Questions on the current situation of Waldorf schools

April 2022

We asked Nele Auschra and Hans Hutzel, members of the executive council of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

EZK: What is the current situation of the German Association of Waldorf Schools (BdFWS)? 

Hutzel: Let me put like this: It’s been easier to represent the BdFWS externally. But at the moment we also have the chance to look at difficult points. This is what organisations and systems sometimes need when they have become too comfortable with themselves. Some important questions are being asked about Waldorf education, about the schools, about the people and also about its foundations. On the other hand, I notice that some journalists are prone to exaggeration, take out their anger on us and fuel very heated debates with outspoken prejudices that we don't need to repeat or reinforce. How we should deal with this is still an open question for me. Unfortunately, however, there are people in our community who behave in such a way that they all too easily offer points of attack and provide an excuse to tell really lurid stories about Waldorf schools. If you disregard the two extremes, the journalists who have lost the plot and the people here who behave in a weird way, then I do see that we can enter into an important dialogue and a common search. For example, on questions of the academic foundation, on questions of democratic togetherness, on agreements and commitment and on the responsibility we have in society as a school. One thing is clear: we do not exist in a legal vacuum, we are part of the democratically legitimised legal system, and we must behave accordingly. So stick to the rules.

Auschra: There is an external and an internal view of the situation. I myself am currently working on the view of the external media, and I believe that the majority of schools in the Association are behaving in accordance with the rules. And that's how it is; but of course we are also aware that there are schools where things don't work quite in that way. We find ourselves in a balancing act. The external view of the BdFWS is also divided. On the one hand, we have a national view, shaped by the journalists who like to copy from each other, attributing to us generalised behavioural patterns such as a supposedly anthroposophically justified refusal to comply with measures and vaccination. We have to combat that! But at the same time we have regional reporting on situations in individual schools that are quite real and which show that not all schools behave in the way we, as the BdFWS, present to the outside world. Every single school, every single person contributes to the public image of Waldorf schools. And there is a goal for everyone: it is important for us to enable the schools to provide good teaching so that the pupils find a protected place of learning with us. And that we have to subordinate our individual ideas about the current situation to the operation of the school.

EZK: What is the relationship between Waldorf schools and anthroposophy?

Hutzel: That is a charged relationship and there is no unequivocal answer. If the answer were unequivocal, then all teachers would be anthroposophists and all parents too. But it's not like that and I wouldn't want it to be, but it's good that the people who work with us bring with them an openness and an interest in anthroposophy. Anthroposophy tends to remain in the background at school, it is not a subject taught in lessons. Of course, that doesn't mean that I hide it when pupils ask about it. Neither is there any secret curriculum, any secret knowledge in the background. For me, anthroposophy is a basis for discussion, in the best, far-reaching sense a working hypothesis for approaching the individuality and promoting the development of the individuality. Through this approach we have a concept of the individual: they are not only dependent on their biological, materialistic context and social circumstances, etc., but there is always something intrinsic that we include in our thinking as a working hypothesis. This creates respect towards young people. They interest us and as a result we also enter into a relationship. The anthroposophical approach helps us in that. What I appreciate about Waldorf education is that, based on the path of knowledge of anthroposophy, it keeps asking the question: "What is the human being?” Anthroposophy must remain alive and not degenerate into a bundle of dogmas, prescriptions or even a mere collection of quotations. There is sometimes a tendency for this to happen and we have to defend ourselves against it. And the last point: for me, anthroposophy points us towards what school must provide, namely science, religion and art jointly. This is the triad of anthroposophical paths of knowledge. If that is at work in the school, then it becomes good.

Auschra: Rudolf Steiner, who developed anthroposophy, was the initiator of the schools. What underlies this is not only the development of an education which is guided by the individuality of the child, but also a strong socio-political dimension that was raging at the time: finding a solution to the social question and, in this context, the practical testing of the model of social threefolding using the example of educational institutions located in the free spiritual life.

It is important to me that anthroposophy is seen as a path of development. Education is also self-education. Working on yourself – as we also notice in everyday life – will always keep a person developing, and in education this attitude is all the more important. I do not think in this context that all teachers in our schools have to be anthroposophists, but I believe that it is important for all of them to have studied these basics of Waldorf education in the course of their teacher training. Anthroposophy is a treasure on which teachers can draw. They don't have to, Waldorf education also simply offers a wealth of tried and tested methods. But I find it a bit too limited for the work at a Waldorf school only to build on this.

EZK: What does "free" (free spiritual life, free Waldorf schools) mean in the context of Waldorf education?

Auschra: "Free schools" have the possibility to teach according to their own curriculum. We offer all the state qualifications at the end. But the schools are free to determine how we prepare the pupils and what we teach in which age groups in which way. This freedom is worth a lot.

But "free" does not mean that we also act freely in other areas. The state has legal supervision over our schools. And in the legal sphere we are the same as any other school. I believe that this is a message that all schools should take back to their school community again. Many of the difficulties we are facing at the moment are based on the problem that some people confuse this. We have the possibility to shape the schools freely in terms of education, but there is nothing to discuss in the legal area. Where this is understood, we have schools where pupils – even with masks and testing and distancing and hybrid teaching  – are, or have been, well looked after and educated, and where they find a protected place to learn and live.

There are people who say, we have always seen Waldorf schools as a social corrective. But we can and want to be that only in the education sector.  We are not an organ of civil society that takes action outside the education sector. And some people do not forgive us for that.

Hutzel: There is freedom in terms of content, but we are integrated into a democratically legitimised system of schools and the school landscape in general. Freedom must always be coupled with responsibility and must not turn into arbitrariness!

EZK: How do you counter the accusations that have been levelled at Waldorf schools, anthroposophy, Demeter farmers, etc. in recent weeks and months?

Auschra: There are accusations that are simply true. There are Waldorf teachers, there are anthroposophical doctors, there are Demeter farmers who, out of naivety, a sense of mission or an attitude of mind that regards anthroposophy as a kind of revelation and Steiner as a prophet, criticise the state measures to contain the pandemic, deny that the virus exists, or proclaim simplistic explanations. In a society that is struggling to understand what is happening and to deal with it as best it can, something like this cannot be well received. And as the result of such individuals, individual opinions, a sweeping accusation was made against "the anthroposophists" as a decisive component of the so-called "Querdenker" scene of pandemic sceptics, anti-lockdown protesters and anti-vaxxers, which we cannot so easily ward off. That is the challenge we are facing right now.

Hutzel: In my opinion, we have to pursue a dual strategy. Because we are sometimes subjected to crude accusations from the outside. We have to defend ourselves against those. Here we have to say "this far and no further". All groups in society must ask themselves in which areas they haven’t yet developed sufficient sensitivity when it comes to misanthropy directed at a whole group. That Waldorf schools are racist or even anti-Semitic is simply nonsense. When I look at the school landscape, I see how many great projects that show the opposite keep being initiated by teachers and students.

We must also protect ourselves internally. And in the most extreme case, this can mean that an individual Waldorf school no longer aligns with us and leaves the German Association of Waldorf Schools, or we say, this is it and we initiate the expulsion process.

EZK: What opportunities does the current situation offer?

Auschra: Coronavirus has clearly revealed to us the weaknesses that can exist in schools. In the school structure for example: if no one has been legitimised in a democratic process within the school community to lead the school, then you get into hot water in such situations. And in the same way it is difficult if the school has not gained a sufficient understanding of its educational qualities. Because this can lead to statements like: "If I can't do face-to-face teaching, I can't do Waldorf teaching". I mean, the claim that Waldorf education cannot be taught digitally is the greatest indictment of the position advocated by some teachers in some schools. We therefore immediately tried to broaden the spectrum with provisions such as #waldorflernt (#waldorflearns) and to show where and how Waldorf education is possible in all situations.

Hutzel: We were prompted from outside to look at the fundamental thinking of our system of education. Rudolf Steiner's statements have rarely been discussed as intensively as they are now. I find that very good. There are many things that we need to dust off and check whether and to what extent they still apply to us. At the same time, we can unearth treasures in the process. And I see the questions from outside, even if they are harshly formulated, as an invitation to "explain to us what you are doing at the Waldorf schools!" We should not isolate ourselves, but tell what and how we work in a language that everyone understands. And I think that's where we're still struggling a bit. I sometimes feel that it is important for us to realise that anthroposophy is not just for anthroposophists. We need to be able to discuss its content with other people. I see a great opportunity here.

Auschra: I believe that almost every school has unearthed treasures during this period: in dealing with each other, with the pupils, in learning materials that have been newly developed. And that has led to a new self-confidence which means that everyone now has the possibility to approach the outside world more confidently. We can be proud of the new things that have been created and do not have to hide in any way.

The questions were asked by Angelika Lonnemann

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