knowledge

Shared by AWSNA on facebook:

“If you’ve had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, then you feel that you can build a rocket ship-or learn a software program you’ve never touched. It’s not bravado, just a quiet confidence. There is nothing you can’t do. Why couldn’t you? Why couldn’t anybody?”
Peter Nitze, Waldorf and Harvard graduate, and Director of an aerospace company

This says it all, I guess. You feel (if you’re good at fooling yourself) that you can do a lot of things you don’t have the knowledge or skills for. You don’t feel at all inhibited by a bad education (or by learning sock knitting instead of learning academic subjects), because you’re told it’s so fantastic not to learn the way they do in other schools. Right? You don’t even need to know how to read, you know everything better than those other, less fortunate but literate kids anyway. Good thing again for waldorf education that most of the children come from fairly privileged homes. Some go to Harvard despite getting an education that taught them more knitting than maths.

I would call this bravado, not confidence. Confidence seems to need some substance at least.

35 thoughts on “knowledge

  1. I think this attitude is naïve and foolish. To think that knowledge comes from nothing — that knitting (and those other activities) can replace reading, writing, science. For most people knowledge does not come without effort in the areas that matter.

    Go take a look at the comments. I think there’s confidence and boasting resting on a foundation that could just as well be an intellectual void. I’m sure there’s plenty of knitting though.

  2. I think there is a misunderstanding here. If Peter Nitze went to Harvard and works in aeorspace then he clearly did learn all the academic knowledge he needed. The knitting, book-binding, recorder playing, etc, gave him the CONFIDENCE that he could learn to do anything he set his mind to.
    I think this is what happened to a young waldorf man I know well. He learnt little about computers in his Steiner School. but came out feeling he COULD learn whatever he set his mind to. He has a first class degree in linguistics and statistics, but works for Apple where he is an expert on the integration of Mac and Microsoft systems despite having no formal training in computers at all. He just set himself to learn what he needed to know because he has confidence in his thinking. Which is what Steiner said. I.e., learning to knit as a 5 year old produces agile thinking in the 30’s. Absurd but born out by a lot of people’s experience.

    You make assumptions about where Peter Nitze learned his math, physics, etc. also about his background. He may come from a a materially and culturally impoverished family for all I know. Or do you know more about this man than is revealed in the article?

  3. ‘If Peter Nitze went to Harvard and works in aeorspace then he clearly did learn all the academic knowledge he needed.’

    Clearly. But by to his own admission, he didn’t learn that in waldorf. So he must have had the personal and/or financial resources to learn it elsewhere. At some point in his life.

    ‘but came out feeling he COULD learn whatever he set his mind to.’

    Exactly. And lots of waldorf kids feel this superior to the rest of the world — even though they don’t have Nitze’s capacity. Most of them don’t. Even though they don’t know anything. (Except knitting and such things.)

    ‘He may come from a a materially and culturally impoverished family for all I know.’

    How would a materially and culturally impoverished family in the US afford waldorf education? It’s expensive. How could such a family afford sending him to Harvard? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to make *some* assumptions about his background.

    ‘The knitting, book-binding, recorder playing, etc, gave him the CONFIDENCE that he could learn to do anything he set his mind to.’

    I think this is bullshit, frankly — and I think they should give their students confidence with substance by teaching them intellectual skills instead. I have never denied that the right person — with the right background and a decent brain — can catch up with their peers in mainstream schools. I did, quite successfully too. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t far behind my peers at the time I was leaving waldorf. Not everyone can overcome such a disadvantage. So why put kids in that situation at all?

    You could attain great self-confidence by roaming around the woods too — no formal schooling at all. If the group you’re with keeps telling you you’re superior, why not? It could be more effective, as far as confidence goes, than knitting. Doesn’t mean you know anything or have anything but very limited skills, though. If you’re going to do something in the mainstream world, you will have to catch up. Sooner or later. And that takes effort. Unless you’re a genius — and the large majority of waldorf children are no geniuses. Some are pretty daft kids with fairly magalomaniacal confidences in themselves and the merits of their education.

  4. Sorry, but, yeah, this: “If you’ve had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, then you feel that you can build a rocket ship-or learn a software program you’ve never touched” IS bullshit, it’s foolish crap and AWSNA should not use it to advertise inferior education (not teaching kids to read and write when they are ready and deserve to learn it… that is, in my mind, inferior education!). You must insert a hell of a lot of knowledge between “the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder” and the building of that rocket-ship. That knowledge comes from somewhere — and not from “the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder”. It does not come from nowhere, no matter how much you knit. My hunch is that Nitze should be thankful for something other than his waldorf education. Perhaps his family, perhaps his own brain, perhaps he actually quit waldorf in time (did he attend k-12?)? I don’t know.

    But AWSNA bragging about themselves teaching kids knitting instead of academics is… and that they think it’s a good idea, an idea that benefits children… is just stupid. Nothing wrong with knitting — but to think that knitting and ‘confidence’ can replace something else? What!?

    Maybe it’s just because my own self-confidence was run dry in waldorf rather than boosted. It’s a miracle that I caught up at all. But, you know, when reading about stuff like, so he went to Harvard, waldorf was a success after all… I think about myself. I could be the poster child for waldorf education too, I match at least some of the criteria — except I don’t credit my education. I went to waldorf — and later, much later, got into a somewhat prestigious university education. Not because of the knitting, I might add. Lots of other people have done the same thing. Or similar things. Doesn’t mean it’s right to credit waldorf or the knitting. I didn’t even learn how to read and write in school — I already knew that. And I bet that there are more children who compensate for this arid intellectual desert that is waldorf education. You look out of the window, lose yourself in fantasy and hope you’ll get through it, all the boredom. Then you go home and read books.

  5. ‘Not everyone can overcome such a disadvantage.’*

    … and if everyone can, which I doubt, not everyone has the option of transferring to the best school in town. Most likely the kid is stuck in the local municipal school, which may frankly suck badly too. If you’re lucky, you get teachers who are able to help you catch up. Perhaps with the free school system, the situation is not so dire. But back in my school days, options came at a high cost. In any case, you’re behind. You need a brain working fairly quickly. Which is also an asset if you want to go to Harvard.

    *Edit: quoting myself. I’ll stop ranting now.

  6. They taught my son knitting in his Steiner school. He couldn’t do it, although I can knit so I undid his homework and knitted it up again while he watched The Simpsons, which was a formative influence. Nor did he have the slightest interest in any other handwork. This doesn’t seem to have held him back, although the whole experience has given him a lot of material and a helpful insight into mass delusion.

    Meanwhile a younger child does all this stuff at her state primary although they do not fetishise the art and craft, gardening, outward-bound adventure trips, singing etc. She plays a musical instrument, which does give her a great deal of confidence, but we do not find it necessary to complement this activity by overlaying it with a bizarre cosmology including gnomes, archangels, salamanders, reincarnation and an unhealthy interest in aryans. There is of course the Vicar, and writing the occasional hymn in praise of god or one of his relatives who he appears to have murdered, but she is quite at liberty as far as we’re concerned to make up her own mind about that.

  7. Thank you for giving me something to laugh at — I’m trying to clean my bathroom. It’s dreadful. Not unlike some things one is supposed to learn in waldorf.

    My brother was quite skilled musically — he played an instrument too. I just despised all that. My mum did my knitting and sewing too. I’m not sure what it did to her self-confidence. It probably contributed to the insight that it was time to move on.

    I still wonder: why could there not have been reading, writing, science — stuff like that — instead? Why all the dreadful and boring stuff? Feels like a childhood spent cleaning a dirty bathroom. It means very little for personal progress. All this BOREDOM.

  8. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a clean bathroom. But reading books makes way more sense. So why eurythmy? Knowing you were going to eurythmy lesson felt much like the way I feel about going back into that bathroom right now. Another mindless hour doing something that for all appearances seemed utterly useless learning nothing at all.

  9. Conveniently the New York Times this morning has a piece on exactly this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/magazine/dont-blink-the-hazards-of-confidence.html?pagewanted=1&ref=magazine

    “Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.”

    “In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. “

  10. The take-home point being that confidence is overrated compared to actual skill and knowledge. Encouraging confidence in kids who don’t know much isn’t doing them any big favor.

    Waldorf is certainly not alone in jumping on the confidence/self-esteem bandwagon; all the schools advertise themselves this way nowdays, though I think maybe this particular fetish in education may soon run its course. It has been exhaustively debunked.

    Anyone with even a few years’ experience in the working world knows that extremely confident people are no more likely than anyone else to know what they are doing, and are often less so. They are certainly more likely to rise to management, where they often wreak havoc, on lives as well as on the business.

  11. That said, I think Waldorf in their promotional rhetoric has gotten away from their own actual strengths by jumping on this mindless self-esteem bandwagon.

    When I was a prospective and new Waldorf parent, I understood this business of knitting a sock somewhat differently. I thought there was an actual argument that the skills and thought processes learned in knitting (and other handcrafts) were literally shaping the way a child learns to think, and that something in these cognitive processes proved useful in later intellectual learning. I still think this might be true: that there is some actual connection between the hand and the brain, it isn’t just a metaphor. I don’t know if there is any credible research on such a claim, but it is still compelling to me. I think at an age where the brain is still so malleable, such skills probably do play a role in developing how a person thinks.

    None of that is an argument for teaching knitting without teaching reading and writing at the same time, however. That is where the Waldorf schools fall woefully short. If there is an argument to be made that knitting a sock can encourage mental plasticity in some way, then it is very sad that they are not in fact capitalizing on this. They’re insisting on an activity that might well be beneficial in brain development, and then not taking advantage of it, but letting the bright kids who might get something like this from it be forced to leave the school and go elsewhere to put any skills they’ve learned to good use. (And the not-so-bright kids, well, they’re left with knitting and phony “confidence.”)

    Their argument of course is that a child must do such things in stages; one age is right for knitting a sock and another (later, of course) age is right for reading and writing. There’s no evidence for such a belief; a huge, incontrovertible body of research into how children learn shows exactly the opposite. Intellectual abilities are developing at exactly the same time as physical abilities (the coordination and fine motor skills needed in handcrafts), and this starts at birth – not at age fourteen.

  12. In other words they don’t understand their own brochure rhetoric. It turned into a silly claim that you get confidence from knitting a sock. In fact, I think knitting does help academically. There’s quite a bit of basic math even in very elementary knitting. I sometimes see this explained as, Well you have to count the stitches if you drop one, but it’s much more than that. It’s a whole spatial three-dimensional way of thinking, which I think could be especially helpful for kids who tend to think very abstractly (gasp – I am agreeing with some points of Waldorf pedagogy here …) Once you get past a basic piece of flat knitting into constructing a garment or a toy, quite a few calculations and judgment come into play that go well beyond being able to add and subtract. (At this point in my own knitting career, I am pretty well reduced to making flat things again … all I knit right now is scarves and baby blankets, my brain is too overtaxed otherwise. I can knit a rectangle, but don’t ask me to attach it to another rectangle afterwards …)

    I also think of it like the clapping and rhythmic games for learning the multiplication tables. I think there’s something to the notion that learning such facts “in the body” rather than just in the head makes them more real and likelier to be remembered and understood.

    Or am I still just a victim of Waldorf propaganda on this point? I don’t know.

  13. No — even I think there’s a point to it all. There’s a lack of balance however. Actually, in the faculty meetings Steiner himself barks at teachers for neglecting intellectual stuff in favour of knitting (I think — maybe it was sewing). *That* is the big problem. Not the crafts in themselves.

  14. Some news from the world of psychological/pedagogical research:

    1) The rather popular notion among e.g. parents, that your child’s self-confidence enhances learning is losing ground. Pupils who expect they will succeed perform clearly worse than those who expect that real, practical effort will pay off in the end.

    2) In the coaching business, the benefits of visualizing success is being questioned. Seems it can give people the nice and cosy feeling that they have already accomplished their goals. Attending to the steps needed to reach your goal in real life is a much better route.

    3) Another popular notion, that expert knowledge in one area will magically generalize to other areas is being replaced with the idea that what counts is the amount of time devoted to the specific area.

    By the way, some music teachers think the deceivingly simple recorder is among the worst instruments there is for a beginner. As a listener at school performances, and loving classical recorder music, I have to agree ;-)

    Anyway, the attitude of Peter Nitze isn’t just silly magical thinking. It is bad for your children. Using it as advertisement for a pedagogy is in a way very enlightening.

  15. Certainly if you experience mastery in a particular area at an early age, it will give you confidence to try other things later. Sure. Every first grade teacher, Waldorf or otherwise, is working from this basic principle – that children need to see some early successes, or they may get discouraged. It’s just an idea that has been pushed past its usefulness into silliness. For the kids to whom basic skills come easily, they’re gonna get the confidence from this without the teacher falsely puffing them up. For those who have trouble, clearly some extra encouragement is in order, and the teacher has to stay positive and offer praise and enthusiasm for small steps of progress. But even for those kids, all the self-esteem in the world is pointless if they really can’t do it. The only way to really help is to do what it takes to enable them to achieve the basic skills, that’s where the real confidence and self-esteem is going to come from.

    More importantly, there’s no reason knitting or handcrafts would be better for this than reading and writing, and clearly reading and writing are more fundamental to later success at just about everything in life.

    Many highly successful and accomplished people (world wide, probably most?) cannot knit. I’m sure there is a huge cadre of Harvard grads who cannot knit. Harvard grads who can’t read and write, not so many.

  16. Speaking as someone who’s actually been involved in building rockets (big ones) – I can say with confidence that rocket-building can be accomplished without any prerequisite knitting experience whatsoever. Knitting, as a “confidence-builder” is not very good in Waldorf anyway. Ask ANY Waldorf child what happens when they miss a stitch? It doesn’t matter if it was two weeks ago… In my children’s cases, the teacher (who is now a teacher trainer at WISC) would unravel the child’s work, in front of the class, to the point of the missed stitch. While this may seem fairly benign, it was apparently done in such a way that my kids STILL remember each time it happened to them. None of my kids are interested in knitting… or any of the *crafts* they learned at Waldorf… No desire for musical instruments, foreign languages, black-smithing or eurythmy… All they want to do is LEARN ABOUT THINGS now. Not because Waldorf instilled some appreciation for learning in them (it didn’t)… but because they realize how unprepared they are for the real world.

  17. Diana, thanks for showing how knitting can be a mathematical and spatial adventure. I don’t think you are deceived by anthro propaganda here. I think the question is how you can connect abstract, intellectual knowledge with experiences and even to more intuitive knowledge. Alicia wrote that in fact Steiner advocated this, but the occult seven year development idea isn’t very helpul here.

    A similar line of reasoning applies to the confidence questions. What Nittke describes isn’t confidence, in my mind, it is a dangerously tempting feeling of omnipotence. Of course a _lack_ of confidence is bad for learning and motivation. But there seems to be scant evidence that anything more than what Nittke calls “quiet confidence” is of any value to academic success in the traditional sense. On the contrary, it might be bad for all kinds of success. But Nittke’s text is intriguingly contradictory, he says he doesn’t describe “bravado”, but how can you read it otherwise? I think even _knitting_ a rocket ship would be a fantastic achievement ;-)

    If I was hired as a spin doctor for Steiner schools, I would rather say:

    “We offer your children many ways to achieve a basic sense of self-worth. We don’t give them the feeling that only intellectual achievemnts count, like many other schools. We are happy to allow your child to develop any area which gives him or her confidence in their abilities.”

    However I fear that this would require a profound reorientation of the pedagogy.

    BTW “fetishism” of “art and craft, gardening, outward-bound adventure trips, singing etc.” is IMO a very useful concept for thinking about the role of these areas in education. As opposed to a more conscious “integration” in learning processes. I have a feeling that the fetishist attitude to art is not uncommon even in ordinary schools in Sweden, although “Literature” is a more common object of desire here.

  18. “My knowledge of things of the spirit is a direct result of my own perception, and I am fully conscious of this fact. In all the details and in the larger survey I had always to examine myself carefully as to whether every step I took in the progress of my perception was accompanied by a fully awake consciousness. Just as the mathematician advances from thought to thought without the unconscious or auto-suggestion playing a role, so – I told myself – spiritual perception must advance from objective imagination to objective imagination without anything living in the soul but the spiritual content of clear discerning consciousness.” (An Outline of Occult Science, 1972,).

  19. Diana quoted the NYT article:

    “Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.”

    This is it.

    ‘Waldorf is certainly not alone in jumping on the confidence/self-esteem bandwagon; all the schools advertise themselves this way nowdays, though I think maybe this particular fetish in education may soon run its course. It has been exhaustively debunked.’

    It’s probably still attractive — even debunked promises can be attractive, unfortunately.

    ‘Intellectual abilities are developing at exactly the same time as physical abilities (the coordination and fine motor skills needed in handcrafts), and this starts at birth’

    Which means that, ideally, they would make sure the children get intellectual stimulation as well as practical, also in the early school years.

    Ulf — interesting stuff, and I agree with you about magical thinking and about how ‘Using it as advertisement for a pedagogy is in a way very enlightening.’ It clearly is. Though I suspect they don’t even see this.

    Diana — ‘Certainly if you experience mastery in a particular area at an early age, it will give you confidence to try other things later. Sure.’

    Yes, and this is also very simple, in a way. Nobody thinks, of course, that it’s a good thing to give children a bad self-confidence. Knowledge gives self-confidence, at least to a degree. Learning to read is a great milestone for the child too — and will also enhance self-confidence. I’m all for teaching these things to children in such a way that they feel self-confident about the skills they and the knowledge they actually have and about their ability to learn. But there needs to be a realistic foundation of this self-confidence.

    ‘I’m sure there is a huge cadre of Harvard grads who cannot knit. Harvard grads who can’t read and write, not so many.’

    Many of the former, none at all of the latter…!

    Pete — that’s how I remember these subjects too, especially handicrafts. What some kids did was never good enough. Ever. When my mum did my crafts for me — and she was good at it — it was still not good enough (presumably because the teacher was miffed at me and us). I could not have succeeded no matter what I’d done. And you could not compensate — being good at reading was not appreciated. In another school, the teachers would think, well, this child has other strengths. And, I hope, that would be accepted. Not so in waldorf. If you can’t do these things, you’re practically useless. You can’t excel at anything because the things you could do are not offered or promoted. Being good at reading and such things could even be a bad thing.

    Diana — ‘Do we know how many years (and which years) Peter Nitze attended Waldorf?’

    I would be very interested to find out. (For example, the waldorf movement, i e Sune, brags a lot about the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and when I checked his background, I found out he quit waldorf school pretty early. Like me. He *then* went to an academically oriented school. And his family had all the resources they needed, obviously. The thing is — is he a good poster child for waldorf education? Not really, I’d say.)

    Ulf — ‘he says he doesn’t describe “bravado”, but how can you read it otherwise? I think even _knitting_ a rocket ship would be a fantastic achievement ;-)’

    It is bravado, and I’d say that would be an achievement. I saw a satire once — it was about waldorf school students knitting their own computers. I tried to google it, but can’t find it.*

    *Edit: I just remembered I think it was in Norwegian. Still can’t find it though.

  20. ‘How would a materially and culturally impoverished family in the US afford waldorf education? ‘ Because there are charter schools in some states? Because many waldorf schools do have some mechanism whereby those who can’t pay are helped? I remember in the UK the Bristol school and the South West London school ran a ‘commonwealth’ approach which meant some parents paid very little (I believe the minimum was £7 per week in the mid-80’s, approx. 70SEK)

    When I was a headteacher of a primary school (a state school with nothing spookily waldorf wafting about) I used to tell my teachers to watch the children as they came through the school gates. If they were chatting and smiling….. good! If they were skipping…. great! these behaviours showed the children were happy coming to school. I would have said that these children were quietly confident that school was going to be basically a pleasant experience (without loving absolutely everything, of course) and that they were going to learn something each day. They became confident learners and I think that that is all Peter NItze is saying but a bit puffed up for publicity purposes.

    There is a context for this claim by Waldorf schools that they produce confident learners. My guess is that most of the children who transfer in, having started out in state schools, are children who for one reason or another have lost confidence in their ability to learn and Waldorf with its unhurried, non-competitive approach often suits such children very well.

  21. I think charter schools are pretty new, and I assume this man is not young (he’s had or still has a career). I also think you’re mentioning the exceptions. I would say it’s far more likely that this guy came from rather privileged circumstances — I can only imagine having to battle both an impoverished background and a lack of education (which actually is what this excessive knitting business boils down to).

    ‘these behaviours showed the children were happy coming to school.’

    I agree with that. The question, then, is if waldorf produces these behaviours to a greater extent than other schools do. I doubt that.

    ‘My guess is that most of the children who transfer in, having started out in state schools, are children who for one reason or another have lost confidence in their ability to learn and Waldorf with its unhurried, non-competitive approach often suits such children very well.’

    In my waldorf school that was very much the case. Those who transfered in were students who were having severe issues and some had been assigned places in special schools, but their parents didn’t want their children to be branded developmentally challenged. This, I think, would not benefit the children who were intellectually normal, and who, in addition, had to catch up on what their peers in mainstream schools had learnt already.

    Anyway — that waldorf is not competitive is a rather odd claim, it seems to me. I know waldorf schools make this claim. I don’t think it’s true. It’s competitive — just not intellectually competitive. (Intellectually you may even win score for being slow.) But it’s competitive in all other ways. Wet-on-wet painting is competitive. The work hangs on the wall every week — those who can’t do it, know they can’t. It’s all there — and every bit as visible as though they were hanging the results on multiplication table tests on the wall. (I would have prefered to compete in the latter category, and to skip the paintings. Alas, that was not available.) If you can’t do handicrafts properly or quickly enough — you bet the teachers are there hurrying you. They make sure you know you’re not attaining the level they aim at.

    Whether it’s unhurried and non-competitive clearly depends on the child’s natural gifts for those school subjects. And the child’s ability to obey the teacher. Or even understand what the teacher expect — expectations that aren’t often put in plain words.

  22. That (what falk hypothesied) may be what he wants to say, and thinks he’s saying, and Awsna too. But what he is actually saying, and thus Awsna, is much more telling — it is, perhaps inadvertently, accurate. I find that interesting.

  23. It was very funny. Hopeless to google in norwegian though. Words are sufficiently similar to swedish to understand; sufficiently different to forget when they’re not in front of you. Maybe the can knit iPhones too!

  24. we could have a whole line of knitted gadgets, for Waldorf kindergarteners to pretend to use while pretending to cook in the wooden kitchen – smart phones, ipods, tablets and laptops, etc. They would all come with “Friend us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter” embroidered in the classic anthroposophical font.

  25. Then maybe they could just have a Facebook icon, and the little Twitter bird … the way the cubbies have to have pictures associated with each child, rather than names.

  26. Exactly. This does not pose insurmountable obstacles. Especially not to them.

    (Yes, we had those pictures. In kindergarten. Snail, flower, ladybird, and so forth. You could get an ugly one, which was disappointing. I don’t remember mine, unfortunately. It was three years, and you were dealt a new one every autumn — if I remember it correctly.)

Comments are closed.