As a young boy I used to stand outside my grandmother’s home on the sidewalk of a busy thoroughfare in Acton, a suburb of London, scribbling down the license plates of cars and trucks as they whizzed by. For hours at a time, I eagerly recorded pages and pages of letters and numbers, with never a thought as to the sheer insignificance of this exercise.
On some days a neighbor’s daughter, about my age, would join me at the curbside, and together we would track the roaring traffic. She, however, preferred to spot the shapes of the cars rather than transcribe their identifying numbers.
Years later, as a university and then high school teacher, I learned from empirical studies that, in the pursuit of mathematics, boys are often more readily drawn to algebra, girls to geometry. This is but one of many examples illustrating the differences between the ways girls and boys learn. These studies have been used to bolster the case that, at least in their pubescent and adolescent years, the two genders should be educated in separate schools, and there is some evidence to suggest that boys and girls learn certain skills faster if they are taught in single-sex institutions. Indeed, well into the twentieth century, sexual segregation was the norm in education –– as in many other cultural institutions and practices.
All the more radical, therefore, was Rudolf Steiner when, in creating the first Waldorf school out of the ashes of World War I, he suggested that girls and boys should share classes for all 12 or 13 years of their elementary and high school education. More radical still was his insistence that both genders learn the same skills: boys would learn to knit and weave, girls to build engines and survey plots of land. Both genders would receive instruction in first aid and hygiene. Far from learning more effectively by being separated, he argued, boys and girls could actually teach each other through example, especially during the teenage years.
Steiner’s deeper motive for promoting coeducation, though, was to help the two genders achieve a measure of balance by modifying in each other the excesses of what he called the boys’ adolescent “loutishness” and the girls’ teenage “coquetry.” (i)
This motive hints at one of Rudolf Steiner’s key insights into the mysteries of human sexuality and underlies a central tenet of Waldorf education: though as human beings we are essentially whole, as we grow and develop we have the tendency to become one-sided. Education helps redress this imbalance.
In the earliest beginnings of prenatal embryological unfolding, we do indeed develop the rudiments of both genders, despite our genetic configuration, and thereby we preserve a certain wholeness for at least a few weeks. At some point, however––usually around the seventh week––it is as though a decision is made, and in each of us the sexual organs of the one gender typically continue to be developed while those of the other remain arrested. And though our sexual organs are of course present from before birth, it is still hard to tell the gender of young children for quite some years, especially if they are dressed in gender-neutral clothing.
That situation changes, rapidly, with the advent of puberty. In fact, at no time of life are the two genders more different––physically but also psychologically––than during the years of adolescence and early adulthood, even if almost all of them don the familiar costume of T-shirts and jeans. (ii)
Rudolf Steiner describes the virtual explosion of the girl, the implosion of the boy at this age as being extreme outer expressions of profound inner changes. It will be some years before these extremes begin to moderate themselves.
Indeed, one might say that as adults it is only in our twilight years that we begin to reorient ourselves to the more androgynous state from which we originated. Just walk behind an old couple shuffling down the street and ask yourself: Who is the woman, who the man? The one, it seems, has lost the angular outline of his youth and is becoming less muscular, more rounded, with softer and more piping voice; the other has lost the more curvaceous outlines of her youthful figure and is becoming more grizzled, perhaps sprouting tufts of hair above her lip or chin and dropping the pitch of her voice.
For all of Steiner’s careful and detailed attention to the needs of boys and girls as they grow towards puberty, a threshold he calls Erdenreife (literally “earth-ripening”), it is striking how little attention, at least until recently, Waldorf schools have devoted specifically to the subject of human sexuality. This was glaringly evident at a workshop of Waldorf teachers and physicians held during the Kolisko Conference of 2002, a world congress for educators and medical professionals named after Eugen Kolisko, the school doctor at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. Those participants who did report a course specifically on human sexuality at their school were in the distinct minority, and the curriculum they outlined was drawn largely from public school programs.
Out of this workshop, therefore, a resolve went forth to raise awareness concerning this lack and to pull together shared resources on teaching human sexuality informed by an anthroposophical image of the whole human being. A first result was a collection of articles, compiled by Bart Maris, a homeopathic gynecologist, and Michael Zech, a Waldorf high school teacher, under the title Sexualkunde in der Waldorfpaedagogik (Stuttgart: Edition Waldorf, 2006). An English-language version of this book, drawing partly on the German edition and partly on new material, is currently in production.
Lest there be any false expectations, it should be stated clearly at the outset that neither the German nor the English collection of essays was compiled with the intention of offering a single curriculum––far less individual lesson plans––for the classroom. Rather, the intention was to pull together material from a wide range of anthroposophically inspired educators and health professionals that would stimulate teachers to develop their own curriculum based on an anthroposophical understanding of this subject.
Though the Waldorf schools may have been slow to formulate specific curricula on human sexuality, arguing that much of the existing curriculum achieves this end by other means, Rudolf Steiner himself was remarkably outspoken for his time about sex and the teaching of human sexuality. On the one hand, he was dismissive of the conventional approach to sex education, which he felt ignored the deeper import of this subject. “The talk prevalent today about sex instruction”, he told the first group of Waldorf class teachers shortly before the first Waldorf school opened in September of 1919, “is mostly meaningless.” (iii)
Instead, he sought to embed the subject of sexuality in a broader context of nature studies, starting with the mineral and plant kingdoms, then over the years moving through the animal kingdom, and culminating in seventh grade with human physiology. In other words, right from the beginning he saw the need to place this subject in the widest possible context of growth and development. (iv)
But more than that, in remarks scattered throughout his lectures, Steiner sets out a radical picture of sexuality and its mission for the physical, psychological, and spiritual development of the human being. (v)
This picture embraces, as does so much of his cosmology, very ancient images in which human beings enjoyed a primordial androgyny still recapitulated today in the earliest days and weeks of embryonic gestation. These ancient hermaphroditic beginnings may be glimpsed, for instance, in representations of the oldest Greek and Egyptian mythological figures. In Ancient Egypt, the very oldest of the primordial gods––for instance the river god Hapi, who holds two vases from which gush the twin sources of the Nile––are depicted as being both male and female. The oldest of the Ancient Greek gods likewise appear as male-and-female; even the mighty Zeus is pictured as being bi-gendered in some of the more ancient renderings.
In describing the conundrums of sexuality, Steiner points to the deepest mystery of all: namely, that the most physical and bodily aspects of our nature conceal our most lofty and spiritual capacities. And what are these capacities? They are essentially two. On the one hand is the capacity to metamorphose. We witness this capacity most immediately––though indirectly, for the most part––in our organs of digestion and metabolism, which not only break down what we have eaten but also actually annihilate it so that we can build up our own substance. As one of my teachers was fond of saying, “You are not what you eat; you are what you have destroyed in what you have eaten!” What you cannot destroy you excrete or, in special cases, store in the hidden recesses of the body, usually in the fat cells (for instance radiation or the active chemical ingredients of mind-altering drugs, such as the THC in marijuana). Inasmuch as the sexual organs belong to the metabolic functions of the human body, we exercise these capacities of metamorphosis in the creation of every new infant. Though it receives its genetic inheritance from a long line of parental ancestors, in no way is the child simply the combination of its parents. Especially today we witness in youngsters––and feel powerfully in ourselves––the conviction: I am my own person!
The other capacity linking our most lofty spiritual aspects of consciousness with our sexual nature is the capacity to conceive: as in any creative act, both contain the potential to create anew, whether physically in the act of sexual union or metaphysically in the act of thinking.
In short, any curriculum concerning sexuality needs to take into account not only physical but also metaphysical––that is, psychological and spiritual––levels of the human being. If it ignores or dismisses any one of these levels, education of human sexuality is likely to exacerbate the very one-sidedness it is singularly equipped to heal. In the potent powers of metamorphosis and of conception, physical and metaphysical realms––initially sundered in the human being starting with birth and reaching a point of crisis in adolescence––find the possibility of reunion.
In this light, there are two simple yet crucial questions which any comprehensive program concerning human sexuality needs to ask, but I would suggest that these two questions need to be asked at three levels of human nature––physical, psychological, and spiritual––for at each level the answer to these questions will be different. In other words, the following two overarching questions can provide the foundation for planning and assessing any program on the teaching of human sexuality:
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 fulfil this purpose?
Let us pose these two questions at the levels of physical, psychological, and spiritual development of the human being in parts two and three of this introduction.
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 Steiner, R. (1996) Education for Adolescence, CW 302. Anthroposophic Press, Hudson NY. Lecture V, Stuttgart 16 June 1921.
ii Even in their shared costume, differences are evident: the girls generally in v-necked tops and tightly fitted bottoms; the boys generally in round-necked tops and baggy bottoms so loose as to be in danger of succumbing to the force of gravity.
iii Steiner, R. (1975) Study of Man. Rudolf Steiner Press. London. Lecture XIV, 5 September 1919, p. 186.
iv For a bulleted summary of Steiner’s ideas concerning sexuality, see the afterword of the collection of essays from which this article is taken: Trailing Clouds of Glory: Essays on Human Sexuality and the Education of Youth in Waldorf Schools. Waldorf Publications, 2014
v Many of these references have been skilfully compiled by Margaret Jonas in a new collection of Steiner’s comments on sexuality entitled Sexuality, Love and Partnership: From the Perspective of Spiritual Science. Rudolf Steiner Press, Forest Row, Sussex. 2011