“Ethics concerns no small matter, but how we ought to live.”
No matter what our vocation or direction in life, how we’re educated helps to condition our responses to the world and our capacity to live in a good and meaningful way.
Socrates’ dictum about ethics is reflected in John Dewey’s philosophy of education, essentially that education is a process of enhancing quality of life, through meaningful activity, thoughtful conduct, and open communication and interaction with others. For Dewey, the freedom to be a thinking individual in society was paramount. Because he saw all ideas as moral, for him, the very possibility of conceiving and expressing ideas was in itself a moral issue.
Many other philosophers of education would put it differently, but if they’re true to an ethical conception of education, then they share in the goal of helping students develop a sense of direction that humanity might take in facing the problems of our dwelling together on one planet—the moral direction toward greater justice, freedom, and meaning in human life.
The challenge for education
This is the challenge for education as it resides between the life of community and the fulfillment of the individual, especially, it seems, in America. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his description of American culture in 1830, he warned that the spiritual and republican influences on the establishment of our free institutions were necessary to the sustainability of those institutions. In other words, he saw even then that excessive individualism could undermine freedom, even as Ralph Waldo Emerson began extolling the virtue of self-reliance.
With the growth of industrialization, the American family was losing its former intimacy with a stable community, and becoming more and more isolated into what would later be known as “the nuclear family.” With this heightened sense of separateness, the growth of individualism would force emerging adults more and more to see community as something apart from them, and gradually as something to which they might not have much responsibility.
Today the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and others point to a breakdown in community life leading to rootlessness for the individual. This situation of noncooperation between the individual and society is reflected in the narrowing of goals for public education, that is, there is scant attention given to moral or community life.
The British moral philosopher Iris Murdoch sees the current state of moral chaos arising from the fragmentation of the modern scientific outlook and the subsequent loss of a shared, public idea of moral good. Like Dewey, she notes that harmony comes from the individual striving for the good within a good society, and that human capacities need the context of community in order to flourish.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, while pointing to the “malaises” of modern society, also suggests that there’s a moral upside to emphasis on the self, which he calls the “ethic of authenticity.” Perhaps, he says, self-fulfillment masks a moral ideal, that of being true to oneself.
I like to imagine the “authentic” individual feeling a responsibility for the common good of the community in which he or she lives. The moral life, then, would combine both inner and outer motivations. How can we educate toward such a vision? What are our responsibilities to others, to ourselves, to the local community, to society at large?
Premises on art and morality
In his Republic, Plato laid the ground for a reverent feeling toward art in its moral, educational, and political significance. Within this traditional viewpoint are many modern thinkers, including the late novelist John Gardner, who claimed that art is essentially and primarily moral and life-giving, both in its process and in what it says:
True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, openmindedly, to learn what it should teach…moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.
Here Gardner echoes Dewey and foreshadows thinkers like educational philosopher John Rethorst. Quoting Iris Murdoch, who says that “teaching art is teaching morals,” John Rethorst builds a case that both art and morals are “good for the soul,” and, furthermore, that both are fundamentally enterprises of the imagination. It’s the fully engaged, imaginative student who receives the best moral education, simply by taking both an active role in understanding, and also responsibility for self-education.
Art and morality are a necessary dual presence in education, and imagination is the vehicle of artistic work and of the appreciation of art. Out of open-ended imaginative processes and the ambiguity that characterize art come the possibility for the parallel understanding of morality. The artistic frame of mind is fundamentally a moral one. It depends upon a deep-seated feeling for the truth, a commitment to justice, and trust in one’s inner capacities, encompassing the ideals of imaginative thinking, heart-warmed feeling, and moral action.
Waldorf: Values-based education as a process of self development
The same commitment can be seen in a Waldorf School, the home of a values-based education.
Chief among the values Waldorf Education espouses are those of reverence, trust, and faith in the gradual unfolding of the developing human being. Moral growth is as essential as physical and intellectual growth, and is nurtured in everything, from the smallest consciously-formed gesture (watch a kindergarten teacher carefully folding a cloth) to the grandest idea elegantly stated (hear a high school teacher describe the flowerlike pattern formed by tracing the arcs of the orbit of Venus.) The moral component lies in the reverence, whether for things like play-cloths or for scientific truths.
To begin to understand the development of children it’s necessary to note the central place of love in their growth, especially their moral growth. When the child is very young, she receives the world and all its gifts with open arms. The world is good to the young child as she basks in the love of her parents, in the care she must receive, unable as she is to begin with, to care for herself.
As the young child grows through the first seven or so years, a foundation for life is firmly laid if she can be filled with a mood of gratitude, toward, for example, the light of the sun, the fruits of the earth, or the nurturing of the adults around her.
In the middle part of childhood, this thankfulness gives rise to love. Gratitude does not disappear, just as the roots remain even when the stem grows from them, and it must continue to be cultivated, but the “stem and leaves” of the growing child’s moral life are now ready to be tended.
When he visited grade school classes in the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Rudolf Steiner reportedly asked the children, “Do you love your teachers?” If they answered with an enthusiastic yes, then he was sure the education was proceeding as he hoped, for it is out of love that children from around seven to fourteen learn. One of the things they learn is to love learning, and another is to seek and love beauty in the world, in all its forms.
Out of love grows the blossom of adolescence: responsibility.
Responsibility to oneself, to others, and to the world manifests in the heartwarming idealism of youth. If our young people feel it is their duty to right the wrongs they see around them as they seek the truth, then they have discovered duty. The great German man of letters, Johann Goethe, defined duty as what arises “when one loves what one commands oneself.”
When the point is reached that the young person can say he loves what he commands himself, then his moral education has blossomed into fruition. Gratitude-Love-Duty. In this metamorphosis, love is the center, the turning point.
In this way, children learn holistically in the Waldorf Schools—through the path of inner development. Effective long-term learning occurs when the topics presented resonate with the students’ need to know, and when that knowledge builds upon memory, experience, and active engagement with increasing sophistication. The imaginative and eminently practical play encouraged in the kindergarten is transformed through the twelve-year curriculum to the imaginative, disciplined, and practical thinking of the high school graduate.
Just as the love of language and stimulation of imagination are the building blocks for reading and self-expression in the kindergarten, imaginative learning in the grade school leads to understanding and connecting to the world in the high school. I’m reminded of the oft-quoted phrase of Rudolf Steiner’s that many Waldorf schools use to describe their 12-year mission:
Receive them in reverence, educate them with love, let them go forth in freedom.
A good education
The task of a good education is to invite into the world the capacities that children seem to have within them. That is to say that a bad education assumes the value of impressing or imposing the superior values of the current order of things. This latter assumption is what guides standardized testing, as all that can be asked by the current body of authority is to recapitulate what is—one cannot “test” for the not-yet-known. And yet, virtually every educator trusts in the long-term pedagogical value of discovery, of learning through experimentation, experience, and even failure.
In the end, whether a child is at play in the kindergarten, a grade schooler is writing a poem, or a high school student is exploring quantum physics, it is the process “owned” by the student in its wholeness, the capacity for bringing an imagination, an idea, or an ideal into the discipline and gristmill of reality, regardless of outcome, that holds the key for life-long learning and inspiration. These capacities are the building blocks of tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs.
The key elements of Waldorf education can reframe the questions and broaden the conversation among educators and parents in the wider community about how we educate children to become more fully human, that is, more morally secure, in today’s high tech world.
At the essence is a more integrated way of viewing children, teachers, and schools.
A socially just world requires that its citizens have flexibility of thinking to respect the capacities and freedom of each individual, and understands that true equality is essential in governing and in the creation of policies and laws. The economic world will be sustaining when self-interested behavior is transformed into a more altruistic—more moral—practice.
–Joan Caldarera, Transition Voice
Cross posted from Rudolf Steiner Foundation Social Finance.