Building blocks for a diverse, anti-racist Waldorf education

By Martyn Rawson, Albert Schmelzer, January 2023

How can anti-racism be anchored in the curriculum of Waldorf education so that pupils are sensitised to exclusion and defamation? In addition to generally making empathy part of education, the authors advocate, among other things, addressing racial theories that emerged in the age of the European Enlightenment. They suggest classes nine and twelve for this, when the great ideas of freedom, equality and solidarity are also addressed.

“The Waldorf movement is white, wealthy and weird” – this was the statement of Monique Brinson in an interview on Zeit Online in February 2020. Brinson was until recently the principal of the first intercultural Waldorf school in the USA in Oakland/California, a public school with an extremely diverse pupil body of Latinos and Latinas, African-Americans, Asians and Euro-Americans. In the Waldorf movement, Brinson said in the interview, she herself represented a small minority: people of colour were rare and the few that existed came from the middle class. With her reference to the lack of diversity, Brinson exposes a sore in the school movement. The data is limited, but one thing is beyond doubt: the most disadvantaged group in the German school system – pupils with a migration background from economically weak social classes – is hardly represented in Waldorf schools. (1) The pupil body of Waldorf schools is relatively homogeneous and is by no means a representative cross section of society, in which more than a third of the children and young people meanwhile have a migration background and/or are Germans of colour. 

It is necessary to give appropriate weight to such an observation against the backdrop of the current discourse about discrimination and racism. The view that racism should be associated with Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan and setting fire to shelters for refugees, and that it exhausts itself in deliberate racist acts, has rightly been exposed as inadequate in recent years.

Rather, it is the non-intended forms of exclusion or discrimination of groups “on the basis of actual or ascribed biological or cultural characteristics” that are socially more effective. In such cases we speak of structural racism, pointing out that forms of social domination have developed over centuries through colonialism and the nation state that systematically discriminate against people on the basis of their appearance, language, religion or origin; when such systematic discrimination occurs on a regular basis in certain organisations, sectors or industries – for example in the police and judiciary, in the housing and labour market or in education – it is called institutional discrimination.

How can the Waldorf movement be classified against this theoretical background? It cannot be denied that, with regard to the composition of the pupil body, selection exists here which, although not intended, nevertheless exists in fact and it is therefore quite justified to speak of institutional discrimination of people with a migration background in the context of structural racism. 

In Germany, the intercultural Waldorf schools in Mannheim, Berlin and Dresden are trying to implement an alternative practice with far greater diversity; in addition, a working group of intercultural, socially integrative initiatives has been formed which calls for a firmly anti-racist Waldorf education. In this context elements of the curriculum and the existing teaching materials will also be critically questioned. Some initial considerations and examples can be given. 

The curriculum offers children and young people the opportunity to tackle the developmental tasks at hand. Some of these tasks are biographical and are concerned with the ability to build stable and coherent identities, while others are in the social and cultural field and relate to the skills and knowledge necessary for peaceful coexistence in society. Given the fact that we live in a culturally diverse and multi-connected world, these are the skills of empathy and narrative empathy (the competence to tell another’s story from their perspective), an understanding of cultural, religious and ideological diversity, and the ability to participate democratically.

In this context holistic learning should be sought, involving the whole person, not just the intellect; Children learn through imitation, participation in social practices and above all through their emotional life. This means that they need teachers who model cultural diversity and school cultures that are truly inclusive. It also means that the material in which adolescents are immersed should contain cultural and gender diversity. In view of this objective, some of the traditional teaching content will have to be reviewed and possibly modified. 

In history, for example, the challenge is to teach events from a pluriversal and thus also post-colonial perspective. For the medieval period, this could mean including African history. Then the empire of Mansa Musa (1312 to 1337) in Mali and West Africa would have to be covered, whose capital Timbuktu was one of the centres of Islamic scholarship; the king himself – according to several sources – was pious, generous and immensely rich and spent so much gold on a pilgrimage to Mecca that the price of gold dropped considerably in value as a result of the sudden gold glut. Or the extensive transcultural trade with its centre in Asia might be dealt with, which took place as early as around the year 1000 and in which an Arab ship, built without metal from wood and cordage and coming from Bengal, sank at Intan in the Java Sea loaded with a cargo of tin ingots from Indonesia, industrially manufactured Chinese ceramics and mirrors, Buddhist and Hindu objects, the remains of ornamental doors from India, cast-iron pots, glass beads from Arabia and gold jewellery from Cambodia. The major religious currents – the religiosity of indigenous peoples, Chinese religiosity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – should also be taught; not only to create a basis of understanding for cultures that have been shaped by these ideas, but also to sensitise pupils and show how intertwined and indeed unbounded those religions and cultures are.

Moreover, it must be remembered that much of our current global situation is the direct or indirect result of European colonialism. Therefore the colonial era and its consequences for those affected should be dealt with in detail from class seven onwards and directly related to the problems we face in today’s culturally diversified networked yet polarised world.

Furthermore, it seems useful and necessary to deal with the racial theories that emerged in the age of the European Enlightenment and were elaborated in the nineteenth century. This could be done in class nine, for example, and then in more detail in class twelve, when the great ideas of freedom, equality and solidarity are also addressed. For racism represents something like a shadow image of these impulses; its genesis makes it clear that the revolutionary struggles for human rights in America and France were initially driven by privileged whites, that many people of colour were excluded from them, and that their struggle for emancipation continues today. Contemporary education should create a keen awareness of these connections.

Some teachers may see little need to address racism because they believe that Waldorf education is per se non-discriminatory. In doing so, they refer to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of freedom, which sees in the development towards individuality – beyond gender and ethnicity – the decisive element of modern humanity. As true as such a statement is, it seems essential to add that Rudolf Steiner also formulated the motto of social ethics, according to which wholesome social conditions can only arise if the whole community – and this can also mean the world community – is reflected in the soul of the individual. Therefore, Waldorf teachers should take seriously and participate (as victims or allies) in the struggles against institutional racism, gender discrimination and economic marginalisation, and Waldorf pupils should understand what racism is and how it still is at work.

As Susan Arndt writes: “For centuries, white people kept white spaces white without being bothered by racist (language) acts or the underrepresentation of BIPoC. Not invited in the first place, BIPoC could not even be uninvited. Ultimately, it is the white indignation that traditional privileges – such as an independent presence, power of definition over spaces and discourses, and freedom of action towards those discriminated against – are being called into question that speaks from the cancel culture debate”.

The Waldorf school movement cannot stay out of the debate on racism only (and precisely) because it does not consider itself racist. Klett Verlag, one of the largest publishers of educational textbooks, is revising all its publications from a postcolonial perspective. Even a textbook on the geography of Africa was modified in 2021 to change terminology and perspectives. Are the Waldorf publishers doing the same?

Note:

1 | There are no direct figures on this, but the latest graduate study by Randoll and Peters shows that 97.5% of former Waldorf pupils who were 18 to 39 years old at the time of the survey grew up in a purely German-speaking home, 0.7% grew up bilingually and only 1.8% came from a non-German-speaking household, cf. Randoll, Dirk /Peters, Jürgen (2021): Wir waren auf der Waldorfschule. Weinheim Basel: Beltz Juventa, p. 21

Dr Martyn Rawson is a professor at the National Tsinghua University in Taiwan. He is the author of several books on Waldorf education and co-editor of the English-language Waldorf curriculum.

Dr Albert Schmelzer, born 1950, taught history, German, art history and religion at the Mannheim Waldorf School. Today he is a professor at the Institute for Waldorf Education, Inclusion and Interculturality at Alanus University in Mannheim. Publications on social threefolding, history teaching, The Foundations of Human Experience and the world religions.

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