Young and old in the art of education or how do we keep each other in line?

By Christof Wiechert, August 2021

Every now and then we encounter the question as to the “giants” of Waldorf education who are no longer supposed to exist. The question always affects us a little awkwardly: in which direction do you look when the question is asked?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

I come across so many educational “giants” that I could get a stiff neck from looking at them all. But I like to look at them, and often, because they give me strength and confidence. Confidence because I feel that I can contribute my bit in a soul environment where they are and where I may also be! There are so many highly gifted souls who are witty, energetic and devoted to the art of education – there are many more than even 50 years ago. Secretly I sometimes make lists of all the colleagues who have given me so much. Sometimes I think, what would I have become without these enriching encounters? This touches on a great mystery: what is our own, what is given to us through the most diverse encounters?

There are three stages in the destiny of human beings. The first is the “karma of our nature”, wherein lies my bodily and soul constitution. The second stage is the karma of affinities, of talents and abilities to be developed, which we bring with us at birth, and finally there is destiny or the karma of events and encounters. The latter is what shapes the future. Our ability to face the future depends on our ability to encounter others. (1)

The class teacher Heinz Müller (1899-1968) writes in his memoirs Spuren auf dem Wege that at his confirmation, inspired by the priest to ask himself a life question, he asked his destiny that he should not sleep through the encounters that would enter his life. (2)

The problems of different generations of teachers in schools have more to do with a limited ability in the encounter than with content. The various conflicting insights into education are highlighted, but in fact the real problem is the lack of ability of different generations in encountering one another. In many teacher training situations we can experience how different generations come together. Do they find a common level of encounter? This is a very interesting question.

In teacher training we encounter young adults who, on the one hand, already have a lot to offer and, on the other hand, are inexperienced – open to completely new experiences and, at the same time, full of impulses that they carry within them still unrecognised. In teacher training, we also meet future colleagues who have already walked quite a bit of their life’s journey. They have life experience, are often mature personalities and versed in their subject – and yet are looking for a different sphere of activity.

One can hardly imagine how differently a subject to be discussed – for example, general methodology – can be received and dealt with in these two groups. As a lecturer, you experience first-hand how big the difference is; whether you are dealing with people who are one or almost two generations apart. As a lecturer, you experience whether your own experiences can be communicated and how differently they are received. Are your intentions still recognisable? What about age-related or professional deformations? Do you know them, do you have them under control? How new and fresh are the examples, how quickly do we change into well-worn tracks of eternal repetition of our own success story? Do we have the flexibility to always (still) look for and process something new?

At university we had an older lecturer in German literature who asked in every lecture whether we knew Schubert’s Erlkönig? Mean as students can be, we of course denied it every time and in every lecture Erlkönig was discussed again and again. In retrospect, one is still ashamed that one let it happen and did not remedy this professional deformity. It is not only about life experiences, which certainly play an important role in this context. But what is most important is the internalisation of these experiences. Is the older generation able to express something that can almost no longer be said in words and that can be more effective than the transfer of intellectual terminology?

An fascinating chapter in spiritual science is the law of “growing younger” of humanity. Steiner sets it out on several occasions. (3) It says that the natural capacity of humanity to develop is declining. A thousand years ago people were still developing naturally up to the age of 40, before that up to the age of 60, but now only up to the age of 26/27.

For example, the natural ability for mathematics is developed by the age of 19 and can only be increased through practice, not through disposition. Is this law perceptible?

During a visit to the colonies of former hippies in California and on the Australian Gold Coast, I had a strange experience. I met fifty-, sixty-year-olds who somehow didn’t seem their age. They behaved like students, had a relaxed relationship with work or professional life (or none at all), and lived out a carefree attitude that seemed to know no boundaries. It was as if they remained young in old age.

In Expecting Adam, the American writer Martha Beck describes how she, as a super-highly gifted student who already has two doctorates, and her husband, who is also highly gifted and still studying at Harvard, start a family. When the second child comes along, it turns out that it will be born with Down’s syndrome, and she tells how the Harvard community rejects carrying this child to term, how professors advise her to do “what is sensible, also for her career”, and how she suddenly experiences how ancient, how sclerotic this environment of highly bred intelligence is, how even young university lecturers are running on a hamster wheel but do not advance a millimetre: ancient even in youth. (4)

Years ago, also in America, there were studies on the question of whether Alzheimer’s and dementia are related to lifestyle. It was quickly discovered that the quality of diet plays a role, but even more so lifestyle. It was found, for example, that members of religious communities whose lives were very rhythmical between work and contemplation remained mentally and physically fresh and agile even in old age, and dementia was rare. A fact that Steiner pointed out early on.

Now another phenomenon is worth pointing out that has a certain topicality today. In his lectures on education, Steiner also talks about the three stages of human life: youth, middle age and old age. In general, he says, the human being is most body in his youth, most soul in middle age and most spirit in old age. It was also important to consider what the spirit does in youth and what the body does in old age. Steiner then inserts an anecdote: “There were once two professors in Berlin. One was Michelet, the Hegelian, who was already over ninety years old. Since he was quite witty, he had only made it to the rank of honorary professor, but he still gave his lectures when he was so old. Then there was another, Zeller, the historian of Greek philosophy. Compared to Michelet, he was a young man, for he was only seventy years old. We heard from him all the time that he felt the burden of age, that he could no longer give his lectures, but above all that he wanted his lecturing to be reduced. Michelet used to say: “I don’t understand Zeller; I could still lecture all day, but Zeller, in his youth, keeps saying that it’s too much effort for him!” (5) The anecdote shows how the spirit in old age – as opposed to in youth – can overcome the body. He then goes on to describe middle age, in which the soul is the ruling principle. This means that it can run free, or not as the case may be. The soul can also be denied, it can become soulless, because the soul lies within the freedom of the human being, also in education. (6)

It is the bridge from which we can understand and connect youth and old age in middle age. The soul can connect youth and old age, because it internalises everything it has experienced. It can, but it doesn’t have to; it is at its own liberty. Here lies the possibility, through education, and later through self-education from the middle, to make the encounters and experiences of life effective within us. And out of this, new and progressive things can arise when the soul has reforged and transformed them. For this to happen, however, it is also necessary that youth does not obstruct its future with hardening of the soul – hardening that easily happen in times when a science-based conception of the human being dominates.

This earlier ageing is expressed in the words: the 60-year-olds of today are the 70-year-olds of yesterday, the 70-year-olds of today are the 80-year-olds of yesterday. Our society is getting older and older, the bodily foundation is stable in the “first world” as never before. In Michelet’s sense, this is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, the spiritual has a hard time with a body that is too firm, too hard. Old age needs mobility on the inside (soul and spiritual) as well as on the outside (physical). But this mobility is created in the preceding periods. Therein lies the significance of education for ageing, for old age. Spiritual science, provides all the instruments to shape ageing in a humane way, even in this phase of life.


1) Rudolf Steiner: Karmic Relationships, volume 1, CW 235, lecture 3, 17 Februar 1924, Forest Row.

2) Heinz Müller: Spuren auf dem Wege, Erinnerungen, Stuttgart 1970.

3)  For example in CW            174b, lecture 10 of 13 May 1917. This lecture also refers to the connection between a lack of self-education and dementia. Also in CW 176, The Karma of Materialism, und in: Der Europäer, No. 1, November 2002, Perseus Verlag Basel, article by Thomas Meyer.

4) Martha Beck: Expecting Adam, Three Rivers Press, New York 2011.

5) Rudolf Steiner: The Foundations of Human Experience, CW 293, lecture 7, Stuttgart, 28 August 1919.

6)  Ibid.

About the author: Christof Wiechert was a class teacher in the Netherlands for many years and head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.


No comments

Add comment

* - required field