The I awakening. Youth motifs in Waldorf education

By Angelika Wiehl, October 2020

Youth as a phase of life with a separate and positive meaning has only been referred to in the last hundred years or so, that is since the time in which Rudolf Steiner also published initial ideas about the anthropology of and education in adolescence.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

The central developmental task in this phase of life concerns the soul abilities of thinking, feeling and the will which increasingly detach themselves from role models, familiar habits and, above all, conventional lifestyles. The natural belief in authority is replaced by assertiveness towards authority, opinions and judgements. Young people acquire freedom and independence for themselves in a soul and spiritual emancipation process which starts with puberty and can continue until far into the twenties. The following paragraphs sketch out the educational anthropology of adolescence in the context of motifs of cultural philosophy.

At the Rubicon

Just as today the onset of adolescence starts at about the age of twelve, thus significantly earlier than Steiner’s ideally typical references to seven-year periods, so the youth phase extends beyond the age of 21 to 25 or 27. Today puberty starts in girls from the age of 10 or 11 and in boys a few months later. Sex hormones are released to a greater extent – oestrogen in girls and testosterone in boys – and the secondary sexual characteristics are developed. In girls, puberty starts with the first menstruation and the development of fertile egg cells, in boys with sperm production in the testicles. The ability to procreate and final body size are the physical achievements of puberty.

This is initiated emotionally as well at around the ninth or tenth year of life when the children begin to distance themselves from things that are familiar to them and no longer accept the harmony with their surroundings as something given. Steiner describes this phase as the Rubicon, comparing it with Caesar’s crossing of that border river which separated the more southern parts of Italy from the northern Gallic provinces. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC towards Rome it was equivalent to a declaration of war. That is where today’s expression “crossing the Rubicon” comes from.

It is indeed the case that every step in adolescent development is risky and that is precisely what defines this wonderful time. Children in, for example, a class 4 – the age differences can often span up to two years in a class community – suddenly behave in an unexpected or surprising way. While they are still very affectionate and like to listen to bedtime stories at night, they will try all kinds of things within their group of friends or class community. Loving affection for everything beautiful and shrewd cunning, or devoted work and protesting rejection, are expressions of a new relationship between their self and the world.

A typical situation occurred when I unexpectedly had to stand in for a teacher in class 4. The teacher had not turned up, the children were looking for her and fetched me. What I wasn’t aware of: for the whole of the lesson a number of the children hid themselves in a cupboard and behind curtains. All the others concentrated and worked hard – an excellent and spontaneously organised lesson until at the conclusion all those who had hidden themselves jumped out and we all burst into hearty laughter. In contrast to Caesar’s time, “irrevocable” or “risky” actions are not equivalent to a declaration of war and neither should they be banned but require the release of humour. The Rubicon as a developmental motif thus means redrawing the boundary between inner and outer, between I and you, between I and the world, and that includes self-examination – also by the carer or teacher. Child’s play and resonance with the community are other typical traits of this phase of life, but also empathy with others and the exploration of their own possibilities: who am I and who are you?

On the road with Odysseus

Entry into adolescence takes place today at about the twelfth year of age. In literary terms we describe this section of life as “storm and stress” and in terms of developmental psychology as the start of adolescence. Class 5 and class 6 pupils often vary considerably in size, the girls form the group of the smallest and tallest and the boys tend to be small or medium-tall. Their drive is admirable. Some might moan on walks of twenty kilometres or more but when on class trips night is turned into day they appear to possess inexhaustible vigour. Alongside the spirit of adventure, there is pleasure in the experience of nature and the great historical narratives in the Waldorf school. At the same time social empathy and playful togetherness provide support. The deeper questions tend to live hidden away and are rarely discussed.

It is about the search for their origins – just as Odysseus took ten testing years after the Trojan War to reach his home island of Ithaca. The children at around the age of twelve might not take quite as long for their next developmental steps but the myth of Odysseus shows in pictures that those who trust in themselves can pass the tests of life. A class play can allow them to live adventures – like Odysseus in love and sorrow, courage and doubt, thoughtfulness and conquest. It is a phase in which we could – in the way of Odysseus – steal horses with the children. Since this is not generally possible, other adventures are required. A class play or a class trip into the great outdoors and, above all, fulfilling lesson content strengthen the development of the children.

Alongside reliability, courage and love for the human being and nature, a slight melancholy pervades the faces at around the age of twelve; it is an expression of their sense that in future they will have to depend on themselves: who am I and where do I come from?

Peer Gynt of life as adventure

In the transition between the ages of 14 and 16, adolescents awaken through their deeds and discover their possibilities and limits. At the same time this phase is connected with all the risks. The Internet, drugs, smoking and alcohol are temptations which initially still require the support of adults. But what would adolescent life be without the odd transgression of limits? Remarkably the perspective often changes at around the sixteenth or seventeenth year of life: the circle of friends changes, the current lifestyle no longer counts for anything, sometimes solitude supports reflection. Adolescents not only live through typical crises and resistance against external instructions, they also sense perspectives for their life: although I don’t quite know yet what will become of me, there is undoubtedly something that is right for me. The Swiss doctor and development researcher Remo Largo refers in the outline of his life and research to the “right life” which everyone is or should be in a position to find, particularly as human development is becoming ever more individual.

The way in which we stand individually in life is reflected in many ways by the dramatic life’s journey of Peer Gynt. Adolescents see themselves reflected in Ibsen’s character and his reckless adventures when they are allowed to slip experimentally into one of the more than hundred parts in this poetic drama. Seriously and yet with humour Peer breaks away from Mother Ase’s house and farm, journeys over the mountains, falls in love yet leaves wife and child without scruples, enjoys the temptations of wealthy business people, and finally lands in the madhouse in Cairo as imagined emperor in order then to find his way back home by ship on an adventurous journey. Mother Ase has long died but Solveig, his early love, is waiting: the higher I finds the way back to itself after all the crises and adventures; it sheds skin after skin like an onion ...

He has to be experienced on the stage: Peer is an image of the developing adolescent soul which does not want to come to rest but keeps experimenting by means of the challenges: how do I become myself?

Laocoön or loss and birth of the I

Looking at the sculpture of Laocoön in connection with the loss and the development of the I would appear to be a daring venture – particularly as this Hellenistic sculpture no longer occupies such a prominent place in today’s consciousness as it did at the time of the Renaissance or in the eighteenth century of Lessing and Winkelmann.

The sculpture shows the Trojan priest with his sons; he has just warned the Trojans about the Greeks and has been gripped by two serpents to kill him. His pain-wracked face is interpreted as an expression of his suffering. According to Steiner, we can recognise in the struggling figure both a rearing up and a resignation in the moment when the I is lost. When the human being loses control over their drives, they are lost. But the birth of the I means a constant process of taking hold of oneself and self-determination. The exhilaration of adolescence occurs in the field of tension between the loss of the I and the development of the I: am I at the mercy of needs and temptations or do I deal with them and retain my selfhood – or: what is it that I want in this life?

About the author: Dr Angelika Wiehl was a class and upper school teacher for many years; today she is a lecturer at the Institute of Waldorf Education, Inclusion and Interculturality of Alanus University in Mannheim

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