Polar opposites without attraction. Waldorf education and the Austrian mentality

Bettina Huber

There are pregnant women who are concerned with what colours to paint the nursery. And there are pregnant women who are already thinking about a caring school for their child. I was one of the latter. My son went to class one of the Waldorf School in Linz/Upper Austria last school year and there were days when I wanted to go with him. I wanted to take a seat on the meadow-green seat cushions and learn the alphabet and numbers, shapes and colours all over again in the Astrid Lindgren atmosphere of the classroom. Unfortunately, I was inevitably bidden farewell at the door. But the gleam in his eyes comforted me and confirmed my decision to entrust our child to Waldorf education.

This happiness of children is probably in the minds of all those who count themselves among the Waldorf community as they struggle year after year with the precarious financial situation and the lack of social recognition. “You do it for the children,” Eleonore Pfeifer, a Waldorf mother and long-time Waldorf teacher who has known the school in Linz since 1978, tells me. She has since retired but she still supports those pupils who are preparing for the external school-leaving examination or, in the meantime, the central school-leaving examination in a thirteenth school year. Many difficulties had to be overcome for this solution, which allows Waldorf pupils access to tertiary educational institutions, but also honours the nature of the Waldorf school.

But what is the nature of Waldorf schools?

What this is commonly understood to be in Austria is vividly demonstrated in an act by the Austrian cabaret artist Klaus Eckel. He tries to train a dog according to the Waldorf method: he formulates his commands as sweetly ingratiating requests, but the dog ignores them all. The joke is built on the assumption that learning is exhausting, boring and in any case involuntary, which is why the dog only does what it wants. Learning without pressure to perform – so the message goes – just doesn’t work.

Without pressure to perform there is no learning, without learning there is no future. An irreconcilable opposition is constructed between education and childhood. In most of the conversations I have on the subject of school, it is clear that most parents do not want to risk cutting back on education. If that means pressure to perform, then so be it.

The scepticism towards a school system without pressure to perform or grades is deeply rooted. This is demonstrated by the fact that in primary schools parents vote on whether their school beginners should receive grades. It can be felt in the rare public debates which are about the fair distribution of state subsidies but not about alternative educational concepts. It is also noticeable at the level of Waldorf teacher training. Carlo Willmann tells me about difficulties with school regulations specific to the different Austrian states and legal quibbles. The German-born theologian and Waldorf teacher is head of the Centre for Culture and Education in Vienna, an affiliated institute of Alanus University which trains Waldorf teachers in cooperation with the University for Continuing Education Krems (Danube University). He sees his adopted country Austria as still being “in a post-absolutist condition in educational matters. In it, we are less citizens and more subjects deprived of the right to have a say.” For example, the Ministry of Education had rejected without discussion the concept of a major in Waldorf Education that had already been agreed upon and worked out with the Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule (Church College of Education), since colleges were primarily supposed to train for the mainstream school system. Even though independent schools are relatively free under law in what they can do, this is of little use because there is hardly any room for manoeuvre due to a lack of resources or state subsidies.

When it comes to subsidising Waldorf schools, the general tenor is that state schools should be the focus of subsidies, that there is enough need there, and that Waldorf schools (“schools of the rich”) should finance themselves. But independent schools are also subsidised in Austria. These as a rule are denominational independent schools whose curricula are similar to those of state schools. By comparison, non-denominational independent schools, so-called free schools, following the methods of Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessori, whose curricula are not “the same” but only “comparable”, receive “discretionary” funding (currently 750 euros per schoolchild, about one tenth of what mainstream schools receive). This is stated in the Austrian Independent Schools Act of 1962.

The compatibility of the law with the constitution was confirmed decades later by a ruling of the Constitutional Court: in detail, the Court said in 2019 that the subsidy for an independent school depended on certain preconditions that had nothing to do with denomination: schools with only “comparable” curricula (such as Waldorf and Montessori) had to have a comparable ratio of schoolchildren to teachers as all other schools at the location. Furthermore the supreme court emphasised the importance and long tradition of the Catholic school system in Austria, and referred to a ruling of the European Court of Justice justifying the subsidy for Catholic independent schools in order to promote democratic pluralism.

In Austria, the education system, Catholicism and bureaucracy are closely intertwined, more closely than elsewhere. A look at history here: at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Charles VI issued the Pragmatic Sanction to secure the throne for his daughter Maria Theresa. But it also aimed to preserve the entire dominion because only land ownership was power. Therefore the unity of the Habsburg lands was to be guaranteed – for the first time in history – not only by the person at the top but also by a uniform administration for all territories. Politically, then, the Pragmatic Sanction is a kind of state formation, except that at the time “state” did not mean the common good, but was equated with the court. The “interests of the state” were those of the absolutely ruling regent and all her successors, in short: the military protection and expansion of the imperial possessions.

The war-averse nobility and the high-handed clergy were disempowered by being deprived of administrative duties, and funds flowed directly into the state coffers. The administrative officials were directly subordinate to the court, that is – in contrast to the nobility or the clergy – socially and financially completely dependent on the crown, transferable to the most distant provinces and thus controllable by the threat of being disciplined. But since there were too few officials, there was a need for schools to train them appropriately and – pupils! That is why Maria Theresa founded state schools and introduced compulsory education. However, since the new state schools lacked staff, premises and money, she was soon reliant on church institutions again. Even under her successors the influence of the Church remained great, and even Franz Joseph’s comprehensive educational reform was essentially shaped by the – albeit more liberal – Bohemian reformed Catholics.

The intention behind compulsory schooling was thus not a humanitarian educational ideal in the sense of personal development or social advancement through higher education. Throughout the centuries of autocratic Habsburg rule, the curricula for state schools were designed – following the Catholic model – with the aim of making the most efficient use of each individual by the “state”: the pupils were to become loyal citizens and functioning public servants. State censorship monitored curricula, textbooks and transcripts. Teachers were forbidden to deviate from the strict guidelines under threat of being banned from the profession.

Even as late as under Franz Joseph, pupils were to be taught in history lessons to recognise “divine providence” in the prevailing structures of power. His reform of education, which is considered to have been liberal and the main features of which are still valid today, brought social and economic advancement to the citizenry, but not political consciousness. Censorship determined the curricula and public life. Thus – in contrast to other European states – no self-confident, critical section of society emerged that would, for example, have founded newspapers, discussed or questioned the prevailing conditions or doubted the apostolic majesty of Franz Joseph. People feared the authorities too much, who kept them down with bans, arbitrariness and harassment.

Although the imperial and royal monarchy was derided as “Kakania” [translator’s note: a play on the sound of the abbreviation “k.k.”, meaning imperial and royal, which is echoed in the word “caca” with its variant spellings in various European languages, meaning “excrement”], there was not thought to be any alternative. Thus it shaped the nature of its subjects for centuries.

The authoritarian thinking, the “subject mentality”, can still be found in Austria today in all spheres of life, but people are hardly aware of it. Compared to the Nazi era, the Habsburg period is considered unencumbered; Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph are among the most important figures in the nation’s identity. At Christmas time, pompous television productions are a reliable source of ratings success, and auctions of courtly objects of daily use, such as a tea service recently, make headlines on the Austrian public broadcaster ORF. Critical debate is avoided by omitting or relativising uncomfortable historical facts. This is what happened when an Austrian daily newspaper recently celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Austrian textbook publisher founded by Maria Theresa, but did not explain the historical background with a single word. A prominent historian merely remarked that textbooks were “a political issue” even back then.

It is doubtful that society or education policy will provide impulses for genuine pluralism in the education system. Education insiders find it ridiculous that ideas from Waldorf education might find their way into the mainstream school system or have already found their way into it. They attribute progress in educational reform to school experiments and academic findings, to the general change in values brought about  by prosperity, to technical and digital progress and the increasing equality of women in society, as well as to the decreasing importance of religiosity.

Do Waldorf schools have to open up to the mainstream school system?

Carlo Willmann is self-critical here. “In my view, one or two opportunities have perhaps already been missed because people have stuck too closely to what is ‘traditional, customary, handed down, indeed tried and tested’,” he says and gives an example: “A change in the curriculum in order to be able to offer the school leaving examination? No, better not!”

Indeed, he sees room for development also among the free schools: “In my experience the free schools have hardly any cohesion, no strong lobby, not even necessarily the schools within the Waldorf Association. Everyone muddles along as best they can and doesn’t want to be told what to do. Of course, you don’t really get anywhere like that.”

It is not surprising that parents hardly question educational goals or the school system itself, that there is little knowledge but a lot of prejudice about alternative educational systems, which people like to denigrate as schools of the rich – but where children are simply children!

There are parents who afford themselves this luxury.


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