Can Morality be Taught? June 08 2017
A generation ago, the children's magazine Highlights for Children had in every issue, in addition to stories, activities, and crafts, a regular section called "Goofus and Gallant." The names of these two brothers always proved prophetic. Goofus consistently did the impolite, uncivil, "wrong" thing, while Gallant always did the kind, considerate, "right" thing. While Goofus slammed the door on those coming behind him, Gallant gallantly held it open. This section was one of my favorites. I found the vignettes quite funny, but I also found them, in terms of their obvious intent, not especially convincing.
A well-meaning editor at Highlights for Children felt that "Goofus and Gallant" was an effective way to teach morality. But it was clear to me, even at the age of nine, that, if a young reader were as insensitive to act as Goofus did, he or she was very unlikely to change behavior from reading "Goofus and Gallant." Like every child, I had an innate sense of rightness, and I knew that this heavy-handed way of trying to show and teach morality is not likely to be effective.
My reaction as a nine-year-old to "Goofus and Gallant" can be termed "youthful cynicism." Cynicism results whenever the teaching of right and wrong behavior is abstract and overdone. Any seventh-grade teacher who has lectured her students about the wrongness of this or that type of behavior is aware of this. Preaching incites cynicism. Every child, every human being, has within his heart and soul a "still, small voice" that knows what goodness is and constantly is reminding us and urging us to follow that path. To lecture to this innate sense of moral truth is to insult the child and to make him or her feel untrusted and unrecognized.
In contrast, when with respect and trust we seek to evoke this "still, small voice within," the child responds with relief and joy. This is especially true for the young child, for whom the teacher is a beloved authority figure. The child realizes that she is being recognized as innately moral and as possessing this divine, still voice of truth within.
In Waldorf schools, the teachers every day consciously appeal to the conscience of the child, to this emerging, innate sense of moral right and wrong. There are at least three tools they use to build moral awareness and develop positive habits of behavior.
Effective Tool #1: The Story
The telling of stories is an essential part of Waldorf pedagogy, and the curriculum from the kindergarten through the twelfth grade is filled with stories. Through the grades. Waldorf students hear fairy tales. Aesop's fables, the Norse, Greek, and Roman myths, tales of the lives of great men and women, stories of alchemists who initiated the science of chemistry, and stories of the Earth and its mountains and waterways. Waldorf teachers search for appropriate stories in the literature of many cultures. They also make up stories that fit the stage of development of their children. Teachers learn these stories "by heart" so that they can tell rather than read them and thus bring the story to the children and young people with a living consciousness.
In fairy tales, as in all true stories, there is a critical moment when the hero or heroine faces a decision. Often the decision, wrongly made, causes everything to go terribly wrong. Children sense these moments. A classroom of fidgeting first graders will become absolutely quiet when, for example, in the Grimm's tale "The Nixie of the Mill Pond," the nixie guarantees to make the miller, whose prosperity has dwindled, "richer and happier than [he] was ever before." The miller need only promise "what has been just born in [his] house." At this point the children collectively hold their breath and inwardly exclaim, "No! Don't do it! There's something wrong with a bargain like that."
The children are right, of course. Desperate for wealth, the miller speculates that It will be nothing more than a kitten or a puppy. He agrees to the nixie's plan, but then finds, on returning home, that he has promised the nixie his newborn son. A mixture of anxiety and hope then rises as a mood in the class from the thinking hearts of the children. How will the miller redeem what he has done!
Such a moment and such a story provide moral lessons in living pictures to the children. Greed dims clear thinking; a rash deed can have dire consequences. Bargaining with living things is not a good idea. One should be wary of the power of temptation.
In the tale of the nixie, the miller's son, as a young man, is indeed taken by the water sprite into the depths of the mill pond. The son's wife, however, through brave and devoted actions, brings about his release and their eventual reunion. In the story, the wrong is made right: there is a transformation brought about by good and courageous acts.
"The Nixie of the Mill Pond," like all good stories, demonstrates to the child that we have the capacity to choose the path that the still, small voice would have us choose—to choose the right over the wrong—and that we human beings have the ability and strength to redeem a wrong decision. Every time a child listens to a story, the capacity to think clearly about tightness and wrongness is exercised, and these truths about human morality are reaffirmed.
All children love stories. The most rambunctious children will sit quietly in the hope of hearing a story. They know that stories are a nourishment for their souls. The moments of transformation—when the swans return to their human form, when the youngest (virtuous) brother wins the beautiful maiden, when the princess Is wakened from her deathlike sleep—lift their hearts and offer instruction and inspiration to seek the good, to change, and to correct the thing that has gone awry.
Children grow strong in moral judgment when they are called upon to discern what is right and wrong. Stories offer abundant opportunities for this. The countless stories that Waldorf students experience in their passage through the grades are opportunities to exercise and strengthen their moral sense.
Effective Tool #2: Artistic Activity
In Waldorf schools, children paint, draw, sing, play musical instruments, knit, sew, embroider, sculpt, carve, weave, work metal, and strive for grace in athletics and dance. They do not do this to become artists, as some people who do not understand Waldorf Education believe. There are many reasons why art is so deeply interwoven into the Waldorf curriculum. One of them is to strengthen the moral intuition of the developing child.
In artistic work, there are no formulas that lead to the creation of something beautiful. The one engaged in the artistic activity, whatever it may be, must work, strive, even struggle until the moment when the piece in question seems "right" or "complete." The members of a choir rehearsing a piece of music, a painter seeking to create a harmony of color on his canvas, a sculptor trying to release the form concealed within the block of wood, all need to recognize when they have finished their task. Often this can involve an experience of transcendence, a passing beyond the confines of space and time.
This constant struggle in the soul to perceive when something is right in an aesthetic or artistic sense is transferable to the moral sphere. It can be applied to decisions in life about friends, family, the less fortunate in society, and to any situation holding a moral dilemma. In choosing to act or not to act in a certain way, the person is exercising the sense for truth and tightness. He asks himself consciously or unconsciously: "Is this act good and beautiful?"
The student, in doing artistic work, is cultivating a moral sensibility, an ability to perceive what is correct and true. She is also experiencing the truth and beauty inherent in each artistic medium. She works with color, tone, the block of grained wood, the skein of wool, her own body in movement, and discovers the possibilities and limitations in each. She finds the essence of the medium, palpable or impalpable, and transforms it into something beautiful. A reality beyond the artist is created. Out of this experience grows a deep respect for the materials used to create beauty, a selfless love for the world, and the desire to enrich the world through the beauty one can bring into it.
Again, these attitudes are transferable to real-life situations. A student with artistic capacities built through daily practice has acquired not only artistic skills but a new means of comprehending and relating to the world. In all situations in life, he will work to grasp the truth of things, will look beyond himself, and seek to make the world as beautiful and good as he can. The impulses developed in artistic activity apply to the moral life.
Effective Tool #3: Models Worthy of Emulation
Providing models worthy of emulation is the most effective tool for calling children to moral activity. Parents, of course, have the central role as such models. But teachers also greatly Influence the moral development of children. Most educational thought today is focused on content and testing. There is little or no concern with the value of moral example in shaping children and their future lives.
In Waldorf Education, however, the character of the teacher is considered a major concern. Each Waldorf teacher is or should be actively involved in self-development. The inner transformation of the teacher, through daily meditative work and striving, into a fully conscious, moral, free, and loving human being is a factor not only in shaping an effective main lesson, but in positively influencing the children in their moral development. Discipline is most effective in the presence of the self-disciplined. Children who work, play, and live around adults who consciously and assiduously seek to develop themselves will inwardly imitate them and will likewise aspire to become better human beings.
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, told the teachers in the first school: "It is not so much what you teach but who you are that matters."
In an educational culture obsessed with tangible proof of the achievement of learning goals, the role of the teacher as a striving human being is easily forgotten or dismissed. Content and the results of testing usurp the attention of teachers whose true calling is to encourage children to love the world and to participate in it. Young people need adults to forge the way for them on the path of life. Teachers give children models of self-discipline and the practice of truth.
Throughout the Waldorf curriculum, the children a real so presented with human beings of other times and places who are worthy of admiration and emulation. In the eight years of the lower school and in the high school as well, the students encounter Saint Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other moral heroes and heroines.
Teaching morality is possible but not in the ways commonly thought. Stories full of powerful, beautiful images enrich the imagination and assure children of the inherent goodness of the world and of their ability to participate in that goodness. Artistic practice gives them the capacity to judge when an act—as well as a painting or sculpture—is beautiful and good. It also inspires children to want to make the world better and more beautiful. Moral adults, who strive for inner strength and calm, give children examples of self-discipline and self-development to follow. Calling to the child's heart in these ways allows the inner voice, so tender and quiet, to speak to his natural sense of virtue and to be heard. The child is inspired to realize his innate goodness, and he and the world are the better for it.
Patrice Maynard: Director of Waldorf Publications and Development, Research Institute for Waldorf Education and Waldorf Publications