Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sober Up: Our Children, Our Technology, Our Future

(This article is based on talks given at the Portland Village School, OR, and the Eugene Village School, OR, October 8 and 9, 2015. Alert readers will recognize parts of previous essays, incorporated and extended, below.)

Our Children

Picture a two-year-old with an iPad in her hands while you contemplate these lines from Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for
many years, or stretching cycles of years. …

The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks,
what are they?
–Walt Whitman, “There Was a Child went Forth,” Leaves of Grass, 1900.

Our children are pressured to grow up too quickly and then, as soon as they get close to maturity, they are pressured not to grow up at all.

From their first moments of consciousness, advertisers ask them to grow up faster—buy, consume, conform to the image we provide; be sexy, be hip and be cool. Be self-conscious; be afraid to be yourself without our products.

And then, from our first moments of maturity, we are told not to grow up. Stay young, impressionable, incomplete, malleable, insecure—buy, consume, be sexy, be hip and be cool. Just continue to be an adolescent.

Our lives are the filling in a sandwich of adolescence.

Why these mutually supportive pressures to grow up fast, then stagnate and stay forever young? Because teens are in that in-between place, that nowhere land in which they have enough freedom, power, maturity, mobility, and intelligence to make choices, but not the developed judgment always to make wise or rational decisions. Recent research on teen brains shows this, although clearly advertisers have been aware of it for decades.

I don’t mean to slander advertisers. Their efforts are successful because we allow them to be; we force them into ever-more self-referential, ironic stances, but these work on us, too.  No matter how savvy or critical you are, let me ask you: don’t you believe, maybe secretly, that the products you use are the best? Maybe your teeth won’t be the whitest, then they’ll be happy in a progressive mouth of organic sea-salt and sage. Is your choice of car or clothes the absolutely most rational? Or, like the rest of us, do you just have a rationale?

Also, who are these advertisers, these conniving merchants of image? Nike, McDonalds, Coke and GM? Walmart or K-mart? They are certainly not separate from you and me; they are you and me. They are local and worldwide employers, they drive globalization, they transcend national governments. On average and by default, they represent us. And they are exquisitely sensitive to us and to our desires.

Even if you shun their products, buy locally and responsibly (but where did your jeans come from? Your car?) you are complicit in and responsible for the world that they have created. Sorry, there’s nowhere else to go. Our world is a reflection of who we are collectively. What we truly don’t tolerate doesn’t last long.

Things will change.

And this fear drives corporations and advertisers harder, pushing you harder to get hooked on them earlier, be less conscious of your affinity for their image.

Advertisers even have a technical term for your emotional attachment to their products—they call it “salience,” and it’s reflected in your blood pressure, your sweat glands, your respiration rate and the dilation of your pupils. You can hate Nike with your mind, but your body still wants it. What you see isn’t only what you get, it’s also who you are.

I don’t mean to slander young people, either. Adolescence is a wonderful thing. Teens are insightful and idealistic. They are innovative, eager, and open-minded. They promote change, are drawn to new ideas. They have little tolerance for the disingenuous. They have a powerful sense for what is fair and reasonable.

An image of adolescence is an image of the United States in the world. As a nation we are hypocritical and dangerous, yes, and callow, naïve and unconsciously selfish consumers. But we are also fair, idealistic, open-minded, and innovative. We are freedom-loving, and we talk so often and so vehemently about freedom that it is clear that we have yet to achieve it. Maybe understanding ourselves as an adolescent culture helps to explain why it is so difficult to reach our own ideals.

So our jobs as teachers and parents are clear. Protect children during childhood from influences that ask them to grow up too quickly. And then, when the pressure of the world shifts its weight, like a judo master, we move from guarding and protecting to liberating. We try to help our children and students grow through adolescence to full, thoughtful, ethical, creative, free maturity. Easy-peasy.

Between roughly ages 12 and 16, there’s a middle ground, a period of transition during which we must tactfully, gradually remove our protections and encourage appropriate freedom and responsibility.

Our Technology

Technology begins, like artistic creation, in the human mind, in the human imagination.

Once upon a time, a human being looked at a rock and saw it as a hammer. She may have used it, put it down, looked around a field full of rocks, and thought, “Gee, I never realized how many hammers are lying around here.” Technology begins—and ends—not with gadgets and devices external to us, but in our own minds and in our perceptions of the world.

As Joseph Weizenbaum wrote, “Tools shape our imaginative reconstruction of reality and therefore instruct us about our own identity.” In this way, as Weizenbaum points out, “all technology is educational.” Similarly, one function of education is cultural transmission. Technology is intimately bound up with any culture, and it is a large and growing part of ours. You can’t use a tool without being educated—tacitly or explicitly—in its use, the values it embodies (the ethical choices you are asked to make in using it), and, even if unconsciously, in its challenge to your humanity.

In the long run, the devices we create may replace an older version of the world with a new version, a new world, in which the values of the device may be mistaken for reality itself. A simple instance will suffice. Experience used to be seamless and whole, one with the rhythms of nature—sunrise, sunset, the cycle of the moon, the seasons. Eventually, in the 1200s and 1300s, European monks decided to build a mechanical bell ringer to remind them of the time to pray. This precursor of our modern clocks (from the French cloche, bell) had no face or hands, and it simply established a mechanical rhythm, roughly correlated with the times during the day and night when a bell should ring to call the monks to prayer.

Over the past 800 years, we have so internalized and enhanced the mechanism of the clock that most of us would agree that clocks “measure time.” A moment’s reflection will show that they do no such thing. What do they do? Like a metronome, they establish a mechanical rhythm. That’s all. Any interpretation of time with regard to the rhythm of the device belongs to us, although we have largely forgotten this.

Clocks, then, despite their obvious advantages, have also served to mechanize, standardize, and fragment our experience of time.

With clocks, by the way, we introduce the first autonomous machine, a machine that doesn’t multiply physical power, and that runs without human intervention (once it’s wound up). We can imagine, sadly, a clock bell ringing over a medieval town in which every human has died of the plague. Autonomous machines—most recently and most powerfully including the computer—further challenge us in that, in running without us, they appear to take on a life separate from our control.

Another effect of technology is to allow us to forget things. The clock allows us to forget about time. We can forget, because the ringing bell will remind us.

Other examples. Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, and we forgot that a story is a whole, told by human to human, and came to believe that texts are composed of fragments of meaning—letters, punctuation, words; standardized.

Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, saw a tiny world hidden inside our big one, further evidence of God’s creation. But we, we forgot that the world was whole and meaningful before we began to look at its parts. We went further down the rabbit hole, and we came to believe that the big world is built out of the parts of the smaller world. And, when we didn’t find meaning in this smaller world, we stopped believing in the meaning of the larger world, too.

The light bulb? Forget about the sun.

GPS? Forget where you are.

The computer? Virtual reality? Forget the world, forget your experience of reality.

I don’t want to live in a world without clocks, printing presses, microscopes—their revelations, their gifts—or their descendents, including the computer on which I type this and the Internet that will likely make it possible for you to read it. I don’t want to return to the vagueness and superstition and ignorance of the world from which these things grew and which they helped us to overcome.

But I recognize that we can be awake not only to the gifts of technology, but also to its challenges. Further, if we sleep in technology and use its gifts thoughtlessly, we willingly enslave ourselves to our machines. In doing this, we become increasingly machine-like ourselves. Ultimately, perhaps, we risk losing ourselves entirely. So technology challenges us to develop, in its face, new capacities. It challenges us to retain and strengthen our humanity. And if we shun technology, we give up not only the direct gifts of power and control that it gives us, we give up the indirect gift of the opportunity to become ever more fully human.

Our History

Barry Sanders’ A is for Ox details our history from oral tradition through pictographic literacy, alphabetic literacy, and the printing press, to what he calls the “screen culture” of the last fifty years. This history shows increasing complexity and opacity, increasing technical mastery, an increasing need for education in order to use new technology (something immaterial and symbolic, like an alphabet, is technology, too), and an accelerating rate of cultural change.

Parallel to Sanders’ history we may place a history of technology generally, from simple tools that act as prostheses for human power through animal power; wind and water power; coal, steam, and petroleum power; and electric power; to digital, electronic power. This history, too, of the multipliers of human strength of limb and mind, includes acceleration, increasing opacity, and the need for education.

And a question, perhaps merely rhetorical, that we may ask ourselves, is this: Should children, born illiterate, with nearly powerless limbs, relive these evolutions of literate culture and power, or should we simply throw them into the modern deep end? Is there value in asking them—in assisting them—to recapitulate these histories in their own education? Clearly, there is some value, even necessity, in asking this. The struggles are over sequence and timing. More about this below.

Our Future

When new inventions affect modern life, we must take steps to balance any possible ill effects by finding appropriate countermeasures. We must try to compensate for any weakening of the human constitution through outer influences by strengthening ourselves from within. But, in this age of ever-increasing specialization, this is possible only through a new art of education based on true knowledge of the human being.
–Rudolf Steiner, Soul Economy, 147

…How many people regularly use the telephone, public transportation, or even a steam ship without having the faintest idea of how they work? In our civilization, people are practically engulfed by a technology that they do not understand. Those who believe that it is only our conscious experiences that are truly important will dismiss these remarks as irrelevant. Certainly, it is easy to enjoy life consciously when one has successfully bought a train ticket to get where one chooses to go, or if one receives a telegram without having any real idea of how the message reached its destination or having the slightest notion of what a Morse apparatus is like. Ordinary consciousness is unconcerned about whether it understands the processes or not, and from this point of view it can be argued whether these things matter or not. But when we look at what is happening in the depths of the unconscious, the picture looks entirely different. To use modern technology with no knowledge of how things work or how they were made is like being a prisoner in a cell without windows through which one could at least look out into nature and to freedom.
–Rudolf Steiner, Soul Economy 233-234

These quotations ask two things of educators: First, to teach students how things work. Steiner advocated beginning this process in grade 6 and focusing on it particularly between the ages of 15 and 20. These recommendations fit neatly into the period of transition I mentioned earlier, between education that is “guarding” and education that is “liberating.”

Further, teaching students how things work takes two forms. One is in basic technical processes—blacksmithing, weaving, papermaking. Not because our students will become artisans, but because industrialization is an extension of processes that were originally performed by hand and may be deeply understood through direct participation. And the other is in a clear understanding of the principles the underlie our inventions. How does a laser work? An atomic reactor? A cell phone? A computer? Here, the challenge is to approach understanding from the point of view of human experience. Can we explain a laser without resorting to photons and wavelengths, hypothetical characteristics of light derived from models and not experience? It’s not necessarily easy, but I believe it can be done.

Second, we are asked to develop a method of education that strengthens students from within. Our technology is apparently amoral, algorithmic, programmed and constraining. It aims, in part, according to Steiner, to assist the “mechanization” of our minds, the “vegetization” of our life of feeling, and the “animalization” of our bodies. Clearly, to resist these tendencies, we are asked to develop our ethical sense or morality, our creativity, and our inner freedom.

To see how these qualities are interrelated, I turn to developmental psychologist Howard Gruber:
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.
–Howard Gruber, Creative People at Work

Our attitude toward the future can unify our efforts in this direction. Here is Weizenbaum’s bracing, stirring, challenging plea:
The salvation of the world depends only on the individual whose world it is. At least, every individual must act as if the whole future of the world, of humanity itself, depends on him. Anything less is a shirking of responsibility and is itself a dehumanizing force, for anything less encourages the individual to look upon himself as a mere actor in a drama written by anonymous agents, as less than a whole person, and that is the beginning of passivity and aimlessness.
–Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

I’ll end with Wiezenbaum’s favorite joke, one that casts light on some of the questions we have been considering today.

A policeman finds a drunk searching for something in the circle of light beneath a streetlamp. “What are you looking for?” he asks him. “My car keys,” the drunk replies. “Where did you lose them?” the officer asks. “Over there,” the drunk answers, waving off into the darkness. “Then why are you looking over here?” asks the officer. The drunk answers: “Because the light is better.”

For Weizenbaum, one of the greatest challenges of a technocratic, superficially scientific attitude toward research is the failure to acknowledge that our methods and our assumptions enable us to answer only certain questions, like those that appear in the drunk’s circle of light. Over time, we may forget that other questions, those in the darkness, are equally valid, and maybe more important. We don’t understand the challenges of technology scientifically or technologically. We can’t; this would be akin to pushing ourselves to town in a wheelbarrow in which we are sitting. We understand the challenges of technology philosophically and through direct experience, through careful, sober reflection. Weizenbaum, like Steiner, wanted us to sober up.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Freedom to Teach

One of the reasons I love my job as a high school teacher is that, like a professor, I create and teach my own courses. I have no prescribed textbook or curriculum, and I generally use packets of photocopied handouts, as in the best grad school courses I took, teach, and have taught. These packets tend to consist of original documents, maps, and relevant articles.

Tonight, my 11th grade Medieval History students are writing brief essays on the trajectory of Augustine’s life as described in his “Confessions.” We have discussed Augustine’s biography, the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, Manichaeism, eremitic and cenobitic monks. Tomorrow we will discuss the relevance of humility, obedience, and the orderly life of monks in a disordered world. The point is not to teach Christianity, but to trace and understand the lives of people and the changes in human consciousness that we find in history. And, on a deeper level, Augustine’s journey from being “in love with love,” studying rhetoric and seeking eloquence but not deep truth, unable to control the “slime of lust,” to the security and bliss of a higher love, shows a path with which every adolescent—bearer of an undeveloped forebrain—can relate.

My freedom derives from the clear policies of the school at which I teach and which I helped to found fourteen years ago. We have a college preparatory curriculum—basically, four required years of each subject—but, within that framework, we allow teachers the freedom to teach as they see fit, and we ask them to teach what they love.

We find this effective—imagine a high school that asks teachers to teach what they love as they believe they should teach it. Students actually look forward to coming to school (yes, within the emotional boundaries provided by adolescent development—as a student said at an Open House a couple of years ago, “If you have to go to school, I guess, this is the best school to go to”).

We find this freedom-loving approach consonant with Rudolf Steiner’s deeper principles of education. Which, unfortunately, calls into question the pressure, subtle and not subtle, that many Waldorf schools exert on teachers to enforce conformity with institutional culture, institutional definitions of what they believe Waldorf education to be, what they imagine Steiner’s core principles to be.

If we violate a deeper principle to enforce less important ones, however, aren’t we then ideologues rather than teachers, and don’t we undermine the task of education that we have set for ourselves? What, then, are we really teaching our students? Obedience and conformity when, as I’ve written elsewhere, Steiner wanted us to address “the undefined rebel of the future”? I worry that we too often indulge the rhetoric of trust and freedom without actually allowing freedom or engendering trust.

I can hear my colleagues’ objections that what I am proposing—actual freedom for teachers—would lead to chaos and uncertainty. Among other things, how would parents know what they are buying?

In my experience, however, most colleagues are eager for freedom and they are also eager to be team players. If they have researched Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education online, obtained a teaching certificate in Waldorf education, run the gauntlet of interviews and hiring procedures, and accepted the low pay and long hours, then they deserve to be welcomed as full colleagues, trusted and free. This does not mean that they don’t require genuine guidance and mentoring, a slow immersion into the culture of the community they are joining, but that this be done with trust and respect for freedom.

Also, in my experience, it is easier to work in freedom with someone who has little experience of Steiner’s educational principles and anthroposophy than it is to call up resistance by requiring conformity. As Steiner himself pointed out, young teachers’ enthusiasm will carry them with their students in ways that more mature, more experienced, more knowledgeable colleagues can only envy. 

If we deny colleagues freedom and don’t trust them fully, however, how can we then be disappointed when they return a lack of freedom and trust with a refusal to toe the line and to conform to an unhealthy school culture?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dress Codes are the Worst!

Students hate dress codes. Dress codes are arbitrary and irrational. Many students rebel, quietly—subtly flouting the rules until they’re caught, or loudly—challenging with arguments and petitions.

Teachers hate dress codes. They hate talking about changing fashions and rewrites in faculty meetings, they hate enforcing dress codes, and they hate their colleagues who don’t enforce them (or who enforce them too zealously). This aspect brings to mind George Carlin’s remark about driving—“Did you ever notice that everyone who drives faster than you is an idiot, and everyone who drives slower than you is a moron?”

Students are right. And teachers are right. Dress codes are the worst.

But that doesn’t mean that we can all can wear whatever we like. Sorry, anarchists and libertarians. It may work among adults, but it just doesn’t work in a learning community of teachers and adolescent students. Some forms of dress (or non-dress) are too ridiculous, too provocative, too distracting, too outlandish. We can’t prescribe or proscribe dress easily, however, because the “too much” or the “too little” depend on time, place, and local culture and custom.

So what can we do?

Instead of a dress code that tries to spell out in increasingly petty detail what students may wear and what they may not, why not aim for a respectful relationship between teachers and students and among colleagues? Aim for a relationship that is so strong that if a teacher believes a student to be inappropriately dressed, the two can have a brief, civil conversation about it between classes, resolve it on the spot, and walk away feeling like each is part of a dynamic, healthy community?

That’s what we try to do.

We don’t call it a Dress Code. We have a section in our student handbook called “Personal Appearance.” And we introduce it this way:

The school expects students to maintain a neat and well-groomed appearance. More important than the specific details of what you may wear and what you may not, are the reasons for the dress code. The primary reason is that we want you to set aside that part of the day during which you are at school in several ways, one of which is through your dress. No matter the profession you choose, you will most likely have to set apart that part of the day during which you work from other, more casual parts of the day. Medieval scholars and judges, among others, put on robes to perform their duties. In the same way, when you dress for school, you are indicating your readiness to be a student.

And, after some guidelines (not rules) based on recent trends, we conclude:

The most important point: Should a teacher ask you to change your clothing, please comply pleasantly.

A student wore a Baccardi Rum t-shirt. I mentioned, respectfully, that he probably didn’t really mean to condone underage drinking, and he agreed not to wear the shirt anymore.

But we’re not perfect, and we know that. Here’s one of the guidelines:

Hair should be groomed, a natural color, and should not cover your eyes.

Why is this written this way? Well, it’s ancient history at this point. More than a dozen years ago, there was probably an ad hoc discussion—based no doubt on some other school’s handbook—about guidelines for our students. It seemed reasonable.

But then this happened: A girl returned from a brief vacation with beautiful purple hair. Not a natural color! Certainly, she should be sent home, suspended from school until she complied with our reasonable policy, right?

Lucky for us, this is not the way we handled it. If we expect students to “comply pleasantly,” then we can’t let ourselves as teachers off the hook.

We acknowledged to each other that the student looked great, despite an appearance that was forbidden according to existing rules. So we changed the rules, rapidly. We announced this to the students and amended the handbook. We did not suffer a rush of girls dyeing their hair purple, not that this would have caused us much trouble. And the world kept happily spinning.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What is Technology? A Necessary Cultural History!

A few years ago, I created a course called "History through Technology" for 9th graders. Waldorf schools have long had courses in art history, history of drama, language history, music history, architectural history, and others. These are courses in cultural history, and we should recognize that technology is as much a part of our cultural history as any other branch of culture. And it is, arguably, at least as pervasive and as important in the immediate and future lives of our students as these others.

We begin the course with the invention of the clock in the late middle ages and the printing press in early modern times, and proceed through computers, hydrogen bombs, and cell phones. I intend to write the course up fully so that other teachers may adopt it if they wish, but I have not yet done this.

As part of a final exam/writing exercise, I asked my students to think about the question, “What is technology?” and then to write three or more statements about it. Here are the best of those:

1.     Technology extends human abilities and capacities.
2.     Technology is practical.
3.     Technology improves life and makes it easier.
4.     Technology also produces weapons and trivialities.
5.     Technology evolves and grows on itself.
6.     Technology is not just objects, it’s also ideas.
7.     Technology starts in the human mind.
8.     Technology allows thoughts to become real and material.
9.     Technology requires imagination and creativity.
10.  Technology requires art and aesthetic considerations.
11.  Technology builds a bridge for human beings into the world.
12.  Technology comes from the world and then changes the world.
13.  Technology does more and more, and we do less and less.
14.  Technology benefits us and also threatens our future.
15.  Technology assists us in controlling the world.
16.  Technology controls us if we are not conscious of its effects.
17.  Technology requires a conscious use of natural resources.
18.  Technology is old, not new.
19.  Technology gives gifts, but always at a price.

20. I will add one more, from Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT: “All technology is educational.” (Education is, at least, the transmission of culture. Technology produces cultural artifacts, and, in using them and learning to use them, we transmit culture.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What's Essential: Five Gifts of a Steiner School Education

(This brief article repeats some things I've said elsewhere here, but in a condensed and, I hope, accessible form. It is based on part of my talk, “What Makes Waldorf, Waldorf? Separating Myths from Essentials and Making the Future Bright,” a keynote address at the annual Governance, Leadership and Management (GLaM) Conference, Steiner Education Australia (SEA), Shearwater, The Mullumbimby Steiner School, NSW, Australia. May 2, 2015.) 

A Steiner school gives its graduates—high school graduates—five gifts. Primary school parents and graduates will recognize these gifts, but they will also recognize that they do not come to fruition by 7th or 8th grade.
1.) The first gift is the gift of ideas and ideals. A Steiner school does not provide beliefs or a worldview. Belief, knowledge, and worldview may be “about” spiritual matters, but are not them. The school provides a pathway or method for discovering profound ideas and ideals, should a student wish later in life to pursue them.
In fact, all we can give with regard to spiritual realities—the realm of ideas and ideals—is a path that can be followed or retraced. In geometry, I can show you how the steps of a proof lead to logical proof, but you must take that final intuitive leap yourself. If you do not “see” that these steps constitute a proof, all I can do as a teacher is retrace the path with you, perhaps using different language or different symbols in order to help you again to the brink of intuitive understanding.
2.) Second, a school addresses its students as developing human beings, beings uniquely capable of inner transformation. In nature, metamorphoses and transformations are primarily visible. We can see a plant grow from shoot to leaves to flower, each stage presenting unforeseen changes of form. No one looking at a caterpillar for the first time would guess that it will soon be a butterfly. In human life, especially after childhood, transformation and development are not so visible. For Steiner, all cats belong to the same species, but each human being is a species unto himself or herself.
3.) Third, a school introduces students to different ways of knowing and being, three in particular. (Psychologists recognize these with terms like “cognition,” “affect,” and “behavior.”) You can know cognitively, you can live in your head. You can contemplate or reflect, observe or compare, analyze or synthesize. These accord most closely with what the world outside a Steiner school means by knowing.
But you can also know with your heart. I call this aesthetic knowing, knowing in which you are awake to beauty, to an ethical understanding, and even to truth. The path to truth may be cognitive, but the recognition of truth is a feeling. Playfulness is the true expression of aesthetic knowing. One way to understand what I mean is to contrast aesthetic knowing with its opposite, “anaesthetic knowing.” Something that anaesthetizes you puts you to sleep—you cannot know anything. The aesthetic awakens you.
Last, you can know in your body and in your senses. Michael Polanyi calls this “tacit knowing,” knowing more than we can say. You can read a book about playing the piano or performing heart surgery, but I hope you would not say after you put the book down that you knew how to do these things.
4.) Fourth, a school can provide profound examples and guidelines for a healthy life with other persons. If they choose to, Waldorf school graduates know how to care for others in brotherhood and sisterhood, in solidarity. They know how to respect the equality of any man or any woman. They know where their individual freedom lies, the sort of freedom that laws and conventions cannot touch, and how to accord others their own freedom and dignity.
5.) Fifth, students receive a reverence for life and for the world; a concern for the environment, however defined. I mention this last because as a society we have probably embraced this gift more fully in the past fifty years than we have the others.
Any school, any teachers, may give these gifts. But the sad truth is that in our world today only in Steiner schools can you regularly find teachers united in common purpose to give their students as fully and consistently what I have outlined here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Two of Your Superpowers: Find Them in Being and in Relationships

Graduation Address at Green Meadow Waldorf School, Spring Valley, NY, June 14, 2015


Mr. Madsen and I go way back—all the way to 1979. He was my physics teacher during my senior year of high school, his first year at the Garden City Waldorf School. He was a real rocket scientist, he had been in a doctoral program in astrophysics or something like that, and he knew his stuff. After a few years of “Waldorf” science, it was refreshing and wonderful to have someone who could teach us “real” science.

I then worked with Mr. Madsen at the Waldorf School of Garden City, when I returned to teach there after college. I want to thank him for some great conversations about differences among Waldorf schools that later spurred my own research and my decision to return to graduate school.

I don’t know if he remembers this, but he was part of a 10th grade trip to New Hampshire—studying geology in the White Mountains—when I nearly drowned slipping over a waterfall and into a whirlpool called “the cauldron.” I lived, but I lost my glasses and my camera, and I had to hike in wet boots for the rest of the week.

I also worked for him at Camp Glen Brook, in New Hampshire, when he was the director and I was a young husband and father. After Glen Brook, he returned to teaching, coming here to Green Meadow.

I used to be an intense, driven, arrogant, unforgiving, highly competitive person—I’m much, much mellower now—and I believe it’s a good thing that Mr. Madsen is kind, gentle, and forgiving, or I’m not sure he would have tolerated me through those early years of my school and career.

He doesn’t know this, but when I returned to work in Garden City, I had access to student files, including my own. I was able to read my own college recommendations! Mr. Madsen said some flattering things, and he also said, “Steve does not tolerate fools lightly.” So I would like to take this very public opportunity to ask him a slightly rhetorical question: “Why should I?”

It’s a great pleasure and an honor to be here, as Mr. Madsen says good-bye to possibly his last 12th grade, 36 years after he was my teacher.]


I met today’s graduates in March—hello, everyone!—and was able to talk with them for about 45 minutes. They struck me as a group of particularly level-headed, level gazing students. So I decided to talk to them about reality. And, of course, if we’re going to talk about reality, we have to talk about superpowers.

The rest of my talk today is really about one sentence in Rudolf Steiner’s work.

Several years ago, Joe Robertson, one of my adult students, asked, “What does Rudolf Steiner mean by ‘reality,’ anyway?” I didn’t know how to answer. No one else in the class did, either. We won’t go too far into it today, but you may know that some of Steiner’s ideas about reality can seem… strange.

A couple of years later, I came across this sentence in Steiner’s work: “Fundamentally, reality consists of beings and their relationships.” Fundamentally, reality consists of beings and their relationships. I’ve been thinking about this ever since.

What is a being? What is a relationship?

Among other things, they are the source of your superpowers.


Your first superpower is invisibility. You may look like attractive, young adults of different sizes and genders and races and ethnicities, but you are actually invisible. All your objective characteristics are extraneous to your value to the world. And to your being, your existence. You may use these characteristics as tools to help you work in the world—I hope you will. Simply put, objects are visible, but beings are invisible, immaterial. And you are beings, not objects.

Think about it this way: Each day you eat about 3 pounds of food, drink about 6 pounds of water, and inhale about 1 pound of oxygen. 10 pounds of matter, almost 4000 pounds a year. In the course of your life, you will consume and transform about 250,000 pounds of food, water, and oxygen, but with luck, you will never weigh more than you weigh today. You are not your matter.

How do we know you, then, if not by your skin color, height, gender, blood pressure, and bone density?

We know you by your deeds, by what you do in the world. Your deeds reveal not only who you are but also that you are. Your parents and your teachers have done their very best to prepare you to do great deeds in the world, and that is part of what we are here to recognize today.

So, what is a deed? (My string of questioning will stop in a moment.) To perform a deed, you must have an intention, even if it is not always entirely conscious. And your deed has an effect on the world, even if the results do not always match the intention. In performing deeds, you enter a relationship with the world, you aim—ethically, creatively, freely—to change the world.

We hope you will do this for the good of all, and not with selfish intention or injurious effect. And to those ends, we have educated you with care and love, trying ourselves to work ethically, creatively, and freely in your service.

When you leave here, exercise your power of invisibility as ethical, free, creative human beings.


What about relationships?

First, when we are in relationship, our troubling, acute sense of a split between you and me, us and them, subject and object, disappears.

Just about all teenagers feel lonely. In 10th grade, how many times did you go home and tell your mom that you had no friends, when your teachers saw you laughing with schoolmates in every class? You were developing the sense of self that can now exist as invisible being in relationship to others and the world.

You separated from the world of your childhood and your parents. You had to. But now you can reunite with the world, you can reunite the world. This is your second superpower—to heal the divisions in the world. You are healers. Where there is unrest and injustice in the world, where there is division among human beings, or division between human beings and nature, only human activity will heal it, and only in active relationship.

This healing power of relationship is the same whether the relationship exists between you and another human being or you and, say, a cloud. You lie on your back, watching the clouds. Maybe you paint them. You erase the gap between you and the clouds until the moment you say, this is really fun, at which point you step out of relationship and return to a you separate from the world.

Or when you’re with your friend—or even arguing with your enemy—you’re not aware of a you and a them. You’re participating in a relationship, which includes both of you and which exists between you, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. If you stop fighting with your opponent to say, wow, I strongly dislike you, then, at least for a moment, you have stepped out of that relationship. You have returned to a you separate from the world.


I’d like to go one step further today, and end with a sort of thought experiment about relationships in the form of a very short story. Like “Rashomon” or “Run, Lola, Run,” which happen to be two of my favorite movies, this story has several endings, not one.

You stand outside a burning building. A loved one is trapped inside. You are afraid. And you must overcome your fear, or you will watch your loved one perish.

You stand outside a burning building. A loved one is trapped inside. You desperately want to rush thoughtlessly, foolishly into the building. And you must resist your foolhardiness, or you and your loved one will both perish.

You stand outside a burning building. A loved one is trapped inside. You overcome your fear. You withstand the urge to rash action. You act courageously, and you save your loved one.

Your courage is not some interaction of adrenaline and electrochemical neurology. It is that capacity that arises in you when you enter a relationship with fear and foolhardiness. You are courageous, but you still feel fear. You also feel the impulse to act without thinking. You are able, however, to enter a relationship between these forces of fear and foolhardiness, and, in mediating them, to act courageously. The opposition of fear and foolhardiness, the polarity between them, the true relationship in which they exist, provides the possibility for courage to arise.

By the way, there’s a fourth version of my mini-tale: You stand outside a burning building. A loved one is trapped inside. You overcome your fear, but only a part of it. You withstand the urge to rash action, but only partly. You cannot bring yourself to act courageously. You are filled with anxiety. You panic. You run away or you run in circles. Your loved one dies. In this case, you have not given in to one of the poles, nor have you successfully mediated the tension between them. You have simply allowed them to swirl about inside you, to devastating effect.

In this story of you trying to save a loved one from a burning building—regardless of the ending—the relationship in question is within you, not between you and the world or you and another person. Yes, the burning building is in the world. Yes, the person with whom you have a loving relationship is in the building. But the fear and the foolishness and the panic and your courage are all in you.

Consider also a fifth possible ending to my story, possibly the most tragic: You stand outside a burning building. A loved one is trapped inside. You see fear to one side. You see foolishness on the other side. You glimpse courage, but as something outside your capacity to muster. You turn and walk away. Or you collapse on the ground, unconscious. At the moment you most needed to act, you are unable to summon your humanity.

You see, when the TV news crews show up, they will sympathize with your fear or even panic. They will call your foolishness courage. They will understand your collapse or your rational decision to walk away rather than risk your life.

From the outside, all the outcomes are understandable, all the outcomes are justifiable. No one will blame you in any case. But you will know what might have been, what you could have done. That’s the challenge and the burden and the beauty of being a human being. That’s what calls us to exercise our superpowers, whether they’re the ones I’m talking about today or a host of others.

Because of your education particularly at a Waldorf school, you are well suited to exercising the healing superpower that allows you to overcome a potentially devastating, destructive tension between fear and foolishness. And to enter true relationships and overcome many, many other apparent tensions.

Who can do this? Someone who, in their invisible being, has an ethical, free, and creative core. Ethics call you to action. Freedom allows you to choose to engage. And creativity allows you to solve seemingly intractable problems.

One of the greatest values of seeing the world as a place in which relationships mediate polarities, is that this bridges inner and outer, subjective and objective, even the literary and the scientific. I have three examples to spur your thinking:

In William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” we hear, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” “Lacking all conviction” is giving in to meaninglessness and the denial of ego; “passionate intensity” describes the temptation of egocentricity. The tension or relationship or polarity between too much ego and not enough ego is resolved only in your healthy self. Ethically, creatively, freely.

In his Theory of Colors, Goethe showed that color arises as the relationship or interpenetration of light and dark. I hope you all know this, or at least vaguely remember it: Darkness seen through a light-filled medium, atmosphere or prism, appears as cyan, blue, or violet. Light seen through a dense medium, atmosphere or prism, appears as red, orange, or yellow.

By the way, Goethe’s work on color is obviously, incontrovertibly true within its conceptual framework to anyone who has studied it and understood or apprehended it, and yet it’s still controversial—seen as a matter of “belief” by those who know “about” it but do not know it. (Very briefly: It’s not necessary to choose Goethe or Newton. Both are correct within their own frameworks. Goethe’s work centers on human perception of color. Newton’s work, as he himself recognized, is not about color at all, but about what we now call electromagnetic radiation. And, either way, that Pink Floyd t-shirt image of light passing through a prism is a false and inaccurate representation.)

And a final example, not from literature or science, but just from common experience, and particularly relevant to today’s events:

The present exists only in the relationship between the future and the past. This sounds trite, so let me explain. The present gains direction and momentum from the past and creative energy from the future.

The future holds all possibilities, but without a past, with nothing to build on, no rudder, no direction, none of them can be brought into being. Without a past, there is no real future, only a meaningless present. We could call this imagination without memory.

The past holds only what has been done, what has been the case. A past alone dwells hopelessly in memory, contains no ideals, nothing to lead us forward. Without a future, there is simply inertia, more of the same, devoid of novelty or agency or meaningful change. We could call this memory without imagination.

Memory and imagination, past and future, are poles that can bring the present into being. But only human activity can make the present into something meaningful—free, ethical, creative human activity. Today, of all days, you stand at an end of many memories and the beginning of many images of the future.


The point, clearly, is not simply to identify polar relationships, to collect them like dead butterflies and show them to our friends, even at an important occasion like this. It is to begin to see that this is how our world is constructed—to begin to see, first, how ALL beings exist in relationship. Second, that ALL relationships are polar. And, third, that only the activity of (invisible) human beings can bring meaning to relationships.

One image that shows this is a true image of threefoldness, or triunity. It is the lemniscate, the symbol of infinity: The two lobes represent the poles that recursively enter a relationship with each other. The crossing in the center represents the point of possibility, the point at which courage, or a healthy ego, or all the colors of the world, or human consciousness in its billions of hues, or a new love, or a child, or a discovery, or an artistic creation, or any of the manifold, untold phenomena of our world, within us, outside of us, and between us, may arise.

To end, I’ve written a verse for you:

Fundamentally, reality consists of being and relationship.
Carefully attend to invisible being.
Steadfastly seek relationship
With the human beings with whom you share this life,
With the world in which we all live and work,
And within your own active and invisible being.
Do this ethically,
Do this creatively,
And do this freely.

Congratulations, Class of 2015, and blessings on you on this important day.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.