Henry Barnes – a Waldorf aristocrat

By Nana Göbel, August 2019

Henry Barnes (1912–2008) joined the Rudolf Steiner School in New York as a class teacher in 1940. And with the exception of three years in the army he remained a teacher there until 1977. Like Ernst Weißert in Germany or Francis Edmunds in Britain, he shaped Waldorf education in the USA for decades, particularly on the east coast.

Henry Barnes

As early as 1926, a number of organic farmers were farming on Threefold Farm in Spring Valley in Upstate New York where – like in New York – a larger anthroposophically oriented community settled over the long term. In July 1933, a conference organised by Ralph Courtney (1885–1965) was held there which the young Henry Barnes – shortly before his twenty-first birthday – attended as one of about forty people. Miriam Stockton, the mother of his best friend Peter Stockton, had invited him. Perhaps also because he was still very affected by the death of his best friend who had shot himself the previous year. 

Ralph Courtney had been asked by Rudolf Steiner to work for the spread of anthroposophy in the USA. Charlotte Parker financed the purchase of the property in Spring Valley and she also supported the conference in July 1933 by paying for the trips of Maria Röschl, Ernst Lehrs and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer who gave lectures at this first anthroposophical conference in the USA – in a large open tent in front of a small wood. Henry Barnes – inwardly still occupied with the death of his friend and wrestling with the question whether their education together at the John Dewey-inspired  Lincoln School in New York was somehow connected with his thoughts of suicide – now found such inspiring ideas about the Waldorf school in the presentations of Maria Röschl and Ernst Lehrs that he began to think about travelling to Stuttgart himself to learn about the Waldorf school. 

He stayed in Stuttgart for a year and studied as the first American student at the Waldorf teacher training seminar there. Then he travelled to Dornach in Switzerland and worked for six months at the Sonnenhof special needs centre in Arlesheim. Both experiences represented a significant preparation for his future work in the USA. But before returning there, he spent four instructive years as a class teacher at the New School in London. After the Second World War it did not return to London from its evacuation and became Michael Hall School in Forest Row. 

The New York Steiner School had been founded as early as 1928 and by the time that Henry Barnes returned had developed into a small stable school. The faculty partly came from the progressive education movement in the USA, partly from Europe where they had taught in Waldorf schools before the Nazis came to power. One of the European colleagues was William Harrer who, as spokesman of the faculty in New York, kept in contact with the partners in Stuttgart and together with Erich Schwebsch ensured that Henry Barnes and Elizabeth Chambers were able to attend the international Waldorf conference in Stuttgart in the spring of 1948. Henry Barnes thus returned in 1948 to the place where he had studied and from then on maintained an intensive correspondence with the colleagues in Stuttgart and at other European Waldorf schools. 

In New York, the space available was insufficient for an upper school and so the school looked for additional premises. A friend of the school, Beatrice Straight-Cookson, declared her willingness to make money available but a house had yet to be found. In spring 1955, a school building suddenly came on the market in 78th Street, just a block away from the school’s own location. One day, the secretary, Katherine Reeve, rushed into Henry Barnes’ lesson and called him to the telephone. “Yes, we’ll go for it!” he responded to the question whether the Waldorf school wanted to buy the building. The two building are used by the school to the present day. 

In 1969, the American school movement celebrated its fortieth anniversary in Detroit. Henry Barnes attended the large conference of the German school movement on its fiftieth anniversary in 1969 and afterwards set out in a letter what he himself considered to be the key issues of these years: “They are simply the questions concerning the education of the will, the moral and religious development of the young person today in the light of the threatening world situation. Such questions then directly fed into questions concerning the development of a resolute collaboration between the faculty in each school which goes far beyond what we are normally used to and into the questions of the esoteric striving of each single person.” It may be assumed that such questions tended to reveal themselves only below the surface in these years in the USA. 

The subjects with which the Waldorf teachers concerned themselves at their conferences were intimately connected with the pressing issues of the day. In 1970, in Garden City, the American teachers discussed education as a social problem and in June 1971, at the New York Rudolf Steiner School, the subject was the problem of evil. In front of the seventy Waldorf teachers present, Henry Barnes gave a lecture on the nature of evil and its transformation through education. 

There was also continued discussion at the conference about the establishment of an association of North American Waldorf schools and Werner Glas, director of the Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar at Mercy College in Detroit, proposed by-laws for such a body. At the same meeting, the teachers appointed Henry Barnes as the contact person for the proposed association of European Waldorf schools in the Hague Circle. From then on Henry Barnes represented the American school movement internationally. 

Henry Barnes, a tall man with an aristocratic bearing, always dressed in a suit and tie, lived in intimate connection with anthroposophy; a moral comportment that did not need verbal expression made him impervious to everything that was not thoroughly inwardly considered. His attention was devoted not just to each individual pupil but also to every individual colleague. Occasionally one might see him smile to himself and reveal something of the humour he bore within himself. He shaped the meetings of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America over decades together with a few other colleagues. With him, an east coast Waldorf education in the true sense developed. 

After his retirement, Henry Barnes moved to Hawthorne Valley where a rural Waldorf school had in the meantime been set up and still taught some main lessons at the school – for example history in class 8. Apart from that, he devoted his attention to the Anthroposophical Society after his retirement and wrote a comprehensive history of the anthroposophical movement in the USA.

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