What is truth? Education in upper school

Peter Guttenhöfer

Shaky ground

When we ask about the truth, we very quickly end up on shaky ground. Indeed, is it not possible to tell a lie with the truth? And cannot truth be used to cause hurt? If, for example, a well-fed person travels through a famine area and says to a starving person: “Man does not live from bread alone,” can the statement of such a profound truth at the wrong time or in the wrong place not represent arrogance, spitefulness or, indeed, an untruth?

“Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” said Christ. To which Pilate responded: “What is truth?” (John 18:37–38). Pilate’s question in the face of the immense challenge of divine judgement has hung over all philosophical systems conceived in the West since it was put into words in the gospel of St John. And in such a context Rudolf Steiner says in his Study of Man which established Waldorf education: “And not until puberty does the predisposition properly arise also to discover in the world: the world is true” (lecture 9). His “threefold division of the ages of childhood and youth” – first septennium: the world is moral (good); second septennium: the world is beautiful; third septennium: the world is true – appears to offer teachers a certain handhold, initial orientation for their teaching in the dizzying cultural scene of today; but the concepts “moral – beautiful – true” are in fact anything other than secure today! They are controversial and disputed. And we Waldorf teachers are supposed to build our education on them!

But in their adolescence young people demand truth, the experience: yes, that is true! If that experience fails to occur they are no longer interested in the matter at hand. Boredom sets in immediately. The experience of truth can be a very inward one and is mostly not even expressed in words. It is not enough that something is said which is correct. “True” is much more than “correct”. That can be illustrated in a thought exercise in geometry.

A small thought exercise

We imagine a cube and imagine the central points of all its surfaces. Then we link each of these six points with every other one with a straight line. This gives us a specific number of such straight lines. How many? Determining the right number can be quite difficult for anyone not used to doing this. There are 15 straight lines. Now we look inwardly at the shape which is made by these straight lines inside the cube. We “see” an octahedron which has 12 edges, 8 surfaces and 6 corners, whereas our cube as 12 edges, 6 surfaces and 8 corners. What a fascinating relationship! If I am able to concentrate well, I gradually see both shapes clearly “before me”. And the way that the octahedron sits so nicely in the cube might even give me pleasure. Indeed, it would be an enrichment for the pupils if they were able to take such pleasure in the harmony of the relationship between the two geometrical bodies and the beauty of the inner image. We can see that it takes some effort at the beginning to create the image properly and arrive at the correct number of connecting lines. But in the end hopefully everyone manages to “see” the shape of the octahedron inscribed into the cube. The set task would thereby have been properly solved, properly in the sense of “without errors”.

How truth is experienced

But now – if we have the time – we can add a next phase. The certainty that I have imagined the “right” thing creates an inner peace in me and I can turn my attention to further consideration of the shapes and the relationship between the numbers and experience their beauty beyond their correctness. It is almost as if it is not until this step that I enter into a kind of personal relationship with the subject matter and I might feel and say after a while: yes, it is in harmony. The words “in harmony” express a judgement which comes from a deeper layer of my being than simply noting the correctness of what I have imagined. When something is “in harmony”, I sense with my feelings and judgement that I myself am also “in harmony” like a violin which has been tuned. A feeling of wellbeing arises. That provides the trigger for a third experience which lies still deeper and which can follow – but which only develops if a space for contemplation is provided: the experience within me of the harmony of my thinking with the laws of the world. My thinking must therefore have the same origin as the world, my interior is at one with the world, inner and outer are one. This experience only occurs in a vague way; but even if it is just experienced faintly – it is an experience of truth!

Wanting truth

It is not until the cognitive process has progressed to include this experience that it has truly been concluded and can quench the deep longing of the growing person. Without this experience it would leave a feeling of emptiness. Then interest wanes, doubt and scepticism fill the soul and undermine trust in existence and the power of the will.

What else could Steiner have meant when he spoke about the inclination of the young person “to also discover in the world: the world is true”? After all, that appears to be the key aspect in maturer adolescents: finding what is true. True friendship, true love, truth in science, the truth about Stalin and Hitler, true art, true life! In short: truth in the world.

This gives rise to two big questions in the young person’s soul: what do I mean when I say the world is true or untrue? And how do I get to the truth? If there is no hope of finding a possible answer to these questions, human beings feel as if paralysed. Yet even such a modest experience of truth as the one in the thought exercise with the cube instils vitality. And through this we can learn to understand that “truth” is not found somewhere “out there” but that we can seek to approach it in a three-stage process within ourselves like a hidden spring. Blaise Pascal said something mysterious about that: “Just as Christ dwelt among human beings unrecognised, so the truth equally dwells without outer identification among ordinary opinions and the Eucharist among ordinary bread.” It seems that truth occurs in me not so much as a process of consciousness but rather in the form of an act of will: if I think the truth then it is already my intent.  

Finding the truth in lessons

Of course the same questions stand before the soul of the teacher preparing his or her lesson: how do I guide my pupils to the truth? Do teachers know where the truth lies? Do they know true life, do they know the truth about Caesar, Napoleon or bees, are they indeed true themselves? Are they a true “teacher”? Or even a true human being? Can a teacher today still speak as Thomas Aquinas did 800 years ago: “The greatest blessing we can bestow on a person is to guide them from error to truth”?

What wonderful assurance is expressed in these words! But lessons given in such a spirit to adolescent pupils today could easily fail. The philosophical discourse and human history of recent centuries have thoroughly taught us how easily the opinion that we are in possession of the truth can lead to dogmatism and inner inflexibility.

Furthermore, a teacher with a strong personality may impress pupils to such an extent that they can become inwardly dependent on him or her. But the highest good of the teacher must be the independence of the pupil’s judgement. Because only if truth is experienced through our own powers of judgement does the vitalising power arise in the soul which ultimately leads of the fulfilment of adolescent development with the “birth” of the I.

The structure of each main lesson into three parts recommended by Rudolf Steiner – “inference  – judgement – concept” – indicates this path to the inner freedom of the pupil as I already tried to show in the description of the thought exercise with the cube:

1. The starting point is the encounter with the fact that there are 15 connecting lines, making an “inference”. My thinking is correct; I have the right idea. (We cannot here discuss the term “inference”; what is not meant is drawing a “conclusion” in the sense of conclusio.)

2. I make a judgement about what I have determined. I dwell in the experience. I make the matter “my own” through the power of my judgement. That is a complex inner event which cannot be determined here in a few words.

3. In the contemplative process of finding the concept – next morning after sleep – I experience in myself a notion of the unity of the world and my I. The young person can base their trust in existence on this truth alone. It means: the world is true.

The search is the important thing

The pupil and the teacher are thus jointly on their way. If out of a full view of the heart and circulation they together develop a true concept of the heart, which has little to do with the idea of a pump, they will, in carrying it into the world with them, have a beneficial effect on the general understanding of the heart and thus indeed on the further development of the heart.

If together they think human beings are wild creatures in their origins which have to be domesticated, if they do not penetrate to a true concept of childhood, they will undoubtedly exert an influence; on the development of children for example. Concepts shape the world because in truth they are spiritual forces of the will.

A long time ago the German dramatist, philosopher and scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote the famous lines: “It is not the truth which any person possesses, or may think they possess, but the honest effort which they make to penetrate the truth which constitutes the value of human beings. Because it is not the possession of but the search for the truth which extends the powers wherein lies all their ever growing perfection. Possession makes us sedate, idle, proud. If God held hidden in his right all truth and in his left the sole, always active urge to find the truth, even with the adjunct of erring for ever and always, and he said to me: ‘Choose!’, I would in humility point to his left and say: ‘Father, give it to me! The pure truth is for you alone!’”

About the author: Dr. Peter Guttenhöfer was an upper school teacher of German, history and  art history at the Kassel Free Waldorf School; co-founder of the Kassel Teacher Training Seminar for Waldorf Education and lecturer at Kassel University; works internationally in teacher training and consultancy for schools.