“When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
hope & innocence amidst absurdity & strife
More often than not, people are hopeful and look forwards to things going well. This is especially true for children and when we see innocence and hope flowing together we are often looking at a child. One powerful and convincing way of looking at the world is to see hardship, unhappiness and conflict just about everywhere. We seem to live in the vortex of a gripping paradox of optimistic progress and disappointing set-backs. This is especially so for teachers as they work to welcome children to the world and all its faces.
How are the flames of innocence and the zest of hope to be kept alive in what seems like an increasingly absurd and difficult world? This is not a frivolous or rhetorical question; it goes to the heart of a dilemma faced by those who seek to educate children today. How to balance exposure and protection? How to weigh up the merits and hazards of an approach to learning that is concerned with metaphor and enquiry, as opposed to one that is focused on fact and proof? How to hold a spectrum of perspectives that ranges from the view that the world is full of emptiness to the view that it is laden with meaning? How do the teachers of children decide when to cut to the chase and deal in the grown-up currency of the intellect and reason, and when to dwell in stories of hope, innocence and many other things? How best to draw on so-called fact and so-called story and call on both in a timely, positive and potent manner?
The school where I currently work is situated in a Victorian village school-house and over the front door, etched in the stone, is the following inscription: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” (Acts 2, 39)
On looking at these words, written in the stone, it strikes me that education is a promise that we make to the children in our care. A promise is concerned with the future and it is essentially positive and about a commitment. But a promise is not a guarantee; and it’s something that human beings do inwardly. If education is, essentially, a promise – to us, to our children – what constitutes a promise? A promise is often, but not always, accompanied by hope and enthusiasm; something new is going to begin or happen. So, a promise is fresh and young and moves forwards and it comes from a noble place where the promise-maker stands true and full of intent. And as we shall see later on, when a mutual promise is forged, then something new is born.
principles & conventions
In reflecting on educational practices and principles, one question that tends to hover over the discussion is whether some of the ‘tried and trusted’ ways have become conventions, rather than responses that are contemporary. If an approach or strategy turns into just a convention, then it may be more to do with the way things were done, rather than new ways in which things could be done. ‘Tried and tested’ principles are wholly different to ‘tried and trusted’ ways. One opens the door to innovation and renewal; the other, on its own, runs the risk of life draining away. Differentiating principle from convention is an important task in distinguishing what is alive and changing and progressive from what is dead or empty habit. That is not to say, of course, that all habits are dead or empty. One might say that principles create new and fitting habits, whereas conventions run the risk of stifling renewal in an embrace of tired tradition. Between principle and convention, the concept of compromise sits like an uneasy guest, or even an unwelcome intruder.
At the outer reaches of a consideration of compromise, from a Platonist-absolutist perspective, stands the following question: whether the act of being born is the first compromise we make? In some places, Steiner (1983) refers to birth as a kind of illness - an illness for the spirit - that we spend our lives trying to come to terms with. This is a radical and disturbing consideration; that we have made a grand compromise at birth and the life before us is then a journey of moving on and seeking to transform a compromise into a dialogue.
assumptions & compromises
If I hear water bubbling in a kettle, I tend to assume the water is boiling hot, and that is usually the case. When I approach Class 3 to observe a painting lesson, I probably take it for granted that the paper will be wet and the paint will be a Stockmeyer product.
One way of describing an assumption is to say that it’s something that we take for granted; or, what we expect without really thinking about it. Taking it a bit further, we might say that assumptions lead us to what we are looking for; they contribute to and confirm what makes sense. Assumptions can really help and are of tremendous importance in daily life. However, when we turn assumptions into conventions in a routine and fixated manner, the path can lead towards dogma and tradition on a repeat cycle. The tendency to want to remain with a convention can make us a bit closed off, or a bit homesick when familiar things are not there anymore. Or, when faced with an unusual or unexpected turn of events – the kettle has a small, internal pump and the bubbling water is actually cold – we might respond in a confused, suspicious or reactionary way, turning away from things we feel we don’t subscribe to, or things that are at odds with our picture of normality.
Regarding compromises, well, one way of characterising a compromise is to describe it as a situation or an outcome that is something less than ideal. If I really want to go on holiday to Scotland and my wife has decided that she wants to go to Norway, we might meet each other in the middle and opt for the Orkney Isles. Often, the activity of compromising is linked to the idea of being pragmatic. A person who is considered to be pragmatic might also be regarded as practical, or someone who is not a purist, someone who is willing to meet you half way, give up their first preference and compromise. From its Latin roots, the word itself is a merger of two different terms: to promise together.
In August 1919, just before the Waldorf School opened in southern Germany, Steiner (34: 1986) spoke to the teachers-to-be about the necessity of making compromises:
“We shall need to make compromises, however. Compromises are necessary, as we have not yet reached the point where we can accomplish an absolutely free deed . . . On the one hand we must know what our ideals are, yet we must be flexible enough to adapt ourselves to things that are far removed from our ideals. The difficult task of harmonising these two forces stands before each one of you.”
Certainly, at the outset, a mixture of creativity, chaos and compromise characterised the opening of the school. The school opened over a week late, the timetable was drafted at the last minute, the children were taught in shifts - as there were too few classrooms for the numbers enrolled - while the desks arrived in dribs and drabs, leaving the pupils to sit on chairs from the former restaurant while writing leaning on their knees.
On a more strategic level, three compromises were struck with the local government authorities in order that the school could open its doors. Firstly, the school agreed to be inspected regularly, including a pre-opening registration visit. Initially, the teachers had to be authorised by the Lande ministry of education and subsequently, were required to have a state teacher’s certificate. The third compromise was in the realm of teaching and learning. While freedom and autonomy as granted in the curriculum on offer, it was agreed that the school would equip the pupils in such a way that there would be academic parity with state schools in the region at the ages 9, 12 and 14.
As the school entered its third year, in 1921, Steiner (2003) returned to the theme of compromise. In relation to how the children should be taught and cared for, Steiner urged the teachers to bring a lively and contemporary approach to the lessons and the pupils: “Pupils must never become estranged from contemporary life . . . right from the start the most varied compromises have to be made.”
I hope it’s not too controversial to say that we make assumptions as we breathe and compromises are a fact of life. It simply happens all the time. Now, having read those words, a whole chain of assumptions will be created in the mind of the reader and some, if not all, of those assumptions may well compromise the actual thoughts and intentions that stand behind the words. It cannot be other, since assumptions and compromises are stations, or roadblocks in the process of trying to make meaning. As Victor Frankl (1984) suggested in his work on Logotherapy, the importance, or need, to find and make meaning is a primary, motivational force in the human being. If this point is accepted, then the whole process of identifying, distinguishing and differentiating meaning across the spectrum of principles and conventions, ideals and compromises, truth and lies, becomes a vital dynamic in the development and renewal of human thought and endeavour.
If we imagine two wellsprings, one labelled ‘past’ and the other ‘future’, then we might think about putting assumptions into the stream marked ‘from the past’, or ‘known’, whereas compromises might arguably find a place in the stream marked ‘to the future’, or ‘uneasy uncertainty’. In themselves, the two streams are neither desirable nor to be avoided; they are simply different aspects of a whole piece that we refer to as consciousness. In the course of a reflection on transience, the Roman poet, Ovid (1986) addressed it thus:
“As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”
compromise & accommodation
In English usage, there is an association between the terms compromise and accommodation. If you come to an accommodation with someone, you have probably reached a deal or made an agreement of sorts and it probably means you have given up something in the process. And yet, accommodation is also something you give to someone as shelter, or a resting place. Somewhere you can reside, or stay. In this sense, a compromise means I will give home to what is there in the world, to your ideas. I will accommodate you. I will change, you will change, we will change, the world will change; we will keep something and make something new.
Compromise is, arguably, a movement away from ideals, dogma and triumph, yet it might be regarded as the seed-ground from which new and unknown change may grow. Rather than going my way or your way, compromise wends an uncertain road out of the future, not back down highways of the past along a route which may lead to a destination we think we know, but perhaps would not recognise if we ever got there. The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (1996) conveyed the hazards of adhering to “my” position of rightness and the difficult path of unearthing that false rightness:
“From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled, like a yard. But the doubts and loves dig up the world - like a mole, a plough. And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”
A springtime without flowers? What is he getting at? Two rights or three rights that do not agree must compromise to make a new right that is alive and truthful for now. That compromise must be generous, not mean. Where something new is created, there is an opportunity for creating a shared meaning; not a grudging acceptance. This is where thinking becomes liberated and no longer has to act as a road-block, or a bottleneck.
Trevor Mepham is Principal of the Steiner Academy Frome, a publicly-funded 'Free School' in Somerset, England. In previous jobs he was Principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, and Co-Director of the Steiner BA Programme at the University of Plymouth. Prior to that, he worked as a Class Teacher at the South Devon Steiner School. He has also worked as a classroom adviser and served as a member of the Executive Group of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) and the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE). He is a Trustee of the charity, Children of Peace - an organisation committed to working with the children of Palestine and Israel to build peaceful, positive relationships for a future generation.
Amichai, Yehuda (1996), ‘The place where we are right’ in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (University of California Press)
Frankl, V (1984), Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington Square Press)
Ovid (1986), Metamorphoses (Oxford University Press)
Steiner R (1983), Deeper Insights into Education (Anthroposophic Press, NY)
Steiner R (1986), Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, Vol. 1, 1919-1920, Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, Forest Row)
Steiner R (2003), Soul Economy Body: Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, NY)