Making anthroposophy and Waldorf education academically accessible

January 2017

Interview with Jost Schieren, professor of Waldorf education at Alanus University in Alfter/Bonn.

Erziehungskunst | How did you learn about Waldorf education?

Jost Schieren | It was a peculiar situation. I was at secondary school and on one occasion in class 11 was sent out off mathematics lessons because as the class spokesman I had criticised the teacher. As I stood in the corridor, I thought how stupid school was as an institution. Another pupil, Marcelo da Veiga, was roaming through the corridors at the same time. He spoke to me and we fell into conversation. Marcelo said that he had the idea of setting up a free school.

I was thrilled by the idea. That sounds good, I said. When do we meet? Next Sunday afternoon. So we met in a small gallery and read Steiner and Witzenmann texts and called it a free school. Someone else joined who did eurythmy with us. And it did not take long before we were a group of 25 people.

The teachers at our school heard about it and were surprised that the pupils were so committed. They took up our idea and at our suggestion we read Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom in philosophy lessons. In social science we worked on Towards Social Renewal and in education The Education of the Child. Three Steiner texts at an ordinary secondary school! That was something unusual. Then we organised small anthroposophical weekend conferences for which the Catholic religion teacher allowed us to use his congregational premises.

Anthroposophy in university life?

Then I went to university in Bochum where the whole group reassembled. We gave our work the somewhat complicated and highflown title “Initiative Group for the Development of an Appropriate Contemporary University Consciousness”. This subsequently turned into the “Novalis University Association”. The basic idea was: how do we get anthroposophy into university life? Once we had finished our courses, the group increasingly dispersed.

I then became a Waldorf teacher in Dortmund where I had the opportunity to set up an in-service teacher training course. It was called “Waldorf Education Forum”.

In 2000, Marcelo da Veiga, who was then in Brazil, returned and initially became the manager of the Hagen Waldorf school. He subsequently came into contact with the Software Foundation where he joined the staff. At this time what is now the Alanus University was applying for recognition as a state art college. As a member of staff of the Software AG Foundation, Marcelo was involved in the project. He immediately became very enthusiastic about Alanus and asked me whether I wanted to be involved and develop the teacher training course. Both of us had the impression that this was an excellent opportunity to pick up our original motifs again.

It was my ideal to obtain full state recognition for Waldorf teacher training. It cannot be, after all, that Waldorf teachers are formally always in a worse position than other teachers. In contact with Professor Schneider, who at the time represented Waldorf education at Paderborn University, we developed a teacher training concept for Alanus University.

The teacher training in Paderborn was very well-received so that the university could form a kind of protective mantle for us. I initially became a research assistant at Paderborn University, but also continued to work as a Waldorf upper school teacher in Dortmund. In parallel I was developing the teacher training course at Alanus University.

A perspective for students

EK | When was the education department developed in Alfter?

JS | It all went successively. The Software AG Foundation supported us. In 2007 the first course was accredited. It was the first Master to focus on Waldorf education. In 2008 this was supplemented by special needs education, in 2010 by childhood education; this was followed by the right to award doctorates so that we were gradually able to expand the department.

When I started in Alfter in 2002, there were only two students who were interested in education. Meanwhile the education department has 450 students. Soon the first cooperations also started with the teacher training seminar in Kassel and the Vienna teacher training course. Then came the fusion with the establishment in Mannheimer.

Alanus University currently has about 1,200 students, of which more than 700 alone are enroled in various education courses at the Alfter and Mannheim sites. Our basic idea is pragmatic: creating a qualification for students which provides young people with a perspective. The aim is to give them the best possible qualification which requires no further validation in any other way. They are to be fully qualified.

EK | What kind of students choose to come and study at Alanus?

JS | We have many students who have only become familiar with Waldorf education through their studies. They study the foundations intensively, but also learn to look further afield and think about Waldorf education in the context of other systems of education.

The lecturers include representatives of Waldorf education and also many colleagues who represent other systems and a complex educational field. We try to create a broad spectrum. Waldorf education and anthroposophy have a place nowhere in the current university landscape. That is different in Alfter.

Steiner for all

EK | What are you currently working on?

JS | I was fortunate to have a sabbatical year for research which I spent in Vienna. I was able to finish a book project there: Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft. Standortbestimmung und Entwicklungsperspektiven which has just been published. Its aim is to give Waldorf education a voice in education studies. A nice conclusion to this research project was provided by the conference “Waldorf education and education studies” at Alanus University in October 2016. We brought well-known representatives and critics of Waldorf education together around the table.

In the longer term I am thinking about an account of Study of Man which is appropriate and comprehensible for our time and which also takes account of the present academic discussion. I basically want to transfer Steiner’s spiritual ideas into the scientific consciousness of the present time. Making Study of Man comprehensible and capable of being debated is a matter which is really close to my heart. That will undoubtedly be difficult. Because we also have to draw a kind of boundary with some of Steiner’s statements. That does not mean that we negate them. My critics often misunderstand me in this point. They sometimes accuse me of betraying Steiner and anthroposophy.

My hypothesis is this: at the point at which anthroposophy enters the fields of life Steiner was not interested in simply “executing” anthroposophy but he wanted the fields of life to benefit from anthroposophy. That is indeed the benchmark. In the fields of life anthroposophy does not have any value in and of itself but through its application. If anthroposophy serves to provide a good system of education then it has real value.

Here the question is, of course, how we should deal with the esoteric content of anthroposophy. I cannot prove reincarnation, for example, academically. I can believe in it but I cannot prove this idea in an academic sense. The value of this idea lies in the fact that it justifies the assumption of an individuality founded in itself. That is educationally of value. The idea of reincarnation is a kind of methodological basis for taking children seriously as they are.

I try to make clear to my students that they cannot just simply take over the content of anthropsophy.

Anthroposophy cannot be foisted on everyone

EK | Will this open method – which sounds convincing since you personally work out of anthroposophy – not lead to a watering down in future?

JS | Let me take an example from our university. There are students who say: right, that is enough anthroposophy for me. Then there are others who want to know more, who want to dig deeper into anthroposophy. For the latter there are then deepening seminars alongside the normal course.

But this wish for deepening has to come from the individual student. I cannot simply foist it on everyone. I consider it important to make visible the aspect of freedom in the encounter with anthroposophy. So I also invite the critics of anthroposophy such as Helmut Zander and Heiner Ullrich resulting in very good debates and discussions.

The students then have to be able to cope with and handle such criticism. That is a hard path which does not, however, lead to a watering down if the students seriously concern themselves with Steiner’s ideas. What is important for me overall is that anthroposophy should become capable of academic comprehension and reception for a modern, contemporary consciousness. Then it will receive a much broader response in society and give young people important impulses for their life and in their occupation.

Ariane Eichenberg and Mathias Maurer asked the questions


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