Rediscovering the human being

Friedhelm Garbe

When Japanese primary school pupils are taught by a robot, they find the lesson more interesting than with a teacher.

“Are you sad?” the robot asks when the tone of voice of a child slides into melancholy although the teacher has not yet noticed that the child is not well. The robot has learned over time to react increasingly individually to each child. To do so, it has 25 languages at its disposal and never becomes impatient when testing vocabulary or demonstrating how to do something in sports lessons, the German weekly DIE ZEIT reported on 10 September 2015.

Facebook computers can predict as much as twelve days in advance whether two people will fall in love. Do machines meanwhile know us better than we know ourselves? On the other hand, I have experienced how children in a class 4 complained about why they still had to learn arithmetic when there are devices today which can do it much better. Since the invention of the smartphone at the latest, each subject has had to face up to this question – be it spelling, physics or history: what is the point of learning it any longer? All knowledge can be called up at any time on the screen and in greater detail than we could ever cram for the university entrance exams. If we consider in addition that since its launch ten years ago, more smartphones have already been sold than people live on the planet, we get some idea of the global dimension of this challenge.

A shot of spirits a day

The speed at which computers have triumphantly established themselves is historically unprecedented; and even if the downside of this development – particularly the dangers in education – are increasingly realised and debated, there continues to be uncertainty as to how it can be countered. We like to refer to media competence but what does that mean? Everyone can swipe and tap on their smartphone but like the hotplate on the stove we fail to see the danger. However, children are warned against burning themselves on the hotplate. The same doesn’t happen with computers. Instead of protecting children, this danger is given the name “digital education”. Manfred Spitzer sums it up in his book Cyberkrank (Cyber Sickness): media competence training was like alcohol competence training: “A shot of spirits a day to get used to it.”

Reason and technical knowledge appear insufficient to counter the advance of the machines. They are making headway into every sphere of life – and every age group.

We know that humans only became human through continuing development. Do we also realise the consequences of that? Evolution is never finished. We are in the middle of it, except that meanwhile the creatures of human beings – the machines – have joined us. People in the last century let all their intelligence flow into them. To this end almost every point on earth was surveyed with cool reason and then interrogated as to how it can be made useful. Even life appeared to be a mechanism, just a bit more complicated. Thus a world was created with unbelievable diligence and ingenuity which surrounds us today like a second creation. But are humans themselves still equal to this potential?

It was over for ever when for the first time they were defeated in a trial of strength by the steam engine. They no longer stood a chance. Do we face the same fate also in relation to robots and artificial intelligence?

Learning to think in new ways in new schools

We have reached a critical point. The one-sided fixation on external progress in science and technology with its social and ecological consequences has driven us into an existential crisis. This cannot be solved through the thinking which led to these problems. We need a new thinking. A warmer thinking. A thinking which looks at the world not just as a complex machine but also learns to ask about meaning.

For this we need new schools. And if they did not exist we would have to invent them immediately. Because the traditional school was primarily fixated on developments in the external world. This needs to be extended today: human beings themselves need support in their development. They are not finished as they are now. Evolution continues. Our technically dominated world requires a balance which only they themselves can create in their thinking. That concerns each single one of us. Because the thinking determines how we understand the world. And what we then turn it into. School is a place where we can start to move human beings back to centre stage again. A very demanding challenge – as long as we move beyond the advertising slogan. The problem for children is not that they cannot handle a computer but that they no longer know what to do with themselves. Instead of inventing a game out of their own imagination, they increasingly reach for the screen.

Teachers in all different kinds of school complain that children’s curiosity and interest noticeably wane within a few years. Being allowed to learn is clearly an ever greater burden. “That our prospective apprentices can no longer calculate percentages or fractions isn’t the problem – we can teach them that. The real problem is: young people no longer want to do it!” complains a baffled head of human resources quoted in the magazine Nervenheilkunde. What does that say about school? How are human capacities such as the will and thinking developed? And feeling, too, has turned into a question today. A traditional understanding of school therefore no longer takes us much further. We face a challenge, we are looking at uncharted territory without any model und in bafflement.

But then we may discover that these challenges have already been taken into account in Rudolf Steiner’s system of education. Because he was conscious of the dangers of the approaching machine age – and its opportunities – before he founded his new system of education. But he decisively rejected any backward-looking attitude or hostility to technology (lecture of 28 December 1914): “It could not be more mistaken if we were to say, for example, that we have to resist what technology has brought us in modern life. [...] The true medicine consists of [...] strengthening the forces of the soul so that modern life can be borne.”

In school, Steiner said at the start of the practical course for the first Waldorf teachers on 21 August 1919, that it was no longer a matter of teaching knowledge as such but to interrogate this material as to how it could contribute to the “development of human abilities”. It is thus no longer a matter of learning arithmetic because we might need it in life. But is arithmetic not an ideal way to learn to think?

When arithmetic turns into a social experience

Have you ever observed the eyes of a child at the moment in which they no longer answer an arithmetic question from memory but say: “Oh! Now I know why two and three makes five. Of course, it’s obvious.” Previously, the teacher had in vain pointed numerous times to his five fingers: “Here, look!” But there was nothing to see except fingers. The five always remained invisible! Until one day it turned up – inwardly. That is how self-confidence is built. Later the child begins to understand that other people also have access to this invisible world so that we are indeed connected with all people in this inner reality. Mathematics becomes a social experience. “Material” has turned into a development aid for more humanity. Decisively different and yet quite unspectacular.

Form drawing: I draw a large circle on the blackboard to the best of my abilities. Then Sophie pipes up: “But that isn’t a proper circle at all!” – “How do you know that? We’ve never drawn a circle before.” – “It’s obvious!” the class 1 pupil answers. “What are you doing here?” I ask with a big smile, “You can already do it!” – An inspiring experience for children when they are allowed to discover that they actually already know what they learn in school. It is a recognition, an awakening. Such schooling is not a burden but releases forces which build us up inwardly. Steiner describes a similar experience from his childhood in his book Autobiography: Chapters in the Course of My Life: “Being able to grasp something purely in the spirit – that brought me great happiness. I know that I first experienced such happiness in geometry.”

Stimulating interest instead of googling

How can this inner space be further strengthened? How can we find tasks, subjects for projects, essays or homework which avoid encouraging the pupils to copy and paste from the Internet, something which might bring them a faint glow but actually leaves them with empty hands? “If you ask the child the kind of questions which make them curious to know what they can find out for themselves, then that is something which stimulates them,” Steiner said in a teachers’ meeting on 28 April 1922.

For class 7 he recommended, for example, to have them write an essay in which the pupils could allow their enthusiasm for modern technology free reign without having to take account of the sensitivities of their teachers or parents. In the language of his time: “The steam engine, evidence of human strength”. Some time later another essay. But this time the opposite: “’The steam engine, evidence of human weakness.’ Such topics one after the other. I believe that will arouse their interest.” And for class 8 he gave the example: “What is beautiful in nature? Then: What is beautiful in the soul? More such topics which make the children concentrate as they work on the subject.” These kind of topics which stimulate independent observation are like therapy against the constant bombardment with news from WhatsApp & co which continually distract us, and make us digress. And such questions cannot be googled because they address each one of us on a personal level. That is the difference.

The history lessons in class 8 shouldn’t spend a lot of time on Charlemagne, Steiner said in his first curriculum lecture on 6 September 1919, at that age it was more important to look at the influence of modern technology on life. And in the teachers’ meeting of 8 March 1920 he suggested not spending too much time on ramshackle party democracy; it was possible as early as “in class 7 and 8 [...] to deal with what was written in Basic Issues of the Social Question,” and thus to create the basis for social studies in upper school which look towards the future.

Connections instead of discrete parts

Thinking in machine terms means thinking of the world as consisting of discrete parts. But the new school starts from the connections. And it asks about the relationship with the respective human being. In each subject. At every age. Very specifically. Because digitalisation challenges us to ask about meaning: do you want to be human or machine? The shadow side of the present conceals a light: the rediscovery of the human being.

About the author: Friedhelm Garbe is an organ builder, theologian, class teacher at the Jena Free Waldorf School and mainly works in teacher training (