The ploughing classroom

Manfred Schulze

School misses the real thing

The educational dimension of the will is revealed in “practice”. But if anything is practiced in school at all today, it is learning by rote. Any practical exercise of acquired skills worth mentioning, and thus effectively anchoring the latter in the body and making them relevant to life, does not take place. Children today are missing fundamental and elementary physical experiences when they get to school.

Now all lessons which “demonstrate”, “present” or “show” something to children in their stories and experiments and artful movements are dependent on such a condensed performance – 15,000 hours in the life of a pupil – being able to establish a connection with what the children experience in life. Otherwise the whole enterprise is largely useless. The children who become aware of this become restless because they have the vague but justified feeling that school life has nothing to do with their real life, that they are being deprived of that “something” which is the real thing.

Sport does not replace experience of the world

A life lacking in movement and the resulting absence of experience of the world cannot be compensated through sport. After all, according to a survey 75 percent of children do sport – many in clubs – once a week and then additionally in school. But the individual encounter and self-sought experience with the elements cannot be made up through climbing on a artificial wall or swimming in a chlorinated pool.

Sport is not meaningful work. It lies in the nature of sporting movement that it does not engage with the world and its substances in a transforming way. The extreme form of meaningless effort to simulate work can be studied in fitness centres. The goal is self-improvement. The world has nothing to do with it.

Working means transforming the world

To be precise, the lost dimensions of education are therefore play and work as the practice and exercise of the will which links us with the world and transforms matter. The European history of education shows us the path into “unemployment”. Plato built the academy and philosophising took place in walking about. In 529 two remarkable things happened simultaneously. On the one hand this school was closed, on the other Benedict of Nursia founded the first monastery. For 1000 years the monastery was now the place of education in our cultural sphere. At the beginning there was still prayer and work but the following orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans focused on contemplation deepened through the feelings and philosophically intensified spiritual exercises. The mendicant orders no longer worked.

In the more recent transition in 1534 the Jesuits, organised along military lines, toughened these spiritual exercises and saw themselves as soldiers. Military drill and suppression of the individual will became the guiding principles of school which have remained in evidence to the present day in the climbing frames of playgrounds and school yards, the barrack-like school buildings, the cohorts of the class year groups, the praise and humiliation and discipline, the lever of homework, marks and reports which tends to hinder learning.

There is scientific evidence that even praise from a teacher can make the self-motivated learning of pupils disappear. Because it rouses suspicion that what I like to do myself is praised so much by adults, so that it becomes transparent that the whole enterprise from start to final exams is designed to create conformity. There is no scientific evidence that the curriculum, the marks, reports and homework promote learning.

The current paradigm of school as a place of applied education is – at least for as long as these “instruments” continue to be used across the board – just deception and packaging. Underneath, the anachronistic spirit of militarised leadership, the imposition of another’s will through orders and the pressure of conformity, continue to rule. It is true that school models have repeatedly entered the world which wanted to abolish this unspeakable tutelage of the will.

The Waldorf school, too, intended to create a space through practical artistic activity for the independent creative exercise of the will instead of curricular instruction. Many of the practical approaches worked at the time into its first concept for entering the world and, specifically, also the world of work have never progressed beyond the conceptual stage for a true school of life.

School merely simulates the world

No, crafts is not enough. A craft room is no workshop because there is no work flow and the meaning of the work lies mostly within this room and the instructions of the teacher rather than in the needs of the world. If the school garden supplies the school kitchen then this is something else again. The thing which truly takes hold of our will is always a spiritual connection with the world whose call we either hear, or not, and which then becomes my world through my actions.

When the will is used in a trade or craft and in the arts, human beings fetch an experience of the laws of the world into their body through the transformation of the world. When I reach for a blacksmith’s hammer I grasp thousands of years of spirit incorporating itself in the design of the hammer, the hardness and elasticity of the hammer head.

If young people had more of this kind of experience, then for example eurythmy in upper school could make the historical development of the movement arts in drama and dance conceivable and visible in upper school, in order then to bring to experience that the current culmination of a wakeful spiritual connection of human movement with the movement of the world can be sought and found in eurythmy. Play, work and the arts transform the person who trains in them and practises them because they individualise what already exists in the world in a stream of development and the will precisely because they transform it and give the material an individual character.

This can be experienced most intensely when we deal truly with the elements and realms of nature in agriculture for example. The need of the animals then becomes a pull, a call for me to act and not the pressure of having to do something.

Now it is not sufficient for the school to get a goat or the teacher training seminar a few sheep. That fails to do justice to the animals and their need for a herd and true care. That is then like a school garden which no one looks after in the holidays: performative theatre for the children as an illustration of life. No, education through activity requires long-term streams of work which are true to their environment.

Farming education

The difficulty of integrating real workshops into a school is shown by the attempt in Kassel to make real training and production workshops part of upper school. To the present day many of those involved and public opinion have still not understood the general educational, personality-developing and will-developing interaction and effect of trades and crafts and vocational education in the youth phase of human beings. Otherwise this experiment would be a hit! But it isn’t.

On the contrary, it is an obstacle on the way to the school leaving exams. Yet every course of study benefits from a deeper technical understanding of how matter is transformed. There is a business college on a farm which is run by the students. It is a huge success: its graduates are much sought after – the college happens to be in the USA. Setting up four full, recognised vocational training courses in the upper school in Kassel was a huge effort. Keeping it going has continued to be such to the present day.

But it is possible to start on a smaller scale. The school, a class or, indeed, individual pupils can be integrated into a real work flow and work context. I am not referring to work placements and projects. I am talking about a foundation for perseverance and loyalty and not the one-off surveying field trip to give a bit of life to trigonometry. These things are better than nothing but they are token gestures – they are a pretence of closeness to life.

It would seem natural for the future of schools as artistically practical enterprises and for farms as learning communities to build a closer relationship between the two spiritually inspired cultural movements for a learning and earth culture of the future (Waldorf schools and biodynamic agriculture). That this is happening almost by itself can be seen in places in which organic agriculture is operated as a community supporting and supported impulse. The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms – which every week give hundreds of “co-workers” and “co-funders” their annually pre-financed food shares – represent such a stimulus for the children who of course also want to go along there with their parents.

Why not just set up a kindergarten on the farm on which so many people are visibly and obviously working for the wellbeing of these children and their parents? And of course the pre-financing of food production creates a social space in which the farmer can work without the economic pressures of the market. They will then work primarily for the quality of the food and not its quantity, weight and price. The market, operating under the egoistical pressure to succeed, is one of the main reasons for the devastation of the earth, and this market’s loud daily pronouncement that there is “no alternative” drowns out every call of the earth. It will only be possible to create or maintain whole farm organisms in the future if they are taken off the market. Otherwise ever cheaper imports will make the regional sale of organic products impossible.

It is a central educational task of the present to study these connections in school and real life and actually to practice them! And then the connection between the children in these kindergartens and the tasks on a farm can be maintained. They know their farm, they appreciate the value of the places and products created there. They know what is done where. They can take other children by the hand and help them discover these places. Several years later there will be young people who can teach and learn such skills. In this way a learning community will grow. An unprepared class of 35 children on a farm for the first time has a lot of disruptive potential or, indeed, destructive power.

Unprepared adults also often encounter animals with fear or inappropriate behaviour. This cannot and must not be continued in this way – as one event in experiential education – because it fails to recognise work as a flow of the will and to create a concept which opens up a wider context in “reality” and “accomplishment”!

It is not therefore possible to go to any old farm. If it is not permeated with an idea about educating the earth, plants and animals, it is not a place of education. The educational will has to look towards the earth and the world, then this creates a pull for human beings who are keen to learn. A forward-looking education of the will can only succeed if there is a pull, not push.

Further training note: A further training course for education through action is in preparation. Duration: two years (on 12 weekends).

Email: hofhauser@web.de 

About the author: Dr. Manfred Schulze works as an educator and farmer. As an education researcher and co-founder of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Handlungspädagogik” he works on bringing together teachers and farmers for the reciprocal fertilisation of practical education and farming.

Links: www.makecsa.org | www.handlungspaedagogik.org