It was in the air we breathed, in the water in which we swam – the spiritual atmosphere was far more salient than what we were taught. Knowing that the merely intellectual was not what was going to take us anywhere, in the long run, that’s hardly surprising. Reverence and enchantment took precedence over the fact-based world, dry and cold and theoretical as it would have been.
When I say ”we” I mean that’s what happened, not that I think this is something other people thought consciously about. I accept that I’m probably alone in being affected at all by it, in this particular way, that leads me to write this. Even for me, the experiences have receded into the mists of fading memory; there are patches left of incomplete images and the remnants of an atmosphere, there are the lingering gnomes and fairies of the mind.
So, dry and cold, no – that it wasn’t, but there could be a certain coldness – another kind – in the constant striving to enchant, to live in a world of enchantment. It can just as well cut you off from a connection with the world as intensifying it.
Waldorf people speak (and write) about awe and reverence all the time, of the importance of enchantment – as if these things were good and necessary in and of themselves. Sometimes I don’t think they know what they mean anymore. There are obvious traps here: people envision a goal, which is mostly an esthetic one, and set about creating it, but without substance; people produce empty kitsch rather than engaging in meaning; people ”do” tradition, but fail to realize that these things can’t be done half-heartedly – it’s not really the usual theatre of human life (or can’t be, there is to be a point to it at all).
It’s a matter of contention (or whatever else shall we call it?) between other critics and myself whether the promotion of fantasy (that is, those things that are not facts or real) in waldorf education causes harm. The fact that I don’t always agree that it is so may actually speak against myself; perhaps it iss the surest sign indeed that it has, that I myself am too entangled in this phenomenon, this mystical web, to see it for what it is. And, in fact, I didn’t accomplish anything much in life but pointless daydreaming: who knows, without this spiritual brain damage, would I not be an accountant or a dentist, toiling away, content in fulfilling the dreary tasks of the material world? I understand the point people make: education ought to prepare you for this world, and to prepare you for life within its physical contours. It ought not make you metaphysically confused.
So that’s the objection: the world of fantasy and imagination (the unreal things replacing the world of facts) causes confusion and anguish – in the end, it also prevents a correct attachment to the world as it is. Art does not seem to be an object of the same kind of distrust, though in essence the areas overlap; mysticism and art overlap in that neither deals solely with crude physical reality.
To its strenghts or weaknesses – be that as it may – waldorf education takes the non-material world seriously indeed. I don’t know what it’s like these days, when fewer teachers have a personal commitment to spirituality, to anthroposophy more specifically, which matters a lot (we’re not dealing with random fluff), but if they are (and at least some are) – you have to understand the difference: this view of an immaterial world is pervasive, it permeates everything, mystery is not restricted to the half-hour during which a fairy-tale is read, soul-lessly, from a book, it is in the atmosphere at all hours of the day, it is in the blood that runs through the veins of the pedagogy, and if any content is taught at all, it is in it as it is in the walls, in the songs, in the verses, in the meals, it is pervasive and it is supposed to suffuse you – that’s what it is.
Then, of course, you know what children are like: they laugh, outwardly or inwardly (depending on what is permitted), at adults who believe in silly things, so there’s not necessarily a wholesale absorption of the enchantment that adults serve up. At least it wasn’t for me. Perhaps that is easy for me to say, I don’t think I ever had any particular difficulty understanding the various ways in which fairies could be existent or non-existent – at least I don’t remember it. Although you may, at the same time, call me confused – to this day.
To include a point of actual criticism, so as not to disappoint my dear friends: the issue here, in my eyes, doesn’t so much seem to be the beings who lack physical presence in this world, but the absence of an academically sound education – of cold facts, among other things – to complement the world of those beings, and eventually, if needed, override it. It lacked somewhat, to put it mildly, in that latter department. And if you object that the following has little to do with education, I agree. Therein lies the obvious problem, not for this text (for it isn’t my problem) but for waldorf education as education.
There weren’t only the fairies, of course – there were the gnomes scurrying to their burrows and mines, the ancient myths and the adventures of the gods, the legends and the saints, the heroes and villains, angels and demons, the darkness and the light, good and evil, the hidden forces of nature, the devotional items, the rooms in dark and candlelight, the scent of beeswax, the rituals and rhythms, the soft and dreamy sounds of the lyres and flutes, the sing-song voices, and there were the living and the dead, matter and spirit. But there weren’t facts or even books; no lessons on how to distinguish the Real from the Unreal.
There were two random anecdotes I once told my waldorf critical friends: one of teacher who used to talk about the dancing fairies he had seen on his way to work; another who communicated with the dead. Harmful things perhaps, but I don’t feel harmed by them; and in any case none of it more harmful than other beliefs people have. The dogmatic religious threat of eternal damnation and hell, meeted out for silly earthly sins, seems no less harmful; the world’s major religions are filled with unreasonable dogma and cruelty. You can object, of course, that the confusion created in the child’s mind, when the beliefs of the teachers don’t match the beliefs of the child’s home, but so what: there’s a multitude of strange beliefs in the world. You can say, of course: there’s no place for such things in school, it’s not knowledge, and confusing knowledge with such beliefs endangers the ability to know truth from untruth. Yes, well, so it may be. Or not: it is, under all circumstances, an ability subject to development, and it is an ability that doesn’t evolve if it isn’t triggerd or exercised. If nobody pokes at your capacity for discernment with a tiny sharp object (or a tiny gnome), it isn’t brought into awareness – it doesn’t evolve. Rational facts, good as they are, are swallowed without any such process taking place; they are absorbed, sometimes only with effort, but usually without being spurred by intellectual irritation.
Now, to those fairies. I think most teachers spoke about fairies, but for some reason I remember this teacher in particular, the one I once referred to in a discussion with my waldorf critical friends: he was a mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, not necessarily weak (though we may have gotten that impression), but light as if floating on a cloud somewhere above ground. Elemental beings may well have meant more to him than children; he was a bit aloof; he didn’t know who the kids were individually. This isn’t a subjective feeling – it was quite objectively so: he had no idea who I was, for example, and you can see that from the text in my end of year report. He was not alone; many teachers may have known how to identify a huge number of elementals, but children were more like bees in a beehive. (Then again: would they be individually different to me? Only the interesting children, hardly the masses.)
On the way to school, he saw the fairies dancing – we all saw them, but my sober friends in the world I now live in, call them ”mist” not fairies and I do, too, naturally. But what is the difference to a child if the adult arrives in class talking about the fairies or if he arrives expounding on a scientific explanation (which, considering everything, I’m not sure was this man’s domain anyway)? What would you actually remember, three decades or so later? What lesson is there in seeing mist swirling over the meadows on an Autumn morning? Is it a scientific one, a poetic one, one about elusive elemental beings, or one about paying attention to nature and everything happening around us? I have no doubt that they all – almost all – believed in elves and gnomes. Not as physical beings, but spiritual ones.
Are there still, in the schools today, people of this ancient breed of anthroposophists? Or do the new teachers learn by heart how things are supposed to be done? Feigning a conviction (even to themselves) or a celebration of ”something out there” but essentially – as with most spiritual people, no matter how bonkers beliefs they subscribe to, no matter the lack of critical thinking – their view of the world is materialistic, essentially materialistic. The idea of the fairy or the gnome or the angel is but a condiment; it means little. As with fairy-tales, most adults can purposefully engage in ”make-believe”, if it is thought conducive to the child’s creativity and imagination. But it is as with Santa, a meaningless mental construction – at best, a pedagogical crutch, conceived for the purpose of utility, but with no consideration taken to sincerity.
The teacher who communicated with the dead (they almost all did, I presume, but didn’t talk about it explicitly) was another one of those teachers; a stern Steiner lady to the bone. Fascinatingly, the female Steinerists were often harsh and strict, seemingly cold, almost regimental, with a heavy air and a greyness around them; the male Steinerists, soft and just slighly feminine, yellowish and light like the sun of early spring. One ought to investigate this phenomenon – how is it so? It’s quite attractive in its own strange way. I don’t remember much else about her; she was very serious indeed.
This time of year, with michaelmas approaching (it is today, in fact…), followed by martinmas and advent and christmas, it’s worth pointing out that none of these things are games or children’s play – these are dead serious things. The michaelic battle with the dragon is no game – it is real. There’s a darkness to this which people wouldn’t like – because they mistakenly think darkness is bad and something childen don’t ”get” – so it’s recast nowadays as harvest festival with fun games and so on. That kills it, but not the dragon, obviously – who would, if he existed, thrive on being neglected or denied. Rather it is – if anything – an kind of initiation rite; like the advent spiral much darker than it seems when presented as a children’s game. From the same kind of percieving springs the notion that fairytales and myths aren’t fiction but primeval truth. The battle with the dragon is not a symbol merely – it’s a reality, even if not physical, material reality. Fairytales are truth, not make-believe, but another kind of truth. Fairies are real beings, not imaginary ones, they’re not physical beings – but they are true nontheless.
Herein lies the point. People distinguish sharply between two poles with an ocean between them: the physically real and material on the one side and the imagined and the products of make-believe on the other. This scheme is not apt to describe what fairies are in anthroposophy. Or gnomes, or Michael or the dragon. If something is not real, people think, it must be imagined. Either or. So what you get with waldorf is an education that focuses on imagination – oh, how creative this is, people muse. But it’s less about free imagination than about a different kind of truth – one that doesn’t fit the ordinary, simplified schemes.
Happy Michaelmas and successful dragon-fighting to you all!
(Picture: Dancing Fairies — Älvalek — painted by August Malmström in 1866. One of my favourite paintings.)