Vessel of courage

Henning Kullak-Ublick

They were spoken by a 17-year-old student from the Harduf Waldorf School in northern Israel, shortly after the Israeli army invaded the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014 after a prolonged missile bombardment, mainly by Hamas.

The twelfth grader knew that in a few months she too would be drafted into her two-year military service along with all the other Jewish school leavers.

These words were heard on the Ascension weekend of 2014 at a meeting of the International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education (Hague Circle), which brings together teachers and educators from every continent. When we spoke afterwards about the forthcoming anniversary of Waldorf Education in 2019, it became immediately clear that it was not going to be about a more or less self-satisfied retrospective view of the past, but rather about the greater questions currently facing us and our tasks of the future.

It was already apparent at that point that after a period of time in which at least the wealthier section of humanity was on the whole buoyed by hope of worldwide, solidarity-based cooperation, there would be new tensions, fears, walls, and political, ideological and religious conflicts to deal with, in which many of our accomplishments believed to be secure would be put to a hard test. And it was clear that people would always play a central role in crises and their solutions.

Wilhelm-Ernst Barkhoff, the founder of GLS Bank, said: “The fear of a future that we dread can only be overcome by images of a future that we want”. Our Israeli friends similarly told us that with the establishment of the Waldorf school in Harduf, the goal was connected from the outset of infusing our ways of thinking – capable of abstraction and to which we owe our independence – with such a living pictoriality that we are able to learn to form new, deeper connections with the world and other humans. This is one of the most important prerequisites for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

If we allow the words of the student quoted above to work on us, they add something else to this active thinking: the courage which is drawn from real encounters with people to be able to consider the humanity that unites us all to be a far more important aspect than any differences derived from birth, religion, ethnicity, cultural or indeed political conditions.

These were viewpoints that inaugurated Waldorf 100. In this context we reflected upon an image that Rudolf Steiner provided in his first lecture for future teachers in 1919: how their living thoughts in reciprocal exchange could become a “vessel of courage” into which the deepest impulses and necessities of our time could be immersed and inspire our common work – and how the angelic beings that accompany us could help us in this. It was thus about the living thinking in each individual as well as the courage not only to desire that which we recognise as necessary, but also to actually follow through on it.

We require such courage today – no less than in 1919, the era of reconstruction after the devastation of the First World War. These questions of an imaginative form of thinking about the way in which our actions can change the world, of an ability to be inspired and guided by what is really needed in the world, and of the willingness to use our investments not only to chase profit, but to bring about positive, humane development, cannot be answered without courage.

What does this mean for education and for schools in a world that is shaped by us adults? How can we create an environment for children in which they can connect with the world using all their senses, in which they can sense and develop their own strength, in which they can develop their feelings into organs of perception for the existence of others, in which they can develop trust in their own forms of thinking and, last but not least, in which mistakes are permitted and children are allowed to fall from a tree? How do we overcome the idea, which has been taken for granted for far too long, that school is there to educate children in accordance with goals set by the economy, politics or any other ideology? How do we instead get real learning into our schools, learning based on the interaction of the physical, mental and spiritual constitution of children, rather than simply reducing them to their brains and muscles? How do we truly prepare them for life in a world that is changing at an increasingly faster pace?

Waldorf 100 is a worldwide attempt to start a conversation on these issues. This year alone there have been conferences in almost all European countries, as well as in Kenya, the USA, Taiwan, Thailand, Argentina, Australia and Brazil where Waldorf educators from all over the world have exchanged ideas and inspired each other. Many schools have reinvigorated the work of their colleges of teachers with these questions, there have been conferences for pupils and parents and there have been numerous contacts made with people who work on similar questions while coming from completely different impulses. There are countless large and small events taking place in the 1,200 Waldorf schools around the world, involving children, parents and staff. This can create a sustainable energy for the future that our world so urgently requires as a human community. 

It can become a springboard for intensifying cooperation around the world. This is the most beautiful fountain of youth that there is, because only pioneers can do this!

Henning Kullak-Ublick is a board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools and heads its public relations in Hamburg.