Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Marijuana use alters kids' paintings, and not for the better

After teaching painting to around 3000 students ranging from age 12 to age 60 or so over the past thirty years, I have come to see the characteristics listed below as signs of drug use. Not just any drug use—not stimulants or depressants, not alcohol, but marihuana, mushrooms, or acid—psychoactive drugs, perception-altering drugs.
  • Lurid colors; colors highly saturated.
  • “Dirty” colors; brown, gray, or black added.
  • Introduction of unobserved picture elements—a setting sun where there is none; a fish in the sky
  • Inability to complete a project or assignment; work partly completed, then self-sabotaged by meaningless over-painting…
Time after time, a student I had taught through middle school and into high school would return from the summer, let’s say, and her work would be altered. Students were not always honest about their drug use—the school at which I taught had a strict policy, the drugs were illegal—and I didn’t always believe it appropriate to ask. But, over time, circumstances made it clear in many cases what was going on. Sometimes a concerned classmate would speak to me or another teacher. Sometimes students told on themselves.

The appearance of these characteristics does not seem to depend on ability or interest—highly creative students and students who could care less about art are equally affected.

I do not claim that I can look at a painting and tell whether or not the painter has used drugs, which drugs, or when, with any certainty. But, more often than not, I believe such drug use is evident in students’ painting. The longer my relationship with the student, the more paintings I have seen, the clearer the picture becomes. And, in many cases, one painting is actually enough to show what’s going on.

It’s possible (although not likely, in my experience) that emotional disturbances other than drug use could contribute to the same characteristics.

Who cares? What does it mean?

If perception is affected by drug use, and changes in perception are manifest in things like paintings (and, of course, also in attitudes toward completing work, the value of effort, judgment in general…), then the changes I see in the work of those who start to use mind-altering drugs are evidence of what in an otherwise healthy person we would call damaging.

To be clear, I’m not talking about addiction. The drugs I’m talking about seem to be fairly low on the scale of addictive drugs anyway. I’m talking even about “casual” or “experimental” use that changes perception rapidly and, sometimes, profoundly.

At one end of what I’m talking about is psychedelic art. But the effects I’m talking about appear earlier, are more subtle, and do not always lead—or rarely lead, in my experience—to happiness or success in creative endeavors. They are evidence of a sort of perceptual suffering, I would say, a decreasing ability to try to perceive things as they are. (It’s clear that not all drugs affect all persons equally. Alcohol makes some aggressive, some passive, some talkative, some quiet. The few filmmakers or songwriters whose constitutions are such that they can continue to be creative through extended drug use are few and far between, and do not offer models for teens to emulate.)

I still have a lot of questions about drug use and painting. How long do these effects last? Is there a road back? Can therapy help? What sort? Are the characteristics I see universal? If not, then how prevalent are they?

But my experience in this area convinces me, arguments about legalization aside (that’s a different matter, a political question), that mind-altering drugs present a greater danger to human perception on many levels than we currently acknowledge.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Good Spirit, Lover of Truth:" Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education

What follows is based on “True Humanity: Anthroposophy, Waldorf Education, and High School Teaching,” a keynote address given at the National Steiner High School Teachers Conference, Steiner Education Australia (SEA), Noosa Pengari Steiner School, Doonan, Queensland, Australia, July 18, 2014. (Because of travel mishaps, I delivered the address from Massachusetts via Skype—sorry not to be present in person; grateful for the technology that made my virtual presence possible.)

What is anthroposophy?
What is Waldorf education?
What is their relationship?
And do you have to be an anthroposophist to teach in a Waldorf school?

Anthroposophy

Before trying to say what anthroposophy is, I’d like to cut away some misconceptions or misunderstandings about it and say what it is not.

First, the word anthroposophy should not be capitalized in English. Germans capitalize nouns. English speakers capitalize only proper nouns, and anthroposophy is not one.

Second, you may know that Rudolf Steiner did not make up or invent the word anthroposophy. Cornelius Agrippa may have used it in the early 1500s. Thomas Vaughan, a Welsh philosopher, non-practicing physician, and Rosicrucian appears to be the first in print, in 1650. He was followed by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of the founders of German Idealist philosophy; Friedrich Schiller, poet, playwright, philosopher, and historian; Ignaz Paul Vitalis Troxler, a Swiss physician, philosopher, politician, and a student of Hegel; and Robert Zimmerman, a Czech-Austrian philosopher, who published a book called Anthroposophie in 1882. These German uses span about 100 years prior to Steiner’s activity.

Steiner was aware of and credited Zimmermann and also Fichte, Schiller, and Troxler, I believe. I don’t believe he made mention of Agrippa or of Vaughan, who wrote under the pen-name “Eugenius Philalethes,” which means “Good Spirit, Lover of Truth.” (I am indebted to Jean-Michel David—of Melbourne—for some of the research into uses of the word anthroposophy before Steiner.)

I point out Steiner’s adoption of a word and, to a limited extent, the concepts of others because I find that adherents and opponents of Steiner both often seek to emphasize his uniqueness. Adherents do this to demonstrate how truly special he was, and opponents find his ideas easier to attack if he is isolated. Steiner’s work is unique in some ways, but he is also part of deep intellectual and esoteric traditions, and should be seen in this context.

Third, anthroposophy is not belief in what Steiner said and it is not a body of knowledge. As a thought experiment, imagine that every “fact” in Steiner’s work turns out to be false—about karma and reincarnation, about blood and nerves. Anthroposophy, as an attempt to recognize and value human existence in the world will still be a necessary concern for human beings. (I don’t believe Steiner was actually wrong about everything, although I also don’t believe he was infallible.)

As Owen Barfield wrote, “What is anthroposophy? Believing (some would answer), without a shred of evidence, everything that Steiner chose to say. And that is exactly what it is not… I cannot think it is unduly paradoxical to say that it is really a kind of betrayal of the founder of anthroposophy to believe what he said. He poured out his assertions because he trusted his hearers not to believe.” (1966, pp. 76-77)

Fourth, anthroposophy is not an academic discipline, and should not stand in a university course catalog along with other disciplines or subjects like philosophy, anthropology, molecular biology, astrophysics, or art history. I hope we never have to see any university offer a degree in anthroposophy. As I hope to show, this would represent a complete misunderstanding of anthroposophy.

Fifth, anthroposophy is not a path of meditation, or meditation alone, or meditation tacked on to regular science or to conventional interpretation in the humanities, for example. A scientist who performs her work as usual, within its conventional paradigm, often a reductive and mechanistic one, and who then, because of reading Steiner goes home, sits in her armchair, and meditates about her work in order to gain greater insight may, in fact, gain some insight, but will not necessarily be working anthroposophically. She may be valiantly trying to add a bit of the inner world to her work in the outer world, and she may actually have success in doing this. But this is merely using meditation as an instrument.

Without naming names, I’ll mention that I had a colleague who wished to write a paper on a topic in education. But, rather than conduct due diligence and actually research his topic, he believed he could sit in his armchair and anthroposophically meditate his way to the insights necessary to write the paper. Needless to say, the paper was not very good.

Similarly, I have seen Waldorf school teachers sit in a circle and attempt to solve a problem in the school by meditating their way to a solution, without, again, conducting the investigations and having the conversations that might lay the groundwork for fruitful insight.

(Not important at the time of the talk on which this is based, but inserted here: Anthroposophy is not areligion.)


Owen Barfield

I’ve said some things that anthroposophy is not. What is it?

First, we may say that anthroposophy aims at a conscious reunification of the “inner” world of thinking and consciousness and the “outer” world that we perceive, however imperfectly, through our senses. But the terms inner and outer are misleading; we perceive much of our inner life—emotions, for instance, or the values we hold—as somehow external to our innermost self but still within us, not in the world of cows and trees outside us. They are the changeable “me” that my less changeable “I” can perceive within me at any moment. And we know that our sense impressions, which arrive via undifferentiated nerve impulses, are somehow synthesized into a more or less coherent world within us.

Second, Steiner uses the phrase “spiritual science” and the term anthroposophy interchangeably. The phrase spiritual science is unusual in English, but its German equivalent, Geisteswissenschaft, is not. Geisteswissenschaft refers, at least in a common form, to what English speakers call “the humanities.” Not the sciences, but the humanities—philosophy, history, literature. Not natural science—Naturwissenschaft—but spiritual science. (I believe it’s fair to say that only English-speaking anthropsophists translate Geisteswissenschaft as “spiritual science.” All others would translate it as “a humanity.”) And part of Steiner’s aim was to bring a rigorous approach to the humanities, based in experience and insight, one that the natural sciences, what we English speakers call simply, “science,” have enjoyed for the last few centuries.

And, to be clear, Steiner was not attached to these names. He said, “If I had my way, I would give anthroposophy a new name every day to prevent people from hanging on to its literal meaning, from translating it from the Greek, so they can form judgments accordingly. It is immaterial what name we attach to what is being done here. The only thing that matters is that everything we do here is focused on life’s realities and that we never lose sight of them. We must never be tempted to implement sectarian ideas.” (1996 a, pp. 21-22) A good name for a true anthroposophist might be “Good Spirit, Lover of Truth.”


Rudolf Steiner

Third, in Barfield’s phrase, anthroposophy is “Romanticism come of age.” (1966) Briefly, historians are apt to dismiss the Romantic era (roughly 1800-1850) as a beautiful but ultimately impractical artistic response to the social, political, and economic upheavals of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America. Can’t deal with what’s happening in and to London? Buy a cottage by a lake and write poetry about nature. Barfield believes this interpretation to be incorrect, to misunderstand the possibilities of Romanticism—true individuality, regard for nature, investigation of imagination as a human capacity, and so on. For Barfield, anthroposophy represents a more mature, more practical extension of Romanticism—into agriculture, medicine, education, and social policy, for instance.

One pinnacle of the Romantic era was Beethoven. As a whimsical thought experiment, imagine what it would mean to be able to teach as Beethoven composed. When we can do that, Romanticism will truly have come of age.

Fourth, I would say that anthroposophy, by whatever name, and practiced by anyone (even by someone who has not heard of Rudolf Steiner), may be thought of as the informing discipline of our age, by which I mean the age that began with the scientific revolution of the late 16th and 17th centuries and gave rise to our modern minds, mindset, mentality, or consciousness.

In contrast, philosophy, developed during Classical Greek times, was the informing discipline of the age prior to ours. Philosophy divided over time into theology (“the Queen of the Sciences”), “natural philosophy,” which we now simply call science, and all the other disciplines that we study in universities. (An exception to this is history, which arose in Greece at the same time as philosophy, and which has been its constant companion ever since. There’s a lot to say about this relationship, but not here.) Philosophy is, of course, still worthy of study, but we could say that it is far less vital than it used to be. Richard Rorty left the field for literature studies, believing philosophy as a study has run its course, for instance.

Richard Rorty

In what sense do I mean that anthroposophy is the informing discipline of our times? I mean that it aims consciously to overcome our division of the world into subject and object, inner and outer, quality and quantity. We will maintain these distinctions, but, as Steiner demonstrates in his Philosophy of Freedom, will recognize increasingly that these divisions arise subsequent to our consciousness of the world.  The initial source of this division of the world (which, in each life currently occurs in us at so young an age that we are unaware of it) is revived in what Steiner occasionally called living thinking, which Barfield called “concrete” thinking (1996), and which Henri Bortoft has called “upstream” thinking. (1996) As I will show below, I believe it may also be described as creative thinking or creativity.


Henri Bortoft

Fifth, and finally, I will add Barfield’s description of anthroposophy: “Anthroposophy is knowledge as it is expressed and grasped by the Consciousness Soul.” (1966) Another way to say this is that anthroposophy is knowledge as it is expressed and grasped by those who are inwardly free. Despite—or because of—the challenges of the fragmented, relativistic, reductionistic, mechanistic modern mind, human beings are—potentially—inwardly free in a way that they have not been in prior times. To demonstrate this would take us too far afield, but a good introduction to this topic is Barfield’s History, Guilt, and Habit. Barfield goes on to write:
… to become an anthroposophist is not to believe, it is to decide to use the words of Rudolf Steiner (and any others which may become available) for the purpose of raising oneself, if possible, to a kind of thinking which is itself beyond words. This is that concrete thinking [or living thinking; neither subjective nor objective but thinking prior to this division] which is the source of all such ideas and propositions, the source of all meaning whatsoever. (1966)

Not to believe is to live, necessarily, honestly acknowledging that we do not know that which we do not know. Not-knowing, like inner freedom, is a prime characteristic of the modern mind. (We could even say that not-knowing is a condition of freedom; can those who know truly be free?) Reincarnation? I don’t know for sure if it’s a fact or a fiction. I may follow the thoughts of others, like Steiner, who tell me about its reality. And I may follow the thoughts of those who tell me why it’s an impossibility. The thoughts of others, then, offer paths that I may choose to follow, but paths that extend only as far as I am able to raise myself in understanding and experience.

For several years, I have been interested in the question of dogma in Waldorf schools, but, beyond speculation, have not been able to figure out how to research it. No one admits to being dogmatic (well, religious fundamentalists may, but dogma extends far beyond religious bounds). But people who do not admit to dogma may admit to their beliefs. If we were more honest with ourselves, and with others, we would less often represent beliefs as assertions of truth (which could be the very definition of dogma or fundamentalism) and more often represent our interest in freely pursuing what we do not know. (I am indebted to Douglas Sloan for the thinking behind the representation of fundamentalism in this paragraph.)

From Anthroposophy to Waldorf Education

In Soul Economy in Waldorf Education (2003), Steiner begins by outlining what he sees as three stages in the development of anthroposophy. (Note: The word “Waldorf” was inserted in the title by the translator or editor and does not represent Steiner’s discussions of education, which extend far beyond the small group of Waldorf schools that we have created following his model. Its introduction introduces a division—between Waldorf education and any other form or method of education—that betrays Steiner’s transformative impulse.)

These stages in the development of anthroposophy are:

1. At its introduction, Steiner describes those interested in anthroposophy as having a “narrow religious perspective” that gave rise to “intolerable dogma.” This, he says, was “not what I was looking for,” and he found himself “not at all understood.” But he also acknowledges that this first stage supported anthroposophy with “deep sympathy and great devotion,” and that this was a “peaceful” time.

2. Following a break from the Theosophical Society, Steiner describes how, in an effort to free his work from a sectarian attitude, anthroposophy entered an artistic phase that strove to “bring ideals to earth and enter life in practical ways.” During this creative, fertile period, he and many others wrote and saw performed his four Mystery Dramas, built and began to re-build the Goetheanum, and invented eurythmy and the art of speech formation. Despite these successes, Steiner still found anthroposophy “not yet fully in life,” not yet “fully practical.”

3. And, in the wake of chaos and turmoil after World War I, anthroposophy finally entered a “practical” or pragmatic phase, working to address the “fundamental needs of human beings” through work in such endeavors as education, agriculture, medicine, and social organization.

This last stage represents the most mature phase, but that doesn’t mean that the other stages have died. As we know from Jean Piaget, stages are cumulative and integrative. Each builds on the previous ones, and capacities developed in one continue into the next.

We know that our schools can represent the “intolerable dogmatism” of the first stage, but may also enjoy “deep sympathy and great devotion.” We know that our schools can be tremendously artistic without being entirely practical. And, I hope, we also find that our schools can “address the fundamental needs of human beings” in education. The stages of development through which anthroposophy passed in the first decades of the 20th century live on. Can we maintain and integrate the gifts of each stage while letting fall away those aspects that make us unduly strange in the world’s eyes, or that are simply wrong?

Like it or not, people worry about the question, “Do you have to be an anthroposophist to teach in a Waldorf school?” Other than a glib, “no,” this is not an easy question to answer. Let’s see what Steiner has to say about this.

Steiner says, “In our school, spiritual science [anthroposophy] will shape the form of education necessary for our time.” (2007, 1-2)

Or, “As far as our school is concerned, the actual spiritual life can be present only because its staff consists of anthroposophists. We do not teach anthroposophy—our school must not represent a world conception—but through the way the teachers are acting, through their inner life, the soul and spirit elements enter the school as though through the imponderables of the soul.” (1996 b, 60)

What is this inner life? We can assert three things about it, at least. It is free (or strives toward freedom). It is creative (or strives to be creative). And it is moral or ethical (or strives to become so). Don’t believe me; think it over for yourself. Inner freedom, creativity, and morality or ethics are foundations of human existence, as I believe a brief introspection will show. And I’ll return to these later.

Later, Steiner says, “…unless we make every effort to permeate our life of instincts and feelings with spiritual science, we can no longer understand children in their fourteenth and fifteenth years. We learn to understand them only by progressing to such a knowledge. This is what is meant by our ever emphasizing that anthroposophy is pedagogy. In other words, anthroposophy becomes pedagogy when one gets to the stage at which one can educate.” (1996 b, 118)

Is Steiner saying that ONLY Waldorf school teachers, who have access to anthropsophical texts and spiritual exercises and meditation techniques, can understand fourteen and fifteen year old students? Of course not. That’s absurd. Any teacher of adolescents who truly understands her students—and it is a rare school anywhere that doesn’t have at least a few teachers who understand teenagers—is working from an anthroposophical understanding in a broad sense. They are, minimally, intuitive or instinctive anthroposophists. He continues:

“What I mean to say is that if the qualities present in each human being [not just those in the lecture hall, or those in Waldorf schools] are given a pedagogical direction, the anthroposophical understanding of the human being will also become a true pedagogy.” (1996 b, 118)

Waldorf Education

(Note: For those familiar with my book or my blog, much of the following may be redundant, although I’ve recast some of my previous thinking here. For those interested in a more complete treatment of this history and method, see my book, The Story ofWaldorf Education in the United States.)

In the U.S., Waldorf schools suffer from a stereotype that contains, as stereotypes often do, only grains of truth. It is often seen, to be glib, as an alternative, even counter-cultural, education in which students in tie-dyed shirts paint watery pictures or knit thick socks, guided by women who wear long skirts, sandals, and thick socks.

But even the grains of truth in this stereotype have a history, which I will recapitulate briefly. Australians, whose first Steiner school was founded in 1957, I believe, will have to see how this history parallels their own.

We may see Waldorf education in the United States grow through four generations. In the first generation, starting in 1928, Europeans—Germans, Swiss, and English—guided the very few American Waldorf schools with knowledge and wisdom from overseas. Little of Steiner’s work had yet been translated into English and there were no Waldorf teacher education programs.

World War II cut off much communication with Europe, especially German-speaking Europe, and attitudes at home necessitated a more patriotic, nationalistic approach to teaching and curriculum. Home-grown American Waldorf teachers took the reins, and curricula discarded Goethe in favor of Emerson and Thoreau, for instance.

These first two generations did not see themselves as alternatives, but as experimental reformers, engaged with other schools in the progressive education movement and with education legislation in Washington, D.C.

The concept of Waldorf education as alternative education entered with the growth of Waldorf schools beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s and 1980s. The greatest number of schools was founded in this generation, and many of the stereotypes about Waldorf education, true or false, date from this time.

In the early 1990s, Waldorf education found its way into public and charter schools in an attempt to deliver its gifts to students whose parents could not afford relatively expensive independent (private) schooling.

But growth in the number of independent Waldorf schools has now halted for almost a decade (although schools continue to grow by adding high schools, for example), and growth in the charter movement is slowing, too. Neither of these models promises to transform education as a whole, aiming at Steiner’s ideal. We stand, perhaps, on the doorstep of a fifth generation, one that will attempt to bring Steiner’s method in various ways to all interested teachers and students.

So far, I have been using the phrase “Waldorf education” as if it isn’t problematic, knowing that you will know more or less what I mean. But the phrase is problematic. First, what we now call Waldorf education came into being only gradually; we created it, not Rudolf Steiner. And what we have created honors Steiner’s ideas in some ways and betrays them in others.

Also, you should know that the first use of the phrase “Waldorf education” in print occurred in 1958 in A.C. Harwood’s book, The Recovery of Man in Childhood. Prior to this, writers referred to Steiner’s educational ideas and methods, but did not reify them as much as we have now done.

There is value, I believe, in understanding, as I have already pointed out, that Steiner did not wish to create a group of alternative schools. The Waldorf School in Stuttgart was meant to demonstrate the value and efficacy of his method so that all teachers in all schools could adopt it and all students in all schools could benefit from it. We are still quite far from this ideal.

Other concepts and practices that stray far from Steiner’s own work include these:

       Steiner did not mention decision-making by consensus. He was clear that cultural institutions, like schools, should enjoy free self-administration, and therefore should be free to determine their own governance. This might be aristocratic in some cases, democratic in others. Even the famous pamphlet by Ernst Lehrs, Republican, Not Democratic, that Waldorf schools often use as a template for governance, discusses governance in a German school in the early 20th century. It provides one example, and it is not a prescription.

       Steiner never spoke about non-competitive or cooperative games. This is not to say that we should introduce competitive sports to third graders, only that we should not be dogmatic in our approach to this question.

       Steiner spoke about teaching math in many ways without ever mentioning math gnomes. (For more on them, see my “Free the Math Gnomes.”) If you believe in an elemental world that includes gnomes, don’t trivialize their actual work by asking caricatures of them to teach arithmetic to young children. And if you don’t believe in them, then why introduce an element of untruth to the great truths of mathematics?

(For those interested in more myths of Waldorf education, see my articles on the topic, starting here.)

Because I’ve said earlier that we shouldn’t believe or disbelieve what we don’t know for certain, I should rephrase the preceding paragraph. I’ll call on my colleague at Sunbridge College, George McWilliam, who asks students not to believe or disbelieve what they read in Steiner, but to maintain an “as if” attitude toward those elements that attract them. What would it mean if a particular assertion were true? Try living with it for a while. What consequences flow from an understanding of the world that includes elemental beings? That does not?

“Circle time,” the colors of classroom walls, and many, many elements of what we do in Waldorf schools today as a matter of course have little or no basis in Steiner’s work. Recognizing this should reveal to us that Steiner’s ideas are available for greater variation and experimentation than we currently see in schools. And we should continue not to adhere dogmatically to practices and concepts that are contingent and somewhat superficial.

To get beyond these myths or trappings, we could ask ourselves what about our schools is essential. What elements of what we do, if we were somehow prevented from implementing them, would lead us to close our doors or remove the name “Waldorf” from our school signs?

I have a list of five such characteristics, but I don’t claim that it’s complete or comprehensive. The actual number of essentials may be smaller and it may be larger. I invite you to participate in the exercise of imagining what you could not do without.

1. Our education is a source of ideas and ideals. Briefly, an idea for a German philosopher is not the same as our blurry English use of the word idea. We might say, “Dessert now would be a good idea.” But this isn’t rigorous. Emerson calls an idea a “necessary, immortal, uncreated nature.” My dessert may be delicious, but it isn’t necessary to my existence as a human being in the universe. Similarly, it stands firmly in time, not immortally outside of it. And, in a box in my freezer, it is definitely manifest, created.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A student once pointed out that this sounds like neo-Platonism. I would say it’s really just Platonism.

2. Our education aims to address students as developing human beings. And the words we use to express this concept are not fixed. We could as well say evolving, transforming, or metamorphosing.

3. We address students through different modes of knowing and being. We refer to them as the soul-capacities of thinking, feeling, and will. A psychologist down the hall would recognize them as cognition, affect, and behavior. By “knowing,” I don’t mean just “head knowing.” Cognition seems pretty brain-centered to us, but we might call feeling “heart knowing” or aesthetic knowing. And will represents knowing “in our bones,” what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowing.” (1966)


Michael Polanyi

4. We encourage and model and teach reverence or respect for our environment, from care for our own bodies and the classroom, through a concern for nature broadly conceived, to gratitude for existence in the entire world.

5. And we encourage and model and teach for social health.

The source for these, in our work as teachers or in Steiner’s mind in conceiving a new method of education, is in creative imagination, in creativity.

Too often, we think of creativity in schools as something that students can do after lunch, sitting down with some paints in front of an empty sheet of paper to “express themselves.” And then we cut it out of the school budget when times are tight.

Even when we take creativity more seriously, we may focus unduly on moments of brilliant insight, the “eureka” or “aha” moments. Research in the development of creativity by Howard Gruber, however, demonstrates that creativity involves a lot more than a blank canvas and waiting for inspiration. Creativity is as much the province of scientists as artists—insight visits both equally—and is built on a foundation common to both.


Howard Gruber

Here are some of the characteristics of creative persons. Creative persons:
       Undergo an apprenticeship.
       Work hard prior to insight, preparing themselves for it, and then work hard after insight, proving it, or bringing it into the world.
       Have many overlapping but disparate interests—what Gruber calls a “network of enterprise.” Charles Darwin, for instance, was able to formulate his description of evolution not simply because he studied plants and animals, but because he was also an avocational geologist.
       Produce work that evolves over time.
       Use metaphors and images broadly—what Gruber calls “ensembles of metaphor” and “images of wide scope”—to give form to new concepts and insights.

If I think about my teaching and my students, I realize that this list of the characteristics of a creative person is also a list of what I find in my best students, and what I would most like to find and foster in all of my students. Creative work is akin to education. For a mature artist or scientist, we may say that it is ongoing self-education. And Steiner is not alone, I believe, in recognizing that all education is, in the end, self-education:
Essentially, there is no education other than self-education, whatever the level may be. This is recognized in its full depth within anthroposophy… Every education is self-education, and as teachers we can only provide the environment for children’s self-education. We have to provide the most favorable conditions where, through our agency, children can educate themselves according to their own destinies. (1996 a, 141)

It is clear that creativity is linked to ethical considerations. To create is to choose and to live with the consequences of your choices. This is the basis of ethics and morality. (Even fundamentalists have made an ethical choice—to accept a particular book as a source of truth, for instance.)

Creativity, ethics, and the (free) choices involved are intimately linked. Earlier in this talk, I said that they were qualities of (a teacher’s) inner life. This demonstrates to me that true teachers are creative persons, that teaching is an art and a science.

And in linking creativity, morality, and freedom I am not alone. Here is Gruber on this topic:
Our conceptions of creativity and morality are intertwined in a number of ways… At once we see that the indispensable middle term between creativity and morality is freedom. We can hardly speak of a moral act if the actor has no choice. Creative work also requires inner freedom… Creative work must be in some ways kindred to the world, if not the world as it is, then the world as it will or might be. It flows out of that world and it flows back into it. Thus the creative person, to carry out the responsibility to self, the responsibility for inner integrity, must also in some way be responsive to the world. (1989)

Once we recognize the links among creativity, morality, and freedom, we may link these with Steiner’s concepts of moral imagination (in a free human being) and the work of an ethical individual. Gruber was not an anthroposophist in a formal sense at all, but his work, at least as represented by the quotation above, is thoroughly anthroposophical. In Steiner’s work, those who have heard of anthroposophy have a tremendous advantage in approaching such meaningful and humanizing concepts. Let us not squander this advantage. Let us honor Rudolf Steiner’s work and words with our own free, creative, moral work and words.

References

Barfield, O. 1966. “Speech, Reason, and Imagination.” In Romanticism Comes of Age. Letchworth, Hertfordshire, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Bortoft, H. 1996. TheWholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participationin Nature. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.


Gruber, H. and Doris Wallace. 1989. Creative People at Work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. and Amartya Sen. 1966. TheTacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Co.

Steiner, R. 1996 a. The Child’s Changing Consciousness. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 1996 b. Education for Adolescents. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 2003. Soul Economy in Waldorf Education. Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 2007Balance in Teaching. Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press/SteinerBooks.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book review: Craig Holdrege's Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life

(This review appeared in the Research Bulletin of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education, vol. XVIII, No. 1.)

Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life
Craig Holdrege
Lindisfarne Books, 2013, 217 pp., $25.00 (paper)
Review by Stephen Keith Sagarin
(Click the title above to purchase the book from Amazon. Or order through your local bookseller.)


Let’s say there are two kinds of books—products and processes. Authors of products write, in essence, “Here. I’ve spent the last several years investigating something and here’s what I’ve found.” “Something” may be the story of Jay Gatsby or a history of World War I, but, as a product, the author is done with it. Now it’s the reader’s turn.
Books that are processes, on the other hand, say, “Come with me on a journey. I’m not sure where we’re going or even when it will end, but I will try to entertain and inform you as we go.” Don Quixote is a book like this, and so is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow. Books like this are not meant to be ingested in one sitting. They are trail mix for a trek.
Plants can be seen as products—I had some for dinner this evening—or as living processes. In his latest book, Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life, Craig Holdrege focuses on the latter as, at least, a metaphor for thinking.
Products are objects, or object-like. They can be bought and sold, weighed and measured. We have spent the past few hundred years developing what Holdrege calls “object thinking” to a high degree. We have developed it to the point at which we objectify things that are not objects, things like “intelligence,” measured by an IQ. That the concept of IQ has been largely demolished in the past few decades serves to show that we have also begun to question and to move away from the worst of our object thinking.
Holdrege’s book aims to aid us in understanding and developing “living thinking,” thinking that does not objectify the world. Object thinking distances us from the world, and, in that we eventually come to see even ourselves as objects in a world of objects, distances us from ourselves. Living thinking encourages us to participate in the world, to experience our own existence and our own thinking as part of the world in which we live.
The book is written in six chapters. The first chapter lays out the often unacknowledged challenges of object thinking, its replacement of the world in which we live, the world of our human experience, by a “disqualified” world of mental models, for example. And the chapter introduces the concept of living thinking, thinking that is based in experience, participates in the world in which we live, and recognizes true holism.
The second chapter begins the process of transforming our experience from an object-based experience to one that is more participatory. It links the activities of observation and perception with the activity of thinking.
The third chapter, “The Plant as Teacher of Transformation,” uses the growth and transformation of a plant—from seed to shoot to stem and leaves, to calyx and corolla, to flower—as a resonant metaphor for the transformation in thinking that a truly participatory consciousness requires. (To return to Chapter 2: If we observe and think with old habits only, without an openness to transformation, we are in danger of extending object thinking into our own interiors; and we are certainly only entertaining what Barfield called, pejoratively, “common sense.”)
Chapter four extends Holdrege’s description of plant existence to examine the ways in which the life of a plant necessarily demonstrates the context, the whole world, in which the plant exists. This is a genuine movement toward wholeness and engagement with the world. Against this, Holdrege sets “theory,” which he finds “always limited.”
Chapter five is the oddest, and it’s also my favorite. It’s about common milkweed, a plant I remember marveling over as a boy, but not one I ever expected to read about in a book about the transformation of human experience in the world. I won’t give away too much, except to say that Holdrege’s investigation yields this insight: “Milkweed invites life, but also holds it back. There is a fascinating tension in this plant.” For Holdrege, this investigation and its results are not simply some pabulum about the “balance of nature,” for they have real ethical implications. As Holdrege says, “Transformational experience works beyond the moment into the future.”
The last chapter summarizes the previous work and extends it to a consideration of education. Holdrege takes on our common notion of “preparation” in education, pointing out that postponing real, meaningful experience in the vain hope of “preparing” for some future—a job, sustainability, all worthy goals—undermines the value of education itself. The future is unpredictable, and only an education based in meaningful, transformative experiences can prepare students for the insight and creativity they will need to meet the future healthfully.
Holdrege means us to see thinking as a living, growing process of transformation. We may begin by seeing this as a metaphor but, by the end of the book, Holdrege would probably say that it’s not just a metaphor, that thinking is literally an invisible or immaterial plant-like process within each of us. Holdrege wants us to see plants as processes, and their living growth as a movement or unfolding that is like that of thinking. He uses the phrase “living thinking” throughout the book, and, it seems to me, we could call this “real thinking.”
Thinking Like a Plant refuses to fall into a category—philosophy? nature study? ecology? education? botany? how-to? By turns it is each of these, but it aims at an interdisciplinary wholeness that transcends these. In this, it is truly an anthroposophical work. I will explain what I mean by this, but, first, what I don’t mean.
What I don’t mean is that it fits into the historical stream of esoteric books that are footnotes to Rudolf Steiner’s work, a stream that will flash before many readers’ eyes at the mention of the word “anthroposophical.”
What I mean is that it is the opposite of esoteric. It lays bare, we could say, what is usually hidden beneath the shiny hood of science writing. And what are usually hidden are the fits and starts, the frustration of an actual scientist at work. This book shows not the product, polished for presentation, but the process. As such it is more accessible, and potentially more valuable, to readers, who are invited at every turn to take up this creative work for themselves.
Further, it aims at a genuine wholeness, what Henri Bortoft calls “upstream thinking,” the reunification of disciplines and subjects that have become separated and fragmented over the past centuries.
These characteristics—demystification (not in the sense of debunking, but in the sense of seeing through what is otherwise unseen) and reunification—are, I believe, characteristics of actual anthroposophical endeavor.
As I was reading this book, Michael Pollan’s “How Smart are Plants?” appeared in The New Yorker. “Great,” I thought, “this will provide a topical entry to writing about Holdrege’s book.” Unfortunately, no. As smart as Pollan’s scientists may be, they’re on a reductive track; their thinking is still object thinking. Holdrege is not reductive, and he is struggling mightily and with great value to escape the prison of object thinking. Just as important, he aims to show us how to do this for ourselves.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Teaching 9th Grade Math While Astronauts are Dying

In the movie “Apollo 13” (if not exactly in real life), Ed Harris dumps a box of stuff on a table in front of a bunch of engineers. In space, carbon dioxide is building up in the capsule, and astronauts will die if engineers cannot create a jerry-rigged filter from this stuff, then tell the astronauts how to do it in time. It’s based on a true story. Here’s a picture of the square filter in the capsule, fitting in a round hole:


I recently inherited a 9th grade math class in which several students had lost their confidence in their ability to understand math, and hence their will to try. Math is hard enough in high school—too many students (particularly girls) suffer from math anxiety and even phobia, and our culture’s superstition about how our genes determine our lives gives students permission to say, “I can’t do math, I’m no good at math.”

Math is “hard” in that, at a high school level, it’s either right or wrong. You have either solved a problem, or you haven’t. You understand a concept, or you don’t. This clarity is attractive to students who are “good” at math. There’s deep satisfaction in insight that leads to a solution, in knowing an answer is correct.

But how to begin to drag students at the helpless, hopeless end of the spectrum toward the hopeful, competent end?

First, I told them that millions of students had mastered this material, that, in the scheme of things, this might be challenging but was totally do-able. But these encouragements were abstract and easily ignored.

So I gave the class a moderately difficult problem in graphing a linear equation. (Teaching graphing and algebra separately makes no sense to me. These are mutually reinforcing. Being able to picture a graph by looking at an equation or, conversely, knowing the form of an equation from seeing its graph, strengthen conceptual learning of both.) And I told them about Apollo 13. I told them that they were the engineers, and that astronauts' lives were at stake.

Every student in the room needed to solve the problem correctly and needed to know that the solution was correct. They could work together—they had to work together. Those who were quicker had to check their work to make sure it was correct, then help those who were slower get the same result. Those who understood less had to ask those who understood more so they could answer any questions about their work. We would work until everyone in the room had the solution, understood the solution, and could tell me why the solution was correct.

After 15 minutes, the class was sure the astronauts would live.

I gave them a harder problem. It took them 3 minutes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Undefined Rebel of the Future: Where have we been, where are we, and where are we going?

Lecture at the Annual National Conference of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education (APWE), Sacramento, CA, January 18, 2014: “The Social Mission of Public Waldorf Schools & Communities.”


INTRODUCTION

According to Fareed Zakaria, we are living in one of the most peaceful times in the history of the earth. Between 1914 and 1991, war, holocaust, genocide, and totalitarian policies killed between 100 million and 200 million persons, maybe more. Following one of the bloodiest centuries in history, human beings today are less likely to die a violent death than at perhaps any time in the past. This means only that the world is comparatively peaceful, not that justice and peace prevail. And this is not to say that we perceive this relative peace. Far from it. Media and technology make it possible for much of the planet to know of a human death almost anywhere, almost instantly.

The world has come a long way in the last century or so in embracing civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and democratization. And when, for instance, our government indulges in torture, it has to lie about it and hide it. We generally no longer accept torture and public execution. We have done well to protect the physical bodies of human beings.

On the other hand, we have done less well in recognizing and preventing psychological torture, what we might call soul torture. Waldorf school faculty meetings, and the way we treat each other as colleagues, can devolve into soul torture. And even when we are not torturing each other’s souls, we must develop psychological calluses simply to get through the day. If you can remember the sensitivities you had as a child, and recognize your current lack of sensitivity, you begin to appreciate the thickness of your soul calluses.

I have some things to say today that I have learned are challenging, and, in saying them, I have no wish to inflict soul torture on you. So, to preface my remarks, I’ll say that I have devoted my adult life’s work to what we call Waldorf education. I say what I have to say out of regard for Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about education. And I say what I have to say because I find it to be true.

To take one instance of something that you may find challenging, I will mention that I oppose the use of gnomes—or princes and princesses, or squirrels and bunnies, or any other imagined beings—to teach math. As I’ve written elsewhere, math gnomes are not part of Steiner’s beautiful work on math teaching, and they don’t exist in other cultures that have Waldorf schools. I asked Ernst Schubert (a German Waldorf school teacher with a PhD in math) about them, and he said, “What are these math gnomes? We don’t have them in Germany.”

If I could sum up Steiner’s book Balance in Teaching in one sentence, it is this: Roughly half of the subjects we teach are meditative in that they elevate the material world to the spirit; and the other half of the subjects we teach are prayerful in that they reach up to pull the heavens down to earth. Math is in this latter category, and you don’t need gnomes to help you do it. In fact, they are a distraction. They trivialize the conceptual beauty of math, and their use trivializes the real work of elemental beings.

So let’s say that yesterday, before you left for this conference, you drew some math gnomes on your blackboard and you planned a whole week’s worth of lessons based on math gnomes. You were taught to use them by your teacher educators or your mentor, and you believed until a moment ago that they were “part” of “Waldorf education.” What now? Should you feel bad? Should you be angry at me or at your mentors? Should you go home and erase the board and scrap your lesson?

No. That’s not what I’m saying or asking. My daughter’s teacher “used” math gnomes, and her education in math seems not to have suffered. But, in the future, you might resolve to read more in Steiner or in the work of his colleague and pupil Hermann von Baravalle (a mathematician), or in the work of others who know more about math teaching than did lovely Dorothy Harrer, an elementary teacher who first wrote about math gnomes. You might think more about your teaching and how to introduce math concepts. You might be less ideological in your approach to your work and the work of your colleagues. And, in particular, when it is your turn to evaluate a younger colleague or welcome one into your school, you might be more open to different ways of implementing Steiner’s ideas about education. Of course, I also hope that you will no longer use math gnomes and their ilk.


THE UNDEFINED REBEL OF THE FUTURE

Following that introduction, here is my talk. I will begin with my title, “The Undefined Rebel of the Future,” talk briefly about the history of Waldorf schools in the U.S., discuss our present situation, and end with a consideration of our future.

My title comes from a paragraph from the last lecture of Rudolf Steiner’s Education as a Force for Social Change. This lecture was given on August 17, 1919, to teachers—not Waldorf teachers, just teachers. There was no Waldorf School in August 1919. Steiner traveled to Stuttgart after this lecture and gave the first lecture to the first teachers at the first Waldorf School three days later.

Here is the selection in which the phrase “undefined rebel of the future” appears:

“We should not allow teachers to teach before they have gained a concept of the selfishness that strives toward the nearest god, that is, toward the angel.”

For Steiner, each of us is accompanied through life by an angel. We may mistake our own angel for a larger god, and selfishly seek to inflict what is meant for us alone, what is true for us alone, on the rest of the world.

“We should not allow teachers to teach before they have achieved an idea of the non-egotistical forces that determine human fate and exist spatially distributed over the Earth, that is, the nature of the archangels.”

For Steiner, human fate, larger than that of the individual, is associated with beings he names the archangels. When we work with other human beings, we invoke the work of the archangels.

“Nor should we allow them to teach before they have gained an idea of how the past and the future affect our culture… and how that undefined rebel of the future can save us.”

Education prepares us for an unknown, uncertain future, and conformity, convention, and a lack of creative thinking and action will not serve us to face the future. We cannot know what the future will bring, and we educate truly when we educate for creativity in the face of the unknown. I will return to the future and to this quotation at the end of my talk.


THE PAST

Briefly—I have written more extensively about this elsewhere—the history of Waldorf schools in the United States can be divided into four generations. I don’t mean to reify these generations. They are an interpretive device for understanding aspects of our history. I could as well have emphasized continuity, but I’ve chosen not to for reasons that I hope are obvious following the synopsis below.

The first generation includes only one surviving school, the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, founded in 1928. I call this generation “The Europeans,” because of the influence of German, Swiss, and, eventually, English experts who informed the creation and function of the school in its early days. As late as 1979, Lucy Schneider, teacher and Faculty Chair, believed that teachers at the school had to know German (they didn’t and don’t). And, early on, teachers used German in everyday speech, when English was readily available, calling a verse a “Spruch” and therapeutic eurythmy “Heil eurythmy,” for example. When they wanted some pictures for publicity purposes, they referred to these as “Anschauungs” materials. This school was part of the Progressive Education Association, and, for instance, joined with other Upper East Side independent schools to have violent newsreels removed for some film showings so that children wouldn’t be exposed to these images. The Steiner School, founded to demonstrate the effectiveness of Steiner’s ideas, was in dialogue with other schools of what is sometimes called the Progressive Era.

The second generation includes a handful of schools founded during and after World War II. I call this generation “The Americans.” Curricula replaced some German or European literature with American writers like Emerson and Melville. Again, experiment and demonstration informed schools’ founding. The Waldorf School of Garden City was initially called the Waldorf Demonstration School of Adelphi College. Its Faculty Chair (then similar to a Head of School) traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby for separation of school and state. And those involved in the function of the school were also involved more broadly in adult education through the Myrin Institute. They were engaged in a dialogue with the broadest questions of education in America.

The third generation begins, pretty precisely, when Betty Staley and her colleagues moved from Kimberton, PA, to Sacramento, CA, in 1965. I call this generation “The Alternatives.” This is the generation that introduced the concept of a “faculty run” school, that emphasized a countercultural perspective, that saw Waldorf schools as “alternative,” and that introduced many of the wool skirt, Birkenstock, tie-dyed stereotypes that still haunt Waldorf schools. This generation also saw the greatest, almost explosive, growth of Waldorf schools.

The fourth generation, which I call the “Social Missionaries,” includes the Wolakota Waldorf School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Milwaukee Urban Waldorf School, and the growing number of charter Waldorf schools in different public school districts. These have in common an interest in making Waldorf education available to those who cannot afford tuition at an independent school. Each of you represents this generation, even if you began your career in a previous one.


THE PRESENT

We suffer from what Owen Barfield called the “sin of literalness.” Given the weight that the word “sin” carries, I prefer to call it the “mistake” of literalness. We mistake objects for their meanings. We could say that this is one definition of materialism. Worse, we turn things that are not objects into objects. We indulge a kind of mental materialism. We have done this with such things as the concept of IQ, believing for too long that there is a mental “thing” called intelligence. This mistake continues to induce suffering in millions through tests like the SAT.

And, without meaning to, we have objectified Waldorf education. The first use in English of the phrase “Waldorf education” occurs in A.C. Harwood’s book, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, published in 1958. Works before that—Francis Edmunds, Baravalle, and others, referred to Steiner’s educational work to the Waldorf School plan, referring to the first school in Stuttgart, but did not use the phrase “Waldorf education.”

More important, Rudolf Steiner did not speak or write about Waldorf education, Waldorf schools, Waldorf teachers, or Waldorf students. We have created and inhabited these categories, and it’s probably time to begin to let them go, to loosen them up.

Steiner spoke and wrote about education, schools, teachers, and students. He did not intend to create a brand or trademark (this is not to gainsay the necessity of protecting his name for educational purposes, but neither is it to endorse any particular use of the trademark). He did not intend to create a system of alternative schools, large or small.

He intended for us to so alter our relationship to ourselves, to the world, and to other human beings, that education itself would be transformed. Model schools could assist or demonstrate this process, but alternative schools would be less likely to. Schools of the first two generations remembered this intention; the third forgot it, and the fourth, without study, is simply unaware of it.

In thinking about the Waldorf education that we have created, we can acknowledge characteristics that are superficial and characteristics that are more deeply necessary, even essential. Superficial characteristics I call “myths,” in the pejorative sense, not in the deep sense of ancient stories full of poetic truth. I began with a prime myth, the myth of the math gnomes.

                To this we could add that there is, in Steiner’s work, no “three day” main lesson rhythm. (Lecture 3 of the book mistitled Education for Adolescents presents a two day rhythm.)
                There is no requirement that every teacher produce an annual class play.
                There is no mention of circle time. (Circle time was likely created in the UK in the 1970s, not in Waldorf schools, and imported in the 1980s.)
                There is no requirement that teachers paint each year with their students. Steiner grants teachers the right to pursue other “more important” activities, trusting that when students paint again they will have developed in the meanwhile, and their work won’t suffer.
                Further, although Steiner considered festivals important, he does not mention them in his educational work. The connection between festivals and Waldorf education is our creation. And, in creating it, if we have imported an exclusive, Christian, even Germanic culture, then we deserve to suffer for it.
                Finally, here, there is no understanding of a teacher as a martyr or a mother hen. Walter Johannes Stein, PhD, class teacher at the first Waldorf School, did not teach after what we misleadingly call “main lesson.” He did not follow his class to the playground, eat lunch with students at their desks, or have to teach too many periods later in the day. A culture of martyrs and mother hens can be traced directly to the economic pressure that our schools feel, trying to pay teachers on too few tuitions.

This list of myths goes on and on. I have written elsewhere about more myths, and we could each formulate a list of our own.

Considering essentials, however, can move us away from our objectifying consciousness and toward greater variety and freedom of interpretation and practice. Here I will also mention just a few essentials.

                What we call Waldorf education addresses a world of ideas and ideals. I mean these words in a philosophical sense. My idea that I will have a second bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream for desert is not, philosophically, an idea, even if it sounds like a good one right now. An idea, for Ralph Emerson, is an “immortal, uncreated necessity.” It stands outside of time, it is not manifested in this created world, and its existence is necessary to the existence of what we call the universe or cosmos. This isn’t neo-Platonism, it’s just pure Platonism. And, to paraphrase Friedrich Schiller, each of us contains “within” us an ideal human being. These are two among a host of concerns that we may call the spiritual concerns of Waldorf education. Not that they are unique to Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, or anthroposophy.
                We address children according to their developmental needs. I hardly need say more about this to this audience of teachers. In this, I believe Waldorf schools are remarkably successful, not that we don’t have a lot of work to do in continuing to translate Steiner’s concepts and vocabulary for a more modern clientele.
                In the context of human development, we address three “soul capacities,” ways of knowing or ways of being, which we often call thinking, feeling, and willing. We would do well to remember that psychologists have long regarded these using a different vocabulary—cognition, affect, and behavior, among others terms.

Again, there’s more to say, and we could each develop a list of what we consider essential. I’ll wrap up this section by talking about what I believe is at the pith of the core of the essence. Others may call this “living thinking,” but here I’ll call it creativity, or creative activity.

In thinking about and discussing creativity, we too often focus on the “ah ha” or “eureka” moments, forgetting the apprenticeship, hard work, rhythm of engagement and letting go, moral and ethical considerations, and many other aspects of the work of a creative person. In this regard, I highly recommend the work of Howard Gruber, a developmental psychologist who spent his working life studying the development of creativity.

Too conclude this section, I’ll quote Gruber on the relationship between creative work, morality, and freedom. These words apply, I believe, to the deepest concern we have for the education of our students, for the work of the “undefined rebel of the future:”

“At once we see that the indispensable middle term between creativity and morality is freedom. We can hardly speak of a moral act if the actor has no choice. Creative work also requires inner freedom…. Creative work must be in some ways kindred to the world, if not the world as it is, then the world as it will or might be. It flows out of that world and it flows back into it. Thus the creative person, to carry out the responsibility to self, the responsibility for inner integrity, must also in some way to responsive to the world.”

I will add that education toward the development of creativity, of living thinking, occurs most readily in high school students, and not in those who receive a “Waldorf” education only through 8th grade. Waldorf schools represent a pyramid in the U.S.—many early childhood programs, some elementary schools, and few high schools. I believe we would do well to change this pyramid, which has likely grown because of economic pressure (high school is expensive) and the culture of school-founding in the past few decades that belongs primarily to parent communities, working for the education of their own young children. We could assist this pyramid in becoming a column.


THE FUTURE

We are heading toward a mass extinction of schools as we know them. Human services like education and health care are not as available for economies of scale as are things like food and blue jeans. As commodities become relatively less expensive, education, like health care, becomes more expensive, to the point of unsustainability.

On the one hand, small, underfunded independent schools will become extinct—go out of business—first. Or, they would, except that they are also flexible, agile, creative, and mission-focused. They are, we could say, the shrews or proto-mammals that can adapt and survive while the large cumbersome, centralized, bureaucratic, uncreative schools—the dinosaurs in this metaphor—become extinct, go out of business.

And there’s a bottom line here that is not financial: Children need to be educated. The forms of schooling may change. Schools may go out of business. But children will need teachers, and creative human beings will find forms in which education can occur.

Politically, we face pressures toward standardization that have already reached beyond a dehumanizing threshold. The very good news in this is that it drives like-minded persons and communities together—private and public school teachers, Waldorf schools and those who do not teach or work in Waldorf schools, parents, teachers, community members. If we don’t engage with our fellow travelers here, more shame on us.

On the one hand, political change is least likely when times are good—and we are still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. On the other hand, experts and pundits are terrible at predicting the future, and unforeseen change can come quickly. Jump in your time machine, go back to 1987, and have 1000 experts predict how long they believe the USSR will endure and how long they believe the Berlin Wall will stand. Have them write their educated guesses down and seal them in envelopes. Enough said.

Culturally, our way is clear. Replace weirdness and myth with a focus on essentials. Honor Rudolf Steiner, and honor the children we teach, in this way, and our work will flourish.

We stand at the beginning of a fifth generation, if not today, then very soon. This generation will introduce new characteristics to our work. It will include us all, but is unlikely to be found in independent schools, in charter schools, or in homeschools. How do Rudolf Steiner’s good ideas about education find their way to all the children and families who would want them and benefit from them? We will work out the answer to this question, and my guess is that it will involve many strategies and a host of responses.

To conclude, I will return to the quotation about the “undefined rebel of the future” with which I began. Some of you may have recognized that the thoughts in that quotation are given form in Steiner’s “Teachers’ Imagination,” spoken at the conclusion of the first lecture he gave to the first teachers at the first Waldorf school, just four days after the lecture from which I’m quoting.

I have taken the liberty of writing a verse for you, based on this quotation:

Develop strength
To teach
Selflessly.

Gather courage
To face
Destiny.

See by the light
Of the undefined rebel
Of the future.

How do we ensure that the next generation is a generation of undefined rebels? Not the tiny portion that are currently in Waldorf schools of one kind or another, but the whole generation? I leave you with that question. 

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