Students of the Waldorf Steiner schools don’t start reading until the age of seven. Rather anomalous in an ethos where fast learners are paraded as potential little Einsteins and their slower brethren cause for parental concern, if not chagrin.
It’s never too early to start teaching your children, seems to be the conventional pedagogical wisdom. “Educational” is the buzzword, the marketer’s seductive lure for parents perusing the aisles of toy stores or surfing children’s TV channels.
The mad rush to ply children with as much knowledge as possible as soon as possible reminds me of roots of the word “precocious.” Which derives from the Latin prefix “pre” and “coquere,” to cook. Despite its modern usage, for me the word has always intimated a casserole being pulled out of the oven before it’s fully done.
I experienced this prematurity first-hand. My mother, who was educated in Korea, supervised my education the only way she knew how: by force-feeding facts and figures and demanding their memorization. Even at a young age, my soul rebelled. The constant input of information felt like a violation of sorts. An interruption of the natural order of things.
According to Rudolph Steiner, humans develop in seven-year cycles. His education seeks to observe this natural law. So the interval before the seventh year is reserved for reciting rhymes, listening to fairly tales and having time and space to play so children can live in the visual realm of the imagination.
There is a cordoning off and protection of this tender mental space, so it can be cultivated before receiving more traditional lessons. And this cultivation, with its emphasis on rhythm and mythic tales, aims at coaxing or jogging our collective archetypal memory. A pedagogy that jibes with Plato’s theory of education. It is no coincidence that Steiner is considered a Neo-Platonist.
True education, according to Plato, is anamnesis. Or recollection of knowledge already present within one’s soul. In the Republic, Plato elaborates further on the purpose of education: to free the soul of the things that turn its sight downward and to reorient it towards the truth. Like Steiner, Plato endorses a specific curriculum towards seeking our eternal knowledge. To this end, any compulsory intellectual work was unnecessary as it never remained in the soul.
But how does this education, with its esoteric abstractions and classical origins, relate to our daily lives in the real world, you may ask. I suppose it depends on whether we believe there’s a soul–and more to the point, are able to define what it is.
For me, the soul is our storehouse of collective memories, myths and deep imaginings–the templates of our earthly reality. It is our primal waters of creation. Without which–and our constant connection to and recollection of this knowledge–we would be banished to a barren wasteland, without creativity, hopes and dreams. From this perspective, it becomes not only a question of our children’s education, but the vitality and progress of our civilization.