We Cannot Settle for Anything Less than the Fundamentally Different

Sleep and Play

By Joana Mortari, Waldorf mother and student.  Chair of the Parent Committee at the Vancouver Waldorf School (2023-2024). Social activist. 

This is my seventh year as a Waldorf parent. As I watch my girls growing up, now 12 and nearing 15, what emerges from this education is becoming clearer. Noticing the outcome was insufficient for me, so I started digging in. I am particularly drawn by my girls’ fascination with exploring the borders of whatever is presented to them. It is almost as if they can see the membrane holding the narrative fed to them by the world and feel the urge to poke it.  And yes, I know that challenging perceived authority is an annoyingly healthy part of adolescence, but this feels different to me.

As I quested, I learned that Steiner studied and made meaning of Goethe’s scientific writings; and that he was especially fascinated with Goethe’s findings in organic morphology, which he considered “a scientific accomplishment of the highest order” (Steiner; 2000). While other scientists and philosophers of that time, like Immanuel Kant, believed that humans would never have the capability to explain organic beings, Goethe relentlessly and methodically observed them until he eventually realized that it was not the form of the root that determines that of the stem, and not the form of the stem that defines that of the leaves, and so on, but that there is a “higher unity” informing the sense-perceptible process, or that which we can see, feel, smell, hear or taste. He refers to this inner higher unity as “unifying principle”.

“Here lies the difference between organisms and machines”, Steiner writes, “what is essential in a machine is only the interaction between its parts. The unifying principle that governs that interaction does not exist in the object itself but outside of it as a plan in the head of its builder.” In a machine, the determining principle governing the interrelation between the parts is external, while in an organism, the unifying principle governs from within. Differently from what we learned from Darwin, who believed that the nature of an organism is limited to external factors as it adjusts and adapts to them, Goethe added that considering that the outer characteristics are not always constant, the plant also has an inner informative and unifying principle that gives it constancy. A crocus vernus might be different at higher altitudes, for instance, but it is still a crocus vernus. (Steiner; 2000).

Fast forward to today and I am positive that you know more about Kant and Darwin than about Goethe, except for his brilliance as a poet. Sadly, even when I visited Casa di Goethe last Summer – droplets of sweat abundantly running down my back in the midst of a European heat wave – I witnessed how very little is portrayed of his scientific findings. My daughters were surprised by my excitement when I found the scatches of the plants he observed in a little dark corner of the exhibit, but in attempting to connect it with their education, I might have just ruined Waldorf for them… I do not recommend trying this at home. In any event, it expresses how the thinking we learned to consider the entire “truth,” which informed our education and which we inadvertently pass forward, are the brick-and-mortar of today’s world, including our political and economic systems. And it is built on premises fundamentally different from what Goethe and Steiner believed.

As the generation responsible for really messing things up, according to my oldest daughter (let’s just say this is the publishable version of how she expresses it), what can we do so our children can make fundamentally different choices? Choices that allow for a different reality? I believe we already did it when we chose Waldorf education, which, at its core, recognizes the aliveness of life. The world Steiner was living in was already moving towards mechanism, where every phenomenon, including living beings, can be explained by mechanical causality. We can manipulate, explore, and use it. To change that, we don’t learn a new tool; we learn a new perspective, a new way to make meaning of the world around us.

Steiner, R. “Nature’s Open Secret: Introduction to Goethe’s Scientific Writings”, Anthroposofic Press, United States, p. 42, 15.

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