How education affects later life

By Michaela Glöckler, March 2012

There is hardly a lecture about education by Rudolf Steiner in which the effects of the style of education on the subsequent biography do not play a central role. It is all the more surprising that there has been little research into this subject so far.

If the temperamental disposition of a teacher can “discharge” itself on a pupil without let or hindrance, that can lead to a predisposition to illness which manifests itself in later life. Bärbel Walbaum wrote her diploma thesis on this subject at the Institute of Waldorf Education in Witten-Annen. Her husband, the specialist in internal medicine Dieter Walbaum, provided her with the required case histories. This work shows, as also corresponds to common sense and observation,

•  that a choleric and aggressive educational style increases the predisposition in later life to suffer from cardiovascular diseases,

•  that a phlegmatic teacher habitually produces boredom among pupils which later shows itself in a tendency towards nervosity,

•  that in lessons a sanguine teacher increases the tendency among pupils to have little vigour in later life as he always calls for action and sets tasks the success of which he does not, however, check or monitor because the set task had already escaped his consciousness or he has already moved on to something else,

•  that the melancholic with his weighed down attitude and the tendency to moralise and “appeal to the conscience” produces a trend in the second half of the biography of digestive and metabolic disorders. Such an educational style makes it more difficult to process impressions with the necessary ease on the one hand and fully enough on the other.

Childhood and youth are reflected in older age

Although it would be desirable to investigate this subject of primary prevention or health promotion in longitudinal studies, it is evident, nevertheless, that despite such absence of external evidence sufficient clarity about the health-promoting approach of Waldorf education can be provided. How is that possible?

On the one hand, through studying the numerous concrete references by Steiner regarding almost all typical chronic diseases in the second half of life and our interest in the quality of life of our own school years and of those people whom we know. A help in this respect is the complete collection of text passages from Rudolf Steiner’s educational lectures with a relevance to health compiled by Karl Rittersbacher.

On the other hand, the important effect of the school years on later life can be understood through the observation of facts of human development and reflection on knowledge we have had for a long time.

Here it is evident in the first instance that the developmental stages after birth progress in a characteristic sequence:

In the first year of life body control and upright gait are acquired, in the second year the ability of speech and in the third conscious thinking.

Having thoughts and noticing that we have them are two separate things – hence the self-awareness associated with thinking is, as a rule, acquired only when self-reflection starts in the third year in that we also remember what we have thought “ourselves”.

Development in the first three so-called septennia takes place in a correspondingly regular rhythm:

•    In the first septennium the focus is on the maturation of the organs of the nervous and sensory system, most sustainably and competently stimulated through physical movement, free play and fine motor activities.

•    In the second septennium the maturation of the rhythmical functions in the cardiovascular system and respiration follows which is most successfully supported through speech exercises, reciting poems, dialogical teaching, rhythmical exercises in eurythmy and music lessons.

•   In the third septennium the organs of the metabolic system (digestive organs, liver, gall bladder, kidneys, overall hormonal regulation, etc.) mature and the skeleton reaches its final size. Here it is the capacity for enthusiasm which can be awoken through teaching, the joy in independent cognition and finding the truth which are the best preventives for regulatory disorders in these areas. We can already see in the gait of adolescents whether they set themselves in motion through positive thoughts or through depressing ones, whether they are looking into a spiritual void and “hang about”. The upright posture also reflects the qualities of inner “uprightness” and orientation towards spiritual objectives.

If we supplement such thoughts with the everyday medical experience that these developmental events in the first three septennia are mirrored in older age on the far side of forty, then the facts to which Steiner has drawn attention catch the eye:

•   The menopause occurs in women between the age of 40 and 50, accompanied by the first ageing phase of the metabolic and limb system, something we can also observe in men. The most frequent diseases at this age concern problems with movement – joint and back pain, rheumatoid pain syndromes – as well as the large metabolic organs such as the liver, gall bladder or kidneys, as well as the functional grouping connected with metabolic syndrome and the associated type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is most prevalent in juvenile form and primarily insulin dependent; type 2 diabetes, in contrast, is acquired in the course of one’s life and improves through a healthy lifestyle so that the administration of insulin can frequently be avoided for a longer period of time.

•   Between the age of 50 and 60 a different kind of disease type becomes prevalent. In first-time diseases we are now dealing mainly with the chronification of lung diseases, but particularly also with cardiovascular problems: blood pressure, coronary heart disease, the first infarction or anginous complaints.

•    Between the age of 60 and 70 the nervous and sensory organs also begin to age noticeably, which can lead to the associated characteristic functional disorders.

If we reflect on this and consider the fact that everyone ages in this sequence, but not everyone necessarily becomes ill, then we must ask ourselves whether the nature of education – the “incarnation” process – cannot also influence the nature of “excarnation”, the more or less healthy aging process.

The effects of education beyond a single life

Can education represent adequate preventive medicine for the typical diseases in the second half of life?

Steiner is very explicit: the more harmonious and age-appropriate the education, and thus the support for the incarnation process, the healthier and harmonious the physical aging process. That this in fact appears to be the case in daily medical experience can prompt us to engage in a scientific examination of these circumstances; but it should, in any case, be an incentive in teacher training to understand education as a health-promoting developmental process.

In Education for special needs”, the so-called “curative education course”, as well as in the lectures in At the gates of spiritual science and Rosicrucian wisdom Steiner expands these considerations beyond the limits of earthly life. He bases his considerations on the equally common experience that what people experience in their waking ego consciousness has an effect on the emotional life. That influences our mental state which in turn has an effect on the physical body. Here it becomes clear that what we can consciously come to terms with has a positive effect on our mood, whereas unresolved “complexes” place a burden on our emotional life. If, in the worst case, we carry such a burden without resolution through life and take it with us across the threshold of death, then this burden appears in the following life on earth as a basic soul mood which has not been acquired in this life but which one “brings along” from before. This can take the form of a basic depressive mood, an inner emptiness, hidden feelings of hate or a tendency to mistrust or be indifferent towards a person close to us. If we succeed in helping the child to overcome this disposition through the structure of the educational processes and social interaction in kindergarten and school, such a wound produced by destiny can close and heal. If we do not succeed and subsequent life fails to lead to a transformation, the problem manifests itself in the next life on earth as a functional disorder with regard to our mental state, in other words, as a functional disposition of the body to become ill. This, in turn, can be largely remedied through education or, alternatively, be magnified through the wrong educational action. If in the further course of that life there is still a failure to counter these “weak points” through good habits or a health-promoting lifestyle, it manifests itself in the next life on earth as a congenital disease.

Understanding school as a “biosphere” in which help is given for self-help and education can be transformed into self-education – and in which help is given in the primary management of unresolved karmic burdens, that is, burdens arising through destiny – that is the task and aim of Waldorf education. It can devote its attention to this aim all the more successfully, the more there is trust in the relationship which makes up the parent-teacher-pupil triangle.

About the author: Dr. Michaela Glöckler was a paediatrician at the Gemein­schaftskrankenhaus Herdecke hospital and the Bochum University Paediatric Clinic, she has practiced as a school physician at the Witten Rudolf Steiner School and has headed the Medical Section at the Goetheanum since 1988.