Waldorf in Vietnam. The decolonisation of the Waldorf cultural contribution

Joachim Maidt

It is almost 50 years ago that I went with the “progressive” comrades in our upper school to America House in our town to demonstrate against the imperialist war being waged by our “American friends” against the Vietnamese people. The war continued despite all the protests and years had yet to pass before the Vietcong ground down and defeated the heavily armed forces of the “imperialists” in the jungle.

But this in no way brought colonial history to an end. For the victory achieved by their parents and grandparents no longer means anything to today’s generation. They accept the “American way of life” full on and the old people no longer understand what is happening in the world.

History tells us that Vietnam was dominated by the Chinese for almost 1,000 years before the French appeared as the colonial masters, who were in turn replaced by the Americans. Purely outwardly there is little to be seen any longer of the French-style architecture in the metropolis of Saigon while much of the Chinese way of life subconsciously remains part of tradition.

And even though Ho Chi Minh was only able to achieve victory with the help of the “communist brothers” to the north, the modern Chinese tend – I am told – to be seen today as unpleasant neighbours.

Destiny then connected me with that country in ways which I did not dream of those 50 years ago. Having been involved for seven years in an advanced training course for teachers in the Philippines, a request also came from Vietnam so that I started by managing a fourteen-day teacher training module in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and then mentored the school there for another two weeks, sitting in on classes.

While for the lecturer coming from a western country it might at first make little difference where in Asia they offer help as a class and English teacher, it is nevertheless significant that in the Philippines English is spoken in most educational establishments, including Waldorf schools, from class 1 while the Waldorf children in Vietnam are taught in their mother tongue. In the Saigon school, which has meanwhile grown to four classes, Chinese and English are added as early as class 1 and are taught as foreign languages in the normal way through play.

Country-specific teaching materials required

It was therefore clear to me from the beginning that my material had to be tailored to the needs and conditions of Vietnam. Because the time has come to expedite some sort of decolonisation also in the Waldorf movement. In exporting our educational impulse, it should also be important to respect and include the specific features of the foreign cultures without neglecting the educational foundations developed on the basis of anthroposophy.

I therefore encouraged the teachers in the Waldorf school in Ho Chi Minh City to translate at least part of my “neutral” English raw material before the start of the seminar and in doing so to adequately communicate above all the feelings which were to be made accessible to the children through the specific opportunities offered by the national language. Thus for example to adapt the western melodies, if they were to be used at all, to the way that music is heard in Vietnam. For in Vietnamese the rise or fall of a stressed syllable can change the meaning so that a falling sound sequence in the melody of some syllables can change the meaning of the word. For this reason we liked to do group work in which the aspiring Waldorf teachers learned to prepare their own teaching materials.

Imposed education is questionable

If anthroposophy is to take shape in the world as a new science, art and spiritual practice, then in the field of education for example it will have to develop very different characteristics in different regions of the world to incorporate the local culture. But that does not always happen. So for those of us travelling on behalf of Waldorf education it is always a great feeling when we visit a Waldorf establishment in an Asian country, for example, and can immediately feel pleasurably at home when we see the well-known set pieces of our system of education (fairies, dwarves, Raphael, silk cloth and watercolours). But such external conformity is not always a sign of international quality assurance.

When there is the picture of a stylised tree showing the seasons on the blackboard, in which blossoms, lush green and fruits, autumnal leaves and, finally, bare branches illustrate the seasons of the year for the children, although the seasons talked about in the lesson don’t actually happen there, then that is a rather pointless exercise.

Celebrating difference

As a lecturer from the western world, we are initially very impressed by the reverence with which Waldorf knowledge is trustingly and completely uncritically taken up and imitated; and the question whether perhaps a certain reworking might be necessary is only raised at best after the third trip.

Thus it is not at all surprising that while sitting in on English lessons in Saigon, I was treated once again to a rendition of the British silly song “Head and shoulders, knees, and toes …”. Less happy, however, was that the class teacher was also using the same melody with a Vietnamese text in order to support the children in coming to terms with their body through movement and gestures.

And unfortunately the Chinese teacher then warbled the self-same melody to practice the vocabulary for the parts of the body! That might have a certain recognition value for the children, but the typical European sound sequence is hardly suited to giving the pupils learning Chinese an experience of the traditions and specific features of that culture and not just modern uniform mush. And when the same Chinese teacher introduces a dance and uses a tune from a musical called “She’s coming round the mountain …”, then this is less a reflection of the quality of the teacher than of the one-sidedness of the training.

For in so far as the curriculum guidelines for foreign language teaching still apply, the ideal teacher is a native speaker – which was true of the Chinese teacher – who specifically represents and brings to experience in the classroom what makes their country distinct in as many aspects as possible. Unfortunately the advantages of English as the language of international communication often mean that the theory and practice of foreign language teaching is presented and practised using examples from English lessons. The class or subject teachers then adopt them quite naively in that they translate the words and adapt them to their requirements. The teachers cannot be reproached for doing so because mostly they do not have the time to prepare thoroughly for practice. Often one or two courses of eight or fourteen days each have to do for them to start teaching on their own responsibility.

Respecting the cultural heritage

This is not about diminishing the great successes of the Waldorf pioneers who raised the flag of child-centred education in the remotest parts of the world. On the contrary, the time has come to raise awareness of the respective cultural heritage in the regions where our system of education is already flourishing in order to preserve what still remains. For where in Europe we can still fall back on well preserved cultural assets and use them for lessons, in other places traditional values are being forgotten with economic growth.

In Germany, for example, the Brothers Grimm preserved a treasure trove of fairy tales for the development of the soul life; in the same way Waldorf teachers in Africa or Asia should be encouraged to integrate the traditions of their location not just in the field of mythology but also in music, dance or artisanal fields.

In the local history main lesson at the latest, our curriculum says that children in other countries should learn about their specific traditions but also Germanic alliteration at the same time. For German, English or Scandinavian teachers in the Indo-Germanic language area is it easy to practice this powerful form of rhyme in modern translation and thereby to train wakefulness. For the Vietnamese students, however, I recommended not risking the use of translations but rather to practise a few original lines from the epic. The correct pronunciation can be found in the aids from Karl Friedrich Althoff; and it is to be hoped that his Materialsammlung für den Epochenunterricht … will also be translated into other languages.

In Vietnam, it was a  happy moment for the participants in the seminar, and particularly for myself, when after a few days the class 1 teacher had the confidence to rehearse a traditional song with us and develop a round dance from it. From that moment on our work took a completely different course because the students now set out in groups to adapt textually and melodically my examples of age-group specific movement games or speech exercises to their habitual way of hearing and feeling developed during childhood.

Both the mentors and the institutions as they develop should work towards the specific cultural aspects of a country being highlighted by Waldorf education rather than pushed into the background. And the time has also come that the students who are privileged to attend training courses over several semesters at the anthroposophical colleges in Europe, the USA or Australia work there towards reviving their country-specific traditions for their own lessons. They require encouragement and help to do so. To the extent that it is already happening, a report in this journal would undoubtedly be of great interest.

About the author: Joachim Maidt worked for 25 years as a class teacher in Ulm and Würzburg and gives introductory seminars in Waldorf education in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.