Ninth grade students, turning fifteen, long to experience a wider world than the familiar one of home and school. This new world is unknown and often confusing. Yet in the search for independence they must make their own judgments, and everything is questioned. Encountering the world, their inner question is “What?” They want to know what is in the world around them, in all of its marvelous and bewildering variety. What is the nature of each phenomenon, and how each is distinguished from others? Contrasting polarities are a satisfying way to learn about the qualities of things, and to develop analytical thinking.
Some examples from the Waldorf high school curriculum show how this question is addressed. The Physics block is Thermodynamics, a study in the contrasting qualities and effects of heat and cold. Art classes include Black and White Drawing, an artistic interplay of polarities. In Literature, classic dramas in Comedy and Tragedy involve students in disparate human emotions. Mathematics explores the nature of chance in Probability. Biology uncovers the mysteries of Physiology, comparing animal with human forms, and systems within the human being. In History, the study of Revolutions, historical and modern, differentiates paths of social change. Earth Science offers Geology, in which the elements and formative processes of the Earth are distinguished. The Cultural Studies block is Pacific Rim, detailing differences and similarities in human societies. The year culminates in the Social Studies course, Idealism and Humanity, in which groups of students construct all aspects of an ideal society, then present and defend their choices.
Identifying and contrasting the qualities of things is the foundation of analytical thinking. Through this activity, the students also find reference points to orient themselves in their knowledge of the world and in the world of their ideals.