Friends of Waldorf Education – 50 years supporting the future

By Nana Göbel, September 2021

In the 1970s, Waldorf pupils in West Germany – in 1975 there were just 40 Waldorf schools in Germany and only 27 of them had an upper school – felt the need to participate in the great challenges of the time.

The climate crisis showed its first harbingers, but much more worrying at that time seemed the arming with nuclear warheads, the disputes over the domination of oil, the construction of nuclear power plants and, above all, the question of a social model with which the encrusted past could be shaken off. We were no longer living in the bitterly poor years after the end of the War, nor in the 1960s with their street battles, but in structures that seemed inadequate despite or even because of the economic upswing. Not everyone immediately sympathised with the Red Army Faction, but everyone wanted more co-determination and, above all, the right to shape and participate in society.

As upper school pupils we wanted to have a say in what we learned, wanted to participate in the administration of Waldorf schools, set up pupil councils and networked (without digital media!) first with Waldorf pupils in Germany, but then soon internationally. We set up the function of a pupil representative in the teachers’ meeting, organised pupil conferences, first in Baden-Württemberg, then in Germany, then internationally, planned our own lessons on the topics that were important to us. And very important questions for us, apart from the issues already mentioned above, were freedom in education, self-determination of those involved in the educational process – including the pupils, of course – justice in education and international awareness.

Even as late as the 1970s, it was not at all normal for everyone to speak fluent English, to travel around eagerly and to have friends all over the world. We conquered all this over time and emancipated ourselves from the petty bourgeois circumstances of the cities in which we grew up. So, unfortunately, I only learned English through the preparation of the conferences; at that time the language teaching at some Waldorf schools was not very successful. We wanted a big, broad horizon – at all levels.

Some of us became active in the anti-nuclear movement, some in the beginnings of the Greens and the environmental movement, and some within the Waldorf movement. I myself was deeply grateful for the engaging, world-opening upper school lessons we enjoyed, where any question was allowed. And we talked a lot. This was the kind of teaching I wanted for every child, where exams were done as a matter of course on the side and were not part of the essential aim of the lesson. In the process, we became enthusiastic about the idea of a World School Association, as Rudolf Steiner had suggested in the early 1920s. Every child should be able to learn in freedom, independently run schools should be just as possible as an own curriculums, diversity should dominate education and political support should be organised for this. Armed with such ideas, we visited the doyen of the Waldorf movement at that time, Ernst Weißert.

Andreas Büttner, Christa Geraets, Nana Göbel, Jean-Claude Lin, Andreas Maurer and Paul Vink took part in this conversation in Stuttgart in June 1975 and at the general meeting of the then Friends of Waldorf Education on 29 November 1975. We felt understood by Ernst Weißert (presumably he felt that we would not be dissuaded anyway) and he gave us the shell of an association that he had founded in 1971 but for which he had never found time. Andreas Büttner and I actively participated in the meetings from autumn 1976, were elected to the council in autumn 1978 and Andreas Büttner took over the management. Together with Manfred Leist, the legal adviser of the German Association of Waldorf Schools and council member of the Friends of Waldorf Education, we designed the first flyers, organised the first foreign school visits and looked for people who were prepared with their donations to support Waldorf Schools abroad. Now, from autumn 1976, we began to build up what we at the Friends of Waldorf Education today call “International Cooperation”. Andreas Büttner took over the management, in 1977/78 even full-time thanks to a break in his studies. The rest of us studied and worked on a voluntary basis. We started from scratch, so to speak. In 1975, the annual income from donations was just 5,000 euros.

Forty-five years later – in 2020 – we crossed a significant threshold because in the meantime we had supported the worldwide Waldorf movement with 100 million euros. In between lay years of development, always on a voluntary basis, because we could only ever finance one executive director (Andreas Büttner was followed by Justus Wittich, then Christian Schulz and Winfried Tauer). Only after more than twenty years of voluntary development work did we find the means to employ more people.

The Friends of Waldorf Education grew together with the world school movement. Whenever a pioneer school was opened in a new country, we were there to support it. First it was mainly Waldorf schools in Latin America, then in Africa and Eastern Europe and finally in Asia. In the spirit of the ideals of the World School Association, we wanted to build up a free education system worldwide that was equally open to all and, as a first step in this direction, make it possible for economically disadvantaged children and young people in particular to attend a Waldorf school. But this is only one aspect. Over the decades, it has become increasingly clear that education and upbringing are ossifying as a result of the mainstream technical and economic view of the human being. And how is something new supposed to emerge from ossification?

Either through violence or through transformation. We wanted to work for transformation and provide more and more children and young people with a spiritually based education. Because only in this way can something new come into the world. And in all areas in which the Friends of Waldorf Education are active today, the aim is to work in such a way that something new can enter the world.

About the author: Nana Göbel has been executive director of the Friends of Waldorf Education since 1996

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