Good examples do not guarantee good people

By Hartwig Schiller, June 2012

Any system of education which believes that it can directly produce virtue and morality – for example through admonition and training – is naive. Ever since the brilliant educator Socrates came to grief with the education of Alcibiades at the latest, the error of such a belief has been well-documented and obvious.

Neither a good birth, physical advantages nor intellectual gifts were enough to steady the labile character of the Athenian youth. The arbitrariness with which he changed fronts in the conflict between Athens and Sparta, as he saw fit and to his advantage, leading first the one, then the other side, is without precedent. So for centuries he served as a cautionary tale for western youth in order to produce a positive effect – morality. 

Galloping inflation of failure

Alcibiades is present everywhere today. The existence of the individual takes precedence where people reject professional ethics, patriotic loyalty and common ethical standards. Outdated moral ideas and standardised collective rules have lost their binding nature for the individual. We might deplore that or consider it a problem but the fact remains the same. As early as 1898, the young Steiner wrote in the Magazin für Literatur: “In early cultural conditions, humanity strives to create social groupings in which the interests of the individual are sacrificed for the interests of the whole; subsequent development leads to the liberation of the individual from the interests of the group and to the free development of the needs and forces of the individual.” That, with all its consequences, says goodbye to the belief that the forces determining the aims of the human being can be passed down through tradition, genetically coded, conditioned or directed through reward and punishment. All the elements in this repertoire of measures can look back on a galloping inflation of failure. The forces of personality in modern human beings have proved themselves to be resistant to them. A moral orientation can only be constituted on the basis of creative potential and the dignity of self-determined responsibility. People will not work with conviction for something of which they are not convinced. Moral education today thus has to seek the forces of the I as a creative, self-determined and socially capable instance.

Moral education starts with the educator

But we cannot simply start trying to educate this instance directly. The nature and concept of the “I” require education to practice a “method of indirect action”. “Educating” does not mean dragging forth. Educating in this context means above all respect, delicate sensitivity with regard to our counterpart and the willingness to engage with the autonomous instance in the other person. The I of the educator can create favourable developmental conditions for the I of the child, it can stimulate, engage with, make demands of and support it. But in doing so it always has to observe its autonomy and independence. Education in this sense has no room for bystanders. They are not only redundant but also superfluous. Moral education starts with the educator and not the child to be educated. Such self-determination is not some sort of methodological trick. It only becomes effective when it is applied in practice. The teacher can do no more than make an offer, create a space in which initiative is encouraged, there is serious experimentation and attentive listening. He or she functions as a sensitive seismograph of what is happening in the lesson and the soul resonances at work in it. Such an environment opens developmental opportunities for the child and the possibility of awakening to himself or herself. Such an awakening is associated with initial moral inclinations because the child finds points where he or she can connect to the impulses of his or her incarnation which he or she set out to realise in this life. That is expressed in his or her gifts and “disabilities”. It leads to concrete developmental tasks which do not come to the child from outside but are connected with the (unconscious) developmental intentions of the child. This inner connection already contains a moral component. Anyone who can reach this hidden layer in the child can support the latter’s moral education. As the child’s ally, they do not preach moral commands but work with the child to fulfil his or her developmental intentions.

Imitation does not mean automatism

In antiquity, it was still hoped that a good example set people on the right path. The Latin word “mores” (moral attitudes and customs) – the word “moral” has the same Latin root – provides evidence of this fact.

Today that no longer applies even at the imitative age of the small child. Every educator knows the experience that children are frequently precisely not guided by the example which well-meaning teachers set them but with an uncanny knack go straight for the “bad” example. Steiner refers to the cause of such behaviour in a lecture which he gave in Dornach on 17 April 1923: “Whether a child puts his or her foot down with the toe or heel first, that too is dependent on whether he or she is imitating his or her father or mother or some other person. And the key factor in this choice, as we might call it, of the child, whether he or she is guided more by the father or the mother, is the attachment occurring between the lines of life – if I can put it like that – to the person which the child is imitating.”

Imitation is thus not purely automatic. On the contrary, the attachment of a child to a particular role model plays a decisive part. The child determines himself or herself whom and what it wants to imitate. Even if that decision is taken unconsciously or pre-consciously, it is nevertheless effective and points to the instance of the I in moral education which has to be taken into account even in earliest childhood. “Good” examples do not guarantee a “good” person. The freedom of the other person must be seen and respected in all situations. Morality can only flourish today in an environment of freedom.

The humus for moral development

Creating such an environment requires empathy, imagination, imperturbability and humour. The educator must make himself or herself a likeable person – not try to curry favour. Otherwise he or she will never gain access to the place where free morality is born, on which everything depends. Like every kind of education, moral education thus starts with self-education. But a person who does not know himself or herself cannot educate himself or herself either. The conditions which govern the indirect path to a moral education in the present time are uncomfortable. That is presumably why Steiner’s first words to the candidate Waldorf teachers in 1919 were: “We will only manage our task if we do not see it purely as a comfortable intellectual one but as something that is in the highest sense moral and spiritual.”

Moral education today takes place between autonomous people belonging to different generations. Where the child’s affection and educational intuition meet, there the humus for moral development is created, producing self-determined moral concepts and morality.

Such encounters can have many sides to them. They stimulate the child without taking possession of him or her. They allow the teacher and child to interact within their possibilities and limits. That makes every relationship between the teacher and child unique, unassuming and magnificent at the same time. Because the personal limitations apply to both sides and it is precisely the endeavour to turn concrete limitations into something higher that allows the creation of the moral biotope.

It is clear that such a way of educating exceeds the narrow limits of the intellectual transfer of knowledge and social instruction. It requires more than standardised ways of acting or a repertoire of canonised methods. Education turns into a creative process which belongs more into the realm of art than science. Art is about educational practice, science is about reflection.

That is why Steiner called Waldorf education the “art of education”, well aware of the dimension of moral education. Because art is the creative power of the I in reality, morality its freest form of expression.

About the author: Hartwig Schiller, former class teacher at the Hamburg-Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School, then lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart; former board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, since 2007 general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany.

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