Public Waldorf education is founded on a coherent image of the developing human being

By Charles Burkam, JD

What is the “coherent image of the developing human being” that this first core principle describes? In Waldorf education, it is commonly understood that there are three aspects to a human being, expressed in various ways—body, mind and soul; body, soul and spirit; head, heart and hands; thinking, feeling, willing. However, the four-fold nature of the human being is an equally important part of the coherent image.

First, there is a physical part, the most visible of the four aspects—a body, made up of chemicals and elements that can be segregated and analyzed in a laboratory.

Second, there is a force that brings those physical components to life. This life force has many names—chi, vital force and, in Waldorf circles, the etheric. Where does that etheric life force come from? It permeates all living things. One can imagine it by looking at an individual plant as it grows. It rises up from the seed out of the earth. A stem with two leaves stands up, the plant grows upward over time. The plant has a “blueprint” for itself within the seed, but it is the etheric forces that activate it to grow and “fill out” that blueprint. The etheric permeates and sustains life.

The third aspect of the human being, the astral, is shared only with animals. It is the ability to connect, to form relationships, with others. This relational realm is where feelings arise and live. This constituent part lives not only within a given individual body, but can extend beyond. In fact, since these forces exist on their own, they create a kind of communication network with the possibility of maintaining connections and enduring relationships, and an ability to sense or communicate feelings without direct contact. Once a relationship is established, one person can often sense a reaction from the other person without having to touch them, without speaking and even without being in the same physical space. It is now well documented that twins on opposite portions of the earth can have shared sensations that only one has directly felt.

Lastly, the fourth constituent of the human being is the ego. This is the individual spark that makes each human unique and brings specific gifts, creative potential, and intentions to this life. The ego is what allows a human being to be independent, make decisions, and be able to determine a unique path through life. 
It is what raises the human being to a different level than the animal, to be a true, self-directed individual, rather than be merely one of the herd.

The most simple statement about the relationship between these four constituents and the threefold nature of the human being is that the body is primarily composed of the physical and etheric; the soul interacts primarily within the etheric and astral; and the mind/spirit is most closely connected with the astral and ego.

The teachers’ understanding of all four levels— physical, etheric, astral and ego—and of their interactions during child development deepens over the years through observing and interacting with students. This understanding, combined with the structure of the curriculum, allows Public Waldorf education to address the physical, emotional, intellectual, social, cultural, moral, and spiritual needs of the developing child, helping them integrate into a maturing whole.

■ Charles Burkam, JD, is on the board of the Alliance, and currently is the Executive Director of Desert Marigold School in Phoenix, AZ. He was instrumental in crafting the Core Principles of the Alliance and is active in the development of the new membership process.

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