Grandparents & Friends Day Address by David Sloan,

10/25/13

          Good morning and welcome, grandparents. If I may, how many of you attended last year's Grandparents' Day?  And how many of you remember what I spoke about?   That's OK—neither do I.  This way I don't have to worry about repeating myself!

         Actually Waldorf education has been in the news, both directly and indirectly, quite a bit since we last met.   Just a couple of weeks ago news agencies around the world announced that Thomas Sudhof, a professor at Stanford University, shared with two other researchers the Nobel Prize in medicine.  What set the Waldorf world all aflutter was the revelation that Thomas Sudhof was a Waldorf alumnus, having graduated from the Hanover Waldorf School in Germany in 1975.  He has worked for over 25 years exploring how neurons in the brain communicate with one another.

       Now I must confess that when I tried to understand his research in more detail—about neurotransmitter-containing vesicles and pre-synaptic terminals—my own neurons started to clog up and my eyes glazed over.  However, I did stumble upon one intriguing discovery amid the coverage about Sudhof in an interview he recently gave, in which he attributes much of his success as a scientist to one of his high school teachers.  Of course one would expect to find that it was a biology teacher or some other science teacher who had inspired Sudhof, but no—he actually credited his bassoon instructor as being the most influential individual in his education, for teaching him "that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours."

       I mention this because it seems very Waldorfian of Sudhof to recognize the cross-disciplinary benefits he experienced as a Waldorf student.  They may not all realize it yet, but your grandchildren are benefiting from the same cross-disciplinary curriculum that Thomas Sudhof appreciated.  Every week, they practice the recorder, or sing in a chorus, or play a stringed or wind instrument in an ensemble.  This goes on in Waldorf schools all over the world.  While music programs have been whittled away or sacrificed entirely in other schools because they've been viewed as non-essential frills, music continues to play a central role in the lives of every Waldorf student, and not just because it's a nice social activity, or because it might become a nice pastime later in life for your grandsons or granddaughters to be able to dust off their old cello or bassoon and play a little tune in honor of your 90th birthday. 

        Recent scientific studies have confirmed what Waldorf educators have known intuitively for nearly a century—that playing music is a "whole brain" activity, that it promotes cognitive development, social-emotional awareness, and the ability to focus one's attention.  In other words, it strengthens children's thinking, feeling and ability to exercise their will, those three capacities that Rudolf Steiner believed was so critical that he designed a whole model of schooling to cultivate them. 

          Now We can't guarantee that your violin-screeching or clarinet-squawking grandson or granddaughter will become a Nobel-prize winning scientist—or even a competent musician—but we can say with some assurance that having been a Waldorf student, he or she will be a more disciplined, more creative, more artistically attuned adult.

        I don't want this to sound too Waldorf-congratulatory, but the scientific community seems to be catching up to Waldorf education in other areas as well. Recent research has validated one Waldorf pedagogical approach or another.  Take handwriting, for example.  We all know that with the technological tsunami that has engulfed our culture, handwriting has become nearly obsolete, especially among the young.   Go into classrooms across the globe, including kindergartens, and you will find children clicking away, mesmerized by their laptops and ipads. Where in the world would you find a child taking the time and energy to exert herself applying pen to paper, laboriously making those archaic loops and lines, when she could use a keyboard to type an essay in a fraction of the time?

        Waldorf classrooms may be among the last bastions where handwriting is practiced, even elevated to an art form. Waldorf teachers have long believed that the discipline, the visual and spatial awareness, the sustained attention required when we hand write has positive effects on children's development.  A study at Indiana University last year substantiated this.  Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare two groups of preschoolers—one having learned letters by typing, the other by handwriting.  The scans showed that the brains of the children in the typing group didn't distinguish between letters nearly as well as the handwriting group.  In short, children who learn letters by hand—as they have always done in Waldorf schools—may have an easier time learning to read, and retaining what they do read.  

       By the way, another related study in China showed that when aging subjects took up Chinese calligraphy for eight weeks, their cognitive faculties—especially their memory function—improved, while that of those who didn't participate got worse. So there's a helpful tip for any of us grandparents who can't remember where you last put your reading glasses or your car keys—for the keys, try your freezer.  That's where I found mine.

        Now the prominence we give to handwriting necessarily means that digital devices are absent in early childhood and elementary school classrooms.  And this is by design.  Again, Waldorf education may seem old-fashioned in this regard, but we distinguish very carefully between what's appropriate for older adolescents and grownups and what it’s healthy for younger children. Most of us grownups are dazzled by the almost weekly advances in gadgetry; How did people ever find each other in airports before cell phones?  How did we ever keep track of all our appointments before blackberrys?  How did we ever manage to get from Freeport to Rockport without our portable gps systems?  Surely we all realize how these devices have improved our adult lives.

       Or have they?  From the invention of the plough to Velcro, to the latest app, technology has always offered the promise making our lives easier, more efficient, more comfortable, less stressful. But here’s one question--Are our daily lives today—in October, 2013—filled with more or less anxiety and stress than in pre-digital decades?  Well, if you believe the statistics, upwards of 25% of people in this country are afflicted with some type of anxiety.  Here’s another way of putting it:  “One out of every four Americans suffers from some form of mental or emotional disorder. Think of your three best friends. If they're okay, then it's you.”

       Here at Merriconeag we are doing our best to combat such anxiety by fostering capacities that will serve our children well when they leave the protective embrace of family and school.  One of the most important of these capacities is confidence—confidence that they will  think of creative approaches to complex problems that arise, confidence that they will be able to summon their inner sense of resilience and determination to bounce back from setbacks, confidence in their ability to read social situations and then interact positively. 

       This last capacity has often been considered too qualitative to assess objectively—until this month, that is, when a team from the New School for Social Research published a study in the prestigious journal Science.  The study found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or different types of non-fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social awareness and emotional intelligence—all essential skills in any social or professional situation requiring, say, reading someone's body language, or interpreting another person's mood or tone of voice—which is just about every minute of every day that you are interacting with other human beings.

       Now Waldorf schools certainly don't have a monopoly on introducing their students to literary fiction.  We can, however, boast of a rich tradition of storytelling that informs the entire curriculum, and it starts very, very early, with the puppet plays in the early childhood center, to the fairy tales and fables of the early grades, to the Norse and Greek and Indian myths of the middle grades.  And in the high school, the storytelling doesn't stop.  Why, just this fall, the ninth graders have been reading a beautiful contemporary coming-of-age novel, Purple Hibiscus, by the female Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, while the eleventh graders have been reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the seniors grappled with Goethe's Faust.  I've only skipped over the tenth graders because they've been studying The Bill of Rights in social studies, but later in the spring they'll be reading another literary classic—Homer's Odyssey.  They span centuries and cultures, but these books all share the same attributes—they are ripping good tales that also provide windows into our all-too-human condition and apparently also help refine our ability to read the nuances of human behavior.

        Perhaps I can end with a little story that you may be familiar with.  It comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the current eleventh and twelfth grades performed it as a play two years ago.  Baucis and Philemon have lived as husband and wife into their old age. They are visited by two gods dressed as beggars, who have descended to earth to look for truly kind-hearted people. After the gods have had numerous doors shut in their faces, Baucis and Philemon offer to share with their guests their meager fare. For their generosity, the couple is given a single wish. The couple decides that rather than riches or eternal youth, they simply wish to die at the same time. “I’d hate to see my wife’s grave,” says Philemon, “or have her weep at mine.” (p. 82).

       The gods grant their wish. Baucis and Philemon grow into even older age together; then one day they discover that they are sprouting leaves, that their limbs are beginning to twist into intertwining branches. They just have time to say farewell to one another as the bark covers their mouths.  In Mary Zimmerman’s play, the narrators ringing the actors explain that at night, you can still hear,

 

stirring in the intermingled branches of the trees above,

the ardent prayer of Baucis and Philemon. 

They whisper: ‘Let me die the moment my love dies.’

They whisper, ‘Let me not outlive my capacity to love.’

They whisper, ‘Let me die still loving, and so, never die.’

 

This is why we teach stories in every grade of the Waldorf school.  In tales such as these, the children learn that love remains the most transformative force in life.  And that is what Waldorf education is really all about—not just preparing your grandchildren to go to college or hold down a job—but to participate in the miracle of self-transformation, which is also what the music they sing and play, and the handwriting they practice, and the stories they read, help them to do, so that they may transform for the better a world in desperate need of healing.