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 III

This is the third and final part 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 spiritual or immortal being perspective


Back in the 1960s, it was fashionable for educators to speak of “value-free education,” perhaps because they wished to instruct children and teenagers without inculcating into them the values and customs of older generations. By now, we have generally come to recognize that education, by its very nature, is laden with spoken and unspoken values and cannot simply be sanitized of them any more than air can be cleansed of oxygen. Education without values is simply no longer education.


The reason for this is simple. In the end we teach students, not subjects, and students are beings, and beings embody spiritual values. That is why it’s a crime to kill, assault, threaten, or discriminate against them. To the degree we truly educate, we are working with true spiritual values.


When it comes to the education of human sexuality in a Waldorf school, we need to be clear which values––not to confuse values with ethical norms or codes of conduct––we employ in our understanding of what constitutes a human being. Here we come to a third formulation of guidelines concerning a program on the teaching of human sexuality, seen now from the perspective of humanity as spiritual––that is, as immortal––beings.

And so we pose our two questions one last time, now from the viewpoint of the spirit or self or eternal “I”:

  • 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) As in previous responses to this question, the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality remains health, but what is health from a spiritual perspective? In their original meaning, the terms “health” and “wholeness” share the same ancestry (Old English hal), which already hints at a deeper meaning of health than simply the absence of disease or a feeling of wellbeing. What does it mean, then, to be whole? With regard to sexuality, it means knowing oneself to be a full human being of body, soul, and spirit that embraces all human traits including those of both the masculine and the feminine. In this sense we transcend the one-sidedness of sex, which even in the very origins of the word “sex” means “to sever or divide” (from Latin secare, “to cut” or “to split”).


This is precisely the archetype of the human being that Rudolf Steiner describes in his account of human development, if one includes both its physical and metaphysical aspects. As already mentioned, even in our earliest physiological beginnings we are both female and male, and as one gender develops in the physical or material body, the other gender develops in what he calls the life or etheric body. From the perspective of our sexual nature, then, we are––and remain––“whole” human beings to the degree we think of ourselves as being endowed with both physical and etheric bodies. Only when we focus on one body at the expense of the other do we arrive at a one-sided picture of male or female.


Indeed, once we get beyond physical and etheric bodies and speak of the human soul (or astral body) and self (or eternal “I”), according to Steiner, we are dealing with aspects of the human being that transcend gender altogether, even though they inhabit gender-specific physical and etheric bodies and hence are influenced by them.


In other words, the purpose or desired outcome of a program on the teaching of human sexuality, seen from a spiritual perspective, is to arrive at an understanding of the human being as a whole human being. This goes well beyond merely embracing both genders in oneself to considering the much larger question of the human being as a microcosm of the entire macrocosm.


The relation between this image of wholeness and a state of health has been documented by the Israeli physician Aaron Antonowsky, who in studying survivors of the Holocaust noticed significant differences among his patients, even though they had endured similar hardships before they had emigrated to the Middle East. Briefly stated, those patients who were unable to integrate into some kind of cohesive worldview the horrors they had experienced in Nazi Germany during wartime were much more likely to suffer an endless string of physical and psychological ailments than those who had found a way to accept into their universe, into their Weltanschauung, all the events that had befallen them. Antonowsky singled out “coherence” as the key difference between these two groups of patients: the latter were able to formulate a coherent world view in which each one of their experiences, however grim and tragic, was integrated into a sense of wholeness, whereas patients in the former group were unable to achieve this sense of life’s coherence. In brief, to the degree we embrace our circumstances with a sense of wholeness, or coherence, we enjoy a greater measure of all-embracing health. To be healthy in body requires being whole in spirit.


This entails a lofty act of spiritual conceptualizing in which we attempt to give birth to the idea that we are agents, co-creators––not victims––of our circumstances and that in so doing we act out of utter freedom.


b) As to the method by which this sense of wholeness can be cultivated, we come to what is perhaps one of the more subtle yet potent remedies that Waldorf education has to offer. It has to do with developing the capacity to discern the meaningfulness of the cosmos and of one’s rightful place in that cosmos. It involves a sort of spiritual seeing, or intuition. It begins with the cultivation of a phenomenological approach in the study of science or a symptomatological approach in the study of the humanities: these two approaches share the ability to see in any one part a whole –– in the words of the poet, to perceive “a world in a grain of sand….”


This way of knowing goes by many names: living or etheric thinking, ecological or morphological thinking, emblematic or metaphorical thinking. In each case the attempt is made to stretch cognitive powers beyond the limitations of fixed spatial constructs to a more flowing context. In its essence, it is a form of metamorphic thinking, in which our thoughts grow with what we see rather than trying to set or fix it. This was the intention of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who viewed precisely his scientific studies as having more lasting value than even his greatest works of literature because, he said, in his studies of nature (especially of plants) he had not merely discovered new facts and events but had exercised a new way of perceiving them. When asked what he considered to be his most valuable and creative work, he set aside thick volumes of his poems and mighty dramas––including the 12,000 lines of his life’s magnum opus, Faust––and pointed instead to a slender volume with an unprepossessing title, The Metamorphosis of Plants.

A way of perceiving phenomena and conceiving thoughts that is metamorphic in nature: this is the method by which we can begin to experience the human being as a whole human being.


Summary Outline


In considering a three-layered approach to a program on the teaching of human sexuality, it will become apparent that the first level, having to do with health of the physical body, is focused primarily on volition, deeds. Not surprising, then, that the appeal at this level is pitched to the human will in terms of instructions: what to do. This builds physical strength. The objective at this level is care of one’s own self.

At the second level, having to do with the well-being of the soul, the focus shifts from deeds to emotion –– ultimately the sublime sense of Saelde. Here the appeal will be aimed more to the life of the human heart through artistic experiences that inspire: how to feel. This builds psychological strength, or courage. The objective here is care of oneself in relationship to one’s social surroundings.


Finally, at the third level, having to do with the wholeness of the spirit, the focus shifts once again from feelings, however lofty or blessed, to the world of cognition. Here the appeal will be aimed more to the discipline of ecological consciousness: how to think in whole images. This builds powers of spiritual insight, or wisdom. The objective at this level is care of the other.

We can summarize these layers in the following way:

At the physical level, the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality is:

to offer protection and prevention for the purpose of physical health, promoted through information and practical advice for habits of will.

This builds volitional strength.

Desired outcome: to care for one’s self.

Sign of success: stable, predictable growth,


At the psychological level, the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality is:

to build a sense of well being or Saelde, promoted through the practice of the arts to enhance the life of feeling.

This develops emotional courage.

Desired outcome: to care for one’s relationships to others.

Sign of success: unexpected quantum leaps in development, with movement towards metamorphosis and conceptual activity.


At the spiritual level, the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality is:

to develop a sense of wholeness, promoted through the practice of living or morphological thinking.

This cultivates cognitive wisdom.

Desired outcome: to care for the other.

Sign of success: unpredictable maturing, rich in

conceptual and metamorphic activity.


To be sure, in designing a program on the teaching of human sexuality, it is important to incorporate all three levels while still keeping them distinct. For the teacher, it comes down to three basic questions:

  • What do my students need in order to train sound habits of volition?

  • What do they need to develop artistic expressions of emotion?

  • What do they need to open in themselves windows to higher cognition?

Two Final Questions


In matters of sexuality, most young children have only two basic questions of their adult guardians:

  • “Where did I come from?”

  • “How did I get here?”

As teachers and parents, we need to know at which of the three levels––physical, psychological, or spiritual––our children are posing these questions. As adults we may hear them more easily as arising at the material or physical level, but the younger the child, the more likely she or he is to be posing these questions at the spiritual or metaphysical level.


More precisely, the first of these questions––“Where did I come from?”––may be heard as a question concerning our spiritual conception: that is, of our far distant spiritual origins. The second––“How did I get here?”––may be heard as a question concerning spiritual metamorphosis: that is, of a long prenatal journey of metaphysical transformation. As one youngster said, in a moment of inspired frustration when his parents began to answer the second question with a basic lesson in gynecology: “I don’t want to know how I came out of there, I want to know how I got in there!” Clearly a question of metaphysical ontogeny, not of physical anatomy!


As children mature, so do their questions become more particular and our answers need to become more specific. But there is no need to rush. After all, we have to remember that in olden times these mysteries were guarded in strictest secrecy and revealed only in disguised images or fables. As recently as the last century the secrets of embryology were still not openly discussed, indeed not even widely known.


With the wonders of modern technology, we are able to peer into worlds previously reserved for the very few and the very wise. To the degree we approach these realms with a clear mind and open heart, we may discern through our modern methods of research an empirical endorsement of a timeless wisdom previously masked in legend and metaphor. For instance, when we now observe under the electron microscope the swirling interaction of male and female gametes during the hours leading up to fertilization––in what the empirical language calls the “preconceptual attraction complex” or PCAC, what in the language of mythology might be called the “dance of angels”––it is no longer empirically defensible to speak of the sperm “penetrating” the ovum. Rather we can see, in magnified picture form, what ancient wisdom depicted in veiled image: namely, that conception is no random victory of male seed over some hapless female egg, but rather it is a conversation, a collaboration, a resolve of two polar opposite living beings to create––or not to create––a uniquely new organism, which we call the zygote (i) Here physical events are elevated to the level of metaphysical parable; eternal truth, ideal reality, is made manifest through the transient processes, the physical reality, of a material organism.


In bringing our students gently, gradually––yet confidently and without apology––to appreciate and understand these material events and transcendent truths, we provide an education that can satisfy both their need to know about their sexuality and their yearning to know themselves as whole––and hence healthy––human beings. In the words of a verse that Rudolf Steiner circulated among young medical doctors he was training, in most ancient times education served as


. . . a healing process,

Bringing to the child, as it mature[s],


For life as a whole, fully human being. (ii)


One should expect, then, that the education of youth on questions of human sexuality will be similarly healing, to the degree that it cultivates in them a sense of human wholeness.


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 For a fascinating description of this complex, see Jaap van der Wal’s essay, “Human Conception: How to Overcome Reproduction”, in the collection of essays from which this article is extracted.

ii Rudolf Steiner, “Circular Letter for the Young Doctors”, 11 March 1924 [translation by the author of this article]. In the original German: “. . .Und Erziehen ward angesehen / Gleich dem Heilprozess, /Der dem Kinde mit dem Reifen / Die Gesundheit zugleich erbrachte / Fuer des Lebens vollendetes Menschensein.”

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