As in any artistic process, the most creative and potent lesson you can deliver is the one you fashion for yourself. Useful though it may be to consult with colleagues or even watch them share their wisdom in the classroom, ultimately a lesson of lasting value rises and falls on the authenticity of its author.
For this reason, the contributors to this collection of essays have resisted the temptation to offer anything that could be taken as recipe or lesson plan. Even the “case studies” they cite are intended to serve as illustrations, not as instructions for a curriculum. That said, some fundamental assumptions and guidelines underlie a Waldorf approach to teaching human sexuality –– or, indeed, any subject taught in a Waldorf school. Think of them as being “10 pylons” upon which the edifice of a Waldorf curriculum on teaching human sexuality could be built.
Pylon #1. In Waldorf schools, we teach from whole to parts, from the big picture to small details (though sometimes a small detail, like a grain of sand, can capture a whole world view). This assumption has special significance for teaching human sexuality, since it leads to the view that each person, regardless of gender, is a whole human being, male-and-female. If we embrace Rudolf Steiner’s picture (explored in the previous section of this book) of the human being as expressing one gender at the physical level and the other complementary gender at the etheric level, then one can start from the supposition that each person, seen physically and etherically, is a whole human being. Even if we manifest only half of our nature physically through our visible gender, each of us nonetheless embodies the full panoply of human sexuality. Inasmuch as our physical development begins with a single fertilized cell that, for the first seven weeks of gestation, develops the rudiments of both genders before “opting” for one gender over the other, so too may we think of our life bodies as carrying forth those aspects of our formative sexuality that have been held back at the physical level. Though admittedly one-sided in our material physical body, we are fully rounded if we consider ourselves as being constituted as a living physical body endowed with an etheric organism. This picture does not yet address our soul and spirit, which according to Rudolf Steiner transcend the distinction of gender altogether.
Pylon #2. In Waldorf schools, we teach primarily through image, rather than through information (concrete data) or definition (abstract concepts). To be clear, a Waldorf lesson may well include both information and definition, but they will be in service to the image, which enjoys a position of primacy in regard both to specific material and general idea. When we teach through images, our students become inwardly active since one can learn through images only by creating one’s own. By contrast, definitions and information (even in the form of visual pictures) come “ready made”, in a sense. The implications of this approach to teaching human sexuality are quite specific, for they encourage us to replace handouts and diagrams and plastic models and videos of empirical (some would say reductionist) science with narratives and stories and analogies and observations of phenomenological (some would say ecological, even Goethean) science.
Pylon # 3. In Waldorf schools, we teach “artistically”. This means far more than teaching through the arts or through the invocation of beauty, though these do form part of this approach. As Steiner describes in lectures to a circle of young students of anthroposophy, by “artistic teaching” he means the ability of teachers so to imbue their thinking with vibrant will that new powers of observation awaken capable of perceiving the students’ spiritual nature, including what they need from their education in order to grow and mature. “The moment pure thinking is experienced as will,” he says, “man’s attitude becomes that of an artist.” (1) He then goes on:
And this, my dear friends, is like-wise the attitude we need today in the teacher if he is to guide and lead the young from the time of the change of teeth to puberty, or even beyond puberty. The mood of soul should be so that out of the inner life of soul one comes to a second man, who cannot be known as is the outer physical body, which can be studied physiologically or anatomically, but who must be livingly experienced and may be called, in accordance with the real meaning of the term, “life body” or “ether body”. This cannot be known through external perception but must be inwardly experienced. To know this second man a kind of artistic activity must be unfolded. (2)
In other words, by this attitude the teacher comes to discern through the students’ perceptible physical body their imperceptible etheric organization. That is to say, the teacher experiences the students in their sexual wholeness inasmuch as both masculine and feminine natures are present in the communion of the student’s physical and etheric natures. To perceive “artistically”, on this view, is to perceive “holistically”.
Pylon # 4. In Waldorf schools, we view the physical as the precipitate of the metaphysical, rather than the latter as some kind of bi-product of the former. With regard to teaching human sexuality, this means we explore the nature of the physical organism as the manifestation of lofty spiritual laws of creation. Through the intricacies of the physical body, we attempt to discern the invisible hand that gave it form, rather like exploring the chambers of a beautiful home in order to come to know the being who inhabits it and who furnished it. What others (who view the physical body as primary cause and consciousness as its consequence) would see as causes we may consider as effects –– for instance, the processes guiding a fertilized ovum from initial zygote to embryo and eventually to fully formed fetus. The development of a fetus’s distinctive genetic stamp, on this view, would be studied more as outcome than as agent of change, just as the appearance of bacteria would be studied as the consequence of a state of illness rather than the origin of it.
Pylon # 5. In Waldorf schools, we teach out of a confidence in health and the pursuit of the good, rather than out of a fear of disease and the avoidance of evil or misfortune. Specifically in regard to teaching human sexuality, we study the body through the lens of “salutogenesis” (3) rather than the perspective of “pathogenesis”. Sexual health takes precedence over sexual disease. Again, this is not to strike some naïve or Pollyanna attitude, but rather to recognize that one’s starting point determines in large measure the trajectory of one’s journey. How different it is to view illness as an excess or deficit of rightful forces––for instance, of growth and decay––that, in balanced state, constitute health, as opposed to viewing health simply as the absence of disease. In the latter case, disease and health are set in opposition: we “fight” disease in order to be rid of it. By contrast, in the former case illness is studied––and treated––as partner to a condition of health and may even be viewed as the first signs that the body is asserting its powers of healing. Put briefly, health, rather than being pitted against illness, is regarded as arising between polar opposite conditions of illness. The first view is exclusive, the second inclusive.
Pylon # 6. In Waldorf schools, we educate students as tri-une beings of cognition (thinking), emotion (feeling), and volition (willing). With regard to teaching human sexuality, this means we focus upon the development of a healthy life of will no less than on a balanced social-emotional disposition and alert cognitive consciousness. All three contribute to mature sexual development. We recognize, further, that this process unfolds in three predictable phases: the first phase, during the pre-school years, through the imitative life of will –– for instance through unstructured play; the second phase, during the elementary school years, through the richly imaginative life of feeling –– primarily in the practice of the arts; and finally a third phase, lasting from early high school well into college life, through the active honing of thinking in four aspects: observing, comparing, analyzing, and synthesizing.
Pylon # 7. As Waldorf teachers, we acknowledge that, ultimately, all education is self-education, and especially so when it comes to education concerning human sexuality, in which the markers of puberty and sexual maturity arise in very individual ways. In Waldorf schools, the teaching of any subject serves to evoke living and lastingly provocative questions, rather than to supply definitive answers. Information, valuable though it is, is provided to prompt better-informed questions. Put differently, the task of education is less to inform than it is to assist the individual ‘I’ progressively take hold of its sentient living physical body so that it can be effective in the world. The body is the medium of this incarnating process, not its goal. In terms of teaching human sexuality, we help this process by protecting the physical body, training the etheric body in healthy habits, and inspiring the astral body in the pursuits of moral ideals. But if it is to preserve its freedom, the I will learn only what it itself integrates into its own world view.
Pylon # 8. As Waldorf teachers, we recognize we are not alone with our students in the classroom, even though we are called by our profession as educators to take leadership, and leadership can feel lonely. Ultimately, the success of our teaching hinges not simply on how we conduct the class, but on how we conduct our relationships with our key constituencies: our parents, our colleagues, our school community, and those invisible beings––including those who have died and those not yet born – who stand guard over us and who assist us in our struggles if we are but willing to invoke them. Especially in matters of teaching human sexuality, we need to build trusting relations with all of these groups – the last one perhaps most of all, since they stand closer to the spiritual truths that make sense of sexual yearnings, fears, and consequences.
Pylon # 9. As Waldorf teachers, we understand that human sexuality and human intellectuality share a common spiritual origin. These capacities, which mature in tandem during puberty, represent profound capacities to create in both the physical and metaphysical realms: we “conceive” thoughts no less than we “conceive” offspring. By means of sexual intercourse, we come as close as we can to union with a physical human being; by means of intuition, we come as close as we can to union with a metaphysical reality, in that we see (-tueri) into it (in-) or from within it. Both kinds of conception are forms of intimate communion. Therefore, in its origin if not always in its expression, our sexuality originates from our higher nature, not our lower.
Pylon # 10. Finally, as Waldorf teachers, we recognize that immortality, by definition, stretches in both directions. To the degree that education attempts to coax the human “I”––or what the Jungian psychologist James Hillman calls “the eternal kernel”––to take hold of its temporal and physical sheaths, we are encouraging a being that transcends the limitations of space and time to take up residence on earth in a particular cultural period. Nowhere is this awareness more crucial than in teaching human sexuality, since questions of life before birth, at birth, and beyond death stand at the center of students’ concerns at this age. Rudolf Steiner coined the term “unbornness” to characterize an immortal being that, by its very nature, precedes temporal existence on earth just as it survives it. There can be no sense in positing a life that begins in time and then somehow lasts forever. (Steiner calls this logically flawed idea a form of spiritual egotism.) Immortality reaches as far back into the distant past as it stretches beyond the horizon of the unfolding future. (4)
Upon these 10 pylons can be erected a curriculum that provides structure without stifling creation, coherence without preventing spontaneity, and practical guidance without undermining human freedom and self-reliance.
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.
(1) Rudolf Steiner, The Younger Generation, GA 217 (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1967), Lecture X, p. 132.
(2) Ibid., pp. 132-133.
(3) This a term coined by Aaron Antonovksy. Cf his Unraveling The Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987). See also Michaela Gloeckler’s essay “Sexual Union and Spiritual Communion” in this collection.
(4) Peter Selg explores Steiner’s treatment of this idea in an essay entitled Unbornness: Human Pre-Existence and the Journey toward Birth (Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks, 2010).