Collective and individual identity

By Albert Schmelzer, September 2018

Finding our own identity is anything but a matter of course today. Contradictions and fractures undermine the longed-for unity and continuity from within. Ideas about what is foreign and foreigners, which turn into regular relationship illusions, create a fake identity through separation. In order to be able to develop a well-founded identity, we need to come to terms with what is foreign within and without ourselves.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Anyone who goes to a primary school in any urban area in Germany today will encounter a diverse mixture of children of whom at least one parent will come from Turkey, Poland, Russia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Japan, India, Africa, America or some other part of the world; accordingly there are also Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist families represented alongside Christian and atheist ones. We live de facto in a society with cultural and philosophical diversity; different concepts of life and value systems exist alongside one another. In view of the plurality of these possible ways of life, the question arises as to our own self-discovery – who am I? Who do I want to be? – with unavoidable acuteness.

This question is debated intensively in sociology, psychology and education under the term individuation. What does this term mean? The term identity is derived from the Latin idem, meaning “the same”. In this sense the classic author of modern identity research, the psychologist Erik Erikson, described identity in the 1960s as the “ability of the ego to maintain sameness and continuity in the face of changing fate”. With the turn to postmodernism, doubt has, however, been cast on the postulates formulated by Erikson of the sameness and continuity of the personality. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in particular emphasised that modern biographies are marked by contradictions and fractures: identity appears less and less as a gift which happens as the product of a “normally” progressing development but as a task which has to be managed each day. Yet the search for a life which is inherently consistent, for the “fit” of inner and outer world, continues to be relevant. How can such a search succeed?

The American political scientist Samuel Huntington gave an unambiguous answer to the question about individuation: “What counts for people in managing an identity crisis is blood and belief, faith and family. People congregate with others who have the same ancestry, religion and language, the same values and institutions, and distance themselves from those who do not.” Identity, Huntington says, forms through identification with a culture determined by ethnic origin, language and religion. The distancing from what is alien is a stabilising factor in this connection which should not be underestimated: “It is human to hate. For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies: competitors in business, opponents in politics.” What Huntington is postulating with such statements is the concept of a collective identity: the individual defines themselves as part of a social group.

What is foreignness and who is a foreigner?

Fortunately there is a completely different possibility of dealing with the challenge of cultural and religious diversity. The crucial factor here is the attitude we adopt towards what is foreign. Allow me to describe a personal experience at this point. In 1966, I had just turned sixteen years old, I was about to go on my first exchange with young French people from Chartres. An elderly gentleman from my home town, a small place in North Rhine-Westphalia, asked me to visit an elderly French gentleman as I passed through Paris in order to hand him a present. Because as a young man after the First World War he had been a prisoner in France and had had to work on the farm of the Frenchman’s family, but he had always been treated well and wanted to express his gratitude.

Now this Frenchman had subsequently experienced the German occupation during the Nazi period. He had joined the Resistance, been discovered and deported to Buchenwald. He was one of those who had survived the concentration camp. Since then he had not spoken with any German. But he had declared himself willing by letter to receive me. One of the reasons was that my father had died of the late complications  of a war wound – so I too had suffered as a result of the War.

I can well remember the moment when I stood before his apartment door. I was uncertain of myself, apprehensive and fearful; I experienced myself as a foreigner and the still unknown other as foreign. And then: a friendly reception from him and his daughter, the attempt to communicate with my school French, a joint drive through Paris in a taxi during which they showed me the sights of the city – the foreignness disappeared rapidly. And a sentence was uttered several times which later on I heard repeatedly: “Ce sont les grosses têtes, qui font les guerres” – it is the “bigheads”, the political and economic elites, who resort to war, not the simple people. The experience I have just described was had by many members of my generation: France and the French were foreign to us to begin with, but – through travel, visits and exchanges – became more and more familiar.

A similar thing happened with the British, but also with those who initially came to us as guest workers and then remained: the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Turks. And we enjoy the diversity which has thus become possible of the musical and culinary possibilities which have become so natural that we really no longer perceive a song by the Beatles, a pizza or a kebab as “foreign”. The situation has, however, changed with the arrival in 2015 of numerous refugees from Islamic countries, the category of the threatening foreigner has reappeared. And yet we should not forget the lesson of the previous decades: foreignness is a relationship illusion; it says little about the other but a great deal about ourselves.

In den moccasins of the other

When we have not just understood such a sentence but it has passed into our feelings, it becomes possible to take a crucial inner step: we can build an individual identity. But the latter forms not through a sweeping rejection of what is foreign but through a differentiated examination: what other values, lifestyles, religious convictions and practices appear reasonable and worth striving for, what can enrich me and be included in my own life plan?

Such a searching motion appears like a voyage on the open sea, it requires interest, empathy and the willingness to change our perspective; only when we have “walked in the moccasins of the other” for a while – as the Native American saying has it – will we perhaps learn to understand them. At the same time we will notice in the concrete encounter that something like Western, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian culture does not exist, as Huntington postulates all too simplistically; on the contrary, there is diversity and differentiation within a culture and numerous contacts between them.

The difference between a Salafist and a Sufi are by any count greater than those between a Sufi and a Christian mystic; on the open ocean of the individual search for identity the rigid categories of collective classifications dissolve. Anyone who in this way takes on themselves the venture of their own path requires courage and reason: courage because they must be ready to leave the warmth and security of the collective and reason because they have no other compass than their own thinking and sense of truth.

Lessons breach national barriers

Here we can see the extent to which the development of an individual identity is a question of education. School can be a support, but also an obstacle here. What does the contribution of the Waldorf school movement look like in this context?

If we look at Waldorf education, it becomes clear that it provides many different ideas for the development of an autonomous personality: a broad educational provision that challenges head, heart and hand allows for the development of diverse skills; an age-appropriate curriculum, connected with a methodology based in developmental psychology, leads from imitation through authority to the individual’s capacity to make sound judgements.

Furthermore, the content of the lessons breaks through national frontiers and restrictions: foreign languages are taught from class 1, history lessons are conceived not as national history but as cultural history and the history of humanity, in upper school world literature and world religions are dealt with. As long ago as 1920, Rudolf Steiner wanted to establish a world school association, today there are more than a thousand Waldorf schools on all continents. This provides the greatest possible openness and breadth: individuality combined with cosmopolitanism.

Foreign pupils provide an opportunity

The sociological reality of the schools is, however, different. In fact the schools, in Germany at least, do not meet their universal aspiration to be a school for all children. Waldorf schools here are attended – as empirical studies show – by children above all from well-educated backgrounds and socially well-situated families; there is only a relatively small proportion of children and young people with a migration background.

This cannot be held against the schools, given the lack of public funding and the associated necessity to charge high school fees. But the situation is nevertheless to be regretted; it has to be recognised that this is different from the founding impulse – the first Waldorf school was a school for working-class children with the goal of bridging the gulf between the social classes. Furthermore, an opportunity goes to waste which arises in a successful education system when numerous children with a migration background are in a school: the natural familiarisation which comes with growing up with children and young people with different cultural and religious affiliations and the many associated opportunities this offers to support the development of our own identity and real tolerance at an early age.

What this can look like in concrete terms is illustrated by the intercultural Waldorf schools in Mannheim and Berlin which have enrolled refugees. What Mannheim pupils remember in this context in looking back at their time in school can be taken as indicative. On their class trip they had gone to southern Spain and studied the time when Andalucia flowered in the Middle Ages, a period in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative religious tolerance under Islamic rule.

But then the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain, started; the last Islamic fortress to fall was the Alhambra in Granada in 1492. After having toured its richly appointed palace, two of the pupils, a Christian and a Muslim, had sat together in the evening on the fortress walls, talking until late into the night: “A good five hundred years ago we would have been bashing each other’s heads in, today we are talking reasonably with one another and have even become friends.”

About the author: Prof. Dr. Albert Schmelzer is a lecturer in Waldorf Education and Interculturality at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim.