“Truth is a torch; but a huge one”. Motifs from the core zone of adolescence

By Andre Bartoniczek, March 2020

What does it mean for a young person when they learn that the captain of a rescue ship which has just rescued 53 people from the sea is described by Italy’s interior minister as a “criminal”, a German member of parliament calls her an “accomplice of people smugglers” and representatives of a German governing party refer in general to “refugee tourism”?

Photo: © kallejipp / photocase.de

What was it like in 2003 when the American government presented irrefutable evidence of the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to legitimise the devastating invasion of the enemy country and it later emerged that this evidence was forged? What  moves the youthful Friday demonstrators when they hear the promises of politicians and learn at the same time what they are actually doing? Or on a much smaller scale: what does it mean for a pupil when a teacher accuses them of doing something they did not do yet the teacher insists on his opinion despite evidence to the contrary? What does a pupil take with them into life when a college of teachers removes them from register duty because they also started to record the teachers arriving late?

Anyone who has experienced such situations knows how they affect us personally, knows the pain of disappointment, hurt and bewilderment which arises at this moment, but also the outrage and anger. Truth is not a neutral affair of non-binding considerations but affects the foundation of our life like a medicine. Lies can be destructive, but the experience of truth cathartic, strengthening and upbuilding. The Czech writer and civil rights activist Václav Havel, who repeatedly went to prison for his convictions and became president of his country after the “Velvet Revolution”, said about the attempt at Living in Truth – thus the title of his essays from 1978 – that it led “a person on to the firm ground of their own identity”. Those are words for young people: 

They arrive on earth wanting to find their identity in this unknown world waiting to be discovered. But that only works if this world has meaning, can be understood, and justifies trust in its “coherence”. But if a young person is forced to discover that the reality which they encounter suddenly turns out to be a deception and they cannot rely on it, they will find it difficult to make themselves at home on this planet. Humiliating experiences, powerlessness, a feeling of meaninglessness extending as far as hate for a hostile, destructive world replace the joy of being human.

“Alternative facts” was voted “worst phrase of the year” in 2017 and the cases which justified this choice can no longer be ignored. The consequences of the permanent twisting of facts are long-lasting – above all because we become used to them and notice them less and less. It will soon be possible to recreate everything from plants to humans; gene, nano and computer technology simulate life that isn’t any – soon we will no longer know what is “real”. And people don’t want to know any longer: decades ago, the philosophical view took hold that truth or reality was an invention: the subject creates its own world which could not be examined for its coherence because that assumed objective reality. But that did not exist. Asking about “truth” was unscientific, indeed ridiculous – with the consequence that no one could claim any longer to identify something like the truth. These to begin with purely theoretical positions have penetrated the everyday sense of life of our time: resignation sets in and the drive to struggle for knowledge wanes. It is simpler to emphasise that everyone has their own view than to take on the effort of examining content and looking for solutions together. Pontius Pilate’s baffled question is incredibly modern: “What is truth?”

Thinking context for ourselves

Against this background, we can get an idea of the importance of the way we deal with the question of truth in education. It will become one of the most important tasks of schools to enable young people to experience that there is the reality of a spiritual, meaningful world, that they themselves can understand this world in their thinking and that their own spiritual ideals and biographical intentions are not soap bubbles to be sneered at but realities. When in adolescence the individual personality of the pupils progressively awakens, there is an increasing desire to form judgements about the world on the basis of their own questions and insights and to assure themselves of their truth. Have humans descended from the apes? What is atomism? How can I understand the events of the present? What is time? The pupils have to find the answers themselves. Lessons introduce them to the phenomena of the world and encourage them to reflect independently on them. 

This is not about knowing content: differentiating between “fake” and reality is becoming more and more difficult and demands the greatest activity from people. For as long as pupils are asked to take in information passively and reflect this in their ideas, things remain arbitrary and without relevance because the perspective which gives them meaning is missing. We can look up facts in the blink of an eye today but their context has to be thought about, and we have to do that ourselves. Such thinking must be practised. Rudolf Steiner once expressed in an image what needs to be learnt here. If a man was lying dead under a tree and there was a ladder leaning against the tree next to him: what would our first thought be? He fell off the ladder and died as a result. But that is not necessarily the case: he might have died of a heart attack and fell of the ladder because of that. We do not as a rule think of this second possibility because our thinking is too inflexible and frequently only follows tramlines. 

The French Revolution is very often explained as being the result of the economic situation in France – what happens later is derived from what went before, like falling dominoes. But could we not also reverse it and ask ourselves whether it was not the perception of a freer future world that sparked the protests against the economic circumstances? Is puberty an inconvenient but necessary biological interim phase which hopefully passes quickly or is it the gratifying expression of the future of a person whom we learn to know only now?

Truth must be struggled for

Truth is not content to be learned but the result of a great deal of personal effort. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing said the famous words: “It is not the truth which some person possesses or thinks they possess but the honest effort which is applied to get behind the truth which constitutes the value of a person. Because it is not through their possession but through their investigation of the truth that their power grows.” In this spirit, history lessons in class 9 consider, for example, Hans and Sophie Scholl who were not opponents of Hitler from the beginning. The pupils are asked to see them initially as supporters of the Hitler Youth and then their own judgement has to become active to free themselves from habits of thought and learn to understand how something like that could be. In their own effort to understand, they reproduce the struggle which the Scholls went through as the feeling gradually awoke in them, “it was as if we were living in a house that had once been beautiful and clean but in the cellar of which terrible, evil, sinister things were happening behind closed doors”. Only by struggling with lies can a person obtain freedom – truth never exists as an outward given. 

In literature lessons in class 10, we might consider the images of Horvath’s Youth Without God and meet the “teacher” who struggles through to an admission which puts him in a catastrophic position but at the same time resolves and clarifies the tragic situation of several other protagonists – so that the readers can sense the liberating power of truth. In class 11, the thorough observation of the cell in biology can lead to the discovery that its life is not exclusively controlled by the genetic information of the chromosomes but that the latter themselves are regulated by the proteins (enzymes) from the cell plasma surrounding the nucleus – providing an almost diametrically opposed view of our understanding of life to the well-rehearsed DNA thinking.

If we realise that a plant which dies off in the winter, irrespective of my spontaneous pleasure in its current instance, reappears the following year in another instance with the same developmental progression, I experience the laws of nature which exist separately from me and are not my invention. It  must have been this spiritual reality of truth that Socrates was thinking of when he called to the Athenians who wanted to sentence him to death: “If you think that in killing people you can also kill and prevent the truth, your thinking is wrong.”

The experience of truth is a gift – which can, however, be prepared: the culture of active processes of cognition we have described also includes lessons in which there is time for real, thought-provoking discussion and not just rhetorical questions which must be answered correctly. The discussion between participating, thinking human beings growing from one another is a moment of complete openness in which answers are not assumed but sought, in which questions can arise and unexpected, existential insights can occur. The rapid securing of results after a brief dutiful exchange of views paralyses thinking and produces rigid concepts which have little to do with life. 

At the same time it will be much more necessary than hitherto to turn school into a place of sensory experience and to ensure situations in multiple ways in which pupils are given the opportunity of observation, using their senses and forming concepts that contain reality on the basis of full experiences. But above all, young people need teachers whom they can experience as being authentic and who have the courage to implement their educational intentions consistently. The pupils themselves can see whether they are being presented with insights or memory fodder, creative activity or routines, ideals or phrases – whether it is ultimately about themselves or educational abstractions. If things are “authentic”, then it is worthwhile making the effort. What could be more inspiring than to get together with people who exist in the “attempt to live in the truth” and to be involved in building the project of a school for the future?

* The quote is by J. W. v. Goethe from Maxims and Reflections.*

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek was an upper school teacher of German and history at the Waldorf schools in Weimar, Stuttgart-Uhlandshöhe and Mannheim and today lectures on the Waldorf education distance-learning course in Jena as well as at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim.