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Waldorf worldwide – where is the centre?

Sven Saar

Should the Oberufer Christmas plays be performed in Japanese Waldorf schools? What do you do as a mentor when a Thai colleague asks: “What else am I allowed to tell in year four besides Norse mythology?” And does it make sense for Filipino children to knit stockings (which no one there wears) with wool imported from Europe because that is what is on the curriculum for year five pupils?

In the first phase of the worldwide spread of Waldorf education, experienced and wise colleagues from Europe carried their tried and tested practice with great persuasiveness for decades to countries where they were met with open ears and hearts and a hands-on pioneering spirit among the parents behind such initiatives. Waldorf schools grew rapidly in capital cities, with an enthusiastic clientele from the educated middle class and emigrant Europeans who found there familiar values as well as an internationally tested, child-centred curriculum. Today, many of these schools successfully lead to the school-leaving qualification, do impressive artistic work and are financially and socially stable and established. And yet questions like the above are asked, which show that the people working there often experience themselves in a kind of imported culture and have more or less accepted that what lives locally as wisdom and tradition is somehow inferior to the European Waldorf style.

One of the questions addressed by the decolonisation impulse is what is authentically Waldorf: even in the political and cultural colonial phase of the nineteenth century, not all Europeans were high-handed exploiters – some of them went to non-European countries with a sincere, and from their point of view ethical, sense of mission and yet created a lot of harm. Now it is high time to reappraise this damage and also ask at Waldorf: for all the admirable pioneering achievements – what would, what should we approach differently today?

I work as a mentor and in specialist courses almost daily with people in Asia and Africa who want to set fresh, authentic impulses. Often these are of a social nature: they have become acquainted with Waldorf education in expensive middle-class schools and now want to make it accessible to children whose parents cannot afford high school fees. Usually a few friends find each other, rent a space and off they go – reminiscent of the first English Waldorf school, which began in London in 1925 with seven children and five teachers. Time and money are often lacking for training – does the impulse of a progressive education centred on the human being therefore have to wait? The pioneers are often very serious about Waldorf education: they want to understand it from the inside and not just adopt traditional values and practices. They develop curricula and processes that fit their culture and the twenty-first century and no longer take the roundabout route that is still followed in many places in Europe: “What did Caroline von Heydebrand say about this, what did Steiner suggest, what worked well for my mentor thirty years ago in Stuttgart?”

It is certainly helpful to be guided by good theory and practice – but that does not automatically make it transferable, especially if you are moving in a completely different context in terms of time and geography.

Instead, the new pioneers go directly to the sources: they ask not only what Steiner said but what he meant, and how this might be translated into local contexts if necessary. For example, all over the world it makes sense for ten-year-old children to engage in house building and farming activities because acquiring skills gives them stability during a necessary developmental crisis. This does not, though, have to be clothed in the imagery of the Hebrews or the Middle Ages, as is customary in Europe, and certainly does not have to presuppose the four seasons of the northern hemisphere. At the equator, agriculture follows completely different rhythms and curricula have to be designed accordingly.

Incidentally, a little decolonisation would also do Europe good: is it really still appropriate to talk about the voyages of discovery of the seafarers in year seven? It does not detract from the undoubted courage of Columbus if we look at his voyages from the point of view of the people of the Caribbean: America, Africa, Asia or Australia did not have to be discovered. People were already living there, and they were no less well off than the Europeans. India, for example, had the highest gross national product on earth in the sixteenth century, before the Portuguese went on “voyages of discovery” and put an end to prosperity. From the European perspective, highly developed cultures became passive trading partners or, worse, a source of slaves.

Perhaps we are also finally overcoming the well-intentioned yet disastrous clichés: there is no such thing as African culture, just as there is no such thing as African music, language or politics. There are over 1,500 languages on the continent, 250 of them in Nigeria alone. Simplifications and superficialities (“African houses are built of mud and straw”, can be read in many a year three main lesson book) are the result of a limited awareness which leads to the assumption that Europeans are superior to Africans in many different ways. These prejudices have never been justified and today, thanks to the many people who are working to overcome them, they have also become unacceptable in society in general. Waldorf education must not evade these developments – on the contrary, it should be one of their driving forces.

The idea, often conveyed in year five, that human civilisation developed westwards from India has always been too linear to be even remotely true, and yet it is still taught, often supported by decades-old books that seek to perpetuate the Eurocentric myth that the ancient Greeks were the crown of civilisation and that we Central Europeans are their successors. Such stereotypical narratives that reinforce outdated power structures are not only inappropriate for children in Japan, Peru or Tanzania: they are also – perhaps even more so – inappropriate for children in Europe.

Should we therefore abolish the curriculum, throw the baby out with the bathwater? Some activists in the US demand that Columbus not be mentioned at all because he made the slave trade possible in the first place. In a vibrant cultural landscape – and the Waldorf world rightly prides itself on this – it is not a matter of prohibitions or permissions, nor of being right or condemning. Instead, we continue to explore with and among each other how we can develop in such a way that no one has to feel excluded or patronised by our curricula. In this context, the new, non-European Waldorf initiatives are making an outstanding contribution, precisely because they have either never seen the old stuff or ignore it as irrelevant.

Thus German year two pupils benefit from stories about heroic people from all over the world, not only from the Catholic tradition of saints. In year three, children in Arabic and Asian countries also learn about the Old Testament as a piece of world literature in which the path of development from hunter-gatherer to settled life is shown in an imaginative way. Year five pupils learn botany from the plants that grow where they live, and the laws of leverage explained to year seven pupils are the same all over the world. The challenge in our fast-moving, multi-connected times is to develop a regional consciousness without thinking provincially, and to feel globally without thereby losing all values.

With the help of their education, children should be able to put down good roots, feel a sense of belonging and develop self-confidence so that they can then move about in the world without internal or external boundaries. The centre of Waldorf education is not in Europe, nor on any other continent: it is everywhere, living and developing daily in all 40,000 Waldorf teachers.

Sven Saar, born 1966, was a class and upper school teacher in England and Germany for thirty years and now works full-time in teacher training as founder of the Waldorf Institute in England, in Germany, Australia and many Asian countries. www.waldorfinstitute.uk

Contact: sven@waldorfinstitute.uk

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