Reclaiming childhood - re-enchanting education and learning

by Richard House


LONDON (NNA) - On 12 September, the Daily Telegraph, one of the largest circulation quality newspapers in Britain, published an open letter titled “Modern life leads to more depression among children”, signed by over 100 prominent public and professional figures. The letter expressed grave concerns about the loss of childhood in contemporary life – and the urgent need for an informed public debate about what we might do about it. An accompanying front-page article was headlined “Junk culture ‘is poisoning our children’”. The following day, the Telegraph launched a Campaign under the banner “Hold Onto Childhood”. In this article for NNA, one the letter’s two co-organisers, Dr Richard House of Roehampton University, describes the backdrop to the letter and the relevance that a specifically spiritual dimension has to the grave issues that it raises.


“Children need to be free of the pressure to make adult choices if they are ever to learn how to make adult choices.” Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams


The media has been awash with the issue of “childhood” and its place in modern technological culture since our press story broke on 12 September; and its not inconsiderable backwash is now reaching all over the globe - Australia, the Philippines, North America, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Brazil.


Media stories not dissimilar to this one have “bombed” into obscurity time and time again over the years. With others, I have been - fairly thanklessly - endeavouring to raise these issues in the media and with policy-makers for some years - and with little if any substantive success. It is perhaps a sad state of affairs that it has taken the orchestrated backing of a collection of professional experts and high-profile figures for an issue that has been glaringly obvious for so long to so many (not least, those in the global Waldorf movement) to at last be taken seriously by the world’s media. (Though it was a close call – several newspapers turned the story down until the Telegraph stepped forward with the courage to run the story as its front-page headline.)


In this article I wish to emphasise the spiritual aspects of this extraordinary media story. For those who have not seen the open letter in full (see www.letsengage.co.uk), it is important to mention that the term “spiritual” is notably absent from the text. From my standpoint as a trained Steiner teacher for whom “the spiritual dimension” is central to my concerns, that is indeed a major omission. Yet in a letter of this kind, to which a diverse range of figures were invited to sign up, it was expediently necessary to pitch it as widely as possible, and not to introduce terms or perspectives that would have put off or alienated at least some of those we approached.


I have recently been reading the engaging book Lost Icons by Archbishop of Canterbury, the admirable Dr Rowan Williams - a splendid book which addresses many of the issues that our open letter raises. On the Sunday and Monday following our media coup, Rowan was adding his considerable voice to our arguments about the degradation and loss of childhood. With our own media story being followed in quick succession by the UK Children’s Society’s special 2-year national inquiry into “Good Childhood”, and also Baroness Susan Greenfield’s new All-Party Parliamentary Group looking at childhood and technology, it is at times like this that one wonders whether indeed the angels are working for us behind the scenes!


To highlight just two of the kinds of spiritual concerns that our open letter implicitly raises: there is of course the critique of one-sided materialism and instrumental utilitarianism which I believe most, if not all, of our signatories share; and also the audit, testing and “surveillance culture” that is engulfing not only Britain’s schooling system, but also many schools throughout the Western world.


Certainly, all of the evidence, empirical and anecdotal, points to the enormous damage done to children’s learning experience by this arid and anxiety-creating culture, which is itself in turn symptomatic of the arrant (and in my view, highly inappropriate) politicisation of education, and the concomitant de-professionalisation of the teacher’s role, which becomes reduced to little more than the supine deliverer of central government’s narrowly conceived political targeting agenda. In the Waldorf movement, of course, we place a great premium on the artistic creativity and responsible (and responsive) autonomy of the teacher.


The founder of Waldorf education and anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, resoundingly emphasised the damage that is done when the teacher’s autonomy is severely compromised. Thus he wrote: ”In a state school, everything is strictly defined… everything is planned with exactitude. With us, everything depends on the free individuality of each single teacher… Classes are entrusted entirely to the individuality of the class teacher;… what we seek to achieve must be achieved in the most varied ways…. It is never a question of external regulations…. What you actually are… is the most essential thing of all for the child. If… mechanical thinking is carried into education,… there is no longer any natural gift for approaching the child himself.”


I am also interested in the “performance” of schools which possess a “spiritual” ethos (however we might define that term) In a recent article in the British Independent newspaper (15 June), Stephen Law argued that there is nothing special about what he somewhat misleadingly terms “religious schooling”. What this kind of utilitarian secularism seems to ignore is that schools that have some kind of spiritual foundation - whether the latter involves the formal “teaching” of religion or not - have something crucial to offer the developing souls of children, which secular schooling neglects. Although, of course, we must be very wary of judging school quality on the basis of the bald results of a crassly superficial testing-and-examination regime, it is surely no coincidence that so-called “religious” schools perform better on all of these performance indicators than otherwise-comparable mainstream schools.


We might well profitably argue about the definition of “religious” versus “spiritual”, but it seems unquestionable that a schooling experience that recognises some notion of “soul” and “spirit” (however we might define those terms), thereby offering children a sensitively holistic and meaningful learning environment, cannot but give children something that is priceless, and which is inevitably missing from schools in which a meaning-conferring spiritual ethos is lacking.


Another theological thinker who picked up on these issues was Brian Thorne (one of the open letter’s signatories) in his book Infinitely Beloved: The Challenge of Divine Intimacy (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003). In his book, Brian - a world authority on the person-centred counselling approach of Carl Rogers - starkly sets out many of the arguments made in our open letter, especially with regard to the “hyper-modernised” materialistic culture of which he is a trenchant critic.


I personally found Brain’s scarcely concealed anger towards, and contempt for, the ravages of crass materialism and the soulless surveillance culture (a “perverse value system to which… we have all but succumbed”) especially compelling. “If we are to begin to live in a new world where there is… only change and process,” Thorne writes, “we need to escape from the slavery of the materialistic god.” On this view, what is urgently needed is a re-visioning of human nature and a re-enchanting of our world, both of which are, arguably, necessary preconditions for humankind’s continued existence and spiritual flourishing in and beyond the death throes of “late modernity”. These are themes with which anthroposophists can surely unite with those of other spiritual traditions and persuasions.


As a trained and working Steiner teacher, I would like to mention the schools set up on the lines of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy. Anyone who has experienced the atmosphere in, and the quality of work done in, the Steiner schools cannot but be impressed by just what is possible in a schooling milieu that eschews mechanistic utilitarianism, privileges beauty and developmental appropriateness in learning, and strives for an educational experience which is balanced and holistic in the best sense of that term.


Here in the United Kingdom, we were greatly heartened when the Department for Education-sponsored Woods Report came out in 2004, concluding that the mainstream had much to learn from the Steiner educational approach. As happens so often with reports of that kind, it has gathered much ‘official’ dust since - yet with this new global media story on childhood, we can perhaps hope that that report will be re-visited by government, and some serious engagement with Steiner principles and pedagogical practices pursued.


Since the media story broke, Sue Palmer and I have received large numbers of communications from all manner of individuals and organisations who strongly agree with our stance on childhood; and there is a tangible sense that we have set free a genie from a bottle, which the forces of materialism will now find it quite impossible to re-capture.


At Roehampton University in London, for example, we are taking the momentum forward with a special one-day ‘Discussion Forum’ in December, to which ministers and shadow ministers are being invited; and there are also plans for a book on childhood and a major international conference in the Spring of 2007. Our overriding goal is to transcend the local parochialism of left-right political prejudices, and to forge a new cross-party consensus on this most urgent of cultural questions.


There have of course been many challenges to our arguments - not least from newspapers seemingly wishing to spoil their competitor’s story, and in some cases threatening to take the notion of ‘sour grapes’ to quite new levels of meaning! Yet the essentially threadbare nature of the criticisms that have appeared, and the overwhelming public support for the concerns we have raised, suggests that this just might be a momentous, a rare defining turning-point in “late modernity”. I warmly invite readers to engage with this “cultural moment” in whatever ways they are able, so that its momentum proves to be quite unstoppable.

Richard House Ph.D. is senior lecturer in psychotherapy and counselling at Roehampton University (London), and has been instrumental in the founding and development of Norwich Steiner School, Norfolk, UK, where he works part time in the early years. He is also co-founder of the new anthroposophical company Ur Publications and Programmes, Inc., Montreal. You can contact him at: [email protected]

For updates and news on the debate as it unfolds, please see the news item “Toxic childhood – Junk Culture”, maintained by Richard House on www.letsengage.co.uk – a University of Roehampton web site.

Item: 061005-01EN Date: 5 October 2006

Copyright 2006 News Network Anthroposophy Limited. All rights reserved. See http://www.nna-news.org/copyright/

More NNA reports at: www.nna-news.org