When one surveys the history of Waldorf schools following Rudolf Steiner’s death in 1925, it’s tempting to ask oneself about his intentions and expectations for the schools movement and compare them with what has actually happened. Did Steiner want Waldorf schools to spread throughout the world? Or did he want Waldorf methods to be taken up by other schools? Or perhaps a bit of both?
I’ve recently come across some very interesting statements made by Steiner on the afternoon of 28th December 1923, at a meeting of the Swiss School Association held during the Christmas Conference in Dornach:
In addition to what I took the liberty of saying at the close of the last course which I was able to hold for the Swiss teachers, I have perhaps only a few more remarks to make in connection with the difficulties of the Swiss school movement. It seems to me that things do in part indeed depend on how the educational movement connected with anthroposophy is run here in Switzerland.
The Waldorf School in Germany has remained essentially in a position of isolation. Though there have been one or two further foundations, in Hamburg, Cologne and so on, the Waldorf School in Germany, in other words in a relatively extensive area, has remained a solitary example. It will remain to be seen, therefore, whether what is to be started in England as a kind of Waldorf school*, and also the school with three classes that already exists in Holland, will also to begin with remain as solitary examples.
Apart from everything else it has to be said that the reason why these schools are still only isolated examples, and also why it can be expected that they will remain so for a long time, is simply that the present social circumstances really do make it impossible for an attitude to come about that could lead to the financing of a larger number of such schools. Experience over the years has shown this quite clearly. And this challenges us to think carefully about the whole direction we should take with our educational movement.
This is especially necessary with regard to Switzerland. For Switzerland is pervaded by a very strong sense for everything represented by the state. And now that the Swiss school association for independent education has been founded, I do believe that the chief difficulties will arise from this Swiss sense of statehood. Even less than anywhere else will it be possible here in Switzerland to find an opening for the belief that a truly independent school could be an example for a model method of education, or that schools such as this could be founded on a larger scale. We should not allow ourselves to be under any illusion in this respect. Aversion to a system of education that is independent of the state is very great here.
Of course what Herr Gnädiger has just said is right, namely that there will be interest in how things are done in a model school.
Least of all here in Switzerland can you expect the president of the Schweizerischer Schulverein, of whom you have spoken, to have any interest in the school other than that pertaining to its status as a model. Perhaps his interest will turn out to be such that he would like to influence Swiss state schools to take up certain methodological aspects from this model school. But this seems to me to be the only aspect that can be counted on to attract interest here in Switzerland. That is why it seems to me to be important to take up these two things wherever educational associations of the kind you have mentioned are founded; and also that many such associations should be founded, more and more of them!
Another aspect is that the crux of anthroposophical education is its method. The schools apply a certain method. It is not a question of any particular political direction but purely and simply of method. It is also not a question of any particular religious creed, or of seeing anthroposophy somehow as a religious creed. It is simply a question of method.
In the discussion that followed my lecture cycle my answer to questions on this was simply that the educational method represented here can be applied anywhere, wherever there is the good will to introduce it.
If this is done on the one hand, and if on the other hand — in order to create an understanding in wider circles — it is clearly emphasized that this is the proper method and that it is being applied in a school that can serve as a model, if these two points are given the main emphasis in the programme, if it is stressed that every school could use these methods and that a model school could demonstrate how fruitful they are, and if things are worked out neatly, then I believe that something could be achieved even in Switzerland. And then on the basis of these two points educational associations ought to be founded everywhere. But it would have to be made clear to everyone that the aim was not to found as many private schools as possible to compete with the state schools. In Switzerland such a thing would be regarded as something very peculiar and it would never be understood. But there would be an understanding for a model school which could be a source of inspiration for a method of education. Progress cannot be made in any other way. It is important to present these things to people in principle again and again and wherever the opportunity arises.
I believe it would be a good thing if you could always give the greatest prominence to these two aspects. They are perfectly true, and much damage has been done to us by the constant repetition of the view that Waldorf education can only be carried out in schools apart from the main stream, whereas I have constantly repeated that the methods can be applied in any school.
* This is a reference to the Priory School, Kings Langley, started by Margaret Cross and Hannah Clark as a pioneering co-educational boarding school in 1910. Miss Cross had been so inspired by Steiner that in 1922 she decided to turn her school over to the new Waldorf methods. Steiner visited the school at least once, probably twice, the only English school he ever visited.
Steiner is saying that he sees the need for a few model schools, which could be a source of inspiration for his method of education and which could also be used by any school, state or private, which has the good will to introduce it. He sees an important role for national education associations to promulgate his methods, rather than the creation of more and more schools. This implies that he wanted the national associations to fly the flag for Waldorf methods, while he wanted there to be a few model schools to act as demonstration centres for these methods, that could be visited by teachers and educationists from state and other independent schools. And he could hardly be clearer in stating that anthroposophical education has nothing to do with a political direction or a religious creed but is simply a question of method.
If Steiner had lived longer, perhaps we would have seen him encourage the development of school associations in each country. He would have wanted there to be a handful of Waldorf schools in each of these countries, but they would have acted as models of excellence and research in teaching and curriculum. He would also have wanted there to be the greatest possible interaction between the model schools and the rest of the educational culture of that country. One can envisage there would have been a much greater flow of teachers between state and Waldorf schools resulting in much more dialogue and cross-pollination of methods.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why events didn’t turn out in this way. After Steiner’s death, the tensions between members of the Vorstand in Dornach that had been held in check during his lifetime broke out; and these very public divisions in the executive split national anthroposophical societies as well. In the UK, the few Steiner Waldorf schools that were beginning to establish themselves had to do so against challenging odds. This constant struggle for everyday survival, alongside their teaching and administrative responsibilities, took up all the energies of these pioneers. Add to this a kind of isolationist mentality, arising perhaps from an almost arrogant sense of the superior virtues of their methods, and one can see how the independent Steiner Waldorf schools came to figure hardly at all as part of the national educational culture in their countries.
This is just one reason why I am pleased that we now have a number of publicly-funded Steiner academy schools, because they are already part of the pluralistic educational system of England in a way that the independent Steiner Waldorf schools have not on the whole managed to achieve. This gives hope for fruitful dialogue and exchanges with mainstream educational culture that can only benefit all parties, which was undoubtedly what Steiner had in mind. This could still happen and there are some encouraging signs of greater openness beginning to appear. As just one example, there is a link here and here to a 2-part article by Trevor Mepham, former principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford and current principal of the Steiner Academy Frome. Trevor’s article seems to me to be generous, open and non-dogmatic in its approach, as well as a gentle reminder to Steiner educators everywhere not to get too hung up on supposed principles and practice.
At the European level, one can also see encouraging signs of Steiner Waldorf schools opening up, for example by becoming involved with the School Education Gateway project funded by the European Union’s Erasmus +, the programme for education, training, youth and sport. Surely, the best and most effective gesture that Steiner Waldorf schools can make today is to say to colleagues in education around the world: “We have much to share and much to learn from one another. We don’t have all the answers but we would like to help develop the answers with you.”