Removing the stain of esotericism

By Leonhard Weiss, April 2017

With meanwhile more than a thousand schools, Waldorf education can now be counted as one of the most successful movements within the context of so-called progressive education. Despite this fact it remained ignored by academic education studies for decades.

Photo: © sol_b - photocase.de

What is noticeable here is that although elements of Waldorf education (the main lesson, foreign language teaching beginning in class 1, the artistic and practical orientation of the movement, a lack of grades, etc.) are happily accepted, most of its theoretical and anthropological foundations are rejected or criticised as being outlandish and unscientific.

A new and important contribution to the attempt to remove the “stain of esotericism” from Waldorf education, which has long been attached to it in the world of academic education studies, is made in the book Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft (Handbook of Waldorf Education and Education Studies). Over the course of more than a thousand pages, the basics, elements, potential, as well as the obstacles in the way of a better reception for Waldorf education in the field on education studies are outlined and discussed.

The editor of the book, Jost Schieren, emphasises, however, that the aim of the book is not to offer a scientific foundation for Waldorf education, or to discuss whether Waldorf education is scientific or not, but rather to “treat Waldorf education in a scientific manner” and “to make its theories accessible to scientific treatment”. In this light the foundations of Waldorf education are reconstructed in the book within the context of the disciplines of academic education studies such as anthropology, developmental psychology, teaching method, cognitive science, learning theory, and professional theory. In total 22 authors contributed to the publication.

Dialogue instead of belief

This intended “accessibility” demands of both Waldorf education and academic education studies openness, (self)-critical reflection and a willingness to take part in the discussion. In the past they have not always been successful in doing this. Take, for example, the case described by the education researcher Wolfgang Nieke, whereby “a small, but influential, number of authors” have criticised Waldorf education due to its fundamental “connection with what they consider to be anthroposophy”. However, from Nieke’s point of view these authors seldom offer a well substantiated examination of anthroposophy’s system of thought but rather “unsystematically collated unconnected ideas without exercising the necessary hermeneutic rigour”.

However, there are also obstacles on the part of Waldorf education to a proper academic discussion of its tenets. Several of these obstacles were succinctly addressed by Johannes Kiersch: “For devout anthroposophists, the revelation of higher truths through Steiner, the initiate, has been sufficiently settled for some time to come. This provides the community of the devout with assurance of their beliefs, a comfortable feeling of belonging, as well as practical efficiency.” From the point of view of education researchers, there is no point in entering a discussion with this kind of devout anthroposophist, not least because there is a lack of interest from both sides.

However, the handbook makes impressively clear that it is possible to find another method of approaching Steiner’s philosophical, anthropological, anthroposophical and educational works. It is, of course, only one part, but a very important part, of the changes that have been occurring over the last twenty years within the Waldorf movement, transitioning towards a new “culture of research and science”.

Understanding of the human being as heuristics

In view of the reservations about the basics of Waldorf education, the sections dealing with knowledge of the human being and developmental psychology gain specific relevance and significance. After all, within the context of modern education science and understanding of the human being in education, many of the concepts of Waldorf education hardly give room for discussion. Not only because of their esoteric background but also due to the fact that within the framework of an understanding of the human being in education which has always perceived itself as historical, general assertions about the nature of the human being and the development of children are generally met with scepticism.

However, as the education researcher Christian Rittelmeyer writes, the openness of the knowledge about the human being in education associated with this would offer a “chance to start a conversation about the view of the human being typical of Waldorf education if there were just an academically acceptable opening”.

According to Rittelmeyer, one such approach could be to present anthroposophical concepts not “with the claim of absoluteness, but rather as a possible, heuristically interesting view of the human being”. Rittelmeyer therefore makes the case for the use of anthroposophical terminology “to perceive the living transformation of ‘the human being’ and their inexhaustibly varied phenomenology”, and as a consequence proposes the use of concepts about our understanding of the human being that can also be implicitly or explicitly encountered throughout the handbook.

Thus Schieren for example proposes that an understanding of the human being as set out by Steiner  should be seen as “a phenomenologically functional understanding of the human being”, whose assertions are always “founded in observation and are therefore phenomenologically accessible” and which – we might add – can be therefore be educationally fruitful.

An example of this can be found in an article by Peter Loebell, who reads Steiner’s statements on the “birth” of the “constitutional elements of the human being” as an educational challenge to create “maternal envelopes” for the vulnerable, not yet emancipated forces of the as yet unborn human constitutional elements. The associated motif of a transformation of such an understanding of the human being into educational practice is set out by Albert Schmelzer, who shows how their “theory of the human being” is not simply a constricting dogma for Waldorf teachers but can also function as a source of orientation and inspiration.

“Work in progress” – from the beginning

The decisive merit of the new handbook may be to counter the accusation that Waldorf education is based on a dogmatic treatment of Steiner’s thinking, and that it is therefore a monolithic movement resistant to change.

In contrast, the methodologically as well as conceptually varied contributions within the volume highlight the plurality and quality of already established academic discussion with and within Waldorf education and show that, above all, Waldorf education can ultimately only be understood as a “work in progress” (Schieren) or as being in “constant search mode” (Loebell) – not only today but also since its foundation. After all, as Kiersch writes, it is often overlooked just “how little ideologically tied down the first Waldorf school was during the first phases of its development.”

The new handbook can contribute to carrying forward and developing this openness. We can only hope that it will be read intensively – both within the Waldorf movement and in the field of education studies – so that the academic treatment of this system of education remains a “work in progress” in the best sense of the term. Now, at least, we have an important foundation for this.

Jost Schieren (ed.): Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft, bound, 1,016 pages, EUR 49,95, Beltz Juventa, Weinheim, Basel 2016.

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