An Ecology of the Etheric in Education, Part I

This past summer I returned to the first essay Rudolf Steiner published on education: The Education of the Child (GA 34). It appeared in 1907, a time when the world was very different than it is today. I reread it with the question: In what way did Steiner’s thoughts at that time resonate with what we experience in education today?

For some time now I have tried to better understand how the changes that have taken place since Steiner’s time affect what is needed in education. The world is certainly much different than it was then. Human impact on the environment has changed the natural world on a scale we have yet to fathom. The cultural environment of children has certainly changed. Gone are the uniquely place-based characters of villages, regions, and neighborhoods. Even cities have lost much of their differences. And the shifts in how we find a relationship to the divine, how we regard the acquisition of knowledge and the growth of understanding point to a deep change in the spiritual life of a child’s surroundings. What do these changes mean for the way we think about education?

With this in mind, I returned to the roots of Steiner’s thoughts on education.

One of the first things that I noticed was how often the word life appears in the text. Over the course of forty pages, it appears 114 times. Steiner develops a picture of education as a living process, taking the growth and maturation of a plant as the primary image, an image that returns in various forms throughout the text.

“All of life is like a plant that does not only contain what it reveals to our sight, but also holds deep within aspects that belong to the future.” This is also true of the human being. There are aspects of each human that are not readily apparent, which like the blossom can come into appearance only with time. If one learns to “see” the plant in its wholeness, one can gain a sense of the being of the plant. To gain a sense of what will blossom in the life of person, one must also gain a sense of his or her being. Because this is the nature of life.

Finding a living relationship to the challenge of education means finding a living relationship to the nature of the child’s becoming. “If one wishes to recognize the being of the child becoming, one must begin by considering the hidden aspects of human nature.” Steiner proceeds to do so by presenting a description of the seven-fold human being, in which he emphasizes the transformative nature of human development. The “higher” aspects of human nature arise through the transformation of the bodily constituents. The agent of transformation is the “I”. In Steiner’s depiction we have the three bodily constituents – physical, etheric, astral – that provide the basis for the embodiment of the “I” and the three soul/spiritual constituents that arise through the transformation of the former through the “I” – spirit soul, life soul, spirit human. Human development is dependent on this process of transformation. This is a living process and as much a part of human nature as leafing and flowering are the expression of the life of the plant.

When speaking of the transformation of the etheric, Steiner first mentions the role culture plays in human evolution. Culture is a much-maligned term today. It has lost its relationship to its own roots. Like cultivation, it derives from the Latin colere, to care for (Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place, 2009, P. 173). A culture that cares little misrepresents the term. For Steiner, the cultural realities within which an individual is immersed play a significant role in the formation and transformation of the etheric as the medium for the life of the soul. Cultural experiences offer the human being qualities that are not to be found in the natural world. Both the experience of the artistic and the religious have an especially powerful effect in this process of transformation.

Culture is the expression of the lived relationship of a society to place, each other and to the nature of the self. It comes to expression in lived practices; it is the embodied enactment of these relationships. As such, it is a much a part of the being of our environment as is the natural world that we inhabit culturally.

In speaking of the transformative nature of developmental maturation, Steiner differentiates between the general cultural effects and those, which are brought about by intentional practices, between education and self-education. Education or perhaps better “culturation” begins long before the child enters a classroom. It happens through the way the child relates to what lives in the surroundings.

Steiner was, as far as I know, the first educator to underline the relational nature of a child’s developing sense of self, the laying of the foundation of personality. He is fairly explicit about the importance of understanding the reciprocal nature of this relationship as well as the temporal stages through which it evolves. In 1907, having introduced the notion of the non-visible yet constituent aspects of the human bodily organization and the transformative nature of growth and maturation, he speaks of three birthing processes as each of the bodily constituents enters into an unprotected dialogue with the world. As with the unfolding of the plant, individual maturation has a specific temporal gestalt or signature. Steiner delineates three stages of maturation in relation to the three birthing processes: birth itself, the time of the second dentition and puberty. At each stage of the process the nature of the relation of the child to the surrounding world takes on new characteristics. Young children see the world differently than do their older peers. The world in turn speaks differently to the young child than it does to the older one. A new practice in education can only grow out of an ever-deepening understanding of these developmental dynamics.

It is at this point in the essay that Steiner begins to speak explicitly about the education of the child. By this point he has set the stage for looking at the question of education differently. It is part of life and must be rooted in the realities of life. All life processes have visible and not-yet visible aspects. The not-yet visible in human life has to do with the nature of individual becoming. Only by living in both the visible and the not-yet visible aspects of a developing organism can we begin to gain an understanding of the being of that organism. The not-yet visible in human development can only blossom and bear fruit through the activity of the individual human self.

This activity unfolds in relation to the surroundings. If we want to understand education, we must learn to understand the way the way world and self interrelate, especially during the three characteristic periods that can be distinguished in the first 18 – 21 years of life.

by Jon McAlice