Stories, which offer some of the richest and multifarious ways of explaining phenomena, are underutilized in today’s schools. We explore the way in which Waldorf education works with narrative content to meet the “cry for myth” that lives in today’s child.
is made of stories, not atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser
a visit some years ago to a New York City public school I was met by my host
teacher outside of her combined 4th/5th grade
classroom. She wanted me to know that she had to set aside her
lesson plan for a while in order to deal with a recurrent problem.
Once again, she said, an argument had arisen between a particularly
polarized pair of girls. The factors were manifold and complex:
jealousy plus cliqueishness times envy divided by spite – a potent
and acrimonious equation, to be sure!
a method that is widely accepted and now and then even effective, the
teacher set up a flip chart and asked two students to moderate.
The two parties in the conflict were asked to give their versions of
what had happened — which led to more acrimony — and other children
were asked what they thought was best to do in such a situation.
Ideas and suggestions were duly noted ad recorded on the flip chart:
“Ignore people who insult you,” “Be nice to your friends,”
“Don’t use bad language,” etc. Once the exhortations were
exhausted, the flip chart sheets were tacked to the bulletin board and
the wall, where they joined an ever wider array of aggressively positive
slogans. I was reminded of photographs of Soviet classrooms in
the nineteen fifties, their walls aglow with the words of Lenin and
Stalin. Back then, our teachers told us that we should be grateful
not to have to sit in rooms decorated with propaganda…
It was clear that by this time of year (late December) the discussion
I had witnessed was nothing for this class, nor did it seem to have
been very helpful. The overall effect was that children were being
trained to intellectualize their emotions in order to “control”
them, while their real feelings continued to lurk behind the
scenes, ready to erupt as soon as the discussion ended and the flip
chart was put away. Symptoms were being “managed,” but the
underlying archetypes that motivated the children were hardly
a break time, the teacher, her principal and I discussed what I had
seen, and she acknowledged that little or no progress had been made
in healing the rift between the two antagonists. I stated that
Waldorf teachers perceived such argumentative tendencies, or even vindictiveness,
as a natural part of fourth grade behavior.
what do you do about it?” she asked. “What do you do in a
Waldorf school when this stuff breaks out?”
smiled, recognizing how weird my answer would sound.
tell a story,” I said, “In which the antagonists are given a mythical
dimension. That tends to objectify the experience. In fact,
in fourth grade we tell many Norse myths, in part because the Norse
gods are the most argumentative and aggressive gods in world mythology
— that, and their liveliness, provide an accurate reflection of the
fourth grader’s own nature. We don’t say very much directly
to the children involved, but let them ‘digest’ the story and see
the effect of their behavior as though it were happening to someone
teacher looked skeptical.
that works?” she asked.
takes a few weeks,” I conceded, “Or a few months, or sometimes a
few years. But, yes, eventually it works.”
you tell these kids a Norse story, they’ll just use it to make
fun of each other even more,” she said, “And they probably won’t
even listen in the first place.”
go ahead,” said her principal, “What have we got to lose?
Let him try it.”
a few minutes I was standing before the class, relating the tale of
Loki’s jealousy towards Baldur. The envious and spiteful Loki
finds a way to kill the almost immortal Baldur, but, instead of being
accepted by the Aesir, he is scorned all the more. In the tried-and-true
Waldorf method, I did not draw any link with the events of the morning
as I told the story, and I did not look at the two girls involved, but
rather spoke to the class at large. They proved to be a quiet,
attentive and completely involved audience.
that afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, one of the antagonists
came up to me and handed me a piece of lined paper. Upon it she
had written her name, her school name, the date, and the following (spelling
has not been corrected):
| ODIN = King||
THOR = King’s son
AESIR = GODS BEINGS
LOKI = Jokester
BALDUR = Nice man
Comments: I think the story was nice and
it had a good morale.
Morale: Should not be jealous enough
P.S. Can you come again?
Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University
of Chicago, cites a story told by the psychiatrist Robert Coles “of
a little girl named Ruby whom he met during the early days of desegregation”:
became intrigued by the 7-year-old, who had to be escorted to school
by federal marshals. She would get out of the car and be met by jeering
mobs who shouted racial epithets at her. She would pause, bow her head
for a moment, and then walk into the school staring straight ahead.
He got to know Ruby’s family, and finally felt comfortable asking
Ruby why she always paused before she went into class. She said, “I’m
saying a little prayer. I’m saying, ‘Father forgive them, for they
know not what they do.’” This little girl had access to a religious
story and tradition, and it gave her great strength.
Where are the stories today? The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers won’t
do it: If you’re being harassed in the school yard, just karate chop
your way out of a jam! So many of the stories that our kids are being
told or are watching on television are totally bizarre and otherworldly.
They’re made up of creatures that aren’t human; they’re made up
of plots that don’t speak to anything that’s tethered to everyday
it is not a question as to whether heroes are needed for a child’s
healthy development than which
heroes are going to be espoused; it is not whether stories will
be presented in school, but rather which stories will be heard.
Paradoxical as it may appear, it is those myths which were told in the
distant past that best explain the present to a child, and it is those
demigods and heroes whose nature is divine who are best able to tether
today’s child to everyday life. The eminent psychoanalyst Rollo
May, who wrote the book The Cry for Myth after decades of research
into the psychological and social illnesses of our time, explains:
speak of the Cry for myths because I believe there is an urgency
in the need for myth in our day. Many of the problems of our society,
including cults and drug addiction, can be traced to the lack of myths
which will give us as individuals the inner security we need in order
to live adequately in our day. The sharp increase in suicide among young
people and the surprising increase in depression among people of all
ages are due, as I show in this book, to the confusion and the unavailability
of adequate myths in modern society.2
insightful film critic David Denby, reviewing the wildly popular movie
X-Men – based on the modern mythological figures featured in the
Marvel Comics series – described the powerful effect such computer-simulated
extravaganzas have on children, his own included:
X-Men became familiar to some of us when, as parents, we stepped on
Wolverine’s claws late at night in our children’s darkened bedrooms.
Those figures, Wolverine, Magneto, and the rest, will be back on the
floor, and in force. Cast in plastic, the X-Men become relatively ordinary.
Onscreen, however, they are overwhelming, and I am left with one doubt:
will the movie’s visual rapture prove so strong that it takes over
children’s dreams, doing all the work for them, and leaving them with
nothing that is quite their own?3
the last decade, any number of writers have rediscovered a tenet that
has been understood in all religions throughout the ages: stories represent
the most economical and therefore powerful way of conveying ideas and
moral precepts. That is to say, all the imprecations and commandments,
all the consequences and punishments, all the harsh words and stern
warnings in the world cannot modify behavior with the elegance and efficacy
of a beautiful and meaningful story. Contrariwise, a culture whose
stories are trivial and negative will in turn inculcate those attitudes
into their audiences, above all into the very young.
belief in the power of the story is a pillar of Waldorf education.
Along with the stories specific to the Waldorf curriculum, all of which
speak to the transformations undergone by his class in a general way,
the teacher also tries to utilize stories which are directed to the
specific needs of individual children, or to tendencies arising in the
class as a whole, e.g., quarrelsomeness, or negativity, which he would
like to see modified or transformed. This approach by no means
offers an instant fix, and in the short term the usual, “symptomatic”
methods of discipline must be used (with good will and common sense,
we hope!). Over the course of time the characters who have
triumphed in worthwhile stories will come alive in those who have heard
them and serve as friends, protectors and trustworthy guardians of the
good. In spite of the quick apprehension of the Norse story by
the unusually sensitive girl I described above, the importance of
time in relationship to learning cannot be underestimated.
Behavior, good and bad, has its roots in the very deepest parts of human
nature; it takes time to inculcate habits, and it takes even more time
to transform them. The Waldorf method, which allows a class teacher
eight years in which to securely build and then gently dissolve a relationship
with a group of children, provides the best foundation for work with
situation-specific stories have come to be known in the Waldorf school
movement as “pedagogical stories,” although “therapeutic tales”
might be a more accurate name. Of course, any story can
be used therapeutically if the teller has a keen sense of the right
moment and setting in which to tell it. A Waldorf teacher can
use the rich store of fairy tales and fables, legends and myths already
specified in the curriculum and apply them to any number of situations
(as the Loki/Baldur story was applied above). But now and then
a question or quarrel, a class crisis or an individual triumph, may
call upon a teacher to return to the sources from which all stories
arise, and draw upon the springs of her own inspiration.
parent or teacher is especially blessed when a story can arise as the
answer to a child’s question. The nature of the questions that
children ask in the kindergarten years is no less symbolic than their
drawings or gestures. As they feel the subtle realignment of their
physical and etheric bodies, and with that, the change in their relationship
to all that is inherited and parental, children are asking their parents
(symbolically) for reassurance. In essence, most children’s
questions are variations on “Do you love me?” and “Will I stay
with you?” And children rarely ask questions for which they
do not, in however hidden a manner, already possess the answers.
A mother in Bologna told me the following story about her six year-old
son, Mario, and his four year-old sister, Chiara:
day Mario came up to me after he and his sister had been playing quite
happily for over an hour.
he said, “Chiara and I love each other so much! When we grow up we
want to get married!”
must have shown some hint of dismay on my face, because he immediately
asked me, “Can we get married when we grow up?”
I sputtered, “A brother and a sister can’t marry.”
why not?” Mario asked.
didn’t know what to reply! All that I could think of were answers
like, “Because the Pope said so,” or “Because your children will
be feeble-minded.” All so conventional, so uninspired, so out of accord
with the innocence of his question! Then Mario himself came to my rescue.
know why a brother and sister can’t get married,” he said, smiling
widely, “Because every baby needs to have two grandmothers
and two grandfathers!”
explanations may temporarily satisfy a child’s curiosity, but
it is no less essential for answers to awaken the child’s sense of
wonder. Curiosity is a quality notorious for its insatiability:
questions born out of mere curiosity, once answered, lead only to more
questions. How many fairy tales commence with the one door that
is not to be opened, the one room that is not meant to be entered, etc.,
which proves to be the undoing of the curious protagonist? We
know that we have evoked wonder in the soul of the child when, instead
of questioning us further, the child pauses and breathes deeply; we
can sense that the child has been fed and nourished, not just stuffed
with mental junk food. Instead of being battered by an endless
stream of external sense-impressions, the child takes on a mood of “active
contemplation.”4 When asked, in the 1950s, how children
could become more attuned to their surroundings and grow into adults
who could reverse the inexorable ecological crises that were leading
to a “Silent Spring,” the environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote,
child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful and beautiful, full of
wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that
clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring,
is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence
with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening
of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world
be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout
life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments
of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial,
the alienation from the sources of our strength.5
more to the point for the growing child, such anthropomorphic stories
depict beings (godly or human or otherwise) who are intentionally active
in creating phenomena. The fact that particles, light rays, and
water vapor interact to make the sun “appear” to be red may be perfectly
satisfactory to a modern, intellectually-educated adult. To the
child, however, the random interaction of these chemical and physical
entities is lifeless. The world becomes a complex collection
of passive phenomena, brought about randomly, with no particular plan
or goal motivating its action. Such lifeless pictures gradually
inculcate passivity in the child’s soul. The enthusiasm of public
television science specials, the bells and whistles of CD-ROMs, even
the impressive technology of “virtual reality” software, cannot
revivify a worldview that is, in the eyes of a primary school child,
it has become customary for sensitive parents to take their child’s
symbolic questions literally and to use the questions as
opportunities to further “educate” their child. Above all,
they want their children to have a scientific understanding of
the world and its phenomena! So the following scenario is not
mother and her child sit in their backyard on an autumn evening as the
Mommy, why does the sun turn red when it sets?
Well, dear, that’s because we’re seeing it through more layers of
atmosphere than earlier in the day. Particles of dust and molecules
of water float in the air, and they alter the range of the spectrum
that is visible to us. You remember what a molecule is, don’t you,
is another way to answer that question:
autumn evening, Laura had gone out with her mother to bring in the wash
that had been drying on the line. It was nearly bedtime, and a
cool breeze began to blow as the sun sank low in the sky. As she
helped her mother fold their towels, still warm and fragrant from the
bright autumn daylight, Laura looked across their yard. Over the
purple hills, the sun was beginning to set.
Laura asked, “Why is the sun golden yellow all day, but red when it
tell you soon,” said her mother, “But first help me take in our
clothes and towels were all put away. Evening shadows fell, and
the katydids began their ceaseless chatter. “Will you tell me
now?” asked Laura. Her mother nodded yes, and this is what she
morning and all afternoon, the baby Sun plays with his friends, the
Wind and Clouds, while his mother, the Sky, in her blue silken gown,
watches and protects him. He wears his bright golden yellow playclothes,
and they glow and glisten with such brilliant beams that all the boys
and girls who see him feel warm and content. Sometimes he’ll play hide-and-go-seek
with the clouds, and the sky will grow gray and the air will become cool,
but everyone knows that the Sun child will soon return in his golden
evening comes, Mother Sky calls her little one in from his play.
She rubs a damp cloud over his face to wash him, and takes off his golden
playclothes. Night is coming, and the Sun must put on his red
flannel pajamas to keep him warm while he sleeps.
such a long day of play, the Sun child is ready to rest. Mother
Sky rocks him to sleep and then gently lays him upon a soft, grassy
hillside. Then she takes off her blue dress and puts on her dark
silken nightgown. She kisses the Sun goodnight, and all grows
quiet and dark…
do you know what?” Laura’s mother said, “It’s getting to be
time for you to get into your red flannel pajamas and get ready for
This story answers the same child’s
question, but does so by taking a familiar, comforting domestic scene
between a mother and child and transposing it onto a meteorological
phenomenon. It is a form of anthropomorphism we would find in
virtually any ancient or indigenous folktale that sought to explain
earthly and heavenly phenomena, but it also mirrors the way in which
the pre-nine-year-old relates to the world: “as below, so above.”
The child wishes to see the entire universe in terms that are most familiar
and comforting to her, i.e., in terms of a family, complete with strong
and loving parents and happy and active (and sometimes disobedient)
children. If we must be reductionist about myths, then
we would be more accurate reducing them to the family archetype rather
than to an amalgam of conflicting sexual drives and repressions.
those teachers or parents who wish to create their own pedagogical stories,
I would suggest two sources of inspiration. The contemplative
exercises given by Rudolf Steiner in his book, How to Know the Higher
Worlds can provide a unique window into the interplay of nature
and the human being. In this book, Steiner provides a practical
path for the writer who wishes to allow the creative powers of nature
to speak through his stories. The “Fairy Tales” and shorter
stories written by Leo Tolstoy have also helped me immeasurably.
In the last years of his life, Tolstoy stopped writing novels for adults,
founded a school for the children of his freed serfs, and proceeded
to write nothing other than “moral tales” for their edification
and instruction. Such masterpieces as What Men Live By, Ivan
the Fool and How Much Land Does a Man Need?
are among the scores of stories Tolstoy wrote for children. They
are models of narrative wisdom and lapidary conciseness.
younger the child, the more he will be helped by the repetition
of such stories. One of Rudolf Steiner’s most helpful revelations
to teachers concerned the intimate relationship of growth, habit and
memory – all of which are functions of the “body of life,” or
etheric body – in the primary school age child. As the child
comes to memorize such stories through having them regularly repeated,
the tales gradually work upon her life of habits and eventually become
united with all that develops and grows within her, including qualities
that will later manifest as “character.”
can attest to the reality of this metamorphosis, not only out of my
twenty years of teaching experience as a teacher of children, but also
in relation to my ten years’ work with the aged and dying in the Fellowship
Community in Spring Valley, NY. In spite of the aches and pains
and indignities attendant upon their years, many elderly individuals
drew inspiration and refreshment, indeed, youth, from the tales
and rhymes and aphorisms that they had committed to memory in their
childhood. The reserves of courage, and even joy, which such individuals
drew upon as they approached the moment of death were clear to those
of us who cared for them.
do not necessarily have to wait seventy years or more to judge the effect
that stories have upon our students. Here is a sketch written
by an eighth grader. The assignment I gave was to write about
one’s summer vacation in the third person, “as though it all happened
to someone else.” For the writer of this story, the most important
event of her summer had been the onset of menses, which she was able
to convey in a powerful and pictorial manner:
heard pouring rain, gushing from the clouds, beat upon her windows.
Her teeth chattered, but it wasn’t from the cold, for the rest of her
body shook too. A cold cloth, dampened with water, had been wrapped
about her head. She was lying on her bed, staring up, praying
to the water that was running in rivulets down the glass pane, to the
water that dripped across her face, to the water that soaked through
the floral-spattered paper cup clenched in her right hand.
trembled again. In her left hand, her palm swallowed up a spherical
purple crystal. She prayed to that also.
let me be O.K. Let me get better. Water, you are the element
that has proven to be faithful to me. So help me now, please.
Oh God, Oh Spirit of Water, Oh crystal I am clutching, let me stop feeling
She shook. The crystal and the cup of water surged vibrations
into her hands and up her arms, adding to the shaking that she was experiencing.
The evening dimmed and the sky was a slate
of grey. The winds howled; it was a dirge. She hoped it
belonged to someone else. The trees were black figures, silhouettes,
swaying a dangerous distance from the earth. The soil! It
was a traitor, for it had not yet offered its comfort to the terrified
girl trembling viciously on the bed.
The power went out. It was dark in the messy room, the floor strewn
with clothes, once tried on and discarded. Candles were brought
in, dripping wax cascades, making a pretty waterfall, frozen in a moment
of time. Fire was her friend. Her sign was a flame-bitten
one, so she felt at home. Comforted, loved by the Moon, the Water,
the Fire; she was like night anyway, working at the shadowed hours,
tiring with the day. Always it had been so.
began to feel relaxed. The sickening convulsion ceased.
Gazing at the candle’s flame, her features ringed with sweat, she felt
the night was over her, flooding her eyelids and her soul. She
Snell, “Turn Down the Volume: Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain,” Utne Reader, (November-December, 1995),
Rollo May, The Cry for Myth, (New York, 1991), 9.
“Dazzled,” The New Yorker, July 24,
thoughts I am indebted to the insights of John Gardner.
“Help Your Child to Wonder,” Woman’s Home
Companion, July, 1956.
In his review of Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s
Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, in the New York Review of Books of November 30,
1995, the biologist John Maynard Smith writes:
central thesis is that evolution by natural selection is an algorithmic
An algorithm is defined in the OED as “a procedure or set of rules for
and problem-solving.” The rules must be so simple and precise that
not matter whether they are carried out by a machine or an intelligent
the results will be the same…