An education for the human being. The development of the worldwide Waldorf school movement

By Nana Goebel, October 2018

Waldorf education is more relevant than ever! In Africa alone, people are currently working in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Namibia, Nigeria and Ivory coast to prepare the establishment of new Waldorf kindergartens and schools.

Why does a woman who lives with her children in Arusha think that there is really only one system of education which she is willing to support with heart and soul?

We are in the midst of a worldwide Waldorf boom. Between 1987 and 2018, the Waldorf school movement almost tripled from 432 schools in 26 countries to 1,150 schools and 1,817 kindergartens in 72 countries. And if we were to count the school initiatives which are not yet included on the world school list, we would reach much higher numbers.

All of this came about as the result of a necessity of our time or from the impulse of individual people – depending on how we look at it. After the first disastrous war of the twentieth century, an inner openness and a desire for a completely different attitude arose from the ruins – at many levels. People mostly only experience the longing for something in the ruins of a past order when they know that something new is really necessary.

Emil Molt was concerned with a reorientation of society. With his school he wanted to contribute both to new social foundations and open a real educational opportunity for disadvantaged children. He asked Rudolf Steiner for educational support; together they asked E. A. Karl Stockmeyer and Herbert Hahn to join them in the following preparatory steps. The school received its approval thanks for Berthold Heymann, the then education minister in Baden-Württemberg from 9 November 1918 to 31 October 1919, its finance thanks to Emil Molt, its teachers thanks to the travels of E. A. Karl Stockmeyer – the only thing which they did not need to worry about was the pupils who came in droves.

This nucleus with its good connections in east, west, north and south led by 1933 to the establishment of 21 further Waldorf schools in eight other European countries as well as the USA. These were pioneering schools with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages which accompany the inexperience, boldness, educational ineptitude or aptitude, and a whole new way of working together in the responsibility for an organisation. Riding the wave of the indomitable and unshakeable enthusiasm of the teachers, the pupils loved their school and did not want to be without it.

When the Nazis seized power and schools were ordered to close or did so of their own accord, this was accompanied by the inner emigration of teachers and pupils in the European countries – except for Switzerland which, unmoved by what was happening elsewhere, continued with its work. At the same time there was the mostly enforced outer emigration to the USA and Latin America.

Whereas the development of Waldorf education in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s was set in train above all by European immigrants, a home-grown interest in a new system of education lived in the English-speaking non-European countries – that is the USA, Australia and New Zealand, as well as South Africa – which had been cultivated since the 1920s particularly through the New Education Movement. Most of the initiators of Waldorf schools in the English-speaking countries come from this movement. To this extent the picture must be corrected that Waldorf education was brought by exiles to the English-speaking countries. There are two roots from which the worldwide development of the Waldorf school movement has grown: a German-speaking root in Stuttgart, Basel and Dornach and an English-speaking root through Rudolf Steiner’s lectures in Oxford, Torquay and Ilkley organised initially by the New Education Movement.

After the end of the Second World War, the Waldorf schools were re-established in Europe in greater numbers than before and pioneering schools were set up in the countries in which the political circumstances allowed (such as Belgium and France, in Brazil, Chile or New Zealand and Australia). The people involved were very aware of the ideas underlying Waldorf education and worked with great seriousness on these inspiring foundations, even if they did not have at their disposal such sophisticated methods as are common today.

The important thing for the pupils was, as always, the interest which united them with one another and their teachers. The real quantitative growth of the Waldorf movement did not start until the political transformation of 1989 – and not only in Central and Eastern Europe but also in Africa and North and South America. In Central and Eastern Europe the desire for self-determination led to the establishment of many free schools, but a first Waldorf school also started in Israel in 1989 or in Kenya.

New phenomena accompanied the quantitative growth. Waldorf education was for the first time integrated into the state system – as happened in Romania and Russia. The demand for teachers grew enormously and on the one hand led to a certain professionalisation but on the other hand also to a neglect of the inner values.

With the start of the twenty-first century, education changed worldwide. The neoliberal concepts thought up on the management floors of the World Bank and IMF were implemented worldwide in education systems, sometimes openly as in all Latin American countries whose creditworthiness was made dependent on introducing these concepts, sometimes in a more concealed way and dressed up in nice-sounding words such as “comparability” and “equal opportunity”, as in the member states of the European Union.

After almost a hundred years of experience in Waldorf education and in a globalised world increasingly dominated by digital media and the concepts of economic salvation of the present time, the question arises in a new way about the future viability of any system of education.

An education for the human being is no longer something that can be taken for granted. And if the Waldorf movement wishes to continue to be an education for the human being in the future as well, it has to wake up now and fight for it.

About the author: Nana Göbel is managing director of Friends of Waldorf Education in Berlin