50 years of the Hague Circle

By Nana Göbel, September 2020

The international Waldorf movement

In 1969, the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart’s Liederhalle with 2,500 guests revealed a clear education policy signature in the many discussions: the sphere of freedom which is essential for a Waldorf school was increasingly being eroded in the education policy context, particularly in the German federal states governed by Social Democratic governments. Willem Kuiper, who brought the good wishes from the Netherlands, told Ernst Weißert, the then chair of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, about the hostility there. Ernst Weißert carried within himself the picture of a worldwide Waldorf movement and saw how necessary it was for there to be a consciousness of the schools throughout the world within this movement. Weißert responded to Kuiper: “We should form a group of ‘experts’ from all countries who have to negotiate with the state. We should get together regularly and discuss the situation, preferably in The Hague.” That gave birth to the Hague Circle, that collaboration of the international Waldorf school movement which since Whitsun 1970 has met twice a year as the Hague Circle of the Steiner/Waldorf school movement. 

Involvement in education policy

The aim was to create an instrument built on trust and friendship with a practical application in life – with an everyday, external dimension and worldwide ties through common spiritual impulses. In May 1970 the first meeting took place at the Vrije School in The Hague. In the initial years, colleagues as a rule met in The Hague at Whitsun and in Stuttgart in November. Today there are only two members of this founding team left alive: Shirley Noakes and Bengt Ulin.

The establishment of the Hague Circle was not intended to be in competition with the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum and its group of advisor, but it nevertheless contained implicit criticism of the latter’s inaction in the face of the escalating problems of the Waldorf school movement. The intention was for the European Waldorf schools to come together and find a common political line, specifically because of the lack of freedom in the school system. The group was to discuss subjects such as education law, funding questions, the establishment of new schools and the next generation of teachers. Other topics were teacher training, the connection with anthroposophy, the inner questions of upper school pupils, the challenge of non-bourgeois, imaginative teaching open to the future, and the question how the general trend to regiment school could be avoided.

The antidote to bourgeoisification is anthroposophy

During one of the sessions, Reijo Wilenius, the Finnish philosophy professor and founder of Snellman College in Helsinki, described teachers as people who carried the tendency to bourgeoisification within themselves. An antidote was anthroposophy. Ernst Weißert wrote in a letter to Wilenius about the strategic approach of the group: “All these years I resisted the premature revival of the world school association – the idea as it was expressed by Rudolf Steiner since 1921 is no longer readily alive today, the state school system dominates the thinking everywhere. We should now create a purely anthroposophical association of Waldorf schools around the world and try from there to give life to the thought of a free school system and a free intellectual life, starting with the parents.”

The cooperation with the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum was successful and from 1974 onwards the international teachers’ conferences were held in Dornach with joint responsibility. The geographical radius was expanded and participants invited from the USA and Brazil.

At the initiative of Ernst Weißert, a conference with about 750 participants – 180 of them from Australia, South Africa, the USA, South America, Canada and the European countries – took place at the Uhlandshöhe in Stuttgart in early 1979 in a collaboration between the Hague Circle and Pedagogical Section, the German school movement and the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf school to take hold consciously of this junction in history, rediscover the spiritual sources of the anthroposophical system of education, and stimulate the development of a world school movement.

Thirty-three years had passed since Waldorf education had resumed after Nazi rule. Johannes Tautz named three great motifs as challenges of the present: first, the foundation of a system of education based in the I; second, the wasting away of cultural heritage; third, an increasingly apparent spiritual opening resulting from the changed abilities of the next generation. Everyone was united by the impression that the whole movement had taken a big step forwards which affected everyone, the experience of a great, worldwide faculty. A globalisation of Waldorf education was beginning to show itself, even if it was not yet called that at the time.

A more intensive exchange of views began with Jörgen Smit (1916–1991), who took over the leadership of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in 1981, so that the Hague Circle was able to enter into closer cooperation with the Pedagogical Section in the 1980s. Smit now took the initiative for a world conference of Waldorf teachers and proposed putting the preparation of the first one in 1983 wholly in the hands of the Hague Circle. And that is how it has remained to the present day.

Some 65 years after the foundation of the first Waldorf school, the establishment of some few pioneering schools, the restart after the Second World War, and the expansion in Europe to a size which led to some public perception, the phase into a worldwide movement now began to announce itself.

Now the focus had to turn to the inner constitution of the Waldorf movement as much as the social shape of the school community, the governance of schools and the school movement. The third big world teachers’ conference in 1989 with colleagues from the countries of the southern hemisphere and from countries which had previously been closed off behind the Iron Curtain formed the start of a real world school movement.

Jörgen Smit united the Waldorf movement like no other person before him. Convention was abhorrent to him. And when he stood on the stage, for example in 1984 in the main auditorium of Tübingen University in front of an audience of thousands of boisterous students, and began to speak with his thunderous voice, he earned silence and intense, attentive listening after only a few words because here someone was speaking who expressed himself uncompromisingly and who with spiritual directness addressed each person’s being. This tall Norwegian, who had taught small children for more than twenty-five years, then built up the teacher training in Järna in Sweden, and finally began his selfless service for the anthroposophical movement, handed over his work to the Swiss Heinz Zimmermann in 1989.

Learning through life

The events of 1989 which transformed Europe occupied the next meetings. From November 1990 onwards, new schools were included in the so-called Waldorf World List by resolution of the Hague Circle; from 1992 onwards, intensive work took place on the development of an internationally workable general framework curriculum for the Waldorf schools. Thus the so-called Richter curriculum came about.

The situation in upper school became a burning issue in the following decades. The relationship between teachers and pupils and also the forms of learning had changed fundamentally. That learning should takes place through the appraising weighing of ideas seemed increasingly to disappear, indeed very intellect-based lessons seemed to reach only a minority in the classes any longer. The “forceful” task of uniting school with life, already set by Rudolf Steiner, became ever more urgent.

The participants quickly agreed that only authentic, existential teaching leads to an encounter with the pupils and to awakening through learning. As soon as a teacher falls back on conventional learning rituals they have lost the connection. Since the “Waldorf teacher consciousness” does not come about by itself but requires hard work, help is required during the training, for example through Goetheanism as the source of self-generated thinking and inner vitality.

Curricula – for all cultures?

From 1996 onwards, the preparation of the world teachers’ conference lay in the hands of Christof Wiechert. At last the Waldorf school movement had arrived in the reality of a worldwide movement and had to take leave of the German traditions which had been unquestioningly accepted. The same applied to the curriculum discussions. It would be too simplistic to remove the European elements from the curriculum in the countries of the southern hemisphere or Asia and replace them with elements from the local national cultures. The stories from South Africa about the love of the children for Nordic mythology or the tale of Parsifal and about their protests when the attempt was made to replace them with African myths raised questions about the need for a curriculum fit for humanity as a whole: a huge research and development task which is still waiting to be done.

Change was imminent in the Hague Circle for from September 2000 onwards Christof Wiechert, the designated new head of the Pedagogical Section, issued the invitations to the meetings and no longer Stefan Leber. From now on Pedagogical Section and Hague Circle grew even closer together and the Hague Circle became an international organ of perception. Christof Wiechert wanted to develop the international cooperation between Pedagogical Section, Hague Circle and the Friends of Waldorf Education in a dynamic and complementary way. Wiechert focused the seventh world teachers’ conference on the activity of the imagination for in it he saw the starting point of all living teaching.

For the Hague Circle, a joint trip to South Africa in 2005 turned out to be a milestone with regard to the experience of the international school movement. For many of the participants this was their first trip to the African continent and the situation of the Waldorf schools in the townships und homelands a deeply shocking experience. In November of the same year, the discussions began about an adequate, non-normative description of Waldorf education which was non-prescriptive and yet accurately characterised its essence. It was to continue for many years. This work led to the development of the “Key Characteristics of Waldorf Education” which were adopted in Arles in 2016. In parallel with this discussion, the talks about how to handle the trademark rights also gathered pace. With this sensitive topic, too, it took many years until it was possible to adopt an agreed and jointly supported process.

In 2006, Shirley Noakes took her leave from the Hague Circle after 35 years of involvement. Her metier was not to make big speeches but to be a qualified listener. A particular phase was coming to an end. The profound monolithic addresses given in German, all of which were very impressive but did not lead to any dialogue, were replaced over time by more dialogue-oriented contributions which, however, no longer went quite so deep. Each phase was thus characterised by quite specific qualities.

Christof Wiechert expanded the Hague Circle enormously; he invited people from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Today the Circle has grown to about forty people from all continents. In 2009 it was renamed International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education to make its task apparent also in its name. In 2012 a sponsoring association was founded, based in Switzerland, in order also to be able to employ staff in the future. The tasks have increased with the dramatically changing world situation in recent decades and continue to intensify the cooperation.

About the Author: Nana Goebel is an executive director of the Friends of Waldorf Education and a member of the Hague Circle since 2008.

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