The Waldorf Method
The Wisdom of Waldorf
[“The Wisdom of Waldorf: Education for the Future” by Rahima Baldwin Dancy discusses the roots of Waldorf education in culture change and how it prepares children for the future. The article was first published in Mothering, March/April 2004 and is available as an 8-page full-color reprint from www.awsna.org.]
In a world of accelerating change and increasing uncertainty, what values will help inspire and sustain children as they become young adults? Unlike past generations, children today can expect to have several careers during their lives, and they can expect to be lifelong learners because many of the jobs they will have don’t yet exist. The pace of change today is accelerating as never before in history. How can we prepare a generation that will be comfortable with change and will have the tools and the willingness to confront-and solve-the many problems of our global society, instead of sinking into cynicism or apathy?
Many parents, when they choose their first preschool or send their child to first grade, are unaware of the underlying values or the long-term implications of the educational system they have chosen. Overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, parents often don’t have the energy or resources to consider how their choices today might affect their child’s life as a teenager or adult. But an increasing number of parents are looking at the big picture and investigating Waldorf education, a worldwide approach to education for preschool through grade 12 developed by Rudolf Steiner and thousands of teachers on five continents. In the past 20 years, Waldorf has become the largest private-school movement in the world, and Waldorf methods are now being taken up by a growing number of homeschooling families and public charter and magnet schools throughout the US. But why is an approach to education that was developed in 1919 by an Austrian researcher and educator so relevant to today’s world?
Educating for Cultural Renewal
The impulse behind Waldorf education is cultural renewal–an impulse for the future that Rudolf Steiner felt could be fostered through a new understanding of the individual and community. When a German factory director, Emil Molt, approached Steiner in 1919 to ask how children might be educated to prevent another catastrophe like World War I, Steiner responded, six months later, by opening a school for the 256 children of the workers in Molt’s Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory-hence the names “Waldorf” or “Steiner” education. Steiner felt that children needed a balanced development of their capacities to be prepared as adults to contribute to cultural renewal, instead of to the ongoing dehumanization of society. His aim wasn’t to inculcate in children any particular viewpoint or ideology, but rather to make them so healthy, strong, and inwardly free that they would become a kind of tonic for society as a whole. The purpose of education, he thought, should not be merely to instill knowledge, which can be coldly abstract and destructive when separated from human values and a feeling for the humanity of other people. Rather, Steiner’s goal was to educate the whole human being so that thinking, feeling, and doing were integrated and capable of functioning in a healthy way. People educated by Steiner’s methods would be more likely to discover and implement solutions that furthered human development, rather than falling prey to narrow and dogmatic doctrines such as National Socialism. In fact, when they came to power, the Nazis closed all Waldorf schools in Germany and, later, in the countries they occupied.
The universality and forward-looking thrust of Waldorf education was summarized by Steiner: “We shouldn’t ask: what does a person need to know or be able to do in order to fit into the existing social order? Instead we should ask: what lives in each human being and what can be developed in him or her? Only then will it be possible to direct the new qualities of each emerging generation into society. The society will become what young people, as whole human beings, make out of the existing social conditions. The new generation should not just be made to be what the present society wants it to become.”‘
After World War II, the Waldorf schools in West Germany and Europe reopened, and new schools have since opened throughout North America and in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and Central America, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. At present there are more than 2,000 schools, preschools, curative (special-education) centers, and teacher-training institutes in 46 countries, all based on Steiner’s model.
Waldorf education put down roots in America in 1928 with the founding of the Rudolf Steiner School of New York City. Joining in this celebration of 75 years of Waldorf education in North America are more than 157 private schools affiliated with the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, as well as scores of early-childhood programs and a growing number of Waldorf-oriented approaches in public schools.
Another factor in this rapid growth is that Waldorf schools try to counteract the isolation inherent in modern life by helping parents connect with one another in community. For example, parents have opportunities to come together in parent-tot groups, toy-making classes, study groups, assemblies, and festival celebrations. Some schools have biodynamic gardens or participate in community-supported agriculture programs. Steiner also explored new social forms for teachers, feeling strongly that schools should not be run by political appointees or principals who dictated from on high. Rather, decision-making in Waldorf schools is a collaborative process involving faculty, staff, and parent volunteers.