The social mandate of Waldorf schools

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, June 2014

Private schools are booming in Germany. As the confidence of parents in the state school system falls, we are heading straight for a two-tier system with private schools for the wealthy and state schools for everyone else. This model has long been established in the Anglo-Saxon countries with their great divide between rich and poor.

Photo: © AtnoYdur / iStockphoto

Where do the Waldorf schools stand in the way our society is developing? Are they simply one of many providers in the private school sector? Do they offer “education light” without too many challenges for an alternatively tinged middle class? Do they shield our children from the burning social questions of our time?

Change of perspective I: There was civil war in Sierra Leone in 1995. Countless children were forced to commit the most terrible atrocities, often under the influence of drugs. That was the time when Shannoh Kandoh in Freetown started to gather up and teach at least some of them. In 2000 he was allowed to start a school but had to keep moving because of rising rents until in 2009 the point finally came when he was able to found the Goderich Waldorf School in Rokel, where with the help of Alfred Barlatt about 60 children have been taught free of charge, funded by donations, ever since.  

Change of perspective II: In 1999, the first Waldorf school class started work in Lo Tung in Taiwan at the initiative of Chuen Sue Chang which with 600 today has grown into the largest Waldorf school in East Asia. In 2004, the first Waldorf kindergarten was opened in Cheng Du in China. Ten years later, there are 172 kindergarten groups in China, a growing number of schools and four training courses of several years. The trend is rapid growth.

Change of perspective III: In the picturesque Mediterranean town of Alanya, the first Turkish Waldorf school class began lessons in 2013. The initiative of the founding businessman Orhan Demirtas is being closely watched by the intellectual elite of the town, a Waldorf teacher training course is under discussion between the local university and the Berlin teacher training seminar. Although nothing is certain yet, a strong purpose can be felt to set an educational development in motion organised by civil society.

The differences could hardly be greater in the political, economic and cultural conditions under which the parents and teachers involved decide to initiate educational developments which stand in stark contrast to the existing reality of schooling in their home countries. There are more than a thousand Waldorf schools worldwide today and almost three times as many Waldorf kindergartens which have also emerged from such initiatives of individual people. What kind of impulse is it which leads people to make such great sacrifices to bring it to realisation?

The example of Sierra Leones stands for many initiatives in Latin America, Africa and Asia and shows what this impulse assuredly is not, namely a retreat for the socially privileged. “Privare” is the Latin word for to deprive. In contrast, the Waldorf initiatives in the townships, favelas or civil war zones try to give something back to the children: the childhood of which they have been deprived. They stand for active brotherliness or, more precisely, siblingness. The rapid expansion of Waldorf education in many East Asian countries in which childhood is threatened not by hunger or violent excesses but through rigorous subordination, endless rote learning and the always present danger of exclusion, reveals a second impulse: the free development of the children’s personality and the longing for independence from the constraints imposed by the state or the economy. This is about the freedom of the individual. If, finally, we look at a central question of many parents in Germany, it is the one about real participation and an encounter on the basis of equality in organising school life.

Liberty, equality, fraternity

What we have set alongside one another through these examples are three basic impulses which have repeatedly attempted to forge ahead in the modern era with the discovery of human rights. There is good reason why to the present day we find above the portal of each French town hall the watchwords of the French Revolution, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. That these terms are not just empty phrases but concrete structuring ideas becomes evident as soon as we relate them to social reality:

  • Freedom is the precondition for every individual development and thus also the source of all social progress.
  • Equality is the basic signature of a civil society founded on participation in which the “authorities” no longer set the agenda but the people concerned themselves do.
  • Fraternity – or more soberly: associative collaboration – is the prerequisite for an economic life which is guided by the needs of people, in which entrepreneurial initiative and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive but reciprocally enriching.

What the ignorance with regard to these ideals leads to can be seen in the global symptoms of disease in our society with which the up-and-coming generation have to learn to cope: they extend from the rapidly growing addictive and consumption behaviour in the “civilised” societies – the caricature of “freedom” – through fundamentalist and totalitarian social orders – the caricature of “equality” – to the exploitation of peoples and nature through the “coercion” of  globally acting financial jugglers – the caricature of “fraternity”. Rudolf Steiner considered the ideals of the French Revolution not as empty formulas but as ordering principles of social life: freedom was just as much a necessary part of spiritual or cultural life as legal and political life was based on the equality of all. Fraternity, in turn, had long become a part of an economy based on the division of labour which could only function associatively but was still treated like a barter economy.

The shadow side of intelligence

The first Waldorf school was the logical consequence of the campaign for the “threefold structure of the social organism”, in which Steiner called for an education independent from state or economic interests among other things. He wanted to replace education based on social convention with the power of renewal which would flow to society through individuals developing in freedom. School was to become a place in which young people had to space to develop with equal practical experience of life and imagination.

Directly before the start of his famous course for the first college of teachers, Steiner gave a series of lectures in August 1919 entitled “The education question as a social question”. In them he describes the abilities which people need to be able to participate actively in societal reality at all. Against the background of the historical experiences which humanity had passed through at the time, and in the knowledge of the unsolved problems of our time, these lectures appear more relevant than ever. I wish to pick just one motif from the arc which Steiner traced at the time: the development of the intelligence from antiquity to modern times.

Whereas human beings in prehistoric times had a direct relationship with the forces of life which were revealed to them in a pictorial consciousness interwoven with the phenomena, an object thinking arose in Greek antiquity with which human beings set themselves apart from nature and the “gods”. In the modern period, the intelligence developed to the level at which it could understand and utilise what was dead. This on the one hand led to the enormous progress in the technical mastery of the world but, on the other hand, to the separation of art, science and religion into mutually independent spheres. But the “intelligence” has thereby not yet come to the end of its development. In the twentieth century it will gradually turn into a two-edged sword, according to Steiner: it can either be educated to grasp a living context through active inner work or it can develop a tendency for “evil”. I will leave it to the reader to examine for himself or herself the phenomena of our time in that light.

The social meaning of authority and love

So instead of setting up moral principles for teachers and pupils, Steiner matter-of-factly deals with the question as to the forces which a young person must develop in order to be able to take a hold of their development as an adult.

Whereas children in the first years of life unite themselves directly with the world through innate powers of devotion, they prepare themselves as adolescents to penetrate the world with their thinking consciousness and create the connections for themselves. Hence Steiner urgently recommended that parents and educators should create an environment for children in which everything was worth imitating, and by that he was not just referring to the external surroundings but also the thoughts, habits and emotions of the adults surrounding the children. The lack of a culture worth imitating at this age led to the “animalisation of bodies” which had an effect on the whole of their further life.

Later the need arises to experience the world with the support of people whom the children trust and to whom they can look up because of their maturity of judgement and inner flexibility. Looking up to someone in this way – Goethe referred in Wilhelm Meister to the “three reverences”, which should be developed for what is above us, beside us and below us – gives rise to seeing the dignity of each individual human being which is the necessary condition for being able to conceive equality at all. The longing for a “beloved” – because worthy of that love – authority forms the basis for a feeling of justice and a democratic culture. The negative counter-image is a general cultural drowsiness, “the soul vegetating along”.

Steiner describes the time between puberty and coming of age as the age in which the interest in the world and in other people develops out of the general love for humanity. That is why at this age it is of overriding importance that young people should be able develop such a “comprehensive love of the external world” in school and in their surroundings; that is, a deep and individually acquired interest in the other person and in the time in which they live. Young people can develop a sense of fraternity in dealing with one another only on the basis of such experiences. A general love of humanity becomes the impulse for fraternity. In short:

  • True imitation in early childhood becomes the discerning basis of freedom.
  • The experience of valid authority in the second septennium leads to an understanding of the dignity of each individual human being.
  • The comprehensive love of the world in the third septennium leads to an understanding of economic processes through the experience of social responsibility.

Crises as developmental opportunities

The critical questions posed at the beginning reflect some of the things which are often associated with Waldorf schools today, at least in Germany. Anyone who is better acquainted with Waldorf schools knows that this is not what they are about and never have been.

They must nevertheless ask themselves why they are lumped together in the same corner and whether they do not perhaps feel more comfortable there than their aspirations suggest they should feel.

Actually Waldorf schools are a large-scale attempt to realise the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity in the collaboration between parents, teachers and pupils. None of us can do that yet particularly well. That is why crises keep cropping up followed by a longing for an authoritarian school management or binding standards. But every crisis also bears an opportunity for development within itself. As people of our time, we cannot avoid working on those strengths which the children and adolescents have to experience in us if they are to have them at their disposal in their own right in later life.

Freedom, equality and fraternity are not fusty ideals from a bygone age but ideas as to how to shape the global tasks of our time. They have to be practiced on the small scale to work on the large scale.

That is why Waldorf schools are not private schools.

During the Frankfurt National Assembly of 1848, the first German parliament, deputy Pauer from Neiße hailed his fellow parliamentarians with the words: “If you want the people to be free, then you should establish free schools!” It is time to start listening to him again. We have allies all over the world.

About the author: Henning Kullak-Ublick is Head of Public Relations at the German Association of Waldorf Schools and a member of the board. His book Jedes Kind ein Könner. Fragen und Antworten zur Waldorfpädagogik appeared in March.