Calm down! Interview with Harald Lesch

May 2022

Harald Lesch, born 1960, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, lecturer in natural philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy. TV presenter for programmes such as "alpha Centauri", "Leschs Kosmos" or the Youtube channel "Terra X Lesch & Co". Knowledge transfer and education are particularly important to him. Since 2018, he has been patron of the Weimar Children's University.

Erziehungskunst: In the "Markus Lanz" talk show in March 2020, you presented your book Wie Bildung gelingt (How education succeeds). You argued for rethinking the school system in Germany and said you were in favour of a "Waldorfisation" of schools. What did you mean by that?

Harald Lesch: What particularly impresses me about Waldorf education is the perception that pupils only really learn when they understand connections. And this is something that fundamentally distinguishes Waldorf education from concepts of teaching methodology as they are usually implemented in schools. At Waldorf schools, for example, there are big project days during which a topic is taught in larger contexts and connections. And in my opinion, this approach is much closer to reality than always dividing learning material into subjects. There is this wonderful phrase "Some teachers teach subjects and others teach pupils". And then there is the fact that reality cannot be divided into compartments. And if we have an interest in our children and young people entering such reality with the ability to live as independent and free human beings, then we should provide them with every opportunity. I believe that the Waldorf concepts make this possible and that is what I understand by Waldorfisation. That care is taken above all to perceive the children as individuals who learn in context and at the same time learn contexts. 

EK: Coronavirus has revealed many weaknesses, also in schools. What do you think should be prioritised in education in the coming years?

HL: I would rather say, "Calm down". We have accelerated and straightened out our education system to such an extent that these two years of the pandemic, as bad as it must have been for the children and young people now, were perhaps a small hint that we should stop keeping accelerating the lives of our children. Don't get me going on parents who say, "My child will never be able to catch that up"! What kind of a portrayal of life is that? As if life is a race and you'll sink if you're not fast enough! The way we should live is actually precisely the opposite: in a relaxed and generous and sovereign way. After all, no one expected a challenge like coronavirus. Nobody can tell me that anyone at the beginning of 2020 would have even remotely thought that the next two years would look like they do. So: Calm down! Everyone did what they could. We may be a little better or a little worse here or there, but goodness gracious! He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone. Especially parents: stay careful and calm.  Don't upset your children with your hysteria. Then the children are also more relaxed, they don't have the feeling that everything was just crap.

If you think about it, what do parents advise their children to become? Hardly anyone advises a trade or vocational training. Everyone says "you have to go to university". A lot of harm is caused because parents project their ideas of status and interests onto their children. I would be happy if the coronavirus pandemic succeeded in getting a few things up and running again. So I have a new favourite phrase: "We are running out of crane operators". For the energy transition we really do in fact need a lot of good people who, for example, are able to place a generator weighing several tonnes on top of a wind turbine. That requires a sure touch, a lot of experience, because these heights are rather storm-tossed. And unfortunately no one in Germany advises their daughter or son, "Become a crane operator, that's a very important job!" Everyone just goes running for the academic professions. But our future will not work without our hands. And they must not be attached to a keyboard. I think the urge to go digital is stupid, and the Waldorf schools are in a better position in this respect because they adopt a critical approach to this. Of course we shouldn't ban digital things, but we have to make it clear to the children and young people, "Take care, something is happening here to you and your cognitive apparatus, the brain". So we must not only consider what we do with technology, but what technology does to us. The real world takes place outside, it smells, it yells, there are difficulties around every corner. For me, this is also part of a good education: the modern concept of school as a shelter for children and young people cannot work, but they have to get out into real life. Because life is out there. 

EK: In the book Wie Bildung gelingt you deal with the British philosopher Alfred Whitehead. You quote him: "Until you have surveyed land yourself and drawn a map, geometry remains a pretty but useless bag of tricks." What does this mean for education in the twenty-first century?

HL: Whitehead was a grand philosopher, but he was also concerned with education. He considered it important to show that we must of course first penetrate things intellectually. But in the end, the combination of practical experience and your theoretical ideas is what is really important. Whitehead was a strong advocate that theoretical ideas must be tried out and if they are not confirmed, they must be discarded. This is a cool, sober and almost laconic attitude to life, but it has the huge advantage that you don't walk around with your nose in the air all the time and that you're not just characterised by a self-narrative where you tell yourself you can do it all if only you wanted to. But it’s not that simple. The frequent criticism that we also see again and again in talk shows, from people who have as much idea about bicycles as a fish, namely none at all. They talk about some mobility concept or other, but themselves travel about in massive limousines. Here again, a question of credibility. And for mathematics teaching (Whitehead himself wrote great mathematics books), it really is a question of: is this art for art's sake in the sense of messing around in some N-dimensional spaces or am I looking at what problems I can solve with it. So do I become more capable in life by mastering geometry, for example? The answer is clear: yes, you will! This is what my co-author Ursula Forstner and I wanted to get at in our book, that schools have to open the doors and let people and lessons out into life. I'm exaggerating a bit, but it's horrible: currently, school is like a protective kindergarten, where children are taken in the morning instead of being allowed to go there on their own, and then picked up again so that they can be taken to ballet, karate or riding lessons in the afternoon. Such children clearly only experience things for themselves when they are adults. And even then they are often still children, at least that's how I experience it at university. 

EK: You yourself have given lectures at the Children's University. What were your experiences as a teacher like?

HL: Great! Apart from an increased noise level, which I was not used to, it was a great experience. The children are incredibly interested, they ask the right questions in the right place. My wife and I, we gave lectures about planets or about time. And it is very impressive how the children are really involved. They display genuine curiosity, without purpose or aim. That's great and that's exactly the curiosity you need to enjoy life. Where it is not about fulfilling any usefulness, but simply learning about amazing and wonderful connections. My wife and I found it very impressive.

EK: We have to cope with a flood of information and, above all, with the fact that there no longer seems to be an ultimate certain truth. How can dealing with the abundance of facts and finding orientation be conveyed to the next generation?

HL: The number of information providers has increased. In the past, there was a limited number of information providers who were trusted. And with this information and hopefully good schooling, you then entered life. I don't want to give an example from physics, for a change, but one from history: For me, the German Agency for Civic Education was an institution. If you wrote a letter to them, an A4 envelope arrived ten to 14 days later. I treated this information with extreme care, like my records. When I ask my students today whether they know about the Agency for Civic Education or the German Environment Agency or the German Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management? The answer is always "no". But Fox, Facebook and any other internet crap, that they know. So this means that the number of private information providers has grown immeasurably, and this also applies to scientific content produced by private channels whose aim is to keep their customers at their screen. That is why the news becomes lurid and hysterical: Danger! Disaster! Crisis! The pure, simple representation of what is, in a sober and perhaps laconic way – that is no longer at all the normal information that many of our young people receive. They always get everything in the form of a story, a drama, an escalation. We must succeed in teaching our children that there are a few important, credible sources of information that we, as taxpayers, also finance. I don't want to plug the public service media, but for me a great and important source of information is the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. And when students ask me, tell me, how do you cope with the flood of information, I say I don't experience it as a flood, but I limit myself to certain media that I trust.

In short, we have to make sure in lessons that the children learn at an early stage how to deal in a cool way with what is being thrown at them. And always allow the question: "Come on, that can't be right". It can't all be disaster movie mood all the time, it's not like that at all. When I look outside, I have to say: what are they on about? Everything's still quiet and peaceful! I think that will be important – to have the peace and time to then actually deal with the real information. By the way, we also have information providers in the sciences who are becoming more and more intense in dealing with this information. I always advise my students to wait until the dust settles. Ninety-nine percent of the media excitement simply dies away and very little remains. So only concern yourself with what remains! 

EK: Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy was not intended as an alternative to science but to extend the measurable and countable science at the beginning of the twentieth century. Anthroposophists should be able to think things that cannot be perceived with the senses. You are a Protestant and have spoken of believing in a creative principle that is "behind everything".

HL: We are all the gauges of our own life experience. Experiences do not only include those that can be explained with quantitative sciences, but also involve quantities that cannot be ranked as if they were a Bundesliga table. This also includes the important concept of truth. For me, what is true is what plays an important role in my life and the important experiences I have had. And I have had a few experiences that make me believe in a creative principle in the universe. That's all I can really say about it, except that the way I deal with people is related to the fact that I believe in such things. It's not about how I do physics. That has nothing to do with God. But the generosity with which I treat myself and the generosity towards my neighbour, that has something to do with how I see the world. And that is my faith in the world, in people and in the principles behind it. I am very fortunate to live in a time that has been completely peaceful, where opportunities have been available to me that were once only available to queens and kings. I live a life like a bee in clover. We have incredible opportunities today! I think in that context a little more calm, more respect, gratitude and humility would not hurt. Shouting for more and more is not my way. I am religious in the sense that I feel connected to where I come from and where I will probably go again.

EK: How do you judge the scepticism towards vaccination of people with an anthroposophical orientation?

HL: Because empowerment for life in particular is at the centre of anthroposophical teaching, let me first state: we lead a life that is permeated by scientific knowledge and technology, right down to the smallest details of our everyday lives. We no longer have any objects around us that have not been artificially made. How we move about, how we communicate: everything has to do with the results of science. And of all things, one of the most important findings of medicine, namely that pathogens can be fought with the help of vaccination, is supposed to be wrong?

Viruses are molecular machines. A virus cannot be “part of me", because it does not belong there. By the way, everyone who has ever had a gastrointestinal virus knows this: it isn't part of us, we throw it up. I cannot imagine that there are really people who seriously believe that the virus is a challenge imposed on us by destiny. Epidemics happen in nature, and we have managed to deal with them pretty well so far. Vaccination in particular has brought so much incredible good to the world. I can't understand why anyone would think that there are now some dark forces behind it that want to poison us with some substance to kill us all. The idea of implying that rich billionaires want to poison us all! Bullshit! We can read about who the really dark forces are, for example, on the front page of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, where the machinations of Credit Suisse are revealed. A sinister power that enables dark men and women to launder money.

Vaccination is such a wonderful story, even given the problems that may possibly come with it. But the basic idea of protecting ourselves against pathogens with a vaccination, that is the absolute tops. I'm so glad that we have this. And especially with coronavirus. Because we have succeeded, thanks to decades of preliminary work, in actually having the crucial substance, namely these mRNA vaccines, available at the decisive moment. Those wonderful people at Biontec – that they came up with the idea that if we can use it for cancer treatment, then we can also use it against a virus! So, all in all, I can only keep imploring everyone to get vaccinated! Billions of vaccine doses have meanwhile been administered, nothing of what the prophets of doom have preached has come to pass.

I have to say in all honesty that some from the anthroposophical neck of the woods have clearly exceeded their competence, because they have no idea what they are talking about. And this cluelessness, combined with a vehement sense of mission, seems to me to be a bomb that could also go off on other issues in the future. When people who don't have a clue about something think they can comment on something, and because of the speed with which information spreads, society is made hysterical and topics of discussion emerge that are not worthy of an enlightened society. 

EK: Thank you very much for the interview!

The questions were asked by Angelika Lonnemann

 

 

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