Rudolf Steiner, Emil Molt and the first Waldorf school

October 2018

In conversation with Dietrich Esterl, a former pupil and then teacher for many years at the Stuttgart-Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School, about the early years and future development of the “mother school”.

Erziehungskunst | What motivated the establishment of the first Waldorf School here in Stuttgart in 1919?

Dietrich Esterl | Here we must first of all refer to the two founding personalities Emil Molt and Rudolf Steiner. The basic motif came from Steiner, who took up the impulses prevalent in his time. He formulated this as early as in the lectures in The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science in about 1905/06. No anthroposophist subsequently concerned themselves with the education question. As a completely penniless young man, Molt with great energy built up his cigarette factory in Stuttgart. As its “patriarch”, he felt responsible for his employees and their children.

Emil Molt had first met Rudolf Steiner in 1904/05 and became his pupil. The World War was an incision. In 1917/18 Steiner formulated the ideas on the threefold nature of the social organism: an impulse for the future development of society. It was Steiner’s response to the disaster of the First World War. In 1919, the establishment of a school began to be put into practice. Molt immediately started an adult education school for his workers. Steiner’s fundamental remarks in January 1919 remained a riddle in their consequences for the activists at the time and, in my opinion, have remained so to the present day.

Molt was the driving force and pressed ahead with the project with incredible commitment. In planning the school, Steiner initially pictured an Austrian middle school with ten classes. In the future, it was to be supplemented by two classes of general studies and then an institution of higher education. Alongside this there was to be a further education school for the children of workers who had left school at an earlier stage, a vocational school. That represented a whole range of developments. Then there were the preparatory teachers’ meetings – which, in my opinion, Steiner’s gave his most intensive attention. He remained involved with the school until the end. Just read the last letters to the teachers and children which he wrote shortly before his death.

EK | In autumn 1919, The Foundations of Human Experience came down to earth in the teachers’ meetings. The future college of teachers received a kind of “crash course” in the spiritual scientific understanding of the human being.

DE | The whole thing is basically a vision. If we look closely at the beginning of Foundations, Steiner speaks about a school which does not yet exist. He had no fixed idea about what it should become in concrete terms. He wanted to describe the development of the child on the basis of anthroposophy and then from that develop a set of instruments for practical application. Steiner was, I always like to say, one of the great initiators of the last century but not prescriptive. When today we quote Steiner prescriptively, then in my view we are missing the point of what he intended. Because if you actually look at his words, it always says: you have to develop it. Teachers are to be encouraged so that they are independently in a position to shape the teaching content: an artistic process! The curriculum is the children. We have bungled in enshrining the curricula. If you look, many things in the practice of Waldorf schools has meanwhile become questionable in a real sense. Turning towards the child is something which not just Waldorf schools can do today. Many teachers in other schools follow this method.

EK | Then the school began as an “Association for a free school system”

DE | No, it started as the “Waldorf” school. When Molt contributed his company as a gift, he had the “Waldorf” name contractually guaranteed. The sponsor was an “Association for a free school system”. It didn’t have anything directly to do with the Waldorf school but was actually an association with a political programme for the school system in general.

EK | Molt transferred all his assets to the school?

DE | Yes, a large part of his private wealth, and then he transferred the Waldorf-Astoria shares to the new holding “Der Kommenden Tag”. Emil Leinhas became its director. He had previously been the chief executive in Molt’s company. He sold the Waldorf-Astoria shares in 1922 with Steiner’s approval. Molt had different plans but was overruled. He subsequently got into financial difficulties and his health suffered. Yet his company was the only one that would have been able to survive. “Der Kommende Tag” and “Futurum AG” in Switzerland went bankrupt. Molt stood at the “graveside of his lifelong goals”. He nevertheless stayed loyal to Steiner and his school. It is due to Molt that it did not compromise with the Nazi rulers after 1933 and become a state experimental school. Imagine if the Americans had found out in 1945 that such plans existed: the whole school movement would have been stopped at that point.

EK | What from the past do you still see at work today?

DE | It is the very high educational ethos of the Waldorf college of teachers which can, however, also have its problematical side: “Waldorf” was experienced as a world of its own and the external world was out there. Steiner already cultivated that in part: but we are, after all, the revolutionaries, the outsiders! And not the only ones on this earth. We are a comprehensive school with a differentiated structure and that is what each Waldorf school is in its own way. Crafts and arts are just as much part of this activity. Developing abilities is important, not just proficiencies. The goal is not to educate pre-programmed human beings in digitalisation but learning individuals.

EK | Additional schools were established: Hamburg in 1922, Hannover in 1926, Berlin in 1928, then Dresden in 1929, Breslau in 1930. How did the mother school react to that?

DE | It was very difficult for the college of teachers at the time. Rudolf Steiner’s last letter to the college was almost like a kind of instruction: there were to be no Waldorf schools without the approval of the Stuttgart college of teachers. That was felt to be interference in the free initiative of spiritual and cultural life and led to some disagreements ...

EK | ... until the Association of Waldorf Schools was founded to which the responsibility was transferred ...

DE | Correct. But the unity of initiatives is not uniformity.

EK | The parents of the Uhlandshöhe school today are well-educated and not, as a rule, poor. Has the school done too little to make itself accessible to quite different sections of the population?

DE | In 1919 the majority of the children came from working class families! That is no longer the case today. Even if we make a distinction between accepting a child and the income of the parents and school fees – certain sections of society are not even interested in sending their children to a “private school”. What we have always had is single mothers. Today we have childcare facilities and comprehensive care, that has changed completely.

EK | How important does the school consider the final exams to be?

DE | It has always been our concern that no avenues should be closed off for the pupils. But we want to open perspectives, not close them down. In my view the breadth of education which was and is practised here in progressing through the twelve classes normally provides a good foundation for passing exams. Above all, a standardised tempo of development is avoided. So, keeping options open makes sense.

EK | Has something changed in the inner attitude of the school in comparison to the founding years?

DE | The social conditions have changed enormously since then. We have plunged through a century faster than previous generations in many centuries. But the will remains unchanged to be able to shape human culture in the future. That is what the children demand of us! What has changed today is the willingness and strength of commitment to the exclusion of everything else. Today we speak about the work-life balance. That is also reflected in the decrease in class sizes.

EK | A sense of tradition using the development of educational substance as justification – can that not lead to a failure to recognise necessary developmental impulses?

DE | It is true that forms and practices have developed over time – the school was, after all, for a long time the weightiest steamer in the growing Waldorf fleet and set the course of the movement. But familiar and proven things can also support and strengthen people and the community. On the other hand, “because that’s how it’s always been done” can also act as a major brake.

EK | How do you see the development of self-governance in the school?

DE | The “republican model” suffers from internal contradictions. Steiner did not think much of statutes. The demand for unanimity contradicts the necessity of agreeing rules which everybody must adhere to as much as being responsibility for duties which have been taken on.

In many cases self-governance requires more strength than teaching. This is another field in which the Waldorf school is not a finished work but a learning enterprise. Freedom is a high goal as an ideal for the individual; in communal enterprises appropriate, binding rules about rights and obligations are required.                           

Mathias Maurer asked the questions