The inexhaustible source of humanity

Erziehungskunst | The Corona pandemic has had us in its grip for almost a year now. How have Waldorf schools mastered the situation so far? What is being reported from the schools?

Henning Kullak-Ublick | The situation is constantly changing. The vast majority of teachers have done their utmost this year to provide good teaching, be it in the classroom, online or in smaller groups. Not everything worked, but in terms of “mastering”, all schools have now achieved at least a stable “journeyman status”, although this is being tested again every day because the effects of the pandemic are very complex.

In the first phase, we all reached our limits – the parents, because they suddenly had to reconcile working from home, childcare and often tangible drops in income; the teachers, because they had to find ways overnight to stay in touch with their pupils while giving them meaningful tasks; the school administrators, because they had to build infrastructures, purchase equipment and set up contingency plans. Sometimes this worked out super fast, but sometimes it created frustration and bewilderment.

In a way, it was a seismograph for how well the staff worked together and whether the school management was working. But most of the class teachers encouraged, gave assignments and otherwise cared for their pupils from day one, in person, by phone or in other ways. After initial difficulties, the distance learning was often intelligently and imaginatively implemented. Many even enjoyed it at first but soon reached noticeable limits because this form of teaching could not replace personal encounters. And it made visible whether and how independently the pupils could work. I very much hope that we draw the right conclusions from these experiences.

EK | For example?

HKU | For example, that our upper school pupils are given a much greater say in the content, the main lesson plan and also the working methods. The freedom of choice that is often practised is a start but there is much more scope in it if it is not – of all things – restricted to the craft and art subjects. Maybe we have to justify some of our sacred cows more deeply to the pupils, but that’s an opportunity, isn’t it?

Even in middle school, we sometimes still work too collectively. Speech choruses are something wonderful but this needs to be countered by individual achievement really being seen and counting. As the year progressed, the public debate escalated, positions became more radical and understanding increasingly difficult. This did not stop at the gates of Waldorf schools. The mask has become a symbol which at times led to really completely absurd actions ...

EK | Such as ...?

HKU | Individual parents, for example, demanded that teachers accept in writing civil and criminal liability in the event that their child became ill as a result of wearing a mask. But these were extremes and the vast majority of schools kept their ship pretty well on course amidst all the commotion.

EK | Has the handling of the pandemic and the measures ordered by the authorities changed during this time?

HKU | Until well into November, new regulations often arrived on Fridays and had to be implemented on Mondays. This caused resentment not only among parents but also among teachers. Over the course of the year, however, the schools have learned to react quickly. What has changed is the severity of the debates about the sense or nonsense of individual measures or even the protective measures as a whole. On the one hand, the schools solve this pragmatically in everyday school life. On the other hand, those who try to make the best of it with the children every day are under enormous pressure. But it is my hope that we will become more and more courageous, not only to look at what limits us, but to encourage ourselves to break new ground and to develop Waldorf education further. Then all this is not only a loss, painful as it is, but an opportunity. This takes top priority for the work of the board of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

EK | The controversial assessment of the coronavirus crisis has caused conflict right into families and schools. What are the strongest conflict issues?

HKU | Right at the forefront now, at the beginning of December, is undoubtedly the compulsory wearing of masks and the fear of renewed school closures. What happens to the children when they only ever see part of the faces of their classmates and teachers? Are they subliminally educated to see the world as hostile instead of connecting to it with all their senses and empathically? Are the protective measures traumatising an entire generation? What are the long-term psychosocial effects of the distancing rules? In terms of society, the issue is how far the state is allowed to interfere in health and education issues at all. Are fundamental rights being permanently suspended here? Who benefits from this? Is there a secret agenda behind all this? From there, the path to conspiracy theories is sometimes not far, but these are the questions that are being asked.

They are countered by the fact that we recognise the pandemic as a reality and have a responsibility for the health of our fellow human beings, especially if they belong to an at-risk group; that we want to prevent renewed school closures as far as possible; that we have to implement government guidelines if we do not want to simply shut down our schools; and, last but not least, that we do not want to be and are not sectarian enclaves of the knowing in a wasteland but participants in social life.

For people who are close to anthroposophy or who in general seriously reckon with the fact that the human being, beyond their physical and natural existence, also possesses an equally real spiritual core of their being, their unique individuality, the questions arise again somewhat differently. After all, our body is an incredibly differentiated and finely tuned instrument that is at the same time a means of expression of our inner life and an organ of perception for the world that surrounds us. It is in this subtle and ever-moving interplay of perceiving, feeling, acting and cognition, i.e. an active relationship with the world, that our individuality develops. Protective measures are by no means only about physical integrity but just as much about how children train their senses, take hold of their bodies, connect with the world and other people through music, art and crafts, and how they can gain real experiences in their thinking from all these experiences, love the world and make decisions. These are very serious questions indeed. But we should not fall into the trap of pitting one against the other. As with everything, it comes down to the right balance.

EK | To what extent do these issues of conflict reveal societal deficits or tasks?

HKU | We are currently observing strong centrifugal forces that are increasingly causing established relationships to fly apart, in families, faculties, society and the world. A new form of Babylonian confusion of language has emerged, in which people not only no longer understand what others are saying but don’t even want to hear it. The chat media – I can’t call them “social” any more – have such suggestive power that we have to perform a new Pentecostal miracle to heal this again, but this time of our own volition.

This is a central question of education because where else are young people supposed to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff in this chaotic virtual world? To follow on from the previous question, it is also about understanding the nature of the human being itself. If we only see ourselves, our humanity atrophies. Our view must become much, much broader by not only asking what we, what I, lack right now, but what others need. The virus did not hit us out of some bad film but from the “wet markets” in East Asia where animals are sold and slaughtered under terrible torment in the midst of thousands of people. It has sprung from man-made conditions.

In Germany we have factory farming and slaughterhouses that are only kept functioning at all by the massive use of antibiotics. The pandemics of the recent past were almost always triggered by the close proximity of tormented animals to humans. That is completely sick! And it has a lot to do with the greed of an unleashed capitalism which feeds, not least, on our “greed-is-good” shopping habits.

But that is only a symptom. We are talking about our responsibility for the environment and fellow creatures, with whom we have gone through eons together and for whom we are now responsible. It is no longer about how we exploit the earth a little more cleverly than before but about what it needs from us for its further development. And about whether we want to continue dancing our luxury dance on the volcano at the expense of poor countries or whether we finally take fraternity and solidarity seriously.

Incidentally, such a change of perspective is also interesting with regard to mask-wearing. In East Asia it is completely natural that when you have a cold you wear a mask – to protect the others. Sometimes things are much simpler than we think. “Politeness becomes heartfelt sensitivity”.

EK | In principle, conflicts are not something negative. Readers of the Philosophy of Freedom like to argue that they have to be mastered with “moral imagination”. What is meant by this and are there practical examples of such imaginative dealing with the pandemic?

HKU | Actually the expression speaks for itself. Moral imagination can be found everywhere where people come up with an idea instead of just complaining. Steiner placed it between moral intuition, “what really matters now?”, and moral technique, “how can this be done in concrete terms?”, and thus referred to our gift of making the impossible possible by activating the God-given gift of imagination, i.e. not just thinking with our heads but sending out butterflies as scouts. I know schools in whose faculties there are completely opposite assessments of the pandemic and yet they work well together. How do they do it? By asking themselves what the children need and then seeing what they can come up with.

EK | Teachers are faced with the challenge of trying to shape the relationship with the pupils in an educationally meaningful way during this time, despite the mandatory protection measures. Are there any exemplary solutions?

HKU | In Hamburg last autumn, a physical education and geography teacher moved only two out of sixty teaching days indoors, allowing his pupils to learn and be active in the fresh air despite the restrictions. Lessons in the school garden, a hall, in the city, by the water or in the forest offer many more opportunities for experience and learning than might seem at first. Biology and ecology, geography and trade, history and crafts, economics and social studies, culture and media, all of these can be explored or experienced quite well when leaving the classroom. Tasks were often set that demanded a high degree of independent activity and at the same time encouraged the pupils to do it individually on their own or in small groups. Digital media can also be very helpful here if they are used intelligently and do not replace the experience of real encounters.

EK | Your work as spokesperson for the German Association of Waldorf Schools is currently marked by many conflicts. What are these in the context of coronavirus and how do you personally deal with them, what gives you strength?

HKU | Of course, we are at the receiving end of many concerns, fears, questions, expectations and also some indignation. I tried for a long time to answer every email personally, and in principle I still try, but there are too many. That’s why we have set up the “Corona FAQ” on our website, where we address many questions.

We try not to pour fuel on the fire, which is interpreted here and there as an opportunistic lack of principle, but we have to live with that, even if it hurts. After all, the “Association” represents over 250 schools with 90,000 pupils and 9,000 teachers, which is equivalent to a small German federal state. We have a duty to them. We have to communicate with the public in such a way that the Waldorf schools are perceived as serious interlocutors.

This is not made any easier by the fact that people – albeit on rare occasions but usually with a great deal of noise – put themselves in the public eye at the expense of Waldorf education or anthroposophy, sometimes with really bizarre ideas, and thus cast the fact-based critical arguments in a skewed light. This has already become a media issue this year, but I hope that we have been able to set the record straight to some extent.

Personally, it pains me that after having connected with the whole world through Waldorf 100 in 2019, and after so much joy and strength was created in working together across borders, we currently often look no further the mask in front of our own noses. But I believe that this is a pain that we all share and that it can become a new impulse to give our Waldorf education a powerful thrust forward. I am deeply convinced that we have so far only discovered the very smallest part of it. Why? Because it is always about the human being and humanity. And that is an inexhaustible source.