How school can contribute to more humanity

By Cornelie Unger-Leistner, February 2023

INASTE Congress back in Vienna after a long break.

“When will the time also come when there will only be human beings...?” Prof Carlo Willmann from the Centre for Culture and Education in Vienna quotes from a letter written by the 24-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven. As President of INASTE, he is speaking at the opening of the congress.

Around 150 people from twelve countries have travelled to the congress of the International Network for Academic Steiner Teacher Education (INASTE), where more than 30 academics are presenting their work. All participants are visibly happy to be able to meet and exchange ideas in person – after two postponements due to coronavirus. The conference venue is the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna. When the INASTE preparatory team formulated the title of the 2019 congress – “Realising Humanity” – they could not have imagined how much topicality it would have gained by today due to coronavirus and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. As never before, the threat to humanness is on the agenda – through technology, society, but also through right-wing populist, anti-democratic trends, as Prof Leonhard Weiss from Vienna, a co-organiser of the congress, noted at the beginning of the conference.

Back to Beethoven: he was rather pessimistic and predicted that centuries would pass before people would be able to perceive each other “as human beings” without differentiating by religion, ethnicity or gender. The teachers from so many parts of the world gathered at the INASTE congress are more optimistic, as they all believe that action in education can contribute to greater understanding between people and thus to humanity and peace in the world. But how must schools work, how must their teachers be trained, so that this high goal can be realised?

“The potential in education lies in participation, in the insight that we are all connected and share a common space on this earth, from which we can build a common goal for education throughout the world,” explains Constanza Kaliks, head of the Pedagogical Section at the School of Spiritual Science in Dornach. She sees the main danger of our time, which has also become clearly visible in the pandemic, in the loss of connectedness – to ourselves, to each other and to nature. She asks how hope and the will to live can be developed even when everything around seems dark and difficult. Drawing on thinkers such as Emmanuel Lévinas and Paolo Freire, she paints a picture of humanity based on mutual perception and respect. It is the “other in their otherness” that gives us the possibility to become human, she quotes Lévinas. Rudolf Steiner had also given this aspect the highest priority in his Philosophy of Freedom. For education, it means welcoming the child, showing them respect and warmth. Under the conditions of the pandemic of the past three years, this had been a great challenge for parents and teachers. UNESCO had drawn the conclusion from the pandemic that education had to be rethought – Reimagine Education was the title of a publication.

In his lecture, Dr Jens Beljan from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena introduced the concept of resonance developed by Hartmut Rosa, which makes the concept borrowed from physics fruitful in the social space and thus identifies a whole series of conditions for the success of educational processes. Resonance education was based on the interaction between pupils and teachers, which was based on components such as empathy, appreciation, intrinsic experience and emotional openness. If these conditions are missing, mutual alienation occurs. If, on the other hand, the pupils’ longing for connection and perception is fulfilled, a space for the promotion of humanity, responsibility and solidarity is created.

In his lecture, Beljan showed how education systems around the world have moved further and further away from the ideals of relationship and resonance due to economic considerations. The Sputnik shock in 1957 led to fears that the Soviet Union would achieve technological superiority over the West, which is why the education systems were transformed under the auspices of the OECD in order to promote Western “human capital”. As a result of this transformation, Humboldt’s idea of education had been abandoned. Education had only any longer been viewed solely from the perspective of efficiency and effectiveness, as evidenced by the PISA studies.

In the discussions that followed, the points of contact between Waldorf and resonance education became clear – a good example of the fruitful dialogue with other educational approaches and certainly also an important quality feature of INASTE.

Prof Matthias Jeuken from the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy then examined the dangers of media use in his contribution on physical and psychological changes in children and adolescents. According to studies, intensive media use leads to a reduction of inner drive, a deterioration of self-image and a loss of empathy. According to Jeuken, “generation look at me” runs the risk of not developing the skills of living together in the first place. The eurythmy professor sees a remedy, among other things, in the discipline of “vitalised gymnastics”, which he advocates and which is suitable for bringing the pupils back into harmony with their own bodies.

In an international network of Waldorf teacher training, the topic of dealing with other cultures must not be missing. It was Dr Ida Oberman, the principal of the Community School for Creative Education (CSCE) in Oakland/California, who, in her report on her school in the USA, included words of warning that Waldorf education must get serious about supporting disadvantaged pupils, e.g. those with an immigrant background. After all, that was Emil Molt’s intention when he founded the first Waldorf school on Uhlandshöhe in Stuttgart. In the state-funded Community School for Creative Education, the children of migrants receive support on the basis of Waldorf education – Dr Oberman uses various prizes and awards to demonstrate the successes that have been achieved with this concept.

The question of including other cultures and their values on the basis of mutual respect was also expressed in other conference contributions. In his lecture, Mozambican-born Prof Jose Cossa from the University of Maryland contrasted Ubuntu wisdom with the Western concept of individualistic humanism. Ubuntu was characterised by the bond with God and the idea that a person always needs the other in order to realise themselves. Cossa warned against imposing our own philosophical concepts on other cultures.

The lecture by Prof Michael Zech from Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Alfter addressed the question of the extent to which nation-state approaches in history teaching and cultural hierarchies were still appropriate in a migration society. Afterwards, there was an intensive discussion about whether human rights violations, for example in the LGTB sphere, should not also be clearly named as such – without regard to the views of other cultures. The INASTE conference showed here too that the Waldorf world can be quite open to debate and controversy.

Other topics at the congress were climate change and school (Professor Henning Schluß from the University of Vienna), refugees at Waldorf schools (Dr Larissa Beckel from the Institute for Waldorf Education, Inclusion and Interculturality at the Alanus University in Mannheim), and many contributions on the holistic concept in the natural sciences, performance measurement without discrimination, active learning, and various research projects on Generation Z or also on the development of the senses throughout history. It also addressed the need for non-prejudiced perception as a prerequisite for inclusion.

INASTE congresses take place every two years, the network is dedicated to the training of future Waldorf teachers. The aim is to educate a new generation that is “creative, responsible and open-minded”, as the INASTE brochure says.