The Adolescent Years

The transition from childhood to youth brings many challenges. The young person needs guidance for the critical faculty of judgment is not yet awake. He/she guards jealously the little flame of independence of which he now becomes aware. There is a longing for self-expression and little ability to express—this gives rise to all manner of crudities. There is quick resentment over little things. Moods swing easily from elation to depression. The will to love and be loved brings confusing emotions and desires. Temptations come strong. Vanities play their part. In a chaotic environment where the adults themselves live in fear, anxiety and contradiction, what can these young people do?

Moral appeals may bolster up “the good” but they have little effect on “the wicked.” Where is the method? Things that were once considered “bad” are now considered “not so bad.” Alternatively, morality is busily in search of scapegoats. Meanwhile the adolescent, no longer just a child to authority and not yet an adult responsible to himself, does as best he can; for the most part he seeks refuge in his own kind. But the sensitive and susceptible suffer acutely. A disturbed life of youth may easily wreck a whole lifetime. Theories do not help. For the youngster most of all, proof of the pudding lies in the eating.

Two questions occur:
How can we best prepare for adolescence?
How can we best educate the adolescent?

Waldorf education claims that childhood makes one whole. As surely as a plant has root and leaf and blossom and yet is indivisible in its unity, so surely does childhood comprise its three main phases, pre-dentition, elementary years to puberty, and adolescence, each succeeding the other in the one great process of becoming ‘Man.’

In this total range of childhood there is a natural progression from limb to heart to head. That which the little child can learn to do, that which the elementary child can learn to feel, the adolescent can learn to understand.

The little child lives primarily by imitating all that is around him. His open consciousness, little aware of “self,” allows the world to stream into him just as it is; in this sense nothing escapes him. For him the world is action, (thoughts and feeling also act upon him.)

The child in the elementary school years lives first and foremost by his feelings. What we remember best in later years are the things we felt most. In these years, education is of the heart, not yet by precepts/concepts but by an appeal to the imagination. The ideas of good and bad mean nothing to a child of seven; but a story with contrasting characters, the one “good,” the other “bad,” though the words be never mentioned (it is best to leave the story to speak for itself) will go straight to the child’s heart.

The child, wakening from infancy, builds up an inner world of impressions penetrated with feeling. Even as he approaches the more thoughtful years from twelve to fourteen, it is still a “felt” thinking, a thinking with the heart.

Whereas the adolescent looks outward with a new gaze and also inward. All that he/she has quietly assimilated through his childhood years, all he/she has learned and felt and practiced, the capacities he/she has been able to develop, the difficulties he/she has had to encounter—these now meet him/her at the level of thought. He/she enters upon the phase of learning to know the self, of having to learn how to face oneself. He/she recognizes his world, the world he/she is to enter fully one day, the world of enterprise in which he/she must play his/her part.

Independent thought does not come overnight, nor does it come equally to all children. It is generally blurred in the ninth grade, comes to clarity in the tenth, and grows to relative strength in the eleventh and twelfth grades, but it invariably brings with it a force of personal enthusiasm for life. If it does not, then something is badly amiss already.

The adolescents want to believe in the world, they want to love and approve their age, wants to have confidence in life, to enjoy and admire and even idealize the achievements that confront them. They want to be modern, to accept what is there as their right, and will easily drive them to rebellion.

But now, by degrees, there come the contradictions. They see the inconsistencies in adult life, first astonished, then bewildered, and then unhappily dismayed. In their first burst of confidence, they may easily mistake good for evil, evil for good. They begin to question their childhood faith—that they believed because others believed. They question the opinions of the parents and the authority of teachers. As they enter the most sensitive years at seventeen and eighteen, they nurse many a doubt and sorrow in secret. They want someone whom they can trust and follow, one of their own choosing. Where can she/he find this hero? Is there truth? If so, what is truth? What is life really based on?

Youth is naturally introspective. Is there a God? Who knows? Not all will place their questions as radically as this or as consciously. Some will, but all carry them in mood and feeling; this is the bond of communion the young have with one another, fellows in adventure, partners in crime.

This is where the challenges begin for the adolescent, for the parents and teachers. What can life offer? At the same time life does offer many attractions and rouses many desires and longings. Even these bring inner conflicts and moral doubts. For them- Life is sadly inconsistent, yet they want strong men and gracious women and a generation that loves the truth.

All this puts the greatest possible burden of responsibility on the early years of growing itself. If the adolescent has been rightly protected in his/her early years, if he/she has felt the force of goodness and the strength of beauty, he/she will also find his/her way to truth. Then the security of the heart will come to meet the doubts of the head and the turbulence of the will.

All through the Waldorf grades, they have been taught through art and science, in such a way that they can clearly discriminate between fact and theory, that fact will always hold the truth in itself but theories have changed and will change again. Through the curriculum stories they unconsciously, understand that life is a conflict and always has been and that it must be so. There are thoughts that add to the content of life, that make it nobler, and others that take away, reducing man to an ignoble thing. There are dragons to fight in this age as in all ages, and the call for inner strength, as strong as ever.

The animal lives by desire; humans can acquire motives to combat desire. The plant lives by necessity; humans can call to their aid powers of self-determination. The crystal is bound to its form; humans can strive for inner form and can also transform. Creation is bound in law, and humans are also bound—but we can unbind. Defeat is not the end but only the spur to further effort, and there have been victories and human beings have never yet been finally defeated. In the end all rests on the initiative of mankind, whether we can draw up from the depths of our own being the powers we need to humanize existence.

The greatest have known that freedom can be born only from within, even as manhood itself must be born from within— nothing can make for true manhood other than man himself. Every child needs at the different levels of his/her growing to discover his/her, own inherent powers, so that in adult life he or she may truly find him/herself.

For the adolescent, the adults should be a witness for truth. Their knowledge needs to be rooted in the realities of human nature; realities that far transcend the light of common day. The perilous years of adolescence require such a knowledge in the adults in their life; then the stability engendered in the first years of childhood, the training in social relationships and heart-fitness of the middle years with parents and teachers, flower into a right independence of outlook, right discrimination and judgment, right confidence and right initiative in the adolescent. But that this may come about at its best, we need to guide the child progressively through all his formative years.

An adolescent begins to waken to him/herself, then he/she begins to waken to the earth as a whole, followed by deep questioning into the meaning of life, and then he/she may come to the assurance that the ultimate answer rests in man himself.

They learn to see that the contradictions which surround them are of human making and may be resolved again, that in this lies the task of evolution and that life is a call to action. He/she has learned to value each person. This his childhood will have given him to take into adult life. The details he will by then, have forgotten but the attitude and the endeavour he will remember. He/she will have been prepared to enter life with all their might.