Education is more than a technique, it comes close to religion

Philipp Gelitz

Children always like to play... Is this familiar: you are waiting for you child to finish brushing his or her teeth, but you keep waiting? No sooner is the tap turned on and he or she starts playing with the water. No sooner has he or she seen the radiator and the thermostat is just waiting to be fiddled with. And it would actually be a super idea to role oneself up in that small rug and play at being a caterpillar... Every-day scenes of childhood. 

... just like adults! Is this familiar: you are waiting for your partner but in vain? He just has to “finish” something. Sometimes at work, sometimes at home when cleaning, sometimes in a conversation with a friend. But hardly is something as good as finished when the next activity, the next topic of conversation, the next super idea comes up... Every-day scenes of adults!

We seek a connection with the world

What unites children and adults is the constant connection with the world surrounding us. And that does not just concern the material world. All of us want to come as close as possible to the essence of a matter. We simply want to do it in the different ways that are most appropriate for our age.

Infants will put everything in their mouth to become more familiar with it. Kindergartens children dip into their imaginative play to find their way in the world. They copy in play what they see and hear. Younger school children also still like to play but above all they want to hear things from adults about the world of plants, animals, people, they want to know where the letters and numbers come from and they like to practice things. Adolescents and adults want to have well-founded knowledge, want to philosophise, but above all they want to act on the basis of cognition. Here the thread from the infant to the working adult – including parenthood – is always clear: all action arises from love of the world or the longing to make a connection.

More than just interest

Religion is also part of it (Re-Ligio = reconnection). It is logical to describe small children as naturally religious. They seek the connection, the link with the surrounding world “without prompting”. There is nothing they will not immediately touch, suck or “play with” in some other way. If we assume in Waldorf education that the human being has lived in the spiritual world from birth, then this connection of children with the physical world is not just an interest in the material or social surroundings but also a love of the world in which physical facts are connected in the most intimate way with spiritual facts. This connection is a reconnection. The link between spirit and matter, form and substance, is sought because the world is loved. That is more than interest.

Education means structuring the environment

This is where the importance of education becomes clear. Because human beings have been ejected from a naturally instinctive relationship with nature and do not just act in accordance with their nature – but it is precisely their hallmark that they have moral feelings and motives for their actions – education must enable such a moral development. From this perspective education is not just a technique which teaches “dumb” children knowledge, but its primary objective is to give structure to the environment, thus opening the space in which the I and the world can connect. The home, kindergarten, school are places of enablement!

But this love of the world, the connection between the I and the world, the coherence, is in danger at the different ages and in different ways.

Toys separate the infant from the world

If infants in their pram have to look at all kinds of jingly stuff their gaze becomes restless and they are prevented from playing with their hands or looking at their parents. The well-meant toy prevents the child from connecting with its immediate environment. The world is no longer coherent, it is no longer connected. That becomes even more clear when infants look outwards in their baby carrier or are facing away from their parents and have to look forwards in their buggies. The small child simply cannot experience the impressions coming towards it at such speed as being connected. We can observe in such cases how the toes twitch with every new impression. The children become fidgety. In kindergarten it can often be observed how children raptly immerse themselves in the world.

They will stir the earth with a stick, observe a beetle as it crawls along; adults who come along will promptly remark: “What nice thing are you cooking there, then?” or “Do you know what that beetle is called?” – and the direct connection with the world is interrupted. What should be experienced through the senses and the child’s own activity in order to connect with the world in love is freeze-dried in order to be able to categorise it. The children become prematurely intellectual and their interests are impoverished.

Worldly-wise adults

In us adults, too, the connection between the I and the world is at risk: training and university studies are about exams and final marks as values in themselves and little about inner study and reflection chosen by ourselves. And our working lives are full of economic constraints which force us to act in ways which are contrary to our convictions and, in the worst cases, demand that we give up ideals, values or the pursuit of themes which are vital to our life. Frequently we encounter ourselves as worldly-wise and cynical instead of idealistic and authentic, if we are honest with ourselves.

The philosophy of freedom

Rudolf Steiner develops the thought in his Philosophy of Freedom that the world of ideas and the world of phenomena only appear to be separate from a human perspective. We come to a perception of the sensory world through observation and we think ideas through intuition, Steiner says. In order to obtain a concept of a thing of being we need both perception and thinking. When we discover a concept, and be it only “tree” or “lion”, idea and perception coincide. Something is recognised. We overcome a polarity through activity. And a concept accords with reality all the more precisely the more our perception and thinking are precise.

But perception and thinking develop continuously. During life, and also during play, concepts change – they grow. The concept of “mountain” is different in a two-year old child from an adult, and ideally also different in a twenty-year-old and a fifty-year-old. This thought is of great educational significance because it prevents the connection between the I and the world if the child’s observation and perception of the world leads to concepts which are less in tune with reality as a result of flurries of activity, distracting toys or the intellectual intervention of adults at too early a stage.

The concepts cannot grow sufficiently, they are not filled with life, not dynamic. The gap between the I and the world arises at the infant stage through sensory impressions flooding in. But whether this gap can steadily be reduced again through own activity, through love of the world of phenomena depends on the educational environment.

Love of the world, the connection between the I and the world, is at risk in the different age groups in different ways.

What to do?

On the one hand, the first thing that is needed during early childhood, particularly in the first three years, is repeated sensory experiences without reflection in order to develop a broad neuronal network in the child’s brain. Mud, sand, falling down, getting up, colours, taste and so on in endless repetition. In other word, gathering primary experiences. Talking about (primary) experiences is something different from gathering them. The logic of facts must come before the logic of reason. A guiding principle for every kindergarten!

On the other hand, the experiences must be connected with me and the world in some way. The research of the medical researcher Aaron Antonovsky, who studies the way health arises (salutogenesis), shows that much depends on a “sense of coherence” arising in order to achieve “resilience”. Enabling a connection between the I and the world is not, therefore, some quixotic affair of anachronistic romantics but a necessity for health.

Meaningful, manageable and miraculous

A sense of coherence arises, according to Antonovsky, when the environment is experienced as meaningful, comprehensible and manageable. It becomes more and more meaningful, comprehensible and manageable when a notion of the miraculous, a residue of mystery, is not weaned off through a categorising, defining concept. A notion of the miraculous lets children keep playing. If we take this magic away from them everything is clarified, sorted. Let us examine how we behave towards our children. If the environment of the infant, the small child, the kindergarten child is such that the toys and the talk do not interrupt play, then the world becomes comprehensible and manageable, and a feeling of vitality arises of active participation in the wonderfully mysterious. And if, in addition, what happens around the child then makes sense, then children can love the world even more.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz, born 1981, works as a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf Kindergarten of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.