is it ever permissible that the doctrine on the four temperaments (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and choleric) influences education? Are teachers — waldorf trained teachers or, for that matter, other teachers — equipped with the insights necessary to apply such pseudo-psychological ‘diagnoses’ (or prejudices more accurately) to children under their care? Does anthroposophy bestow upon the teachers such (seemingly) advanced skills — or is it really a case of imagining or pretending clairvoyance?
In the discussion following another blog post, I quoted Steiner on the suffering so-called melancholics ought to endure for their own good (this is particularly nasty, in my opinion).
… in every temperament there lie two dangers of aberration, one great, one small. One danger for the young choleric is that he will never learn to control his temper as he develops into maturity. That is the small danger. The greater is that he will become foolishly single-minded. For the sanguine the lesser danger is flightiness; the greater is mania, induced by a constant stream of sensations. The small danger for the phlegmatic is apathy; the greater is stupidity, dullness. For the melancholic, insensitivity to anything other than his own personal pain is the small danger; the greater is insanity. [...] Let your treatment of all of life’s little details be an occasion for the child to appreciate what you have suffered. Sympathy with the fates of those around him furthers the melancholic’s development. Here too one must reckon with what the child has. The melancholic has a capacity for suffering, for discomfort, which is firmly rooted in his being; it cannot be disciplined out of him. However, it can be redirected. We should expose the child to legitimate external pain and suffering, so that he learns there are things other than himself that can engage his capacity for experiencing pain. This is the essential thing. We should not try to divert or amuse the melancholic, for to do so only intensifies his despondency and inner suffering; instead, he must be made to see that objective occasions for suffering exist in life. Although we mustn’t carry it too far, redirecting the child’s suffering to outside objects is what is called for. [...] Melancholics should not close their eyes to life’s pain, but rather seek it out; through compassion they redirect their suffering outward toward appropriate objects and events. (Source.)
Pappan wrote (in response to the first part of the quote above):
Now this is what I really, really LIKE about Steiner. This insight is just so cool. And very useful at that. I mean THINK about it! Just take a closer look at yourself and you cannot help but to see the acute relevance of this wisdom.
Applying such doctrines on children is evil. There’s no way it can be done without taking chances with children’s psychological health. Waldorf teachers don’t have the relevant knowledge and education to make ‘diagnoses’ like these — thus, they should refrain from it. They do more damage than good. Whether adults find these categorizations and distinctions valid and useful in regard to their own personality or psychology, well… then that’s something different. I don’t think there’s anything horrific or shocking about what Steiner says — if it is applied as a kind of self-analysis or similar.
I don’t know how commonplace it is for waldorf teachers to speak openly about temperaments and how they use these doctrines. There are several waldorf books exclusively dealing with temperaments though, and the topic surfaces in books on waldorf education in general as well. From the critics list I collected PeteK’s perspective on it. Dividing children into groups according to physical — and supposed mental — characteristics
can be distressing for some children. And for what? Why separate children by heredity and body shape in the first place?
That teachers/schools would make such a division of children based on some perceived temperament and then have this decision displayed to all the children is, in my opinion, a cruel thing to do to children. To divide children in games using heredity and body shape as a criteria, especially in the way described above, is hurtful nonsense; it is Anthroposophy at its worst. It divides and harms children in a very ugly and thoughtless way. Frankly, if a teacher or school thinks my child is lazy, or superficial, or dictatorial, or self-pitying, they should pretty much keep it out of my child’s consciousness.
Max was determined to be a sanguine until he began complaining about Waldorf. Then he quickly became a melancholic. After discussing Max’s concerns about his education (not learning anything, feeling like he was going to be hypnotized. He really wanted to learn to read *now*). I was instructed by his teacher to just complain right back (about something to do with *me*). I was told not to respond to his complaints about school, just find something worse to complain about in my own life. Well, from where I sat, this idea seemed like a complete violation of the parent/child trust I’d spent years developing and I told his teacher as much. She responded by yelling, “I feel sorry for any child whose parents think they know what is best for their children.”
Diana, who previously worked as a teacher’s assistant in a waldorf school and also studied a shocking number of Steiner works, wrote:
The temperaments are thought to apply particularly to school-age children in the 7- to 14-year range. Earlier than that, the orthodox view is that the temperament cannot be definitively ascertained because the child under 7, whose “etheric body” has not yet been born, still “lives in” the temperament of the mother or parents. With the birth of the ether body at around age 7 or change of teeth, the child’s temperament comes into its own. Some will argue with this formulation, however, and insist that temperament can be discerned even earlier.
After the age of 14, the temperament would still predominate but the child should be integrating the four “members” (physical, etheric, astral, and Ego) and thus should be sort of “outgrowing” their original temperament. Ideally the adult is a nice balance of all four temperaments with none dominating in an observable fashion.
“Temperament is connected, to a remarkable degree, with the whole life and soul of a person’s previous incarnations.” [Rudolf Steiner, DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), pp. 60-61.]
Virtually every Waldorf teacher “works with” the temperaments in understanding and instructing his or her students. If temperament derives from past lives, then this makes pretty clear that anthroposophy guides the teacher’s daily interactions with the children.
Parents should be just as concerned about this sort of crackpot manner of relating to school children as by the question of “whether anthroposophy is taught,” directly or indirectly, in the Waldorf curriculum. Arguably, in the early years when “subject matter” per se is not the focus of the school day, this sort of thing is even more determinative of the child’s experience in the school.
Waldorf teachers actually use the temperament doctrines in their daily work, Diana claims: ‘I attended numerous faculty meetings where children’s temperaments were analyzed. This is so common to Waldorf that I doubt most teachers would bother denying it, or bother claiming it didn’t have occult roots.’ Roger has a section on temperaments on his website; included are a number of temperament ‘facts’ culled from a book by waldorf education guru Roy Wilkinson, for example:
Children with different temperaments have affinities for different mathematical processes and rules. By starting each child with the proper math activity for her/his temperament, a teacher can lead the child to learn all other parts of arithmetic. Cholerics have a feeling for division, sanguines for multiplication, cholerics for addition, and melancholics for subtraction.
This is what Wilkinson has to say about the melancholic children:
MELANCHOLIC: Large, bony, with heavy limbs and bowed head; slow, drooping, sliding gait; tragic, mournful eyes; makes drooping gestures; speaks haltingly, hesitatingly, leaving sentences unfinished; unfriendly, but sympathetic with fellow sufferers; likes solitary occupations; finicky about food, likes sweets; picky about clothing, dresses drably; not observant but has a good memory, especially concerning himself/herself; egocentric; interested in the past; helpful, artistic, self-sacrificing with fellow sufferers, but vindictive, fearful, easily depressed, moody, tyrannical.
The other temperament descriptions and definitions are equally appalling and prejudiced.
Ending with this humorous piece by Diana
The temperaments are based on physiological/physical differences. The basis of the theory is that personality corresponds to body type. Short, stocky, squarely built children are cholerics. Graceful, lithe, pretty children are sanguines. Overweight children are phlegmatics. Why am I having trouble calling the fourth one to mind . . . oh, yeah, pale, thin children are melancholics and always enjoy a trip to the local cemetery.
Is it even remotely possible that, in this old-fashioned and prejudicial nonsense, there’s anything valid and useful that can be successfully applied to education today? Are any teachers — waldorf or non-waldorf — qualified to pass judgment on children based on these and similar ‘theories’ of personality characteristics? Because, it seems to me, this is a kind of mumbo-jumbo psychology — inevitably fraught with danger, since it lacks scientific basis and those repsonsible for applying it lack appropriate training in, e g, psychology. With danger, I’m thinking of possible mental health risks to the individual who is (often unwittingly and without explicit consent) subjected to this process of establishing children’s temperament and treating them accordingly — it is, after all, a method used in waldorf education.
Are there further examples of how temperament categories have been applied to individuals and influenced the treatment of them?
Most importantly, what would it take for anthroposophy/anthroposophists to abandon this temperament hypothesis? What would be required for you to accept that it is disproven? Is it even possible? Are anthroposophists even working on it? Trying to figure out how the idea could be tested and eventually — perhaps — rejected? At least, there ought to be work done in order to find out in which situation(s) it is appropriate to use the temperament teachings at all. Waldorf folks are welcome to enlighten me/us about possibly good or beneficial uses of the doctrine.