The child knows

By Wolfgang Saßmannshausen, November 2018

Human beings live in time. This means that the relationship with their own life changes at different times.

Photo: © pylonautin /

Thus our relationship with life is different in the morning from the evening, different at the start of our life from the middle or in old age. Equally the relationship of human beings to life in various cultural periods is completely different. The academic understanding of the human being such as in education studies, for example, must take account of this changing relationship of human beings to time. Indeed, this is where the key lies to unlocking the phenomenon of development and transformation. Development is not adapting to changing external circumstances but a motif which lies within human beings. 

Education in a spirit-oriented culture

In order to illustrate the current expectations of childhood, let us look at a culture of education and childhood from the far distant past – ancient Greek culture which represents the start of the history of conscious upbringing and education. 

Ancient Greek education came to expression in guiding children into their culture underpinned by an image of the human being which was experienced as something self-evident. Human beings were well developed if their body was harmonious and beautiful. All cultural achievements arose naturally if this prerequisite was fulfilled. Thus education was essentially physical culture and the person most skilled and knowledgeable about physical culture, the gymnast, was acknowledged as the qualified educator. 

Education was thus a process of adapting to an inwardly experienced image of the human being and humanity. The child was introduced into the existing culture and was at the same time given their place in their time and social environment. All the values and ideals which gave meaning to existence were alive in the environment and education was the process by which the child was included in this world. 

Education was cultivating the inclusion of the child in a spiritual context; it was in a certain sense teaching the child about the meaning and action of the divine spiritual in earthly and sensory existence. Thus it was also the highest fulfilment of the educational happening if a child became the representative of spiritual cultural values, such as a temple servant for example. 

This basic educational motif of wanting to adapt to a spiritually oriented culture supported by the whole attitude to life crops up again in the Roman or European medieval period even if the spiritual goals were different. Ultimately this basic motif was still present in the middle class educational practices of the last century. 

Meaning is no longer self-evident

Rudolf Steiner’s corpus of lectures contains remarks about basic transformations in the child’s expectations of their educators and their future life – expectations which offer a lens through which to consider current questions of childhood and education. In a lecture of 22 January 1921, Steiner points out that what children in the past learned about spiritual mystery wisdom through education has today shifted to the time before birth. 

“We cannot today think about the person who is born in the same way they were thought about in ancient times. In ancient times the human being was considered in that people said: the human being descends to earth and is called upon to be initiated through mystery knowledge into what they essentially are as human beings. That is not how things are today … Today we no longer have the task to decant, we might say, into the child what had to be decanted into them in ancient times. Today it is our task to say: the child knows.”

What happens when this prerequisite of the child’s personality is disregarded, when they are taught with the goal of adapting them to the dominant culture and image of the human being? Here too we can find an answer in Steiner in a lecture of 11 September 1920: we will bring up “rebels, revolutionaries, dissatisfied people, people who do not know what they want, ... When today the world is in revolt, then it is heaven which is in revolt, that is to say heaven which is held back in the souls of human beings... They sense this heaven within themselves; but it only takes on the form of a caricature in their soul.” 

A second motif that characterises the basic mood of childhood in the present can be found in a lecture by Steiner of 12 June 1919 in which he describes how all children – differently from previous periods of childhood – today enter life with an undertone of melancholy; this, he says, is because in the time they experience in the spirit before birth, the individual children thronging to earth meet those souls who have just left their earthly life behind, the deceased. This encounter makes every child shy away for a moment from actually embarking on their way to earth. 

“Because they know how their ‘spiritual wings’ will be ruffled, we might say, by what humanity today has to suffer through a materialistic attitude and materialistic worldview, but also through the materialistic actions in which it is immersed today.” 

The soul experience today is – other than in earlier periods – that life on earth is increasingly experienced as not being spiritually fulfilled. In other words, every child arrives on earth today with the basic experience that their incarnation contains an existential soul and spiritual risk. 

The experiences of teachers today show that the circumstances have fundamentally changed: above all at pre-school age and in the lower classes of school, two things are becoming noticeable with increasing prominence according to practitioners. 

On the one hand, the number of children is increasing who stand out because they are inconspicuous and go unnoticed. Thus there are many children of whom the teachers know that they were formally present but who make themselves inaccessible to deeper observation – for example, that hard work is required to obtain any idea of how these children felt in the course of the kindergarten or school day; the degree of pleasure, or lack of it, with which they were involved; how they listened or progressed with everyone else. 

They reveal a trend to avoid having a clear social and physical presence, withdrawing in a certain sense and facing the social environment as if from outside. Metaphorically, such children appear to be “raw”, as if they were anxiously avoiding any friction with the interfaces of life. Such “rawness” can come to expression down as far as physiological phenomena, for example in dermatitis. 

Another dominant trend in modern childhood is an opposite one: children who stand out because they make their presence known with excessive clarity. This includes all forms of aggressive behaviour or hyperactivity. These children are “protesting” unmistakeably against the measures and attempts to inculcate them with “culture”. These children find moments when there is a mood of inwardness – for example story-telling phases, solemn moments or silence – almost impossible to bear and will break away if they are not prevented from doing so through dubiously strict and suppressive measures. 

Motifs of childhood conspicuousness 

What underlies these phenomena? On the one hand it is the doubt that life can be fulfilled on this earth and in this society that makes the child behave in such a way. On the other hand it is the inward latently existing reality that the wisdom about the meaning of life can be obtained not from outside but only out of our own interior. Not instruction about the meaning of existence but the experience of meaningfulness in their encounters is what the children expect – an expectation that the adults bringing up the child will fill their life with meaning. 

But that shifts the focus from the child to the educator: a modern system of education which aims to do justice to the needs of children is not a one-way street in which the child is instructed but should include the innermost way that the teacher conducts their life. 

In this sense education today can only be understood systemically and as a partnership – not in a sentimental way but deeply seriously in the sense that only the person can bring up a child who is willing themselves to learn from the encounter with the child. Only against this background can Rudolf Steiner’s claim be understood that we can only speak about education if the educator learns at least as much as the child. If that does not happen, the encounter is different, perhaps containing an adaptation to certain norms, but it is not the education of the human being. 

Thrown back on ourselves

How can this motif be understood as one that is in accord with the current time? Two trends provide an outline which gives an image of the present: on the one hand we live in the age of globalisation. This means that the development of cultural and social processes no longer takes place in isolation but spreads worldwide and is available to the whole of humanity. The consequence of this is that values, norms, traditions and customs which belonged to a clearly defined community of people have become increasingly less defining. 

The other trend is the reverse side of the coin: the individual is increasingly thrown back on themselves. The “layers” which envelop them of their origin, status, religion and gender are losing in importance and no longer have the power to create inwardly supported motivation by which they can stand. Hence successful socialisation and development no longer lead to the overriding representation of a universe of group values but to an individual form which uniquely and unmistakeably is master of its own biography. Put in a different way: human beings shape their own destiny and set themselves moral and human standards which underlie their actions. Human beings are to an increasing extent exclusively responsible for shaping their own biography. 

Expectations relating to these trends are what children bring along with them out of the prenatal sphere. To this extent education today is – other than in a time when they had to adapt to a world of generalised values – an act in which destinies encounter one another at the profoundest level. 

Perhaps such a perspective might also explain the phenomenon that experienced teachers increasingly have the feeling that they face new and difficult tasks which – despite increasing experience – do not rule out failure.

For educational establishments this means that the individual teacher requires ever greater room for manoeuvre to cope with the “venture of education”. This also gives meaning to Steiner’s remark at the foundation of the Waldorf school that the curriculum must be permanently recreated out of the encounter of the teacher with the individual children – irrespective of the fact that there are age-related developmental rhythms in childhood and adolescence. 

This addresses a further aspect: modern education cannot be “devised” in theory and be the subject of theoretical research. It can only come about in the commitment to and involvement in the educational task since the researcher and academic – other than in the traditional concept of science – is directly included with their biography in the field to be studied. 

The modern concept of education refers not just to what the child intends in their will and what they envision but also to the same in the teacher. Hence it is one of the basic qualifications of the latter to be able to reflect on their own life experience in such a way that there is an awareness of their own goals. 

About the author: Dr. Wolfgang Saßmannshausen worked for decades in basic (Waldorf) teacher training at the Hibernia School in Herne and the Dortmund Rudolf Steiner Vocational College, then on behalf of the Association of Waldorf Kindergartens. He was involved in the training and advanced training of Waldorf preschool teachers worldwide on a freelance basis.