From Stuttgart into the world. Waldorf schools acknowledge the cultural impulse of work

By Peter Schneider, April 2018

There is a hermeneutical key when it comes to dealing with Rudolf Steiner: the law of the question. In his memoirs, Herbert Hahn reports on a statement from Steiner that in work committed to the spirit it is not possible “simply to fling all knowledge that has already been gained onto the street”, but rather that the corresponding question has to be waited for.

Working and learning in the bookbinding workshop ...

The workforce of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory

... and in handicraft lessons.

The crucial question was posed in a factory.

In a lecture held on 23 April 1919 to the workers and employees at the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory, Steiner pointed out the injustices of the established, tripartite corporative estates-based education system and demanded that a school be founded that “makes it possible for every single person to answer the question of who they actually are as a person in a way that accords with human dignity”. Subsequently, as part of a works council meeting, Steiner was asked by Emil Molt if he would take on the responsibility for the establishment and management of such a school. Steiner agreed to this. This event marked the birth of the first Waldorf school.

At that time, Stuttgart was already a city which contained a lot of modern industry (Bosch, Daimler) and, at the same time, was an example of how a region poor in natural resources could prosper economically. Just two days later, on the 25 April 1919, in connection with a lecture Steiner gave to Daimler-Benz employees, the first teachers’ conference of the future Waldorf School with Herbert Hahn, Karl Stockmeyer, and Emil Molt took place. The comprehensive school of the future combining practical and academic learning was starting to take shape.

Shortly afterwards, Steiner gave further substance to the “Waldorf comprehensive school of the future” in three lectures on popular education: this school would comprise ten school years, a practical and theoretical education in “life skills” (agriculture, business, industry, commerce). This would also be mirrored in the objects produced in school workshops, in which the pupils would be offered the opportunity to “manufacture things that [...] could then be taken with by the pupils out into life and sold”. Steiner placed exceptionally high value on practical and manual activities due to the educational value they contained: “[..] when you know that somebody who clumsily moves their fingers has a clumsy intellect, has very few flexible ideas and thoughts, whereas somebody who is able to move their fingers properly also has flexible ideas and thoughts,  [...] then you would not underestimate what it means to develop the external person with the aim that out of the entire handling of the external person the intellect emerges as part of it as a result”. At the same time, one of the most fundamental transfer concepts of Waldorf education is expressed here: the correct, age-appropriate approach to and encouragement of the intellect in childhood and adolescence through meaningful practical learning.

Steiner’s objective was the comprehensive and equal encouragement of every young person up to the age of 16, regardless of their social status: “And you will see, if in the future the apprentice carpenter or technician sits in the educational institutions together with those who perhaps will become teachers themselves, then something will come from this, something that is a specialised, but nevertheless still comprehensive school.”

This educational concept was a part of a much broader vision of society, the ideological centre of which was the self-determination of the individual and the realisation of political freedoms: “[...] the school question is a subdivision of the much greater, intellectual burning questions that we are currently facing.  Here the opportunity offered by the Waldorf school has to be exploited to its full extent, in order to have a reforming, revolutionary effect on the school system”, Steiner said in the meetings.

Learn and work

On 2 August 1919, Steiner gave his views on the so-called “Weimar school compromise”, the continuation of the selective school system instead of the intended comprehensive school:  “[...] if our souls were not such terrible compromisers, there would not be such terrible compromises either in external life as those that now emanate from Weimar, the school compromise [...] We will only move forwards if we have the will to learn and to work, there is no other way for a person to proceed into the future and face its challenges. This will also be the new form of Christianity [...] I would like to ... summarise [it] in two words [...], two words that are quite old but which the current human being will have to learn to understand in a completely new manner. And these words are: learn and work! It is only from this intent and this courage that the new motto can arise:

I want to learn, I want to work!

I want to work while learning!

I want to learn while working!

With this educational creed Steiner built on the “Ora et labora” of the Benedictine order. By this means he integrated the Christian impulse of the appreciation of (physical) work into the present and turned it into the motto of general human development, for learning through work is the creative basis of freedom. “Learn and work” marks the beginning of an epochal transition, of the release of physical work from slavery, literally from serfdom – a process that is still continuing to this day. After four years of the existence of the Waldorf school, on 3 August 1923, Steiner summed up the central task of the Waldorf school in the following manner: “If we can give a practical answer to this question: How can play be transformed into work?, we will have solved the fundamental problem of elementary school.”

Steiner was only partially able to realise these ideas in the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. Although the first eight classes contained a comprehensive artistic and practical education for all children, the intended integration of practical training and general education could not yet be realised at this stage. It failed due to the political and legal conditions existing at the time. What resulted was a “historical compromise”. Shortly before his death, Steiner is said to have been intending to thoroughly reform the Waldorf school system.

There were repeated, continued attempts to build on the original, popular educational impulse of the Waldorf school. The most well-known model is certainly the Hibernia School in Herne, in which a combination of vocational and general education is practiced, and which was brought into public and scientific discourse in a state-subsidised pilot project. Because a form of education which aims to meet the requirements of the present cannot simply be reserved for only one social class or ideological group. Rather, it must fully take into account the scientific and social changes of our time. It has to create the conditions in which people are able to develop and that in their development they learn to change the social conditions through self-actualisation.

The craze for academisation and the question of a new educational idea

In recent times, the question of a new, up-to-date concept of education has again become pressing. Under the impression of the current discussions on the mismanagement of our education system (“the craze for academisation”), the Waldorf school wants to offer its contribution to overcoming the “educational schism” (Bethge) – that is the separation of general education and vocational training – in favour of a holistic form of education that combines practical, vocational learning with cognitive and artistic elements on an equal footing.

Recently, the Waldorf vocational colleges for upper school have shown a sustainable and compatible way of doing this. Their varied experiences offer an alternative to the path of academic secondary school education, also within Waldorf schools themselves. These ideas must be brought into public, commercial and scientific discussion.

About the author: Prof. em. Dr. Peter Schneider, apprenticeship as a mechanic, second chance education, subject teacher and director of the pilot project at the Hibernia School, professor of education and vocational training at the University of Paderborn and Alanus University.

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