Know yourself – the point of the humanities

By Andre Bartoniczek, October 2020

“Know yourself” – with these words at the entrance of the Temple of Apollo the people were welcomed who came to Delphi to find answers to their existential questions from the Oracle: how can we live in harmony with one another? Should war be waged? Is now the right time for sowing? Should I marry this woman?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

We have known, therefore, for almost 3000 years that one of the key conditions for managing our personal and social life is that we know ourselves and the human being. That is why the subjects in the humanities in school are so important: while other subjects occupy themselves with geology, plants, animals, physical laws, etc., that is turn their gaze towards the external world – and that also includes human biology and physiology – German, history and art history are concerned with the inner human being. Great challenges are associated with that: why is German more than just a bit of “waffle”, why do people need something as apparently superfluous as poetry, why should we concern ourselves with the past – it is the present and future that are important after all?

Literature and biography

I am always delighted by the fact that class 9 pupils are far from letting themselves be impressed by the clichés which turn Goethe and Schiller into elevated “princes” of poetry which are part of the arsenal of knowledge of their bourgeois educated elders. Empathising with Schiller’s desire to become a pastor, the brutal action of the duke in locking him into an elite school for the whole of his youth, the turn which came with the dangerous authorship of a drama about people who want to live in freedom (The Robbers), the subsequent extreme tests, crises and breakthroughs, the wonderful friendship with Goethe – all these things provoke topical questions in the pupils about their own life and lead to the initial perception of meaningful but concealed biographical guidance, that is of a law which is now, however, an inner one.

The literature and its authors allow us to experience that our own subjectivity is not arbitrary after all: without having to expose their inner life, the pupils can speak about highly sensitive, personal questions in concerning themselves with personalities and literary figures about whom all the things are being told with which they are also so familiar. Christian’s hopeless love which drives him to make mistakes (in Schiller’s The Criminal from Lost Honour), Werther’s anger about petit-bourgeois attitudes, his longing for freedom and his resignation (in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) – these are images in which every modern person can find themselves and they signal that they are not alone with their emotions but that they are an expression of human development.

The Nibelungs – a central subject in class 10 – are increasingly seen as old, outdated material fit for story time but not dealing with the really important things. That changes as soon as we recognise in the myths universal human truths which can be expressed in much greater depth in images than in theoretical thoughts. When Kriemhild conceals herself in her tower and never wants to show herself and unite with any man, this motif suggests attitudes which could not be more topical: the fear of being hurt, making mistakes, being wrong, the desire to remain pure and protected. One pupil once remarked in this connection: “That can’t go well” – and an important discussion ensued about the necessity of connecting with the world, “getting one’s hands dirty”, that is dealing with reality, which can extend as far as the delicate subject of eating. The gruesome images of an unstoppable, permanently escalating spiral of strike and counter-strike which costs the lives of tens of thousands and ends in a sea of blood and ash precisely illustrate an automatism which the conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl identified in the twentieth century in his model of escalation stages in destructive conflicts.

For the German teacher it is indispensible to obtain an insight into the reasons why literary motifs are not “just images” – a typical formulation and attitude which we keep encountering in dealing with poetry. That also becomes very important for the “poetics” lessons (also in class 10) in which it can be a revelation that rhymes, rhythm, sounds and images are directly connected with our everyday life. Why did the Scholl siblings and their friends who actively resisted the Nazi regime call themselves the “White Rose” and not the “Black Spider”? Why did a prisoner in Auschwitz draw butterflies on the walls of his barracks? Why do we need metaphors? Why do we permanently surround ourselves with musical rhythms? The Greek hexameter which underlies both the Iliad and the Odyssey corresponds in its rhythmical relationship of 4 to 1 precisely the pulse-respiration quotient we have in deep sleep – a brilliant method to call up in conscious daytime life the forces we need for life and which influence us normally only during the night.

At the end the pupils understand why a bank boss, finance minister and, finally, UN secretary-general – the Swede Dag Hammarskjöld who had to negotiate with the most powerful figures in the world and in 48 hours set up a whole army, the at that time still hard-hitting “blue helmets”, to secure peace at the Suez Canal – wrote modern poems at night or why a therapist in a prison with dangerous female criminals starts to write – there are people who report authentically that without writing they would not have survived. All the pupils write poetry in the end and often cannot believe the things they can do – and what it means for themselves and others to find the right word.

When a year later Wolfram’s Parzival is then dealt with, the images begin to speak: still wearing the old “fool’s motley” of childhood under the red armour seems like a commentary on adolescence. The search for the grail, which is of course not a material object, takes the 17-year-olds into a search for their own goal in life but is, at the same time, about the destiny of humankind: its future depends on whether the grail can continue to be unveiled, that is whether a connection between humans and the spiritual world continues to exist or breaks off. The nature and meaning of love for the human being becomes just as visible in Parzival and Condwiramur as well as Gawan and Orgeluse as in the conflict with evil (Klingsor).

These big subjects are then once more explicitly reflected upon in class 12 by means of Faust when we study the relationship between the scholar and Gretchen and Mephisto. After the events of the twentieth century, Goethe’s attempt to grapple uncompromisingly with the nature of evil appears downright clairvoyant. With Faust’s fundamental doubt about cognition and knowledge, the pupils are confronted at the end of their school time with the question, as in a balance sheet, what the true value of learning and education really is: is their own cognitive work relevant to life? Is education a process which helps to solve the challenges of our time or were these years, after all, just a facility to obtain entrance exams? Reflecting together on the meaning of cognition at this age is very important for the understanding of biography, science, society and way of life.

History and creativity

History, too, on closer inspection is something quite different from what people think as a rule. It is usually thought that in history we are dealing with something from the past – and it is easy to understand why pupils ask themselves why they need something like that. But even within the discipline of history the question is asked much too infrequently: how does an historical event come about at all? A simple look at my own actions already shows me that I do something because there is a pull from the future and not because there is a “push” from the past: I only want to train for something because I want to pursue a particular career in the future. I buy something because I know that I will soon need this or that.

In the same way we can also ask with regard to history: has there ever been a revolution whose reasons lay in a past time or isn’t it rather the images and ideals of a future world which have driven people in their enthusiasm to set out for something new? Past, present and future are mysteriously connected in human life: it is a painful experience for people suffering from dementia that they increasingly lose the ability to act independently because they can no longer remember what they just did or thought. I can take no steps in life without memory.

But such memory relates not only to the last 200 years: we cannot understand our present if we don’t know what the first farmers 12,000 years ago actually intended with agriculture. A look at the astonishing cultivation achievements in ancient Iranian plant breeding and the motive thus to make a religious contribution to shaping nature morally makes clear that our profit-oriented, industrialised agriculture does not have to be the only way to treat the earth but that very new tasks are pending in this respect.

Egypt showed us with the building of the pyramids, among other things, how a common, inspiring goal creates community, something we find so difficult today. In Greece we witness the dramatic process in which democracy emerges from an aristocratic society ruled by kings – these learning processes throw a light on the current challenges to shape policy in accordance with the needs of our time.

In many Waldorf upper schools these early periods are not even taught any longer because it is thought that these ancient times are no longer important for an understanding of our own time  – but in reality it cuts off a piece of memory which makes orienting ourselves in the present time hugely more difficult. This applies similarly to the content of class 11 when we are dealing with, among other things, an understanding of Christianity, the rise and importance of Islam and an insight into the background of the split between eastern and western civilisation.  Here joint work among teachers is called for to reformulate the goals and methods of history teaching in accordance with modern criteria.

An awareness of history is urgently required in order to be able to master the tasks arising in our time. Young people encounter a world that appears to be completed – at least that is what is suggested to them through rules, conventions and apparently axiomatic facts. But is there anything more unbearable than entering a world which doesn’t need me?

History lessons, on the other hand, show something completely different: all the innovations we make use of today without a second thought were once something revolutionary that was introduced into the world. Because history, simply,  is not evidence of the unchanging nature of the world but it shows that human beings can be involved in shaping it, that they are, indeed, indispensible: “There are many signs that indicate that history is not an eternal roundabout where it is only ever the negative that has to be triumphant. On the contrary, we can shape a world such as we have never seen before” (Rudi Dutschke).

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 of Waldorf Education in Mannheim. 

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