Paths to experiencing truth – or the art of encountering the world and oneself

By Claus-Peter Röh, March 2020

The goal of laying down in young people the ability to distinguish between truth and untruth appears to be more contested than ever today. There is a great lack of clarity and certainty in public life as to which “facts” can still be trusted – or not. Juggling between lies and truth is commonplace.

Photo: © MissX.

The sheer mass of – partly contradictory – information appears to be corrupting our inner sense of truth. The consequence is “post-truth” judgements which have given up any aspiration of thoroughly examining the truth, as the trend researcher Eduard Kaeser writes. “In the digital world a permanent shower of information washes away very central standards such as objectivity and truth” (NZZ, 22 August 2016).

Where, then is the experience of truthfulness located in the human being and how can school enable the growing person gradually to develop an increasingly conscious feeling of truth? 

Truth in the garment of the imagination

The small child, grappling with their own relationship with surrounding reality, is to begin with still shaped by the free imagination: a four-year-old girl gathers from the conversation of the adults that an elderly gentleman in the neighbourhood has died. After reflecting on it for a while, she says: “I know how that works. He climbed very high up the ladder and then God fished him up into heaven.” The girl had probably previously taken in some words and images about dying from those around her. The way she expresses herself reveals the desire now to grasp what she has heard. Thus she attempts to approach the event in her own pictorial language.

Often the way the child experiences truth clashes with the concrete factual thinking of the adult: A small boy goes to his mother and states: “Mum, I saw a lion!” The mother with her old-fashioned morals responds: “Child, that can’t be true! There are no lions here in the town. Go to your room and say sorry to God for lying!” – When the boy returns quietly after a while, his mother asks: “And did you say sorry?” – “Yes, but – He also saw it.” 

The familiarity of this anecdote in its various versions clearly comes from the incorrect assertion “you lied!”. At an older age we describe lying as a conscious denial of the truth. This four-year-old, in contrast, told quite honestly about an image in his age-appropriate imagination. Just as in a puppet play he still experiences the action as truthful, so he sees the pictures of his imagination as inner truth. In this sense the saying “Children and fools tell the truth” applies not just where children tell the truth irrespective of convention and considerateness but also where they speak out of their imagination. 

Artistic work as interpreter of truth

They as enter school age, the experience of the child begins to pass through a metamorphosis of the soul. On the path from lower to middle school, a new capacity for experiencing truth reveals itself which is located between the power of the imagination of the small child and the fathoming of the truth purely through thought. The school child is now in a position to experience alongside the purely factual content the way in which this content is embedded and shaped in gestures, movements, sounds and moods as a “coherent truth”, we might say:

The way in which language, poetics, music and images are shaped and come to life in the classroom now forms a decisive bridge to the child’s experience of the world. Thus telling the Grimm’s fairy tale of Mary’s Child places the human struggle in the encounter with truth and lies in its full pictorial drama before the children of a class 1: in the absence of her mother, Mary’s Child has opened a forbidden door and is repeatedly unable to force herself to admit it. It is not until the accumulating consequences come close to the boundary between life and death that she decides to tell the truth. The power of the images, the beauty of the fairy tale language, and the redeeming moment at the end to stand by the truth form a space in which the soul can find profound orientation. 

Two years later, in the agriculture main lesson in class 3, the experience of truth is transformed towards the interchange between inner experience and outer activity. When the children through their own will place themselves in a meaningful life context in the activities of ploughing, harrowing, sowing and, later, harvesting, a clear will for truth is discernible. If we understand the reality of a life context as truth, the joy becomes comprehensible with which the children place themselves in a new context of truth through their work on the farm.

The will for truth can then particularly be promoted in the artistic grasp of the world. If we describe beauty in an educational sense as the coherent harmony between essence and appearance, then the production of something beautiful and coherent in design work is an approach to the truth. Starting from Schiller’s words “Only by means of the morning gate of beauty can you enter the land of knowledge!”, Rudolf Steiner describes in the educational youth course the importance of the artistic as a second garment of truth: “During primary school and long after primary school – for as long as we are talking about education and teaching – all the lessons have to contain the fire and radiance of the artistic element. Beauty has to rule throughout primary school and as the human being grows older, beauty as interpreter of the truth.”

Even if subsequently lessons in middle school are about precise observation and the interrogation of the phenomena, artistic representations keep building new bridges to a meaningful context: thus the stages of the base and acid values in chemistry in class 7 can appear on a colour scale between green, blue, violet, red and orange which is beautiful to the extent that it approaches the reality of the chemical processes and characteristics. Truth and beauty interpenetrate and form a whole.

Inside and outside the experience of truth

Every young person is familiar with very existential encounters in life with truth and lies. When a child cannot admit a mishap or deed and initially lies about the truth, we are challenged as educators to ask about the wholly individual developmental situation: did this pupil’s personality really perceive their own actions in full awareness of the consequences? Did the event possibly trigger such inner tension in the child that calm examination and admission are not yet possible at all? 

In handling such a situation, the educational goal to begin by entering the calmer waters of discussion and clarification has shown its worth. Above all, it is important not to make any personal moral judgement but to develop the thought that the young person concerned is also unhappy about the event in their inner being. But how can this inner core be reached? 

In the first two years of school, the path via “apt” and “moral stories” is still possible: in the “apt” story a natural situation is told as a metaphor for human development. The crucial part in this is that the image should reflect both the truth of nature as well as the truth of a human character trait. As an example, the nature of a sheepdog can be related in such a way that human values like responsibility, loyalty and love of action come to life in the classroom. In the moral story, the educator transforms something that has actually happened into the picture of the story which contains the core of the event in its own way: when this image comes to life the next day in the lesson, a space forms in which the pupils can once more freely confront the core of the event from their inner side out of the flow of the story. The transformative, releasing effect of such true images developed individually out of the situation and for the class can mostly be sensed directly.

With the initial release of new forces of thinking and judgement in middle school, the sensitivity towards the boundary between truth and untruth towards fellow pupils and teachers grows on the one hand. On the other hand, daily school life reveals the alertness with which this sensitivity is directed above all towards the individual relationship with truth and lies. The following scene occurred in a class 6: a new pupil joined the class. In the first days and weeks she observed the initially unfamiliar community quietly and alertly. Then, in one break, a fierce dispute arose with the neighbouring class 5 about the “rights to the table tennis table”.

That same morning, the pupils were called to account about the course of the argument. As individual pupils spoke, it becomes increasingly clear that they were not telling the whole truth. Suddenly the “new girl” simply could not stand it any longer: she banged her fist on the table, stood up angrily and called out: “For heaven’s sake! Why can’t you just for once simply say what really happened?” After a moment of sheepish silence, the whole truth of the event emerged. Clearly the anger and courage of the girl had struck the will to be honest in her fellow pupils which had until then still been overlaid with a gesture of protection and fear. In response to the appreciative question of a fellow pupil how she dared to do it, the girl answered: “I simply couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Two aspects of arriving at the truth are revealed clearly here: on the one hand, an outer event in life has become the truth. On the other hand, everyone involved is now challenged to find their own inner standpoint in relation to it. Clearly it is then difficult for some to express their inner conclusion outwardly as well. 

The school situation described above shows that the community could take a step forward through the love of truth of an individual. Clearly the way we handle outer truth is deeply connected with the inner being of a person. The way in which a person relates to truth can reveal both the truth and the innermost being of the person. 

The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer describes these two sides in the following words: “Two truths approach one another. The one comes from inside, the other from outside. And where they meet there is a chance to see oneself.” 

The youthful will for truth as a model

The thought that the identification of truth in the world corresponds to the ability to know oneself inwardly leads to further questions for teaching in middle and upper school. The biographies of Nelson Mandela, Julia Hill, Mohammed Yunus or Malala Yousafzai for example show that human and social progress can never be achieved without resistance, doubt and inner upheaval: particularly where clear judgements about world events are based on a profound feeling of a person’s own humanity, zones of tension are formed between the inner and outer experience of truth in which new questions and goals can develop. In respect of such a field of tension Nelson Mandela writes: “I wanted to change the world but in doing so forgot at first to change the person whom I knew best …” 

In meeting the first Waldorf upper school pupils, Steiner accorded particular importance to that outward/inward zone of finding the truth. After some pupils in class 9 had vandalised a place in the school, he spoke with them about it. In the teachers’ meeting, he delightedly described their will to call their own actions bluntly by name: “They are actually great boys [...] And with regard to self-knowledge there are many adults who could learn from them. They don’t gloss over anything. […] They are filled with a certain feeling for truth.” 

Looking at the path of the way we experience the truth described above, from the child’s imagination through beauty to the formation of a considered, independently acquired judgement in upper school, we can see where the human feeling for truth is located: it is formed in the free space between the recognition of outer truth in wakeful thinking on the one hand and the inner will for truth on the other.

This will for truth passes through metamorphoses starting in childhood. Where it awakens, it is incorruptible and endeavours to question and transform where there is a lack of coherence.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class, music and religion teacher at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School for twenty-eight years; today he heads the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach with Florian Osswald.