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  • From Ugly Duckling to Swan: Education as Spiritual Transformation in the Thought of Edith Stein
  • Ann W. Astell (bio)

On August 17, 1931, Edith Stein wrote to her former student Anneliese Lichtenberger: “Among the books you got as a child, do you have Andersen’s Fairy Tales? If so, read the story of the ugly duckling. I believe in your swan-destiny.”1 One can hardly imagine a more encouraging word from a brilliant teacher to a young woman, a girl, who has just been placed on academic probation. Charming as the allusion is, it also serves as parable for Stein’s educational thought. The little bird in the tale of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), we recall, is ugly as a duckling and scorned by the ducks, because it never really was a duckling at all.2 It comes to recognize itself for what it truly is—a beautiful swan—through a process of suffering and maturing, of mysterious, connatural attraction to other swans, and, finally, in a moment of longing self-sacrifice and rebirth, a revelatory sight of its own reflection in the water, accompanied by the recognition of its swaneity by others. For Stein, the real purpose of education, in life and in the schools, is to promote a person’s true and transformative self-knowledge, which opens into the knowledge of God’s love. In this process the educator plays a key, contemplative role. “I believe in your swan-destiny,” Stein writes to Anneliese. “Just don’t hold it against others if they haven’t discovered this yet.”3

Scholars of Edith Stein usually focus either on her scholarly achievement as a phenomenologist in the philosophical circle closest to Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) or on her devotional and theological writings as a Carmelite nun, first in Cologne and then in Echt, Holland, where she was arrested by the S. S. on August 2, 1942. The blurb on the cover of Waltraud Herbstrith’s biography of Stein reflects these two poles of interest: “The Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz.”4 In this essay I meditate on Stein not principally as philosopher and mystic (although she never ceases to be both), but rather as an educator and a theorist of education who understands the learning process to be a spiritual path.

In so doing, I call attention to the great middle period of her life, from the time of her conversion to Christianity and her baptism as a Catholic in 1922 to the date of her entry into Carmel in October, 1933. During these years, she taught in Speyer at Saint Magdalena’s, a secondary school for girls and a Teacher Training Institute run by Dominican Sisters. Beginning in 1927, her [End Page 1]

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“Swans” © Thomas Riecken

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teaching there was frequently interrupted by her lecture tours in which she addressed women’s groups in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany on educational and feminist topics.5 In 1932 she accepted a position at the Educational Institute in Münster—a position she held until 1933, when the Nazis launched their first legal offensive against the Jews. In that same year, having been barred from teaching, she began to write her (ultimately unfinished) memoir Life in a Jewish Family, an extraordinary book which chiefly chronicles her life as a student,6 ending in 1916 with the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation On the Problem of Empathy. Viewed in the light of Stein’s mature educational theory and practice, her own remembered childhood and youth as a student stand as a case study in the spirituality of education. Life in a Jewish Family also pointedly opposes the dehumanizing depiction of Jewish people in the German school texts of the time, when, as Stein remarks in the Foreword, “the young . . .[were] being reared in racial hatred from earliest childhood.”7

As Lisa Dolling has observed, Stein wrote and spoke passionately about education, she described her profession as a teacher “as a sacred ‘calling,’” and she regarded a “proper education” to be “a propaedeutic to grace.”8 Dolling herself, however, chooses...


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