Knowledge through beauty – a pleasure

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, November 2014

Why is beauty the gateway to knowledge of the world for children in the class teacher period? Their aesthetic sensibility must be addressed with ensouled and living images and concepts so that they can obtain knowledge.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

When children learn to stand upright in their first years of life, to walk, speak and think, they gradually obtain autonomy in that they act by imitating what they perceive in the adult. As paradoxical as it sounds, we develop our individuality by giving ourselves over to others.

At about the time of the change of teeth, such devotion is relocated increasingly to experiencing the world also inwardly through the soul. At the same time the ability of children to form specific ideas, remember things and intentionally direct their attention at something grows. Feelings become an organ of perception of the world in that the awakening conscious encounter with the world and the still present wish to imitate interpenetrate one another.

We notice a profound need in children to harmonise with the truth, beauty and morality in the world because they still form a unity with one another. Children find access to goodness and truth through beauty – as all the fairy tales tell us, in that goodness always takes the form of a wonderfully beautiful princess or a handsome prince but evil is ugly and, even if it disguises itself, is always forced to reveal its hideous face at the end.

In well-told stories, in the beauty of drawings, songs or sounds children experience much more than bare information: they sense the essence of things and continuously build the substance which in future can turn into mature power of judgement. But the latter is preceded by the exploration of the world through the senses in goodness, in short: its enjoyment.

Beautiful words for listening ears

At around the ninth year of life the unconscious powers of imitation have largely been exhausted and children place themselves in a new relationship with the world. Until then they love it when adults make the kingdoms of nature, animals, plants or minerals, accessible to them through stories in which the world is presented as being moral. Moral – but in an aesthetic form! “Beautiful” and “good” are two sides of the same coin and children enjoy immersing themselves in that with their feelings in ever new images and experiences. That continues in the fables of the second school year which characterise one-sided aspects in human beings through animal figures; or in legends such as the sermon to the birds of St Francis’ who overcomes his egoism through love. The crucial thing here, however, is not to trivialise everything through pointing the finger of morality but to embed the story in such a way into the lesson that through the living image a feeling of satisfaction can arise and continue to work inwardly. Anyone who has ever experienced the way in which a relaxed, chattering class can turn into a single great, listening ear within minutes when a story is told in beautiful words, knows the ardency with which children are able to engage with the world.

Knowledge in aesthetic form

An important turning point occurs in the third school year. The children begin to turn their attention increasingly to nature itself. They do not, however, want abstract knowledge but a reference point to which they can build a direct relationship: that is the human being himself or herself. The knowledge they long for is a pictorial knowledge, symbolic, archetypal and transparent to let a greater context shine through which is interwoven with all phenomena. Just as a good poem always delivers more than information, so lessons at this age must be composed in such a way that they touch the artistic and aesthetic sense of the children which alone can address their imagination and desire for knowledge. There is a great difference – to stick with learning about nature – as to whether we learn about animals and plants in their relationship to human beings or whether we look at nature from the start as an external object which has no relationship with human beings.

Merely observational lessons ultimately produce indifference, whereas the farming main lessons in the third school year, in which there is ploughing, harrowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, give rise to a multitude of skills and knowledge: the children learn something about the work which lies in each bread roll, about time and the responsibility of human beings towards the other kingdoms of nature, about economic and social structures – and quite incidentally also lay the foundations for later scientific thinking and work.

This becomes even clearer in the natural history lessons in classes four and five in which the animal forms and their physiology is always placed in a relationship with the human being. A deep feeling of the responsibility of the human being towards the world can arise when the human hand is compared with the paws of a lion, the talons of a bird of prey or the hands of a mole and it becomes clear that their limbs are shaped much more specifically than the imprecise human hand, but that the latter is suited to changing the whole world, depending on what we do with it.

The children have a direct understanding of such insights if they are taken by the adult on a journey of description and observation of and the relationship with such phenomena. The middle of childhood is generally marked by an incredible pleasure in artistic access to all conceivable objects, something which is also revealed in the design of the main lesson books, in music making, acting or the natural harmony of children’s movements.

Allowing the phenomena to speak for themselves

A further important turn occurs at around the age of twelve. Puberty is heralded among other things by the growing pleasure in making own judgements. Now the relationship between human being and nature is reversed. Previously we looked at nature through the human being. Now the phenomena of nature should speak through themselves and throw a new light on the human being. Thus in optics we can explore refraction and rediscover it in the human eye; another example is the physical lever principle which is also revealed in the human skeleton. The processes of combustion, of the formation of acids and alkalis can be related to human beings and specifically their digestive activity. When the phenomena begin to talk, they tell of the human being as part of nature. Anyone who has drawn, investigated and constructed geometrical forms with a class six knows the sheer pleasure of children in the beauty which develops from the precision of the drawings. The aesthetic experience turns into amazed learning when similar structures are discovered for example at the bottom end of a pine cone. Beauty and knowledge form a unity again but at a new level because now the reality which was first conceived in the thinking and then constructed has been discovered also to exist in the world.

The world as a beautiful work of art filled with meaning

In the three sections of the “second septennium” which have just been described, the children seek people who are in a position to decipher for them the relationship between things in an artistic and at the same time cognitive way. Authority arises when the children experience in their teachers how the latter grasp the world with their thinking and judgement and recreate it with their imagination – as a work of art filled with meaning in which everything is related to the human being and the human being is related to everything. Guided by their aesthetic sensibility, the children seek beauty and harmony in the world which surrounds them.

The greatest challenge facing teachers working with children in the second septennium is to keep being amazed themselves despite all their knowledge, to take pleasure in creative nature and to interest themselves without reservation in the world. That is the only way in which teachers can do justice to the trust which children place in them. Learning in the second septennium means experiencing the world as a work of art, as a creative process and thus to lay the foundation for all independent acquisition of knowledge in later life; because creativity cannot arise without creativity. We can only form living concepts if we do not move within the limits of finished definitions but bring things into relationship with one another. That is essentially an artistic process which teachers first have to experience for themselves if they are then to make it an experience for the children.

Only living, process-related concepts, that is artistic and aesthetic ones, can grow with the children and be transformed as they grow older. Abstract definitions do not change and they create the condition for rigidification of the soul. In contrast, concepts which arise from the relationships which are experienced in things and which arise from them remain elastic, expand and grow with the human being. Cognition in the second septennium also always means: enjoyment. If cognition turns to enjoyment it retains its interest.

About the author: Henning Kullak-Ublick works in public relations in Hamburg and is a board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.