Erziehungskunst | At the big celebration in Berlin for the centenary of Waldorf schools in 2019, numerous politicians also expressed their benevolent criticism. Originally a school for the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, today a cuddly academic school for the educated upper bourgeoisie?
Henning Kullak-Ublick | That depends on the perspective. Waldorf education is by its very nature inclusive, in every respect. But unfortunately, school laws still make it difficult to access independent schools regardless of income, because they could not survive without school fees. This creates barriers that are not always easy to overcome. This is a political challenge for us.
The pernicious expression “cuddly education” stems from a totally reactionary concept of achievement that fixes solely on grades, standardised qualifications and promotion to the next year – in other words selection, the opposite of education, which of course always differentiates. Waldorf education activates the children’s willpower and helps them to use this power independently in acting and thinking. This requires not only cognitive subjects, but also handicrafts, fine arts, music, eurythmy and theatre. These are not “cuddly subjects” but challenges. They systematically stimulate individual and collective achievements for which the pupils have to make a constant physical, emotional, social and intellectual effort.
EK | Another accusation spread by the media is that its founder Rudolf Steiner was a racist and anti-Semite and that Waldorf schools are being infiltrated by the right. Is this allegation true?
HKU | There are statements by Rudolf Steiner that are without question racially discriminatory. Although they can only be found in a few places in his complete works, they are so hurtful that one can only distance oneself from them today. This is what the Waldorf schools did with their “Stuttgart Declaration” in 2007 and again in 2020.
If one reduces Steiner to these passages, one can indeed infer a nationalist ethnic or racist worldview from them, which is what some of his critics – and unfortunately also some protagonists of right-wing extremist currents – do. To do so, however, both his critics and those who appropriate him must completely ignore core elements of his life’s work, e.g. the Philosophy of Freedom and other fundamental writings or his commitment to a free democratic society based on solidarity. Anthroposophy is based on an unshakeable belief in individual dignity and the capacity for development of every single human being. That is why, despite his verbal lapses, Steiner is not a systematic racist for me, but one of the great humanists of the twentieth century. This does not excuse anything, but it does put things in perspective.
That Waldorf schools are being infiltrated by right-wingers is total nonsense. Attempts at infiltration are not tolerated anywhere. However, the fact that the increase in political extremes did not stop at our gates caught us off guard at first. There were even a few teachers who turned out to be right-wing extremists, but as far as I know they were dismissed in every single case.
EK | Is anthroposophy a binding worldview for teachers?
HKU | Without anthroposophy there would be no Waldorf education. However, this does not mean that anyone has to make any avowals. Those who see anthroposophy or Waldorf education as closed systems have not understood their principle: it is always about development, about sensitising and expanding our own perception, about forming living concepts and about an enhanced ability of encounter with the children, other people and the world.
EK | And for you personally?
HKU | I became acquainted with anthroposophy as a twenty-one-year-old hippie who read everything he could get his hands on, from Yogananda to Castañeda to Timothy Leary. Then I had to go to hospital, went to Herdecke and there, at the suggestion of an old lady, read first Steiner’s Theosophy, then Occult Science. An Outline. I absorbed these books because they did not contain esoteric generalities, but stimulated concrete experiences of thought.
At that time I also got to know Joseph Beuys and the threefolding scene without suspecting how closely they were intertwined. Anthroposophy was always a central source of strength for me. As a teacher I owe it an infinite amount because it helped me to respect the enigma of each individual child and to work on myself rather than keep complaining.
EK | Your father was a diplomat, you were born in South America. Did your childhood experiences influence your path in life?
HKU | Yes, most definitely! As a result, I was able to absorb many cultures, religions, customs and languages with all my senses as a child, which I still benefit from today. However, I never had a home in the sense of a place where I was rooted. This homelessness, combined with some very lonely times as a boarding school pupil , meant that I had to find out for myself where I belonged. For that I am grateful to my destiny. And finally, part of this gift of being a child of the world, is that today I feel connected to the school movement all over the world.
EK | Here in Germany you studied organic farming. Why was the earth now your interest?
HKU | After a pretty wild time in London, where I did my university entrance exams, I went to a farm to come back down to earth. After my agricultural studies, I went to the Eichwerder Demeter farm in eastern Holstein to do practical work. At that time, the organic movement was just taking off, rural communes were springing up everywhere and the peace movement as well. Working on the farm helped me to understand how different the world feels when you do something you believe in instead of just looking at it and despairing of it.
EK | Then you turned to politics: in 1980 you were a co-founder of the Green Party, got involved in Direct Democracy and the Aktion mündige Schule which campaigned for freedom in education. Why?
HKU | It was already clear at the time that the world was threatening to come apart at the seams. Politically, I was always concerned with participation, the ability and willingness of every human being to take responsibility. Through my encounters with Beuys and the anthro-revolutionaries around the Achberg Cultural Centre at the time, I campaigned for direct democracy, which is now enshrined in the constitutions of all the German states. The Aktion mündige Schule came into being when the financial support for independent schools in Schleswig-Holstein was once again to be cut. We launched the popular initiative “School in Freedom” and collected twice as many signatures as necessary. What happened next is a thriller in itself. In any event, it led to us being consulted by the parliamentary parties over the next ten years whenever education policy issues were discussed.
EK | After 17 years on the board of the German Association of Waldorf Schools you retired this year: what do you want to pass on to your successors?
HKU | Sometimes, when asked about the kind of thing you do as a board member, I would answer: I am one of those I always warned my children about – a functionary. The problem, however, is not the board, which does a lot of concentrated and responsible work, but the size of our school movement. For us, everything stands and falls with the encounter. This is our greatest strength when it succeeds – and our greatest weakness when it does not.
I don’t want to interfere with the work of my successors, but I wish for them and our Association that they have many encounters with parents, teachers, children and the living school organisms. Apart from that, I keep my fingers crossed that they can work together in an inspired way.
EK | What was your greatest success, what did you fail at, what remains open?
HKU | If I was successful with something, it was always a collaborative effort. For me personally, the years between 2014 and 2019 were in some ways the crowning achievement of my professional career because we succeeded for the first time in creating a worldwide awareness of Waldorf education through Waldorf 100. A highlight was of course the celebration in the Berlin Tempodrom, but even more important were the many educational initiatives that were created around the world through Waldorf 100.
Then, in 2020, came the total counterpunch. As the coronavirus spread, it became more and more difficult to say anything at all without someone getting upset. At the same time, I felt responsible for watching the schools’ backs in the face of some absurd public appearances by people close to Waldorf, which were of course enthusiastically picked up by the media and recycled again and again. This meant I had to simplify, sometimes probably more than necessary. This year was the absolute low point for me: “The curtain falls and every question open!”
EK | It’s hard to imagine that you will now spend your time in a beach chair on Sylt: what are you doing today and what are your plans?
HKU | To begin with, “Family First” is what one of my daughters urged me to do. Apart from that, I am still active with the Friends of Waldorf Education and the International Forum of the Waldorf movement. There are also requests for lectures and the like, which of course I am happy about. And in view of all the hopes this wonderful world has of us, I’m sure I won’t run out of ideas very quickly.
Mathias Maurer conducted the interview