Waldorf Philosophy. Background and History

"The advent of the Waldorf Schools was in my opinion the greatest contribution to world peace and understanding in the century."
- Willy Brandt, Former Chancellor of West Germany, Nobel Prize Winner.

How has the Waldorf Movement Developed Worldwide?

The first Waldorf School opened its doors in September 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, under the sponsorship of the Waldorf-Astoria Company. The director of the company sought to provide a new kind of education for the children of the factory workers -- a comprehensive and highly cultural education that would help them to become creative and balanced individuals in the fullest sense. This new kind of education was to work towards cultural renewal as an antidote to the despair gripping Central Europe and its young people in the aftermath of World War I.

The first Waldorf School was revolutionary for its time -- open to children from all social, religious, racial, and economic backgrounds, and co-educational. By 1928 it had grown to become the largest non-denominational school in Germany, serving as a model for other Waldorf Schools in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States.

With the rise to power of Hitler's government, a life and death struggle began for the German Waldorf Schools. There was continuous harassment, and finally they were closed with the simple explanation that there was no place in Nazi Germany for any school that educated individuals to think for themselves. After World War II, the Waldorf Schools were the first private schools to be opened by the American occupational government for the very reason that they had been closed years before -- their commitment to independent thinking.

Following the war, the Waldorf Schools rapidly spread through Europe, North and South America, to South Africa, Canada, United States, Australia, and New Zealand. There are now over 2000 Waldorf (or Steiner) schools and kindergartens in over 40 countries.

An Idea Ahead of Its Time

Recent brain research shows what Rudolf Steiner, this Austrian philosopher and scientist, knew intuitively: the whole person must be touched by the educational process. From the very beginning, when Steiner's Waldorf schools began in Germany in 1919, he turned toward holistic methods, seeking an interconnecting ground for the teaching of art and science. Steiner believed that a sense of individual totality, based on personal freedom and unpossessive love, could enhance perception. By weaving these into teaching methods, Steiner hoped to create a seminal model of education so powerful that there would soon be no continuing need for the prototype Waldorf schools.

How did these schools differ from others? Primarily in the emphasis on the arts and the inner life. Said Steiner simply, "Waldorf school education is not a pedagogical system but an art - the art of awakening what is actually there within the human being." Steiner understood the problems of our strong intellectual bias -- and of parental expectations of success in money, power, and social adaptation. To override such repressive pressures, he felt a higher view was necessary -- one that took into account the purpose of man's development. Steiner had such a view. He called it Anthroposophy and he stressed the idea of growth and change, believing that a new kind of education could pave the way for man's next evolutionary stage.

What makes Steiner's work valuable today? First of all, it asks questions, "What is a human being?" His answer, which includes reverence for life -- as taught in every class -- expresses the true connections among nature, person, and society. It is dedicated to inner development, to the education of spiritual qualities, ego strength, differentiation, will, thinking, feeling, movement - and even breathing. For instance, in Steiner's curriculum, science is taught with a concern for human values; religion is not the only route in our sense of meaning and of belonging; art is a route that helps reveal nature's secrets. Each individual school takes on the character of different creative personalities, free of institutional rigidity and state control.

Steiner advised against a merely intellectual school day, firmly believing in the seriousness of play; all main lessons have recreational aspects. Students document their ideas by writing and drawing in special notebooks. Art is taught not to make children into artists, but to expose them to the healing influence of colour and in order to develop their sense of independent judgement, to exercise their creative wills, and to counteract the tendency of our time to set the imagination apart from learning.

Music is also viewed as a basic component of learning. Life, said Steiner, is intrinsically musical. Interval, tone, polyphony -- all affect our thinking and ordering of experience. Thus in Waldorf education, music may be interwoven with botany, geometry, astronomy. Dance is taught as a combination of sound, motion, and language -- and expressed in a unique form called Eurythmy. (As with most Waldorf lessons, this multiple-skill exercise appears to synchronize several different sectors of the brain.) Steiner also encouraged his teachers to include the elements of humour and surprise.

Waldorf education has for seventy years been putting into effect what major brain researchers and educators are discovering about the human brain/mind. - Gabriel Rico, Professor, San Jose University

Eighty four years after the first Waldorf School was established there still remains a need for this special type of education -- and its whole systems approach to human capabilities. Researchers as diverse as Howard Gardner, Jane Healy, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Reuven Feuerstein, and Bob Samples are now calling for multiple approaches that reach into the whole brain and echo Steiner's comprehensive vision. Meanwhile, our most important social critics are pointing to the kind of literal, logical thinking which Steiner saw as one-sided, egoistic, and responsible for the most pressing problems of our time.

M.C. Richards, a poet, potter, and teacher trained in the Steiner methods asks, "If we are all so smart and creative and highly educated, why are our schools characterized by confusion, ill-will, violence, and sterility?" Richards points to the rage that's bred by our current authoritarian system.

Psychologist James Hillman underscores Steiner's emphasis on the arts and the imagination as a form of cultural therapy and a necessary aspect of self-healing -- and asks why these are the very things we are denied: "Do we know what idea of the human underlies the schools to which our children are sent?" Hillman cautions us against tacitly accepting the rational model -- which blocks us from our full humanity. The whole Steiner prescription -- feeling, imagination, music, art, and movement -- is necessary for a balanced view of life. Otherwise we become trapped, says Hillman, by rational systems that lead to irrational acts, from domestic violence to global conflict. Through creativity, the unconscious can be positively channelled and expressed. Otherwise, warns Hillman, we are controlled by our own weapons. "Ideas we don't know we have, have us."

With permission from the Emerson Waldorf School, by Carolyn Reynolds, reprinted from The Tarrytown Letter and East Bay Waldorf School Brochure

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