CfA's Op Ed

When It’s Safe to Move

by Douglas Gerwin

As of this decade, every child enrolled in an American educational institution — from early childhood programs through high school — entered life on earth sometime after the U.S. was shaken by an attack of four hijacked commercial jets during the clear mid-morning of 11 September 2001. We have yet to weigh the full measure of consequence wrought on young souls by this assault, the only major foreign attack on civilian home targets this country has experienced in close on two centuries. Yet we can already say this much: children born in this country since that date, though they may have come “trailing clouds of glory”, are growing up in a culture much more conscious of security, much more concerned about germs and allergies, and much more restrictive in what teachers — parents, too — are allowed to risk with the youngsters in their care.

Feeling Safe in a New Age of Nervousness

When it comes to characterizing social trends, statements of cause and effect are guesses at best, tendentious expressions of prejudice at worst. In fact, the very concept of “cause” does not really belong in discourse about changes in the development of the human soul. Causal statements of “if/then” are really no more than relational statements of “when-then” clothed in statistics, leaving the reader to sort out what is the “egg” and what the “chicken”, both of which can serve each other mutually as effect or cause.

Child on smartphone wrapped in a coverlet like a cocoon. That said, there is no disputing teachers who report from the frontlines of the high school classroom that their students are ever more anxious and “stressed out” these days, less able to sit still, more likely to make use of hand sanitizers, less likely to get a driving license or go out on a date, and more prone to attempt — and in growing numbers commit — suicide.

In my own experience with high school students, I encounter fewer and fewer cases of truculent teenagers who say, “I won’t!” and many more cases of trepid students who say, “I can’t.” We have entered a new age of heightened mental and emotional — even to some extent physical — paralysis.

Rudolf Steiner predicted this human condition more than a century ago. In a popular lecture known in English as “Overcoming Nervousness”, Steiner characterized a trend of increased anxiety and fear that was already taking hold during his time. “Everywhere,” he told a German audience in January of 1912, some two years before the outbreak of World War I, “something like nervousness is present.”

He went on:

“All this will, in the near future, grow worse and worse for people. If people remain as they are, then a good outlook for the future cannot by any means be offered. For there are harmful influences that affect our current life in a quite extraordinary way and that carry over from one person to the other like an epidemic. Therefore, people become a bit diseased in this direction: not only the ones who have the illness, but also others, who are perhaps only weak but otherwise healthy, get it by a kind of infection.”1

Today, even more all-encompassing than the global pandemic that brought social and economic commerce to an abrupt halt in the spring of 2020, we live in an atmosphere of nameless anxiety that instills in our students — as in ourselves — an arresting petrification of soul.

In this same lecture, delivered fully seven years before the opening of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Steiner castigates educators who induce a condition of pedagogical terror in their students by making them cram for what today we would call “high stakes testing”. However, never one to leave his audience with feelings of despair, Steiner spends the rest of this lecture outlining a total of ten practical exercises on how adults can come to grips with what is by now a worldwide psychological ailment.

In this context, we need to ask: Given that teenagers are growing up in an age of societal anxiety — a condition exacerbated by the use of smart phones and the Internet, which have been shown to induce stress even at a neurological and hormonal level — how are they to be educated? And how best to prepare their teachers to educate them?

Safety and Stenosis

Step for a moment into the shoes of a student and you will recognize that if you are suffering an intensified state of stress or anxiety, you will probably be unwilling, or simply unable, to learn anything new until you feel safe in your place of learning. In a condition of heightened stress, you are more likely instead to protect and defend what you know and shut out or simply ignore what you don’t know or can’t control.

Cramming for a test in high school is an archetypal example of this condition:

  • You marshal your needed material
  • You attempt to gain mastery over it by organizing and committing it to memory
  • You protect what you have mastered from anything that might threaten to challenge it or disturb your carefully rehearsed responses to anticipated questions

Understandably, it is too scary to admit into this ordered corpus of knowledge an unfamiliar perspective or epiphany of new insight.

More generally, however, if students don’t feel safe, they won’t move, which is to say that in order to move or be moved––whether outwardly in physical activity or inwardly in soul and spirit — they need to feel safe. But this relationship between safety and movement can be reversed: movement can stir confidence (and a sense of safety) as much as safety can build confidence to risk engaging in movement. We are dealing with a symbiotic condition of “when-then”, not a logical condition of “if/then”.

We can say, therefore, that in educating teenagers (younger children, too) we need first to make sure they move. But here’s the rub: whatever pressure an adult exerts on a student from without will inevitably create anxiety in that student, who will feel — rightly — he alien source of this pressure.  Though in younger years children need to be steered towards healthy situations and protected from harmful ones, ultimately movement needs to arise from within, not from without.

In fact, all healthy movement arises from within, even if it is initially stimulated from without. This is the secret of the free human will, easily overlooked because clouded in unconsciousness and, among younger children, still largely undeveloped. With the exception of the reflex — an autonomic (and hence entirely unfree) reaction to the stimulation of the nervous system — healthy movement originates from within the human being, even if it is in response to outer guidance. In short,  only when the kid moves will the kid learn.

Three Pedagogical “PC’s”

By the time of high school, guidance from without must give way to inner self-direction and a sense of confidence if something is to be regarded as “learned”. As in honing the skill of riding a bicycle, you cannot claim to have learned how to ride if your training wheels are still attached.

Though the development of this inner self-direction is gradual, by the time of adolescence it holds the key to successful high school education. And yet no age group is more prone to paralysis born of anxiety than is puberty. For this reason, adolescents need their teachers to be skilled in three roles, or what I will call the “3PC’s” of the high school educator:

  • Teacher as pedagogical coach
  • Teacher as pedagogical counselor
  • Teacher as pedagogical compass

As pedagogical coach, a teacher deals with how to develop practical skills, helping teenagers find purpose in work and confidence in conducting themselves in the world.  This is why in high school the most trusted teachers are often the ones who can tell you how to do something yourself. Drivers ed. instructors, gym and athletic coaches, practical arts instructors, computer techies, nurses and medics: these are the faculty and staff members who most easily garner a teenager’s respect. And notice how coaches, of whatever discipline, are generally big on “safety first”.

As pedagogical counselor (not to be confused with psychological therapist), a teacher deals with how to handle feelings, or more precisely how to sort out the confused skein of human sentiments that so easily tie teenagers up in paralyzing emotional knots. Good counselors know to use feelings as opportunities for learning; to pose questions rather than supply answers; to jointly come up with strategies rather than provide ready-made solutions. They, too, are committed to creating a safe environment for the unfolding of their students’ emotional life.

As pedagogical compass, a teacher deals with how to think, but again not by providing answers but rather by helping students develop leading questions that will help them discover uncharted terrain for themselves. A good compass indicates direction quietly and steadily, albeit vibrating and adjusting constantly on an acute needle point to changes in orientation.

In all three roles, the teacher’s secret to success is to educate by stirring the student to move, whether that movement is physical or bodily, psychological or emotional, spiritual or mental. The teacher sets up the safe conditions in which the student can dare to try, to fail, to learn, and in this way to become motivated increasingly from within, free from external prodding.

1 Rudolf Steiner, “Overcoming Nervousness”, lecture given in Munich on 11 January 1912 and published in Anthroposophy in Everyday Life (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1995). The original title of this lecture, to be found in Volume 143 of Steiner’s collected works, is “Nervosität und Ichheit” [“Nervousness and I-hood”], which hints at how the adult human being can best overcome this condition.

Note: This article is adapted from a piece included in a collection of essays by Torin Finser under the title A Call to Teach: In Service of Waldorf Teacher Education and Lifelong Learning (Hudson, NY: Waldorf Publications, 2020).