The only real challenge is doing something for other people

Erziehungskunst | Did Rudolf Steiner have the integration of school education and vocational training in mind when he established the first Waldorf school?

Peter Schneider | The guiding principle of the current Waldorf school includes the Abitur school leaving exam. Today we have Waldorf academic high or grammar schools. There is a surprising degree of agreement about this between parents and teachers. To put it crudely, the Waldorf school today is a modern “middle class school”. But Rudolf Steiner’s original idea was a social and educational one. He wanted an integrated school for work education in which the interaction of learning and work forms the didactic core – starting in class 1: “…That strength and grace and skill for learning and for work in me may live and grow.” Furthermore, Steiner had a radical new upper school in mind: professionals in their field were intended to help the young people take a first practical look at a choice of career. That was a revolutionary idea for a time in which work and education represented two separate worlds. And it still is today.

Hans Hutzel | In Steiner’s time practical work experience was incomparably greater than it is today. Young people started work from as early as the age of fourteen. Their environment was characterised by trade or agricultural work. Today they go to school for much too long and are “fenced in” by school. The orientation towards work comes too late. There are too many “teacher” teachers and too few teachers who come from other occupations.

PS | We are dealing with practical illiterates today. Hegel already said that the spirit actually only came alive where it found practical application. Modern brain research also shows that a lack of foundation in practice leads to cognitive one-sidedness. Steiner’s work education approach, that the hand teaches the head, has a profound basis and is highly relevant today.

EK | Where is Steiner’s impulse placed in terms of social history?

PS | In ancient Greece, the cradle of our humanistic ideal of education, physical work was slave work. A slave was not deemed to be a full human being – and a free person who had to perform physical work as a manual labourer was a “banausos” and thus excluded from all public office. That did not change until the actual evolutionary Christian work ethic of “ora et labora” which has failed to find its way into the humanistic educational canon to the present day, and which ultimately is not at home in the type of the Waldorf academic high or grammar school either.

HH | Industrialisation meant that school and work fell apart into two separate worlds. The Waldorf schools do not seek to reverse this social development but they want to create a balance to such alienation through their craft and artistic subjects, particularly at a certain age. The work piece should once again become a teacher. It is important to understand the technology of our civilisation – not just to use it.

PS | Looked at historically, the alienation between the worlds of education and work is a result of secular and analytical thinking. It led to modern technology which is not a continuation of the non-industrial form of production but by dividing labour produced completely new ways of organising work, the assembly line for example. The separation of education and work – that should be reversed. We now face the question how we can give technology and work a human face once again, that is, how we can integrate them into the overall evolutionary and global development and operate fraternally and sustainably once again.

HH | Work should acquire meaning again. That has consequences for our concept of work. The focus should not be on earning money or career, which ultimately only satisfy our ego and convenience, but on meaningful work which serves my fellow human beings – something, by the way, which also accords with economic reality even if we have lost sight of it. I do not live from the proceeds of my own work but from those of others.

PS | We have an extremely great problem between theory and practice today. Because on the one hand we are highly specialised and effective in what we do, up to and including global self-destruction; on the other hand we are ethically underdeveloped because the social and global consequences are not taken into account. Such egoism contradicts the universality of the spirit, a global consciousness. Early specialisation, just think of some of those exotic Bachelor courses, turns us into experts in an extract of reality. What is missing is a comprehensive holistic and ethical view. Specialisation in what we do must have its correspondence in the universality of our consciousness. We do not have an overall concept of education which integrates technical and instrumental power with ethical competence – and which does so in one and the same person.

HH | The effect is that thinking and action in greater contexts is lost. According to Steiner’s fundamental social law, which says that “the wellbeing of a community of people working together [...] will be the greater, the less the individual claims for themselves the proceeds of their own work ...”, I am dependent on other people. Communicating this to the up and coming generation is the task of school – the opposite, then, of what school trains in its pupils. Behind the façade of competition and egoism the principle of fraternity works appropriately in economic life – something which naturally leads to a different concept of work and income. We therefore need a meaningful education which is free of state and economic interests and which can uncover this connection and enable young people to look behind the façade and form a judgement of their own.

EK | Vocational education has been practised in some schools in Germany for decades, for example at the Hibernia School or in Kassel. Why have they remained isolated phenomena?

HH | These are important individual examples, some of which have proved themselves for years. But on the whole we are still very much at the beginning with all of this. A new impulse is required and topical with regard to education policy. Why don’t Waldorf schools take up this approach to a greater extent? Quite simple: for many Waldorf schools the question does not even arise because a vocational education, whatever form it might take, does not belong to their objectives. The Abitur, the school leaving exams, are more important.

PS | The schools you quote are beacons of vocational education. Their experiences can serve to guide us, they offer navigational help, but we cannot simply transfer them. However their many years of experience have proved empirically: a dual education does not mean longer years at school but dual qualification. Both educational strands contain incredible synergies. And as an added bonus it does away with the preconception of the “stupid tradesman” and “clever academic”. Contrary to the craze for academisation, our time demands that the Waldorf schools find their way back to their original impulse of a holistic education – in stimulating correspondence with the general school and education system.

HH | The transfer effects have been investigated and are known: artistic activity supports structural thinking; playing the recorder and handwork not just the fine motor skills but also the intelligence; and not least eurythmy, as a relational art, social competence.

EK | Why is this approach also described as a triadic path of education?

PS | It refers to art as “tertium comparationis” representing an exemplary training ground for the creative encounter of theory and practice. Practical activity and ideational motivation merge in an exemplary manner which can then in principle be transferred to any activity, including work. My colleague Michael Brater has also established this empirically.  

EK | To what extent do the basic vocational work experiences which are to be communicated support personal development?

HH | The value for personal development arises from the work itself. “My” work is needed – for others. The work satisfies me because it directly serves other people. This experience is the training goal. We are familiar with it from many practice placement reports: a new person, aware of their role in society, returns.

EK | Why are the practical craft and artistic provisions in the curriculum of the Waldorf schools and the various practice placements outside school not sufficient to achieve this goal?

HH | The practice placements are a start. Taster practice placements are useful up to class 10. After that a deeper immersion with full responsibility is required, under more stringent conditions we might say. It is not enough to set up workshops in the school but the school has to move into the business in upper school. The pupils become staff of the business – not placement students for a short time. My view is that pupils from class 10 onwards are not challenged enough in this regard.

EK | This approach is described as training the head, heart and hands – a form of words which goes back to Pestalozzi. Rudolf Steiner meant something deeper against the background of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being. What precisely was that?

PS | In a nutshell: the workbench becomes an altar! The meaning of work develops out of the world of work – from below upwards as it were – as a reverse cultus. We have a job to do, we do something for others that is needed, we then “offer up” the result and thus “estrange” ourselves from our work. “Offering up our work” is the necessary basis for a new “communion”, this was earlier described as the fundamental social law by Hans Hutzel. And that precisely is the “mission” of modern work, at least as far as Rudolf Steiner was concerned. And to the extent that Waldorf schools are still guided by this, it contains the goal of the education and upbringing in Waldorf work education and vocational training.

HH | School learning should go from the hand to the head, not the other way round. Theory can never directly generate practice.

EK | Is this model a necessity in terms of our understanding of the human being and thus a mandatory requirement or is it only one possible way of doing things in an education which respects the human  being?

HH | We want to put Waldorf education from standing on its head back on its feet. That would be an impulse for the next 100 years of Waldorf upper school education. We would actually need a curriculum which from class 1 fetches this world of work and workmanship into the classroom. We already have many starting points, for example in the trades main lesson, in gardening, in the arts and crafts lessons.

EK | To what extent has your impulse already been practically implemented in Waldorf vocational colleges and what experiences are there?

PS | There are currently six vocational colleges in North Rhine-Westphalia, a seventh is currently being set up in Siegen, and there is the Emil Molt Academy in Berlin as well as the IBIS Initiative in Stuttgart. There are many enquiries from home and abroad. There is positive feedback from the schools and pupils to this provision. The schools are academically supported by the “Research Centre for Waldorf Work Education/Vocational Training” at Alanus University. Not least, because Alanus University itself is a continuation in the tertiary field of the “dual path of education” as described.

HH | It’s obvious: the social importance of work is something that must be brought to experience in education once again. The educational value of work consists of learning to understand: we are thereby taking on responsibility in society.

EK | What distinguishes your model from the existing general and vocational provisions?

HH | That we are engaged in a living dialogue with businesses and establishments. What can schools and businesses learn from one another? How can we prepare pupils for a practice placement and – almost more importantly – how do we follow it up reflectively? And the teachers themselves do a practice placement to experience what it means. There is close dovetailing between teachers and trainers. A regular exchange of staff might even be considered so that managers and trainers go in to the school and teachers in to the business. The students have real experiences, experience concrete deficits in the management or the social and decision-making structure of a business, experience incompetence, bullying and competition among staff. These things then have to be worked up in the theoretical free space of the school.

EK | Do Waldorf parents not consider qualifications to be more important than the type of education? How is it going to be possible to turn vocational training into an attractive provision?

HH | In a word: parents fall for the glorification of the Abitur school leaving exam. This is where there is a need for information and persuasion to show what the upper school of the Waldorf school is all about.

PS | The image of alternative provisions, such as for example vocational colleges, must also be upgraded from within through the forward-looking quality of their dual education and as initiating lifelong learning. The Abitur school leaving exam is not the only university entrance qualification by a long way. The university of applied sciences entrance qualification or the path via a skilled trade are also meanwhile recognised and proven alternatives. That is not yet known well enough, particularly also in the specific milieu of Waldorf teachers and parents.

EK | Half of pupils who attend a vocational college are non-Waldorf pupils. Why is the provision attractive particularly for them?

HH | One might think that it is particularly those pupils who did not make it in the “normal” system. There is something in that. Because for those pupils school means nothing. They are tired of school and experience it as devoid of meaning. But that alone would be too simplistic. Many pupils between the ages of 16 and 19 experience a kind of “afterburner” effect and are very motivated in what they do. Marks are no longer an incentive but the seriousness of work arouses the curiosity to learn. In school pupils are taught the subjects in rotation. In a business everything has to be applied at once – in practice, not theoretically. Actions have consequences in a business. That is why I am for the real integration of school into the world of work at a much earlier stage. How many things in crafts and arts lessons are never completed? That cannot happen in the world of work, or at least no one can afford to do that in the long term.

PS | After all, dual learning really starts with the first breath. Consequently it should be there as a practical work education from class 1 – but it should be professionally competent and age-appropriate. From the start the guiding maxim must be: what I do is useful and necessary. Because otherwise the pupils feel educationally taken for a ride in the depths of their soul: we do handicrafts and call it work. Children love nothing more than to be present when “real” work is being done and – properly instructed – to join in themselves. And thus to experience that they are capable of doing something and have it acknowledged. For the pupils it is a conscious decision to attend a vocational college. They experience: I am supported, I am offered a personal perspective. Then there are additionally the “Waldorf atmosphere”, the anthroposophical background, the individual support which make the whole thing more personal.

EK | Thus only work has meaning and school learning doesn’t?

PS | It is not a matter of playing school and work off against one another: Steiner’s central educational mantra for the Waldorf school is: “I want to learn as I work – I want to work as I learn”. The goal of school should be to make the pupils fit for life. Thomas Stöckli, the pioneer of this type of education in Switzerland, describes it in his dissertation, which is well worth reading, as “learning for life”.

EK | Many school leavers today cannot decide what occupation they want to choose. That can turn into a permanent state and a problem.

PS | It is completely legitimate to ask: what do I like doing? But only the work for other people is something really new and really challenging. It connects with the ideals within the human being which can still be addressed in the young person and also want to be addressed.

HH | The important thing is to learn to grasp opportunities and not, like the so-called “generation maybe”, always keep all avenues open and thus fail to make any decisions at all. Because only through making decisions, committing oneself and being reliable do new opportunities open up.

PS | Ideals slumber in each young person which bear the power of renewal within themselves. The dual qualification helps to shape society energetically not just with our words but also with our hands and to set new impulses – as never again in later life. A society depends for its further development on the excess powers of youth – particularly a society which is threatened by an ageing population. This rejuvenation potential has not been used to date. To this extent the Waldorf school could become the creative source of a new society based on solidarity.

Mathias Maurer asked the questions.