—Rudolph Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
Someone recently asked me, “You’re a literate person—aren’t you concerned that your son hasn’t learned to read?”
My son is seven, almost eight, and has only begun to sound out words from letters on the page. Like most people, I began reading at five or six, so sometimes I wonder and worry. Even my son is feeling the pressure to keep up with his public-school educated peers.
But my answer to the question was a resounding no—I am not concerned.
Here’s why: The boy has heard, in his parents’ and teachers’ voices, some of the finest literature appropriate to his young mind. He soaks it up, and always begs for the next chapter of The Odyssey, the Narnia series, or the Greek myths.
Recently he started begging for Harry Potter, which his friends are reading, and I told him we first have to read something at the level of philosophy or scripture before descending into that pabulum. Given choices between the Book of Genesis, the Gospel of John, the Tao Te Ching, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, he chose Marcus Aurelius. Now, each evening, we read one of the brief, pithy passages from the volume, often discussing its contents for longer than it takes to read.
In the past year, in first grade, my son performed a play. Rehearsing his part together, I was stunned to hear him perfectly render from memory every part in the play—including the narrator (our challenge was for him to learn to deliver only his own lines). He had learned it by reciting the 20-page play together with his class. There was no reading of the text or “homework.” And he had a deep appreciation and understanding of the complex drama. This is a capacity few children have an opportunity to develop.
My hope is for him to acquire a taste and understanding of levels of writing and knowledge before he has the power to feed his mind independent of my curation.
I remember when the plentitude of written words, available always and everywhere, suddenly stormed the gates of my young mind and forever changed my mode of thought and perception. At the time, I was thrilled by the newfound power. In retrospect, it was an eviction from a garden of innocence as the portals of my inner world were breached. A breach that made me forever prey to whatever written words appeared within my sight.
The Waldorf school that my son attends emphasizes balanced learning, at the appropriate stages. For instance, there is the idea that children develop will first, which they don’t learn through their heads. Will is developed by imitation, repetition, and rhythm.
Next, at around age seven, comes the creative, emotional development, conscience, and growth of being. This is a rare gift, as the reality of emotional intelligence is completely absent from conventional education. It is learned through music; through work in collaboration and harmony with the group; and through art, painting, myth, story, and theater.
More thorough development of the intellectual only comes last, generally around the age of 14, when the foundation of the person is strong, and there is a readiness for and receptivity to behold the beauty and structure of abstraction and symbol.
Learning occurs most effectively when there is a readiness to learn (for children and adults); when there is a real hunger for knowledge, and an enthusiasm to put it into practice. Without that yearning for knowledge, learning becomes forced feeding without hunger. It is not only unpleasant, it is harmful to the organism.
Most would agree that knowing how to learn is a greater asset than amassing data. Data will always be available when it is needed. Particularly in this time when the old economic model is faltering, and a new one is yet to be formed, the best we can give our children and ourselves is the ability to perceive the needs before us, to learn what is needed to address those needs, and to take action.
To wit: this magazine was started by two 20-somethings who had no training or experience in the business of publishing. we simply saw the need for a Hudson Valley magazine of arts and ideas, learned what we needed to know to create it, and Chronogram was born.
The desire to learn is perhaps our most essential manifestation of real will. It needs to be protected and nurtured, not trampled with disjointed data and pedagogy. The will to learn is an outgrowth of our will to be, and our being, what we are, is all we really have in this world.