Learning to accept otherness for independence

By Wilfried Sommer, October 2021

At the 24th Kassel Youth Symposium in June this year, New York author and essayist Siri Hustvedt gave a series of lectures on what it is like and what it means to be human. At the same time, the event honoured 100 years of upper school teaching at Waldorf schools with the question: How can we, as learners, engage with new and different things in order to expand our knowledge and transform ourselves? Can teaching open up the opportunity for us to face ourselves anew as we learn?

Photo: @ Charlotte Fischer

Young people are characterised by a high degree of agility in the soul which “docks” with the world in a bodily presence and objectifies itself in the spirit in a methodologically ordered process. Teachers at Waldorf schools are trained to focus on this differentiation of human life into body, soul and spirit if they want to relate their teaching to human life itself. Being young then means experiencing oneself psychologically in a new and independent way. The individual imagination ties the newly won autonomy to concrete experience and to the clarity of our own insights. It is about the soul dynamics between body and spirit.

A walk across a flowering meadow with far-reaching consequences

The question of what it is like and what it means to be a human being, to consider it from aspects of body, soul and spirit, is not a unique feature of Waldorf education. As an anthropological question, it has a long tradition. Rudolf Steiner referred to this division in his numerous concepts of Waldorf education. In the teacher training centres for Waldorf schools, Steiner’s approach to body, soul and spirit is often addressed on the basis of his work Theosophie (Steiner 2013, p. 24 ff. Published in English as Theosophy). With recourse to Goethe, Steiner traces there how we perceive objects around us, for example the flowers in a meadow, through our senses. We open ourselves to the world in physical presence and assimilate our impressions.

Steiner assigns the latter process to the soul. This includes both sympathetic and antipathetic reactions as well as an ordering of our own experiences. If we succeed in taking the assessment of our experiences not from ourselves alone, but from the group of things we observe, then, according to Steiner, we traverse the interface of soul and spirit. In contrast, the interface between body and soul lies where the orientation of the eye towards the sky is followed by our own sensation of its colour.

According to Steiner, the soul thus plays a mediating role between body and spirit. In his three training courses for teachers on the occasion of the founding of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart in 1919, Steiner (2019, p. 426 ff.) discusses the transition between soul and body and spirit. Using the series “it is greening – the meadow is greening – the green meadow”, he addresses different forms of presence of soul. While “it is greening” focuses on the unbroken freshness of the experience, in which the human being makes the experience of green their own, consciousness is already objectified when they say “the meadow is greening”. Here he characterises a body-soul transition. In the progression to the formulation “the green meadow”, a more objectifying attitude is adopted, here he traces a soul-spiritual transition.

Implications for upper school teaching – an anthropology of encounter

In the upper school lessons of Waldorf schools, and especially in the main lessons, the focus is on the direct encounter with something specific that points to something general. The expressiveness of a work of art may first be experienced in many ways before it is classified in terms of art history or formally investigated. A series of mathematical tasks that start from the known and lead to the new is worked on before the new is systematically grasped. A series of experiments, when looked at together and compared, reveals a law of physics. The shape of an organ becomes an expression of its function. The scene of a play points, on the one hand, to a vital issue and, on the other hand, is recognised as a retarding moment in the course of the action.

The pupils learn to engage jointly with something new. The encounter with the new lies in the hands of the teachers, their task is to become ever better professionals for meaningful encounters with the world. They enable the subject matter to step onto the world stage, thus making teaching much more than the communication of information: pupils and teachers are present together as a piece of the world is revealed. It is the shared interest through which the world speaks.

The experiences during the coronavirus pandemic are currently showing everywhere how shared interest – in the language of education: shared attention – is constitutive for learning processes. Being interested with others in something that appears here and now means that we also perceive or sense the perspectives of others. We feel embedded in a multiplicity of world encounters and notice that the world for me is also a world for others. This conveys a sense of community, security in life and is an education against fake news and one-sidedness, without being authoritarian.

If teachers in Waldorf schools set out with the aspiration to become professionals in meaningful world encounters, then they need a frame of reference with which to reflect on their teaching. This frame of reference must bridge the gap to the pupils and the way they are present and live in the lesson. However, it must not define them in a normative way and remove their own learning path. It must allow for ambiguities.

In Waldorf education, the interface between body and soul, or “it is greening – the meadow is greening”, comes to the fore here, since the focus is on the intentionality of the pupils as they open themselves up to the world with increased attention, i.e. also with a high level of physical presence. Steiner (1986, p. 29 ff.) has outlined in his anthropological concepts for upper school teaching that to this end the logical functions must not be understood as purely abstract links, but at the same time as being embedded in bodily processes.

Steiner outlined a concept of embodiment, embodied cognition avant la lettre, in 1921. The focus is on how learners can give direction to their attention in the flow of their thoughts and how the progress of their thinking connects to the phenomena that are present here and now in the classroom. For the learners, it is a journey from that particular prior knowledge or opinion to this specific phenomenon. They learn – also emotionally – to appropriate the world as it is. In individual cases this may also be resistant or different, as long as it is conducted with tact and responsibility by didactically and methodologically professional teachers.

New perspectives

Teachers at Waldorf schools who reflect on their upper school teaching can currently benefit from a great deal of research on embodiment. They thus have the opportunity to grasp the bodily foundations of logical judgement with ever greater precision.

Even as a baby, when we lie in the cradle and press our foot against the edge of the cradle, we feel the firmness of the edge of the cradle in our own bodies, inside ourselves as it were. We also experience the softer texture of the blanket in our own bodies. We feel in ourselves the difference between soft and hard bodies. Being soft and being hard is something general. We connect the specificity of our experiences with a generality. This is not a cognitive monologue but it is the embodied experience of a judgement.

From birth we make judgements as embodied beings. At first it is an external movement in which we experience something general in our body. When we begin to point, the outer movement becomes at the same time a symbolic movement. When we let our concrete experience become a general meaning in an inner movement, then the movement has the same signature. Bodily experiences that we have lived through since early childhood resonate as we now make abstract judgements. Our judging takes place in the resonance space of the body.

If in the upper school lessons of Waldorf schools the lessons are staged in such a way that something particular can refer to something general, then the individual pupil makes a judgement as an embodied self in the resonance space of their body. Steiner’s outline of embodiment, with which he explained the interface of body and soul, can be given much greater precision today as the result of a great deal of research.

Teachers at Waldorf schools can thus explore in the practice of upper school teaching how judgement can become dialogical when it takes place in the resonance space of the body. My thesis is that figures of cognition can develop from these resonance figures in which the pupils remain connected to the world (Sommer 2021). In this way, a specific signature is sought for the interface between soul and spirit in the upper school lessons: it is not just a matter of fitting in with the world and allowing for otherness, but also of shaping and developing our own relationship with the world while guiding our own thinking in a way that is connected with the world.

About the author: Dr Wilfried Sommer works at the interface of school and university: as professor of school education specialising in phenomenological teaching methods at Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, Alfter, and in teacher training at the teacher training seminar, as well as being a physics teacher at the Kassel Free Waldorf School. He is also a board member of the sponsoring association of the Kassel Youth Symposium.

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