Benefitting from resistance

Sven Saar

“The Goetheanum is not the headquarters, but the heartquarters!” An impressive image developed by Florian Osswald, head of the Pedagogical Section – after all, we know from research findings that the heart does not pump the blood through the body but is moved by it, renews it and vitalises it.

The world teachers’ conference takes place every four years and each time it becomes more international: this year more than 800 people from 51 countries met in Dornach from 28 March to 2 April! This year’s subject was “Benefitting from resistance”.

You have to swallow quite a few camels

The Waldorf teachers from all over the world were hoping to obtain spiritual and specialist impulses from this conference. In over 70 working groups they practised drawing, teaching or artistic speech, and discussed the foundations and perspectives of their work. In this context the Goetheanum sees itself not as the central source but as a place of encounter: almost all the seminars and lectures were given by people from the periphery.

In discussions in the intervals the great variety of the challenges became clear: two Norwegian colleagues told about the difficulty of organising consistent teacher training in their elongated country. The daily battles with bureaucracy also sapped energy. “You have to swallow quite a few camels” they chuckled with an unexpected Norwegian saying. Or on the Philippines where the schools are not state funded but nevertheless frequently inspected. A greater concern there, however, was the development of a two-tier society: the educated middle class, from which most of the pupils come, has meanwhile completely switched over to English and so half the children join kindergarten without being able to speak their mother tongue.

Contemporary events were also represented. Several lecturers quoted Viktor Frankl, who drew profound lessons about human existence from his experiences in the Buchenwald concentration camp: “Humans are the beings that always decide what they are.” We are never in an inward sense heteronomous if we do not want to be. How do we educate young people in our schools to trust their thinking, feeling and will and make them the foundation of free action?

The Kassel mathematics teacher Stefan Sigler placed his trust in the effect of a well-planned and executed lesson which, for all the social and artistic activities, he saw as the spiritual centre of the school. Such a lesson enabled the pupils to discover the laws of mathematics for themselves and thus to experience that the power to approach the truth lies within themselves. Supporting the probing investigation of the world, not the mere communication of content, is the educational nucleus.

A first Kurdish school soon?

Alongside the educational contributions there were numerous looks at current events. The Kurd Nesreen Bawari works for the Friends of Waldorf Education. She was previously a minister in the transitional government in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein and responsible there for the reconstruction of 4,000 villages destroyed in the war.

When she reported about her endeavours to establish a Waldorf school in an Arab country marred by war, and we imagined having to convince parents, teachers and bureaucrats in a deeply traditional society, unsettled through suffering, of the appropriateness of an education for freedom, it became clear how comparatively trivial our central European concerns were. Bawari has already visited 50 Waldorf schools in many countries and she is not intimidated by the resistance she encounters. She is well networked as a university professor and prominent politician and firmly believes that she will soon be able to open the first Kurdish Waldorf school.

Up to the tasks?

The Swiss manager Rolf Soiron expressly asked the participants whether they were really aware of the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our understanding of education was still too much characterised by old ideas. He quoted the report from the World Economic Forum for 2016 and declared that through automation and constantly improving technologies the world would change more in a century “than in the last 20,000 years” (according to Google director Ray Kurzweil).

Two-thirds of current pupils would, after a long working life, retire from jobs which do not even exist yet today. The challenges in lines of business such as commerce, the health sector or industry will not be managed with the values and systems of the twentieth century in which we teachers have all grown up.

Art from Brazil, Israel and Switzerland

What do we need to give the young people from our kindergartens and schools to take with them so that they remain capable of learning and can be involved in shaping developments rather than just fitting in? Our many colleagues who made considerable personal sacrifices to attend the conference could not understand why comparatively few teachers came from the affluent schools in central Europe. Those who failed to come missed not just valuable lectures and inspiring working groups, but also first-class evening entertainment!

The Goetheanum Ensemble performed some scenes from the new Faust production: effervescent, full of ideas and with magnificent imagery, the performance whetted the appetite for the major Faust weeks this summer. The upper school choir of the Bern Rudolf Steiner School and the Young Waldorf Philharmonic Orchestra specially came to perform two masterful concerts. They were rewarded with a standing ovation.

A special experience was the performance of the Brazilian eurythmy ensemble “Cia Terranova”. They adapted and performed Mittsommerspiel by Marguerite Lobeck-Kürschner magnificently with specially composed music. Inventive costumes supported the thrilling action and dance of the actors and eurythmists. Everyone left the hall in an exhilarated and enchanted mood knowing that they had been permitted to experience a great work of art.

Another moving performance was Antigone by the Sha’ar laAdam-Bab lil’Insan initiative from Israel. Twenty-three Arab and Israeli Waldorf pupils from classes 11 and 12 together staged the piece, speaking all the text in Arabic and Hebrew. German and English subtitles assisted comprehension.

The directors Yaakov Arnan (son of an Israeli general) and Mahmoud Soubach (son of an Arab sheikh) set their pupils an example of harmonious purposefulness from which they can learn a lot, for the Arab and Hebrew youngsters cannot communicate with one another although some of them live only a few hundred metres apart and “drink the same beer, smoke the same cigarettes and follow the same fashion,” laughs Soubach. The initiative has meanwhile won official prizes in Israel. In the latter there is an awareness of it above all outside the Waldorf world and it thus carries its peace impulse into a public sphere which has great need of this kind of inspiration.

One week – one community

The participants from all over the world grew into a harmonious world community during the week. It is remarkable how many young people gathered here. They were given much space at this conference, including in the lecture programme. They impressively illustrated the future potential of the Waldorf movement! The simultaneous interpreters for seven different languages performed sterling work. Extensive singing created a warm, inclusive atmosphere.

Dozens of people behind the scenes ensured that the conference largely ran smoothly. The Goetheanum is expert at managing the logistics of large conferences. The Speisehaus restaurant produced two high-quality hot meals for 900 guests each day, the ushers and stage staff provided an unobtrusive technical framework, and Dorothee Prange from the office of the Pedagogical Section managed to deal with the many different demands with a friendly smile in all situations.

Such a conference is a great moment in the Waldorf movement. Filled with impulses for the future, we returned from the heart centre to the periphery to face up to the challenges there as refreshed and renewed people.

About the author: Sven Saar is a class teacher at the Wahlwies Free Waldorf School in Stockach.