In the book about the psychological roots of dogmatism that I am currently editing, the author brought in the concept of self-efficacy, which is described by Albert Bandura (who developed the concept) as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.”

I recall learning for the first time about Waldorf education, and being amazed that the children learn so many practical things–gardening and farming, knitting and sewing, woodworking, and so on. And then learning about the work of the Camphill movement, where children and adults with disabilities have dignified, productive roles in creating beautiful objects and nutritious food.

I read how Rudolf Steiner thought it was crucial for children to learn these practical skills:

It is actually the case today that most people, especially those who grow up in towns, have no idea how things, paper for instance, are made…. Think of how many people there are who drink beer and have no idea how the beer is made…. I would dearly like to have a shoemaker as a teacher in the Waldorf School, if this were possible … in order that the children might really learn to make shoes, and to know, not theoretically but through their own work, what this entails.

The Kingdom of Childhood, Lecture 7

Especially for the nine-year-old, this kind of practical work is very grounding, bringing a sense of security and personal ability. The idea is that if we have some knowledge of how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, then we will feel safe and competent in the world. We will also recover a connection with the world that is partly lost when we achieve self-consciousness (both at around three years when we first say “I”, and at the nine-year change when we see that we are indeed separate, individual human beings).

I’ve often wondered about the anomie one sees in so many young people, the inability to create, to control one’s surroundings, to feel productive. How much of that comes from feeling separated from the world because of a lack of understanding of the basic materials and objects around us? I’ve experienced this myself as the mother of small children: How do you explain what email is? How a telephone works? What plastic is made of? How much of an understanding of the world around us have we surrendered?

One intriguing aspect of the book I’m editing is that there are two sides to dogmatism: those who are dogmatically aggressive toward others (the person who harangues people, the dictatorial leader, the fundamentalist) and those who submit to such aggression willingly (the cult member, the staunch party member, the meek spouse). Sometimes I feel like Western society is in the grips of a lack of will forces, a victim mentality, and the acquisition of power through violence because we don’t feel we have personal, self-sufficient power.

I think of the stereotypical media portrayal of the young, black American man: angry, cocky, seeking prestige and personal dignity through dominating others. How much of that image comes from the reality that these young men have few practical skills and therefore little sense of self-efficacy? If you don’t feel that you have much control over what happens to you (being poorly educated and economically disadvantaged), then it’s not surprising that you might turn to, at best, cultural symbols of domination, and at worst, violence.

* * * * *

A wonderful example of an institution working to enhance a sense of self-efficacy in others is the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust in the UK. Young people with learning difficulties including autism spectrum and developmental delays are given practical, vocational training in arts and crafts. As the trust’s web site explains:

Many students arrive at college with low self esteem and very little expectation of leading a more fulfilling life. Students leave college with practical qualifications, a more positive self image, supported by invaluable skills for living and work. Around 30% progress to higher or continuing education and 30% find jobs or become volunteer workers immediately on leaving college. Whilst some return to their families, many are able to live independently.

Working within historically active craft centers such as the Royal Doulton glassworks in Stourbridge and the silversmithing industry in Sheffield, the trust’s three colleges give young people who would otherwise be marginalized and extremely dependent on others the ability to live independently, the skills to be creative, and the experience of personal competence that is lacking for many people today.

Periodically I check in on the RMET web site to peruse the latest Run of the Mill magazine (I can’t link directly to it, but you can Google that phrase to find it), which highlights student achievements and projects the school is working on. It’s so inspiring! There are always challenges, and some students are less successful than others. But there is also always a sense of achievement, of dignity, and of the real social benefits of this kind of initiative. What would our world look like if we all had the opportunity to learn honest, down-to-earth work?

Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Deep Thoughts, editing, waldorf education

17 responses to “Self-efficacy

  1. Skills do make people feel empowered. I was impressed to hear at a parents’ evening this week that kids in Grade 3 learn sewing and in Grade 4 they learn to knit. Small things, but all ways to have a bit more control over a world that seems out of control.

  2. I love to see my girls whip off a scarf, gift, or piece of clothing with no problem. Now to get them learning to cook a bit better. Your connection of the practical arts to the grounding and security they will feel in later life is important to remember.

    Your comments about America’s lack of will seem so true right now. It says a lot about our educational system and this new post-industrial age. What did Steiner say about this new age? I can’t remember. Was this issue of lack of will in his thoughts?

  3. Charlotte: Wow, I didn’t know you could find that kind of curriculum outside a Waldorf school! Another good thing about Germany, I guess.

    Sarah: Ehrenfried Pfeiffer asked Steiner: “How can it happen that the spiritual impulse, and especially the inner schooling, for which you are constantly providing stimulus and guidance bear so little fruit? Why do the people concerned give so little evidence of spiritual experience, in spite of all their efforts? Why, worst of all, is the will for action, for the carrying out of these spiritual impulses, so weak?”

    And Steiner answered: “This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.” (Preface, The Agriculture Course)

    So I guess the US desperately needs more biodynamic food!

  4. What an interesting book that you’re editing. I used to be a special education teacher so what you said about that college in the U.K. caught my attention. It sounds like an amazing program.

  5. It is really discouraging, too that most high school students feel they have to go to college and that vocational education is very looked down upon as a viable alternative. Why is working with your hands or learning a trade less valuable then programming a computer? A dear friend has three lively teenage boys and she is really pushing them into college (maybe out of fear of military as alternative?) but it seems rather clear to me that at least two of the boys would be so much better off learning a trade and would feel better about themselves because they have never quite “made the grade”. I think about this so much as we are now living in an area without a Waldorf School and looking at what Amelia’s High School experience is going to be like.

    Yes, we all need more biodynamic food, I eat it everyday but still find my will forces so lacking. I may just start drinking the BD preps instead of my morning cup of tea. We have just started transitioning to BD on our farm and wonder how long will it be before our will forces are strengthened enough to actually accomplish every thing that we start out to do in a day. My cat who never begs for human food will attack us for a biodynamic raisin; we tried as an experiment to give her an organic raisin but she didn’t even bat an eyelash but nearly bit my hand when I gave her the BD one, we tried it on several occasions with always the same result. What is that about?…I wonder if I can submit this trial to the Biodynamic Journal?

  6. Dawn: I encourage you to check out the Ruskin Mill web site. It is really very inspiring. I’ve often thought that if our lives were a little bit different, I would love for us to be a house family at a school like that (since most of the time, like at Camphills, it is a residency program).

    Lisa Anne: I have always thought the very same thing! For me, college was the way to go, but it’s certainly not appropriate for everyone. Maybe we have too much of a throwaway culture for people to really learn craftsmanship any more in their vocation. Or maybe we have twisted the idea of equality around to mean that we all need to be the same! I have a relative who would do so well focusing on a trade, working with his hands. He just has too many learning disabilities to do white collar work, but he would be great in a vocational program.

    Sounds like you need to do some more field work with the cat/BD raisin question: Is it all cats, or just yours? Does the phase of the moon affect the cat’s desire for the BD raisin? How about the time of day? Oiled vs. non-oiled raisins? Could be a fascinating experiment!

  7. Brewing beer is Waldorfy?!?!? Yahooooooo! We just brewed a batch of IPA last weekend! The 14 year old helped out, I should have gotten the 4 year old on the job!
    Seriously, it really is a cool process and I am glad that this is one of those down to earth things the kids can be a part of. I love that they learn about the start to finish process or lifecycle. Planting a garden, seeing a grow-a-frog from tadpole to adult, grinding wheat and baking the bread. Lo and I have been working on the wool “lifecycle”. We we out to a farm in the valley to see the sheep and get some wool, we washed it, carded it, dyed some of it and now (I’m stuck with about 10 pounds that I can’t find anyone to spin) well spin a little bit of our own.
    Loved this post-another of those that I could wallpaper the walls with to reference back to and use as a reminder!
    What’s this about life forces? i don’t think mine are up to par. It KILLS me that we can’t even afford to buy organic at the store.

  8. YES! The idea that children grow up with no idea of how to manage or care for themselves or be self sufficient should the need arise is something I think of often. We try to incorporate useful skills and crafts into our lives…not as ‘today lets learn this’, but this is our life and a part of our life. I love that about Waldorf education in the home. 🙂

    And this? “What would our world look like if we all had the opportunity to learn honest, down-to-earth work?” Exactly.

    “Opportunity is missed by most people because
    it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
    – Thomas A. Edison

  9. At my grammar school too many years ago (Catholic, De La Salle) we had two hours of woodwork or metalwork a week, I seem to recall. I also recall the the craft teacher has the honour of giving me my first blow on the ear after I started (on my second day). That bit probably wasn’t very Waldorf.

    (I wonder if something is wrong with my connection? This is my third attempt at posting this…)

  10. Eve

    Heni, research into happiness indicates that productive, useful work makes people happy.

    Just thought I’d share that.

  11. runninL8: I know, buying organic means a financial commitment these days!

    Denise: You reminded me of a whole ‘nother related Waldorf tenet: that children need to see and imitate and learn “real” work that is part of overall, everyday competency. Like washing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning house, sewing on a button. Now there’s a real sense of competence!

    URD: No, that wouldn’t be part of the program. I took “woodworking” in eighth grade (age 13), and produced an incomplete swan-shaped napkin holder. Not exactly inspiring.

    Eve: Would it sound overly silly or pretentious to respond with “I knew that”? 🙂

    I recall reading/hearing about that several times, that studies showed people in jobs where they had little self-determination or control over their work were much more unhappy than those who could be self-directed. And I would wager that feeling productive and useful go along with self-direction.

  12. Bex

    Ya know what?
    If we worked more with our hands we wouldn’t have time for war.
    Simplistic I know… but true? XXxx

  13. Bex: I’m not so sure. Even societies, both historically (think the tribes of Israel) or in modern times (think Papua New Guinea), that are subsistence based still have time to hunt down their “enemies”. But I think rather than not having time for war, perhaps meaningful work might help some of us not feel the need in the first place to dominate others in order to feel better about ourselves.

  14. I think every adult should be actively involved in teaching useful skills to their children … whether it’s gardening, or cooking, or encouraging the child to learn a trade. I learned to cook and to make things out of yarn from my mother, and consequently I can cook dinner and crochet a great bedspread. I like the idea that I can make something useful out of something that wasn’t useful before I did something to it, if that makes any sense. I enjoy being the middleman of utility.

  15. David: Thanks for stopping by. You seem more and more interesting all the time…I can just imagine you crocheting a blankie for your cats 🙂 Seriously, your examples are just what I meant: you are capable of feeding yourself and creating something of lasting, practical value. You also point to another important aspect of creation: transformation. Life requires movement, processes, change. We’ve all felt the sensation that a house is truly without life if it’s been sitting empty for too long. So when we transform something (yarn into an bedspread) then it possesses a certain form of life, an inherent liveliness.

  16. Would I be more interesting still if I confessed that I can also do really fancy cross stitch on 32-thread linen? Because I totally can. Seriously.

    I think that the inherent life of handcrafted objects (and of handcrafted food) is underrated, though we all recognize it, which is why nothing ever tastes better than Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey dinner (or whatever one’s own personal equivalent might be for that) and why we hang on to heirloom crafts, passing on hand-knitted lace tablecloths that are almost too fragile to use. There is some essential energy in these things … some nourishment that goes beyond food, some greater grace that is beyond decoration or comfort.

    Automation, industrialization, technology … these things tend to take us further away from the small miracles of everyday creation. I think it’s very bad that this is happening.

    When I was young, I read (and re-read, many times) all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s amazing books about pioneer life, and I still remember being fascinated by the sheer involvement they had in their everyday lives. They were highly intelligent, cultured, intellectually seeking people … but they made things, and did things with their hands, and worked the land, and understood life with an immediacy that we have almost completely lost.

  17. Ha! Nothing better than a crafty man. Anthropapa has been known to sew clothes and knit a hat, himself.

    I’m very grateful for the things that machines and technology bring us. But we’ve gone too far in that direction, and have forgotten that essential energy or inherent life you mention. I think it affects us deeply, on a soul level, but we just aren’t aware of it consciously. We become divorced from the world around us, and from other people as well. I don’t want to go back to pioneer times, but they sure did have some wisdom that we would do well to remember. Immediacy is a good word for it, not to mention the close social interactions they had as a result of their work, and the value put on good quality and craftsmanship.

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