voices on temperaments

Waldorf Unschooling blog (where there’s also a neat summary on every one of the four temperaments):

The first lecture I attended on Waldorf Education was by Rene Querido on the Temperaments in the Waldorf classroom. I left that lecture flying high, talking non-stop, and “knowing” that this was for us. One of the little stories I vividly remember from that lecture may help to clarify more humorously the various temperaments.

The teacher in first grade brings an apple to class one day. There is a secret in every apple! He tells a story about the star and the apple. Then he cuts the apple to reveal this secret to the class. The cholerics are intrigued and want to immediately cut open every apple. The melancholics sit quietly and ponder: “How did the star get in there?” “Why is the star there?” The sanguines will flit about the room excitedly, commenting on this wonder to all in the room. And, the phelgmatics will wonder aloud “When will we start making the apple sauce?”

By Steiner college: a presentation of Wilkinson’s book on temperaments:

An approach to personality tendencies of children in the early elementary grades.

What we call temperaments today were known in Greek times as the four humours, and medical science considered them of great importance. Knowledge of them has fallen into the background until Rudolf Steiner called attention to their importance in education. Temperament has nothing to do with character or morals but is in itself a basic quality-a substance as it were, though not material. A person will do things or react in a certain way according to his temperament quite irrespective of his or her upbringing, education, standards or knowledge. The four temperaments-melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and choleric-are related to the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. This book gives practical applications of this insight for classroom situations.

San Fransisco waldorf school hosts a lecture (pdf) on parenting according to temperament — lecture described like this:

“Better than therapy!” was one of the comments after last year’s class on temperaments. The mysterious harmonizing power of Eurythmy, under the expert guidance of master eurythmy teacher Astrid Thiersch, coupled with the wisdom of Rudolf Steiner on the temperaments makes this class worth missing a morning at work. We will explore temperament in children as well as in adults, look at the qualities in different parenting styles, and learn to look at ourselves and others with humor and compassion.

In a waldorf ‘research bulletin’ from 2005 (pdf), published by Waldorf Library, editor Sloan introduces the topic:

… “The Current Debate about Temperaments,” is a translation of an article published last year in Erziehungskunst, the leading German scholarly journal on Waldorf education. This article by Walter Riethmüller, a former editor of Erziehungskunst, is a probing inquiry into the meaning and relevance today of Rudolf Steiner’s views on the place of the temperaments in education and in the understanding of human development. The author examines Steiner’s approach to the temperaments, not only with reference to his critics, but also in light of the renewal of interest in the temperaments now taking place among a number of leading educators and psychologists. He shows clearly that Steiner’s approach to the temperaments, often misunderstood or misrepresented by its critics, fully warrants consideration with utmost seriousness—with respect both to the new theoretical interest in the temperaments among current educators and psychologists and to its value for concrete, classroom experience and practice.

(Erziehungskunst is the leading waldorf pedagogy journal in Germany.)

What does Riethmüller say in his article, then? In his opinion, the notion of temperaments is used by waldorf critics to attack waldorf education. Moreover, ‘[p]eople usually end up misunderstanding Steiner altogether because his approach is different from traditional ways of thinking’ — temperaments are no exception.

From the trivial to temperaments? maybe —

… one usually has a multitude of impressions which will primarily be of outer appearances. These impressions are connected to specific children and one can notice how different one child is from the other; why one child acts a certain way and another one acts completely differently under similar circumstances. One may even make distinctions and try to bring a certain order to the differences, delineating what can be attributed to physical causes, such as marked bodyshapes, and contrasting them with what seems to be more of an inner disposition.

More in-depth observation takes place, e g, in the classroom. This is when the need arises to ‘to organize for the sake of orientation’. Patterns emerge, individuality does too.

It goes without saying that individual perceptions will group themselves into definite categories: for example, habits, intelligence, memory, reactivity, stamina, and so forth. In the process, definite groupings emerge: some phenomena belong to the category of things which belong to the moment, such as reactivity; some phenomena belong to more permanent soul qualities, such as basic moods which color each experience; other phenomena belong in the category of things which manifest practically on a physical level, such as specific habits, inclinations, memory, intelligence, or the temperament.

The author reaches the conclusion that stereotyping is inimical to this observation and temperament classification — how is it inimical, one may ask? It appears, though, that this observational method which results in temperament categorization is about ‘seeing the true individuality of the child’. (If it is so unique, why four temperaments? Even if the four temperaments are parts of a bigger personality scheme. Why classify children at all? Unless it is done by trained professionals with the aim of actually helping children with real difficulties. If the individuality is unique, as Riethmüller says it is, then how come it can be easily shoved into neat little boxes with labels on them?)

What is special about Steiner’s approach to the temperaments? He begins by describing the way a human being incarnates, that is to say, the way the human being finds his or her way into life! When a human being is born, the eternal individuality, the inner essence of the human being, with all the talents, character traits, and gifts particular to that individuality, connects to the hereditary stream formed by the inherited body and the characteristic traits coming from the parents.

The temperament is a ‘reconciliation’ of the ‘eternal’ with the ‘temporal’; it is a dominance thing, though, nothing harmonious.

This manifests in what is called in anthroposophical terminology the different members of the human being. At the base of this lies an understanding of the human being as an equilibrium of forces.

Where in this ‘equilibrium’ is the temperament, then?

… temperament is “located” where the life processes meet the more permanent soul components, namely in the ether body. Therefore the temperaments may have a certain stability …

Leaving the other temperaments aside, this is the melancholic child:

melancholy predominates when the qualities of the physical body—heavy physicality with its chemical and physical processes—are noticeable in the soul as a ponderous basic mood

Usually people are ‘mixed’ — i e, they have traits ‘belonging’ to all (at least more than one) temperaments, even though one temperament is more dominating than the others.

Only in pathological cases does one find one basic tendency dominating in a very one-sided way.

How to achieve greater balance?

According to Steiner, one should take into account what is there and recognize the positive qualities of a particular temperament. Such a method is far more fruitful than taking measures to awaken something which is not present in the child, for example, by attempting to counter a melancholy disposition by exaggerated outward cheerfulness. This principle, by the way, the practice of starting from the talents, gifts, and dispositions which the child actually has, is a basic principle of the Waldorf school, and it is applied from early childhood on.

As for the latter, I know that many who have been involved in waldorf education will beg to differ. It’s utter nonsense to say that waldorf education, as a rule, acknowledges individual talents, gifts and disposition. What about the kindergarten kid who enjoys intellectual pastimes? What about the child who enjoys electronic media? What about the kid who likes to paint with black crayons or who despises eurythmy or flute playing? Yeah, it’s apparent what I’m getting at, right? Also, it is utter nonsense to say that waldorf is different because it doesn’t focus on deficits. (Perhaps the good author doesn’t realize that waldorf schools have their fair share of kids who — by insightful anthroposophists (?) — have been deemed deficient in one way or another.)

It should be stressed once again: occupying oneself with temperaments is a particular means of bringing us closer to individual capacities of the children and meeting their expectations in everyday pedagogical practice, to do justice to them, in fact.

And what if this doesn’t work? I mean really — if the end result is that students are to meet the expectations of teachers and no justice is done to individual children’s actual personalities (beyond the pre-conceived notions unthinking and naïve waldorf teachers arrive at after pondering the bodily constitution and the gait — or whatever else in this superficial vein — and the ensuing and equally prejudiced assignment of a ‘temperament’) because the method does not work? What about the injustice and the unnecessary harm this will inevitably lead to, in particular since there is very likely few waldorf teachers who possess the qualifications required to classify children in this manner? — the only ‘expertise’ they have stems from reading Steiner and other anthroposophical authors, not from training in psychology, for example.

The three temperamental characteristics, hyperactivity, distractibility, and low stamina are the most likely to lead to poor performance in school. This fact makes it seem sensible to spot these temperamental characteristics early, so that specialized, preventative instruction can be offered during the first school year.” … This is a challenge which, to my knowledge, has only been heeded in Waldorf schools up to now!

Where psycho-amateurs have been diagnosing children for almost a century. Based upon spiritual beliefs on karma, reincarnation, etheric and astral bodies, the I and, in addition, the wholly irrelevant idea that the physical body is an indication of what’s in the mind: temperament as a function of bodily constitution. So, what about the connection between Steiner’s temperament doctrines and personality assessments within the field of psychology? Psychology is inadequate, of course, not anthroposophy.

As long as Steiner’s ideas are thought to be “unfounded,” not holding up to “scientific scrutiny,” and are “reduced to four categories,” it cannot be expected that psychology will recognize Steiner’s approach, especially because there are no concrete empirical methods to demonstrate the presence of the four temperaments. Psychology would do well to look critically at its own viewpoints. Apart from having a completely different approach to this question, the fundamental difference lies especially in the practical consequences. Psychology is looking for empirical data that make a systematic categorization possible. Waldorf pedagogy uses the observation of the temperaments in conjunction with other categories as a method that allows the educator a multifaceted entry into the basic soul-dispositions of children. Determining the temperaments is, therefore, not an aim in itself, but has a practical function: it offers a possibility to approach children differently within a classroom setting. In this sense, knowledge of the temperaments can become a fruitful tool, but only when it goes beyond mere typecasting.

It has a practical function, but it can’t be studied. Why is it valid to use it on children, then? Why can’t it be studied and evaluated, for that matter? I don’t see anything contradicting this possibility. That teachers apply temperaments in a practical every-day setting in no way excludes this topic from being systematically studied. What about these soul-dispositions? Perhaps the bottom line is that the anthroposophic temperament teaching rests upon a fantasy — where children incarnate, have spirits and souls, and so forth? Where teachers aren’t teachers — educators, pedagogues — but assistants in an incarnation process?


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