledge of what the human being is. This is the reason why teachers whose heads are full of pedagogical theories are usually least fit for practical classroom situations. More capable by far are those who still teach out of a certain instinct, teachers who, out of their natural love for children, are able to recognize and to meet them. But today it is no longer possible to rely on instinct, unless it is backed by spiritual knowledge. Modern life has become too complex for such a way of life, which would be possible only under more primitive conditions, under conditions almost bordering on the level of animal life.

All this has to be considered if one wishes to see what is being presented here in the right light, as a really practical form of pedagogy. Generally speaking, education has followed in the footsteps of our modern civilization, which has gradually become more and more materialistic. A symptom of this is the frequent use of mechanical methods in preference to organic methods, and this just during the early years of childhood up to the change of teeth, which is the most impressionable and important time of life. We must not lose sight of the fact that up to the second dentition the child lives by imitation. The serious side of life, with all its demands in daily work, is re-enacted in deep earnestness by the child in its play, as I mentioned yesterday. The difference between a child's play and an adult's work is that an adult's contribution to society is governed by a sense of purpose and has to fit into outer demands, whereas the child wants to be active simply out of an inborn and natural impulse. Play activity streams outward from within. Adult work takes the opposite direction, namely inwards from the periphery. The significant and most important task for grade school consists in just this gradual progression from play to work. And if one is able to answer in practical terms the great question of how a child's play can gradually be transformed into work, one has solved the fundamental problem during those middle years from seven to fourteen.

In their play, children mirror what happens around them; they want to imitate. But because the key to childhood has been lost through inadequate knowledge of the human being, all kinds of artificial play activities for children of kindergarten age have been intellectually contrived by adults. Since children want to imitate the work of the adults, special games have been invented for their benefit, such as “Lay the Little Sticks,” or whatever else these things are called. These artificial activities actually deflect the child's inner forces from flowing out of the organism as a living stream that finds a natural outlet in the child's desire to imitate those who are older. Through all kinds of mechanical manipulations children are encouraged to do things not at all suitable to their age. Particularly during the nineteenth century, programs for preschool education were determined that entailed activities a child should not really do; for the entire life of a preschool class revolves around the children adapting to the few people in charge, who should behave naturally so that the children feel stimulated to imitate whatever their teachers do.

It is unnecessary for preschool staff to go from one child to another and show each one what to do. Children do not yet want to follow given instructions. All they want is to copy what the adult does, so the task of a kindergarten teacher is to adjust the work taken from daily life so that it becomes suitable for the children's play activities. There is no need to devise occupations like those adults meet in life—except under special circumstances—such as work that requires specialized skills. For example, children of preschool age are told to make parallel cuts in strips of paper and then to push multi-colored paper strips through the slits so that a woven colored pattern finally emerges. This kind of mechanical process in a kindergarten actually prevents children from engaging in normal or congenial activities. It would be better to give them some very simple sewing or embroidery to do. Whatever a young child is told to do should not be artificially contrived by adults who are comfortable in our intellectual culture, but should arise from the tasks of ordinary life. The whole point of a preschool is to give young children the opportunity to imitate life in a simple and wholesome way.

This adjustment to adult life is an immensely important pedagogical task until kindergarten age, with all its purposefulness, so that what is done there will satisfy the child's natural and inborn need for activity. To contrive little stick games or design paper weaving cards is simple enough. It is a tremendously important and necessary task to whittle down our complicated forms of life, such as a child does when, for example, a little boy plays with a spade or some other tool, or when a girl plays with a doll; in this way children transform adult occupations into child's play, including the more complicated activities of the adult world. It is time-consuming work for which hardly any previous “spade-work” has thus far been done. One needs to recognize that in children's imitation, in all their sense-directed activities, moral and spiritual forces are working—artistic impulses that allow the child to respond in an entirely individual way.

Give a child a handkerchief or a piece of cloth, knot it so that a head appears above and two legs below, and you have made a doll or a kind of clown. With a few ink stains you can give it eyes, nose, and mouth, or even better, allow the child to do it, and with such a doll, you will see a healthy child have great joy. Now the child can add many other features belonging to a doll, through imagination and imitation within the soul. It is far better if you make a doll out of a linen rag than if you give the child one of those perfect dolls, possibly with highly colored cheeks and smartly dressed, a doll that even closes its eyes when put down horizontally, and so on. What are you doing if you give the child such a doll? You are preventing the unfolding of the child's own soul activity. Every time a completely finished object catches its eye, the child has to suppress an innate desire for soul activity, the unfolding of a wonderfully delicate, awakening fantasy. You thus separate children from life, because you hold them back from their own inner activity. So much for the child until the change of teeth.

When children enter school, we are very likely to meet a certain inner opposition, mainly toward reading and writing, as mentioned yesterday. Try to see the situation through a child's eyes. There stands a man. He has black or blond hair. He has a forehead, nose, eyes. He has legs. He walks, and he holds something in his hands. He says something. He has his own thought-life. This is father. And now the child is supposed to accept that this sign, FATHER represents an actual father. There is not the slightest reason why a child should do so.

Children bring formative forces with them, forces eager to flow out of the organism. Previously, these forces were instrumental in effecting the wonderful formation of the brain with its attendant nervous system. They accomplished the wonderful formation of the second teeth. One should become modest and ask how one could possibly create, out of one's own resources, these second teeth on the basis of the first baby teeth; what sublime powers of wisdom, of which we are totally unaware, work in all these forces! The child was entirely surrendered to this unconscious wisdom weaving through the formative forces. Children live in space and time, and now, suddenly, they are supposed to make sense of everything that is imposed on them by learning to read and write.

It is not proper to lead children directly into the final stages of our advanced culture. We must lead them in harmony with what wants to flow from their own being. The right way of introducing the child to reading and writing is to allow the formative forces—which up to its seventh year have been working upon the physical organization and which now are being released for outer soul activities—to become actively engaged.

For example, instead of presenting the child directly with letters or even complete words, you draw something looking like this:

Diagram 4

In this way, by appealing to the formative forces in its soul, you will find that now the child can remember something that has actual meaning, something already grasped by the child's formative forces. Such a child will tell you, “That is a mouth.” And now you can ask it to say, “Mmmouth.” Then you ask it to leave out the end part of the word, gradually getting the child to pronounce “Mmm.” Next you can say, “Let us paint what you have just said.” We have left something out, therefore this is what we paint:

Diagram 4

And now let us make it even simpler:

Diagram 4

It has become the letter M.

Or we might draw something looking like this.

Diagram 4

The child will say, “Fish.” The teacher responds, “Let's make this fish simpler.” Again one will ask the child to sound only the first letter, in this way obtaining the letter F. And so, from these pictures, we lead to abstract letter forms.

There is no need to go back into history to show how contemporary writing evolved from ancient pictography. For our pedagogical purposes it is really unnecessary to delve into the history of civilization. All we have to do is find our way—helped along by wings of fantasy—into this method, and then, no matter what language we speak, choose some characteristic words that we then transform into pictures and finally derive the actual letters from them. In this way we work together with what the child wants inwardly during and immediately after the change of teeth. From this you will understand that, after having introduced writing by drawing a painting and by painting a drawing (it is good for children to use color immediately because they live in color, as everyone who deals with them knows), one can then progress to reading. This is because the entire human being is active in writing. The hand is needed, and the whole body has to adapt itself—even if only to a slight degree; the entire person is involved. Writing, when evolved through painting-drawing, is still more concrete than reading. When reading—well, one just sits, one has already become like a timid mouse, because only the head has to work. Reading has already become abstract. It should be evolved by degrees as part of the whole process.

But if one adopts this method in order to work harmoniously with human nature, it can become extraordinarily difficult to withstand modern prejudices. Naturally, pupils will learn to read a little later than expected today, and if they have to change schools they appear less capable than the other students in their new class. Yet, is it really justified that we cater to the views of a materialistic culture with its demands concerning what an eight-year-old child should know? The real point is that it may not be beneficial at all for such a child to learn to read too early. By doing so, something is being blocked for life. If children learn to read too early, they are led prematurely into abstractions. If reading were taught a little later, countless potential sclerotics could lead happier lives. Such hardening of the entire human organism—to give it a simpler name—manifests in the most diverse forms of sclerosis later in life, and can be traced back to a faulty method of introducing reading to a child. Of course, such symptoms can result from many other causes as well, but the point is that the effects of soul and spirit on a person's physical constitution are enhanced hygienically if the teaching at school is attuned to human nature. If you know how to form your lessons properly, you will be able to give your students the best foundation for health. And you can be sure that, if the methods of modern educational systems were healthier, far fewer men would be walking around with bald heads!

People with a materialistic outlook give too little attention to the mutual interaction between the soul-spiritual nature and the physical body. Again and again I want to point out that the tragedy of the current materialistic attitude is that it no longer understands the material processes—which it observes only externally—and that it no longer recognizes how a moral element enters the physical. Already the way the human being is treated—one could almost say mistreated—by our natural science is likely to lead to misconceptions about what a human being is. You need only think of the usual kinds of illustrations found in contemporary textbooks on physiology or anatomy, where you see pictures of the skeleton, the nervous system, and the blood circulation. The way these are drawn is very suggestive, implying that they are a true representation of reality. And yet, they do not convey the actual facts at all—or at best, only ten percent of them, because ninety percent of the human body consists of liquid substances that constantly flow and, consequently, cannot be drawn in fixed outlines. Now you may say, “Physiologists know that!” True, but this knowledge remains within the circle of physiologists. It does not enter society as a whole, particularly because of the strongly suggestive influence of these illustrations.

People are even less aware of something else. Not only does solid matter make up the smallest portion of our physical body, while the largest part by far is liquid, but we are also creatures of air every moment of our lives. One moment the air around us is inside us, and in the next, the air within our body is outside again. We are part of the surrounding air that is constantly fluctuating within us. And what about the conditions of warmth? In reality we have to discriminate between our solid, liquid, gaseous, and warmth organizations. These distinctions could be extended further, but for now we will stop here.

It will become evident that meaningless and erroneous ideas are maintained about these matters when we consider the following: If these illustrations of the skeleton, the nervous system, and so on, really represented the true situation—always implying that the human being is a solid organism—if this were really the whole truth, then it would be little wonder if the moral element, the life of the soul, could not penetrate this solid bone matter or this apparently rigid blood circulation. The physical and moral life would require separate existences. But if you include the liquid, gaseous, and warmth organizations in your picture of the individual, then you have a fine agent, a refined entity—for example, in the varying states of warmth—that allows the existing moral constitution to extend also into the physical processes of warmth. If your picture is based on reality, you will come to find this unity between what has physical nature and what has moral nature. This is what you have to remember when working with the growing human being. It is essential to have this awareness.

And so it is very important for us to look at the totality of the human being and find our way, unimpeded by generally accepted physiological-psychological attitudes. It will enable us to know how to treat the child who will otherwise develop inner opposition toward what must be learned. It should be our aim to allow our young students to grow gradually and naturally into their subjects, because then they will also love what they have to learn. But this will happen only if their inner forces become involved fully in these new activities.

The most damaging effects, just during the age of seven to nine, are caused by one-sided illusions, by fixed ideas about how certain things should be taught. For example, the nineteenth century—but this was already prepared for in the eighteenth century—was tremendously proud of the new phonetic method of teaching reading that superseded the old method of making words by adding single letters—a method that was again replaced by the whole-word method. And because today people are too embarrassed to openly respect old ways, one will hardly find anyone prepared to defend the old spelling method. According to present opinion, such a person would be considered an old crank, because enthusiasm about an old-fashioned spelling method is simply not appropriate. The phonetic and the whole-word method carry the day. One feels very proud of the phonetic method, teaching the child to develop a feeling for the quality of sounds. No longer do young pupils learn to identify separate letters, such as P, N, or R; they are taught to pronounce the letters as they sound in a word.

There is nothing wrong with that. The whole-word method is also good, and it sometimes even begins by analyzing a complete sentence, from which the teacher progresses to separate words and then to single sounds. It is bad, however, when these things become fads. The ideas that underlie all three methods are good—there is no denying that each has its merits. But what is it that makes this so? Imagine that you know a person only from a photograph showing a front view. The picture will have created a certain image within you of that person. Now imagine that another picture falls into your hands, and someone tells you that this is the same person. The second picture shows a side view and creates such a different impression that you may be convinced that it could not be the same person. Yet in reality both photographs show the same individual, but from different angles. And this is how it always is in life: everything has to be considered from different angles. It is easy to fall in love with one's own particular perspective because it appears to be so convincing. And so one might, with good reasons, defend the spelling method, the phonetic method, or the whole-word method to the extent that anyone else with an opposite opinion could not refute one's arguments. Yet even the best of reasons may prove to be only one-sided. In real life, everything has to be considered from the most varied angles.

If the letter forms have been gained through painting drawings and drawing paintings, and if one has gone on to a kind of phonetic or whole-word method—which is now appropriate because it leads the child to an appreciation of a wholeness, and prevents it from becoming too fixed in details—if all this has been done, there is still something else that has been overlooked in our materialistic climate. It is this: the single sound, by itself, the separate M or P, this also represents a reality. And it is important to see that, when a sound is part of a word, it has already entered the external world, already passed into the material and physical world. What we have in our soul are the sounds as such, and these depend largely on our soul nature. When we pronounce letters, such as the letter M, for example, we actually say “em.” Ancient Greeks did not do this; they pronounced it “mu.” In other words, they pronounced the auxiliary vowel after the consonant, whereas we put it before the consonant. In Middle Europe today, we make the sound of a letter by proceeding from the vowel to the consonant, but in ancient Greece only the reverse path was taken.2In several European languages the vowel sound added to a consonantal letter is pronounced either before or after the consonant (that is, em, but dee). It is conceivable that here the stenographer may have omitted the word “often,” and the text may have read “In Middle Europe today we often make the sound of a letter by proceeding from the vowel to the consonant ...”—Translator. This indicates the underlying soul condition of the people concerned.

Here we have a significant and important phenomenon. If you look at language, not just from an external or utilitarian perspective (since language today has become primarily a way of transmitting thoughts or messages, and words are hardly more than symbols of outer things), and if you return to the soul element living in the word—living in language as a whole—you will find the way back to the true nature of the so-called sound; every sound with a quality of the consonant has an entirely different character from a vowel sound.

As you know, there are many different theories explaining the origin of language. (This is a situation similar to photographs taken from different angles.) Among others, there is the so-called bow-wow theory, which represents the view that words imitate sounds that come from different beings or objects. According to this theory, when people first began to speak, they imitated characteristic external sounds. For example, they heard a dog barking, “bow-wow.” If they wanted to express a similar soul mood they produced a similar sound. No one can refute such an idea. On the contrary, there are many valid reasons to support the bow-wow theory. As long as one argues only from this particular premise, it is indisputable. But life does not consist of proofs and refutations; life is full of living movement, transformation, living metamorphosis. What is correct in one particular situation can be wrong in another, and vice versa. Life has to be comprehended in all its mobility.

As you may know, there is another theory, called the ding-dong theory, whose adherents strongly oppose the bow-wow theory. According to this second theory, the origin of language is explained in the following way: When a bell is struck, the ensuing sound is caused by the specific constitution of its metal. A similar mutual relationship between object and sound is also ascribed to human speech. The ding-dong theory represents more of a feeling into the materiality of things, rather than an imitation of external sounds.

Again, this theory is really correct in certain respects. Much could be said for either of these theories. In reality, however, language did not arise exclusively according to the ding-dong theory nor the bow-wow theory, although both theories have elements of truth. Many other related factors would also have to be considered, but each theory, in isolation, gives only a one-sided perspective. There are many instances in our language that exemplify the ding-dong theory, and many others where sound represents an imitation, as in “bow-wow,” or in the “moo” of lowing cattle. The fact is, both theories are correct, and many others as well. What is important is to get hold of life as it actually is; and if one does this, one will find that the bow-wow theory is more related to vowels, and the ding-dong theory related more to consonants. Again, not entirely, however; such a statement would also be one-sided, because eventually one will see that the consonants are formed as a kind of reflection of events or shapes in our environment, as I have indicated already in the little book The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity.3Rudolf Steiner, The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1992. Thus the letter F is formed as a likeness of the fish, M as a likeness of the mouth, or L like leaping, and so on.

To a certain extent, the origin of the consonants could be explained by the ding-dong theory, except that it would have to be worked out in finer detail. The vowels, on the other hand, are a way of expressing and revealing a person's inner nature. The forms of the letters that express vowel sounds do not imitate external things at all, but express human feelings of sympathy and antipathy. Feelings of joy or curiosity are expressed, therefore, by the sound EE; amazement or wonder; “I am astonished!” is expressed by AH; A (as in path) expresses “I want to get rid of something that irritates me.” U (as in you) expresses “I am frightened.” I (as in kind) conveys “I like you.”

Vowels reveal directly feelings of sympathy and antipathy. Far from being the result of imitation, they enable human beings to communicate likes and dislikes. When hearing a dog's threatening bark, human beings—if their feelings are like those of the dog—adapt their own experiences to the bow-wow sound of the dog, and so on. Vocalizing leads outward from within, whereas forming consonants represents a movement inward from outside. Consonants reproduce outer things. Simply by making these sounds, one is copying outer nature. You can confirm this for yourselves if you go into further detail.

Since all of this applies only to sounds rather than words, however, you can appreciate that, when using the analytic method, one is actually going from the whole word to the original soul condition. In general, we must always try to recognize what the child at each stage is requesting inwardly; then we can proceed in freedom—just as a good photographer does when asking clients to look in many different directions in order to capture their personalities while taking their pictures (and thereby making these sessions so tedious!). Similarly, a complete view is essential if one wants to comprehend the human being in depth.

With the whole-word method one gains only the physical aspect. With the phonetic method one approaches the soul realm. And—no matter how absurd this may sound—with the spelling method one actually enters the realm of the soul. Today this last method is, of course, seen as a form of idiocy; without a doubt, however, it is more closely related to the soul than the other methods. It must not be applied directly, but needs to be introduced with a certain pedagogical skill and artistry that avoids an overly one-sided exercise in conventional pronunciation of the letters. Instead, the child will gain some experience of how letters came about, and this is something that can live within the formative forces, something real for the child. This is the core of the matter. And if young pupils have been taught in this way they will be able to read in due time—perhaps a few months after the ninth year. It doesn't really matter if they cannot read earlier, because they have learned it naturally and in a wholesome way. Depending on the various children's responses, this stage may occur a little earlier or later.

The ninth year marks the beginning of a smaller life cycle—the larger ones have already been spoken of several times. They are: from birth to the change of teeth; from the change of teeth to puberty; and from then into the twenties. These days, however, by the time young people have reached their twenties, one no longer dares speak to them of another developmental phase, which will peak after the age of twenty-one. This would be considered a pure insult! At that age they feel fully mature—they already publish their own articles in newspapers and magazines. And so one has to exercise great discretion in speaking about life's later stages of development. But it is important for the educator to know about the larger life periods and also about the smaller ones contained in them. Between the ninth and the tenth years, but closer to the ninth, one of the smaller periods begins, when a child gradually awakens to the difference between self and the surrounding world. Only then does a child become aware of being a separate I. All teaching before this stage should therefore make the child feel at one with the surroundings.

The most peculiar ideas have been expressed to explain this phenomenon. For example, you may have heard people say, “When a young child gets hurt by running into a corner, the reaction is to hit the corner.” An intellectual interpretation of this phenomenon would be that one hits back only if one has consciously received a hurt or an injury consciously inflicted. And this is how the child's response in hitting a table or other object is explained. This kind of definition always tempts one to quote the Greek example of a definition of the human being—that is, a human being is a living creature who has two legs but no feathers. As far as definitions go, this is actually correct. It leads us back into the times of ancient Greece. I won't go into details to show that present definitions in physics are often not much better, because there children are also taught frequently that a human being is a creature that walks on two legs and has no feathers. A boy who was a bit brighter than the rest thought about this definition. He caught a cockerel, plucked its feathers, and took it to school. He presented the plucked bird, saying, “This is a human being! It is a creature that walks on two legs and has no feathers.” Well, definitions may have their uses, but they are almost always one-sided.

The important thing is to find one's way into life as it really is—something I have to repeat time and again. The point is that before the ninth year a child does not yet distinguish between self and surroundings. Therefore one cannot say that a little child, when hitting the table that caused it pain, imagines the table to be a living thing. It would never occur to a child to think so. This so-called animism, the bestowal of a soul on an inanimate object—an idea that has already crept into our history of civilization—is something that simply does not exist. The fantastic theories of some of our erudite scholars, who believe they have discovered that human beings endow inanimate objects with a soul, are truly astonishing. Whole mythologies have been explained away in light of this theory. It strikes one that people who spread such ideas have never met a primitive person. For example, it would never occur to a simple peasant who has remained untouched by our sophisticated ways of life to endow natural phenomena with a soul quality. Concepts such as ensouling or animation of dead objects simply do not exist for the child. The child feels alive, and consequently everything around the child must also be alive. But even such a primitive idea does not enter children's dim and dreamy consciousness. This is why, when teaching pupils under nine, you must not let the children's environment and all that it contains appear as something separate from them. You must allow plants to come to life—indeed, everything must live and speak to children, because they do not yet distinguish between themselves and the world as a whole.

It is obvious from this that, before the ninth year, you cannot reach children with any kind of intellectual descriptions. Everything has to be transformed into pictures, into fresh and living pictures. As soon as you go on to a more direct description, you will not achieve anything during the eighth to ninth year. This approach becomes possible only later. One has to find the way into each specific life period. Until the ninth year children only understand a pictorial presentation. Anything else bypasses them, just as sound bypasses the eye. But between the ninth and tenth years, as children gradually become more aware of their own identity, you can begin to present more factual descriptions of plants. However, it is not yet possible to describe anything that belongs to the mineral kingdom, because the children's newly evolving capacity to differentiate between self and world is not yet strong enough to allow them to comprehend the significant difference between what is inherently alive and what belongs to the dead mineral world. Children at this stage can only appreciate the difference between themselves and a plant. Thereafter you can gradually progress to a description of animals. But again this has to be done so that the introduction to the animal world remains real for the child.

Today there is an established form of botany, and along with that a tendency to introduce this subject just as it is in the lower grades. This is done out of a kind of laziness, but it really is an appalling thing to present the botany of adults to younger classes. What is this botany of ours in actuality? It is made up of a systematic classification of plants, arranged according to certain accepted principles. First come the fungi, then algae, ranunculaceae, and so on—one family placed neatly next to another. But if such a branch of science (which itself may be quite acceptable) is taught to young children in schools, it is almost like arranging different kinds of hairs, plucked from a human body, and classifying them systematically according to where they grew—behind the ears, on the head, on the legs, and so on. Following this method, you might manage to build up a very impressive system, but it would not help you understand the true nature of hair. And because it seems almost too obvious, one might easily neglect to relate the various types of hair to the human being as an entity. The plant world does not have its own separate existence either, because it is part of Earth. You may think that you know the laburnum from what you find about it in a botany book. I have no objections to its botanical classification. But to understand why its blossoms are yellow, you have to see it on a sunny slope, and you have to include in your observation the various layers of soil from which it grows. Only then can you realize that its yellow color is connected with the colors of the soil from which it grows! But in this situation you look at this plant as you would look at hair growing out of a human body. Earth and plants—as far as the child knows them already—remain one. You must not teach adult botany in the lower grades, and this means you cannot describe a plant without, at the same time, also talking about the Sun shining on it, about climatic conditions and the configuration of the soil—in a manner appropriate to the age of the child, of course.

To teach botany as this is done in demonstrations—taking isolated plants, one next to another, violates the child's nature. Even in demonstrations everything depends on the choice of object to be studied. The child has an instinctive feeling for what is living and for what is truly real. If you bring something dead, you wound what is alive in the child, you attack a child's sense of truth and reality. But these days there is little awareness of the subtle differences in these qualities. Imagine contemporary philosophers pondering the concept of being, of existence. It would make very little difference to them whether they chose a crystal or a blossom as an object of contemplation, because both of them are. One can place them both on a table, and both things exist. But this is not the truth at all! In regard to their being, they are not homogeneous. You can pick up the rock crystal again after three years; it is by the power of its own existence. But the blossom is not as it appears at all. A blossom, taken by itself, is a falsehood in nature. In order to assign existence or being to the blossom, one has to describe the entire plant. By itself, the blossom is an abstraction in the world of matter. This is not true of the rock crystal. But people today have lost the sense for such differentiations within the reality of things.

Children, however, still have this feeling by instinct. If you bring something to children that is not a whole, they experience a strange feeling, which can follow them into later life. Otherwise Tagore would not have described the sinister impression that the amputated leg had on him in his childhood. A human leg in itself does not represent reality, it has nothing to do with reality. For a leg is only a leg as long as it is part of a whole organism. If cut off, it ceases to be a leg.

Such things have to become flesh and blood again so that, by progressing from the whole to the parts, we comprehend reality. It can happen all too easily that we treat a separate part in a completely wrong way if we isolate it. In the case of botany in the lower grades, therefore, we must start with the Earth as a whole and look at the plants as if they were the hair growing out of it.

With regard to the animal world, children cannot relate properly to the animal at all if you follow the common method of classification. Since animal study is introduced only in the tenth or eleventh year, you can then expect a little more from the children. But to teach the study of animals according to the usual classification has little real meaning for students of that age, even if this method is scientifically justified. The reality is that the entire animal kingdom represents a human being that is spread out. Take a lion, for example; there you see a onesided development of the chest organization. Take the elephant; here the entire organization is oriented toward a lengthening of the upper lip. In the case of the giraffe, the entire organization strives toward a longer neck. If you can thus see a one-sided development of a human organic system in each animal, and survey the entire animal kingdom all the way down to the insect (one could go even further, down to the “geological” animals, though Terebratulida are not really geological animals any more) then you will realize that the entire animal kingdom is a “human being,” spread out like an opened fan, and the human physical organization makes up the entire animal kingdom, folded together like a closed fan. This is how one can bring the mutual relationship between the human being and the animal into proper perspective. Putting all this into such few words is making it into an abstraction, of course. You will have to transform it into living substance until you can describe each animal-form in terms of a one-sided development of a specific human organic system. If you can find the necessary strength to give your pupils a lively description of animals in this sense, you will soon see how they respond. For this is what they want to hear.

And so the plants are linked to the Earth as if they were the hair of the Earth. The animal is linked to the human being and seen as a one-sided development of various human organic systems. It is as if human arms or legs—and in other instances, the human nose or trunk, and so on—had grown into separate existences in order to live as animals on Earth. This is how pupils can understand the animal-forms. It will enable the teacher to form lessons that are attuned to what lives in the growing human being, in the children themselves.

A question is asked concerning religious instruction.

RUDOLF STEINER: A misunderstanding has arisen from my preliminary remarks about child development and religious impulses. So far nothing has been said in my lectures about religious instruction itself, because I began to talk only today about the practical application of the Waldorf way of teaching. I told you that there is a kind of physical-religious relationship (I called it bodily-religious) between children and their environment. Furthermore, I said that what young children exercised—simply because of their organism—entered the sphere of thinking only after puberty, after approximately the fourteenth or fifteenth year. What manifests at first in a physical-spiritual way, continues in a hidden existence, and re-emerges in the thinking realm in approximately the fifteenth year; I compared that with an underground stream surfacing again on lower ground. For an adult, religion is closely linked to the thinking sphere. If teaching, however, is to be in line with the child's natural development, what will emerge later must already be carefully prepared for during an earlier stage. And thus the question arises: Bearing these laws of human development in mind, how should the religion lessons be planned for the students between the ages of six and fourteen? This is one of the questions that will be addressed in coming lectures.

In anticipation, however, I would like to say that we must be clear that the religious element is simply inborn in the child, that it is part of the child's being. This is revealed particularly clearly through the child's religious orientation until the change of teeth, as I have already described it. What has eventually become religion in our general civilization—taken in an adult sense—belongs naturally to the world of ideas, or at least depends on ideation for its substance, which, true enough, lives primarily in the adult's feeling realm. Only after the fourteenth year is the adolescent mature enough to appreciate the ideal quality and substance of religion. For the class teacher (grades one through eight) the important question thus arises: How should we arrange our religion lessons? Or, more precisely: What part of the child must we appeal to through religion lessons during the time between the seventh and fourteenth years?

During the first life period, until the change of teeth, we directly affect the child's physical organization through an educational influence. After puberty, fundamentally speaking, we work on the powers of judgment and on the adolescent's mental imagery. During the intervening years we work upon the child's feeling life. This is why we should lead the child into this period with a pictorial approach, because pictures work directly in soul life (Gemüt).4Gemüt is virtually untranslatable. Rudolf Steiner said “this Gemüt lives in the center of soul life.” A dictionary defines it as “heart, soul, or mind.” But these must be considered as one rather than as three separate things. Thus, one can read Gem¼t as “soul,” that is, heart and mind together. The powers of mental imagery mature only gradually, and they have to be prepared well before their proper time. What we now have to do in religion lessons is appeal, above all, to the children's soul life, as I will describe it in regard to other subjects tomorrow. The question is: How do we do it?

We work on the children's soul life by allowing them to experience feelings of sympathy and antipathy. This means that we act properly by developing the kind of sympathies and antipathies between the seventh and fourteenth years that will lead finally to proper judgments in the religious sphere. And so we avoid Thou shalt or Thou shalt not attitudes in our religion lessons, because it has little value for teaching a child of this age. Instead we arrange lessons so that feelings of sympathy are induced for what the child is meant to do. We do not explain our real aims to children. Using the pictorial element as medium, we present children with what fills them with feelings of sympathy in a heightened sense, as well as in a religious sense. Likewise, we try to induce feelings of antipathy toward what they are not meant to do.

In this way, on the strength of feelings of right or wrong, and always through the pictorial element, we try to direct the young students gradually from the divine-spiritual in nature, through the divine-spiritual in the human being, toward having children make the divine-spiritual their own. This has to all reach the child through the life of soul, however, certainly until eighth grade. We must avoid a dogmatic approach and setting up moral commandments. We must do all we can to prepare the child's soul for what should develop later on as the adult faculty of forming sound judgments. In this way we will do far more for the child's future religious orientation than by presenting religious commandments or fixed articles of faith at an age when children are not yet ready for them. By clothing our subject in images, thus preparing the ground for what in later life will emerge as religious judgment, we prepare our students for the possibility of comprehending through their own spirituality what they are meant to grasp as their own innermost being—that is, their religious orientation. Through appealing to the children's soul-life in religion lessons—that is, by presenting our subject pictorially rather than through articles of faith or in the form of moral commandments—we grant them the freedom to find their own religious orientation later in life. It is extremely important for young people, from puberty right into their twenties, to have the opportunity to lift, by their own strength, what they first received through their soul life—given with a certain breadth from many perspectives—into conscious individual judgments. It will enable them to find their own way to the divine world.

It makes all the difference whether children, during the age of authority, are brought up in a particular religious belief, or whether, by witnessing the teacher's underlying religious attitude, they are enabled “to pull themselves up like a plant on its tendrils,” and thus develop their own morality later in life. Having first found pleasure or displeasure in what was finally condensed into an attitude of Thou shalt or Thou shalt not, and having learned to recognize, through a pictorial contemplation of nature, how the human soul becomes free through an inner picture of a divine-spiritual weaving in nature and in history, a new stage is reached where young people's own images and ideas can be formed. In this way the possibility is given of receiving religious education out of the center of life itself. It is something that becomes possible only after puberty has been reached.

The point is that future stages have to be prepared for properly—that is, based on the correct insight into human nature. In my lectures I have used the comparison of the river that disappears underground and resurfaces at a lower level. During the first seven years the children have an inborn religious attitude. This now enters the depths of their souls, becoming part of them, and does not resurface in the form of thinking until the arrival of puberty. During the second life period we must work into the depths of the students' souls through what is revealed to our individual insights. In this way we prepare them to grow into religious adults. We impede this process if we do not offer our students the possibility to find their own religious orientation later on. In every human being there is an individual orientation toward religion, which, after the fifteenth year, has to be gradually won. Our task is to prepare the ground so that this can happen properly. That is why, at this age, we have to treat the religion lessons just as we do the lessons in the other subjects. They must all work on the child's soul through the power of imagery; the child's soul life has to be stimulated. It is possible to introduce a religious element into every subject, even into math lessons. Anyone who has some knowledge of Waldorf teaching will know that this statement is true. A Christian element pervades every subject, even mathematics. This fundamental religious current flows through all of education.

Because of prevailing circumstances, however, we have felt it necessary to come to the following arrangement regarding religious instruction. I would like to point out once more that Waldorf schools are not ideological but pedagogical schools, where the basic demand is that our teaching methods be in harmony with the child's nature. Thus we neither wish nor intend to teach our students to become anthroposophists. We have chosen anthroposophy to be the foundation simply because we believe that a true method of teaching can flow from it. Our Catholic students are taught by visiting Catholic priests, and our Protestant students by visiting Protestant ministers. Waldorf students, whose parents are free-thinkers, and who otherwise would not receive any religious instruction at all, are given religion lessons by our own teachers. The surprising fact has emerged, however, that nearly all of our Waldorf students now attend the religion lessons presented by Waldorf teachers. They have all flocked to the so-called “free” religion lessons, lessons that, in their own way, comprise what permeates all of our teaching.5Free, as used here means “nonsectarian.”

These free religion lessons have certainly caused us a great deal of concern. Our relationship to the school is very unusual regarding these lessons. We consider all the other subjects as necessary and intrinsic to our education from the point of view of the principles and methods resulting from anthroposophical research. But, regarding the free religion lessons, we feel that we are on the same footing as the visiting Catholic or Protestant teachers. In this sense, Waldorf teachers who give religion lessons are also “outsiders.” We do not want to have an ideological or confessional school, not even in an anthroposophical sense. Nevertheless, anthroposophical methods have proven to be very fertile ground for just these free religion lessons, in which we do not teach anthroposophy, but in which we build up and form according to the methods already characterized.

Many objections have been raised against these free religion lessons, not least because so many children have changed over from the denominational to the free religion lessons. This has brought many other difficulties with it, for, despite our shortage of teachers, we had to find among our existing staff one new religion teacher after another. It is hardly our fault if pupils desert their denominational religion lessons because they wish to join the free religion lessons. The obvious reason is that the visiting religion teachers do not apply Waldorf methods, and the right methods are always the decisive factor, in religious instruction as well.

A further question is asked about religious lessons.

RUDOLF STEINER: The characteristic mark of Waldorf education should be that all educational questions and problems are considered only from the pedagogical angle, and religion lessons are no exception. The Reverend Mr. X would certainly acknowledge that the two directions mentioned, namely the possibility of replacing religion lessons by moral instruction on the one hand, and that of denominational schools on the other, have been raised from very different viewpoints. The suggestion of replacing religious instruction with lessons in moral conduct is usually presented by those who want to eliminate religion altogether, and who maintain the opinion that religion has become more or less superfluous. On the other hand, a tendency toward religious dogma can easily cause a longing for denominational schools. Neither of these are pedagogical points of view.

In order to link them a little more precisely to the aspect of teaching method, I would like to ask: What constitutes the pedagogical point of view? Surely it is the assumption that a human being is not yet complete during the stage of childhood or youth—something very obvious. A child has to grow gradually into a full human individual, which will be achieved only during the course of life. This implies that all potential and dormant faculties in the child should be educated—and here we have the pedagogical point of view in its most abstract form.

If someone who represents the purely pedagogical outlook that results from insight into human nature were to now declare that a child comes into the world with an inborn kinship to the religious element, and that during the first seven years the child's corporeality is steeped in religion, only to hear a call for replacing religion lessons by lessons in ethics, it must strike such a person as if those who hold such an idea would be unwilling to exercise a human limb, say a leg, because they had concluded that the human being needs to be trained in every respect except in the use of legs! To call for the exclusion of an essential part of the human being can only stem from a fanatical attitude, but never from a real pedagogy. Insofar as only pedagogical principles are being defended and pedagogical impulses scrutinized here, the necessity of religious teaching certainly follows from the pedagogical point of view. This is why we have established the free religion lessons for those children who, according to the regulations of the school authorities, would otherwise have been deprived of religious instruction, as already stated. Through this arrangement, and because all the children belonging to this category are attending the free religion lessons, there is no student in the Waldorf school who does not have religious instruction. This procedure has made it possible for us to bring back the religious life into the entire school.

To speak of the proper cultivation of the religious life at school, and to counter the effects of the so-called “religion-free enlightenment,” by appealing to the inborn religious disposition in the young, may be the best way forward to a religious renewal. I consider it a certain success for the Waldorf school to have brought religion to the children of religious dissidents. The Catholic and Protestant children would have received religious instruction in any case, but it really was not at all easy to find the appropriate form that would enable us to open this subject to all our children. It was strived for only from the pedagogical point of view.