Living the contradiction. Social studies in upper school

By Till Ungefug, December 2016

How should a social studies course be structured which has meaning and is guided by the developmental tasks of young people?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Social studies are intended for pupils in upper school. Every kind of social understanding is essentially based on the foundation of social experience, social action and, specifically, an extended curriculum of social learning. Here the Waldorf schools score not just with their many different projects, trips, experience of being on stage, work placements and other ways of social action, but also in the way that teaching is structured as a whole and the range of subjects taught – something which is expressly recognised by their graduates and elements of public opinion.

But all such activities assume that social learning remains in the subconscious – they subsequently need to be supplemented by conscious awareness-raising. The crucial foundations are thus laid in lower and middle school and the reflection exercises in the upper school subject of social studies can – and must – build on them.

This is recognised for the first time in the current new edition of the so-called “Richter curriculum” in that the chapter on social studies has also been revised. A fully developed course of social studies in the Waldorf upper school might be outlined as follows.

Individuality and justice

The ninth year of school is centred on the ideals of individuality and justice. Since here the I and the future-forming power of the will form the particular focus, a basic methodological feature and specific point of emphasis is the richly experienced encounter with content and, above all, the people who stand for it.

This can be done particularly successfully through excursions, invitations to or visits from personalities. The pupils should test themselves – for example through work placements – and subsequently reflect on what they have experienced. An interest in the world can be awoken in this way.

Social studies aim to give examples of idealism being put into practice and the struggle for social progress, to open it to experience and comprehension. Subject areas might be: media and information, basic rights, political opinion-forming and decision-making, the legal system, and highlights of social and political change, such as for example biographies and initiatives of people acting out of idealism and their conflict with the forces of inertia in past and present society.

Democracy and society

In the tenth year of school we turn towards the basic structures of the political, legal and economic world in which we live. The focus turns to the conditions which are the same for everyone. Here we are dealing with the law and its principles, legal orders as well as the material and natural conditions of economic activity and the basic forms of social co-existence to which this gives rise.

To these areas are added basic knowledge about employment and questions of political participation from the world in which the young people live. These subjects can be used to develop and refine the ability to make judgements.

Convictions based on feelings are given or deprived of a factual basis. Support is provided for the inner ordering process as well as finding and substantiating standards. The central realisation is that cultures and civilisation exist in structures created by people which shape and determine all superficially visible developments.

Suitable subject areas here are: the legal order and separation of powers, the electoral system and political participation and, as a counterpoint, alternative social ideas such as concepts of direct democracy, complementary currencies, questions of a universal basic income or the circular economy (such as “cradle to cradle”).

That leads to basic concepts of economic activity such as the product chain, division of labour and infrastructure, market mechanisms, pricing based on supply and demand, or agricultural, industrial and service economies. Foundations of employment law (apprenticeship contracts, employment protection) may be added.

Human dignity and solidarity

Class 11 looks at questions of humanity and global solidarity, the dignity of the human being as well as the core issues in social happening. Lessons now focus on dialectically investigative thinking and discussion which includes individual differentiation as well as variable and alternative concepts of thought in a systematic comparison.

To a greater extent than before, the focus now turns on the deeper inner layers in all social relationships. The question as to the “you”, which only now can be taken hold of in an authentic and differentiated way, can be reflected on, penetrated with feeling and worked through by means of many different subjects – without having to be explicitly present.

A sense of the dignity of the human being and its realisation in every form of human relationship can build on this, both in the immediate environment and in the worldwide context of the “global village”. It can be motivated by all forms of a change of perspective and by artistically and playfully feeling our way into other roles, or by independent attempts at moderating discussions or games by the learners.

Finding the right measure of things and learning to differentiate so as to take account of what gives our counterpart their specific qualities can become the defining quality of the learning pathway in this year.

Subjects could be: human dignity and balance of interests, an approach to political theory, social change in the various facets of society, and in this connection all questions relating to the economy in a global context, including the forces of civil society and liberation movements, as well as injustice and degradation as the breeding ground of conflicts and the readiness to engage in violence. The pictures of hope contained in a successful social relationship are then contrasted with the failure of this relationship as so frequently reported in the media.

In this sense the internationally ever-present catchword of terrorism requires differentiated reflection which, for example, looks at the perspective from which this concept is formed or motivation and forms of manifestation over the course of time; also the factors of fear and violence in crowd and media psychology.

Reflection and overview

In class 12 we dare to take an overview. Here the lessons will attempt in a diverse and multifaceted way to address and promote interconnections both in a subject-specific way and between the differing abilities of the young people in cognition, empathy and creative power.

In social studies the reciprocal effects between the economy, politics and culture, between self, fellow human beings and the environment are the guiding principle and practice field for training a reflectively surveying power of judgement which can now be confronted in full measure with the complexity and relativity of the conditions of human existence and our knowledge about it. The young adults are to be put in a position in which they can live in a constructive way also with the contradictions of our existence on earth.

Social studies for young people who have come of age should open up perspectives and instruments to this end. Here it is a particular challenge in respect of the whole context of the lesson to avoid pushing feeling and initiative to the sidelines through cognition. Contributions to a holistic approach might also be simulations and role plays including strategies for action – as raised by ethical issues.

Such experiences offer learners the opportunity – through working their way into a perspective which has been sketched out beforehand – to experience and reflect on these connections, which are often seen in an abstract way, in their living aspects and inter-human relationships.

On this basis all subject areas suggest themselves which bring the world as a whole to consciousness; that is, international politics, the creation of a globalised world through the interaction of the economy, politics and culture. In this context the international financial system (also: capital as the power to take action, the psychology of money, or alternative monetary theory) should, not least, also be considered.  .

With regard to the preparations for the school leaving exams, social studies lessons should be guided by the requirements of the state examination regulations and the core curriculum.

About the author: Till Ungefug is an upper school teacher at the Waldorf school in Hanover-Bothfeld (German, social studies, history, art appreciation and drama) as well as a lecturer at the teacher training seminar in Kassel (mainly social studies). He is also co-editor of the “Sternkreis” song books.

The basis of this contribution arose in collaboration with M. Michael Zech and a working group of other fellow specialists. A detailed exposition is available in: T. Ungefug, M. Zech: “Sozialkunde”. In: Richter, Tobias (et al.): Pädagogischer Auftrag und Unterrichtsziele – vom Lehrplan der Waldorfschule, new edition 2016. | T. Ungefug: Perspektiven der Sozialkunde – Plädoyer für ein unentdecktes Kernfach der Waldorfpädagogik (to be published in autumn 2016)

Note: A detailed argumentation (in German) by the author as to why social studies are necessary and no timetable should be thought of without them can be found here: “Waldorfschule heute braucht Sozialkunde”.