In the year 1920, when these lectures were given, the Waldorf School in Stuttgart was barely eight months old, and the educational theories and methods developed by Rudolf Steiner were hardly known outside of Central Europe. Far more influential at that time – and still exerting a powerful effect on educational theories and methods to this day – were the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Maria Montessori.
John Dewey’s work in education arose out of his original immersion in philosophy and psychology, and thus manifested a strong concern for the development of thinking in the child. In formulating educational criteria and aims, he drew heavily on the insights into learning offered by contemporary psychology as applied to children. He viewed thought and learning as a process of inquiry starting from doubt or uncertainty – the so-called “Problem Approach” – and spurred by the desire to resolve practical frictions or relieve strain and tension. For Dewey, the scientist’s mental attitudes and habits of thoughts represented the zenith of intellectual life, and the cognitive side of education should guide children toward this goal:
Education must therefore begin with experience, which has as its aim the discipline and systemization of these natural tendencies until they are congealed into the attitudes and procedures of the scientifically minded person. The “Problem Approach,” developed further by William Kilpatrick of Columbia University’s Teachers College into the “Project Method,” became the modus operandi of the progressive education movement which controlled many of America’s school systems for two generations.
Maria Montessori, who had been the first woman medical student in Italy, approached education with a passionate interest in the bio-physical basis of the child’s will. Soon after her graduation the young physician worked at the Psychiatric Clinic in Rome, where retarded and emotionally disturbed children were herded together like prisoners. She observed that after their meals the children would throw themselves on the floor to search for crumbs. Although they were still hungry after a meager meal, instead of eating the crumbs they moistened them with saliva and molded them into little birds or beasts:
It became clear to her that artistic activity is no less necessary to children than eating. In her renowned school for slum children in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter, Montessori discovered that certain simple materials aroused in young children an interest and attention not previously thought possible. These materials included beads arranged in graduated-number units for pre-mathematics instruction; small slabs of wood designed to train the eye in left-to-right reading movements; and graduated series of cylinders for small-muscle training. Children between three and six years old would work spontaneously with these materials, indifferent to distraction, for from a quarter of an hour to an hour. At the end of such a period, they would not seem tired, as after an enforced effort, but refreshed and calm. Undisciplined children became settled through such voluntary work. One of Maria Montessori’s early revelations was that, although wealthy benefactors of the school had given the children costly dolls and a doll kitchen, her students “never made such toys the object of their spontaneous choice.” Healthy children, she discovered, prefer work to play.
The spring of 1920 found John Dewey serving as a visiting professor at the National University in Peking, where he lectured extensively on the philosophy of education and met with such influential Asian leaders as Sun Yat-sen. Dewey’s educational ideas were to dominate Chinese pedagogy until the Communist Revolution. At this time Maria Montessori had risen to a similar peak of predominance; just before the outbreak of the First World War, a Montessori School had been established adjacent to the White House, under the sponsorship of Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, and by 1920 Montessori had given training courses for teachers in Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Spain, England, Austria, India and Ceylon. Paying her first official visit to England, she was accorded a degree of adulation usually reserved for royalty.
In the years following World War I, Rudolf Steiner’s influence spread less visibly, but no less profoundly, than that of his more prominent contemporaries. By 1920, a host of practical endeavors were undergoing transformation or renewal through Steiner’s anthroposophical insights. Every profession or vocation requiring renewal, in turn, compelled Steiner to provide new imaginations and inspirations for its practitioners so that they, in turn, could act with new intuitions as challenges arose. Steiner’s role as an educator, serving not only the renewal of education per se, but the renewal of human culture as a whole, was an essential theme of the year 1920.
One example of this comprehensive work: A small, but insistent group of medical students prevailed on Steiner to help them bridge the gap between a worldview that takes the spiritual nature of the human being into account and the growing materialism of modern medicine. From March to April of 1920 Steiner gave twenty wide-ranging lectures, later compiled under the title Spiritual Science and Medicine. To the healer, Steiner stressed, illness may be understood as the battle between the polarized forces of thinking and willing, as these opposites manifest in the physical body. In speaking of the development of the child’s teeth, Steiner takes a characteristic leap:
Here handwork and medicine become complementary professions, and the physician recognizes the teacher’s proactive healing activity. The interplay of dentition and limb activity, center and periphery, and inner and outer, which permeates Steiner’s approach to medicine, is no less evident in the education lectures given just eleven days after his talks to the medical students and brought together in this volume as The Renewal of Education. Another concern is that teachers understand the physiological consequences of pedagogy in much the same way as the physician must understand that he is often continuing the therapeutic process begun in the classroom. For example, speaking to teachers about the child’s experience of music, he says:
Such a passage is especially striking when we consider that in this particular lecture cycle Steiner was not preaching to the choir. These lectures were given not to teachers who were already versed in Anthroposophy and using the Waldorf method, but rather to a group of public educators in Basle, Switzerland, in a forum organized by the Basle Department of Education. In spite of his clear and unconditional opposition to state governance of education, Steiner was never reluctant to cast seeds of regeneration onto any field he felt was fertile, nor was he timid about crossing the modern dualistic wall that neatly divides pedagogy from physiology. Indeed, The Renewal of Education ranks among the most “physiological” of Steiner’s educational lecture cycles.
Although John Dewey’s contribution to the development of thinking through the “problem approach” is significant, it can easily lapse into dry pedantry that honors cognitive activity in only the most utilitarian ways. And while Maria Montessori’s genius perceived the many ways in which the child’s will can serve its maturation, her methods can stress practicality to the point that child’s relationship to play is impoverished. In The Renewal of Education, Steiner charts a course that incorporates the development of cognitive powers without sacrificing the unfolding of the will, in much the same way that his indications to physicians emphasized the importance of harmonious balance on the physiological level. The key to this balance lies in his emphasis on the unfolding of the life of feeling.
In charting this course, Steiner approaches the child’s nature from four perspectives. On the level of soul, he describes the human being as a threefold being, one who thinks, feels and wills. On the level of consciousness, these three forces manifest as wakefulness (thinking), dreaming (feeling) and deep sleep (willing). On the level of physiology, they utilize the three “systems” of nerve-senses (thinking), rhythmic -circulatory (feeling) and limb-metabolic (willing). On the level of human development, these forces unfold in discrete seven-year periods: willing dominates the first seven years of life, feelings become accessible to the child in the second seven-year period, and independent thinking blossoms after age fourteen. Having laid out these twelve interpenetrating spheres, Steiner serves as a navigator, piloting his pedagogue passengers through shoals and narrows that grow increasingly familiar and even congenial as the lectures proceed.
As we accompany Steiner on this journey, we can understand the appeal of Dewey’s “Problem Approach” and the Montessori method – as well as their limitations. By emphasizing the education of the cognitive forces at any age, Dewey’s methods can heighten a child’s sense of independence and wakefulness, while Montessori’s stress on the will can strengthen the life of habit and inner discipline. In Steiner’s terms, the “Problem Approach” would not be appropriate until adolescence, and using it exclusively from the kindergarten years on up could result in “accelerated adolescence,” a premature wakefulness that would undercut the childlike wonder and playfulness that are the foundations of a healthy adulthood. When viewed from the vantage point of these lectures, the Montessori approach could be valid in the will-filled kindergarten years, but might hold the child back from the development of independent imaginative and creative forces as he or she matured. With her emphasis on the teacher’s need to “hold back” and allow the child to discover things for herself, Montessori also weakens the strong bonds of feeling that can grow between a teacher and student.
Cultivating the balancing forces of feeling, which are unfolding most strongly between the ages of seven and fourteen, is the particular task of the Waldorf “class teacher,” who remains with his or her class from first through eighth grade – the longest, and most enduring relationship between a pupil and teacher to be found in any educational system. The eighty-year history of the Waldorf movement has time and again validated the importance of this time-commitment, and the difference that it has made in the lives of tens of thousands of children. When these lectures were given, however, the school’s first class teachers had been teaching for a mere eight months – and Steiner was obviously well aware of the daunting assignment that he had given them! His audience was filled with teachers, and the more deeply the lecturer guided them into the Waldorf method, the more they wondered how anyone could be trained to fulfill this responsibility. Rudolf Steiner’s response to this unspoken question is worth repeating at length:
Even when speaking to a public audience, Steiner did not hesitate to point to the inextricable ties of Waldorf education and Anthroposophy; even when addressing people highly trained in the teaching profession, he did not back away from emphasizing self-education, i.e. self-development, as the most important element in pedagogical preparation. To Rudolf Steiner, the “renewal of education” can be brought about only by men and women who, with courage and initiative, would be willing to undertake their own renewal. These lectures are clearly dedicated to such individuals, and it is to be hoped that this new edition will find its way to their minds, hearts, and deeds.
2. E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, (London, 1957), 28.
3. Rudolf Steiner, Spiritual Science and Medicine, (London, 1948), 218-219.
4. Page 31 in Steiner Schools Fellowship edition.
5. Pages 54-55 of SSF edition.