The Value of Learning to Know – The Challenge to Education in a Digital Society

Lecture by Constanza Kaliks, 10th World Teachers' Conference, in: Journal Midsummer No. 57

When we speak of education we are speaking of course of responsible action. We are speaking of what society owes to its newly joining members, those new arrivals who keep surprising us with what they introduce into what is already here. In education we speak of our responsibility for these new arrivals in the world, and for meeting their desire to be welcomed by us. It is them we must thank for the fact that there is a future, as well as a past and a present.

As teachers, therefore we are implicated in future destiny, in the destiny of these new arrivals, by our role in welcoming them. Responsible action is the locus where we as a society find ourselves in relation to those who need this society, need to be introduced into it, so that they can then shape it and change it.

Those who decide to participate actively in education, resolve to act responsibly. Today this is a radical decision, for it presupposes that we know our times, understand their phenomena, that we recognize and intuitively accompany the development of the child as a contemporary of ours and as a self-realizing being, and thus enable his individual intention to be realized within the whole context of reality.

As teachers we move towards a far, uncertain horizon in which the sensory realities surrounding us are losing their clarity and status as criterion for decisions. We have to try to make decisions for an unpredictable future and a changing present. This faces us with a very difficult task, which has important consequences. Do we have sufficient criteria to make such decisions? On what basis can we make them?

One region of this broad horizon is knowledge itself. For education this area has decisive importance: knowledge is the basis of our actions as teachers, and also a key instrument in the educational context itself. And over the past 20 or 30 years, let alone the past 100 years, this area has perhaps changed like no other. Here I’d like to mention two radical ruptures that have profoundly marked our culture.

1. The first is the reality, as we have witnessed it, that knowledge does not necessarily lead to responsible action worthy of humanity. Over the last century, the most inhuman way of relating to other people has lived hand-in-glove with what the Enlightenment regarded as the highest good: thinking sustained by reason. It became clear that culture alone did not inevitably lead to ethical behaviour. And thus people could no longer experience knowledge as a guarantee of humanity. The 20th century showed us this danger – that knowledge and ethics can exist separately, side by side. In the history of that century, therefore, the assumption that knowledge and science would be a pledge of our humanity became invalid. This fact, one likely to be generally acknowledged today, has made deep inroads into previous assumptions, from the Renaissance onwards, that knowledge was a sure foundation for human life.

2. The second rupture is that the content of knowledge and the act of cognition are no longer experienced as directly connected. Content increasingly becomes information, data.

We are quickly getting used to this; and it has a dramatic impact on the foundations of education: knowledge as an instrument of self-realization and our connection with the world is here put in doubt. Do we need knowledge to experience a connection with the world?

Today, simply by owning a mobile phone, we are in possession of far more data than we are able to assimilate. It has become part of our awareness that the content of knowledge is unsurveyable in its scope.

‘I know that I know nothing’ was how Socrates defined the perspective granted him by self-knowledge, an assertion about the self. Nowadays we might say, ‘I know that I could know’; and the feeling this gives us is that ‘I know all knowledge is mutable and subject to context. I use information as and when I need it.’ What is the value of knowledge in a society whose wealth of information exceeds all capacity to adopt a position about it?

‘We discover what we have invented.’[1] This statement by Vilém Flusser seems apt for our modern, questioning stance – in a digital world in which we increasingly, and also unknowingly, live.

We are preoccupied with ‘…discovering what we have invented’: In all areas of life, from medicine to agriculture, from sociology to education, we are preoccupied with the changes, the impact, the consequences, the possibilities and the open questions of digital reality. And we also discover ourselves in what we have invented. We discover our humanity by coming up against something it cannot penetrate.

These questions are ones we can pose as teachers in relationship to our pupils. And we can also ask how we ourselves should shape our relationship with knowing, with cognition, so that it corresponds to the task of education. To put this more specifically, the question here is this: What relationship can we, and do we want to, develop with knowledge today, above all in respect of our task as teachers and in our resolve to act responsibly?

The thesis proposed here is that our relationship to knowledge will come to play an ever more important role in establishing conditions worthy of human dignity and in allowing individual expression.

And yet, what kind of knowledge will be relevant in this context? What kind of thinking enables it to live, and cultivates its development? How can I form an image of the human being, the child, conceive of the future, so that my thinking does not limit and constrain this image?

To do this, thinking would need to fulfil certain conditions, three of which I will refer to here by way of example, since to me they seem key to responsible action, to the decisions we will need to make as teachers, and repeatedly face us with the uncertainty that challenges us to develops inner strength and warm assurance:

1. The topology of knowledge – autonomy and empowerment in the homogenous information context

Information as data does not offer us any distinctions, any differences of relevance: it forms something like a landscape without features or topology. Ranking, or assignment of a piece of information in the overall information context is a decision that falls to the thinking, perceiving, seeking – that is, the intending – self. If the self withdraws from this task, randomness or another’s decision, or chance, become the governing criterion for ranking information contents.

What will tell me what information is of more importance for a complex of knowledge, what has relevance, and what is secondary? Experience is an important element in determining this. Life itself, our experience – also our experience of knowing things – is an important element in distinguishing between things of primary and secondary importance. In other words, experience is a conspicuous element in a topology of knowledge content. And experience is always singular. How I meet reality and it meets me, and how I help shape it in my perception, is a unique creative, engendering act, an unrepeateable moment of conception. That doesn’t mean that it is random or ‘purely subjective’: it is always an interaction between the two elements that constitute reality: between what I am and what comes towards me. My individual view of reality will be decisive in shaping a topology of the landscape of knowledge.

In the book Rudolf Steiner wrote in 1907, The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science, he writes about the education of the three soul faculties that develop differently over the course of childhood and adolescence. He says there that a person is only ready to start developing powers of judgement at puberty:

[…] At puberty the time has arrived when a person is also ready to form his own view of things he has learned previously. You can do nothing worse to a person than awaken his own judgement too early. We can only judge once we have stored up within ourselves the content that helps us do so through comparison. This foundation is lacking if we form our own judgements prematurely. […] To develop maturity of thinking we have to have acquired respect for what others have thought. […] You see, every judgement that is not built on the proper foundations of the soul’s riches, casts stones of hindrance on a person’s life path. Once we have formed a judgement about something, this will always influence us: we no longer absorb an experience as we would have done if we had not formed a judgement connected with it. In young people a sense must live of first learning and then judging.[2]

In the digital world, in which breadth, depth and nuance cannot immediately be derived from the sea of information, judgement by a self-determining person who can make decisions based on a proper foundation of judgement and experience, thus shaping the landscape of knowledge, will assume ever greater importance. Particularly in the digital world, judgement is decisive for knowledge, and acquires still more of a key role.

Alongside this – parallel to the faculty of judgement which enables us to differentiate within a field of knowable things –  the open question plays an important role in the quest for knowledge, and can emerge as an experiential expectation.

In his work, On the Pursuit of Wisdom, Nicolaus Cusanus describes how a person does not seek what is entirely unknown to him but what he intuits – something of which he has a pregustatio, a foretaste. He then follows this hint like someone, seeking a rose, who smells its fragrance; or like someone hunting a prey whose presence he intimates and whose footprints he sees. Such a pregustatio would be one condition for knowledge that is experiential and sympathetic. This intimating sense could help determine the topology of knowledge in our autonomous search for insight, making content or information into opportunities for a self-governing cognition.

2. Connection. The I experiences itself in the world

The 20th century destroyed faith in the sublimity of reason in respect of ethics, of responsible action. Experience of man’s inhumanity to man clearly showed that knowledge does not necessarily engender morality. And yet the 20th century also saw the discovery of the ‘I’ in its primary quality, its inherent connection with the other and the world.

In differing ways, and from different perspectives, Rudolf Steiner, Martin Buber, Viktor Frankl, Emmanuel Lévinas and others describe this new element, this really shattering knowledge: the I does not first exist and subsequently connect its ‘existence’ with others and the world, but it is connection: connection itself is what constitutes the I.

Writing in 1911, Rudolf Steiner states that we should not see the I as dwelling within our bodily organism, and the impressions we receive entering us from without. Instead we should picture the I as placing itself into the pattern and lawfulness of things and finding in our bodily organism, as in a mirror, only what is reflected back there from the I’s activity outside the body in the transcendent realm to the I of our organic, corporeal activity.[3]

From a different perspective we find Emmanuel Lévinas writing of the certainty of the self that can only be assured by the other:

No cogito can any longer guarantee the certainty of what I am, and scarcely even the certainty that I am. This existence, dependent on acknowledgement by the other, without which it regards itself as insignificant, as unreal reality, becomes entirely phenomenal.[4]

But when the I meets itself in the ‘pattern of things’, the connection to this pattern, these laws, become a decisive experience, a fundamental and constitutive I experience. With new urgency the question then arises as to how my connection with the other and the world unfolds. In this context, knowledge acquires a central role as our possibility of connecting with, and being engaged in, the world. Here, rather than discoursing at more length on this idea, I would like to cite a passage from a lecture by Steiner at the worker’s educational institute in Berlin, where he speaks about Nicolaus Cusanus:

[…] When someone becomes aware of the thought that brings the law into being in things, and feels this as his own law springing within him, then the inherent reality of things resounds in his soul: he becomes intimate with things, as a friend becomes intimate. […] This is the resounding echo of the nature of things in the human being’s own soul. There he feels united with the power of God. This is to hear the harmony of the spheres, of the creating law of the world; this is to be interwoven with existence so that things themselves speak to us, so that they speak out of us through the language of our soul. Then we have reached a sphere which Cusanus says no words can express.[5]

We have become habituated to a kind of knowledge which veils from us the reality of life, the abundance of life. The mathematization of the world, science’s great modern attribute, which enables it to measure and articulate all phenomena through a unified language, has increasingly distanced us from the full abundance of phenomena themselves.

One-sided pursual of competencies cannot be a valid selection criterion for a thinking that allows life entry. Such a thinking must be mobile, must develop the power to form and shape, to remain in movement, and exist in shaping activity. 

3. Nurturing and protecting the invisible

Thus our connection to the will arises: As an adult, can I develop a thinking so imbued with will that it can itself shape, configure, bring forth world?

Rudolf Steiner describes this relationship between thinking and will in relation to meditation. In the ‘Pedagogical Youth Course’ he speaks as follows of the nature of thinking that leads to spiritual-scientific knowledge:

All spiritual science must prompt us to [this kind of] inner activity; that is, it must lead all our reflections to the point where we no longer have any support from external, sensory perception, and where instead there must be a free play of inner powers. […] The foundation for all anthroposophic spiritual science, therefore, is our inner activity, the invoking of inner activity, an appeal to what can still be active in us when all the senses fall silent and only our thinking activity is at work. […]

Assume, therefore, that you could have a pure flow of thoughts. Then the moment will begin for you when you have led thinking to a point when it no longer has to be called thinking at all. […] This thinking, rightly called ‘pure thinking’, has become pure will: it is will through and through.  If you have advanced inwardly to the point of freeing thinking from external perception, then it has at the same time become pure will. […] This pure flow of thoughts has become a flow of will. But this means that thinking, and even the exertion made to practise it, begins not only to be a thinking exercise but a will exercise, and indeed one that reaches to, and encompasses, our human centre. […] But now you feel inwardly that you no longer think so high up but are beginning to think with your chest. You do in fact interweave your thinking with the breathing process. Here you are stimulating something that the yoga exercises have sought to do artificially. As thinking increasingly becomes an activity of will, you notice that it is first released from the human chest and then from the whole human body. […] A new, inner human being has been born within you, and can unfold will out of the spirit.[6]

In our quest to know and perceive, this connection between thinking and will as the foundation of meditation can facilitate cognition that allows us – albeit only tentatively to begin with - to see the other also in what can only be intimated. This would be a kind of knowing that opens the teacher to a connection with the other, his otherness affirmed in responsible action through a broader perspective on reality.

Here we arrive at the third basic condition for this responsible action, for decisions which we must make as teachers. Edgar Morin ends his  text, Enseigner à Vivre,[7] published in 2014, by asserting that it will become vital for education to cultivate and protect something that does not directly manifest in the human being. This points, as a core educational concern, to a pedagogical aspect that can open up to the teacher in the daily encounter with pupils.

As teachers we must use our intuition: we intuit the person who stands before us, we intimate the future. What kind of knowledge can intimation allow and cultivate of what is not manifest and apparent?

The developing I engages the realm of the will: the will ‘brightens’ when a person can participate in truth in his process of cognition. Where we enable a pupil to grow active in his will through the process of cognition, we ‘cultivate’ what is not visible in him.

And from this realm of the deeply indwelling will, the impulse to be active in the world also arises: to change it, to act responsibly oneself. This is the locus where perceiving possible meanings and needs in differing situations can be learned. This meaningfulness opens up through a connection with the other and the world. Victor Frankl was able to articulate this very precisely:

Here we encounter a phenomenon that I see as fundamentally anthropological: the self-transcendence of human existence! What I wish to characterize here is the fact that being human points beyond itself to something it is not – to something or someone: a meaning that must be fulfilled, or to the life of another human being which we lovingly encounter. We fulfil ourselves by serving a cause or loving a person. We become more human, more ourselves, the more we dedicate ourselves to, and merge with, our task, the more devoted we are to our partner. We can only realize ourselves to the degree that we forget and overlook ourselves.[8]

All who work in education face the challenge of facilitating a form of knowledge that masters a digital world, and equally makes life and human qualities its point of departure and goal. This is a form of knowing that continually seeks to become more human, making possible the kinds of decisions that support and affirm the uniqueness of the individual and his social significance. 

[1]          Flusser, Vilém. Apud BURCKHARDT, Martin, HOEFER, Dirk: Alles und Nichts. Ein Pandämonium der digitalen Weltvernichtung. Berlin: Matthes&Seitz, 2015, p. 139

[2]          STEINER, Rudolf, Die Erziehung des Kindes vom Gesichtspunkte der Geisteswissenschaft. GA 33. Dornach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag 1988, p. 38, 39, 40 and 41.

[3]          STEINER, Rudolf, Das gespiegelte Ich. Der Bologna-Vortrag – die philosophischen Grundlagen der Anthroposophie. Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag 2010, p. 53, 54.

[4]          LEVINAS, Emmanuel, Zwischen uns. Versuche über das Denken an den Anderen. Munich, Karl Hanser Verlag 1995, p. 37.

[5]          STEINER, Rudolf, Über Philosophie, Geschichte und Literatur. Darstellungen an der Arbeiterbildungsschule und der Freien Hochschule in Berlin. Dornach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag 1983, GA 51. Lecture of 12 November 1904, p. 214, 215.

[6]          STEINER, Rudolf, Pädagogischer Jugendkurs, GA 217, Lecture 10. Stuttgart 12.10.1922. Dornach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag 1988, p. 148-149.

[7]          Cf. MORIN, Edgar, Enseigner à Vivre. Manifeste pour change l’éducation. Actes Sud 2014, p.122.

[8]          FRANKL, Victor, Der Mensch vor der Frage nach dem Sinn, Munich, Piper 2011, p. 147. Published in English as Man’s Search for Meaning.

translated by Matthew Barton