A Matter of TimeEugene Schwartz
Several years ago, as publishers began to gear up for the year 2000 with books that pondered the Meaning of the Millennium, the Harvard biologist and scientific writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote a study debunking the whole idea. Our use of "B.C." and "A.D." notation, he said, is based on an arbitrary "Year Zero" which is itself an expression of the narrowness and egocentricity of one religious group whose astronomical methods and calculations were questionable anyway, etc. etc. - well, you get the idea. Gould and his fellow rationalists let it be known that the end of the Millennium was no more to be feared or celebrated than the end of any other century, or, indeed, any other year; didn't people incorrectly predict the End of the World at the turning of the year 1000? Why should 2000 be any different? Gould's conclusions were based on the perfectly useful premise that years, like the numbers with which we have arbitrarily chosen to label them, differ only in quantity, not in quality. Although a year with three zeroes in it looks impressive, it is only one more than 1999, two more than 1998, and so on - it will be no more or less than what we make of it.
Gould's quantitative approach to dates was shared by the thousands of computer programmers (now mostly retired or missing in action) who in the 1970's, 80's and early 90's decided that six digits were sufficient to indicate a date. Out of this consensus arose the omnipresent YY/MM/DD format that may lead countless computer systems to crash on New Year's Day of that not-so-special year, A.D. 2000. Since the year is represented on many older computer programs as two digits (YY) and since those two digits recur once a century as 00, and since computers only came into existence after our century was past its half-way point, it happens that some programs may confuse the year 2000 with the year 1900 and malfunction. Your home computer probably will survive, but we can't be so sure about the complex systems at your local utilities company, your neighborhood bank, or the Department of Defense. This phenomenon, which was first pointed out by the Canadian computer programmer Peter de Jager, has come to be known as the "Y2K Problem" or "Y2K Crisis" or "The End of the World," depending on which website you visit. It should be emphasized that the programmers who got us into this fix are by and large as rational as Stephen Jay Gould and are no less astonished than he that the year 2000 may turn out to be quite special, after all!
When Waldorf teachers introduce numbers to first graders, they are careful to begin with a qualitative approach to the first ten or twelve numbers. In this qualitative sense, the number One may prove to be the biggest number of all, because it points to the unity of everything:
Two, Three, Four, etc., are all divisions of One, each with its own "personality" and "character." Only after a week or two of getting acquainted with the qualities of the numbers does the teacher turn to the quantitative approach. The quantitative treatment of numbers opens the way to numerical manipulation, although even here the teacher will very likely assign qualities of temperament to the four operations, e.g., "phlegmatic" Addition, "sanguine" Multiplication, etc. Even as the children move up through the grades and become adept at a purely quantitative numerical system, now and then their teacher will introduce a new mathematical concept in a qualitative way - using geometrical forms to shown the "patterns" in times tables, or demonstrating the aesthetic power of the fractional divisions of a monochord or the Golden Proportion.
Now, just imagine for a moment what might have transpired had many of those pioneer programmers gone to Waldorf schools (there are quite a few Waldorf graduates going into the computer field today, but there weren't very many Waldorf schools in existence back then). Having learned, in math and geometry classes, how to develop an appreciation for the qualitative nature of numbers, and having cultivated, in literature and history classes, a sense for the profound changes of consciousness that accompany millennial periods, they would certainly have bristled at reductionist Chief Information Officers telling them to save Space by abridging Time! As William Eaton, Ph.D., a Green Meadow Waldorf School alumnus who is developing methods of storing radioactive waste safely for the next ten millennia, said in an interview, "When you've lived with myths and studied ancient history in a Waldorf school, 10,000 years is not such a long time."
Having mastered form drawing, explored geometry and become comfortable with developing imaginative pictures to express complex concepts, Waldorf-educated programmers would not have been content with a prosaic six-digit format. A more creative solution might very well have been found, perhaps utilizing the icon-based operating systems then being developed by Xerox and Apple, rather than the character-based system which Microsoft and IBM made dominant.
During a recent visit to Canada, I met one of the pioneering programmers who has been drawn out of retirement by a provincial government to remedy the very problem that he once helped to create. Now a Waldorf parent, he told me that one of the primary justifications for utilizing the six digit system was that "we didn't believe that computers would be around very long! They were so cumbersome, so stupid and so time-consuming that we just knew something better would be developed. You understand - Faith in Technology and all that!" Then he added, "Fortunately, the Waldorf school is teaching my son to have faith in something better than technology."
"What's that?" I asked.
The programmer smiled. "Himself."
Rudolf Steiner's Perspective
A very different and qualitative perspective on the passage of time is afforded by Rudolf Steiner, who spoke of time as moving in two directions. The movement we all experience is that of time that moves from the past towards the future; this is the time-stream in which our memories dwell. The second movement of time flows from the future towards the past; most of us encounter this stream only on rare occasions, but when we do, it gives rise to premonitions about events to come, or a sense of deja vu. Steiner's description of the dual nature of time seemed utterly strange to audiences in the earlier part of this century. However, an article in a recent "Science" section of the New York Times (December 22, 1998) describes physicists working with a similar concept to explain subatomic phenomena, while Alvin Toffler's best-selling book, Future Shock, brought the idea of events moving towards us into the popular imagination.
To one who, like Steiner, travels upon a modern path of initiation, "future pictures" are as accessible to consciousness as are "memory pictures" to those of us who are awake to only one stream of time. We all know how deceptive memories can be - our very own memory of an event that happened just days ago can lose clarity and detail, and may rapidly metamorphose into almost the opposite of what "really" transpired. (Recent testimony given to Federal grand juries will bear this out.) Imagine, then, how easily we can be deceived by memory-like pictures that are not our own, but which rapidly stream towards us from the future! Thus Steiner was reluctant to present too many pictures of the future to even his closest students. On the one hand, he knew how easily an image can be misinterpreted or hastily interpreted, distorted by the wishes or antipathies of the seer; on the other hand, he valued human freedom too highly to present images that would in any way lead people to passively accept their fates and weaken their will to change the world.
The little that Rudolf Steiner (who died in 1925) shared about the turning of the millennium has been the object of intense discussion as the century comes to its close. In this short article, I want to explore two predictions which may have special relevance for parents of today's children. Like all prophecies, each of these is a double-edged sword. That is to say, Rudolf Steiner had some good news, and he had some bad news. The bad news first.
Over eighty years ago, Rudolf Steiner stressed, that as the twentieth century progressed, the power of evil would become ever more palpable. Like time itself, evil is dual in nature: one aspect of evil is determined to keep humanity in thrall to the social and spiritual forms of the past, while the other would lure mankind into leaping ahead to the future without the requisite soul development. From this perspective, the power of good is that capacity for balance between past and future which keeps us active in the present and gives us "presence" of mind. As the second millennium approached, Steiner predicted, the powers perpetrating the twofold evils would work hard to clothe it with such benign appeal and glamour that human beings would tend to remain asleep to the malign forces that were taking hold of them. (First graders familiar with Little Red Riding Hood and other fairy tales are well aware of this ploy!)
In this scenario, the "future-directed" power of evil, which Steiner called "ahrimanic," would be especially active at our century's end. From time immemorial, sages have pictured human beings in the distant future as endowed with great powers, e.g. the ability to see events transpiring at great distances, or the faculty of telepathic communication with others. Spiritual leaders have always laid great stress on the fact that such capacities will be given only to those who have made concomitant spiritual progress, developing forces such as compassion and selflessness before assuming their clairvoyant powers.
As Steiner predicted, modern technology makes it appear that these clairvoyant powers lie within the reach of anyone who owns a television (events at great distances), a telephone (telepathic communication), or, better yet, a computer with a modem. Via the movies, we can even travel forward and backward in time, at will. Even as I write this, I am pondering whether tonight I will visit ancient Egypt (Moses, Prince of Egypt), Elizabethan England (Shakespeare in Love) or travel with the crew of the Enterprise to future eons (Star Trek Insurrection). And none of these "powers" with which I am endowed require much more effort on my part than remaining sedentary and pushing some buttons. It is not surprising that brain waves measured during television viewing are no different from those measured in deep sleep!
As an adult, I may be aware of the illusory nature of all of these experiences -the media is proud of the computer simulations, special effects and old-fashioned hokum it employs to weave a veil of deception around us all. For a child, it is a different matter, and here Steiner's "bad news" is, lamentably, right on the mark. Children under age ten have little ability to distinguish between an event that they have experienced themselves, out of their own efforts, and one that is an illusory "event" which they receive passively. Research cited by Thomas Popalawski in Renewal and The Waldorf Research Institute Bulletin indicates that children exposed to a heavy media diet show an alarming deterioration in sensory receptivity. The easily-obtained experiences of virtual reality seem to render children much less able to awaken to a world of actual reality.
It should not be surprising, then, that the same Waldorf teachers who take Rudolf Steiner's millennial portents most seriously are working very hard to prove him wrong. They are certain that technology doesn't have to be a soporific instrument serving evil alone; they are convinced that children's senses can be reinvigorated, that children's consciousness can be reawakened. This may help to explain the persistence with which Waldorf educators battle against the incursion of TV, computers, movies etc. etc. in the lives of children. It is a frustrating fight, for, as Steiner foresaw, this particular brand of evil is brilliantly marketed and alluringly packaged - who can object to software and videos that are both "fun" and "educational"? Yet it is a struggle that Waldorf communities must take up as though the fate of our children depended on it, as indeed it may.
With all of this to reckon with (and only a small part of Steiner's prophetic words about evil have been discussed above) what could the good news possibly be? The good news is that the world's population is growing rapidly! "That's good news?" you may be wondering, "But isn't over-population at the heart of most of the world's environmental, political and economic problems?" To audiences that were still reeling from the decimation of World War One, Steiner made the startling prediction that, from the middle of the century through the beginning of the third millennium, the earth's population would increase prodigiously. Indeed, so many souls would choose to incarnate around the year 2000 that the earth would be more populous than it had ever been before - or will ever be again.
What would draw these souls to earth, he said, was the opportunity to confront and possibly transform the evils of our time. According to Steiner, we can encounter evil only on the earth. And it is particularly in our time that the conflict of good and evil is fraught with such momentous consequences for the future of humanity. To put it more succinctly: the good news is that our children - that all children - have chosen to come here, have reasons to be here, and in the depths of their hearts are well aware of what they are meant to accomplish here.
The enthusiasm for earthly life that draws a soul to birth is met with a correspondingly powerful reaction from hindering forces that do not wish to be encountered or overcome. It is difficult to be a millennial child, especially when most of our society's institutions - schools included - do all they can to stifle whatever is truly human. By bringing Waldorf education to the world, Rudolf Steiner proactively laid out a path of healing for the social and cultural ills that he knew were to come. Today's children have their work cut out for them: to forge a new world out of the old, and to impart meaning to the Millennium.
| ©1999 by Eugene Schwartz
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Last update: February 1, 1999