We set off on our walk, leaving the last houses of the town behind us. Above us a blue sky. Twittering birds. We breathe in the fresh air. The path rises slowly: gravel, stones, grass. There it is: the forest. Rising up mighty and green. Powerful branches bend protectively towards the ground. Soon it has embraced us. Another world: cool, damp, smelling of fresh earth. Here and there a rustling or knocking sound. The path grows smaller and turns into a soft track. We stop, step up to a tree.
Over there, what’s that? Who is stealing along behind us on soft paws? “A cat, with grey and white stripes, its tail upright in the air, comes along the path. A fox approaches from the other side. And so it happened … that the cat met Master Fox in the forest and because she thought ‘he is clever and well experienced, and counts for much in the world,’ she addressed him in a friendly manner: ‘Good day, dear Master Fox, how are you? How’s things? How are you managing in this costly time?’
The fox, arrogant as he was, looked the cat up and down and could not decide for a long time whether he should answer at all. Finally he spoke: ‘Oh you miserable whisker wiper, you motley fool, you starveling and mouser, how dare you! You take it upon yourself to ask me how I am? What do you know? How many skills do you master?’
‘I master only one,’ the cat answered modestly. ‘What skill is that?’ the fox asked.
‘When the dogs are after me I can jump up a tree and save myself.’
‘Is that all?’ asked the fox. ‘I am master of more than a hundred skills and, in addition, posses a sackload of ruses. I feel sorry for you, come with me and I will teach you how to escape the dogs.’
Meanwhile, a hunter with four dogs had come along.
The cat nimbly jumped up into a tree and settled down at the top where branches and leaves hid her completely.
‘Untie your sack, Master Fox, untie you sack,’ the cat called to him, but the dogs had already seized him and held him tightly.
›Oh dear, Master Fox,’ the cat called, ‘you didn’t get very far with your skills. Had you been able to creep up here like I did, it wouldn’t all be over for you now.’”
(Fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm)
The picture – teaching through images – forms the most basic foundation of Waldorf education. It is always about the image of the human being – methodologically and in terms of content – extending into upper school as far as class 12 in which the image of “the human being in the world” thematically illuminates all subject areas as a motif. It is about the existential reality of the images not about so-called graphicness. Cat and fox are not pure products of the imagination, they are images of human soul forces. And as images told in a story they are in a certain sense the external appearance of an essence. Children live in this world. They perceive the essence. And so it can happen that when little Sophie, who has long learnt to read and write, comes home in class 1 and is asked: “Well, what did you learn today?”, will answer “Our teacher told us about the T.” – “About the T? But you can already read and know all the letters?!” – “Yes, but today we were introduced to the T in person!”
Images wherever we look
If we look at lessons in relation to images and imagery, we can distinguish three levels:
To begin with there is the form, the course of the main lesson in the class teacher period from 8.00 to 10.00. It has a movement part in which the movement and sensory human being is addressed. This is followed by the learning or work part which is addressed more to awakening learning, the thinking and memory. And it ends with the so-called story part which brings all the children together in experience through the emotions, in the recounted picture. The whole lesson thus becomes transparent for the underlying picture: head – heart – hand.
The second level concerns the content of the images. In class 1 it is the fairy tale world and the fairy tale images. In class 2 it is fables and legends. They have a clearly more thinking character; they represent worldly wisdom which already begins to address the children’s reason. In class 3 it is the Creation story, the mighty tableau of the creation of the world. This is followed by agriculture, house building and the crafts main lesson. Here once again the image of arriving on our earth, of taking hold of our body, of social life in orientation towards the other shines through. Furthermore, all lesson activities above all in lower school – from knitting to playing the recorder – are introduced in a methodologically pictorial way.
And by class 12 they have all made an appearance, the historical heroes, explorers and pioneers who are presented narratively in a biographically pictorial way, the great myths and images of humanity, from Plato’s allegory of the cave through the Faust problem of the modern person in our technical media civilisation to the “new” myths and metaphors: the Web, the Cloud, the Matrix …
The third level concerns the means by which these images are created: pictorial language; indicative, supporting gestures; and a classroom artistically decorated by season and main lesson subject.
What is pictorial in the pictures?
To begin with, the narration of the teacher is pictorial in so far as it characterises and does not define. It is structured as narrative – through sound and gesture – addressing all the senses. In this sense telling a story is something artistic. It requires time, space and atmosphere. But it also creates time, space and atmosphere. We can observe that directly in the children’s faces! Defining explanations are quickly done, are cerebral and intellectual, aim to inform effectively and unambiguously, without great involvement of the narrator.
Then comes the stage of constructing the picture. The picture is not a photo, not a copy. It is developed. Although it takes familiar elements from the external world of the senses, they are compiled in such a way that a higher level, a higher meaning can shine through. That makes it transparent. And it has its true source not in the external world but in the soul or spirit.
The story above was of course about a cat and a fox. These animals exist but through bringing them together in the fable a different level is addressed. It is not the paint particles which are of interest in a painting by Franz Marc but the statement it aims to make. In this sense the pictorial is time-oriented, process-oriented. It is never about crude visualisation; listeners are addressed in their whole inner being and involved in the process. In other words, something is constructed inwardly in the soul which has a pictorial character. This inner activity has a direct effect on the life forces of the child.
Thirdly we can observe that pictures are open with multiple perspectives, ultimately also inexhaustible in content. That applies particularly with regard to great inspired texts, fairy tales and myths of humanity, but also with regard to well-told biographies and historical events. And experience shows: pictures grow with us. I change, the pictures change. And so everyone – both storyteller and listener – can always grasp the picture in their own individual, personal way.
In this sense the picture has a socially integrating effect independent of intellectual capacity; it speaks directly out of itself and communicates experiences more directly than words can do. Everyone who tries to tell a dream knows that. A further aspect of pictures is their strength-giving potential. True pictures have an incredibly stimulating effect on children. Pictures activate process in the mind and will. They produce initiative and creative activity, they directly stimulate creativity. In other words they act directly on life in a way which is stronger, more intensive and direct than our intellectual words and thoughts can do. They awaken the inner, the creative human being. And in doing so they touch on salutogenic potentials and forces of idealism which have a crucial effect on the whole biography: “I have a dream!”
And lastly we could still look at the various artistic ways that pictures are brought to appearance and communicated. The eyes and ears are addressed in particular, but actually it is always all twelve senses: thus there are photographed, drawn, painted, told, scenically presented, inwardly presented and dreamt pictures and pictures which are imagined in thought. That would be followed by the non-pictorial stage: pure activity, pure spiritual being.
The importance of pictures in education and lessons
What is the source of people’s huge hunger for pictures, what makes pictures so effective? Let me address the aspect of “night” here. We take the night into account in Waldorf schools. While the physical body regenerates and is asleep, the soul and spirit live figuratively speaking in the “depths of stellar space” of another world which is just as real as the external material world. All near-death experiences describe entering such spaces and Rudolf Steiner characterised their importance for teachers in many different ways. Children take something from their lessons into the night with them. That should be taken into account methodologically the next morning. And Waldorf education takes the pre-birth existence of the children into account (the “heavenly meadow”). We have individuals before us, not blank white sheets of paper. There is “someone” in the garment of the physical body. And we should never as teachers confuse the physical body of the person, the outer appearance, with the true being of the child: the picture of the outer body should also be capable of becoming transparent to reveal the action of the essential person, the individuality.
And this individuality, this creative, artistic, vitality for life on earth of the children does not initially desire to be addressed in abstract terms; no, it has a hunger for pictures because it seeks a point of contact, like when “moving” into another “dwelling”, which incorporates the previous experience in the spirit. That is nourishment which builds up.
The modern technical media world offers the soul less and less by way of real experiences or inner nourishment. In that respect Rudolf Steiner developed the Waldorf school precisely for children in our civilisation: the Waldorf school responded to the immense pictorial hunger of children with an earth-shattering new approach: its artistic, pictorial teaching from class 1 to class 12.
What are possible risks with regard to this kind of pictorial quality? Superficiality in seeing, hearing and speaking; abstract knowledge; restriction to technical reproduction; loss of leisure and soul. A fairy tale by Günther Anders illustrates it well: “But since the king was not well pleased that his son had left the well-controlled roads and was roving all over the countryside in order to form a judgement of his own about the world, he gave him a chariot and horse. ‘Now you no longer need to walk,’ were his words. ‘Now you are no longer allowed to,’ was their meaning. ‘Now you no longer can,’ was their effect.” (From the essay “Die Welt als Phantom und Matrize” (The World as Phantom and Matrix)). Working with pictures awakens creative, idealistic forces which can become a source of strength and health for the whole of life.
In this sense pictures can stand for stimulation of movement, addressing the individuality, nourishing vitality, spiritualising the thinking.
About the author: Siegmund Baldszun is a French teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School and lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart und Mannheim as well as at advanced training conferences and the “Semaine Française”. The present contribution is based on a lecture which the author gave at an education weekend in January 2014.