“Is it art, or can it go?”

By Siegmund Baldszun, November 2019

It is becoming ever clearer that what Rudolf Steiner provided to Waldorf teachers 100 years ago will only slowly take on its true meaning as an educational tool in the twenty-first century.

“Is it art, or can it go?” – in a radical interpretation this question could also be taken to mean that in the future everything will be discarded and art alone will be allowed to remain.  With regard to teaching in Waldorf Schools – and remember, in every class, not just the artistic subjects – this seems to be quite possible today. For what does a developing person need in order to be able to manifest the future impulses inherent within them in a world that we, the adults, have created? Curiosity, empathy, perseverance and independent thinking. And how can they cultivate this strength better than in a work of art rehearsed every day, which they enthusiastically embed into their own lives?

Art in everyday life

Calling it a “teaching artwork” might sound a little presumptuous. Let’s just call it a production. What does it look like in day-to-day life? French lesson, class 8. The teacher greets each individual student at the door. When everyone is seated, the day, date and news from France are briefly addressed in the foreign language – or rather the friendly language. Then everyone stands up for the greetings, speech exercises, and poetry recitation. Then a short exercise to repeat and consolidate grammar.

Now the teacher hangs a coloured copy of a picture on the blackboard about the subject of the lesson: child labour in Burkina Faso. This is followed by a round of questions and a small, methodical exchange of ideas: first consider the subject individually, then exchange ideas with your partner, and finally share them with the rest of the class. This leads to a written task: create a film script for this scene or a poster for this documentary film, to be started in class alone or in pairs and then to be finished at home. End of the lesson.

Digital ecology as an emergency measure 

Was that art, or could it go? Wasn’t that a quite traditional lesson? For an attentive observer it is clear that the world in which young people live harbours some extremely interesting tensions. The industrialisation and commercialisation of intelligence through digital media, through “social media”, the pull of images and the news, the ingenious fusion of neuroscience and computer technology, the unprecedented possibilities of knowledge representation and forms of communication – all of this competes with school and offers copious distraction. Not for everybody, of course. Some use this to achieve their academic potential, but some also choose to drop out. But individual coaching programmes based on algorithms employing the latest (behavioural) learning models are already being planned for individual development.

In view of contemporary conditions, we are partly reminded of Huxley’s Brave New World from 1931 – and all of this in the context of social fragmentation, economic deregulation, and a “society of externalisation” (Stephan Lessenich). In contrast, the current demands for “media competence” seem positively charming; the demands for an additional “digital pact” for schools almost “Faustian” in their perfidiousness, and on the other hand, the demands for “digital ecology” (Bernhard Pörksen) as the key subject in schools an interesting emergency measure.

Steiner is only now becoming relevant

It is becoming ever clearer that what Rudolf Steiner provided to Waldorf teachers 100 years ago will only gradually take on its true meaning as an educational tool in the twenty-first century. In the past, Waldorf schools were about “learning without fear – acting with self-confidence” (Christoph Lindenberg), then the cliché of children learning how to “dance their name” was all people spoke about for a long time. In view of the challenges described above, it will become clear that we are now talking about something even more fundamental: about human beings in the process of development, about the humanity in everything. This is where the risk, the loss, the challenge lies today. 

And only a few of the basic impulses of Waldorf education need to be pointed to in order to notice just how radical it is in its modernity: teaching is based on the individuality of the teacher and the pupil. Teaching goes from soul to soul; it is about age-appropriate content and methods; in all subjects knowledge is dynamised, rhythmised, humanised; the effects of sleep, night – and forgetting – are embraced. What does all this mean in the cultural context of the early twenty-first century?

Teaching that leads to openness

Let’s take another look the daily routine of the class 8: before the day has even begun, the teacher attempts to connect with the students (review, preview) and addresses methodological and content-related questions. They attempt to find a genuine, respectful connection to each individual, transforming the old teaching method of lecturing from the front of the classroom into a “cordial lesson” (Alain Denjean) that seeks a path from soul to soul. It is not only about the transfer of knowledge and the material covered in class but about the establishment of relationships between pupils and the world, pupils and other pupils, and pupils and teachers. The aim is to engage with the essence of the subject, the personal involvement, the shaping in writing and image, so that everyone can do this at their own level of learning. And all of this not through the application of a central curriculum – possibly prescribed by the state – but within a staging that is rehearsed daily and is integrated by the students themselves into their lives.

And in this sense we might be able to say, “this is art, this is performative and this remains!” Perhaps this is what Rudolf Steiner meant by “artistic teaching”: a form of teaching based on individuality, emerging from a community, coming from the future, that has never existed before, that goes into the open, that can intensify, that encourages development and thus has an educational effect. Which, of course, also means that it constantly has to undergo metamorphosis, because only then can it do justice to the human being in the process of becoming.

Siegmund Baldszun is a French teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School; he teaches at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy and in Mannheim as well as at further training conferences and the “Semaine Française”.

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