The multicultural society. A challenge for Waldorf education

Albert Schmelzer

An educationally impossible situation? No – simply a description of the current class 4 in the Mannheim-Neckarstadt intercultural Waldorf school and an accurate reflection of the quarter in which it is located, where more than half the children come from migrant families. In fact Mannheim-Neckarstadt is not a unique case. Situations like this are common everywhere in districts with a multicultural population.

Furthermore, such cultural heterogeneity is linked with another social problem: numerous migrants belong to so-called weak and educational disadvantaged socio-economic groups. Such a social situation presents the Waldorf school movement with a great challenge. This school movement arose from an impulse to create schools in which “the children of the worker sit next to those of the managing director”  (Emil Molt), in other words, where class differences fundamentally play no role and no one with ability is held back.

Can this claim – to be a school for all children – still be realised under today’s changed social circumstances? Or is there a “perfect fit” between Waldorf education and the “post-material milieu of the educated upper middle classes with their habitual concordance of opinions,” as one of Waldorf education’s most prominent German critics, the professor of education Heiner Ullrich, notes. Does it have to abandon some of its most cherished concepts, such as its view of the developmental psychology of the child, if it is to remain up-to-date in the diversity of  environments in which children today live? In view of such questions, the attempt will be made to bring into dialogue some of the aspects of today’s widely discussed intercultural education and Waldorf education.

An education of “empowerment”

The concern of intercultural education is fully integrated with general educational concerns. It strives to stimulate the growing personality to find its identity – no matter to which culture it belongs. To that extent intercultural education sees itself as encouraging self-education, as an education of “empowerment”. It does not start with the deficiencies of the children but their strengths and the specific circumstances under which they live. For educational practice, that means not starting too early with selection but targeted support! The concerns of Waldorf education go in a similar direction, even if they are formulated in different ways. It is concerned with educating the individuality, starting from the knowledge that every person is an individual being. Against this background Waldorf education does not see itself as an educational system but as an “art to awaken those things which the human being has within himself or herself. Fundamentally Waldorf education does not want to educate but to awaken” (Steiner). Such waking up takes place against the background of a general anthropology and developmental concept which, on the one hand, describes a universal physically induced processes of maturing, while, on the other hand, being open for the cultural characteristics and specific features of the individual.

We are familiar with the radical consequences which this entails for its educational practice: Waldorf education does not have selection, does not hold pupils back and practices an integrated educational pathway to class 12 with a differentiated cultural, scientific, artistic and practical crafts educational provision so that all different kinds of intelligence can unfold their potential.

An important aspect in this context is that classes in Waldorf schools contain a large non-verbal element precisely through their artistic and craft subjects so that initial language deficits are not so important as in a purely cognitive approach. The first aspect of our comparison, then, leads to the following result: related to the issue at hand, there is – given certain terminological differences – an affinity between intercultural education and Waldorf education which is rooted in the common subject orientation. Let us now look at a second aspect: how to handle interculturality.

What would German cuisine be without Italian influences?

Cultural diversity – so says a central credo of intercultural education – is an enriching element on the way to finding our identity, even if the current concept of culture has become more differentiated and more dynamic in comparison to the classic understanding of the term. Cultures are no longer understood as monolithic structures in the sense of uniform national cultures but as diversely developing fabrics made up of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political threads which are in constant interaction with other cultures. To take a simple example, what would German cuisine be without Italian influences?

The positive value placed on cultural diversity is not without its consequences for educational practice: intercultural education requires multilingualism, including bilingual teaching, and stimulates global learning – a number of teaching models for geography, history and social studies have been developed in this connection. For Waldorf education, too, the encounter with cultural diversity is a central part of its education and it is worth noting that Rudolf Steiner in this context referred back to the tradition of German thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Here Steiner quite naturally still based his ideas on the concept of uniform national cultures constituted by language, religion and geographical area. We need to consider in this regard whether anthroposophical cultural theories need a change of emphasis.

Pointers in that direction can be found in Steiner himself who, irrespective of his characterisation of the individual national cultures, based his ideas on the primacy of the individual over his or her cultural affiliation and saw overcoming national associations in favour of a cosmopolitan outlook as the ideal of the future.

As far as teaching is concerned, a respect for cultural diversity means multilingualism from class 1, introduced with the idea of enhancing understanding between different peoples; history lessons which are not conceived as national but world history; the treatment of world literature and the world religions; in the final few years also teaching units on the subject of globalisation. Such a basis of cultural diversity allowed an international Waldorf movement to arise which comprises about a thousand schools on all continents. It does, however, beg the question whether the curriculum as taught in some schools in South America, Africa or Asia is not too eurocentrically one-sided. Is Germanic mythology really a “must” for class 4 on other continents? Should it not be replaced by motifs from the indigenous cultures? These kinds of questions also arise with regard to the fairy tales and legends as well as large parts of the material which class teachers draw on to tell their stories. A lot of exchange of views and research is still necessary in this respect. Let us, in conclusion, consider a third aspect: the outlook of intercultural education and Waldorf education.

The foreign cultures should be more than a projection

Intercultural education strives to create the foundation for intercultural competence – and that is decided by the issue as to how we deal with what is foreign. “Foreign” is always an individual construct which contains element of what is “us” and thus reveals something about ourselves. But every interpersonal encounter is also an encounter with a concrete other being which expresses itself and cannot be reduced to our projection. Perceiving this foreign being as such is an ethical requirement the redemption of which constitutes the dignity of the encounter with the other person.

This insight provides the fundamental ethos of intercultural learning: finding a mode of encountering a foreign culture beyond rejection or acceptance, separation or assimilation which is characterised by overcoming prejudice, by active interest and respect for the other.

Waldorf education tends to refer less in this context to intercultural competence than to the ability to encounter the other. The “objective idealism” which lies at the foundation of Waldorf education sees the human being whom we encounter as an objective spiritual entity; the latter may be obvious in its physical form or it may not. But a phenomenological method alone is appropriate for recognising this essence of a person; a careful, always self-critical form of approach in respect of which qualities such as openness, wonder, empathy are decisive.

It is necessary to develop an open and dynamic concept of culture. The obvious affinities in their basic approach between intercultural and Waldorf education may explain why Waldorf education was able to spread worldwide. There are, nevertheless, various tasks with regard to which Waldorf education would do well to work on their further develop.

First: The international Waldorf school movement is faced with the necessity of overcoming a still-persisting Eurocentric attitude and developing and practicing lesson concepts  which take account of their respective cultural environments.

Second: In the twentieth century, the dissolution of homogenous national relationships has progressed further. In so far it will be necessary for an anthroposophically-based cultural theory to develop an open, dynamic concept of culture.

Third: In the course of globalisation, districts have arisen in many cities in which there is a large percentage of children from migrant families. If Waldorf schools want to live up to their claim of being schools for all children, it is time to develop school models which take account of the specific  circumstances of these children – the establishment of the intercultural Waldorf school in Mannheim-Neckarstadt-West and other similar initiatives are a first step in that direction.