The Beauty of Astronomy
The following is the introduction to the Teacher’s Guide for our new publication, A Year of Astronomy, available to purchase mid January 2019.
On the one hand, astronomy is such an obvious and simple subject to study—all one needs to do is to look up into the night sky and there it is! On the other hand, however, it can be off-putting with its complex physics and abstract information. Our goal is to start with that naive open observation, to enrich it with the star wisdom of ancient peoples, and then to move, from the student’s own observations, toward a relationship to modern scientific thinking.
I cannot stress enough how important naked eye observation is to a real study of astronomy, one that places human experience at its heart. Though this kind of approach is anathema to most conventional ideas about science, for a holistic education, based as it is in the Goethean (Waldorf) approach, starting with the human being is essential. We cannot escape ourselves—and we can escape neither our destructive or healing impulses that inform what we do in this world. To feel oneself a part of the Cosmos is to take a step toward overcoming the alienation of separation, of the kind of onlooker consciousness which says we are not important, we are not involved, our perspective is not a part of the larger picture. When we feel ourselves as insignificant in an unknowable world, then the destructive impulses which lie as possibility in every human being can get the upper hand. The healing of separation is a major and urgent task in our world.
If we start from the perspective that the human being is a spiritual being, then it stands to reason that each of us has a real connection to the rest of the spiritual worlds. And that includes the Cosmos. ‘Man know Thyself’ declared the deepest wisdom of the Ancient Greeks. By turning inside to the microcosm—ourselves– we can, with mindfulness, clarity and humbleness, start to understand the outer–the macrocosm, the Cosmos. The world has meaning–our lives have meaning and the existential angst of separation can be overcome.
The Waldorf curriculum can be understood as a journey from the picture-thinking consciousness of pre-literate peoples (and pre-literate children) through the logical materialistic thinking of the 19th century and beyond. Our culture is still, by and large, stuck in this paradigm with even people who consider themselves to be spiritual caught in non-spiritual ways of thinking. A goal of Waldorf education, one that Christopherus is absolutely dedicated to, is bridging the divide between these ways of thinking, of recognizing that in order to be Whole, the human being must recognize herself as a spiritual being, think spiritualized thoughts, and make that bridge between modern science and ancient wisdom.
The heart of the seventh grade curriculum is focused on the Age of Exploration, when human beings, largely in Europe, went beyond the confines of parish and village, beyond the familiar, and journeyed out into the rest of the world. Such a gesture was found not only in the impulse to explore new lands, but also to push the boundaries of science, of thinking, of art and of religion. Although the negative side of this impulse was—and to some extent remains—a painful legacy of unfettered will that was often sorely lacking in compassion and understanding, the push to universal freedom is undeniably at its root.
This is mirrored in the developmental stage of the 13-year-old, the seventh grader. The child pushes against boundaries, tests his emerging thinking, pushes against boundaries and wants—and needs—to move out more into the world. But just as the European Explorers were primitive in their attitudes and expectations of other peoples they encountered, so the emergent adolescent lacks the finesse and maturity to strike out completely on his own. The attainment of freedom that is not rooted in self-centered interest takes a long and painful journey. The 13 year old is just beginning that quest.
By studying astronomy, the seventh grader can feel the satisfaction that comes when a developmental need is met: she can become aware of being poised on the edge between childhood and youth and likewise can experience that pull between modern scientific thinking and ancient picture thinking. The challenge, as always, is to help her not dismiss one and only accept the other!
As the seventh grader moves into eighth grade, he can now turn more to the modern world. The keynote of eighth grade is to bring the child into the modern world: Rudolf Steiner said that by the end of eighth grade, the students should be familiar and up-to-date with the scientific, cultural and religious thinking and trends of their time. A hundred years on, this is a rather tall order, neither as possible nor desirable as it was in the first decades of the twentieth century.
A reality for many young teens is an awareness of the darkness and despair of the times we live in. By educating holistically, by firmly and joyously grounding one’s work in the certainty of our spiritual connection with the rest of the Cosmos, one can take significant steps in overcoming the deep despair that can blanket a young person as he becomes aware of the extent of the brokenness of our society. By resting on the knowledge that there is meaning, there is purpose and that even chaos is only a stage between different forms of order, then a young person can feel affirmed in the rightness of his being here as a witness to times of great destruction and pain. A study of astronomy, a feeling of wonder and awe and connection with the starry heavens, is one step toward that affirmation