What Is a Human Being? Have Children Forgotten?

Where are we going in this crazy twenty-first century world of ours?  No one has a crystal ball, but a disturbing trend was recently made clear by the admissions director of a Waldorf high school. For those of you unfamiliar with Waldorf schools, let me fill you in briefly. These excellent private schools were founded in Germany between the wars of the last century as an alternative to the strict, rote learning that dominated the scene at that time. Since then, they have spread around the world, with about 200 schools in North America.   It is a holistic education.   Children spend a lot of time outdoors experiencing the natural world.   Music, drawing, painting, movement, plays, and games are all important parts of the curriculum.  “A love of learning that lasts a lifetime” is one of their bumper-sticker slogans.

The high school in question is a boarding school, accepting Waldorf and non-Waldorf students.   One aspect of the admissions process for decades has been to have the applicant submit a drawing of a human being. It can be anything from a portrait to the full body and can be copied from another drawing or produced freehand. Those who have been Waldorf students typically do a nice job, while those from non-Waldorf backgrounds might struggle a little with this assignment—but that’s not the point.

There has been a noticeable change in these drawings in the last few years.   There are still some outstanding artists among the applicants, but sometimes the drawings from non-Waldorf students are now just stick figures, or more like what you might expect from a 6-year-old, with bodies out of proportion with the heads, and limbs that are way too short or too long.   In addition, the number of cartoon-like drawings has increased. It’s as if the current cohort of students has lost touch with what real human beings look like. Could it be that the influence of the media and our dependence on the internet has warped our sensibilities to the point where, when we think “human being” we get the image of an anime creature rather than an actual, fully-fleshed Homo sapiens? No one should be surprised.

Just as Richard Louv wrote about the tragedy of our children losing touch with nature (Last Child in the Woods), here is an indication that children are losing touch with what it means to be human.  There have been warnings of the influence of the media for decades, for example, that more children are able to identify a picture of McDonald’s golden arches than the Christian cross or that they recognize brand-name logos before they can read. Children are what they see and hear. Let’s make sure our technological marvels do not swallow up the essence of our humanity. This is why Waldorf schools urge parents to limit young children’s interaction with electronic media, and get out into the world of nature and play with other children, not with a screen.

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