Transcending cultures

October 2018

People everywhere have noticed that the highly technological culture which is spreading all over the world represents something that is hugely one-sided and which urgently needs something else to supplement it. Interview with Tomáš Zdražil.

Erziehungskunst | Rudolf Steiner inaugurated a system of education and way of understanding the human being in 1919 which started at a specific time, in a specific place with specific people. Can these “moments in history” be readily transferred into our time?

Tomáš Zdražil | Let me start by looking at the international school movement: as we know, there is currently great interest in Waldorf education in China. There it is represented by people from different countries, mainly by two English people who attend large conferences and perform a lot of coordinating work. In the neighbouring country of Nepal, the Waldorf establishments are looked after and carried forward by an Israeli teacher. Further south in India, Norwegians played an important role in the development of the Waldorf schools.

There is thus a lively international exchange of views about the understanding of the human being which underlies Waldorf education which is spontaneous and filled with life. What is transferred is not necessarily the old content, the wording of The Foundations of Human Experience, transported in a mechanical or dogmatic way, but primarily what I would like to call the human substance of such an understanding of the human being.

Steiner called the most gifted people from the whole of the anthroposophical scene to Stuttgart for the preparatory course. All of them were very young, creative, well-educated  generally and also in anthroposophy – and above all prepared to put their skills at the disposal of the new task without reservation. By the way, the group of participants had an international flavour even at that time: Germans from the north and the south, Balts, Swiss, Americans, Dutch and Austrians.

Steiner consolidated the whole of his anthroposophy for them once more over a few days with its most recent research results and set it out from an educational perspective. He also gave a wealth of suggestions regarding general and teaching methodology. Above all, he showed in seminar examples and let them experience what educational practice should look like. Lastly, he roused an enormous enthusiasm in the participants.

The teachers of the first school went through highs and lows, but in doing so and in regular discussions with Steiner really did creatively develop an education through “learning by doing”. Both Steiner and some of the first Waldorf teachers then made the international educational establishment aware of this kind of education. We can thus see here an important pattern, a principle of how this education spreads.

At the beginning there was almost always a living presentation by people who had already practised it and made it their own, never through textbooks or compendiums of Waldorf education. In other words, it is not the content of the historical classes which is “transferrable” but the human substance of such an understanding of the human being. And that works today just as much as it did then. The creative potential in the teachers is awoken and that is then transferred to the pupils.

EK | There are meanwhile Waldorf schools in almost every national, cultural and ethnic context worldwide. What makes the anthroposophical understanding of the human being accessible to them?

TZ | Well, that is indeed a material signature of Waldorf education which is worth looking at a little more closely. Some aspects: Steiner’s remarks about the nature of the human being focus, on the one hand, on the individual sphere, the self of the human being. On the other hand they investigate what is universal in human beings. Both things relate to every culture. This approach makes the understanding of the human being in Waldorf education intercultural or, rather, transcultural. It is with this particular characteristic that we touch, I believe, on the secret of why it is so attractive across the world.

Our understanding of the human being always bears the very individualised colouring of the person advocating it. And it is never theory but is connected with educational practice. It works primarily not from head to head but from heart to heart, that is at a human level. It not only exudes knowledge but also educational experience and above all love of the human being. In our civilisation in which the human dimension is being lost across the world – and unfortunately also in education systems and education itself – that is a comfort for many sensitive people.

EK | Does that mean that Steiner’s fundamental insights about the nature of the human being are generally valid?

TZ | It works in a much more complex way. There are very many people in the world who at the beginning, sometimes quite by chance, directly experience the practical fruitfulness of this education system. They then become curious and want to learn about the ideas which underlie the practice. The views about the development of the child and its connection with the lesson content and the age groups which form the basis of the curriculum then become relevant.

But there are also people who see that the highly technical culture which is spreading across the globe is hugely one-sided and is leading humanity down a dead-end and urgently needs a balance. They see such a balance in anthroposophy and Waldorf education. It may be that for such people the spiritual connection between human beings and the realms of nature or between the earth and the cosmos as described in anthroposophy becomes particularly important. This aspect can be found in the Scandinavian Waldorf schools for example, a new kind of connectedness with nature.

Many people are also looking for a path to the lost roots of their own culture. The traditions no longer function. There are many things to indicate that Waldorf education can provide significant help in this search. In this context the anthroposophical views about the anthropological importance of the imagination, the imaginative content of the ancient myths and stories or about the historical development of humanity may be particularly attractive.

In Africa, and not just there, the wealth of pictorial stories of the past is tapped into and rediscovered in this way. Yet no one is forced to accept or believe anything but the focus is on the principle of freedom and self-efficacy. And another thing: nowhere in the world is there a place which would codify such an understanding of the human being or which would have a prerogative as to how it should be interpreted, everyone is free in this respect.

EK | Critical voices refer to “Waldorf colonialism”. Waldorf education is based on the anthroposophical image of the human being. Can such a view be taken for granted everywhere?

TZ | In my view even the term “image of the human being” does not fit with the real cognitive foundation of Waldorf education. An image is something fixed, normative. Unfortunately it keeps happening that anthroposophy is presented in a dogmatic way, but the only result of that is a distortion of Waldorf education. True Waldorf education arises where anthroposophy inspires and shapes educational life as a method. Although the content of anthroposophy is not unimportant, it turns into a method in that it cultivates the human being in their capacity to observe, think, feel and act.

I am convinced that Waldorf education is spreading largely by this means throughout the world and thus includes the genuine local, cultural contexts. Furthermore, if there really is something universal in human beings, something which makes them “human”, then we cannot refer to the method which leads to an understanding of this universal element as “colonialism” but we would rather have to speak about “liberation” – because through it human beings are in a sense liberated to become themselves. Accordingly Waldorf education would be an anti-colonial liberation movement.

EK | The lectures about The Foundations of Human Experience need some getting used to and are not immediately accessible in their language and thought content. Should they not be “translated” to make them accessible to a broader readership?

TZ | Yes, the book absolutely takes some getting used to. But having to get used to it need not only mean that it is full of antiquated content and Steiner’s strange way of putting things. The Foundations of Human Experience makes certain demands of the reader which help them to practise and experience something new. Steiner’s books were always texts to for schooling oneself, and remain so today. The Foundations of Human Experience invites us to adopt certain perspectives in our ideas, think challenging images, develop questions which can vitalise and deepen our relationship with the world. That is something that people today want across the world.

We are currently in the process of attempting small experiments in this direction in the International Forum of the Waldorf school movement (Hague Circle) and asking: how is The Foundations of Human Experience read and heard by Japanese, Chinese, South Africans, French people, Russians? We are also planning to publish something on this in 2019.     

Mathias Maurer asked the questions