Thursday, October 28, 2010

Be The Students

An I and Thou Relationship Between Teacher and Students in an Atmosphere of Unknowing (1)
- by Diane Walters

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end,
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Walt Whitman (2)

As a educator I have witnessed strong individual presence apparent in students of all ages, urging us all forward into greater participation with the lesson at hand, calling forth the need for active dialogue between teachers and students. The degree of individualism evident in elementary students gave rise to the question: How do teachers meet contemporary children with engaging ‘presence’ referred to by Whitman? Curiosity led me to look into the light of individualism as revealed through American Romanticism and Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical insights. This led to further reflections of how American transcendentalists foresaw the ever present realities of individualism in the form of ideas. Rudolf Steiner states that ideas are living realities “as an “idea-world” within ourselves, finding meaning when we unite not concepts but percepts and the world of ideas.

Steiner calls this ‘pure thinking’ (4) an act which allows us to reach deep into direct experience of spiritual realities and arrive at moral imaginations. This moral imagination then centers our thinking through love. Our daily experience of thinking as an act of love enables us to become conscious of our connection with the outer world. This consciousness translates into whole-based thinking where connection and cohesion into the scheme of our existence is apparent. Ralph Waldo Emerson revealed this connection between thinking and love in his essay on nature:

the mind is a part of the nature of things; the world is a divine dream, from which we may presently awake to the glories and certainties of day. (5)

In the classroom where “knowing” can arrive through moral imaginations, the principle of unknowing referred to as intuition is at work acting as a force of growth in us, that is, the growing of ideas. The teacher must be patient and actively listening for the moment; for ideas, as beings, live in the love we bear from within and in the air we breathe, both teacher and student alike. In deepening our thought life and nurturing our ability to love we discover universality. The “…glories and certainties of day” that Emerson describes, are tangible experiences when we allow for them to occur.

We cannot truly know universality without delving deeper into what it means to be an individual. Steiner unites these themes when he reminds us that to know ourselves we must look into the world, and to know the world, we must understand ourselves. Universality or the idea of infinite vastness in ourselves, folds our individuality into a greater entity; one which enables us to enter into the portal of knowing our students as well as the subject we are teaching. The seeds of self and spirit intermingle within this space. Steiner reminds us that individuality is a spirit phenomenon, not in the first place, a material one. Individuality then participates the infinite, participates spirit, participates the source of everything else that a person may also be—rich, poor, handsome, ugly, caring, heedless and so forth. To know our individuality and recognize others then is to know what love is. We love the person’s essence, the person’s “self,” the person’s source. We not only love this self, but we love with our own self, rather than with some psychological or physical part of our being. Imagining the phenomenon of love in this way, loving our students and teaching from a loving capacity in ourselves, makes individuality a spiritual reality.

Love lives within the infiniteness of the individual. This infiniteness is spirit knowledge and is not there until we acknowledge it within us. We birth it by consciously cultivating a degree of creative moral intuition. This creating stream of intuition can be created in the classroom with transformative results. The ability to perceive and enter into what Gertrude Reif Hughes defines as “a portal of pure knowing.” (6) is suddenly there. This kind of knowing, this new awareness calls for the development of our perceptions.

The connection of the finite with the infinite lived in the spirit of American Romanticism. The American Romantics discovered and appreciated the idea of individuality as one with the cosmos. Emerson was rhapsodic of world perceptions, and Walt Whitman exuded a self-confidence which seemed to be prophetic. His feelings of loss and wakefulness relate to our times:

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send the sun-rise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break.  (2)

Finding his soul at the center of wholeness or in unity with the cosmos, Whitman goes on to acknowledge the realities of spirit with these words:

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.(2)

Tapping into the same state of awe, Emerson brings further guidance for self-transformation and paves the road for us by discovering that human beings need to reorient the “axis of vision” in ourselves.

The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque.
The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself. (4)

He elaborates on this thought by underlying our connection with living spiritual ideas (or by what Steiner defines as realism) in the following prose:

He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. (4)

Emerson’s realism is embedded in devotion to thoughts which have been transformed with pure light. Modern materialistic thought is liberated when he reveals his conclusion:

But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.  (4)

Emerson’s consideration then, that the human sense of ‘self’ comes from the gods and that we have the capacity to know and experience divine thought living and working through us, is a humbling one in the classroom, and a necessary image to bear in mind while attempting to share knowledge, however vast or limited in our subjective eye.

We as teachers engage the spirit of living realism through the portal of the classroom door when we recognize the value of bringing the universal principle of individualism into our teaching methodologies through our connections with students and the subject as a whole.  As teachers we can meet individualism in our students by actively practicing what Walt Whitman identifies as living mystery. He speaks directly to the heart of the teacher and to the student with these words:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun, (there are millions of suns left)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.  (2)

Whitman’s rhetoric speaks to the nodal point of all learning; the point where the ‘procreant urge’ within our souls begins to take form in our thoughts, interests and active doings in the world. This nodal point is the center of a lemniscate between teacher and student. It is the true meeting place of souls. It happens when we, as teachers, put down the mode of being a ‘presenter’ working out of fixed ideas and turn instead towards our students as the true subjects of a lesson. Something else begins to grow out of the patience and trust that results from meeting individualism. We begin to relate to a living dynamic that is germinating within the hidden and ‘as yet unknowable’ content of the lesson at hand. Whitman grasps the enormity of this deed as touching soul to soul:

To touch my person to someone else’s is about as much as I can stand
Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightening to strike what is hardly different from myself. (2)

“The mystery asks to be entered,” (6) Gertrude Reif Hughes reminded a group of students. "The mystery we may enter is to be found in all aspects and walks of life. How do we enter it in the context of the classroom?” We must carry reverence through the portal of the classroom door, and we must begin to speak it. Reverence as consciousness, belongs in our presence of mind when we teach. ‘Presencing’ (7) as a verb and as a noun comes into play when we read our students like an intriguing book; its plot slowly revealed through time and many editions. Presencing  while teaching is like working from the future into the present; living two streams of time simultaneously as we do when we read ahead just a little, in order to know how to sound or tone our speech while reading a book or poem aloud. These two streams create a powerful current which sweeps us into an embrace and often brings laughter or a sense of play into the moment. The current reveals itself when we encounter the unexpected, the dynamic, and the unknown. It is the sense of being comfortable with an element of surprise. Cultivating this kind of presencing requires a kind of inner directive to be an active listener. Emerson was such a listener as described in the quote:

If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God.  (5)

Students and teachers who engage in this kind of learning in the active dynamic of a classroom trust each other. They trust that they are seen and will continue to be seen, and that both teacher and student alike are part of a greater whole. We can then say that the mystery has been entered. Whatever the subject at hand, listening, and playing to the heartbeat of creating possibilities in a classroom, overcomes learned boredom and the idea that education is a materialistic institution. Meeting the individual with authenticity and integrity and taking our place in the center of the stream in the classroom is described by Emerson:

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of all things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you and all men and all events. (5)

We, like Emerson, Whitman and Steiner, among others, need to trust ourselves and believe wholeheartedly in our own moral imaginations. We need to risk our individualism for this kind of humanity: a humanity which cultivates the capacity for intimacy, dialogue and mutual striving. When these are present, learning and teaching become one thing: Joy. It lives into the mystery of our own infinity, encountering our students in every moment, out of the principle of active love as evidenced in the words of Whitman: “I and this mystery, here we stand.” (2)


1. Buber Martin “I and Thou” Touchstone Press, New York, NY, 1996.

2.Whitman Walt “Leaves of Grass” 1892 Edition Bantam Books 1983 New York (Chant 3 ‘Song of Myself.” , Song of Myself, Chant 25 p43) (Song of Myself Chant 2) (Song of Myself, Chant 27) (Song of Myself p24 chant 3)

3. Steiner Rudolf: “The Redemption of Thinking” A.P.Shepard Ed Anthropsophical Press, Spring Valley New York

4. Steiner Rudolf “Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path” Anthroposophical Press Inc. Hudson, N.Y. 1995

5. Emerson Ralf Waldo “The Selected Writings” Brooks Atkinson Ed Random House Inc, 1950 , Nature pp35, Nature p41,Nature p41) (Nature p27) (Self-reliance p153)

6. Hughes Gertrude Lecture given at the Barfield School of Contemplative Studies, Spring Valley, New York, August 2008.

7. Senge, P., Scharmer, O., Jaworski, J., and Flowers, B., (2004). Presencing: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. New York, New York: Random House Inc.

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