Is it possible to educate for peace?

By Andre Bartoniczek, December 2021

When more than 100,000 people demonstrated in front of the Pentagon in Washington on 21 October 1967 to end the Vietnam War, 17-year-old Jan Rose Kasmir stepped in front of the soldiers’ bayonets and held a flower out to them. She was photographed doing so and the picture eventually went around the world. She remembers: “It was about innocence, dreams and honesty. We were sure we were on the right path. We believed only in love and goodness on earth. We all belong to the big human family.”

The protests, the words of Jan Rose or the songs of a Leonard Cohen, a Joan Baez and many others speak of an infinite longing for a loving togetherness of people on the whole planet, for a world that perceives itself as a unity and that can be shaped responsibly. The peace movement grew out of this longing and gave rise to the great hope of a change in the whole of social and political life.

But how is it then that despite this, nuclear missiles were stationed in Germany in 1983, the wars did not decrease and the same pacifists who took to the streets in 1967/68 suddenly demanded the use of German bombers in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and initially wanted to support the USA in moving against Iraq in 2003?

Peace is not a permanent state

The history of the twentieth century is one long call to the human being to become aware of their deepest ethical impulses. At the same time, the examples mentioned also show that peace will never be a permanent state that can simply be installed in human society. Circumstances on earth clearly require us to go through crises, conflicts and suffering again and again – but this challenges the individual human being to find the capacity for peace within themselves and to realise it.

Peace is thus an educational question and task. This is precisely why Rudolf Steiner’s statement in the first lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience is provocative: “As teachers and educators, we cannot teach the child anything about the higher world” (lecture of 21 August 1919). This statement contradicts all the usual ideas of moral education.

Morality shows itself in action

How often is education associated with instruction, admonition or appeals to reason, and how much is the teaching of ethical insights expected from history lessons, German, religion, but also from biology and other subjects; and how much are adult-led discussions part of everyday school life in which pupils are supposed to reflect on their behaviour or that of their fellow pupils or of society as a whole for the purpose of change! In this respect, the statement that nothing can be achieved in this way is an imposition.

Steiner points out, however, that the moral life of the human being is not only connected with rational thought content accessible to the daytime consciousness but with action, that is, with the will, and this is rooted in the subconscious layers of our being. Thus he continues: “For that which enters into the human being from the higher world enters during the time from falling asleep to waking up.” Peace is not an intellectual idea but concerns the whole human being – as a matter of the heart as well as a social impulse for action. But this addresses precisely those layers of the human being that can only be reached by involving the nocturnal side of existence and not via cognitive insight. Historical examples show this: how great are often the noble moral appeals and declarations of intent, and how different is usually the result when it comes to action.

Geography makes us kinder

The educational consequences of this can be surprising – for example, when Rudolf Steiner refers to the treatment of the Niagara Falls: “We bring the human being to a certain consolidation in themselves precisely by describing geographical matters quite vividly, and by doing geography in such a way that we always evoke the consciousness that Niagara is not on the Elbe, that we always evoke the consciousness of the space that lies between the Elbe and the Niagara. If we really do this vividly, then we place the human being in that space, we form in them in particular that which teaches them an interest in the world, and the effects of this will show itself in the most diverse ways. A person with whom we do geography intelligently is kinder to their neighbour than one who does not learn the side-by-side-in-space” (lecture of 14 June 1921).

It is not moral content but an object of physical nature seemingly far removed from such subjects that stimulates social abilities: this cannot be understood with our ordinary concepts but only with regard to the hidden soul processes that take place below our objective thought content, e.g. in the inner resonance of the difference between two spatially far distant rivers.

Peace needs empathy …

Reason turns us into critics: by consciously reflecting on something, we distance ourselves from the object or the human counterpart – but this is precisely what our ordinary I needs in order to perceive itself and assure itself of its identity. It is then a small step to the conclusion of one of the most influential advisors in American politics: “We know who we are when we know who we are not and against whom we are” – the consequence of this thinking is obvious: “For people seeking their identity, enemies are indispensable” (Samuel Huntington in his world bestseller The Clash of Civilisations, 1996).

Wars, or violence in general, are often an expression of a deep-rooted fear, an uncertainty as to whether our own I, our own community, our own nation, etc. will endure, or whether this I exists at all. The drive for power awakens where an individual feels weak, powerless, non-existent and tries to reassure themselves of their existence by all means. On the other hand, the moment in which I connect with the other, immerse myself in them and lose myself for a moment is always part of lovingly turning to the other. Therein lies the hurdle that makes the path to peace so demanding: it requires that we let go of our I and become one with the other in empathy.

… and emotional culture

This connection with the other happens spontaneously in feeling. We step out of our detachment and take the other person into ourselves. To this extent a first crucial bridge from detached reason to empathic connection and ultimately to the social, loving deed consists in the cultivation of the emotional life in education. In this respect artistic activity is not a luxury addition to the “really important” examination subjects for the pupils either but the foundation of the ability to connect and thus also to understand.

This is where a story overrides information: if I am given a Rosa Luxemburg not only as a date in history but follow her in childhood, how she is confined to bed for over a year and all the physical movement she cannot make enters her thoughts, how she is passionate about justice even as a young schoolgirl, how later on she stands on the podium and fights for socialism with her words, how she goes to prison for this and there devotedly tends and studies the plants in the courtyard, and how she finally goes to her death for her convictions, then my feelings are stimulated in such a way that a perception of the gift of the encounter with the other gradually arises in me.

Then I am no longer afraid of losing myself either, because in the experience of the other person I get rid of my limited perspectives and boundaries and become wider and bigger instead of smaller. A trust in strengthening the I through becoming one with the You emerges. Images reach much further into these personality-strengthening forces than arguments – because they provide perception instead logic and at the same time illuminate the deeper spiritual connections that express themselves in their content and accordingly have a completely different ongoing effect through the night.

In the lower classes, Rudolf Steiner recommends a meaningful story instead of an appeal to reason in cases of social conflict or misbehaviour. In upper school it is then a matter of increasingly consciously penetrating our own experiences with cognition.

Here, for example, the Nibelungen epic offers the opportunity to perceive in the mythical images of the deadly struggle of the two parties, right up to the horrific catastrophe, the archetypal “tit for tat” reflex, that is, the inexorable spiral of violence and counter-violence; and then, the next day, after these images have continued to work during the night, to grasp the mechanisms underlying violence and war on the basis of the stages of conflict escalation described by Friedrich Glasl.

Through the regular pendulum swing of images taken into the night, reaching the subconscious, and understanding reflection, the content of peace education does not become sentimental (hardly anything repels a young person more than platitudes) and the biographies of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela etc. do not become finger wagging object lessons of the good person. Rather, an inner moral faculty is gradually awakened in actively witnessing such destinies struggling for change which at the decisive moment summons up the strength not to reflexively strike back, hurt, etc., but to come to oneself and take an empathetic step towards the other.

Although the Oslo peace process of 1993, which almost brought about a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian conflict, failed in the end due to an assassination attempt on Yitzchak Rabin, a deeper study of the reconciliation between the parties frozen in a hopeless struggle, which was initiated by Norwegian social scientists and hard-won by courageous Jewish and Palestinian leaders, can awaken an organ for the inner attitude and also the practical skills without which peace is not possible.

Learning to pause and listen

If, at the same time, the pupils are given the opportunity to accompany a former prison inmate in their reintegration into life in the context of social work experience, for example, or are encouraged to find real solutions to conflicts in serious bullying situations in class, or to take on the roles of two mortal enemies in the production of a play, then moral practicing deepens into external action. It may not be until much later that a moment then occurs when they pause to listen in an argument, find an unexpected solution and free both sides from the conflict – “so that it begins differently / between us all” (Hilde Domin, Abel steh auf).

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek is an upper school teacher of German and history at the Heidelberg Waldorf School and a lecturer in the distance learning programme for Waldorf education in Jena. He is also working on a historical research project on the East German civil rights movement in 1989 and the German history of the following decades.

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