Working with the Spiritual Basis of Waldorf Education

by Dennis Demanett

(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.22, No.2)

Waldorf Education is dedicated to serving the developing child. How can we teachers do this work unless we try deeply to understand this development? Our starting point must be with a knowledge of the human being that is comprehensive and true. Only by casting all dogma and prejudice aside can we come to a true picture, one that satisfies for all mankind, regardless of religious or racial background. By breaking the confines of sectarian images of the human being, Waldorf Education strives to serve the further development of humanity.

I suppose the thing that really bothers many people is that this non-sectarian world picture we talk about is a Christian view. Or so it seems. So then, isn’t Waldorf just another sect? Isn’t this Anthroposophy another religion? I would have to answer that yes, it can seem like that. Yes, if we educators are not very careful, very alert, it can be that way. Living, evolving knowledge – growth and development of the teachers, this keeps Waldorf Education from slipping into sectarianism. Our teachers work from three main sources, all inter-related: Anthroposophy, the children we teach, and ourselves, as individuals.

Anthroposophy is the umbrella, giving us the comprehensive world view, placing child development into the perspective of whole world evolution, both physical and spiritual. Here, we find the Christ Being, spoken of often and with reverence. Here, Rudolf Steiner dares to tell us of Christ as Lord of Karma – being of the highest magnitude now united with our earth, having a daily effect whether we recognize it or not. Events of world history, shaped by spiritual beings, are presented to us and we are challenged, then, not to accept blindly, but to take up and live with, to work with this knowledge so that we can make it our own. Objective recognition of the Christ Being as an all-important force in earth evolution is one major aspect of Anthroposophy. But the importance of the Buddha, Zarathustra and many others is also emphasized. The great religions of the world are revealed by Steiner as manifestations of work that spiritual beings have done to further the development of all mankind. The time for hiding beneath sectarian cloaks is past. The time for recognizing the true nature of mankind is upon us.

Man as evolving being of body, soul and spirit stands at the centre of Anthroposophical work. The Waldorf teacher must permeate himself with knowledge, learning to recognize, if not experience, the presence and power of divine beings in world evolution and in the development of every human being. This knowledge helps him to form the education, telling him of the absolute sanctity of the human being in childhood. The Waldorf teacher strives never to indoctrinate because essentially he knows it does not work; it would be contrary to the aims of his task. Yet the teacher’s task could never be properly carried out if he were not aware in the depths of his own being of the role of Christ in world evolution and in the life of every human being. Ultimately, it is this awareness that renders the teacher incapable of indoctrinating his pupils. Christ’s mission on earth was an intervention aimed at preserving human contact with the divine so that mankind could develop the precious quality, reserved for man alone in the universe, namely, freedom.

Human beings could never be free so long as they lived completely in the lap of the gods, as was true in ancient times. Nor could human beings develop freedom if their spiritual origins were denied and materialism were to stand in the way of the ability to perceive the truth. Christ’s intervention kept spiritual windows open for those who would see, but in our own century Christ has made his presence known and felt to countless individuals in a new way. The desperate situations of this age have produced moments of such extreme suffering that Christ’s intervention has again been called forth, this time in a completely spiritual manner. Sectarian indoctrination can have nothing to do with the experiences of Christ by the individual; this must be possible even if the person has never heard of Christianity. If Christ is the supreme spiritual entity in connection with the earth, and if each human being enters earthly incarnation from spiritual origins, then it follows that mankind, wishing it or not, has a relationship to Christ. Yet this relationship is different for each single person and must be allowed to develop in a way that is right for that person. Human interference in this realm destroys the individual’s freedom. Our task as Waldorf teachers is not to interfere in any way, but to see to it, to the best of our ability, that the doors are left open so that each child will be able in adulthood to face or not face at all, whatever of a religious nature may come to meet him or her.

Anthroposophy also has important insights to offer the Waldorf teacher in relation to how our schools are seen to fit into modern social life. This is important to the discussion because the very basis of Waldorf Schools is quite different from most schools. Rudolf Steiner saw the social life as naturally forming a three-foldness: the economic life, determined by man’s relationship to his environment; the political or rights life, determined by relationships of man to man; and the cultural life, determined by the relationship of man to his higher self, to his spiritual self. Unlike most forms of education, which are based in some combination of political and economic life, Waldorf Education strives to be centered in the cultural life. Education is an art, not a means to train for industry or a means to indoctrinate children into any political way of thinking. Cultural life, too, can be seen as uniting a three-foldness – the old trinity of science, art and religion. Waldorf Education works on the premise that these three spring essentially from the same source, the soul of man, and that to educate properly we must see our task as helping the little scientist, the little artist, and the little priest which lives in every child, to unfold.

Traditionally, science and religion have been at odds with one another, while art and religion have been good friends. A new relationship, that of art and science, needs to be developed and in Waldorf Education the attempt is certainly made. It may even be so that the rift between religion and science could be healed if the artistic were allowed to work strongly in each realm. The area of child development is a natural arena for finding a true relationship between art, science and religion, because each child as he/she develops, shows us the human potential for experiencing these facets of cultural life.

The young child, before the change of teeth, has a natural devotion, an awe-filled quality that makes nearly every new experience a religious one. The young child at play, on the other hand, demonstrates a singleness of purpose that any scientist would envy; while the ability to see a bird in a scrap of wood, a baby in a tatter of cloth vies with any artist’s imaginative abilities. The secret to meeting the young child successfully lies in the recognition that the relationship to science, art or religion is not an intellectual or even emotional one, but rather a relationship based on doing. The life of will, manifest in the child’s gift for imitation, guides the young child. An intellectual discussion of world religions would never do for the little priest that lives in every child, but preparing for a festival – helping to collect greens for Advent, acting out a story for Michaelmas – these experiences meet the child’s need for activity, directed towards a natural unfolding of devotion. Watch a pre-schooler watching one of the Christmas plays and you will see a look not possible in the eyes of most adults. Witness a kindergarten class in a Whitsun procession with little white doves floating from sticks held above them and you will see unparalleled joy, the joy that comes when inner experience is united with outer expression. The images that a kindergarten teacher will select to bring the children will be carefully chosen with this in mind. For example, a candle shining in the dark, with little else, can be brought as an expression of Advent. The Gospel content of festivals is not brought to the young children, but it lies behind the images and activities that will be chosen. It should be noted too, that in Waldorf Schools all over the world, local festivals and customs, from many sources, will be brought to the children. But even these will not be selected at random simply because they are local; the teachers will always seek the activities and images that are meaningful, that will be in keeping with the young child’s development.

For the young child, whose inner and outer lives know no separation, the images we choose to bring take on a significance that charges the teacher with the responsibility of working closely with the GOOD. Goodness is the ideal striven for whenever images or activities are sought and this seeking lies at the heart of the artistic working of a kindergarten teacher. Art as a separate subject, removed from the daily rituals, makes little sense for young children, if the artist in the child is to be met. Then, of course, the artist in the teacher must be at work also. The child is actually a natural artist in play. Unhampered by self-consciousness, the little child can turn a bush into a house, a stump into a table, his friend into a pet cat! From the beginning, the child moulds and creates with delight – out of the very forces that are forming his own body. This means we cannot yet give any artistic instruction – for the body is the instructor of the child. In the same way that a leaf can be a fan or a fish in play, a scrawl of color on a young child’s page can be a tree or Mommy doing the laundry. As forms emerge in the child’s drawing, then the unselfconscious self-portraiture begins. The child directs the forces building his own body onto the page or into the beeswax. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in the case of aberrations. A little girl I know very well one day painted a series of bright red dots on her page, then carefully surrounded them with blue. Her teacher was surprised by this unsolicited work of art and put it carefully aside. Three days later the little girl broke out in chicken pox herself! The point that we must see here is that the artist in the child is still so bound up with the organism, that it is not yet free. This artist, however, can be kept intact in the child if we are careful to meet it in the non-intervening manner suggested here.

The same could also probably be said for the scientist in the young child. Again, if we allow it, this quality lives naturally, unselfconsciously in the pre-schooler. What can we imagine here? Taking our starting point in child development, then we have to see the small child as an experimenter with unparalleled energy amongst his older, white-coated colleagues. The scientist emerges in those endless attempts to do, do, do until the perfection desired is achieved to try every dangerous, hair-raising scheme: tasting the holly berries, balancing on grandma’s Hepplewhite chair, sliding down the banister, walking out on the ice – the list for one day alone could be endless! The little scientist, like artist and priest, is a doer. She is also the asker of the great question WHY? But in answering our little scientists we must again remember: this is a child speaking, not a tiny adult. Answers removed from the child’s experience will tend to alienate her, drawing her from her priest-artist reality. Keeping this in mind, we can act in two ways: Find answers that are true, while speaking to the budding artistic-religious being. Or, say to the child, “Suppose you tell me why”. Then listen carefully and you will get some surprising answers, and also some help in forming your own answers to the child’s questions. Maintaining a balance is the real challenge here. Sensing the importance of wonder and ritual to the young child, while allowing the little experimenter to carry out his work, should keep us on the right track.

It is probably apparent by now, that I see the young child living most strongly, most naturally in the sphere we would call religious. The intellectual and emotional forces required for a person to be fully engaged in scientific or artistic pursuits are not yet freed. The child’s body is being formed, but at the same time, the will forces are very active. These will forces are those which bind the child so firmly to the world around him, the world he will be devoted to whatever it contains. This content, then, is our responsibility. We can cut the child off from this natural religious connection to the world, or we can nourish it carefully, knowing and trusting that the one-sided experience of young childhood evolves into full experience later on, with important forces still intact.

As we enter the middle realm of childhood, the child’s relationship to the cultural life goes through a gradual change. Eventually the child comes to experience the world through her feelings, through the sway of antipathy and sympathy. If the young child is largely priest then the artist emerges most strongly in the child of seven on up to the age of fourteen or thereabout. The child of this age glories in experiences which speak strongly to the feeling life. Imagination, freed now from pure activity, becomes the foundation for the growing thinking capacity in the child. The Class teacher period has often been described in these pages as a time when an artistic meeting between the child and the whole world takes place. Although perhaps mostly artist, the child continues to develop the priest and scientist qualities in these years and the curriculum provides many precious moments for this unfolding. The shift away from imitation to following the authority figure takes place, charging the teacher with the responsibility of bringing the BEAUTIFUL to his pupils.

In the child’s religious life now, it’s as if all that formed in the kindergarten now becomes more conscious. The seasons, carefully noted and providing background to festival celebrations, begin to help mark the passage of time. When will St Nicholas come? Will we make candles for Candlemas this year? Can we do a play for Easter? These kinds of questions reflect the growing awareness in the children. The objective placement of festivals in the year gives the teacher opportunity for working with an important aspect of traditional religious life: waiting. The festivals cannot be celebrated, except at the right time. This waiting helps to build a strength not always found amongst modern children who seldom have to wait for anything.

The child’s development passes through the light-filled heart of childhood in these years, probably the most harmonious time in human life. The curriculum is rich in subjects that could be considered religious in nature: Old Testament Stories, Norse Mythology, Greek Mythology, and so on. Each of these is in the curriculum for one reason only – they all have to do with child development. Old Testament Stories are not given as Sunday School lessons. They reveal important qualities in man’s past relationship to his God and to life in general – a relationship not unlike that which the 9 year-old experiences. Third Graders live strongly in Old Testament consciousness. How well I recall my class at that time: Moses was a favorite and the class ringleader had all her classmates trooping around after her as the Lost Children of Israel, while she led them through deserts and seas on the playground each break time. Here the child’s own state of being is met with what lives in our own cultural heritage. This happens again and again. Later when the child is twelve and entering an awkward pre-adolescent stage, the stories of the Middle Ages, given in a wholly subjective manner, speak strongly to the soul. The heroic knight, the pious monk, the business-minded merchant – these qualities speak strongly, but never if studied from an intellectual, condescending point of view.

It may happen that an adult will have a strong opinion about a certain way of thinking: for example this adult may dislike Old Testament consciousness and think it quite wrong to bring these stories to the children. Unless we tell them that the stories are not true, this adult would not bring these stories to the children. He fears that the children will grow up with an eye for an eye as an ideal. But we don’t have to worry about that if we bring this content strongly, making it a living experience for the children. In this way, the children can be so thoroughly drawn into Old Testament consciousness that they no longer need it. The child grows, develops onward from this stage – not needing to cling to it because he has lived through it and can pass onwards. The point here is really this: bringing the children suitable content to meet some of the developmental stages needs to be understood in this context. Lesson material on its own, without an understanding for its relationship to the child’s development, could appear as if teachers were wishing to drum in a certain way of thinking. But this is not the case because Waldorf teachers recognize that the students experience lesson content deeply through the feeling life, assimilating and passing on to the next stage.

The imagination of the child, stirred in this way, is thereby kept intact as she approaches a new stage of development. It is important too, that we remember the imagination is really a cognitive faculty. The child’s ability to picture the characters and events of mythology and history help him to develop an important quality that the budding scientist in him also needs: the ability to grasp processes with thinking. For example, only through the imagination can the child really understand the life of a plant, from seed to blossom. The entire science curriculum depends on the child’s evolving ability to imagine. The objective, critical observer is not yet born, but the child-scientist is able to observe minutely and with deep appreciation for the beauties inherent in the nature studied: animals, plants, minerals, the stars, and of course, man. As we approach the second half of the eight-year class teacher period, more and more hours are given to meeting the scientist in the child. Even as the mythologies and history speak to the development of the child, so do the sciences as they are chosen and taught in the Waldorf Curriculum. The chemistry of combustion of the Seventh Grade is a wonderful example of scientific material suiting the stage of development precisely. This grade can be difficult for both the children and the teacher, but I have never known the chemistry block to fail to bring the classes to absolute attention. What bubbles and boils there in the lab in front of them is nothing less than an imaginative picture of the bubbling going on in their own souls. In this way, the young scientist is not only satisfied, but something deeper is also met in the child.

Ultimately, in the child of this age, it is the artist that is ascendant, even as the boy or girl goes through the changes that bring him or her from wide-eyed wonder in the First Grade to the youthful enthusiasm that rock nearly every Eighth Grade. This is not to say, of course, that the children paint, draw and model their way through the class-teacher period at the expense of other kinds of experience. But the way of perceiving the world is naturally artistic in that the children are moved in their lives of feeling as they face the world. The artist, after all, is able to see beyond the mere sense impressions and know the possibilities for creativity in all he beholds. The block of stone contains a statue the artist can see; the rose is a poem and the rushing brook the background mood for a symphony. The mood that brings about this kind of perception is the mood that is not misplaced when science is studied or when religious matters are considered. More and more, as the child approaches the end of this middle period, then we see the artistic actually forming to unite religious and scientific experience. The mood of wonder generated as a class studies magnetism and electricity, for example, stirs the feelings and actually helps the children to grasp the content the teacher brings. Why? Because the teacher presents this subject with dramatic demonstration, at the same time placing it in a historical and geographical context, perhaps also bringing poetry and music that express the qualities studied. Something of a religious experience emerges in the children as they appreciate the mystery of the forces of magnetism and electricity, while the scientist in them is satisfied by the grasping of the laws that govern these forces. But overall, the artistic working of the teacher makes it possible that this study, and many others beside, work out of the recognition of the whole human being unfolding in childhood.

As we pass onto the next stage of development, it follows, if the young child is mainly “priest” and the child of the middle period mainly “artist” that our High School student we can characterize as mainly “scientist”. Interesting, then, that one of the first main lesson blocks taken in the Ninth Grade is History of Art. At this age, for the first time, the role of art is looked at in a more objective way. It happens, just when the young person might be wanting to reject this artistic approach that has nourished him for eight years, that his budding ability to grasp intellectually the unfolding of processes is met by a study that shows one such unfolding in a way directly related to man’s relationship with the spiritual world. The “scientist” is satisfied by this block, but the artist and priest are not forgotten.

The “scientist” that comes to the fore in the High School student will probably be a different sort than a student who might not have had the “priest” and “artist” in him recognized. With the Waldorf Lower School behind him, the adolescent comes to his studies with some idea for wholeness, for the way things fit together or work together. Details may be sketchy, but he knows these can be filled in. And in many ways, he is ready to start filling them in.

In the High School, the relationship of science, art and religion can be emphasized. An astronomy block, for example, can take a correct scientific approach to the subject, while at the same time considering deeper questions of existence that arise when artistic and religious aspects of astronomy are looked at. What lived as mood so strongly in the younger child becomes more conscious and can form now in the teenager, not merely as thought or idea, but more often as IDEAL. Questing for TRUTH, the teenager can be more relentless than the pre-schooler in his asking of WHY? The answers he seeks must ring true: bare, skeletal, materialistic answers will not do. Recognition on the teacher’s part of the humanity growing forth so strongly now as individuality, is of utmost importance. Even when peer pressure is at its strongest, and the young people apparently want to be what is acceptable to the crowd, nonetheless the cry is SEE ME, NOTICE ME, I AM DIFFERENT!

The teacher can perhaps be helped in developing a sensitivity for the emerging individual by observing the “scientist”, “artist” or “priest” in each youngster. If the student is a “scientist”, is he a relentless experimenter, a doer? Or is he more intuitive, able to make shrewd guesses based on careful observation? Or does he ponder, carefully weighing up acts before coming to conclusions? If a “priest”, does he seem to accept blindly without question, a faith-filled sort of person? Does he become active in the pursuit of truth, questioning thoroughly? Is there a natural or developed gift for seeing those in trouble and wishing to help them? If an “artist” is he an impressionist or an expressionist? Does he make surprising and accurate comparisons? Can he get groups of people to follow him is he a social artist? The list of questions a teacher might pose to himself could go on and on. The point at which we finally arrive is this: The “scientist” appealing to the world through thinking, is ready to apply this quality to all kinds of subject matter. Life itself must be scrutinized, tested, weighed and measured. But the artistic-religious natures are also maturing, thereby balancing the situation and helping the young person to find a world view that he can make his own. Once again, our hope is that he can do this with all his faculties intact, as a fully recognized human being.

There are, of course, many ways of looking at child development in the light of Anthroposophy, both from Rudolf Steiner’s own words, and importantly, from the ongoing work of Waldorf pedagogy world-wide. It is, ultimately, the ongoing pedagogical work that makes Waldorf Education alive. This work, as mentioned earlier, with its umbrella of Anthroposophy and its focus on child development, has a third important element: the teacher’s own work on himself.

Waldorf teachers come from a variety of social, economic, racial and religious backgrounds. There is no “profile” that I could draw of a typical Waldorf teacher. But one thing is certain: all of them are working to understand the riddle of man. Their viewpoints on politics or economics may diverge tremendously, but insofar as the child, in the relation to the whole of mankind is concerned, a shared picture will emerge. A shared knowledge of what the child needs also will arise. But the ways and means of bringing the children what they need will vary tremendously from classroom to classroom, from school to school. It is clear then that the teacher’s own individuality is an important and powerful aspect of our work. Each teacher strives to the very best of his ability to meet the needs of his pupils. He knows he can only do that if he works on himself. If the teacher can be a growing, developing being himself, then he will have a far greater effect on his pupils than the teacher who learns some method and tries to implement it. The very young child will experience this in quite a subconscious way, appreciating the teacher for her priestly nature. The child of the middle period will benefit because of the artistic work every class teacher undertakes, gifted or not. Only the High School pupil will ask the question, now out of the “scientist” mentality, what is this Anthroposophy? What keeps you going, teacher?

It must be understood that when a teacher, working consciously on his own development, has an effect upon the children, that this has little to do with the teacher’s personality, if the effect is to be a truly positive one. The teacher’s personality, indeed, is the very thing he needs most to leave outside the classroom door. Reacting to the children only out of personality would be disastrous, for example, if the personality were naturally morose or grumpy! Taking his cues from the children and from the qualities of his subject matter, the teacher gives a lesson, hoping all along that his own higher being will shine through his work. By striving to serve this higher being, the teacher is aware that he serves the spiritual world at large. He recognizes the human being as a spiritual being, part of a whole hierarchy of beings. And he knows that the Christ Being, belonging to the realm of the highest gods, is now united with the earth. This being can be served, perhaps surprisingly, in ways that are in no way connected to any sacrament, dogma or sect. A teacher striving to serve the needs of the incarnating child, and basing his work on a concrete knowledge of man, ultimately serves the Christ. He does this in many ways, but among his tasks are: keeping his outlook on life fresh and alive, never growing sour; remaining ever watchful, ever wakeful to world events, being aware of what goes on in the environment surrounding him; and basing his pedagogical decisions on knowledge rather than whim.

Finally, we arrive again at the opening remarks of this article. A knowledge of child development forms the foundation of our work. In serving the child, Waldorf teachers hope they are serving mankind. These ideals of Waldorf Education are indeed lofty. The aim is towards freedom. This can only be achieved by our striving to understand the evolving human condition, and then acting out of this work. I must end by reiterating: to act out of knowledge of Christ’s work in the world, is to act so that each developing child is left free of indoctrination. To do otherwise, is to act contrary to Christ’s mission.

© 2023 Donna Simmons

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