Freedom not arbitrariness

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, February 2021

Let’s talk about freedom. There is a wonderful picture we often used in 2019 – remember that year? – to explain Waldorf 100: three Pakistani boys are balancing in their school uniforms on what remains of an emergency bridge over the brown waters of a wide and fast-flowing river which separates their village from their school. What is so compelling that they are willing to make this risky crossing twice a day?

The balancing act of the boys on their way into the future is as real as the balancing act of freedom, which, like peace or love, is never assured. What the river represents for the boys is represented, no less dangerously, for freedom by two bandits: arbitrariness and capriciousness. What the one enforces, the other allows to fade away.

The Waldorf School is the first-born child of a movement which, after the horrors of the First World War, demanded freedom for intellectual and cultural life, equality in a state governed by the rule of law, and a market economy based not on wage dependency and profit maximisation but on people working together in their responsibility for the resources and life of the earth: fraternity, freedom, democracy and love of the world are ideas that need our ability to think for ourselves, to empathise with others, and act responsibly in order to survive.

Hence freedom of expression is also a very high good worthy of protection. However, opinion is always personal, while a free intellectual life seeks to ensure the independence of the media, scientific, cultural and educational institutions from political, ideological or economic instrumentalisation. When, as is happening more and more often, people stand next to neo-Nazis or so-called Reichsbürger, who deny the legitimacy of the post-war German state, at contrarian Querdenker demonstrations, when they spread conspiracy myths on social media or otherwise publicly celebrate panic attacks, they are doing so within the framework of their freedom of expression. However, if they refer to their connection with a Waldorf school, this falls within the scope of arbitrariness, their arbitrariness. And when they do this in the name of a “free intellectual life”, this term becomes arbitrary.

The fact that in recent months almost all national media have at some point mentioned “Reichsbürger, neo-Nazis, followers of esoteric movements, anti-vaxxers and anthroposophists” in the same breath is due to such, at best, naïve appearances which were by no means representative and from which the German Association of Waldorf Schools has expressly distanced itself – leaving aside that the journalistic level of these articles was mostly in the gutter.

The balancing act towards freedom can only succeed if we first settle the battle with the bandits in ourselves, instead of pointing the finger at any given villains and thereby imagining ourselves to be on the side of all that is good.

Wilhelm-Ernst Barkhoff put it like this: “We can only overcome the fear of a future of which we are afraid through images of a future which we want.” Like the boys in Pakistan.

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