Interculturality – more than a label

By Albert Schmelzer, December 2020

We live in an immigrant society. As long ago as 2016, almost 40 percent of children under five had at least one parent born abroad and thus officially came from an immigrant background. That is reflected in the schools. In city conurbations in particular, teachers face the challenge of teaching children coming from parental homes which are socially, linguistically, culturally and religiously extremely heterogeneous.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Despite much effort, there has not yet been success in creating equal educational opportunities for all: children with an immigrant background from families with low social standing have significantly worse prospects of success. They continue to be overrepresented in non-academic streams and underrepresented in schools with an academic orientation, and twice as many of these young people continue to leave the school system without a qualification. This imbalance has largely remained unremarked in German Waldorf schools. For traditionally their pupils come largely from parental homes which, at minimum, reflect the social average and which value education; children and young people with an immigrant background from economically weak social groups are underrepresented.

There are presumably several reasons for this: the school fees which Waldorf schools have to charge due to insufficient state funding; the location of many schools in “upmarket” neighbourhoods; the cultural inhibition threshold: a conscious educational decision has to be taken to enrol children in an independent school. This means that the Waldorf school movement itself has got out of kilter, for the foundation of the first Waldorf school in the tumultuous time after the First World War has its origin in the socially revolutionary threefolding movement and it was started for the children of the blue and white collar workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart; as the first German integrated school, it had the clear aim of advocating equal opportunities in education.

Several initiatives are meanwhile trying to connect with this founding impulse and to make the social and emancipatory potential of Waldorf education work in the current education landscape. In Mannheim, Berlin and Dresden there are intercultural Waldorf schools and there are initiatives to start them in Hamburg and Cologne. Furthermore, classes for teenage refugees have been set up in some schools – such as Kassel and Karlsruhe; in one socially deprived area of Dortmund, the “Multicoloured School” offers help with homework and leisure activities. In addition, there are multicultural Waldorf kindergartens – for example in Stuttgart, Mannheim, Hamburg and Kiel. In short: a growing number of representatives of Waldorf education are beginning to grasp its social dimension in a new way and spell it out for the migratory society of our time.

What ideas are the faculties of these institutions grappling with, what educational attitudes and practices have proved fruitful, how can existing schools and new initiatives take up these impulses?

Waldorf teachers who want to open up their schools to the children from other social strata and cultures or who want to start a new one should be aware of the potential which lies in Waldorf education for the tasks of social integration and intercultural encounter. For a start, there are no marks, no examinations, no being held back a year. The children have the opportunity to learn and develop without fear and without the threat of early selection. On this basis the health-promoting effect of Waldorf education can develop which is particularly beneficial for children in heterogeneous classes: here the alternation between serious and light-hearted, intellectual and artistic, reflective and active lesson phases, the rhythmical nature of the course of the day, healthy food during lunch together and sufficient movement prove their efficacy.

Additionally the great emphasis placed on artistic and practical craft subjects is very important. A sound, a gesture, a  movement can be grasped and imitated, even if there are insufficient linguistic skills to begin with. The phenomenological style of teaching combined with main lesson teaching is also helpful. It is not about acquiring abstract theories and models, rather there is systematic practice starting from the characterisation of observations or vivid descriptions, natural phenomena or personalities in order thus to come to living concepts. Lastly, the daily contact with the class teacher is crucial – and not just for what happens in lessons. The personal relationship over many years creates trust and helps to obtain meaningful solutions if there are learning difficulties.

Creative financial solutions

Initial experiences in existing socially integrative Waldorf schools have shown the fruitful nature of this approach. They can be an encouragement for everyone wanting to follow a similar path. Here the necessity arises to think about the finances from the beginning. Because many parents will only have minimal means to pay school fees, if any at all.

In view of this, it is necessary to develop creative solutions: foundations can be approached; the attempt can be made to find private sponsors; one can seek to obtain state funding for Waldorf education in a school; income can be distributed such that there are a certain number of free places. The more intensively the initiators have connected themselves with the idea of Waldorf education, and the more convincingly they can talk about it, the more likely it is that funders will be found.

Being present in the city

The next task is to find a suitable location. Here attention should be paid to the local surroundings. “We go where we are needed,” the guiding principles of the intercultural Waldorf school in Mannheim-Neckarstadt say, and it has indeed turned out to be of benefit that the families whom the school wishes to approach mostly live nearby. It is also helpful if the building does not stand out from the architectural style of the district, whereby simplicity and attractive aesthetic design are not mutually exclusive.

Signals of openness can be sent out in many different ways: information sheets in several languages; open days; parent cafés with the availability of advice and language courses; a presence at street festivals; and invitations to school events, annual projects and bazaars show clearly that kindergarten and school perceive themselves as being active actors in society. Close contact with immigrant councils, cultural associations and religious communities is particularly important: the firmer the school is rooted in the neighbourhood, the greater its acceptance.

“True human kindness” counts

This aspect is closely connected with another one: Waldorf education takes pleasure in cultural and religious diversity: in this context it is particularly important to have a clear understanding that the Christian element in Waldorf education is not meant as something confessional but as an attitude of “true human kindness” (Rudolf Steiner). A Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist should feel just as much at home in a Waldorf school as a Christian. That presupposes that the seasonal festivals and traditions of the various religions are included. Thus Ramadan and Eid, Hanukkah and Passover should take their place in the course of the year in the same way as Michaelmas, Advent and Easter. That will not always be possible in the whole school community but – depending on the composition of the student body – take place in individual classes, in a cultural lessons or in free religion lessons.

Cultural and religious diversity can also be part of the story-telling element of main lessons. There are beautiful collections of international fairy tales and eastern animal legends, there are the wonderful stories of Mullah Nasreddin, and much else.

But traditional stories, too, can appear in a new light. Thus Christiane Leiste describes the powerful effect the story of St Francis of Assisi’s life had on her multicultural class: his love for the poor, his frugality, humility and devotion made such a strong impression on the children that the class 2 pupils initiated a clothes collection for refugees who had just arrived in the area. St Francis was indeed an intercultural figure: he was connected in deep friendship with the Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. After his return from the East, he kept several copies of the Koran and called upon people to copy the evening prayer of Islam. In his songs of praise to God Almighty, he included ninety-nine of the most beautiful names of Allah: “You are Life, You are Wisdom, You are Humility, You are Patience, You are Beauty […].” At the same time his teaching about the equality of all people, about compassion and the veneration of nature contains strong Buddhist elements – various spiritual streams came together in St Francis.

A mantle of attentiveness

The inner attitude of all those involved in education is as important as the openness for cultural and religious diversity. We should keep reminding ourselves that each child is located at the intersection of many different relationships: family, language community, nation, religion – but with regard to their individuality they are unique. The innermost being of the child, their I, educates itself and it is our task as parents, kindergarten and school teachers to provide it with a space for development which is as stimulating as possible.

That includes that we keep practising to abstain from stereotypical images and attributions. What we need for that is attentiveness and mindfulness. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once spoke of the “lethal look” that strikes the other person like an arrow – appraising, judgemental, cold. Such looks, which put people in categories, attach labels, have no place in a Waldorf school, much less in a socially integrative, intercultural context. Children do not want to be unlovingly screened, they want to be perceived. If we really perceive the child, we wrap the mantle of our attentiveness around them. When that happens, all labels – they’re Turkish, Muslim, an immigrant, a lower class child – fall away and we begin to see the growing children against the broad horizon of their freedom.

About the author: Prof Dr Albert Schmelzer is a lecturer in Waldorf education and interculturality at the Academy of Waldorf Education in Mannheim and a member of the advisory council of the Mannheim Free Intercultural Waldorf School.

Follow