The anthroposophical understanding of adolescence and the challenges of the early 21st century
In Steiner’s indications for the curriculum of the Waldorf school we find that generally the class teacher is primarily responsible for the process of the soul’s incarnation through grade 8. This process that accompanies puberty brings about a more existential experience of embodiment and, also, a more conscious perception of the surroundings. This awakening consciousness for the surroundings and one’s own body, which is accompanied by the loss of childhood immediacy, coming to be present in the here and now, this being catapulted into the “external world” (1), Steiner terms “earth maturity”.
“In reality, all connections with the outer world which begin to make their appearance at puberty are fundamentally of the same nature. We should really speak, therefore, not of sexual, but of earthly maturity. And under earthly maturity we have to include the maturity of the senses, the maturity of the breathing — and another such sub-division will also be sexual maturity. This gives the true picture of the situation. The human being, then, reaches earthly maturity. He begins to take again into himself what is outside and foreign to him; he acquires the faculty of being sensitive and not indifferent to his environment. Before this time, he is not susceptible to the other sex, neither is he susceptible to his whole environment.” (2)
The adolescent experiences his emotions in a more existential manner because the bodily experience is stronger. They heighten the experience of the self. This brings with it, on the one hand, a somewhat tumultuous lack of orientation and, on the other hand, the desire to be able to think things through, to explain, prove and criticize. For this reason, lesson content that offers the possibility of forming causal judgments helps young adolescents meet the developmental challenge of arriving in the here and now. The opportunity arises to make both one’s own life-world and scientific phenomena the object of conceptual study, to understand the reciprocity of inventions, technological and economic progress. Events and phenomena can be localized in time and space allowing students to recognize how their contemporary civilization came into being.
This educational focus during the period of “earthly maturation” can – as was mentioned above – in anthroposophical terminology be understood as a process of soul incarnation or the “birth of the soul or astral body”. This metaphor draws attention to the emancipation of a soul quality that during childhood had been formed by the surroundings. Now it begins to have a personal relationship to the experienced world. This process can also be understood as an inversion (Umstulpung) or metamorphosis or as the blossoming of the child’s own soul life. During the period of adolescence that follows has as its developmental focus the formation of the personality and its maturation. In Steiner’s words: “The soul is now pregnant with the I”. (3)
The “grand metamorphosis” (4) of the personality is not limited physiologically to puberty and the transformation of the brain. It is accompanied by such bodily changes as an increase in the volume of the lungs, changes in blood circulation, a growth spurt in the limbs and trunk as wells the stabilization of the skeleton. (5) Kranich calls attention to the connection between the maturation of the respiratory and circulatory systems and the hormone driven maturation of the sexual organs, (6) which is accompanied by periodic states of excitement and tension. Since the adolescent, in contrast to earlier stages of childhood, perceives and has to come to grips with these bodily changes the body becomes more of an object. The relationship between I and world is disturbed and must be re-negotiated. This process is accompanied with subtle or more threatening crises on a number of different levels. On the one side it is influenced by the experience of a bodily change that is detached from and unable to be influenced by one’s own will. On the other side, there is the fascinating and sometimes alienating discovery of the interplay between the body and the soul. For instance, the way the awakening of sexuality affects the imagination and how this is stimulated by fantasies and sense impressions.
Alienation brought about by the loss of control and fascination with the intensification of a bodily experience of self-awaken simultaneously. This results in a Janus-headed double relationship: Awakening sexuality mediates new dimensions of sense experience in relation to one’s own body, while at the same time, because the bodily changes and the states of excitement cannot be consciously controlled (something that often brings about feelings of confusion and shame) (7), the foundations of a new experience are laid down: My body and my self are deeply connected, but they are not identical with one another. The body becomes something belonging to the outer world. This is a subtle, yet for one’s sense of self significant experience.
Although adolescents in this period of transition often see their earlier dream-like image of themselves shattered and feel themselves adrift in a sea of changes they are unable to control, it is through this loss of orientation and the accompanying crises that a new, more conscious capacity to give themselves direction arises. The relationship between self and world becomes a subject-object relationship. The childhood sense of unity with its echoes of Paradise is lost at around age 9. (8) With puberty, the last remnants of a naive sense of vitality are stripped away and the adolescent soul encounters the outer world with a new immediacy.
The relationship to one’s own soul life changes also. The adolescent is drawn down into the bodily depths of urges and desires, which intensifies his or her experience of self. At the same time, childhood forces of fantasy recede and a desire for rational thought arises. Piaget placed the shift from concrete-operational thought to formal-operational thought in which causality and analogies can be independently conceived at age 12. (9)
Steiner brings this new capacity to form judgments in relationship with skeletal growth. (10) Feelings are no longer immediately set into motion through the blood permeated muscular system. The intensification of skeletal maturation leads to the body becoming more physical. The mechanical forces of the limbs dampen the immediacy and bring it into concert with the awakening thought capacity of the adolescent into contact with the lawfulness of the universe. The immediacy of emotional and bodily movement that in early childhood was the basis of all learning gives way to a dawning sense of distance between inner world and outer world. This juxtaposition awakens in the adolescent’s unconscious the urge or disposition to form judgments. (11) The decoupling of feeling and bodily movement leads to an intensification of the emotional life and to an increased attentiveness for the outer world. A closer look at the nature of breathing can help us better understand the tension that emerges.
We can observe in ourselves how closely breathing and emotion are connected. Each emotion has a sculptural or formative effect on our breathing rhythm. Kranich calls attention to an interesting shift that begins in the early stages of puberty, around age 10. Up until this point, emotional shifts (joy, sorrow, etc.) had an effect on the frequency of the breathing rhythm. Now they begin to have an effect on the amplitude. (12) If we consider this in connection with the increased growth of the inner organs mentioned above, which includes an increase in the volume of the lungs, we can say that feelings also penetrate more deeply into the metabolic processes since an intensification of oxygen assimilation is transferred by the circulation of the blood to the entire organism. This means that the feelings that come to expression in the rhythm of breathing have a deeper effect on the body. Individual soul experience has a greater effect on the organic processes. This can be expressed in anthroposophical terminology: The soul organism (soul body) increasingly takes hold of the life processes (life body). From this perspective as well we can speak of a process through which individual soul life goes through a process of emancipation or the birth of the astral body.
In soul development a subtle differentiation between feeling and the self becomes apparent. The relationship to one’s own feeling life takes on a quality that is analogous to the two-sided relationship between body and soul. The more intense, stormy feelings lead to a heightened sense of self, yet sense of having lost control is also heightened by extreme emotional outbreaks of anger, euphoria, despair and sorrow. Following such outbursts, the sobering knowledge of having lost control comes into play. “I wasn’t myself”, “I got carried away”, “I didn’t want to do that”. Such comments express the experience of non-identity between the thoughtful “I” and soul life.
We must, however, keep in mind: There is nothing more hurtful for a young adolescent than to have trusted adults identify them with the image they present when caught up in the storms of emotion. The sense of self-being is strengthened in an adolescent when the adult can speak in such a way that shows he or she recognizes the awakening I with its ideal possibilities. If adolescents experience this love, which is what it is, the necessary (and sought for) boundaries can be accepted. For in the depths of their beings, as they search for direction and overstep the boundaries, adolescents do know what is good for them. They desire to be recognized and confirmed in their self-directed strivings. In this sense, the insolence, provocations and overstepping of boundaries is to some extent to be seen as a calling out to the adults to recognize the “I” that is both striving towards emancipation and existentially experienced in the soul. (13)
Waldorf education recognizes the following developmental challenges: (14)
• How can we accompany adolescents so that bodily experience does not become the sole orientation for their soul lives and that they do not ground their sense of self solely in their own emotional lives?
• How can what is truly individual feel itself at home in waking consciousness?
• How can an experience of the self be nurtured that recognizes the body as an instrument but does not get imprisoned by it?
• How can a soul life be nurtured that is able to breathe freely between self and world, bodily experience and spiritual ideals?
• How can we strengthen the capacity to find an independent stand point between the loss of self through the intensification of experience described above and the loss of self brought about by an alienation from one’s own body and soul?
• How can a sense of trust to one’s self and one’s own biographical intentions be strengthened at the same be rooted in interest for the world?
Anthroposophically oriented adolescent pedagogy takes into consideration that with puberty the individual soul does not only become more deeply imbedded in the bodily organization resulting in an intensification of the experience of self and self-consciousness: experiences of soul also point to the discovery of one’s own potential. The intentions that awaken as interest, if they are given the chance, come to expression as personality traits.
In his anthroposophy, Steiner calls attention to the significance of sleep in adolescence. During sleep, the soul receives impulses from the spiritual source of individual potential. The youth bears these as expectation into the day.
“It is an important moment when at the time of puberty awareness of other people as individuals awakens. […] Only now does the human being attain a personal relationship to the world; thus, love of the individual awakens. Up to then the relationships are more universally human, whereas now personal judgment plays a part. The astral extract a person brought over into life is now freed and able to develop. It comes to expression as high ideals, beautiful hopes and expectations of life, all of which are forces that are essential to human beings. A person's development will take the right course if, rather than having something external imposed upon him, his inherent inclinations and talents are brought out during his school days. Ideals are not simply there; they originate in forces that are astir within youth which at this time strive for expression. Nothing is worse for later life than an absence of feelings of great hopes and expectations; right up into the twenties, they constitute real forces. The more we are able to bring out a person's inner inclinations and talents brought over from former lives, the more we benefit his development. Not until the twenty-third year does this come to an end; then a person is ready to begin his “years of apprenticeship” (Wanderjahre). Only now is the “I” born; only now does a person face the world as an independent personality.” (15)
In addition to the adolescent’s arrival in a soul sense in the here and now, Steiner calls attention to the emergence of biographical intentions. He points to the idea of karmic maturity in connection with sexual maturity and “earth maturity”. We want to follow the chain of thought concerning the emergence of individual ideals from the depths of the adolescent soul. It is a thought that has further pedagogical consequences. Adolescents bear their waking experiences and their learning experiences into the depths of the non-conscious. Here they are evaluated in light of the individual’s biographical intentions. This, for the most part non-conscious, process of evaluation gives birth to a sense of hope and confidence that allows a young person to feel at home in the world. If, however, the days experiences contradict individual ideals, the result is resignation, a lack of orientation, or (self-) aggression. The world is experienced as something foreign or hostile and an obstacle to being able to achieve one’s own life’s goals.
The breathing of the child’s soul between day and night changes in the course of the child’s development. (16) The small child has a dream-like experience of her waking experience. Waking and sleeping flow into one another. At around age 10, a child awakens to the presence of the outer world. (17) Thinking emancipates itself from the concrete impression. Following puberty, the adolescent experiences herself as being more deeply immersed in outer reality. Her soul life is more existentially connected with her bodily experience. She goes more deeply into the non-conscious and experiences through this the impulses of her individuality. She carries the days experiences over into sleep, where they are evaluated in light of her own spiritual intentions. She awakens then either strengthened and vitalized through hope or weakened by disappointment.
It is important for adolescents whether their learning experiences and waking encounters offer the possibility for them to identify with their own beingness. This is what allows them to develop a will connection to life. Successful teaching is rooted in its ability to let adolescents experience the learning process, projects, individual work and initiatives as fulfilling. Then developmental obstacles such as a possessive identification with the body or excessive self-reflection can be overcome. In the context of a relational pedagogy, a soul bridge is formed between the awakening self and the world, based on which self-centeredness can be transformed into love and interest for humanity and the environment. This can lead to true individualism.
Translated by Jon McAlice
Michael Zech, Dr., Professor of Cultural Studies and their Didactics at the Alanus University for Art and Society in Bonn/ Alfter, Germany. National and international lecturer in Waldorf Education, History and Literature since 1992. Since 2006, he has been leading the teacher training seminar for Waldorf Education in Kassel/Germany. Research and publications in the fields of Waldorf education and didactics, in particular didactics of history.
(1) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 303) (2003): Soul Economy: Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education, Great Barrington, MA, Anthroposophic Press
(2) Steiner, Rudolf (GA317) (2015): Education for Special Needs: The Curative Education Course, Great Barrington MA, Anthroposophic Press
(3) Zech, M. Michael (2008): Schwanger mit dem Ich. Pädagogik im Übergang von der Kindheit zur Jugend. In: Erziehungskunst 5-2008, S. 521 – 528.
(4) Selg, Peter (2008): A Grand Metamorphosis – Contributions to the Spiritual-Scientific Anthropology and Education of Adolescents, Great Barrington MA, Anthroposophic Press
(5) Kranich, Ernst-Michael (1999): Anthropologische Grundlagen der Waldorfpädagogik. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben. S. 191 - 195
(6) ebd. S. 185 - 192
(7) Schad, Wolfgang (1991): Die Scham als Entwicklungsraum des Menschenwesens. Pädagogik aus Anthroposophie. In: Schad, Wolfgang (1991): Erziehung ist Kunst. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben. S. 100 - 114
(8) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 303) (2003): Soul Economy: Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education, Great Barrington, MA, Anthroposophic Press; Foller-Mancini, Axel/Berger, Bettina (2016): Der Rubikon als Entwickklungsphänomen in der mittleren Kindheit. In: Schieren, Jost (Hrsg.) (2016): Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft. Standortbestimmung und Entwicklungsperspektiven. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Juventa. S. 272 - 299
(9) Piaget, Jean/Inhelder, Bärbel (1977/2002): Von der Logik des Kindes zur Logik des Heranwachsenden. Essay über die Ausformung der formalen operativen Strukturen. Olten, Freiburg i. Br.: Walter
(10) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 303) (2003): Soul Economy: Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education, Great Barrington, MA, Anthroposophic Press
(11) Kranich, Ernst-Michael (1999): Anthropologische Grundlagen der Waldorfpädagogik. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben. S. 196 – 198 sowie S. 203 – 223; Steiner, Rudolf GA 303
(12) Kranich, Ernst-Michael (1999): Anthropologische Grundlagen der Waldorfpädagogik. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben.
(13) Wiechert (2006), S. 106 - 109
(14) Zech, M. Michael (2008): Schwanger mit dem Ich. Pädagogik im Übergang von der Kindheit zur Jugend. In: Erziehungskunst 5-2008, S. 524
(15) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 55) (1988): Supersensible Knowledge. Great Barrington MA: SteinerBooks
(16) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 303) (1987): Die gesunde Entwicklung des Menschenwesens. Eine Einführung in die anthroposophische Pädagogik und Didaktik, 1921 – 1922. 4. Auflage. Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, S. 199 – 200.