Looking back on 200 years

By Volker Frielingsdorf, November 2019

In January 2119, the Waldorf school movement will begin its two hundredth anniversary year which it will celebrated with numerous festivities in the meanwhile 9,792 Waldorf schools worldwide. It will also look back on its eventful history which, as everyone knows, began with Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart in the German state of Baden Württemberg in 1919.

Foto: © hummersallad/photocase.de

Waldorf education developed steadily in the first fifty years, despite being banned in various totalitarian states, and in the last third of the twentieth century began to expand in an incredibly dynamic way. 

The focus of many historical reviews in this year’s anniversary is the year 2019 which from today’s perspective falls exactly in the middle of two hundred years of Waldorf education. Even at that time there were already about 1,100 Waldorf schools throughout the world. In advanced post-industrial societies, they had become a firm part of the school landscape in the then still existing nation states – partly admired, partly ignored or ridiculed. 

That this has changed so much in the past century is due to various developmental trends which since then have contributed to the gradual popularisation of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. A crucial part was played by the discovery of an interview with Steiner recorded on film which was found by chance in 2033. In this remarkable interview with a French journalist, Steiner in 1922 said in response to the corresponding question: “Me? Of course I’m not a Steinerian.” And he added with a smile: “Anyone who is unable every so often to state the opposite of what I said cannot actually be described as an anthroposophist.”

These and similar statements caused a considerable stir in 2033. They irritated the orthodox anthroposophists as much as the orthodox critics and opponents. But mostly they were liberating and led to many open-minded people beginning to interest themselves in Steiner. Thus in 2061, his two hundredth birthday was celebrated by the whole of the educated world with almost the same scope and intensity as the Goethe year in 2049. 

This remarkable development – that Steiner’s work was no longer considered to be the sole property of “anthroposophists” did, however, pose considerable problems for the Waldorf schools in the 2060s. Because there were increasing numbers of teachers at numerous state and other independent schools who were quite happy to draw on the resources of Waldorf education and implement them in their own way.

This forced the “real” Waldorf schools to work on a new understanding of the anthroposophical foundations of their system of education. This review had the effect that numerous traditionalisms were abandoned and the focus returned to aspects of developmental psychology. 

The reorientation of Waldorf education which was driven forward from 2061 onwards could build on similar endeavours in the years before and after 2019. Even at that time no stone had been left unturned to make the anthroposophical system of education acceptable, as it were, in education studies. Even if some in its own ranks dismissed this as unreasonable “academisation”, it was nevertheless necessary in order for it to assert that it had the prerogative of interpreting the foundations of its own “art of education”. 

In addition, far-reaching positions were adopted as early as the 2020s which ran counter to the spirit of that time but assumed particular importance for the further development of the Waldorf schools:

  • Resolute action to preserve and protect childhood against dire influences from the external world had encountered approval also and particularly outside Central Europe, namely in China where the three thousandth Waldorf school was opened in 2118.
  • Contrary to the growing indifference towards matters of morality, Waldorf education increasingly emphasised again the importance of setting an example and communicating to children and young people values such as reverence, esteem and respect. This led to a veritable boom in the USA of all places. 
  • It was just as important at the time to counter the ever greater overwhelming power of digitalisation with a differentiated concept intended to protect pupils from being completely subjugated by the new media. This initiated the non-digital schools which today are taken for granted. 
  • A further central field of action of Waldorf education was the preservation of the world around us through many new projects to protect the climate, preserve biodiversity, experience nature, save the bees and much else, something that made the Waldorf schools pioneers in matters of sustainability. 
  • The basic idea of a free humane school as propagated by the Waldorf schools led to their increasing acceptance. This soon enabled an open exchange of ideas with other approaches which since then have gone as far as to pay for licensing specific Waldorf tools. 
  • Their emphatic social and political engagement allowed the Waldorf schools to seize a firm place in the public debate from about 2070 onwards from which they can no longer be thought away. The increase in their importance is also evident in the representatives of Waldorf education who meanwhile sit on many educational commissions and school authorities. 

All of this shows that the now seventh generation of Waldorf teachers has succeeded in a remarkable way in breathing new life into and adapting to contemporary circumstances the basic ideas of an education which aims for a philosophy of freedom. There is therefore a justified hope that the ten thousandth Waldorf school will be founded in the 2120s.

Prof. Dr Volker Frielingsdorf was an upper school teacher of history and German at the Schopfheim Free Waldorf School. He is currently professor of Waldorf education and its history at Alanus University.