Education Without Computers

This is Appendix C of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

The abyss separating child from adult is strange and baffling. Who among us can look at a classroom of children and tell which one will grow into his full powers, and which one will -- say, at age twenty or thirty or fifty -- begin to shrink from life and growth, allowing his capacities to shrivel? We hear often about the “unpromising” childhood of an Einstein or a Churchill, but not so often about the many exceptional promises of youth that never quite come to flower. Both are enigmas the educator must decipher. How can he pretend to teach, if he averts his eyes from the ruling mysteries of childhood?

If education is a matter of cultivating capacities rather than shoveling into the child a quantity of testable knowledge, then our difficulty in recognizing how those capacities -- future potentials -- are developing suggests that we don't know a whole lot about what we're doing. Perhaps this humbling awareness is the first requirement for a good teacher.

Three characteristics of Waldorf education have particularly drawn me to it: (1) precisely the sense of humility just described, combined with a grave acceptance of responsibility; (2) a conviction that the teacher can learn to recognize and cultivate the individual child's unfolding capacities; and (3) a deeply felt resistance to the use of computers in the primary school curriculum.

What is Waldorf education?

Founded in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart, Germany, Waldorf schools (sometimes called Steiner schools) now constitute the largest and fastest growing nonsectarian educational movement in the world. While the movement is strongest in Europe, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America embraces approximately one hundred member schools. Over the past fifteen years, new schools have been forming in the United States and Canada at the rate of about nine per year. In addition, there are 130 Waldorf kindergartens, fourteen high schools and five teacher training institutes./1/

Worldwide, some 120,000 students at over six hundred schools in thirty-two countries are today receiving a Waldorf education. During the past few years, Russia and the former Iron Curtain countries have placed particularly strong demands upon the movement. Almost all of those countries now have teacher training programs.

Waldorf education, arising from profound convictions about the nature of the child and the world, requires an uncommonly strong commitment from its practitioners. (If nothing else, teacher salaries running well below public school rates tend to ensure a high level of commitment.) Although teachers operate within a broad, “given” educational context, they bear extensive responsibility for developing the particulars of their own curriculum. Moreover, this responsibility is compounded each year, as the teacher moves with his class from first grade through eighth.

The Waldorf classroom presents two sides that may, at first glance, appear contradictory. On the one hand, nearly everything in the child's environment is taken to be important. The teacher's bearing (his grace and art, his reverence for nature, his deeply won authority); the materials of the classroom (natural objects such as wooden branches, seashells, flowers, rocks, fabrics, as well as the room itself); every activity of the child (play as well as study); and above all the child himself -- his volition and feeling fully as much as his intellect -- all these things are consciously considered in their relevance to the child's education. It would be easy for such all-embracing concerns, expressed wrongly, to suffocate the child.

Yet, at the same time, the kingdom of childhood remains the focus, and the laws of this kingdom are laws of play, imagination, and freedom. If everything is important, yet nothing should be taken with an oppressive seriousness. Yes, the details count, but they count only because they must serve the needs of a child who is growing toward a rightful mastery of the world. Steiner put it this way: “accept the children with reverence, educate them with love, send them forth in freedom.”

In what follows, I try to capture something of the “Waldorf spirit,” as expressed by some of its leading exponents. It is doubtless true, as every reader will feel, that such extraordinary demands upon the teacher as are described here must be difficult to satisfy, so that every Waldorf classroom must fall short of the ideal. In fact, I have found that many teachers feel this shortfall as their own, private burden. But at the same time, the ideal embodies a set of understandings that many find compelling. And, more to the immediate point, these understandings form the positive backdrop against which the criticisms in PART TWO of this book can most usefully be viewed.

For brevity, I present the following in my own voice, instead of reiterating, “Waldorf educators believe ... ,” “Waldorf educators claim ... ,” and so on. At the same time, it should be clear that the views set forth here are ones with which I at least feel comfortable, even if I lack the knowledge and experience to assert them all on my own account.

Transformation of capacities

Waldorf students often spend time knitting in the first grade. A. C. Harwood, a lifelong Waldorf educator, has remarked, “When he grows up the man will think more cogently and more harmoniously because the child practiced this skill just at the time when his first independent thinking was born.”/2/

Quite a stretch? Doubtless. But it's a stretch that runs through the entire Waldorf curriculum. The child is not simply an incomplete or failed adult, nor is he dumber than we are. Rather, he

simply experiences the environment with another consciousness (and much more intensely than the adult) .... The intellectual cognitive capacity develops slowly as the result of the most diverse metamorphoses. Why is it that we so often disregard these changes in the child? Because we attribute our own completed state of consciousness to the child .... In addition, we allow ourselves to be misled by what the child, as an imitative being, picks up from the adult on a superficial level. (A)

Imitation does not necessarily represent capacity. The true capacities pass through dramatic transformations, much as the green seed leaves of a tiny plant grow into the rapidly expanding stem leaves and then are transmuted again into sepals and, finally, into the colored exuberance of the flower petals, in which, however, a properly trained observation can still recognize a metamorphosis of the first shoot. Waldorf educators often cite this law of metamorphosis -- first discovered in the plant by Goethe -- as a law of all growing things. What we sow in the child must sink down into his being in seedlike child-forms before it can emerge again, mature, and flower into an adult capability.

Here is another example of a transformation -- this time one which many a teacher will intuitively recognize:

An individual will be able to make the right use of freedom later, if as a child, and in the most natural way, he is allowed to place himself under the absolute authority of a well-liked adult, if he is able to feel respect for an adult. The respect of a child for a particular person -- which is actually respect for the truth the way it is silently expressed by that particular adult -- is later transformed into respect for the objective truth, independent of any human being .... Without authority there is no freedom. (A)

It is critically important, therefore, that the teacher be worthy of respect. “The only important thing in a school is the teacher” (A). There is much confusion on this point, however, for in our eagerness to respect the child's autonomy and to turn him into a “self-learner” -- worthy enough concerns -- we may find it easy to deprive him of his anchor. We may even do this out of a kind of modesty. But a child thus set adrift from what his own nature bids him respect is a child who finally will lose his respect even for the authority of truth. What we adults have come to reckon with on a relatively abstract level (namely, Truth), must first approach the child concretely, fully embodied, personified. So it is with everything the child may healthily absorb.

A balancing principle will help to avoid the confusion: the teacher's authority should never be employed simply to “fill” the student with particular thoughts. Content is used solely to exercise and develop capacities that must remain free.

The subject matter alone, as the by-product of passive, intellectual thinking, has a destructive and crippling effect on the child .... I am not even allowed to give the child something that he may keep in that exact conceptual form. Nothing should be permanently stamped on the child's mind like a taped message, the way the recorder does it. (A)

However, this does not imply that we should expose the child only to what he can (intellectually) understand. Following such a principle, we restrict his horizons in the most disheartening way, cutting him off from his connection to distant mysteries that may otherwise inspire a lifetime quest. “Great truths, which a child has absorbed with feelings of awe, joy or love, without ‘understanding’ them, sink into the sleeping will precisely because they are not first intercepted by the intellect.” On the other hand, what is intercepted by the awake intellect “will not sink into the depths of the child's soul, and can therefore no longer grow and transform itself. Instead, it turns into one of those indigestible knowledge-stones that are such a burden on modern man” (A).

How can the primary-age student “absorb” great truths without understanding them intellectually? Above all, in pictures. That is how the childhood of our race received its understanding -- in mythic imagery. And that is why, in the lower grades, myth and fairy tale are primary resources for the Waldorf teacher. During the later grades, the pictures remain, but they steadily evolve into more elaborated and thought-saturated images, such as the Goethean image of the “archetypal” metamorphosis of the plant, and, above all, the image of the human being as a microcosm of the universe. In all cases, the student is encouraged to see the world around him artistically, drawing upon the deepest powers of his imagination.

Schools for the head

According to the Waldorf educators, we can all too easily abort the child's necessary transformations simply by imposing our adult intellects upon him prematurely. Unlike pictures a child builds up in his own mind, the thought-products of the intellect lack plasticity. They are rigid and restrictive -- finished -- bound to the unyielding forms of conventional logic and mathematics. Even as adults, how often do we find that, by seeking “intellectual clarity” too quickly -- by failing, that is, to dwell long enough within a fluid, pictorial, and imaginative contemplation of the myriad possible “shapes” of a problem -- we lock our understanding into a kind of frozen state? New insight penetrates such a state only with the greatest difficulty.

Inspired insights often strike one only after an interval of forgetfulness in rest or sleep. The beneficial rhythms of forgetting range all the way from the briefest period (one sometimes has to “let go” of the effort to remember something in order to recall it just a moment later) to the entire span of a lifetime. The child, too, must be allowed to forget. Only then will seeds planted in one form eventually gain the power to blossom in quite another. “Pictorial, imaginative thinking, tended properly and with care, will in due course be transformed” into a clear, rational thinking “which is rationality itself, and cannot be intoxicated or deceived by any kind of fantastic ideas” (A).

But most schools are attuned to the demands of the intellect. “Who ever heard of a child being promoted because he was exceptionally good at painting or music, or because he excelled at acting or needlework?” (H). A child who, at a particularly early age, learns to read the abstract and (in our day) meaningless forms of the alphabet -- instead of first experiencing something more like the picture-writing of the ancients -- is hailed as a triumph of pedagogy. There is no doubt we can develop the techniques to produce such triumphs with ever greater efficiency:

It lies in the power of the adult to develop mental habits in a child either earlier or later. He can, if he so wishes, make the child conscious and develop his thinking and his memory at a very early age. If he does so, he will certainly narrow the scope of his mind even if he trains it to much acuteness in a limited sphere. (H)

We can summarize this entire emphasis upon the transformation of capacities from child to adult by noting Aeppli's remark that “in any educational action, what matters is not that something is done, but how and when.” The how challenges us to present the child with those human qualities he can respect and take most deeply into himself. The when warns us to synchronize our teaching with the natural development of the child's native capacities, rather than to stimulate the intellect in a one-sided manner that may satisfy us while bequeathing to the child a barren sterility of outlook.

The unity of art and science

The child's natural interests are not artificially segmented. Fragmentation is a “gift” of the educational process. The Waldorf teacher strives to bring all subject matter into an artistic unity. During primary school, painting and modeling are usually not taught by a specialist teacher, lest the child accept this divorce of art from the rest of life. Rather, art is brought to the other subjects, and they are brought to art. For example, “in mathematics ... you will have a profound and beneficial influence on children if you bring their sense of the beautiful into the heart of all that they learn. Artistic children -- often little inclined to mathematical studies -- will show great interest if they discover that there is beauty also in this subject” (H). Thus,

To sound the note of a stretched string, and then discover that to obtain the octave above the string must be divided exactly into half, is a great joy to children. They realise that the ear is a mathematician, perhaps a better mathematician than they are in their conscious heads. (H)

In what many of us will have to think another “reach,” Aeppli observes that an artistically structured lesson produces a healthy flush on the children's faces, together with a freer, lighter, and yet more intense breathing. If, on the other hand, “despite all our wonderful pedagogical knowledge, we have taught all morning as a fossilized schoolmaster, merely out of our highly developed intellect, then, provided our eyes have become sharp enough, we can read the effects of such teaching in the children. We see that their faces are somewhat paler, somewhat more drained of blood than usual, even if only slightly; or we may suddenly notice that the children no longer breathe as freely as before.”

Whatever our ability to see such things, it remains true that the child's nature is to take in the surrounding world with his whole being. It conduces to health on every level if his surroundings are full of grace, beauty and truth. I can say -- speaking on my own behalf -- that I have never seen such warm and appealing classrooms as I have found in the several Waldorf schools I have visited.

Observation before theory

An artistic education can only grow out of observation and imagination. One of the most stunning things about modern education is the rapid precedence assigned to theory.

Far too many children know all the theories, but cannot tell you what they could see with their own eyes, if they had been encouraged to use them. They will know all about the solar system and perhaps about spectro-analysis of the stars, but they cannot tell you the state of the moon or point out the constellations. They know theories of evolution, but not the names of the trees or plants around them. (H)

The ways in which observation may serve learning are endless. Here I extract just a few examples from Harwood, who is speaking about grades six through eight:

To pick up again on the vibrating string, the children can devise methods for changing the length, and thereby learn to identify the distinct notes. They can investigate the musical intervals and relate them to the corresponding numerical proportions. By placing a pulley at one end of the string and attaching weights, they can discover the relation between the note and the tension. They may even go further and make pipes out of bamboo. In related lessons, the Chladny plate brings to visibility the beautiful patterns created by sound. By such methods the invisible world takes on concrete form within human experience before it is reduced to the thin abstraction of number.

The laws of color can likewise be approached through both observation and art. There is no need to begin with wavelength, frequency, and other mathematical constructs. The basic phenomena the theory is designed to explain should enter the children's awareness before the theory itself; otherwise the phenomena tend to become invisible -- displaced forever in the child's intellect by theoretical constructs such as “photon,” “wave,” and “spectrum.” Thus, one can learn about complementary colors by staring at a patch of green and then removing one's eyes to a light surface, whereupon one “sees” red. Similarly, after looking at red, one sees green. Color mixing naturally follows this, together with observation of such occurrences as colored shadows, the way distance affects color (a topic that greatly fascinated the Renaissance artists, who learned to tint remote mountains with blue), the effects of different atmospheric conditions upon the light of the sun, and so on.

Geometry, too, should emerge for the child as a practical, observational skill, much as it did for the ancients. A rubber band around two pegs, with a moving finger serving as the third vertex, allows the child to develop a fluid, accurate image of the triangle in its infinite possible manifestations -- all the way to and “beyond” a straight line. In this fashion the learner actually sees that the three angles of a triangle amount to two right angles. This is much different from beginning with a set of axioms and proceeding to “prove” the theorem through deductive inference before there is any full experience of the triangle's nature.

Or, again, there is geology:

To bring a fragment of granite or limestone into a class and talk about its chemical composition is to detach it from the earth. First of all the children should form an imaginative picture of chalk hills, or limestone ridges, or granite mountains -- and if they live in one such district all the more should the teacher help them to see it with the imaginative eye. What happens to the rain when it falls on these various soils, what kind of trees and flowers grow best on them, what crops they produce and, above all, of what they are formed and how they got there -- to deal with these questions is to keep the mineral world in its true connection with the living earth. It makes a profound impression on children to know that the great chalk and limestone and marble masses of the earth are the creation of living organisms. If they learn this at the right age their minds will not be closed to the idea that it is the dead which comes from the living, and not the living from the dead. (H)

With each passing year, the observation becomes more impregnated with elaborated thought. But thought is never allowed to tear free from observation and become lost in abstraction. When, for example, Galileo is studied between the ages of twelve and fourteen, the children might be allowed to pull each other up with block and tackle. In the ninth grade, devices such as the heat engine and telephone can be studied.

Technical drawings will be made, the laws of pressure and expansion will be studied and practical problems worked out. The children should be astonished to discover how much there is to learn about things which they have perhaps come to look on as already familiar. (H)

It was, I think, Steiner who remarked that our use of so many devices whose basic working principles we do not understand profoundly oppresses the human spirit -- even though we may scarcely be aware of the effect. Certainly the well-documented popular “phobias” regarding everything from digital clocks to VCRs are consistent with this claim. Wherever there is fear or an inner shrinking from things -- or even just the absence of any sense of meaningful connection -- can the psyche be in a healthy state?

The secondary student may go on to design bridges, study human physiology, and, in mathematics, pursue such topics as trigonometry, transcendental numbers, and conics. The conics, according to Harwood, are particularly valuable for helping the student move with disciplined imagination from the finite through the infinite and back, for

the “shades of the prison house” are closing heavily upon him .... To be able to use this new weapon of thought to cut through the walls of this prison, to think in terms of the infinite, and yet relate the infinite to the spatial and the visible, is like a kind of spiritual breathing. Thought begins to find its way back to its spiritual origins.

And, finally, during the eleventh and twelfth grades, it becomes critically important for the student to find a human approach to the computer, and likewise to electricity, radio, radar, television, and so on. A student who, during the previous few years was very likely satisfied with the practical “how?” of things now begins to seek the “what?” at a new and deeper level. Unfortunately, in many schools this is precisely when he is hit with a mass of technical detail from sciences that have given up virtually all concern with anything except the “how?” Harwood finds this unfortunate:

[The student] must at least glimpse the possibility of understanding what the world is. That understanding may not go very far at this age. But unless the curtain is parted a little at the critical time, it will only too easily densify into an iron one, and the adult will go through life believing that the ultimate questions are unanswerable, or falling back on a faith which his conscious mind and his reason cannot support or justify. (H)

Personally, I cannot help wondering how much of the appeal of virtual reality for the young person lies in the impenetrability of the “real world” we have handed him.

But how can we approach the “what?” of the world? The Waldorf educator's deep conviction is that we can do so only by turning toward the human being.

Human-centered education

“It is only in modern times,” writes Harwood, “that man has imagined he can know the world without knowing himself.” Sometimes it seems that we have turned this older view inside out: we struggle to know ourselves by first knowing the world. An ascending staircase leading from physics through physiology to sociobiology affords the primary approach to the human being acceptable to the dominant academic mindset of our day.

Whatever the justification for that mindset, it is foreign to the child, who longs to discover himself -- that is, a spirit akin to his own spirit -- in the world. All human knowledge was once myth-based, and this is the most natural thing for the child. To deny the child his kinship with the world because that kinship so easily finds “religious” expression would be misguided, for it is not a matter of any particular religion:

No child longs for a dogma, for a religious denomination, for a political or other kind of program; he longs neither for pacifism nor nationalism. What he does want is to grasp the spiritual influences on nature and on world history, for they are food for his soul. (A)

Aeppli goes on to mention how the child in the lower grades -- if his impulses have not been artificially inhibited -- will speak “to sun and moon, mountain and stream, dog and bird, stone and stick as though to his equals. He is connected to them through forces which are no longer present in the adult, or do not appear to be.” Just as the world does not come divided into “subjects” for the child, neither does it come rigidly separated into self and nonself. Only with time does the latter distinction become radical -- and just how radical may vary from one adult to another far more than is commonly realized. Much depends upon how, and at what age, we insert -- using the powerful wedge of the intellect -- a distance between child and world.

But preserving the child's connection to the world does not mean starting with the man-made objects in the classroom:

What is close to the seven- and eight-year-old child? What does his world look like? Is it the chair on which he sits, the notebook in which he writes, the playground in which he romps? Or is he perhaps even more deeply connected to the sun, moon and stars? ... Is what is close to his body also close to his soul? Or is he closest in his “consciousness,” in his “thoughts,” precisely to the heavenly bodies, as well as to clouds and winds, trees and flowers, water and fire? Does he not live particularly deeply and vividly with these things as long as he remains unspoiled? And does the small child find the classroom, the house, the town, everything planned and built by men to be foreign, far removed and incomprehensible? ... In the beginning was the whole world -- that is a mental image which is closer to the child than the one ... which elevates the classroom to the origin of all existence. (A)

Thus, history begins with the most ancient civilizations -- India, Persia, Egypt, Babylon, and Greece. Here the child is closest to home, sustained by peoples who, like him, experienced a world of images, a world sacred, alive, and nurturing, the bearer of every individual destiny. The child thrives on this and will, in due time, begin to “wake up” with the discoveries of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. But his waking, then, will not be a nightmare; he will be waking to a world in which he belongs./3/

The child will -- and must -- steadily “come to himself,” standing within his own center and learning to look out upon the world with the most rigorous objectivity possible. But even in his maturity, if that gaze returns to him nothing of himself -- if he has been taught to recognize “out there” only atoms moving in the void -- then he will be cut off not only from the world but from himself as well.

Much in modern life attests to alienation. Harwood points to one symptom when he remarks, “It is a strange thing that an age which has discovered so many marvels in the universe should be so conspicuously lacking in the sense of wonder.” Waldorf educators appear committed to rediscovering the sources of wonder. Actually, I think they would say that the small child is already filled with wonder. Our task is to avoid robbing him of it.

A word about the preschooler

The child, in the view of Waldorf educators, is a work of art. He thinks, feels, and wills as a living unity. At the same time, he experiences the world as a work of art, an image, and reads it in harmony with himself. Both child and environment are works-in- progress -- the environment (if it is healthy) fostering a natural development of the child's capacities, and the child bringing to his environment a gift uniquely his own.

In the preschooler, this unity is expressed above all as a kind of willful imitation of his environment by the child. Not an adult imitation, mediated by a highly developed thought life and careful observation, but rather an instinctive, participative imitation. His imitation, so to speak, proceeds from within the phenomena he is imitating, rather than from outside. Harwood cites Thomas Traherne's remarkable evocation of his earliest childhood:

An Object, if it were before Mine Eye, was by Dame Nature's Law Within my Soul; her Store Was all at once within me: all her Treasures Were my immediate and internal Pleasures;...

What the child absorbs in this way is nearly everything. All of his most “brilliant” learning occurs during these first years. He learns, for example, to speak -- not like a parrot, nor by applying well developed, intellectual “learning skills,” but by taking directly into himself meanings that most of us could not even put into words. (Try explaining the definitions of “but” or “by” to a toddler!)

Steiner claimed to see in these imitative powers such a deep, organic drive that even some of what we consider to be hereditary physical likeness is actually a matter of the child's imitation of his family surroundings. The child's openness to “external” influence has huge implications:

The corollary to the child's immersion in his surroundings is that the influence of his surroundings penetrates him to an equal depth. The personal consciousness of the adult is a defence against his surroundings. He may be irritated or annoyed to exasperation by some continuous noise: but his consciousness keeps it from penetrating into those unconscious spheres where organic processes are taking place within him. The child may appear not even to hear the noise, but it enters so deeply within him that the forces of growth are affected, and perhaps weakened or impaired. (H)

The adults around the young child are the most powerful teachers he will ever know. So, too, unfortunately, are the television and other noise-making contrivances of modern civilization:

What he needs is that the adults, whose talk he hears and imitates, should speak clearly and beautifully and with affection. For the child is as sensitive to the mood as he is to the sound of the tones around him. The impersonal voice of radio and gramophone is not what he needs to imitate. A mother's singing, however poor, is far better for her baby than the best of records. (H)

Consistent with this imitation is the preschooler's love of repetition. The simple stories you tell must be told “correctly” -- which means “imitating the last time” -- or you will hear about it! IR]W10.5'ALDORF E10.5'DUCATION 10.5'IN P10.5'RACTICE

Questions and stories

Waldorf educators see the preschooler as functioning primarily in his will, as expressed through activity. It is the moving object that catches his eye, and he immediately insists on touching it. “Let me see with my hands,” Harwood reports one exasperated child exclaiming when asked to look at an interesting object. “Do not touch is to a child the most desolatory of adult prohibitions.”

But around age seven -- and in an evolving manner until puberty -- a strong feeling-consciousness comes to the fore. The child who previously “thought with his limbs” now thinks more with his feelings. It is, therefore, a strongly pictorial thinking, expressed through images laden with feelings of sympathy and antipathy.

Children of five will be satisfied by a story about very simple activities. You can tell them how the farmer goes out in the evening to feed his animals, and first he goes to his pigs, and then to his cows, and then to his sheep, and so on, and in what language they all thank him and say good night; and then how he comes home and eats the lovely supper his wife has prepared for him and goes to bed himself. The mere picture of the successive actions is a story for these little children. But if you told such a story to children of seven and upwards you would have a very poor reception. For them a story must live in the sway of feeling. There must be a time when the young prince is lost alone in the forest, and night comes and dreadful noises issue from the darkness and there is a flashing of mysterious eyes. Then at last he sees the welcome sight of a cottage with the red glow of a comforting fire shining through the window. At this cottage door the prince must knock seven times (not less than seven times in this age of rhythm) and, when he has almost given up hope, he hears a footstep within and the bolts are slowly drawn. And who is it who at last opens the door? A frightful witch. He turns to run but finds himself rooted to the ground .... All this sway of feeling, which would have been meaningless or harmful to the five-year-olds, is the very life-blood of a story to these older children who have passed the threshold of a new experience. For the soul no less than the body now demands its systole and diastole, the contraction of fear and sorrow, the expansion of laughter and hope. What is the reproach uttered by the children in the Bible? “We have piped unto you and you have not danced; we have mourned to you and you have not wept.” The children wish to play at weddings and funerals, to enjoy both laughter and tears. It is the duty of adults to give them the right opportunities to do so. (H)

Image, symbol, rhythm, the sway of feeling. The children will skip and dance, tell endless stories (in which they feel themselves participants), imagine elaborate playthings in misshapen rags and sticks, learn to play team sports, sing songs. The child is pulling away from the world -- but only to a degree. His unity with his environment is no longer directly imitative; it is a unity given above all in pictures, much as the ancient myths mediated to mankind a unified experience of the world.

The children learn in pictures; they “think” in pictures. As Harwood points out, if one particular child is slighted and disliked by the others, an admonition will more likely make the situation worse than better. But tell the class Cinderella stories over a few days, and soon the children will noticeably alter their behavior. The children take in the pictures of the story, and learn from them. Waldorf teachers frequently make up stories to deal with specific disciplinary problems.

They also use fables for this purpose. “What are the cruel tiger, the dumb monkey, the stubborn mule, the magnanimous lion, but real, concrete soul faculties [portrayed] in animal form, which today, in abstractions far removed from life, we call gentleness, patience, and brutality?” The child cannot respond to calls for “patience.” But he can recognize and take into himself the virtue imaged in the fabled animal.

Failure to realize this pictorial quality of childhood consciousness leads to the almost universal tragedy of our day: instructing the young in the highly abstract terms of scientific cause and effect. The Dutch psychologist Hendrik van den Berg (who, so far as I know, was not associated with Waldorf education) drew attention to the horror of so many adult answers to the incessant questions of the child:

Why are the leaves red? Because of the cold -- how untrue. Why is it cold? Because of the sun's position -- untrue. Why is the sun so low? Because of the earth's location in its orbit -- equally untrue. Why its location in an orbit? Because of the motion. Untrue again. Why motion? Because of continuous motion? Untrue. Why continuous motion? Because of God. What blasphemy! “Why are the leaves red, Dad?” “Because it is so beautiful, child. Don't you see how beautiful it is, all these autumn colors?” There is no truer answer. That is how the leaves are red.

Or, again, “Daddy, why does it snow?” “Well, during the summer there are leaves on the trees and flowers on plants, but now it is so dark and barren outside, that the world needs a white blanket.”

But no one believes in this answer. We do not believe in answers which locate the sense of incidents within the incidents themselves, and the sense of things within the things themselves. To us it is necessary for the sense to lie outside the things and incidents, outside the present. This is our first rule of life, that only what lies in the past has sense. The result is an endless regression. For every past has been present before and must have derived its sense from a still earlier past. This road of endless regression is the road on which we have sent the

child./4/ As Harwood points out, if we really want to know what sort of answer the child expects and will be satisfied with -- that is, if we really want to know what he is asking -- it is often enough to delay answering. The child will answer his own question. Harwood cites the case of a six-year-old girl who asked, “What makes the rain go up into the sky?” A puzzling question for an adult, to be sure. But the “universe of discourse” in which the child was operating was quickly revealed when she said, “It's because the angels want to drink.”

We adults have a choice: to seek by force of superior intellect to wrench the child into an entirely different and alien universe of discourse, or to acknowledge our own inferiority of imagination and try to move with the child in her universe of discourse. “One is really only qualified to answer children's questions when one shares their outlook and has acquired a little of their gift of fantasy.” (H)

Thus, for the child of such an age, one answer to “Where do babies come from” is quite properly, “from the sky.” The maligned stork deserves rehabilitation. Have we altogether forgotten what magic and wisdom there is in the image of a bird winging like a “pregnant thought” through the womblike vault of the sky, bearing a gift to mankind?

Harwood claims that such pictures enable the child to enter into thinking with a vigorous will and deep feeling. These will remain to strengthen the life of thought in later years.

Arithmetic and imagination

What about arithmetic? The Waldorf teacher begins with the largest number -- one. All other numbers arise from this primal number as fragments. “This as yet undivided, unbroken original one is the primary fact; it stands at the beginning. By splitting the one, tearing it into two parts, the number two came into being.” (A) If you begin with a pile of twelve chestnuts, you can allow the children to divide it into separate, smaller piles in almost unending combinations. They can choose, for example, how many chestnuts to “give” each of several recipients. The single, original pile becomes a resource upon which their freedom and generosity may act. The laws of number apply, but not in a way that thrusts the child rudely (and falsely) into a realm of inhuman necessity.

If on the other hand, we start with the parts rather than the whole, teaching the child that 1+1+1=3 and 2+3=5, there is nothing he can do with this. “Instead of creative numerousness he must experience unbending compulsion. This will affect him for the rest of his life.” (A) That will seem an extreme judgment only to one who hasn't digested the peculiar hold of determinism upon the modern mind. We are accustomed to building the world up rigidly from atoms -- and can find no escape for ourselves -- whereas the other approach, “the grasping of the whole before the parts, is the way of imagination, and leads to the view that it is only the whole which gives meaning and existence to the parts. The difference is as subtle as it is profound.” (H)

It is essential to begin realizing the historically peculiar tendencies of our own thought, which we should not mistake for necessary ways of thinking. We all too easily forget what chasms lie between unspoiled childhood and the cultured, twentieth-century mind. If we would truly free the child, we must not bind him with our own chains -- even if we are happy enough with those chains ourselves.

I have emphasized to this point the younger child, for here we see most easily some of the distinctive principles of Waldorf education. It is important to recognize, however, that these principles continue to govern this style of education in later years. In fact, the Waldorf educator will very likely point out that even adult thinking is far too lost in the abstraction of number, statistics, and meaningless information -- far too lacking, that is, in qualities of the imagination. A worthy education, therefore, will seek to spare the child this adult affliction.

An age of transition

Every age has its distinctive character. Aeppli describes wonderfully the perplexing transitions through which the child of nine or ten passes, and his remarks are worth citing at length:

The children are rather less coordinated than before .... The instinctive surefootedness is no longer there. Instead of the often light, dancing steps their tread is now somehow heavier. Also, they no longer abandon themselves so totally to rhythm. In a song, rhythm is no longer of equal or even greater importance than the melody ... [the child] is no longer at all pleased, for example, when the teacher claps the rhythm of a song or poem with his hands in order to emphasize the beat.... The teacher might suddenly become aware that he is standing opposite his children, and that a dangerous chasm has opened between him and them that was not there before. The children have slipped away from me during the vacation, he may say to himself, and he feels wistful, or even uncomfortable, for the children are looking at him with more probing, more critical eyes .... The teacher walks down the street with his children. Not very long ago he had far too few hands at such times for all the children hanging on him. Now he has exactly two hands too many.... Such a child may suddenly give his mother quite a shock by saying, “You know, Mommy, none of the fairy tales are true; and as for angels, they don't exist at all.” He says it with the tone, gesture and above all with the conviction of an atheist itinerant preacher. But when the child lies in bed at night he wants his mother to tell him a fairy tale and cannot fall asleep without it. And how does he listen? With enormous interest. He lives in the reality of the fairy tale himself.... The child sees “more clearly” now. He sees himself suddenly standing opposite things and feels forced to keep his distance from them. They become more foreign to him and, therefore, questionable. The entire world, in which he so recently participated without effort, somehow becomes questionable and full of riddles. Hence all the questions asked by children, which are often less important for their content than for the inner tension that caused them to be asked.... Inwardly, he begins to freeze. He feels himself kicked out of Paradise. The child can no longer accept [the] adult as unquestioned authority as he did before. Yet, it is precisely at this critical moment that the child needs a leader and helper more than ever. The teacher is thus faced with the task of rebuilding his authority on a new foundation. Off course, the eight- and nine-year-old child is hungry for knowledge of the world, too, but he can absorb that knowledge only as something whole, as a myth, fairy tale or fable, that is, in the form of pictures saturated with life. Be it tree or stream, moss or stone, all are living beings that can speak to the child .... It is quite normal for the teacher to speak about these things indiscriminately as living beings. In fact, it is what [the child] craves deep down inside. On the other hand, if you are involved with children in their tenth year, it is clear -- this is after all a truism -- that the teacher must now present the world ... in a much more sophisticated way than before. The beings must be distinctly separated. An animal is something quite different from a plant, not to mention a mountain. Every object has its own character about which the child would like to learn. What until now lived unseparated in the lap of a living and ancient oneness separates in the classroom into the various subjects such as botany, zoology, geography, etc.

From myth to abstraction

At this age, myth gives way to history. But it is history that begins in the dimmest, myth-connected past, where the children feel closest to home. They will study Egyptian hieroglyphics and perhaps even learn brief poems in Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Greek. They will gain experience in the ancient arts and crafts. One Waldorf teacher puts it this way:

History, telling as it does the story of man's deeds and strivings, stirs the child to a more intense experiencing of his own humanness; he lives in the drama of history as though he himself were involved in every happening. As he studies the dynamic progress of humanity through many different phases of consciousness he is led to see himself and the age he lives in as the heirs of an evolutionary process that he in turn will help carry forward .... History brings the child to himself./5/

After the twelfth year, the child begins to grasp abstract ideas. As Harwood notes, “One of the arts of teaching at this age is to find the subjects in which the concrete picture most closely exemplifies the abstract law, so that a natural unity is still preserved.” Harwood and Aeppli present numerous examples of course approaches for the later primary grades, as well as high school.

One other note: whereas the primary student needs adult authority worthy of respect, “the secret uncertainty of the adolescent makes him long for a hero -- of course of his own choosing -- on whom to model himself.” (H) He is prepared to emulate, not particular actions, but rather the adult's abilities, the adult's enthusiasm for knowledge and life. Referring to the adolescent's habit of destructive criticism, Harwood writes, “We should welcome even this destructive quality as a sign of mental energy. For the teacher's task is to convert this critical propensity into a zeal for the fine distinctions of knowledge, and thus turn destruction into creation.”

The teacher

It will be evident from the foregoing that the Waldorf teacher -- in the ideal, if not always in practice -- moves with her class from grade one through eight. By all accounts, an extraordinary community of education can grow up by this means. The teacher observes the individual child passing through many stages, and can adapt her lessons to the child's individual needs./6/

It is a demanding way to teach -- all the more because the teacher is given no fixed curriculum. She must develop her own curriculum, year-by-year -- while following, of course, certain general guidelines. Nor can she fully anticipate the directions in which her class will lead her. Children are full of unexpected questions, interests, and observations, and a good teacher will, to one degree or another, take advantage of these opportunities.

Moreover, there is surprisingly little use made of textbooks, and often little or no homework is assigned. The teacher must be capable of presenting much of the material herself. The heart of education lies, not in facts or knowledge, but in what passes between human beings. Think of what you gained from the most influential teacher in your life -- perhaps the one who changed the whole direction of your education. Was it primarily a collection of information, or rather a new, enlarged sense for what it means to be a growing, learning human being within the context of a particular field of knowledge?

What the child finds in the teacher must be discovered to be no more rigid and abstract than what he finds in nature. “Only that which has transformed itself in me through my own efforts has a healing, releasing, and nourishing effect on the child. For that reason I must not look to replace myself, the teacher, with the tape recorder.” (A)

Like the reference to thinking as cosmic knitting, this may seem a strange thought. But it is strange only so long as we think of knowledge the same way we think of an atom -- as a “thing” to which we have no inner relationship. But the child has no use for such “facts”; he must find an inner connection. We cannot help him in that task unless we, too, have found such a connection. But to find it is also to be subject to it; we will be changed. The “spirit in the world” will act upon the “spirit in us.” Entry to this life of transformation and unending growth is, above all, what we owe the child.

Selected bibliography on Waldorf education

Aeppli, Willi (1986). Rudolf Steiner Education and the Developing Child. Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press. Edmunds, L. Francis (1992). Rudolf Steiner Education -- The Waldorf School. Sussex, U.K.: Rudolf Steiner Press. Harwood, A. C. (1958). The Recovery of Man in Childhood. New York: Myrin Institute of New York. Harwood, A. C. (1988). The Way of a Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. Richards, Mary Caroline (1980). Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. Spock, Marjorie (1985). Teaching as a Lively Art. Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press. Stockmeyer, E. A. Karl (1969). Rudolf Steiner's Curriculum for Waldorf Schools. Sussex, U.K.: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications.

Many books about Waldorf education are available from Anthroposophic Press. You can obtain a catalog by writing to the Press at RR 4, Box 94-A-1, Hudson, New York 12534 (Tel. 518-851-2054).

Also, Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education is published by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, 3911 Bannister Road, Fair Oaks, California 95628 (Tel. 916-961-0927). This organization can supply further information about Waldorf schools and Waldorf education.

A Waldorf discussion group is accessible through the Internet. To receive all messages posted to the group, send the single-line message, “subscribe waldorf” to the email address, “”. (Do not include the quotation marks, and do not add any other text to the message.)

Get The Future Does Not Compute now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.