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The Child's Changing Consciousness and Waldorf Education
GA 306


Early in 1919 Rudolf Steiner was asked by the director of the Waldorf Astoria Tobacco Company in Stuttgart, Germany, to give lectures to the factory workers on the question of what new social impulses are necessary in the modern world. Responding to the lectures, the factory workers requested of Rudolf Steiner that he further help them in developing an education for their own children based on the knowledge of the human being and of society that he had opened up for them. By the end of April, that same spring, the decision had been made to establish a new school for the workers' children, the first Waldorf School.

Today, the Waldorf school movement, as it is still known (or the Rudolf Steiner school movement, as it is also called), is one of the largest, and perhaps the fastest growing, independent school movements in the world. In 1984 there were over 300 schools worldwide, throughout Europe, in the United States, Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. By 1995, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Waldorf movement, there were over 600 schools in almost forty countries. Based on a comprehensive and integrated understanding of the human being, a detailed account of child development, and with a curriculum and teaching practice that seek the unity of intellectual, emotional, and ethical development at every point, Waldorf education deserves the attention of everyone concerned with education and the human future.

This book is a transcript of eight lectures plus an introduction to a eurythmy performance, taken originally in shorthand, given by Rudolf Steiner in April, 1923, at Dornach, Switzerland, to a group of Waldorf teachers and others from several European countries—he especially mentions the Czech representatives—who at this early stage had also become interested in Waldorf education. The reader today can readily sense the quality of active engagement that runs through these lectures as Rudolf Steiner explores the basic principles of Waldorf education, and at the same time, as required, confronts specific problems that arose in those early beginnings of the movement when the first school was not yet five years old. The reader is also carried immediately into a rich discussion of issues of central concern for education today. Perhaps the most helpful contribution this foreword can make to the reader is simply to underscore some of these issues.

Rudolf Steiner's holistic understanding of the human being underlies all of Waldorf education. To be sure, nearly every educational reform movement in the modern world claims to be concerned with “the education of the whole child,” and in this way Waldorf education is no exception. In Waldorf education, however, this claim does not remain a generality. Rather, the many dimensions of the human being—physical, emotional, and intellectual, as well as the distinctive characteristics and myriad interrelationships of these dimensions—are presented with great care and precision. Further, their actual, concrete implications for the curriculum, the classroom, and the larger society are developed in detail and in a variety of ways.

In talking about the whole human being, Rudolf Steiner frequently employs the traditional terminology of body, soul, and spirit. Despite its venerable tradition, this terminology may, for many modern readers, strike a strange note at first, especially for most modern educators. And yet, those same readers will just as likely have no trouble at all with the original Greek term for “soul,” psyche, which has acquired a firm and familiar place in the modern vocabulary just as its more recent equivalent, soul, has become somewhat strange and unfamiliar. And “psychosomatic” is the au courant expression for a sophisticated awareness of the mind-body relationship and its interaction—a term that is, however, seldom spelled out, and that often covers more than it reveals. The attentive reader will find that Rudolf Steiner makes use of traditional terminology in a precise, truly nontraditional way to explore and delineate essential dimensions and functions of the human being, which the fashionable Greek of psyche and psychosomatic tend to generalize and blur, and which much modern educational literature ignores altogether. At the very least the reader is well-advised to work with the traditional terminology and test whether or not it is indeed being used with precision and with real efficacy.

Rudolf Steiner does not, however, limit himself by any means to traditional terminology. Many readers will immediately find themselves on familiar ground with Steiner's detailed account of child development. And they may recognize that many aspects of Steiner's description have been subsequently confirmed, and in certain areas filled out, by educational and developmental psychologists working independently of him (Gesell and Piaget come to mind). Readers may also notice some important differences that, together with obvious areas of overlap, invite more dialogue between Waldorf educators and non-Waldorf educators than has yet occurred. Likewise, the crucial importance that Steiner attributed to the early, preschool years—particularly as it relates to an individual's entire life—has since become a commonplace of almost all developmental psychology. No one, however, has explored the educational implications of these early years with the fullness and care for actual curriculum and classroom practice that marks Steiner's work. One example in these lectures is the care he gives to describing the educational and developmental importance of the child's learning to stand and walk, to speak, and to think—all on its own—and the unfolding implications that he indicates these early achievements have for the whole of an individual's life.

Central to Steiner's account of child development is that the child comes to know the world in ways that are specific to the physical age and development of the child, and which serve as an essential foundation for other ways of knowing that follow. The primary way, Steiner points out, by which the very young, pre-school age child comes to know the world and others is through physical, sensory activity. This is an immediate, participative way of knowing by which the child through physical activity, and above all, through imitation, emulation, and play first comes to know and to make the world its own.

There are many interesting potential points of contact between Steiner's description of the child's participative, imitative knowing, and the independent investigations accomplished since his death by others unacquainted with either Steiner's more general work or Waldorf education; these points of contact also offer the promise of a fruitful exchange between Waldorf education and others. For example, the importance, stressed by Steiner, of play, imitation, and activity as being the foundation for all subsequent knowing, even that of formal analytic cognition, which comes into its own with adolescence, has been explored in great detail by many developmental psychologists. Kurt Fischer, for instance, writes, “All cognition starts with action ...the higher-level cognition of childhood and adulthood derive directly from these sensorimotor actions....” And Piaget, early in his work wrote, “At this most imitative stage, the child mimics with his whole being, identifying himself with his model.” Many years before, in the lectures reprinted here, and with the actual implications for education much more at the center of his concern, Rudolf Steiner, in a stunning expression, said that “the young child, in a certain sense, really is just one great sense organ,” imitating and absorbing its whole environment.

The kind of deep knowing Steiner describes here seems akin to the kind of knowing that the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi described later in terms of “tacit knowing”: a knowing-by-doing, a knowing that exists primarily in what psychologist Lawrence Kubie, and others, have called the “pre-conscious.”

Moreover, Steiner's conception expressed in these lectures of the young child as “a sense organ” in which will forces are at work connects directly with all those investigators in the field of phenomenology for whom intentionality, or will, is central to all experience, including perception. As Steiner also emphasizes, this early participative knowing of the child encompasses the moral and the religious, because it involves participation with the environment, with other people, and with one's own experience in being. It is a kind of knowing that involves the being of the knower, and it is the essential foundation for what Philip Phenix has called, “learning to live well as persons.” It is a genuine knowing, which, as both Polanyi and Steiner stress, is always presupposed by more abstract, intellectual knowing. Indeed, Rudolf Steiner's description of the child's first experience of mathematics provides a vivid illustration of this crucially important point. Steiner indicates how the young child has first a lived, but pre-conscious experience of mathematics in its own early physical movements, an experience Steiner nicely describes as “bodily geometry,” a lived experience which then becomes the basis for the eventual development of abstract, mathematical conceptual thinking later on. It becomes clear how the full development of this pre-conscious, tacit knowing, grounded in lived experience is essential to the emergence of truly powerful and insightful abstract conceptuality in later years.

More than any others who have dealt with it, Rudolf Steiner developed in considerable detail the implications of the young child's participative, tacit knowing (to use Polanyi's term for education). Positively, it means that the educator's primary task for the pre-school child is to provide an environment and people worthy of imitation by, and interaction with, the child. Negatively, it means that every attempt to teach young children analytical, conceptual thinking—the wide-spread efforts to teach reading, calculating, and computer skills at an ever earlier age—is premature, and a destructive intrusion that threatens the full development of the tacit knowing so necessary for truly powerful, creative, and self-confident thinking in later life. Although the dominant tendency in modern education is to continue to “hot house” young children to acquire adult reading and calculating skills, some important educators, like David Elkind, are beginning to point out, as Waldorf schools have always done, how destructive this is to the child's eventual educational growth and even physical health.

In the primary school years, Rudolf Steiner points out, the child enters a new stage when the feeling life becomes dominant. The child lives in feelings, and these now become the child's primary way of knowing the world—through the feeling, pictorial, rich image-making capacities that the rhythmic, feeling life makes possible. One can say, perhaps, that while the intelligence of the pre-school child first awakens in the physical life of the child, the intelligence of the child in primary school now awakens mainly in the life of feelings. Steiner explicitly identified these years when the imagination emerges as central between the child's change of teeth and puberty. A few educators have apparently begun to recognize that the change of teeth may, indeed, be an important signal that the child is entering upon a new level of development. It is, Steiner said, a signal that the child's forces, previously involved in physical growth, now become available in a new way for imaginative thinking, and, therefore, need to be nourished and cultivated imaginatively.

It is here that we see the importance of the image in all thinking. Whenever we want to explain, understand, or integrate our experience, we must have recourse to our images. Our images give us our world, and the kind and quality of our world depends on the kind and quality of the images through which we approach and understand it. During the school years when the child lives and knows the world through an imaginative, feeling life, a powerful image-making capacity is either developed or not. It is this vital picture-making capacity that gives life and insight to logical and conceptual thinking. The primary task of education in the primary school years is, therefore, to educate and nourish the imaging powers of the child, and to lead him or her into the development of strong, flexible, and insightful conceptual capacities, which only developed imagination makes possible.

Here the moral dimension in knowing and education appears in yet another way. We are responsible for the kind of images we bring to bear on the world, and the ways we do it. And we are responsible for the care we take in helping children to develop their own strong image-making capacities. Much in modern American education, with its nearly exclusive emphasis on utilitarian, problem-solving skills, neglects entirely the development of the child's imagination. At the same time—through television, movies, literalistic picture books, and detailed toys, all of which leave nothing to the child's own imaginative powers—the children are made increasingly vulnerable to having their minds and feelings filled with readymade, supplied images—other people's images, often of the most banal, even violent and obsessive kind.

Steiner stresses, therefore, the importance of an education during the primary school years that is thoroughly artistic in nature. In these lectures he explicitly criticizes any one-sided emphasis on emotional development that ignores the importance of intellectual development. He also criticizes as nonsense notions that all learning should be play. (In this he transcends the current split between the partisans of so-called cognitive education and affective education.) Rather than emphasizing artistic as opposed to intellectual subjects, his chief concern is to bring together intellect, emotion, and the tacit knowing of will activity in an integral unity. Every subject, especially including mathematics and science, therefore, is to be presented in an imaginative, artistic way that speaks to and nourishes the child's own imagination. In the education sought in Waldorf schools, sound, tone, stories, poetry, music, movement, handwork, painting and colors, and direct acquaintance with living nature and other people permeate the pedagogy and the curriculum of these primary school years.

It is just such an artistic education in this fullest sense that leads to strong conceptual powers in the adolescent and adult years. Other people, such as the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and John MacMurray, have recognized the centrality of the imaging, feeling life of the primary school child, and have urged that an artistic sensitivity and approach characterize all teaching during these years. Even John Dewey, in one of his more recent books, Art as Experience, and in some later essays, speaks of art as the primary model for all knowing, and of the importance of conceiving of “education as an art.” In these writings Dewey saw how essential an artistic education is to all thinking. Dewey wrote: “... the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on among those who pride themselves on being intellectuals.” But Dewey never developed the educational implications of his own recognition of the centrality of the artistic-imaginative experience, and American education—although it has been enamored with Dewey's other, narrower stress on problem-solving skills—has totally ignored his later emphasis on artistic imagination and education as an art. Only now are there signs, as in the work of Elliot Eisner that some educators are beginning to recognize how essential an artistic, imaginative approach in education is. Here, once again, Waldorf education, with its seventy-five years of experience, can make an essential contribution to the current educational dialogue. At a time when increasing numbers of Americans are concerned that our schools do everything necessary to develop genuinely self-confident and creative thinking, the importance of the attention given in Waldorf education to the deepest sources of imagination, creativity, and self-confidence becomes more and more apparent.

Perhaps two other elements in these lectures, which speak directly to current American educational concerns, should be briefly discussed. One has to do with the demand of many parents and public figures today that new attention be given in American schools to religious and moral education, and what is often called “teaching values.” In these lectures Rudolf Steiner stresses the importance of thinking about religious and moral education in a way very different from what is customary. At certain points in these lectures the reader will note that Rudolf Steiner and the first Waldorf schools had to grapple with difficult, specific problems posed by the current legal requirements in Germany regarding religious instruction. Even in the discussion of these specific issues, it is clear that Rudolf Steiner rejects any form of indoctrination or empty teaching of abstract religious concepts. Rather, he emphasizes the importance of the teacher. The child brings into life in its earliest years a natural gratitude for being—what Steiner suggestively terms a kind of natural “bodily religion.” And the religious-ethical task of the teacher is to respond in kind—to make available to the child an environment of things, people, and attitudes worthy of the child's grateful imitation; “the task of the teachers is through their actions and general behavior” to create a trustworthy reality for the children to live in.

As the imaginative life flowers in the primary school child, the fundamental ethical-religious education is again to be sought in providing the children with an experience of beauty, fairness, a reverence for life, and a life-giving attitude and conduct on the part of the teacher. The truly ethical and religious dimensions of education have nothing to do with indoctrination, the teaching of empty concepts, “thou-shalt” attitudes, but with the actual experience of gratitude, love, wonder, a devoted interest in one's life tasks and conduct, and a recognition of the worth of the developing individual. Instead of concerning ourselves so much with teaching the children moral concepts, writes Steiner, “we should strive towards a knowledge of how we, as teachers and educators, should conduct ourselves.”

And this points to another current concern within American education; namely, the need to recognize the essential importance of the person and being of the teacher (and the parent) in education. Many recent calls for reform in American education have pointed to the low standing of the teacher in our culture, and the necessity of rectifying this. In these lectures, as elsewhere, Rudolf Steiner has much of crucial importance to say. In this regard, his discussion of the complex, and necessary relationships between the child's experience of genuine authority (not authoritarianism) and the development of freedom and capacity for self-determination in later life is especially pertinent to current educational concerns.

It should, perhaps, also be noted in concluding that in these lectures Rudolf Steiner was speaking to people who had at least an acquaintance with the view of the human being, on which his lectures were based. Occasionally, therefore, the word anthroposophy appears without explanation, and the reader who is meeting Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education for the first time may have difficulty understanding what is meant. Anthroposophy was the term Rudolf Steiner used to characterize the approach to understanding the whole human being as body, soul, and spirit; while at first foreign to the modern eye, a moment's reflection will show that the term is no more difficult than the more familiar word, anthropology, except that, instead of the Greek word, logos—or “wisdom”—sophie is joined with the Greek word for “human being”—or anthropos. Elsewhere, Steiner expressed his hope that anthroposophy would not be understood in a wooden and literal translation, but that it should be taken to mean “a recognition of our essential humanity.” The ground of Waldorf education is precisely this recognition of the essential human being. Central to Waldorf education is the conviction that each pupil, each person, is an individual, evolving self of infinite worth—a human spirit, for the essence of spirit, Steiner insisted, is to be found in the mystery of the individual self. As the English Waldorf educator John Davy once observed, this is not a fashionable view in a skeptical age, but it is one that carries a natural affinity with all who care about the education and evolving humanity of our children.

This foreword has attempted only to touch on some of the riches to be found in these lectures. Yet, this lecture cycle itself is far from an exhaustive account of Waldorf education. For those who want to explore further, the following lecture cycles by Rudolf Steiner are especially recommended as introductions to Waldorf education: The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education; The Spirit of the Waldorf School; and The Kingdom of Childhood. Steiner delivered other lecture series on education that require a deeper familiarity with Waldorf education and anthroposophy. [See pp. 210-211 for a more comprehensive list of titles.] Introductions to Waldorf education by others are also especially recommended: Mary Caroline Richards, “The Public School and the Education of the Whole Person” contained in Opening Our Moral Eye; A. C. Harwood, The Recovery of Man in Childhood: A Study in the Educational Work of Rudolf Steiner; Majorie Spock, Teaching as a Lively Art; and Frans Carlgren, Education Towards Freedom. Useful introductory articles will also be found in “An Introduction to Waldorf Education,” Teachers College Record, vol. 81 (Spring 1980): 322-370.

Teachers College,
Columbia University