School in freedom

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, December 2022

The worldwide increase of autocratic governments, including in Europe, shows once more that we have to actively defend democracy, social solidarity and freedom as core elements of civil society if we do not want them to be snatched out of our hands. Freedom is neither a natural given nor a matter of course, but has to be repeatedly won and stewarded. This applies in particular to freedom in the cultural and educational sectors, without which there can be no freedom at all.

Like any freedom, cultural freedom has a double meaning: firstly, it is freedom from external, that is, administrative, ideological or power-political encroachments; secondly, it is freedom for our own actions, which includes the individual willingness to take responsibility and enter into obligations.

Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote about the first aspect of freedom two hundred and fifty years ago: “Public education seems to me to lie entirely outside the boundaries in which the state must develop its effectiveness”. Rudolf Steiner declared a hundred years ago: “If you do not get the courage to strive for the detachment of the school from the state, then the whole Waldorf school movement is for nothing”. And former German president Roman Herzog exclaimed in his famous “wake-up speech”: “Let us release our education system to freedom!”

The “freedom for something” begins with the preparation for each individual lesson, continues with the encounter with the children, parents, colleagues and the social environment of the school, and ends with the development of forms of cooperation that give courage for something new, build bridges and always place those at the centre of all measures whom it is all about: the pupils whom we want to make strong for a future of which we can at best only guess what challenges it will pose for the adults they will be. These guesses, however, are enough to know that it is about people themselves, about the future of our earth and about discovering responsibility for people at whose expense we have been living for centuries.

In spring, a representative survey was published that was conducted with 1,100 school leaders and was commissioned by the publisher Cornelsen, advised by the well-known education researcher Klaus Hurrelmann. The results are truly astonishing: 82 per cent of the school leaders were in favour of a fundamental reform of the subject canon, a quarter want to abolish the classical subjects altogether and teach interdisciplinary subjects. Now I must confess that I have always wondered why the often notorious dissatisfaction of many of my colleagues working in a state school has never led them to demand Roman Herzog’s call for freedom with the same force as, for example, the protection of teachers from Corona-infected children – which Heinz-Peter Meidinger of the German Teachers’ Association repeated almost prayerfully for a year and a half.

But they do exist, the wonderful pioneers! One example is Enja Riegel, whose Helene Lange School in Wiesbaden was by far the best school in Germany in the 2002 PISA test – for which I do not in any way want to strike a blow. Previously, she had turned the whole school upside down, including tearing down walls, creating meeting spaces for the pupils, abolishing the 45-minute cycle and making drama a compulsory subject. She saved the 25,000 euros for hiring a professional director by having the pupils clean their school themselves, thus transforming the school from what she called a “cleaned to a cleaning system”.

We could give many more examples, but here we are talking about a special aspect: after the PISA laurels, several other schools adopted Riegel’s drama and other ideas; only, it didn’t work! For they were not concerned with drama at all but with measuring performance for the next PISA survey. The basic prerequisite was missing due to this “in order to”: the unconditional presence of the teachers. Learning in freedom only succeeds when everything carries its relevance and meaning within itself and is not subordinated to a goal that has nothing to do with the matter at hand. When I do drama, it’s about drama, when I do music, it’s about music, and when I do geometry or history or grammar, it’s about geometry or history or grammar and not about some goal externally imposed by whoever. Presence is the magic word, because presence is what every relevant encounter is about, be it with people, with nature or with any other object of attention. The lesson from Wiesbaden is not that everyone should do drama but that only the interplay of doing, feeling and thinking creates the mental presence that is needed for real learning – throughout life, by the way.

“All education is self-education” is still a core principle of Waldorf education today, which has spread all over the world with 1,200 schools and 2,000 kindergartens. The focus on the living conditions and developmental needs of the children on the ground, combined with intensive and ongoing work on deepening the understanding of the human being, were the inspiration for the wealth of new ideas and impulses that were predisposed there by Rudolf Steiner, Emil Molt and the pioneering teachers of the first Waldorf school. Since then, the avoidance of ready programmes has made it possible for proactive parents and teachers in more than eighty countries to implement Waldorf education in a concrete and real-life way under the most diverse cultural, religious, socio-economic or political conditions. The vitality and youthfulness of many pioneering schools in Latin America, Africa or Asia is further proof of the importance of presence over tiring repetition – we could learn a thing or two from that in this country!

The civil society and educational revolution that was deliberately intended with the first Waldorf school was hugely fought by the Nazi regime, which either banned the schools or closed them because the latter were unwilling to make any more compromises. In 1949, the West German Basic Law was established, which begins with the words “The dignity of the human being is inviolable”, followed by a further nineteen articles, all of which deal with the protection of the individual against the arbitrariness of the state. The school system was no longer to be controlled by any central state authority. Educational sovereignty and supervision were transferred to the Länder (federal states) and Article 7 enshrined the right to establish independent, i.e. non-governmental schools.

Today we have sixteen federal states with sixteen school laws, sixteen ministries of education and countless administrative officials. Whole libraries of decrees and ordinances have emerged from this, most teachers are civil servants, and schools thus continue to be state territory, exposed to the whims of changing majorities in parliaments. With every change of government, profound changes are made in the school policies of the federal states. Even if they may be sensible (or at least well-intentioned), it remains an authoritarian gesture that does not really systematically rely on the educational imagination, competence and initiative of the teachers locally. Instead it prescribes regulation standards, and values standardised controls more highly than individual responsibility.

This is one of the reasons why, not least, independent schools have become so popular in Germany in recent years. Although they still play a minor role by a European comparison, this is not due to a lack of demand but to the financial hurdles imposed on them by the structural underfunding on the part of the Länder. However, since equal opportunities can only be realised through diversity of opportunities, competition between state and non-state schools is an innovation driver that school funding should take into account: not the sponsorship of a school, but the actual costs of running the school are the yardstick that matters. One way of doing this, which has often been discussed, would be to introduce a lump sum for each pupil, which would be paid to the school they attend, irrespective of the sponsor. Then productive competition for good school practice would be possible, which would not be measured by the financial possibilities of a district or of parents but would make school possible where people take responsibility, regardless of whether they are the state or independent.

Education is a human right enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. At one time, the state ensured that there was a comprehensive provision for all its “subjects”. What was progress at the time by making school education a common good is now becoming a stumbling block: in the meantime, we have realised that it is not the state that is the sponsor of public life but the citizens. However, it is the task of the state to provide optimal conditions for people’s self-determination and self-governance on the basis of fundamental and human rights.

To avoid a not entirely uncommon misunderstanding, freedom in education does not mean that arbitrariness and capriciousness take the place of state regulation. Of course the state must ensure that an educational institution, be it a kindergarten, a school or something else, protects the rights of children and prevents them from being abused. Such legal supervision is an obligatory part of the state’s tasks; what is not a part is the subject-specific supervision of or even sovereignty over the teaching goals and methods of the individual schools. Instead, schools must organise themselves – as the German Waldorf schools do in their association for example. 

To quote Hannah Arendt: “It is in education that we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it.”

Henning Kullak-Ublick, born 1955, Waldorf teacher and author, board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools from 2004–2021, member of the Hague Circle – International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education, and spokesman of the supervisory board of Friends of Waldorf Education.

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