The spoken word is juxtaposed with the image in polar opposition. Image and word stand for space and time – the two dimensions in which we humans live our conscious lives. This is also true for education. It too uses space and time, image and word, the three-dimensional and the musical. The whole curriculum of Waldorf schools is a balancing act between these two dimensions, they are expressed in a concentrated way in the overarching importance of eye and ear (see the illustration of the ceiling painting from the Goetheanum: the creation of eye and ear on p. 10). If we teach mathematics, we are in a space with few images; if we teach history, we are in a space with many images. To be able to live in both, to feel at home in both, to be able to express oneself in both, is one of the tasks of teachers. When a class sings or makes music, it is in the flow of time. But when a class is in the process of sculpting or painting, it moves mainly in the pictorial. For each subject it can be determined which of the two dimensions is the dominant one at the time. In chemistry lessons, for example, we are pointed to the image of experiments, but they have a strong process character, so they take place in time. If you watch a handicraft lesson, the children are mainly shaping and forming, just like in geometry.
It is an essential feature of Waldorf education to recognise and use these dimensions in their effects. The transition between the two dimensions is something else. What happens, for example, when children are told a story? When the word is used correctly, for example when a good fairy tale is told word-for-word without embellishment, then something special takes place in the children: as they listen, they form inner pictures, images of the story. This process of forming “mental images” is to a high degree an invisible but creative, active inner process. And we are faced with the great miracle: the imageless word creates images through listening. This is the tragedy of television: a story is already told in pictures, which means that this creative, active inner process does not take place. The brain remains inactive, so that after a certain time the brain waves take on the state of the pre-phase of sleep. And we all know the experience that a book we have read which has been turned into a film brings our own inner images into conflict with the cinematic images. A fact that shows how real the inner images are.
A very distinctive subject of transition is eurythmy; through speech or music it is equally on the go in space and in time. But perhaps most defining of all is Rudolf Steiner’s oft-repeated plea to teachers to practise speaking pictorially as a counterpart to abstract speech. The meaning of the request is easy to grasp. If you listen to an abstract, dry lecture, it is difficult to stay with it, you are distracted or pursue other thoughts. For children, it is literally unsettling and tiring. What is being presented doesn’t get through and the teacher also notices that the material doesn’t penetrate to the pupils. The ability to speak in images, the use of metaphor, symbol and analogy needs to be practised. “We will climb a steep mountain, it is arduous in parts, but the view keeps getting grander and mightier” seems much better than: “We have to learn a lot now, and that is not always easy, or not easy at all, but in the end you will be able to do a lot.” “A light has dawned on me” is much nicer than: “Now I know”. Class two is noisy – “it’s like a chicken coop in here” instead of “will you be quiet!” And “it’s a Herculean task, but children, we can do it, no waters are too rough for us” instead of “we have to learn something hard now”. It seems less daunting.
Pupils are encouraged by pictorial or metaphorical language. The inner mental image is given an impulse, the picture is read and translated into thought. This is a preliminary stage of living imagination and represents an intelligent force. Steiner attached great importance to this – as a contrast to rational intellectualism, which only fills the hard disc in the brain but does not allow for an image of the essence that can become an encounter with the essence. Today, this rational intellectualism is stronger than ever. This is also related to the speed at which digital knowledge is available.
An example of this. In the fourth year of school there is usually a zoology main lesson. Steiner’s methodological advice is to treat the animals in such a way that an inner image of the animal emerges from the teacher’s oral presentation. In practice, this means that the animal should be described, characterised in its shape, in its behaviour, in its way of life. This also means that the animal is not at first looked at in reality. From what they hear, the pupils form a picture of the animal’s nature, which can then be described or painted, a circus can be made, many things are possible. Now the task is given for the pupils to present an animal of their choice in front of their classmates. Of course, the pupils then turn to Wikipedia, where the following is written about the lion: “The lion is, with the tiger, the largest species in the cat family. Life expectancy 15-16 years for a wild female; 8-10 years for a wild male. Weight: Adult male 190 kg, female 130 kg, etc.” Nothing that makes the lion a lion can be experienced with these facts. So with this knowledge, the child goes to school and tells about the lion. The poverty of the pictures leads to an emptiness of the mental images. A poverty of experience prevails: stones instead of bread. It may be considered a very significant feature of the Waldorf school that learning facts always includes the essence in the learning process. And this always happens with the inclusion of the image, even outside its illustrative meaning. For the preceding years, Steiner recommends an ensouled approach to teaching natural history. In the second year of school, for example, trees and plants are presented as if vividly speaking, but always in such a way that a subtle puzzling unsolved question remains:
It is early spring. A few snowdrops emerge from under the large dark fir tree. The fir tree sees them and says, oh, you little things, you are destined for a short life. Look at me, I have been standing here for many, many years and I am getting ever stronger and bigger. Says the snowdrop, that may be so, but I have never seen anything blossoming on you, as old as you are. And as briefly as we live, look how wonderfully we already blossom in the cold.
A narrative like this has a meaningful effect; it is gladly pondered over and over again. Now and then, Waldorf education is accused of being pretentious, even intellectually limp. Such accusations usually stem from ignorance. And indeed, understanding this art of education is indeed a relatively extensive task. Let us return to the fourth school year: as an exercise, not in the context of a main lesson or a subject, Steiner recommends that the Pythagorean theorem could be explained to the children and they could be guided to find their own solutions to the proof of this theorem (there are, as is well known, many of these). In the fourth year of school! This is strong stuff, but it leads the pupils to the experience of form. The abstract takes on meaning, the idea moves. Thinking as movement can be experienced.
Steiner makes a very interesting remark while instructing the teachers on the task ahead through his course on the foundations of human experience. He says that the use of imagination in prepuberty is particularly important. The lower classes could happily have something sober, but towards the seventh, eighth school year the cultivation of the imagination was of great importance. We understand this to mean that during the awakening of intellectuality, the flexible, imaginative thinking must have already found its place alongside the rational thinking activity. Having living thinking alongside dead thinking is part of the mission of education today.
Then, at the end of the school years, completely new, powerful images pass before the young souls through world literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Voltaire, Goethe, Lao Tse, Tagore. Images are read and have an effect well into old age.