I am a former Waldorf high school teacher. I am often asked what Waldorf education is all about. People tend to expect clear-cut sound bites to describe its essence and I always find myself quite challenged to answer this question.
Many can see the commitment to art in Waldorf education. It is perhaps the first thing that people notice when they walk into a school. In fact, when someone asks me how Waldorf school is different than others and what makes it special, art is often the first word that comes to mind. Yet, Waldorf is not meant to create artists in the traditional sense, like a school that focuses on developing particular artistic capacities in students.
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf said: “The heart of the Waldorf method is that education is an art – it must speak to the child’s experience. To educate the whole child, his heart and his will must be reached, as well as the mind”.
Teaching as an Art
In Waldorf education, art really does not exist so much as a separate subject. It is not a matter of the length or number of art classes the students take. Instead, art is an integral part of the whole educational experience and in Waldorf School everything is taught artistically.
For instance, in mathematics, instead of being asked ‘what is the sum of 3 + 7? where the question reduces the activity to only one possible answer, students are asked questions such as 10 = ? where they engage creatively and explore multiple ways of answering the question. This reversal of thinking helps the teacher start from the whole and move to the part, which opens up a plethora of possibilities. This calls for a much more flexible and imaginative process within both the teachers and students.
The alphabet is introduced as pictures from a character within a story. The students then draw and move them with sounds and shapes so they develop a deeper feeling and relationship to both the spoken and written sounds and enliven words that otherwise become rather abstract.
In the early years, almost everything is brought through stories. From fairy tales, fables, mythology to literature and history, students participate in the unfolding story of the world in a way that they can see and sense the events as if they were happening in a moment.
One of the unique aspects of Waldorf education is that the children learn two foreign languages from first grade all the way till high school, where they then choose one. Teacher and author Johannes Kiersch (1997) described how the general objective of language teaching in Waldorf education is to offer students the experience of the inner reality of language:
Through being given concrete experience of the sounds that color a particular language and the shapes its words take, pupils will learn to trust their own artistic sensibilities in relation to such sensations. They will learn to be quiet, to wait, to listen attentively, so that they may be able to take delight in the surprises, the dark ambiguities and strange turns of the foreign language… they will be learning to identify with the perceptions and feeling of others. (p. 22)
This exposes students to more than one way of thinking and cultivates a sense of self that belongs to not just one particular culture or perspective but to a larger global world. In foreign language lessons, translation is discouraged in the early grades and brought much later. Instead, language teachers artistically create a sense of the culture of the target language and invite students to enter into it. Through having a first-hand experience of a different culture and language within its own context, students are naturally stretched to enter ways of thinking and feeling formed by another culture. This helps them develop flexibility in their thoughts and feeling and a sense of cultural relativity such that each culture is equally rich in its gifts for the world. Students develop the ability to see and hold multiple views that even seem contradictory to each other.
With this sense of cultural relativity comes a creative power where youngsters develop a feeling that the reality they perceive out there is not something hardened and absolute but instead is a flexible, socially agreed upon perspective, which they will eventually have the power to create anew if needed.
The Art of Being Human
So now let’s look at why the artistic element is so intrinsic to the Waldorf experience. One of the things I learned through engaging as a teacher is that our very existence is artistic. This does not mean that we are all born to be a painter, a musician, actor or actress. Here I would like to elaborate this notion of art as a primary aspect of our experience. Let’s first compare it with science and its epistemological foundation of knowledge. In science, truth is attained through separating ourselves from the environment with the so-called a creed of objectivity, where we can at least for a time maintain a stance of neutral observer.
This creed of objectivity is helpful in exploring the hard solid physical realm, in dealing with mechanical engineering for example, which makes possible the manufacturing of computers, airplanes or bridges. But when it becomes a fundamental and permanent lens through which to see human beings and all life in the world, there rises a problem, because humans are not simply mechanical and do not exist only on the physical plane.
If brought as the primary way to see the world, the creed of objectivity places us in the world as a spectator, distanced from the environment. We then act as if our actions don’t have significant impact on what we are observing. The world becomes an inanimate object that stands separate.
Art on the other hand, honors one’s subjectivity and directly connects the individual with the world as an active agent. With its creed of participation, art invites each person to participate in unfolding history and cultivates a sense that we matter and have the power to create a reality that is true to ones heart.
The World Within: Truth, Beauty and Goodness
Steiner believed that each individual’s creative power is fundamental to their developing humanity. For him, education should be a way to help the young person find their place in the world by unfolding the gifts that they can uniquely offer. Steiner said:
The question is not: what knowledge or skills does a person need to have in order to benefit the existing social order. But, what predisposition does this person have, and what is capable of development? Then it will be possible to channel new energies from the rising generation into the social order. Then the rising generation will not be fitted into the mold of the existing society, rather society will be what these newly recruited adults make of it. (as cited in Kiersch, p. 23, 1997)
In a capitalistic society, values are given more to productive capacity that is measured quantitatively with abstractions such as money. There is tremendous pressure on children to prepare for standardized testing and admission into prestigious colleges, as a route to ‘success’. They are hurried to ‘grow up’ to become a cog in the wheel in the work force with a narrow economically-driven valuation of the world.
Waldorf educators see the world as something that does not exist out there far away from the children. They do not have to go far to find that world. Rather, they find it in themselves. One role of the teacher is to gently invite students to discover themselves and their relationship to the world.
In order for youngsters to make a strong, engaged relationship with the world, as with any relationship it first requires them to connect with their feelings. Steiner recognized the need for cultivating a resilience that resists being blindly shaped by a limited materialistic picture of the world and helps them develop later a capacity to examine critically and dialogue.
Preparation for developing this faculty starts at an early age. At a Waldorf school, the day starts with a teacher’s handshake and eye contact. Each student is seen with loving interest with a fundamental acceptance of who they are. This daily interest and recognition becomes a deep foundation in their life.
Steiner held the view that the archetypal virtues of Goodness, Beauty and Truth are manifested in internalizing the human faculties of Willing, Feeling and Thinking and that this coincides with a seven-year cycle of developmental stages. This is an incredible framework to guide the teacher to enter the child’s world and be true to the consciousness of these development phases, tailoring how to bring the material in a creative fashion true to the student’s inner comportment.
In early childhood, children experience the world through the will. Teachers live the message that ‘The world is good’ through their deeds. Children need to feel that the world is worth being a part of. Then the next seven years moves more through feeling and the world is experienced as beautiful. Finally, adolescence brings a real readiness to embrace reflective thinking and the child is ready to find the world as a place to find truthfulness and their own individuality.
One of the psychological elements I notice as a symptom of modern society is apathy and indifference. From wars to environmental destruction, unregulated corporate greed and governmental corruption, the world often presents itself as filled with insurmountable problems. I observe how many people see injustice and human misery in the world as a given which they feel powerless to do anything about. I see young people who should have more idealism becoming rather nihilistic or as they say ‘realistic’, saying the world is just like this and one must accept it.
Many feel they have little power to creatively participate in the unfolding of our future; to change the situation for the better. This kind of defeatism is prevalent in those who have not developed their creative capacity and a broader perspective. It is difficult to engage fully when unable to imagine a world beyond what is given. I see in many Waldorf graduates a powerful sense of idealism and exuberant passion to engage in creating the future. It is not that they are too protected to see the harsh reality of a dehumanizing, corporate-dominated world. They see injustice and violence in society, but they don’t stop there and simply accept it as unchangeable reality.
When encountering misery and ugliness, those who have experienced and internalized the world as beautiful and good can experience deep disharmony without being overcome by it. When they meet that which has fallen from the wholeness of life, they feel the gap between reality and what they feel and imagine it could be.
It is not abstract thought or belief, but at a feeling level they know the world is inherently good and this becomes a source of creative morality. It is this active knowing that is backed up by the deep experience in childhood that give them inner strength to fill the gap. If children experienced the world as beautiful and good at an early age, they can later meet this harshness, but not simply accept it as the only reality. Instead, they can bring about a world that is truthful and in harmony with their ideals. The truth is not something that is given, but something that they create. Out of themselves, they will come to what is right.
The virtues of truth, beauty and goodness come together in the adult to develop moral imagination. Waldorf education, dedicated to the art of being human helps the youth become active creators of their own lives. In this age of apathy and materialism, Waldorf education is needed more than ever. Only practical idealism, applied with moral imagination can cure the modern malaise of defeatism and create a more humane and just world.
Kiersch, J. (1997). Language teaching in Steiner Waldorf schools. Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications. (originally published in German, 1992)