Learning from the earth

By Peter Guttenhöfer, November 2019

The forces of the personality develop in interaction with the earth. Today’s civilisational processes prevent such a development. What therapy would be required?

Foto: © Elena Beleites

Human beings incarnate into the physical and etheric conditions of planet earth. In the encounter with its forces and substances, the body develops into an instrument of their intentions. One prerequisite for that is that on the path through childhood and adolescence they have a real encounter with the substances and forces of the earth – with all their senses, with hands and feet. Otherwise they will fail to become familiar with earth and not be able to develop any activity in life which accords with reality and human dignity.

But increasing numbers of the achievements of modern civilisation prevent us, and particularly children today, from having any experience of and registering the full reality of physical existence on earth so that it is hardly possible any longer to develop a loving relationship with our own body and an empathetic relationship with the world. The consequences are immense and have started to reveal themselves in our neglect of the planet.

The traditional school systematically reinforces the process of the alienation of young people from the earth; with Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner gave an impulse a hundred years ago which furthers and supports a healthy incarnation. But since then, the circumstances of life have changed so radically that all the elements of education which could direct the development of the child towards the earth have to be strengthened. The idea and practice of education in complete environments (Handlungspädagogik) arise from this insight.

The task therefore is an education that brings us down to earth. Children need an environment in which all the realms of nature are present: living soil, plants, animals and the people working with them. Such a complete environment (Goethe), which is given optimally on the biodynamically managed farm, has an educational impact on the child which is particularly deep if they don’t just visit occasionally on a work placement but are gradually included in the activity of the adults: from imitation in play to sharing responsibility for the beings of nature.

This idea from Novalis leads us on the one hand to agriculture, forestry and horticulture, to the many different areas of home economics, and to a curriculum extended by the crafts and trades; and to the liberation of a concept of learning which has withered in the world of school: learning in interaction with the earth, in the direct encounter with the world, not just through books or from the teacher! The concept of “school” itself can be detached from the old picture of school desks, blackboards, chalk and marks. Even the picture of the “teacher” will change, perhaps even disappear: they themselves have to become active in the fields of life, something that Steiner referred to in his lectures about popular education even before the Waldorf school was founded in 1919.

These transformations will herald the paradigm change which is necessary: not a “school on the farm”, no, the farm as a “school”! This also means that the farm and the farm community will live and work under quite different prerequisites. In towns, where there are no farms, the fields of practice for education in complete environments might be: home economics, the crafts and trades, the arts.

Education and life are reunited under Steiner’s motto for us adults and our children: I want to learn, I want to work! I want to work as I learn! I want to learn as I work! Let us create places of practice where this can be exercised in a modest format.

Dr. Peter Guttenhöfer was an upper school teacher of German, history and art history at the Kassel Free Waldorf School; co-founder of the teacher training seminar for Waldorf education in Kassel and lecturer at Kassel University; works worldwide in teacher training and as a school consultant.