Waldorf schools in times of social upheaval

By Volker Frielingsdorf, October 2018

As everyone knows, the first Waldorf school was founded ninety-nine years ago in Stuttgart by Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt.

The “actual” birthday of the Waldorf school for Emil Molt was 23 April 1919, the day on which Steiner gave a lecture to the work force of the factory. It was very well received and afterwards there was a memorable meeting of the works council in the course of which Molt on behalf of the works council announced the decision to establish a school. Molt subsequently asked Steiner to take on the development and management of the school. When Steiner agreed, Molt provided 100,000 marks as seed capital and so the preparations for starting a school could begin.

If we go back a little further in the history of the establishment of the school, we come to the historically significant date of 9 November 1918 when the First World War ended and the republic was proclaimed in Berlin after the abdication of the emperor. Molt was in Zurich on business on that day and learned about the great upheavals through ever constantly newspaper supplements. That same evening he still travelled to Dornach where he hoped for some advice from Steiner as to what he should do now. It was then an indirect suggestion from Steiner that made Molt sit up and which gave him the idea in the course of the following weeks to set up a completely new school for the children of the workers and other employees of his factory.

What later became Waldorf education still had to be worked out at that point and given an ever more concrete form, but it had been conceived in outline by Steiner years earlier. In 1907 he had given the first lectures on the education he inaugurated which were also published under the title The Education of the child in the Light of Anthroposophy. Steiner indicates in them that the spiritual science founded by him was able to set out in some detail what the “development of an art of education” might look like.

However, it appears that no one asked him, either in 1907 or in the following years to 1918, to work out more precisely the system of education which he had presented until then only in outline. This did not happen until the revolution of 1918/19 in the course of which, after the disaster of the First World War, there was a great willingness to tackle the social question seriously and in this larger context to contemplate the possibility of establishing a completely new school. So even though the seeds of the idea already existed, it required a particular socio-political situation and a special trigger to enable the “birth” of Waldorf education.

Times of upheaval and new beginning

If we now look at the further developmental history of the Waldorf school movement, we can see that there were several developmental surges in the past hundred years at which there was a sudden hugely increased general interest in Waldorf education. All of these boom phases were connected with social and political upheavals which provided the substrate on which the Waldorf schools were able – and had – to transform themselves and continue their development. Since 1919, the following periods of upheaval can be identified which were always also new beginnings:

•  The 1920s in which there was widespread interest in progressive education in the wake of which nine Waldorf schools were founded in Germany alone.

•  The “zero hour” of 1945 when, after the double catastrophe of the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War, 25 Waldorf schools were set up in Germany in the space of a few years.

•  The years after 1968 when Waldorf education gained entry to left-wing liberal and Green circles, as a result of which the number of West German Waldorf schools rose to 70 in the decade from 1970 to 1980 and in 1986 the one hundredth school was opened.

•  A further surge came with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989/90, leading to German reunification, when in the pivotal year 1990 seventeen Waldorf schools were founded, seven of them in eastern Germany.

All of these boom phases had each been preceded by a phase of consolidation in which many sceptics warned that there was some risk in expanding too quickly as this would inevitably lead to the dilution of Waldorf education. Remarkably, the Waldorf school movement nevertheless succeeded in each of these growth periods in mastering the challenges associated with the establishment of new schools and in developing changed social forms to avoid the threatened loss of substance.

The question remains if and when the next new beginning will occur. Are we perhaps even today once again facing great social and political upheavals? Will future generations look back at the “Merkel era” (Angela Merkel, German chancellor) as a time of imperceptible restoration, as an era in which people curiously stopped asking the social question? Was it not inevitable – people might ask in around 2030 – that the world of 2018/19, in which digitalisation and globalisation provoked great hopes, but equally great, mostly diffuse fears, was fundamentally transformed?

If this should turn out to be the case, then it is only a matter of time before wholly new tasks and different challenges are approaching the Waldorf school movement. And then a second questions will arise: whether the Waldorf schools are ready to move on – and whether the idea which out of the “philosophy of freedom” led to the establishment of an “education for freedom” is still productive enough to develop the Waldorf school of the future, a school which enables children and young people to orientate themselves in the digitalised world and give it a human form.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Volker Frielingsdorf was an upper school teacher of history and German at the Schopfheim Free Waldorf School and has written, among other things, about the history of anthroposophical special needs education and Waldorf education from the perspective of education studies; today he is professor of Waldorf education and its history at Alanus University in Alfter.