Becoming a person of our time

Andre Bartoniczek

As the adult world at the start of the twentieth century stayed asleep and lost itself in illusion, it was the twenty-two-year-old poet Georg Heym who on 6 July 1910 presciently noted in his diary: “This peace is as foul, barren and slimy as polish paste on old furniture.” A few years later the reality of the events hidden under the veneer was revealed. Norbert Boeder – a member of the German Youth Movement (Jugendbewegung) – called out to the adults in a poem: “You oldies are the dead ones, / we young ones are the judge. / You’re sitting at a knot of time / and cannot make it budge. / You simply cannot do it, / because none of you are free – / for us it’s not a bother, / we sever it in two.” In 1967/68 it was once again above all pupils and students who protested against the blindness of the involvement in the Vietnam war, the repression mechanisms of their parents, as well as the political lies and cultural sclerotification, and sensed that their time was crying out worldwide for justice, peace and the responsible treatment of the environment.

Today it is difficult not look in wonder at the existential, unrestrained initiative of young people who after school travel to South America before they do anything else to learn to know the conditions under which people are living there and engage themselves with an environmental initiative; who have such great empathy for the suffering in Africa that they become midwives or doctors to help there; or who at the age of 19 set up a complete cultural centre and manage to raise more than a million euros for that purpose. They are far ahead of the older generations in dealing with the digital world – and not just in the use of external applications but also with regard to creative ideas in crowdfunding, high quality media concepts and effective communication.

When the heavens revolt

Do young people therefore have to be brought up to become citizens of their time? A young person, when they come down to earth, brings something with them which older people specifically do not have available to them: the latest and most current impulses from a world which we cannot see externally. Rudolf Steiner on 19 July 1921 desperately tried to make his then Stuttgart colleagues in the first Waldorf school aware of this fact.

He was forced to recognise that they were not able to get through to the pupils in the necessary way but lectured at them. His diagnosis could not be clearer and documents his urgent concern to trigger a perception of the most profound intentions which young people bring to their time: “We have put ourselves in a position where we have built a gulf between ourselves and these young people. […] We are separated from the child by an abyss.”

When we talk about being citizens of our time, this must refer in the first instance to ourselves, the adult parents and teachers. We are called upon to discover within ourselves the impulses of our time, the tasks of the future. Only when we have succeeded in doing so is the question permitted as to the extent to which there are actually certain things which are not yet available as of themselves to the pupils as abilities but require our help and support.

Steiner kept referring to the concealed future forces in young people which by no means always found the right ways to become reality but which, if they were ignored, could lead to fatal consequences. Thus for example on 11 September 1920: “These forces are not lost; they spread, they become real, they enter the thinking, the feelings, the will impulses. And what does that make of human beings? Rebels, revolutionaries, dissatisfied people who do not know what they want because they want something that is incompatible with any social organism. […] When the world is in revolt today, it is heaven which is in revolt, that is the heaven which is held back in the souls of people and which appears not in its own form but in its opposite, which comes to expression in fighting and bloodshed instead of imaginations.”

These words could not be more relevant – the whole problem of youth violence up to an including terrorism is here related to the disregard of the latent spiritual intentions of young people. It is not the task of teachers to place contemporary impulses into young people because they already bring them along. On the contrary, the task consists of awakening these half or, indeed, wholly unconscious intentions through the corresponding spiritual “nourishment” and to cultivate them in such a way that they can understand themselves, find a productive expression and in this way have a healing effect on the future.

An impressive example of such a connection between young and older people is the moment in which Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends openly told their esteemed philosophy professor Kurt Huber about their intention to distribute flyers against the Nazi regime and he, fully aware of the danger of such a step, after a period of reflection promised them his support. The students saw in Huber a person who expressed what they were looking for and who helped them through his knowledge to understand contemporary events. Huber in turn decided to take this step because he experienced the obligation to take action.

Pupils must learn that their action has global consequences

Not just university but school already has an existential task in this respect. It is by no means the purpose of the classic subjects to teach middle class learning. They should coach intellectual activity which, for example, enables the pupils to judge contemporary events properly. Knowledge alone leads nowhere – otherwise there would not be so many social and political disasters each day despite all the digital information so ubiquitously available.

Only a comprehension of the context in which events occur allows us to understand the events which happen around us. Such holistic thinking requires continuous practice – for example in history lessons, assuming that teachers are aware of such a task at all. An awareness of history does not consist of a large number of facts learnt off by heart but arises from the ability to grasp a development in the progression of different periods, have an inkling of future tasks and recognise what the present time needs.

Thus the pupils in a Waldorf school go through the whole of world history during the class teacher period, lessons in class 10 begin again with the Stone Age and in class 12 very consciously survey the whole historical development of humankind. The teacher must study current events with engaged interest in order to be able to link to such situations with the pupils, make them aware of processes which they might have overlooked, to let them experience: we have our finger on the pulse of our time in class and we need solutions.

If the lesson does not merely repeat how many refugees there are and what the associated political problems are, but if it is investigated, using the fate of individual refugees, why precisely these people come to us, a radical change in perspective can come about. And then the question arises: how could this happen? What are the reasons for the disasters in Syria or Africa? If it becomes clear that these events are a direct consequence of decisions that were taken in the nineteenth and twentieth century – for example social Darwinism and the colonialism it gave rise to and the destructive borders that were drawn from the Middle East to Vietnam – the necessity of remembering what happened in the past is communicated, the thinking is challenged to learn to understand how an event arises from concealed, deeper developmental triggers.

What is the effect on the garment worker when I buy this pair of trousers here in Germany? Globalisation is meanwhile taught in some schools as a subject in class 12, but a first step can already be taken in class 8. In a three-week main lesson it is not difficult at this age to understand the origin of the jeans I’m wearing, investigate the reality of working and living in Bangladesh, learn about basic concepts of capitalism and the history of money, follow the development of communications from letters via the telegraph to the mobile phone.

Lessons have to start from the observations and questions of pupils and together with them trace the reasons for the current situations in an undaunted approach which does not fearfully get bogged down in the wealth of historical material. Only then have we created a basis on which we can look at how people fight for change and solutions: fair trade initiatives, alternative banking concepts, engagement for the rights of nature (Greenpeace, Robin Wood, Mellifera) and people (Amnesty International, Sea Watch).

Teachers also have to face the abyss

An interest in the world and insight into its laws lead young people out of themselves and help them to combine their own impulses with the developmental tendencies of their time – there is nothing more liberating and healing than the knowledge that we do not stand alone but can strive together with others for something meaningful and necessary.

There are constantly situations in a Waldorf school which determine whether such experiences can come about or not. Do the young people encounter personalities in the teaching staff who take responsibility for their actions or do the teachers hide behind rules and regulations or cite practical constraints (examination necessities, the timetable, too much work)?

Does a class play in class 12 serve to entertain or does it seek out existential challenges? Does it go to the limits of our habitual thinking? Do the teachers react to such an expedition to the limits with the complaint that it had been too “black” or do they welcome the risk and the examination of the abyss? Does it provoke our every-day self and release experiences which pupils and the audience have never had before? Does a college of teachers want to avoid the painful ground zero of the artistic path or does it actively embrace it?

The class play and the attitudes of the teachers which can be experienced outside classes make clear: the cognitive process practised in the subject lessons cannot be divorced from the processes outside lessons. We are people of our time also in the way we act: do the teachers know the time they live in or do they avoid it? Does the school invite people who have something to say? Does the school support the attempts of pupils to engage through projects with the solution of social problems or does the response to such attempts tend to be hesitant? Are computer courses set up in upper school which are nothing more than a fig leaf or is there a thorough and competent media education? Does the college of teachers itself engaged with its time?

Misunderstandings are sometimes associated with these questions: “modernity” does not mean that every fashion is pandered to. What Schiller said about the artist applies all the more so to the “education artist”: “Live with your century but do not be its creature; provide for your contemporaries, but what they need not what they praise” (9th Letter on Aesthetic Education).

Teachers should not pander to the momentary every-day wants of their pupils – the latter are seeking an encounter with people who are authentic, who perceive their inner questions about life of which they may be half aware, who help them to raise such questions to the surface and find the contributions which our time actually needs.

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek was an upper school teacher for German and history at the Weimar and Stuttgart-Uhlandshöhe Waldorf schools and today is a lecturer at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim and on the Jena distance learning course for Waldorf education.