Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education: Blinking, Feeling, and Willing

A Review of "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co., 2005)

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Malcolm Gladwell’s popular study of the intuitive experience sheds interesting light on some of Rudolf Steiner’s psychological insights. Gladwell’s lively recounting of individuals who “acted first and thought later” can be of help to the sometimes moribund atmosphere of the Waldorf faculty meeting.

            The relationship
between the developmental psychology that underlies Waldorf education, the
curriculum that informs it, and the day-to-day classroom experience that brings
it to life may be compared to a set of maps. The developmental foundation given
by Rudolf Steiner’s may be seen as a physical globe of the earth that provides a
broad overview, changing over the course of millennia. The Waldorf curriculum,
laid out in its broad outlines by Steiner but elaborated and intensified by
others, may be compared to a political map, a picture whose boundaries and
borders, cities and nations change frequently through the course of a century.
The daily experience of the teacher may, in turn, be likened to a Google road
map in which detours, washed-out bridges, renamed exit ramps, and congested
intersections must be delineated anew every day.

             Waldorf teachers,
who work with the road map, finding their way daily through the myriad changes
and unpredictable conditions of the present moment, will find Malcolm Gladwell’s
Blink to be a helpful and encouraging study. In this book, as well as the
many articles that he has written for The New Yorker in the past decade
(some of which were excerpted from this book) Gladwell has shown himself to be
an insightful witness to the accelerated, globalizing, unsettling – in short,
Michaelic – times in which we live.

Blink
examines a phenomenon that Gladwell describes as “the power of thinking without
thinking,” the epistemological domain first charted over a century ago in Rudolf
Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom. Steiner examined thinking as the modern
person’s path to freedom. For him, the practice of a “free thinking” that united
percepts and concepts would lead to actions that were in harmony with natural
laws and therefore moral. Gladwell treads a more phenomenological path,
drawing on the experiences of people as diverse as art critics, family
therapists, inner city policemen, and athletic coaches to examine the ways in
which a thinking capacity that rapidly melded percepts and concepts would lead
to actions that were correct and effective. Although Blink
sets out to be nothing more than a popular synthesis of the findings of
contemporary psychologists, it is replete with insights that support and update
Steiner’s exploration of morality and freedom.

As an example, the “case study” with which Gladwell begins
his book may be illuminating to teachers who struggle to understand a difficult
child. Before it purchased a rare kouros statue, the J. Paul Getty Museum
commissioned a number of scientists to study and evaluate the statue’s
provenance and antiquity. After lengthy and exhaustive scientific research they
determined that the statue was, indeed, a sixth century B.C. artifact. However,
three art historians who simply looked at the statue – in each case, for
a matter of seconds – were convinced that the statue was a fake, which, indeed,
it was (pp 3-8).

            Thomas Hoving, one
of the art historians involved with the kouros, described “the act of getting at
the truth of a work of art as an extraordinarily imprecise process” (p 50).
Hoving quoted the eminent art authenticator Bernard Berenson, in a court case,
as recognizing a forgery only because “his stomach felt wrong . . . Or he felt
woozy and off balance . . . .” (p 51).  Such descriptions point to the
likelihood that these invariably correct judgments are not being formed in the
brain, or even in the generalized nerve/sense system, but rather are
metabolic
in nature; Berenson’s “off balance” feeling indicates that the
clarity characteristic of his sensory system has been overwhelmed by the
inchoate chemistry of his metabolism.

             Rudolf Steiner has
indicated that we possess a powerful organ for perceiving destiny that is lodged
in our solar plexus. In our present stage of consciousness, this organ slumbers,
awakened only when momentous destiny events require its guidance or
corroboration (as the Cowboy Junkies tell us, “. . . . Sometimes/You meet
someone/And your guts just burn”). In the case of an art historian, it may very
well be that he or she was present at the time of the authentic art work’s
genesis and has a destiny-connection with the work and its creator.

            Could we extend
this experience to the relationship of the teacher and the “difficult child”?
Too often today classroom teachers are pressured by parents and colleagues to
have the child tested and assessed by “experts” so that the proper educational
plan may be fitted to the child’s needs. If an art historian has a such karmic
connection with a work of art that he can follow it from lifetime to lifetime,
we can imagine that a Waldorf teacher might have at least as strong a link with
some of the children in her class, and at least as reliable a capacity to
perceive the “authenticity” of the child’s problems and strengths.

However, the atmosphere of today’s Waldorf school may be so
filled with anxiety, fear of litigation etc. that the “still, small voice
within” can not be heard, or, if heard, will not be heeded. The clear and often
correct judgment that the teacher may have made within the first seconds of
meeting the child, or during the course of an intense classroom conversation
with the child, or upon awakening in the morning after an evening’s
contemplation of the child’s nature – all of these potential moral intuitions
are ignored or rejected as “vague.” (Recall Hoving’s description of the
importance of the “extraordinarily imprecise process.”) A great many – probably
a majority – of Waldorf students who are subjected to such tests are likely to
be asked to leave their class and enter a mainstream school, whereas in most
situations where the teacher’s “gut reaction” is accepted, such a child will
remain. Which course of action would appear to be closer to moral
intuition?

Yet another dilemma of Waldorf school life is echoed in “Paul
van Riper’s Big Victory,” one of the most stirring chapters in the book. In a
crucial series of war games held by the United States Joint Forces Command at
the turn of this century, Paul van Riper commanded forces that had far less
firepower and far fewer intelligence-gathering resources than their opponents –
but he nonetheless scored a rapid and surprising victory. The information that
his opponents possessed – and the time and energy it took to analyze it and
determine its value – was hardly advantageous.

A parent in my old Waldorf school was a money trader who
worked on Wall Street. He was famous in the financial district for the presence
of mind that allowed him to make split-second decisions amidst the wild
gyrations of the currency market. His financial acumen and his love of Waldorf
education, led to his being invited to join a number of important committees in
his children’s school. He told me of one meeting in which he sat for over an
hour while the faculty and parents on the school’s Finance Committee debated an
expenditure of $250.00. Everyone had an opinion, and, in spite of a great deal
of careful research, their course of action was not clear.

Halfway through the meeting the trader’s beeper sounded, and
he left the building to use his car phone. One of his bank’s Asian offices
needed him to approve a trade; he made his decision in five seconds and within
another ten seconds his bank had gained over two million dollars on the deal. He
then returned to the meeting. “And you know what, Eugene?” he said wistfully,
“They were still talking about that damn $250.00!”

As Gladwell describes it in the book’s “Afterword”:

    We live in a
world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at
our fingertips at all times, and we’re
well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not
doing our homework. But what I have
sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much,
of being inundated with information.
We have come to confuse information with understanding. (p 264)

It is interesting to observe that, as the meetings of Waldorf
school faculties, Colleges of Teachers, and school committees have become more
information-based and more severe in their demands that participants “do their
homework” and process the quantitative consequences of their decisions, the
same demands are being made on Waldorf students.

Waldorf education was brought into the world as a practical
manifestation of Steiner’s method of “soul economy,” the idea that less is more,
and the sense that “sleeping and forgetting” were no less important than
assimilating a great deal of information. Yet the endless copying from the board
that fills main lesson books to bursting, the homework and textbooks that appear
earlier and earlier in the grades, and the block tests, quizzes, and graded
reports that are slowly becoming the rule rather than the exception indicate
that Waldorf schools have come to value information more than transformation.

Again and again, Gladwell describes how often too much
information leads to bad decisions, while trust in our own capacity for judgment
can lead to astonishingly good decisions. The Waldorf method was meant to teach
children how to trust themselves, to develop the character, poise, and
confidence that would allow them to think and act decisively. The “method” can’t
do this by itself, of course; it helps to have teachers who believe in it.
Although Gladwell would not put it this way, we can say that blinking is a
micro-sleep, a momentary cessation of sensory input that reunites us with the
spiritual world, if we have trust in that world. The clear and
enthusiastic look at today’s consciousness that Blink affords us can be a
tonic for all who practice Waldorf education.