Biographies as History from Ages Twelve and Older June 08 2020

Once a child turns 12, puberty is arrived, arriving, or hovering close to arrival. The youngster has achieved the adult proportion of breath to heartbeat: 1:4.  And a new level of stamina for memorization and learning, reasoning, and judging has set in. Rudolf Steiner tells us that at the ages of 12 to 14, muscle and bone are in rapid growth (along with many other parts of a youngster’s physical body — vocal chords, breasts, testicles, hair, etc.).  Dr. Steiner suggests that without the correct levels of idealism at this age, the risk is present that the muscle will not attach properly to the bony structure of the physical organism.

This might sound a tad far-fetched to some.  However, if we think about how much healthier the human organism remains when the inner mood of a person is positive, full of enthusiasm, looking forward to “the next things,” then it isn’t far-fetched at all. Immunologists, for example, have pointed to the proof that illness is more likely because immune systems are repressed when a person is depressed, stressed, or frightened. (One of the ironies of our situation now in the face of the coronavirus is this very fact: that fear represses our immune systems!) Our inner attitude or spirit changes the chemistry with which we are operating. In light of these findings, it might be easier to realize how important idealism is to a developing teenager.

In our current culture, idealism is a hard aspiration to cultivate. This makes it especially important that we as educators and parents never quit in our efforts to instill in the young clear pictures of those from history we can admire, to whom to look up, those who lead a path to moral and uplifting possibilities.

In Waldorf schools, for these and other reasons, we change our methods of teaching history somewhere in grade five and completely by grade six, to teaching history through great biographies. The people in history who best characterize their culture and their time in history and the spirit of their age are the biographies best told. Through these biographies, we inspire our students, our children, as we allow their lives to illuminate their times. We can tell the stories of great human beings who did great good and also those who, by their dark characteristics, made the brighter lights of their times even brighter.

A Waldorf teacher might, on one day, for example, tell the biography of Julius Caesar from the point of view of Brutus — a danger to the Senate and democracy in his unmitigated power and thrall over the people of Rome.  The next day he might tell the same biography from the point of view of Marc Antony — Julius Caesar as wonderful leader, hero, friend of the people, brutally murdered by those closest to him. Or a teacher might even tell the biography of an age — The Age of the Enlightenment, for example — and tell of that age as if it were a human biography.

Who in your family was a personage to aspire to become? A grandfather who was especially funny, kind, thoughtful, dedicated, or loving? An uncle who was a minor hero to his mates in the Vietnam war? An aunt who was a nurse, a healer, much beloved by those she tended? A great-great-uncle who was instrumental in the Civil War over a century ago? All of these biographies are useful for young people. These biographies instruct, inspire, fascinate, and encourage the young.  Many have come before us, have lived and struggled, succeeded and failed, endured, and created a new life; new ideas, forged new paths. All of these biographies remind teenagers that their sufferings help to build strength, that these times are not the worst that people have endured, and make people strong when met with courage.

Take a look at the curriculum in a Waldorf School and see the many biographies possible, all available to read about from libraries, internet sources, family history!  Start looking and telling now!  Your children will love you for it and, odds are, ask to hear the stories more than once!

Here is a starting list of great biographies through the epochs of Western Civilization:

Grades 5 and 6 Bios