Adrian Glamorgan looks at the extraordinarily pervasive influence of a man who cultivated learning with full consciousness, Rudolf Steiner.
One of the best ways to learn is in a state of reverence and wonder. Reverence and wonder are states of being, places of gentle receptivity, not just for facts and knowledge, but for discovering connectedness between things and deeper meaning from inside yourself and that which you observe. Compare, for example, taking a quick photo of a flower, and then holding a pastel in your hand before this same flower, and slowly try to make sense of what you see, and let it flow onto paper. In the rhythm of your hand, in the feel of the pastel and the sound it makes on paper, in the quality of seeing with new eyes, something different is happening. Now that you start to look closely, it is difficult not to glimpse the marvel of creation, and become at least part of its explanation as you render your impression of its structure on paper. For as you observe and see nature's architecture, it is difficult not to stumble upon your own reverence and wonder for it.
We live in an impatient culture. In such a culture of busyness we can learn many things, process many words and images and have facts, sometimes too many facts, at our fingertips. And yet might we not, beyond the ordinary senses, feel some quality ebbing from our lives? Compare a walk through a shopping mall, full of neon excitement and titillation, and now a simple walk in the bush. Australia has few grand landscapes, for mostly we belong to the horizontal, and our pleasure comes more slowly to accumulate. But the feeling at the end of a bushwalk, compared with the walk back to the multilayer carpark, is entirely different. Shopping malls crush our reverence and wonder, to make us ready for any product. The gift of nature recreates our being, and helps us find gladness and courage in our hearts. All the great teachings seem to be about living in the present moment we are returned to by such contact with nature, but our own present economic system seems to be maximising productivity by splitting the present moment into yieldable nanoseconds. As we extract more quantity, something lifeless seems to emerge and grey our heart.
How then might we best learn? Follow the reverence and wonder. Find it within, through meditation and stillness. This helps you recognise it inside yourself and the outer world. Even if you don't meditate, this longing to revere and wonder is never fully lost. In my past, I have worked at a couple of Steiner Schools, and I have seen prospective parents visit the beautiful campuses and they have made their decision before they find out about the main lessons and general philosophy. In the beauty of the buildings and the warm calm of the classrooms, they can see something special is happening.
Jo Blundell learned about this form of education the same week she got pregnant, and in the ensuing months read about Steiner schools. She began a Steiner playgroup for her own and friends' children at her house in Darlington in the hills of Perth. Out of that, Jo became the founding parent of the Silver Tree Steiner School now in Parkerville. Jo says she loves how there's "so much heart, without being soppy and quiet. Boys still get plenty of opportunities to climb trees, but it's done more in a loving setting. I suppose I like the art side of it, permeated through everything."
The schools themselves originally came out of a request in 1919 to Rudolf Steiner from a Waldorf factory owner who felt a responsibility to his workers' children, wanting them to have a new kind of education, especially given the chaos that was waiting for them all in post-First World War Germany. In such a world of collapse and destruction, Steiner fashioned a nurturing and quiet place where children could learn well, slowly and surely. They did not have to use their energy in battling the world outside, but could find their inner strengths. Even today, Steiner Schools discourage children watching television with its relentless depictions of cruelty, scratched itches and boombox advertisements. Parents with children at Steiner Schools usually save their children from playing endless hours of (often violent) computer games for similar reasons: they are creating space for children to find the quiet in their hearts to meet the world in a confident, reverent way. So along with learning academically, children begin at a young age learning to knit, sew, and build cubbies, and this evolves through their primary years to them building, say, kilns and wooden toys and furniture, until at high school they work with contemporary technology.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was big on reverence and wonder, but it didn't start or finish with Waldorf Schools. Although he is little known, he lived a remarkable life and seemed to have insights about many things. Biodynamic agriculture, for example, which finds connectivity not just with organic farming but with the cosmos beyond, is a gift which came to us simply because some German Polish farmers came to Steiner and asked him how they might restore their exhausted, impoverished land. Two weeks of lectures, and biodynamic farming was born. This same man introduced an innovative approach to assisting people with disabilities learn and grow - the Camphill Movement - as well as giving us practical and theoretical insights across a range of disciplines from architecture to art to dance, human development through to medicine and sociology, and it's hard not to wonder: How could this learning have existed all in one individual?
I think the answer is: reverence and wonder. He did not seek out facts for their own sake. He waited until he was asked; that was a rule he lived by. If no one had ever asked him about new ways to farm to accelerate soil enrichment and food vitality, he would have felt bound not to ask. Someone else asked him about new ways to move that embodied sound, and so he gave the indications that became eurythmy.
In the course of his teaching, Steiner created a lot of knowledge, but it was far more important to him that his experimental method was integrated into a person's being than they regurgitate what he described. The best route he thought, after the carnage of the First World War, was to foster a feeling of reverence and wonder in the next generation. Out of that experience, the love of learning that leads to greater appreciation is likely to grow. Consider agricultural and retail practice now. How much reverence is there for the food that is farmed, packaged and sold in a large supermarket? But when we sit before a meal, blessing the food that has been prepared, reconnecting with the people who have grown it and brought it to the table, more than basic nutrition happens. Something greater than physical bodies is fed. We can recover reverence and wonder.
In a similar way, it is an easy task to rely on a computer or calculator to perform basic mathematical operations, but if we connect back through history to those first people who imagined mathematical relationships, who found they could perform them consistently - if we can stand in that moment we might put ourselves in touch with a truly awe-inspiring moment of human discovery. Grasping that experience grants us dignity beyond speed of calculation. That awe and connection is what is encouraged in Waldorf education. It is found in the Steiner adult education classes, whether they be in art, writing or life biography. It is often physically embodied education, but I wonder if it isn't spiritually embodied education as well.
Yet this man who offers us so many ways to learn, and was learning all his life, was indifferent at school; a child who quietly encountered nature spirits in the woods seemed to struggle with study until he discovered, of all things, geometry. Steiner was able to write his PhD on the epistemology of Wittgenstein, and become a methodical academic who worked seven years editing the scientific papers of Goethe. But Rudolf Steiner also lived at a time when a certain interest in spiritualism combined with orientalist curiosity and became the early form of the New Age movement. Having had his own metaphysical experiences most of his life, but having decided to firmly found his approach in scientific method, this polymath engaged with many of the insights in Madam Blavatsky's theosophy and sought to incorporate a greater scientific discipline, also acknowledging Christian mysticism and, most vitally, bringing personal experience to test the experience. Steiner wanted to foreground Western traditions of science, esoteric Christianity, and individuality, while acknowledging Buddhist, Zorastrian and Hindu insights, creating what he called anthroposophy.
By his very own account, it's important to closely critique what Steiner says. Steiner called his method "spiritual science" because he thought everyone should test what they read or heard or felt, and to apply this test especially to their own spiritual insights or emotional impulses. Spiritual science is an experimental method. It does not rely on the "old clairvoyance," the gift from earlier times which still lingers in some individuals and seems to grant an extra clue or two about realms beyond our own.
Steiner knew the risks. People could get feelings, or hunches, or convincing intuitions, but not always know where they originated. Steiner's approach was not to assume messages from the other realm were innocent or well intentioned, or grasped in proper time and place. To act on these messages or intuition could be quite chaotic or misleading. He recommended that people discipline their own practice, to create a "new clairvoyance," that enabled the individual to hold on to their own individuality and test from that point of freedom. He offered a variety of meditations, including his "six subsidiary exercises" to sharpen the soul's measure. His logical writings are often demanding to read, because he encourages people to bring effort to the task, effort more valuable than the incidental knowledge they might uncover.
The best test for a philosophy, Goethe once suggested, is not whether something is true - a difficult epistemological feat - but rather whether you find a theory useful. It's clear to soil scientists that biodynamic farming accelerates humus creation. The chocolate soil that's created is delicious to touch and feel, and builds up quite fast. It might seem a little unusual - let's call it downright weird - to bury a cow horn full of manure at the right time of the month, but the results are demonstrable in soil richness and the quality of vegetable produce. Is biodynamic useful? Scientists shrug at the comments about the cosmic forces, but can see the results.
Rudolf Steiner himself seemed to be a patient, thoughtful, kind, occasionally humorous man, who called us to look beyond mere knowledge and abstract thoughts to vigorously think. He suggested our freedom comes in its highest form by being fully awake, through our thinking. Our feeling life, as important as it is, gives us a state of dreaming, and in our life of will, we are asleep. All these faculties need to be in harmony with each other to enable our thinking to be in its highest measure. But also alongside stands: courage. He did not live to see the blitzkrieg, the concentration camps, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Biafra, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the American and fundamentalists' shock, awe and terror. But his key values of rigorous thinking, learning with reverence and acting with courage might be just the ingredients we need for the world we now find.
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