“Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be – the unknown person inside each of them is the hope for the future.” Janusz Korczak (1879-1942)
In the life of Janusz Korczak, Polish-Jewish doctor and pedagogue, these words were more than an expression of his fundamental world view, his belief that respecting a person’s dignity is central to their development – they were what he lived his life by and what underpinned his practice in the orphanages he set up in Warsaw in the early 20th century. The 200 Jewish orphans in his care would have experienced the meaning of these sentences. They were involved in all decisions within the Orphan’s Home, forming a children’s parliament and a children’s court to ensure that every person would be treated with respect.
They would also have felt Korczak’s dedication on one of their darkest days, in August 1942, when the occupying Nazi forces deported the children to the concentration camp in Treblinka. Declining offers by the German soldiers to spare Korczak himself from the gas chambers, he went with them on their last march. His determination to be with his orphans in the moment when they needed him most, to give them hope in a situation of despair is a vivid reflection of Korczak’s ‘Haltung’ – a term crucial for understanding social pedagogy.
As a German term, ‘Haltung’ roughly translates as ethos, mindset or attitude. But, as the example of Janusz Korczak demonstrates, ‘Haltung’ is more about how we guide our actions by what we believe in. Therefore it can be more or less distinct, depending on the extent to which we actually live by our moral convictions. This ranges from everyday decisions of whether we take our bicycle instead of the car if we’re concerned about global warming, or drink fair-trade coffee if we believe in the importance of combating exploitative labour conditions, to considerations more relevant to social pedagogic practice.
For instance, if we think of children in Korczak’s terms, as equal human beings, do we then value their ideas equally to our own? Wieninger (2000) points out that our ‘Haltung’ is influenced by our concept of children (or of mankind in general), by how we think about them, what notions we hold about who they are. As a result, ‘Haltung’ is very subjective and not necessarily what we might judge as ‘good’: some people have a very different concept of children compared with Korczak’s. In our interactions with others, our ‘Haltung’ will have an influence, because the way we think about others – and our relationship with them – affects the way in which we engage with them. Most children, for example, will know when we genuinely care about them or when we pretend to care. In a sense, our ‘Haltung’ shines through in our relationships with others, which in turn colours their behaviour towards us.
‘Haltung’ is fundamental to social pedagogy, because it demonstrates the importance of the professional being authentic. In our ‘Haltung’ the professional and the personal are intrinsically interwoven, as ‘Haltung’ is not something we can adopt just for a particular situation. It explains why social pedagogy is not a method, not about what is done but how it is done, how ‘head, heart and hands’ are connected through a social pedagogical ‘Haltung’. In social pedagogic terms, the ‘Haltung’ of the professional should be based on an emotional connectedness to other people and a profound respect for their human dignity.
In this sense, a social pedagogic ‘Haltung’ is characterised by Carl Rogers’s core conditions: congruence, empathic understanding, and unconditional positive regard. Mührel’s (2008) philosophical reflections on a professional ‘Haltung’ in social pedagogy and social care underpin this point. Drawing on various philosophers – most notably Hans-Georg Gadamer, Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida – he suggests two pillars for a social pedagogical ‘Haltung’: comprehending and regarding.
The notion of comprehending refers to understanding the way of life of a person and draws on the hermeneutic ideas of Gadamer, which highlight empathy and dialogue as leading us towards a better understanding of others. By ‘regarding’, Mührel refers to accepting the otherness in people different from ourselves who, as strangers, deserve our profound respect. He argues that we cannot understand the other (only what we recognise of ourselves in others), and accepting their strangeness means that we do not try to reduce them to what we are familiar with, what we know.
Following Mührel’s logic, ‘comprehending’ and ‘regarding’ are diametrically opposed – in a sense social pedagogical ‘Haltung’ moves between these two pillars like a trapeze artist swinging between two poles. Both are important for maintaining the trapeze’s equilibrium, and whilst swinging towards one pole the trapeze artist must already prepare to swing back towards the other pole. In a similar way, whilst we might aim to fully understand someone else’s life world, we should also be aware that there will always remain a part in other people that we cannot know or predict, that makes them different and demands our regard. And in our considerations about the otherness and strangeness of an individual we can still find something that we share with them, something that can help us ‘swing’ towards understanding them, something that could be our ‘Common Third’.
In this process of oscillating between understanding and regarding, dialogue becomes fundamental to our description of professional ‘Haltung’. Dialogue allows us meet the other as our equal and to explore something together, without knowing where that journey might ultimately lead us. As Mührel emphasises, in dialogue we recognise the intrinsic humaneness in others. Social pedagogical ‘Haltung’ therefore means that we must encounter others in a congruent manner, so that they can recognise our own personality and understand us better in return. Through this process we can nurture a professional relationship that is based on trust and forms the foundation for social pedagogic practice, which Janusz Korczak brings to the point, “If you want to be a pedagogue you have to learn to talk with children instead of to them. You have to learn to trust their capacities and possibilities”. Everything else follows on from this.
Gabriel Eichsteller is a Consultant working with Thempra Social Pedagogy.
Mührel, E. (2008). Verstehen und Achten. Philosophische Reflexionen zur professionellen Haltung in der Sozialen Arbeit. Essen: Die Blaue Eule.
Rogers, C. (1970). Encounter Groups. New York: Harper and Row.
Wieninger, J. (2000). Klientenzentrierte Gesprächsführung. In R. Bauer & R. Jehl (eds.), Humanistische Pflege in Theorie und Praxis. Stuttgart: Schattauer Verlag.