A journey towards an interest in the world

By Alain Denjean, October 2017

At a time in which political life is dominated by subjects such as borders and separation, defence and protection, there is no great surprise in a current survey according to which the highest priority for young people at the moment is not freedom, riches or being well off but security.

Photo: © Marie Maerz / photocase.de

The experience of the separateness of the other person and the world leads the small child at around the age of three to the first experience of self. The previous empathy of the infant gradually recedes. The growing child increasingly experiences themselves in the polarity of sympathy and antipathy and reattaining the original empathy is difficult to achieve. Various phases and facets of successful or unsuccessful striving for an interest in the world and empathy can be distinguished. To begin with we encounter a double spiral of otherness:


Foreigneness Opening up

Experience of distance







Overcoming oneself, assimilation

Isolation and cutting oneself off

Interest in the world and world citizenship


Alienation easily develops, often unnoticed, out of otherness if we cannot make sense of something out of our perceptual world. In the cartoon series Asterix, the Gauls live separated from the Romans by a wooden palisade. Each group has its own identity and each time the Gauls cannot make sense of something the Romans do they exclaim: “These Romans are crazy!” That is an experience of foreignness. The foreign element attacks our own identity. It is more than otherness.

Experience of distance

When I experience distance between myself and what is foreign the question arises as to the relationship between us. Distance can lead to a feeling of the loss of our own identity so that we have to fight to preserve our everyday identity.

The demand for identity turns into defensiveness against unwanted changes.


Caution gives rise to preventive action. What is foreign and dangerous has not yet arrived but we nevertheless take action to do something about it.

An occurrence on a campsite: the tents are quite close together. On the right an elderly Dutch couple; they are reading in their folding chairs at the camping table. On the left a French family with children. The children are playing boules. There is a peaceful atmosphere.

Suddenly one of the children throws their wooden ball too far so that it comes to rest under the table of the Dutch couple. The old man picks up the ball, smiles at the child and says in French: “I’ll throw it slowly towards you; let’s see whether I can make it stop at your feet.” But he never gets the opportunity to do so because the mother comes over to the old man and says in a friendly but distanced way: “Best if you give me the boule. Everyone in their place, the children play over here and you read over there.”

A relationship between the two groups is not wanted. Who knows what might happen next. We don’t know these people! A hitherto invisible and unexpected barrier appears.


In a French detention centre for adolescents the management decides to take a group of young small-time criminals on a two-day trip. The group, accompanied by numerous staff, is to go on a visit to the city of Marseilles, spend the night there and swim in the Mediterranean before returning.

But the young people decisively and with one voice reject the trip outright. In the subsequent discussion it turns out that the young criminals from the north had a great fear of travelling to the capital of the French Mafia. They were frightened of being attacked.


Celebrities constantly have to defend themselves against the attention of the paparazzi. But does not each one of us today require their privacy? In earlier times, everyone in the village knew everything about everyone else. Today each personality centred in their self needs space of their own. This space of our own appears externally in many different guises: anonymity, shutters, tinted glass, passwords, blindfolds and earplugs. People want times of withdrawal away from everyone else in order to be able to think and to do what they want.

Isolation and cutting oneself off

The last stage in this spiral of otherness leads to the termination of the relationship with our surroundings and other people: we are solitary within ourselves, not in the sense of the hermit who cultivated a strong relationship with the supersensible but in the sense of the depressive human being, imprisoned within themselves.

All these stages are familiar to us and we are confronted with them through many everyday events. They all contain something that is justified and, indeed, healthy if it does not become one-sided. But in a life under the control of the I another side, the interest in the world, must also be developed so that the I can live in its precarious balance. Everyone wants that, but it has to be learnt.

In Waldorf education, teachers and pupils resolutely pursue the path of interest and empathy through all age groups and in all subjects. One subject in particular can illustrate the stages along this path because this subject – foreign language teaching – is most closely connected with otherness and foreignness.

Opening up instead of foreignness

The new French teacher turns on the CD player in class: the gentle sound of surf and waves breaking. She sits down on a chair at the front of the class and starts to row with her arms. In doing so, she tells, in French, how at low tide eleven-year-old Jacques Cartier likes to sit in the wreck of a boat on the beach at Saint Malo and dream about great journeys around the world.

The pupils are spellbound. This is exciting. They open up to the teacher and understand more than they would have done purely with their reason if they had just read the foreign text. “What was I telling?” the teacher asks. Pupils raise their hands and want to show that they understood everything. The one pupil who before protested loudly when the previous teacher said even just a few words in French has become one of the keenest. He has found the path to opening up. Vocabulary and grammar are not the primary concern at this stage: he has experienced it.

Interest instead of the experience of distance

This middle school teacher has an engaging and vivid way to telling stories so that the pupils experience success and even forget that a foreign language is being spoken. In addition, she introduces constant variety to her lessons. There are always little games which have no didactic purpose. Soon she reaps the best reward that a teacher can reap: always small groups of pupils come to her at the beginning of the lesson and ask: “What are we doing today?” The question is driven by interest. The answer is not actually the important thing.

Such an attitude to a foreign language has, if it becomes habitual, a positive influence on the social behaviour of the class. If a guest or new class mate arrives, the pupils spontaneously show interest and curiosity towards what is new.

Trust instead of caution

Everyone understandably has a certain fear of improvising in public. But in the restricted public environment of the class community this gradually changes because the pupils sense that, although they face a challenge, the teacher is there to protect them from embarrassment.

In a class 6, the pupils are asked to retell a story they have read, in front of the class and without referring to notes – but they may have a friend sitting beside them who has notes and who is allowed to help them out if they get stuck. That takes a weight off them and each one tries to give their mini presentation without help.

In class 11, the pupils are asked to invent the portrait of a person in six to eight lines: what that person looks like, age, background, job, hobbies, relationships… Then each one reads out their portrait to the class and the class can ask any questions they want: “You said he didn’t own a car. Why not?”

The pupil must react spontaneously and think of plausible reasons. All against one: in an atmosphere of mutual trust this can lead to the best and most amusing lesson units – in the foreign language.

Learning instead of fear

In the Waldorf school, each pupil is confronted with a faint tingling feeling several times a day which arises because they have an opportunity to test their independence, their positive ambition; pupils like that because it gives them the feeling that they are making progress. If on occasion a pupil has omitted to do their homework, they have a tingling feeling when they decided to own up to it before the homework check is done. But they activate the strength to say so from within themselves. Because with a given teacher they know how the latter will react.

The teacher will ask the pupil whether they want to leave the classroom briefly to look at the work they should have done in order then to be questioned like all the others, only a bit more leniently. The discrete wink of the teacher when the pupil then answers questions from the homework – albeit with beads of sweat on their brow – sends a good message. Learning instead of fear. That already provides the transition to the next turn in the upwards spiral.

Overcoming ourselves instead of defensiveness

Overcoming ourselves, acquiring something, instead of defensiveness: a system of education which gives pupils the opportunity repeatedly to overcome themselves in tiny steps banks on the future of the pupil. It addresses what lies within them but has not yet become reality.

World citizenship instead of cutting ourselves off

“Why do we learn foreign languages in school?” a pupil asks. “I don’t intend to leave Germany and don’t need a foreign language for the job I want to do.”

When such a question comes up, the teacher should sit up and take notice and take care to ensure that this is not the start of the pupil isolating themselves and cutting themselves off. On the other hand content can be discussed which can lead to wholly new dimensions of what it means to be human.

One example which can stand for many other situations: in class 11 the pupils learn the background to language in that they compare words in English, French and German. They discuss the highly topical issue of “boundaries and demarcation”. A list is made – as a first step in German: Grenze (border), Rand (edge), Küste (coast), Horizont (horizon), Strand (beach), Ufer (shore), Hecke (hedge), Zaun (fence), Haut (skin)… Then the corresponding words are compared in the other languages.

The German word “Grenze” comes from the West Slavic “greniza”, is related to “Grat” (ridge, borderline) and means “border area”. The English “border” comes from the Latin and French “bord, bordure” and means “edge”. A metaphorical word for an island people with experience of the sea. On a ship you are either on board or have fallen into the water. The edge, the coast, represents a clear line for an island people. In French we have the word “frontière”. It comes from the Latin “frons, frontis” – “forehead” – and means a place where we “face up to” something.

For a people which has waged the most wars in Europe the cultural background immediately becomes evident. “La frontier” is the line to which the land has been conquered and is being defended. This word “frontière” would have to be translated into German in relation to nature with “Marsch” (defence against the ocean through dykes) or “Mark” (Engl. “march” or also “mark” meaning borderlands) from the Indo-Germanic “mrog” meaning “edge, border”.

We can then look at German history in relation to its eastern borders and enquire into the nuances contained in the ancient Slavic word “Grenze”. Was this eastern border not always porous as opposed to “Marsch” and “Mark”?

An even wider perspective opens up when we consider the colonisation of North America against the “hostile” native Americans. Year by year the line of the colonised area shifted westwards. An incisive reality for the settlers. What do the North Americans call this westward migrating line in English? “Border” the pupils say. No, this kind of border has obtained the name “frontier” in American culture. And the “frontier thesis” is an important element in North American cultural history.

Here interest in the world and world citizenship develop. The cultural world is networked. Everything is connected with everything.

The downward spiral of otherness corresponds to our everyday life. We are at risk of being sucked into the whirlpool of Charybdis before we notice or do something about it. The alternative spiral of otherness leads us a little closer to our self, to the human being developing in us, with each thing we do.

Both spirals are necessary and medicine calls the positive handling of this dual stream resilience.

About the author: Alain Denjean was a French and religion teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School (Stuttgart) and a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. He advises the German Waldorf schools on foreign language teaching.