A Nordic trio. Walter Liebendörfer, Frans Carlgren and Bengt Ulin

By Nana Göbel, April 2020

In the early 1950s, a number of teachers joined the Kristofferskolan in Stockholm, the first and at that time only Waldorf school in Sweden, and shaped this school for decades. They stood out through their pioneering spirit, humorous earnestness and an inwardly free attitude towards anthroposophy.

Frans Carlgren, Foto: © Mats Ola Olsson

Walter Liebendörfer

Bengt Ulin

These teachers included Frans Carlgren (1925-2014) and Brigitta Carlgren (born 1928), the mathematician Bengt Ulin (born 1928), the artist Arne Klingborg (1915-2005), Ingrid Stintzing-Eriksson (1916-1981) as a class teacher, and Walter Liebendörfer (1927-2002) who started in 1956 as an upper school teacher of biology and chemistry. Together with other colleagues, they laid the foundation for Waldorf education in Sweden and vigorously campaigned for the right to a free education system. And that was by no means to prove simple in a country governed mainly by socialist governments.

When in the late 1960s Eric M Nilsson strongly reinforced the philosophical preconceptions about Waldorf education among the population and in the authorities with his film En Skola, attitudes towards Kristofferskolan worsened. The three upper school teachers Bengt Ulin, Walter Liebendörfer and Frans Carlgren involved themselves undauntedly and eloquently in the following public debate. Frans Carlgren came from a well-off family of major industrialists. He studied Waldorf education in 1954/55 with Annie Heuser in Dornach, whom he found deeply impressive, before he started teaching literature and history in the upper school of the Kristofferskolan in Stockholm. He subsequently became one of the initiators of Waldorf teacher training in Sweden. With his inheritance he acquired a biodynamic farm in a location which some time later was requisitioned by the military as a training ground. The farm was expropriated and Frans Carlgren set up a foundation with the proceeds. The latter bought a villa – the so-called White House – with a magnificent view of the reed-covered Baltic coast and its off-shore islands as well as a huge piece of land facing the Baltic skerries.

This is where the teacher training course started in the early 1970s as a two-year full-time training. For seven years, from 1968 to 1975, Jörgen Smit led the Scandinavian teacher training before being called to the Goetheanum in Dornach. He handed on the management of the teacher training to Walter Liebendörfer. In the mid-1970s, public interest in Waldorf education began to increase. Liebendörfer managed the training in a way that allowed the same inner freedom as had previously been the case with Jörgen Smit and with comparable depth and seriousness, making Järna an attractive training centre for aspiring teachers from Scandinavia, Britain, Holland and Germany. The outstanding events of the teacher training seminar in Järna included an upper school teacher training course from 14 July to 3 August 1985 with lectures on the history of consciousness as well as specialist courses. This course was the start of a more intensive joint Nordic training for upper school teachers.

Connections all over the world

Walter Liebendörfer, Frans Carlgren and Bengt Ulin gave many lectures and courses abroad, activity which intensified in 1989/90 when Waldorf education was able to gain a foothold also in Central and Eastern Europe. As early as December 1988, Walter Liebendörfer spoke in the apartment of Anatolij Pinskij in Moscow which was bursting at the seams from the press of those wanting to attend. There was great enthusiasm which led Anatolij Pinskij together with others to found the Aristotle Club. He had travelled to Moscow at the invitation of the Educational Research Institute of the Russian Education Ministry, held talks there and also set out the foundations of Waldorf education in a public lecture. The interest in foreign education was so great in Russia at the time that the Russian teachers’ journal printed the lecture.

Other members of the Swedish Waldorf teacher training seminar were involve in Russia alongside Liebendörfer. In the summer of 1989 they organised a course for teachers from the Soviet Union and Poland in Järna and in February 1990 a first ten-week training course together with teachers from Copenhagen’s Vidarskolen and Ernst-Michael Kranich from Stuttgart in Moscow and Järna for 35 participants. Kranich and Liebendörfer held talks in Moscow which ultimately led to the establishment of a Waldorf teacher training course as a department of the Russian Public University from September 1990 onwards.

Liebendörfer was also involved in other areas of the world to the extent allowed by his teaching commitments, such as New Zealand and El Salvador.

New forms of working

The spread of the Waldorf school movement and the subsequent criticism from church circles, enemies of an esoteric outlook and university professors of every kind presented the International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education (Hague Circle) with new tasks. In parallel with the criticism from outside, a dilution was also felt to have occurred in the 1980s within the movement. A new way was required to work on the spiritual sources of this system of education in order to make it accessible to contemporaries. Liebendörfer, who represented Sweden in the International Forum alongside Bengt Ulin, addressed this subject and reported from Sweden that the view was gaining ground there that Waldorf schools might also be founded and run without anthroposophy. That is why he was so intent on pressing for a close-knit network so that schools “at the periphery” could feel themselves to be integrated into the consolidating possibilities of some centres.

In April 1992, the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum and the International Forum organised the first world teachers’ conference in which, to everyone’s joy, teachers from the former Soviet countries were also able to take part. While the Waldorf teachers in the East reported about inspiring events following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world situation was increasingly leading to concern.

Heinz Zimmermann put it as follows in the International Forum: How is it that there is a rise in violence, radicalism and nationalism? What connects these phenomena, what are their causes? Will radicalism increase as the result of unemployment and the evident split between what people want and the actions of government – particularly also in Europe? What is happening to multiculturalism? How can the Christianity in Waldorf education, which is understood as being for humanity as a whole and in no way denominational, be made comprehensible? It was Stefan Leber’s diagnosis that the breakdown of familiar structures since German reunification in  1989 and the resulting insecurity would lead to the eruption of deeply archaic moments of group feeling which were not controlled by the I but by instincts and emotions. This, Leber said, would brutalise behaviour. And the spirit which then entered, when a vacuum was allowed to develop in the soul, was connected with the community-forming forces of nationalism and similar things. Liebendörfer summarised these thoughts in the words: “The will needs enlightened knowledge, otherwise it is open only to violence.”

The religious too needs practice

Such considerations led to the question how morality was cultivated in Waldorf schools, how the religious element was cultivated at all (any longer). The teaching of religion in some Waldorf schools was near bankrupt, existing forms seemed sclerotic and maintained only out of tradition. Parents had lost any idea of God; gradually such an attitude and the associated rejection of religious forms was also entering the teaching faculties. What could be done?

Just as thinking required regular practice in order to avoid atrophying, Ulin remarked succinctly, the same was necessary for the religious. Religious ideas and moral attitudes had to be practiced otherwise they would disappear.

The Swedish trio shaped not only their own school and the Scandinavian Waldorf movement but intensively also the international Waldorf movement in that their crystal clear thinking and a bright moral honesty made them into models of what the inner attitude of a teacher should be.

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