What should Waldorf schools educate for today?

Stefan Grosse

The natural sciences dominate the contemporary discussion. Everyday life is guided by scientific findings. News from the natural sciences carries more weight than news from the humanities. The focus is on the applicability of, the ability to engineer the research results. The omnipresence of the computer and, linked to it, thinking in algorithms, is well-nigh a signature for the present. With the computer, we have in practice created a new level of reality.

Contemporaneous life then ...

Let us look briefly back at history to deepen the latter thought a little. In very ancient times, gods ruled the world. Gods were consulted, theocracies were the dominant social system, a god gave the Ten Commandments, etc. There was a reality above the external world that carried more weight than the world itself. With the Roman Empire, this changed. People, no longer gods, determined legal relations; elected, “normal” people, no longer god-kings, executed state power; the gods were moved into the museum (pantheon) and receded more and more in everyday human life. External, sensory reality became predominant. With the beginning of the modern age, the individual attitude to life developed to the effect that the external world was the only reality; the positivist view of the world emerged.

... and now

And today? The electronic image of the external world is the real thing that guides our actions. You no longer have to look at the sky to assess the coming weather, you look at the screen. Pilots learn to master extreme situations on the flight simulator. War takes place on the screen, as somewhere, for example in Germany or the USA, soldiers in darkened rooms guide flying drones to the target with a joystick. Computer games imitate the real world. MRI produces a computed image of the inside of the body – not a picture! In many areas, we now live in an electronic reality.

Educating for the present

We are releasing our pupils into this digitalised and technological world and we must make them fit to live in it. Rudolf Steiner pointed to this task in a lecture on education with the following words:

“Therefore it is absolutely based on a true knowledge of the human being if we endeavour in education and teaching to introduce the human being – from the time when they pass through puberty – on a practical level into those aspects of life which have been made by human beings themselves. ... Just consider how much our whole culture is actually lacking in this respect. Just ask yourself whether there are not numerous people today who use the telephone, the tram, we might even say the steamship, without having any idea of what actually happens in a steamship, the telephone and the motion of a tram carriage. People in our culture are completely surrounded by things whose working they don’t understand. This may seem unimportant to those who believe that only that which takes place in conscious life has any significance for human life... But for that which takes place in the depths of the human soul it is not irrelevant; the human being in a world of which they make use and the workings of which they do not understand is like a human being in a prison without a window through which they could look out into open nature. The art of education and teaching must be thoroughly permeated by this realisation.”

Rudolf Steiner: Die gesunde Entwicklung des Menschenwesens, 1921, GA 303, p. 254 ff.

A hundred years have passed since these words were spoken. If we interpret them for the present, we would have to say that no person should be released into life who does not understand – at least in principle – how a smartphone works.

Now there is the term “digital native”. And it is difficult to escape the impression that people enter their time as if they had already been taught about it. People want to live in their era, they didn’t fall into that era by chance. They need their respective environment in order to be able to develop their personality in a way appropriate for them. And they bring with them powers of resistance that allow them to survive the more problematic phenomena of the time to a certain extent unscathed. That is why it is so important that our educational efforts, our curricula, really introduce us to the present, not to a cherished past that is no longer a reality.

One century – two biographies in comparison

In order to better understand what is meant here, let us compare two fictitious biographies a hundred years apart: A child, born in 1912, enters class 1 of the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart, founded in 1919, at the age of seven. What was their experience of their time? In early childhood the First World War, then hyperinflation, the world economic crisis, the state terror of the Nazis, the Second World War and the Cold War. Fifty years marked by war and external violence, many of them also by material hardship.

Let us juxtapose this with an imagined life a hundred years later. A child born in Stuttgart in 2012, starting school at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in 2019. We have to describe a childhood in prosperity, in highly stable, secure social systems and a consolidated democracy. The challenges for the development of the personality are completely different from those of the first biography. In the second case, the social and contemporary problems are an environment under threat, an extreme polarisation of the world’s population into rich and poor, and the emergence of a sub or parallel reality through digital media.

The intellectual and spiritual life of the present finds its challenge in the following: the concept of truth is replaced in science by verification and falsification. However, these are not real judgement variables but mechanisms. A corresponding algorithm could also determine what is “not-false” in this way. The concept of the beautiful has disappeared from aesthetics. Thus the work of art eludes judgement. Art has become completely arbitrary and subjective and there is actually no longer any concept of art. And ethics hides behind the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself – on the one hand and a social standardisation of ethics on the other. Here, too, there is no judgement which arises from the forces of the I.

Trials of the present

In literature, we find many representations of a certain problematic signature of our time. In Momo it is the Grey Men from the Time Savings Bank, in Harry Potter the Dementors, and other examples could easily be listed. The forces described there exist, and their action is all the stronger the more we want to exclude them and block them out of our consciousness. The human beings who are developing their personality in the present time want to understand and encounter these forces. Part of being a contemporary is knowing them in their present digital and technical manifestation and not in that of earlier decades. Part of recognising these forces is, in particular, training our own forces of intelligence on them, slipping into their skin and understanding them from the inside out. I am certain that we will miss our cultural mission as an educational movement if we do not succeed in preparing our pupils to be contemporaries in this sense.

The most unproductive thing we can do at this point is to constantly shield ourselves from the dangers of our respective age. On the other hand, it is good and necessary to strengthen the resilience and life forces beyond what we possess. Art is especially suitable for this, and in this field eurythmy in particular because it strengthens the life forces even more than the other arts and also takes hold of the whole human being physically. Furthermore, all teaching must be pictorial and stimulate the imagination; and the spiritual aspect of the human being, which remains unconscious, which unfolds during sleep, must be able to unfold its effects through the right methodology.

What does all this mean for the curriculum?

In order to release the young person from their school years into life as someone at home in their time, a shift of emphasis towards science and mathematics must be made. This adjustment need not be subject-specific. For example, the industrial revolution can be treated more broadly and with concrete technical examples. Something similar can be said about geography.

In addition, we should consider how to readjust the relevant subjects themselves. In particular, a media and IT curriculum must be implemented. The course correction that appears necessary as a result of these considerations and that primarily relates to the upper school will also trickle down to middle school. All in all, the curriculum will be consolidated and thus challenges the methodology. It will be essential to teach symptomatologically to a greater extent and to selection the examples to an even greater extent.

In the hundred years of its existence, various works in progress have been added to the curriculum. These include, for example, sex education or the introduction of writing with all its accompanying measures.

Sex education should urgently be looked at again. I don’t know of any discussion that really addresses the topic in a contemporary way for middle school. Sex education often does not take place in a desirable way in the home environment. The topic then of necessity comes to school, into the lessons, and it does so in middle school. It must be discussed explicitly and openly from an ethical perspective. The topic is not primarily “How do I use contraception?” but love, responsibility and the miracle of life.

Learning to write must be fundamentally rethought and grasped. It cannot be right for children to spend a year learning capital letters with which they cannot read any text. There are no passages for reading in capital letters.

The content of the so-called story-telling part of the main lesson given by the class teacher (keyword: Norse and Germanic mythology) as well as the artistic and craft lessons would benefit from a naïve, unbiased view with the resulting questions.

A good yardstick in the search for answers and solutions can be: what would a Waldorf school look like if answers to the needs of our time in educational and social questions were given with the same far-sightedness, initiative and empathy as those given by the founding personalities in their time? The core ideas would certainly be very similar, the way they come to expression and are specifically implemented probably not.

About the author: Stefan Grosse is a class and religion teacher at the Esslingen Free Waldorf School and a board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.