Classics in class 5. Why a Greek main lesson still makes sense today

Bero von Schilling

When class 5 pupils hear about the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus, they marvel at this primeval giant. A little later they fear for the long-suffering Odysseus when he is trapped in his cave. They admire his presence of mind and are glad with him about the clever way in which he escapes from danger at the end. A short time previously, these same children were discussing the latest smartphones in break time. And when they learn on the same day that “BIOS” means “life” and “GRAPHO” “I write”, they realise with satisfaction that they suddenly understand what “biography” means. 

Class 5 pupils are capable of all these different moods simultaneously because they are just living in the transition from a mythical and pictorial thinking and feeling to a more conscious and rationally reflecting observation of the world and human beings. That means that they not only understand elements from the age of the early and classical Greeks, who were developing correspondingly as a whole people, but they can also inwardly affirm it because they feel validated by the Greeks, as it were.

They listen just as attentively to the ancient myths as to the account why Socrates compared himself to a gadfly among the Athenians. They compete – for example with a neighbouring class or children from a friendly school – for the victor’s olive branch in the Greek pentathlon and create ambitious main lesson books wholly in the Greek spirit. The “Greeks” give class 5 pupils evident pleasure. Such pleasure sustains and accompanies them in that the wonder about one or another myth keeps a feeling awake in them that the world holds mysteries.

Meanders and labyrinths

What happens in lessons to bring that about? The class 5 pupils obtain a perception of how the Greeks felt because for a large part of the school year they listen to Greek myths in “story time”. Every morning during the actual Greek main lesson we sing and/or dance Greek texts with the children. At the same time the beautiful foreign sounds and the great linguistic quality of the Greek texts expands their experience of language.

Using examples of Greek words, the children become aware of how many of the fundamental aspects of the way we look at the world, which they know through loan words, were developed by the Greeks; as a result they experience both something of the spiritual continuity and the change in our consciousness in relation to the ancient Greeks. For instance, as Wilhelm Grimm observed, there is no German word for “idea”. In concepts such as “politics”, mathematics” or “ethics” we continue to look at the world through Greek principles. “SCHOLE” is the free time taken off from work which allows us to do what is important to us. “School” has the same aim; words such as “schoolification” distort the term. “TEKHNE” is the ability to handle something properly. But “technology” turns nature into a mere object. That would never have occurred to the Greeks. “COSMOS” is “order, the harmoniously ordered universe, ornament”. Nowadays the word can still have that association but often it also stands for “empty space”. “THEORIA” is “contemplation”. But “theory” is often understood today as “abstract fiction”. In the large middle part of the daily main lesson period we directly immerse ourselves in representative elements of Greek culture with the children. We describe how the Greeks crossed the sea to learn about new countries and people and trade with them. They marvelled at the winding course of the river Maiandros which stimulated their imagination. It led them to create ever new designs on vases or sumptuously decorated garments in many different varieties of pattern.

When the class 5 pupils see the various decorative borders, or meanders, on the blackboard for several days at a time, we trace the changing sentiments which they reflect: what flows in a dream-like way to begin with suddenly becomes conscious. First our eye goes backwards, then again increasingly inwards. We investigate the numerical relationships of the lengths of their sides; once the class 5 pupils have clearly understood them, they take great pleasure in carefully reconstructing also the more complex forms. A further dimension of understanding opens up to them when after the story of Theseus und Ariadne they devise the mysterious labyrinth in their main lesson books.

Using the example of 24 individual Greek words which they have spoken previously, the children practice the beautiful forms of the capital and cursive small letters of the Greek alphabet or, after listening to the story of the birth and first deeds of Apollo, draw the clean forms of a Greek temple. Any historical content which we deal with in lessons relates to people, their goals, their abilities and feelings. Class 5 pupils can experience democracy for themselves, for example, when they measure themselves against one another in small speeches which they deliver on issues of principle, including those of the present day.

A Greek mood throughout the year

Just as effective as Greek content is the creation of Greek moods; the pleasure in the light of the sun, for example, or in our own abilities both in observation and in artistic creation. The Greeks experienced that the world is everywhere also the world of greater or lesser divine beings which is beautifully ordered by them down to the smallest detail. This comes to expression in the stories and perhaps awakens in the children a mood of enquiring attentiveness at the sight of a gushing spring or a special tree. The Greek capacity for wonder and their wish to explore all these wonderful things also belongs here. They were prompted to solve riddles, such as the sayings of the Oracle. A strong need for inner and outer freedom lived in them. They not only practiced spiritual but also physical agility. The striving to make the best of oneself was a wholly Greek characteristic. The Greeks felt strong emotions as well as the wish to rein them in, for the aesthetic measure in all things leads to the balance to which they aspired. Such Greek feelings and their associations are also practiced in other lessons of the “Greek” class 5. The pleasure felt when looking at a thing of beauty can open up new creative possibilities for the children. We thus consciously turn our attention towards the world in inner freedom. We can now look at all human potential in a spirit of enquiry. What laws do we discover in geometry, what order in the structure of language or of the plants? What are the typical features of the individual animals?

At the end of main lessons we tell the class 5 pupils ancient Greek myths. At that point the hitherto alert and cheerful children easily change into a quiet or emotionally contemplative state. The pictorial “offering” of the myths expands their spiritual horizon. They love to hear about the Greek gods in human form, the demigods or heroes and, finally, the wholly human heroes. From the greater context of the world our path leads to the individual human being. The sequence of the various stories we tell the class 5 pupils about the great heroes also brings them gradually “down to earth” and they become increasingly independent.

And when, after the adventurous deeds and dangerous trials of Perseus, Hercules and Odysseus, the pupils have been told how the sleeping Odysseus was taken back to his homeland by the mysterious Phaiakians at the end of his long wanderings, the children hear of an incisive event: on their return, the Phaiakian ship, previously quick as thought, is turned by Poseidon to stone outside their city; never again will a person receive their help. Such elements of the Greek myths give the pupils a sense that a previous age, which was wondrously influenced by the involvement of divine beings, is gradually turning into one in which human beings assume responsibility for themselves. That fits in with their own relationship with the world and themselves as it gradually changes in a similar way. It will accompany them inwardly in class 6 during the Roman main lesson which is characterised by the social tasks of human beings on earth.

About the author: Bero von Schilling taught Greek and Latin at the Bochum Rudolf Steiner School.