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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Essentials of Education
GA 308

Lecture Four

10 April 1924 p.m., Stuttgart

Teaching Writing before Reading

This morning I attempted to describe the way knowledge itself must be transformed inwardly from mere knowledge about nature into higher forms of cognition. This allows our understanding of the whole human being and the growing child to be translated into an artistic approach to education and instruction. I can imagine that a certain question may arise: Assuming that a teacher thoroughly understands the physical body through pure observation and intellect, the etheric body through shaping activity, the astral body through the concept of music, and the I-being through insight into the true nature of speech, what practical application does this have?

Certainly, if we must describe education and instruction as a whole — as we have for Waldorf methods in these lectures — then we would have to say that the most important aspect of a teacher’s perspective on life and the world is not what we generally understand as a “worldview” — that would be completely theoretical. Instead, it is an aspect that, as a soul force, can enter the whole activity of the human being. Any teacher who tries to acquire the principles of education from today’s recognized knowledge of the human being would have to look elsewhere for the necessary inspiration. Hence the continual references to educational ideals that, however convincing they appear, always remain ineffective, because they are rooted in abstractions.

Nevertheless, true insight that penetrates the nature of the world and the human being will, by its very nature, enkindle inspiration in the human heart. While practicing their profession, teachers can always draw inspiration from the feeling of their relationship to the world and to their own being — like artists, whose work seems to live in their very marrow. The artist doesn’t need to go anywhere else for inspiration — it comes from the thing itself. Similarly, the inspiration found by teachers in their worldview, experienced internally and constantly renewed, is carried into the soul constitution of the children entrusted to them. Such inspiration lives in everything the teacher does at school.

Those who have insight into the human being have the ability to perceive that a musical element flows into harmony with the formative processes in the inner being of the child during the elementary years, between the change of teeth and puberty. Such a person will never be likely to stray from the right way of teaching, writing, and reading to children. They have a living understanding that writing — particularly as described here — mobilizes the whole being; it uses the arms and hands and permeates them with spirit that exercises the whole person.

These are the very aspects of the human being that will be perceived in a living way if we begin with a view of the world such as I described this morning. It also helps to become clear that reading is merely a pursuit of the head, an unbalanced activity for the human being. The teacher will sense that such onesidedness is suitable only for children whose whole being has become active. Thus, teachers who take hold of this insight into the human being will be careful to develop writing from painting and drawing (as I described) until children can write what they experience in their deepest being in words or sentences.

When children have reached a certain level of development, they can speak and then write what they have said. This is when it becomes appropriate to teach reading. Reading is easy to teach once writing has been somewhat developed. After children have begun work within their own being — in the nervous system and limbs, in the substance of their writing and reading, and in their inner participation in producing reading material — only then are they ready for one-sided activity. Then, without any danger to their development as human beings, the head can become active, and what they first learned by writing is turned into reading.

It really comes down to this: week after week and month after month, the germinating human being must be promoted to activity that suits the developing forces of the human organization. It is important to decide what should be done at each stage by reading the particular way each human being tries to evolve. It doesn’t work to use schedules that limit some activity to an hour or forty-five minutes, then jump to something else, and again to a third lesson, and so on. Consequently, we have introduced a system of instruction into the Waldorf school where the same subject is taught during the early morning hours for several weeks at a time. In this approach to teaching — so-called “block” teaching, which is characteristic of Waldorf education — students immerse themselves in the subject; they are not torn away as soon as they meet it.

In everything that must be presented to children between the change of teeth and puberty we have to discover ways of reading what is needed through the demands of human nature itself. When it is a matter of gradually leading children into a real relationship to their own being and the world, it is most important that the teachers themselves have a real relationship to the world. In contemporary culture, of course, no matter how educated people may be, they cannot really acquire an inwardly alive and rich relationship to the world and their own being. This is yet another radical statement, but we must not be afraid of real insight into what must be gradually introduced into our civilization.

Understanding Cosmic Forces

Above all, it is necessary that the teachers themselves should not, in their own development, fall into what might be called a “cosmic parochialism,” but rather look beyond what is strictly earthly and realize that, as human beings, they depend on nourishment not only from their immediate environment, but from the whole cosmos. Naturally, it is very difficult to speak of these things today in an unbiased way, since our culture offers little support for people’s attempts to look beyond their dependence on the earthly elements. Consequently, old teachings emanating from earlier instinctive concepts are often carried into the present without any understanding, which leads to superstition. In reality, all that the modern mainstream culture can offer is no more than a kind of “cosmic parochialism,” because this culture has not as yet produced ideas that would extend from Earth into the cosmos. We have calculations, or at least spectrum analysis, to teach us (or purport to teach us) about the course and position of the stars, their substance, and so on. Nevertheless, the intimate knowledge that comes from entering into a close relationship with the essential nature of the Earth cannot be acquired — in terms of the extraterrestrial cosmos — from the mainstream culture of today. The concepts that human beings formulate about such things as cabbage, spinach, venison, and so on, are completely different from those acquired through abstract, intellectual science. We eat those things, and abstract thought has nothing to do with eating! We do not eat to gain practical experience in what modern science tells us about the hare, for example; we get a much more concrete and intimate experience of it through taste and digestion.

In terms of the surrounding cosmos beyond Earth, our knowledge is such that we have no intimate relationships at all. If everything we knew about the hare were equivalent to what astronomy and spectrum analysis know about the extraterrestrial universe, and if we only knew the results of calculations of the relative positions of the bones and relative proportions of various substances within the hare, our relationship to it would be merely scientific; we would never find our way into any human relationship. It could never give us what the experienced human relationship to the hare can provide. People do not realize these days that in a more ancient, instinctive wisdom, people had an equally intimate relationship with the cosmos. If only they could acquire a true concept of that ancient wisdom, they would, at this more advanced stage of their soul’s growth, again receive the impulse to look for a new wisdom in this area, a wisdom that can be as intimate in the human sense as the science of the natural objects in the earthly realm.

I would like to illustrate this with an example to show how important it is that teachers acquire a living relationship to the world. Teachers derive from that relationship the necessary enthusiasm to translate what should exist in the teacher’s own soul into simple, visual pictures for the child. A teacher needs a truly consecrated relationship to the world. In the presence of the active child, this becomes the world of imagery that a child needs for help in progressing properly in harmony with the demands of human evolution. For example, we are surrounded by the world of plants; to ordinary sense-perception it presents many enigmas.

Goethe encountered many of these questions. He followed the growing plant forms in their various metamorphoses, and through observing the plants’ growth he was led to a remarkable principle that pours new life into all our knowledge of the plant world. His principle may be described in this way: Let’s begin by observing the seed, which we place in the ground and from which the plant grows. Seen from the outside, the life of the plant is comprEssentialEd to a point in the seed. We then see the seed unfold, and life spreads out farther and farther, until it has fully unfolded in the first budding leaves. Then it contracts into the narrow channel of the stem, continues to the next leaf connection, and there it spreads out again, only to contract again into the stem toward the next leaf cluster, and so on. Eventually there is a final contraction when a new germ, or seed, is formed, and within that, the whole life of the plant again contracts to a single physical point. This is Goethe’s contribution — how the growing plant shows an alternation: expansion, contraction, expansion, contraction.

Goethe looked deep into plant formation as an effluence of the plant’s own life. However, the time was not ripe for him to relate to the world as a whole the formula he found for plant life, since the whole world and its forces are always involved in the ways any being lives and has its own being. With the help of contemporary spiritual science, or anthroposophic science, however, we now can extend Goethe’s formula, as you can see for yourself in the spiritual scientific literature (and here I will only touch on this).

One will find there that what lives in the expansion of the plant’s being is what comes from the Sun. The Sun is not merely what is described by astronomy and spectrum analysis; with the Sun’s rays, spiritual forces stream and interweave down to the Earth. In this ensoulment of sunlight we have the element that, for example, determines expansion in the growth of the plant. It is not just that the Sun shines on the plant and causes it to expand; rather, the forces of growth in the plant itself have a sun-like quality that plants reflect back. On the other hand, whenever we witness contraction — whenever plant growth contracts back to a point in the passage from one leaf bud to the next, or in the formation of the seed — these are being influenced by the Moon’s forces. Just as we see a rhythmic interchange of sunlight and moonlight in the cosmos, so we also see it reflected in the budding plant that responds to the activity of the Sun in the expansion of the leaves, and the Moon activity in the phenomena of contraction. Expansion and contraction in the plant are the reflected image of what pours down to Earth from cosmic, etheric space in an interchange of forces coming from Sun and Moon.

Here we have expanded our gaze from the Earth to etheric, cosmic spaces, and we get an impression of how the Earth, in a certain sense, nourishes her forces of fruitfulness and growth from what flows to her from the cosmos. We come to feel how, by making a detour through the plants, we grow together with the spirit of Sun and Moon. Here we are brought into contact with things that are usually left to the domain of calculation or spectrum analysis. The inspiration necessary for teaching growing children anything about humankind’s relationship to the universe cannot be gotten from mere abstract observation — that a leaf is or isn’t indented at its edges, or has this or that appearance. No inspiration will flow from this. Such inspiration does come, however, when the rhythmic reflection of Sun and Moon is revealed to us in the growth of various plants.

How wonderful the perception of surrounding nature becomes when we observe a plant that has a regular growth — for example, the buttercup. Here we find something sent up by the Earth as it surrenders itself lovingly to cosmic Sun and Moon forces, paying homage equally to both. Or look at a plant, such as the cactus, with its stalk portion widened out. What does this reveal? In the contraction manifested elsewhere by the stalk, we perceive Moon forces. When the stalk itself wants to expand, we see a struggle between Sun and Moon influences. The form of each plant reveals how Sun and Moon act together within it. Each individual plant is a “miniature world,” a reflection of the greater world. Just as we see our own image in a mirror, in the mirror of growth on Earth, we see what is happening beyond in the cosmos.

Ancient, instinctive wisdom was conscious of such things, and what follows offers proof of this. In the plant life that buds from the Earth in spring, people saw a cosmic reflection of the relationship between Sun forces and Moon forces. Thus, spring was celebrated with the Easter festival, whose date was determined by the relationship between Sun and Moon. The Easter festival occurs on the first Sunday after the spring full moon. The time of the Easter festival is therefore determined in reference to the cosmos — the relationship between Sun and Moon. What people of those ancient times might have implied was this: When we see plants budding in spring, we are faced with the enigma of why they appear sometimes earlier and sometimes later. The fact that the time of the spring full moon plays an essential role in all these processes of budding and sprouting allows us to get to the heart of this riddle.

There are other factors, of course, but it is generally apparent that the interplay between Sun and Moon is exprEssentialEd in what happens in spring, when one year the plants appear earlier and another, later. What might people say, however, if they acknowledge only parochial, scientific thinking about the Earth’s dependence on the cosmos? They will say: The reason plants appear earlier in a particular year is due to less snow or because the snow melted more quickly; or that the delayed appearance of plants means that there was more snow. This is, of course, an easy explanation, but in fact it is not an explanation at all. Real insight comes only when we perceive that plant growth depends on the activity of Sun and Moon forces, and then go on to recognize that a shorter or longer duration of snow also depends on the Sun and Moon. The timing of the plants’ appearance is determined by the same thing that determines the duration of the snow; the climatic and meteorological conditions in any given year are themselves subject to cosmic influences.

By continuing to develop these matters, we gain insights into the life of the Earth on her journey through the cosmos. We say that human beings thrive when there are plenty of cows, and they get a lot of milk, because we can point to the obvious human dependence on the immediate earthly environment. When we consider this connection, we are looking at human life from a nutritional perspective. Things come alive for us only when we perceive their relationship to their surroundings and how they transform what they receive from their environment.

When we behold the Earth wandering through cosmic space and taking into herself elements flowing from the Sun, Moon, and stars, we see the Earth as alive in the cosmos. We do not evolve a dead geology or geography but raise what these dead sciences have to offer into a description of the Earth’s life in the cosmos; the Earth becomes a living being before our spiritual vision. In the plants springing from the Earth, we see the Earth reproducing what she received from the cosmos. The Earth and her plant growth become a unity; we realize what nonsense it is to tear a plant out of the Earth and then examine it from root to blossom, imagining that we are viewing reality. It is no more reality than a hair torn from a human head. The hair belongs to the whole organism, and it can be understood only as a part of the whole organism. To tear out a hair and study it in isolation is just as absurd as uprooting a plant to study it in isolation. The hair must be studied in connection with the human organism and the plant in connection with the whole living Earth.

In this way a person’s own being is woven with the living Earth; an individual no longer goes around feeling subjected only to the Earth’s forces, but also perceives in the environment what is working in from etheric distances. We have a living perception of the way forces from the cosmos are active everywhere — drawing the etheric body to themselves just as the physical body is drawn to the Earth. We then acquire a natural perception of the etheric body’s tendency to pass into cosmic space, just as we sense gravity drawing our physical body down to Earth. Our vision continues to expand so that knowledge becomes inner life and can become truly effective. Having believed the Earth to be a lifeless body in the cosmos, such knowledge now gives life to her. We must return again to a living cognition, just as we still see the after-effects in such things as the determination of Easter time. But such insight into the cosmos must result from consciously developed knowledge — not from the instinctive knowledge of earlier ages.

The Child’s Need for Imagery in the Tenth Year

This cosmic insight lives in us in such a way that we can artistically shape it into the pictures we need. Someone who, when confronting the cosmos, sees the Sun and Moon determining all plant growth, feels the inspiration that can arise from these living intuitions; and that person’s story of the plants is very different from the story of someone else who absorbs and elaborates the abstract concepts of modern texts on botany. The concept can grow rich in feeling and be communicated artistically to the child.

At around the tenth year, children are ready for what the teacher can make of this far-reaching vision. If one shows in living pictures how the Earth as a whole is a living being — how it has plants the way a person has hair, though in greater complexity — and if one builds a living unity between the living being Earth and the plants growing here or there, a kind of expansion occurs in the child’s soul. Whenever we communicate something about the nature of the plants in this way, it is like bringing fresh air to someone who had been living until now in a stifling atmosphere — one can breathe freely in this fresh air. This expansion of the soul is the real result of this kind of knowledge — a knowledge that is truly equal to the task of understanding the mysteries of the universe.

Do not say that children are too immature for ideas such as this. Any teacher in whom these ideas are alive, and who is backed by this worldview, will know how to express them in ways children are prepared for, in ways that their whole being can agree with. Once such things are internalized by the teacher, the capacity to simplify them pictorially is also present, Whatever a teacher gives to the child must flow from this background, and thus a relationship between the child and the world is truly established. This leads the teacher to transform everything naturally into living pictures, since it simply becomes impossible to explain abstractly what I have said about the plant realm. The only way to convey this to children is to unfold it in vivid pictures, which appeal to the whole human being and not merely to the intellect.

You will quickly see the animation in children as they grasp something presented to them pictorially. They will not answer with a concept that merely comes from the lips — one that cannot be really formed yet — but they will tell a story using their arms and hands and all kinds of body language. Children will act in a way that uses the whole being; above all, these actions and signals will reveal the children’s inner experience and their difficulty in understanding a subject. The best and most noble thing in acquiring knowledge is the feeling that it is difficult, that it costs effort to get hold of things. Those who imagine they can get to the heart of something — insofar as it is necessary — merely through clever words have no reverence for the things of the world, and such reverence is a part of what makes a whole and perfect human being — to the degree that perfection is possible in earthly existence.

The only way human beings can build a right relationship to the world is by feeling how helpless they are when they want to arrive at the real essence of things, and how the whole being must be brought into play. Only when the teacher has a proper relationship to the world can the child also establish one. Pedagogy must be alive. It involves more than just applying oneself; it must come to flower from the very life situations of education. And it can do this when it grows from the teachers’ living experience of their own being in the cosmos.

The Human Being as a Symphony of the Tones in Animals

If musical understanding — which I mentioned this morning — has truly taught the teacher about the reality of the human astral body, providing a concept of the human being itself as a wonderful, inwardly organized musical instrument, such an understanding of the astral body will open an even broader understanding of the whole relation between the human being and the world. Naturally, this cannot be conveyed to children in the way I am going to express it, but it can be presented in pictures.

Teachers who have a knowledge of their own astral body, sounding inwardly in musical forms, should view the human being and the various animal forms that exist in the world. They can then understand the deep meaning contained in an old instinctual wisdom, which represented the human being as a coalescence of four beings — three lower and one higher: lion, bull, eagle, and angel. The bull represents an unbalanced development of the lowest forces of human nature. Picture the forces in the human metabolic-limb system without any balancing forces in the head and rhythmic systems; in other words, imagine an unbalanced and prevailing development of the metabolic-limb system. Here we have a one-sided formation that presents itself to us as the bull. We can thus imagine that if this bull nature were toned down by the human head organization, it would develop into something like the human being. If the central rhythmic system is developed in an unbalanced way — for example, through a contraction of the abdominal system or a stunting of the head system — we can picture it as lion nature.

If, however, there is one-sided development of the head organism in such a way that the forces otherwise existing in the inner part of the head push out into “feathers,” we get a bird, or eagle nature. If we imagine forces that enable these three qualities to harmonize as a unity that can manifest by adding the angelic fourth, we get a synthesis of the three — the human being. This is a schematic way of presenting these things, but it shows our human relationship to the surrounding animal world. In this sense; human beings are not related just to the bull, eagle, and lion, but to all earthly animal forms. In each animal form we can find an unbalanced development of one of the organic systems of the human being. These things were alive in the instinctive wisdom of ancient times.

There was still a tradition in later times that was exprEssentialEd paradoxically, because people themselves no longer had such vision but created intellectual elaborations of the old perceptions. In an odd passage, Oken asks us to suppose that the human tongue were developed in a one-sided way. Actually, it is toned down, or moderated, by the forces of the head, because the tongue serves the stomach (regardless of its spatial distance from it), and so on. Suppose, however, that it were developed one-sidedly. If a being were only tongue and all the rest only appendage, what would the tongue be then — a cuttlefish; the tongue is a cuttlefish! Now, of course, this is an exaggeration, but it retains something of the ancient perception translated into modern intellectualism. It is nonsense, but it originated with something that once had deep meaning. The soul attitude that underlies ancient knowledge can be rediscovered; we can rediscover how to conceive of the human being as divided, as it were, into all the various animal forms that exist on Earth. And if we bring them all together — so that each is harmonized by the others — we get the human being.

Thus, when we determine humankind’s relationship to the animal kingdom through observation, we find the relationship between the astral body and the outer world. We must apply a musical understanding to the astral body. I gaze into the human being, and out toward the myriad animal forms. It’s as if we were to take a symphony where all the tones sound together in a wonderful, harmonious, and melodious whole and, over the course of time, separated each tone from the others and juxtaposed them.

As we look out into the animal world, we have the single tones. As we look into the human astral body and what it builds in the physical and etheric bodies, we have the symphony. If we go beyond an intellectual view of the world and have enough cognitive freedom to rise to artistic knowledge, we develop an inner reverence, permeated with religious fervor, for the invisible being — the marvelous world composer — who first arranged the tones in the various animal forms, and then created the human being as a symphony of the phenomena of animal nature. This is what we must carry in our souls as teachers. If I understand my relationship to the world in this way, a true enthusiasm in the presence of world creation and world formation will flow into my descriptions of the animal forms. Every word and gesture in my teaching as a whole will be permeated by religious fervor — not just abstract concepts and natural laws.

Such things show us that instruction and education must not come from accumulated knowledge, which is then applied, but from a living abundance. A teacher comes into the class with the fullness of this abundance, and when dealing with children, it’s as though they found before them a voice for the world mysteries pulsating and streaming through the teacher, as though merely an instrument through which the world speaks to the child. There is then a real inner, enlivening quality in the method of instruction, not just superficial pedantry. Enthusiasm must not be artificially produced, but blossom like a flower from the teacher’s relationship to the world; this is the important thing.

In our discussion of a genuine method for teaching and the living foundations of education, we must speak of enthusiasm stimulated not by theoretical, abstract insight, but by true insight into the world. When we approach children who are between the change of teeth and puberty in this way, we can guide them in the right way toward puberty. As soon as puberty arrives, the astral body begins to unfold its independence. What was previously absorbed as the “music of the world” continues to develop within them. It is remarkable that the intellect now comprehends what has been developed in pictures and what was appropriated by the soul in an inwardly musical, sculptural sense and in living pictures during the period between the change of teeth and puberty. The human intellect does not absorb anything of what we force on it intellectually from outside; before the intellect can receive anything, it must first develop within the individual in a different way.

An important fact then comes into play. Something that one had all along is understood in an inwardly directed way — something that was prepared and supports puberty in the person who developed in a healthy way. All that was understood through images now arises from the inner wellspring. Proceeding to intellectual activity involves the human being looking into the self. I now take hold of my own being within myself and through myself. The astral body with its musical activity beats in rhythm with the etheric body with its shaping activity. In a healthy person, after puberty, a chord is sounded within the human being; it results in an awareness of one’s self. And when there is this concordance between the two sides of an individual’s nature, after puberty the person truly experiences inner freedom as a result of understanding for the first time what was merely perceived earlier.

The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one’s own being. True freedom is an inward experience and is developed only when the human being is viewed in this way. As a teacher, I must say that I cannot pass on freedom to another human being — each must experience it individually. Nevertheless, I must plant something within the person — something intact because I have left it untouched — to which that person’s own intact being feels attracted and into which it may become immersed. This is the wonderful thing I have accomplished. I have educated within the human being what must be educated. In reverence to the Godhead in every individual human being, I have left untouched those things that may only be taken hold of by the self. I educate everything in the human being except what belongs to the self, and then I wait for it to take hold of what I have invoked. I do not coarsely handle the development of the human I, but prepare the soil for its development, which takes hold after puberty.

If I educate intellectually before puberty — if I offer abstract concepts or ready-made, sharply outlined observations instead of growing, living pictures — I am violating the human being and crudely handling the I within. I truly educate only when I leave the I untouched and wait until it can grasp what I have prepared through education. In this way, together with the child, I look forward to a time when I can say, “Here the I is being born in freedom; I have only prepared the ground so that the I may become conscious of its own being.

If I have educated the child this way until puberty, I find before me a human being who may say, “When I was not yet fully human, you gave me something that, now that it is possible, enables me to become fully human myself.” In other words, I have educated so that, with every look, every movement, the human being says to me, “You have accomplished something with me; and my freedom has been left whole. You have made it possible for me to grant myself my own freedom at the right moment in life. You have done something that enables me to stand before you now, shaping myself as a human being from my individuality, which you left reverently untouched.”

This may never be said in so many words, but it lives, nonetheless, in the human being who has received the right kind of education during the elementary school years.

The next lecture will show that there is much more to be done so that education and teaching may accommodate what the human being encounters after puberty.