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Sowing the seeds of tolerance in the face of violence.

Schools in many of our cities resemble armed camps. Active tolerance capable of overcoming outer provocation begins to grow when children feel themselves to be secure in their surroundings. Waldorf schools and Kindergartens throughout the world work to develop tolerance and self respect. It is of considerable importance for the growing child to be surrounded by adults who seek to resolve conflicts through communication.

In microcosm, the world of children reflects the adult world in which they grow up. In school playgrounds, scenes of violence are not only acted out as mere play. Actual acts of violence are committed. These are not isolated phenomena. Neither are they products of the press or of media reports. This can only astound those who still adhere to Rousseau's maxim that children are "good" by nature. That very same philosopher, however, regarded all corruption and depravity as the effects of civilisation.

Whatever makes us believe in a protected childhood in our world? After all is said and done, it is a world in which professional, vocational and economic life are ruled by success and achievement, a thoroughly competitive world where ruining one's competitor is considered perfectly legitimate, a world in which economically successful nations exploit others under the flag of the free development of prices. This behaviour has long been legitimised. It has been seen to produce methods of extortion, to bring about shady criminal practices and structures, linking distant areas to one another in mafia-like networks.

How is the realm of childhood to be spared these influences? School can not be excepted from the influences of an inflation of violence marketed in the media. This violence has become a powerful force acting on the children alongside the field that is habitually called education. In addition, whatever may carry prestige in the adult world which the children are longing to enter, all the various luxuries and stimulants that are advertised, right down to intoxicants and drugs, play their part as educators towards an uncertain future. The influence of this "world of shadows" becomes particularly strong during the time when the child's soul is seeking moral orientation, i.e. in the stages of middle childhood from 9 to 12, as Piaget has already pointed out.

Of course no one can expect a school to be free from all these influences, a sort of moral antiseptic does not and cannot exist. The question must be put how children can be strengthened, enabled to face these challenges, how a certain degree of immunity can be acquired. This task seems difficult, if not impossible, in a time when religion has ceased to hold groups of people together, when cultural traditions have weakened almost to non-existence. And yet school can become a place where orientation and help can be sought in this period of a child's life.

Waldorf educators are not at all convinced that much is achieved by preaching moral tenets, by establishing sets of rules to be adhered to. They understand the path to the souls of children – and thus towards future orientation – to be one that is quite unreflected and immediate: it is the path through compassion and through empathy. They take the view, verified by research and experience, that parables, fables and stories can work through vicarious experience and find "a hundred ways" of awakening moral understanding and the social faculty of putting oneself into the other fellow's shoes. The main thing is to refrain from pointing a moral finger and to enter into the story whole-heartedly with innermost conviction, not forgetting one's sense of humour in the process!Stefan Leber

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