Tracks of the crocodile

Sven Saar

Jon McAlice likes to tell stories. Right at the start of his lecture we hear about Malidoma Some who as a five-year-old was taken to a Jesuit college from his west African village where he was to be trained to become a Catholic priest. The intelligent boy was trained in western thinking until he – meanwhile a young man – finally decided after countless humiliations to escape from the college and return to his village. Despite their pleasure in seeing him again, his relatives didn’t really know what to do with him: he had become estranged from them, a black European. For them, the world was animate, full of the song of things: the earth, the wind, the animals and plants – all of them had a voice and Malidoma had become deaf to them. 

Together with the young men of the village, he embarked on the customary path of initiation and the first task was to look at a tree. There he sat, hour for hour, and looked at this tree. Nothing else. And again the next day. He had studied botany, African geography too, and in front of him there stood a tree. On the third day, he began to tell the tree his story – and after a time it seemed as if the tree responded! 

So here we are, sitting in the auditorium of the Goetheanum in Dornach, and wonder – what has any of this to do with Rudolf Steiner’s The Foundations of Human Experience? And then McAlice says: “We can experience something similar with this book,” as he holds it up. “Nine hundred pages of wisdom, and we read and read and it remains a book. What do we have to do to let it speak to us?” 

The book he is holding in his hand is the new edition of Steiner’s first course for teachers which he gave at the Stuttgart Uhlandshöhe in 1919 for twenty-four people over a period of three weeks. In the morning The Foundations of Human Experience, a spiritual anthropology in which he explained and described the basics of body, soul and spirit of the human being. This was followed, after the coffee break, by a course which was subsequently published as Practical Advice to Teachers and contains an overview of the content to be provided for children at any given age so that they can develop healthily. And in the afternoon of each day there were the Discussions with Teachers: three hours of discussions with the aspiring teachers in which Steiner first deciphered the psychology of the child and then, so that they could learn to teach, gave them lesson tasks. Many of them had never stood in front of a group of children before, yet they were to form the faculty of the first Waldorf school in a matter of a few weeks. 

Illustrative material from the front garden

Back in the auditorium of the Goetheanum. Jon McAlice has meanwhile arrived at the human bone structure. Delicately and respectfully he lifts the arm of the skeleton standing on the stage and speaks about the way we can establish a connection between the flexible, radiating bones of the limbs and the protective, enveloping gesture of the cranial bones – a thought process which engages with the idea of the metamorphosing formative forces. He shows us photos of a series of leaves from a plant in his front garden: we can clearly see what each leaf in this series, picked carefully from the bottom to the top of the plant, has in common with its neighbour. None develop physically out of the other yet we have a clear sense that each one follows the same formative laws. “It’s like going on safari,” McAlice explains. “You see tracks and know a lion, giraffe or crocodile was here. You don’t see the animal but know for certain that it was here. If we study a sequence of leaves or the vertebrae of the spine as they follow one after the other, we can see the traces of these formative forces which themselves remain hidden to us but reveal themselves in the most beautiful shapes.” 

The first course for teachers was given a threefold form. Steiner devoted the first five days to the human soul, the next four days were for the spirit, and from the tenth day onwards it was about body. He presented his small audience with a comprehensive picture of the human being as a developing, free being which does, however, follow inner laws and which can become aware of its past and shape its future. The Practical Advice to Teachers lectures later developed into the Waldorf curriculum and the Discussions led to today’s teaching practice. 

Steiner sometimes gave very firm advice, for example on how to deal with the squid or about introducing botany, and even today we still find this way of doing it in almost every Waldorf school in the world. Sometimes an aside was enough to prompt people to embark on a lifetime’s research: Steiner’s criticism of purely body-related gymnastics in contrast to spirit-imbued eurythmy led directly to the dynamic gymnastics developed by Fritz von Bothmer.

These lectures and notes represent a source of inspiration for the educational work of the college of teachers to the present day. Going far beyond a scholarly compendium of facts, they also constitute a school for the thinking, feeling and will in their complexity – we have to enter into a dialogue with them, like Malidoma with his African tree, in order for them to start speaking.

Impassioned and devoted even now

In July 2019, a very special anniversary conference took place in Dornach: for the first time, all lectures in this series were to be studied and investigated there by experts and enthusiasts from all over the world at a single conference. This was also the occasion for the new edition of the course to appear in the bookshops: all the lectures were gathered together in a single volume for the first time and chronologically ordered. Steiner’s notebook entries and the contributions from the participants in the discussions were added. 

There were fourteen high-quality lectures at the conference. Each speaker had been assigned one day of the original course and each of the interpretations was a masterpiece. The lectures were followed by workshops for in-depth work on the content and artistic deepening. The idea was that it should be an opportunity for serious, intensive work. More than three dozen countries were represented, over a quarter of the participants came from Latin America, a minority from Central Europe. The interpreters into English and Spanish worked at least as much in the opposite direction, most of the workshops communicated in English. Before the lectures there was the sound of Brazilian music and in the evening during the time for relaxation groups met for lively discussion and dance. 

Not everyone attending the first teachers’ course subsequently became a Waldorf teacher. Although all of them had come at Steiner’s personal invitation, they were all discretely examined during the seminar discussions. Steiner asked individual participants to describe the Rhine, work on an introduction to mathematics for various temperaments, explain an ellipse or hyperbola. He seems to have made a mental note of who managed that well: the teachers did not find out until the last day before the school opened on 7 September 1919 which classes had been assigned to them! 

Steiner valued presence of mind and imagination as the highest qualities in a teacher. Bureaucratic curricula or a prescriptive methodology were to be kept well away from the school. It demanded people passionate about the subject matter who worked out of devoted love for the children and who saw their task as art and themselves as artists. 

This conference at the Goetheanum provided new inspiration for the work on the basics, which started in Stuttgart a hundred years ago, by people from all over the world in many languages. An initiative looking to the future.

About the author: After thirty years as a Waldorf teacher, Sven Saar now works in teacher training and advanced training. He lives and works primarily in England. 

Note: Over the coming months, Erziehungskunst will deal with the content of the first teachers’ course in regular short contributions.