The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Human sexuality, curriculum, adolescence, metamorphosis, conception, Trailing Clouds of Glory
By: Douglas Gerwin, August 2016,

Being Fully Human - Part II

This is part two of the introduction to a new collection of essays on teaching human sexuality entitled Trailing Clouds of Glory: Essays on Human Sexuality and the Education of Youth in Waldorf Schools, published 2014 by Waldorf Publications at the Research Institute for Waldorf Education in Chatham, NY.

The Physical or Mortal Body Perspective


a) From the physical point of view, the purpose or desired outcome of a program on the teaching of human sexuality, to put it simply, is twofold:

  • prevent pregnancy

  • avoid sexual disease

At the bodily level, the purpose of such a program is, in effect, a negative one: that is, the absence of change or metamorphosis and the absence of conception. Put positively, one could say that the purpose of this program is sexual health, but in the context of Western medicine sexual health means little more than the absence of illness. (i)


On this view, we can say that a program on the teaching of human sexuality will be deemed “successful” to the extent that young people do not contract sexual diseases and young women do not contract unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, this is how many sex education programs are evaluated: the lower the incidence of sexual disease and number of unwanted pregnancies, the more the program is regarded as having achieved its purpose or desired outcome.


b) As to method or approach, a quick survey of published sex education curricula suggests that the most common approaches combine

  • information, including texts and charts

  • practical advice, including the provision of contraceptives

The former method is intended to heighten a young person’s awareness (capacities of consciousness or thinking), the latter the young person’s behavior (capacities of action or willing).


It should come as no surprise to learn that these courses, taken on their own, have at best only limited effect. For one thing, sexual behavior lies deeply rooted in our life of feelings, desires, and habits, and we all know that these levels of our being are barely reached, far less changed, merely by exposure to information, and that they can be impervious even to the most persuasive practical advice. We engage in all manner of activities driven by a host of desires (not just sexual ones), even though we may be very well informed about their consequences and may have been given (or, as some teenagers might say, been subjected to) all manner of practical advice. Something more, much more, is needed.


Put differently, what is evidently missing in an approach to sex education based on information and practical advice is attention to the young person’s capacities of emotion or feeling. And this may be why so many schools find their sex education programs to be inadequate, perhaps even ineffective. At least this is what students tell us. Either they wish to be left alone, or they hunger for something more. They yearn for a program on the teaching of human sexuality that addresses them not simply at the bodily but more at the psychological and spiritual levels. To these levels we must now turn.


The Psychological or Soul Body Perspective


Some public schools report that their sex education courses seem to be more successful (based on the evaluative yardstick previously described) if students who are enrolled in such programs also take part in courses on social and emotional wellbeing. If one thinks of sexual development from a more all-embracing perspective, this observation should make good sense.

Though the answers will be different, the questions posed at the physical level remain the same at the psychological level, namely:


a) What is the purpose or desired outcome of a program on the teaching of human sexuality?

b) What shall be the method or approach to fulfill this purpose?

a) In response to the first question, I would suggest that, to be successful from the perspective of social and emotional health, the purpose or desired outcome of a program on the teaching of human sexuality needs to cultivate in students a sense of self-worth, confidence, security, empathy for others, reliability, trustworthiness, and freedom from fear and anxiety. We know that a lack of any one of these can translate into risk-taking behavior, including risky sexual activity. Recklessness, likewise aggression, can be the outer sign of deep fear or self-loathing. The class bully at recess may very well be the most deeply scared kid on the playground.


Briefly put, then, the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality, seen from the psychological perspective or from the needs of the soul, is to develop a sense of self-esteem. Because this term is grossly overused, I prefer to call it something else, drawing upon a celebrated conversation between Saint Francis and one of his fellow Franciscans, Brother Leo. These two holy monks, it is said, struggled to come up with a word to capture the emotional state of “enduring humiliation and [yet] keeping one’s countenance, in accepting and bearing the tasks that life provided. To keep one’s dignity, equanimity, and patience and to preserve tranquility in the face of attacks from the outside….” (ii)


This condition, they determined, deserved to be called Saelde, a term hard to render in English but sometimes translated as “joy” or “bliss” or “blessedness.” It is the condition Parzifal achieves at the end of his quest for the Holy Grail. It is the moment when, in full modesty and quiet certitude, one feels one’s own steadfastness, even in the face of threat or danger. It is the moment when one feels, not out of any inner compulsion or external coercion but purely out of one’s own free initiative, “Yes, I can do this!” Emerson might call it “self reliance.”


Saelde: this, I suggest, may be used as a term to describe the purpose or desired outcome of a program on the teaching of human sexuality, seen from the perspective of the soul. It is important to realize––as the example of Parzival attests––that this condition, far from entailing the absence of change or metamorphosis, actually requires an effort of inner metamorphosis. Like Parzival, we may come into the world filled with the innocent joy of childhood, “not knowing better.” Like Parzival, this naïve innocence needs to be brought low, destroyed––catabolized, one might say––so that it may emerge transformed as self-esteem, self-confidence, or Saelde. This entails a metamorphic process of self-transformation.


b) And what could be the method or approach by which this search, this quest resulting in Saelde, would be undertaken? In programs concerning the development of self-esteem, the value of drama and role-playing is well known. In a broader sense, the disciplined practice of any of the arts will help to bring about this confident state of soul. Class teachers attest to the quantum leap in maturity that children will manifest after they have prepared and performed a class play. A ballet dancer or gymnast knows the feeling of “Yes, I can do this!” that may arise from an exceptional performance or a perfect score. A painter or sculptor knows the feeling of achieving a certain communion with paint or clay in that moment when the particular genius of the medium is released and put at the service of a skilled hand.


For all of their talk about independence and rebellion, teenagers feel immense social and emotional pressures to conform to the expectations of their peer group. Like any skill, the ability to resist peer pressure, to act instead out of one’s own convictions, has to be learned, and learning requires practice. The arts offer perhaps the most potent way for a student to practice this skill of self reliance without bearing the full brunt of its consequences: to act in a play, after all, is to pretend, and no actors will be punished for carrying out their scripted words and deeds onstage. To fail at drawing a landscape or to fall off a horse while learning to ride does not constitute failure or disgrace. One can always turn the page, remount the horse. Start again.


Though it may sound strange to put it this way, I can think of no better program for the teaching of human sexuality at the level of the soul than the regular and disciplined practice of the arts. We know that engaging in the arts helps to calm aggression and prevent violence (for instance, among prison communities). This is because the practice of the arts builds confidence in oneself, and self-confidence dissipates the urge to violent aggression or desperate recklessness. The same applies to sexual activity. We need to remember that the aggressive “stud” or promiscuous “slut” is as likely, at a deep level, to be as unself-confident as the most awkward “nerd” or timid “wallflower.” To the degree teenagers develop, not the swagger of conceit but the quiet ballast of self-assurance, they will find in themselves the strength to stand in and act out of their own convictions.


But herein lies the problem. What are these convictions? And are they clear or consistent or tested against experience? Probably not. In other words, it is not enough to develop a measure of self-confidence. At the same time one needs to work at getting clear what one is self-confident about. Put differently, whereas a course that develops self-confidence, ultimately Saelde, constitutes a necessary aspect of any program concerning human sexuality, it is not a sufficient condition. Something more, something to do with questions of meaning and life’s purpose is needed.


And that is why I believe it is necessary to come at the question of a program on the teaching of human sexuality, not simply from the perspectives of the healthy physical life and of self-confident psychological life but also from a third perspective: namely, that of the student’s spiritual life. This takes us beyond questions of behavior and questions of feelings to questions of guiding ideals; from what we do and like––perhaps fleetingly––to what we lastingly value.



Douglas Gerwin, Ph.D., has taught history, literature, German, music, and life science at college and Waldorf high school levels for the past 35 years. As Director of the Center for Anthroposophy, he divides his time between adult education and teaching adolescents, as well as mentoring Waldorf schools across North America.  Himself a Waldorf graduate, Douglas is the founder of the Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program at the Center as well as Executive Director of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education. He is author of numerous articles on education and anthroposophy, as well as editor of six books on Waldorf education. At present, he resides in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife Connie, a Waldorf high school teacher of mathematics.



I At least in contemporary Western cultures, managing pregnancy is typically treated in ways comparable to fighting disease: we conduct diagnostic tests, administer drugs to suppress symptoms and discomfort, sterilize the environment, give preference to surgical procedures (such as the increasing number of caesarian births). The most obvious exception to this approach to pregnancy is the “home birth” movement, which falls back on the “disease” paradigm only in cases of acute or life-threatening pathology.


ii Cf. letter of 1 September 2009 from Hartwig Schiller to the Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Waldorf education. Reprinted in The Journal of the Pedagogical Section, Number 37 (Christmas 2009).

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