“A lot of room for improvement.” Waldorf schools and social threefolding

March 2017

Gerald Häfner, former member of the German parliament and the European Parliament, co-founder of the group “More Democracy” and current head of the Goetheanum’s Section of Social Sciences, and Henning Kullak-Ublick, board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, initiator of the popular initiative “School in Freedom” and the co-ordinator of the worldwide “Waldorf 100” festival planned for 2019, in conversation with Erziehungskunst. Häfner and Kullak-Ublick have been friends since youth and belong to the founding members of the German Green Party.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Erziehungskunst | Mr. Häfner, if someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you what exactly this social threefolding of Rudolf Steiner’s was, what would you say ?

Gerald Häfner | A simple, almost clairvoyant description of the impulses living in the social sphere today – and simultaneously a fundamental alternative to the current social order. If we are to understand these tangibly present impulses and take them seriously, we have to radically change our society. For Rudolf Steiner this was about the question: how are comprehensive human freedom, real equality and a genuine sense of fraternity possible? What does the path towards a truly humane society look like? In our current world, we have established mechanisms that are destroying the environment and the planet, that are exacerbating inequality, that are one-sidedly promoting selfishness and egoism, and that are permanently trampling all over the concepts of freedom and fraternity. In comparison, social threefolding shows us how a free, just, and social society can succeed.

EK | A hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner was in contact with a large number of politicians through his ideas on social threefolding. What were the reasons for the failure of his initiative?

GH | Steiner’s attempts failed not because of the people with whom he was working and in discussion, but rather due to the ideologues and functionaries. In Stuttgart, there was a growing popular movement for social threefolding in 1919. For example, 12,000 votes were collected so that Steiner could bring his ideas to the government. This movement was increasing in size by the day, until the established parties and ideologies felt it too dangerous to their position. Then the left and the right suddenly turned on it and it found itself in a pincer movement from both sides, from the functionary class of the parties and their old ways of thinking.

The right described Steiner as a Bolshevik, the left as a friend of the capitalists. But the movement also failed partly due to its own weaknesses. In a large number of accounts, it’s reported that Steiner’s ideas immediately won over those listening. But often they couldn’t replicate this when explaining these insights themselves. You see, social threefolding isn’t some kind of abstract programme. It demands an active and creative way of thinking and acting. Some people just weren’t able to do this.

EK | What would be the practical consequences of this societal realignment for cultural, judicial and economic life?

Henning Kullak-Ublick | Really everything is already in place, all that’s missing are the regulatory concepts. So, for example, to name just three cases, in the midst of our current unrestrained neo-liberalism we have seen the founding of the eco, the Fair Trade, and the “green banking” movements, which recognise the responsibilities we have towards the natural world, the conditions under which people in other parts of the world have to work, and the impact of money as an integral part of economic life based on solidarity.

Or take a look at the democracy movement, in which people want to become involved in defining their rights and responsibilities on an equal footing. This reflects the desire for equality. When it comes to people’s individual freedoms, something that formed the backbone of the Enlightenment, we are already in some danger as our culture is becoming increasingly commercialised and we are even willingly giving up some of these freedoms. That is why a free school system can be counted among the most important tasks of our time!

EK | Why is the education system here subject to centralised state and economical influences when freedom should rule?

GH | I agree with Henning. Everything’s already there. But most of our laws originated in the nineteenth century and still reflect the spirit of that era. The spirit of authority that wants to be able to control everything. Education is above all about children, young people, in other words the future. Whoever has control here has the maximum influence over society.

Therefore, fear and inertia play an especially large role in determining policy in this area. Because if young people are brought up to be truly free, each and every one can be the catalyst for the founding of a new world.

EK | Could you name three concrete examples where social threefolding could have a beneficial effect on modern society?

GH | Current judicial and economic structures degrade everything into a commodity; land, work, the environment, even human interaction and relationships take the form of commodities. This leads to the destruction of trust, cohesion and warmth, the fundamental material that forms the basis of human society. There is a proliferation of coldness. This has a strong socially destructive effect which affects people at their core and dehumanises them. The aim of social threefolding is to effect change in the law and in legal structures so that a sense of real humaneness becomes the fundamental factor in all areas of society. Incorrect laws are the result of an incorrect understanding. Take work for example: we imagine we work for ourselves, for our salary, our house, our car or our pension. Everyone looks after themselves. But take a look at what we’re actually doing: we’re not working for ourselves at all, but rather for someone else. All work is work for others. And we now have to consider how we can introduce laws that take this fact into account. Even concerning matters of income. In my opinion, the easily financeable idea of the introduction of an unconditional basic income for everyone that meets the standard of a minimum subsistence level could be an example of the expression of such fraternity.

Or an example concerning the concept of ownership: everything that a person has produced themselves can be considered property. But land, water, mineral deposits, or environmental resources have not been produced by anybody and should therefore not be considered property, goods, or commodities in the same way. For this we have to find completely new forms of legal structure, something in a similar vein to the “commons”, or trust property, or usage ownership. The world would look completely different if we were to implement these ideas! And finally, a large number of people have become disillusioned by politics because they feel themselves to be powerless and simply at the mercy of the markets and the politicians. We therefore require more transparency, participation, and better and more direct forms of democracy.

And in education, the right to a free choice of schools, including equal rights to the establishment of and funding for free schools.

HKU | Steiner wanted economic surpluses to be reinvested directly into education and free cultural life. In education, for instance, this could be solved by programmes such as education vouchers, so that tax money would follow the children to their schools.

EK | Why haven’t we managed to implement systems like this yet?

GH | In many areas of practical life, anthroposophists and people inspired by social threefolding have already achieved a lot. You only have to think about antiauthoritarian health care, or of freeing land from speculation, or of the banks which work with money in a different way to the norm. But we have still given too little thought to the big picture, legislative aspects and the way in which we have formed our society. In addition, with time a kind of inertia always starts to appear which cripples the radicalism of the original boldness.

EK | Rudolf Steiner declared that the founding of the Waldorf school was the last chance for the practical implementation of the ideas of social threefolding. Why?

HKU | When the Waldorf school was founded in 1919, it had already become apparent that the political parties of the time were going to establish another unstructured unitary state, which went on to become the Weimar Republic. Therefore Steiner concentrated on the issue of which skills people would need to be able to function in modern society so that they could help to structure it in a sensible way and that things would not again descend into total chaos. How can young people be made competent in the concepts of freedom, what would it take so that they experience the inalienable dignity of all people as the basis of any democratic order, how could they develop an understanding of economic processes that accords with reality? Steiner connected the Waldorf school with the hope that the pupils would so strongly develop their thinking, feeling and will that they would be able to form a viable basis for the social order that comprises civil society. For example, to be able to properly understand the production process of a product and the effect it will have on the world requires a lively, imaginative way of thinking that is able to anticipate if the product will have an overall positive or negative effect. This is an absolutely modern thought that is often encountered in the ecological movement but which also presupposes an already existing interest in the world.

A second question is for what purpose I want to use my labour. Can I be inspired to work based upon the jobs and tasks that I identify in my surroundings, or do I have to relocate the meaning of my life into my leisure time? Such lack of meaning allows a gigantic entertainment industry to thrive. Or take the application of capital: what do I want to make possible that wouldn’t exist without my investment? This really is a question of freedom because this is dealing with how I make my contributions to tomorrow’s world. This is why Joseph Beuys wrote “Kunst = Kapital” (Art = Capital) on a ten Mark note: the way I use my resources is either a creative process or a process in which I make myself a slave to external pressures. Simply put, Steiner expected the Waldorf school to enable young people to develop their will, their imagination, their living thinking and a deep sense of respect for every other individual.

The only possibility he saw to be able to realise this was through a school free from external control, be it from an economic, political or some other kind of interest group. Emil Molt provided capital for this from his cigarette factory and it was the workers who wanted this opportunity for education, not for themselves, but for their children.

EK | Is this original idea of founding a school for the workers still current? Modern Waldorf schools are predominantly attended by children whose parents are well-off, parents who can financially afford this freedom.

HKU | That is above all a question of the political framework. In Germany we’ve got a legally enforced two tier system; on the one hand so called “private” schools and the state operated schools on the other. This artificially created dichotomy goes back to the Prussian Civil Code of 1794, when the state emancipated itself from the church and in that context determined that education is a function of the state. We are currently in need of a form of financing which is completely independent of the provider, be it state or private. Germany has got a very specific history which is why awareness that education is an issue of civil society is only now starting to gain traction here.

However, the worldwide expansion of Waldorf schools, from the townships in Cape Town to Silicon Valley in California, clearly shows that this educational concept proves its worth in numerous, and completely diverse cultural, social, political and religious environments.

EK | What are the ways in which a free school can balance these fundamental principles, whether they be economic, legal, or cultural?

HKU | Schools institutionally are a part of cultural life, which is why they shouldn’t be subordinate to any political or economic authority. Even so, they are also naturally involved in legal and economic life, just as every individual is. For example, in terms of wages and earnings, aspects of solidarity are important for Waldorf Schools. Discussion on these issues has to be in freedom, but when wage structures are determined, this becomes a legal process. It is also a legal process when people are appointed to committees. However, as soon as they have been given a mandate it then becomes an issue of their individual capabilities, because the ability to responsibly exercise your skills requires freedom. This applies to the education sector in particular, to the responsibility of the college of teachers as much as the responsibility of every individual teacher. Those with the responsibility have to be aware in each situation as to which principle is dominant in which area. And when this doesn’t work, there has to be a method of withdrawing a mandate, and that can be a pretty painful process.

GH | Sometimes Waldorf schools today don’t seem sufficiently to understand themselves because they reduce themselves to simply implementing certain educational methods. However, this is but one element of a Waldorf school. Another element, which goes back to the founding of the first Waldorf school by Steiner, is the creation of a new legal form which has model character because it represents an alternative to the “private” or “state-run” systems. Waldorf are neither state-run nor private. A Waldorf School doesn’t belong to anybody, it can’t be bought or sold and doesn’t set out to make a profit. It belongs to everybody who lives, learns and works in it – this is a completely new form of school. A large number of schools and nurseries aren’t yet aware of these crucial aspects. In this context even self-governance becomes more than a simple administrative form. On the contrary, we truly carry the school in a cultural, legal and economic respect. We have to have the courage to transfer this social model of the future to other areas of society.

EK | Is it at all possible to envisage and communicate a form of social threefolding without the anthroposophical image of the human being?

HKU | Yes, of course, because when it comes down to it, social threefolding requires us to have an awareness of our time. A Waldorf School of course requires anthroposophy, but  I can directly discover social threefolding if I look at social circumstances with an open mind.

GH | Without people willing to develop themselves there would be no Waldorf schools, whether these people be the children, the teachers, or the parents. Anthroposophy isn’t simply a conglomeration of different forms of content, but rather a path of research and development that contributes to a better understanding of the world and human beings. It’s not, however, defined by its name. I’ve also met numerous people who are equally passionate about the same ideas, but have come to these conclusions from a different source. Or take, for example, social threefolding: many people who have mobilised in support of a common wealth form of economy, as well as direct democracy have never heard of it. However, they equally have such an impulse. We have no claim to be the sole representatives of these ideas, and neither should we have it. For Steiner the objective was to reunite these domains that have been artificially torn apart in a fruitful and meaningful relationship.

EK | Why isn’t social threefolding taught in schools?

HKU | Social threefolding is first and foremost an analysis of our modern society which describes the ways in which it functions. Without a doubt it should be covered in the upper school of Waldorf schools because it is a very suitable instrument for understanding the imbalances inherent in a totalitarian system of government, in which judicial life runs rampant over all other functional systems; or neo-liberalism, which turns the law and human dignity into a commodity; or fundamental religious systems, in which spiritual life dominates everything else. I think that should definitely be promoted. But practical economic, legal and cultural education can be introduced a lot earlier, maybe around the time of first agriculture main lesson in the class 3, with regard to educating a respect for the uniqueness of each individual or in studying important ideas or works of art. On a practical level its already there but at some point it has to be made available on a more conceptual level. Here we have a lot of room for improvement, but that’s also something on which we’re working intensively.

EK | Mr. Kullak-Ublick, you’re responsible for public relations in the German Association of Waldorf Schools and the Waldorf movement will celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2019. What do you think things will look like in another hundred years for the original concept of social threefolding that inspired it?

HKU | If you consider the fact that today there are more than 1,100 Waldorf Schools and even more nurseries operating all over the world, and that they have all come into existence due to the desire of parents to let their children grow up in an environment where they can express their free individuality; and if you consider the fact that they are always more or less successfully based on collaboration which divides the work between parents and teachers; and if you finally consider that there is a worldwide network of support in solidarity, for example through the “Friends of Waldorf Education”, I would say that social threefolding has already been successfully put into practice for a long, long time.

The Waldorf school movement is part of a global civil society that is building itself from the bottom up in a world become chaotic. Because all over the world and in the widest variety of guises it puts at its heart the ideal of the developing human being, it takes on a special importance which – in all modesty – it should recognised.

I have great hopes that we will succeed in understanding our anniversary in this sense as a worldwide opportunity to embark on even deeper cooperation in the things that really are important. Worldwide.

The interview was conducted by Mathias Maurer.