There are now over 800 Rudolf Steiner (or Waldorf) schools around the world. They are well-established in most European countries, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and there have been successful pilot schemes testing in Africa, India and most other parts of the world.
The long-term success of this educational movement sets it apart from almost every other attempt at educational reform in the twentieth century, and this is all the more remarkable when one understands just how radical Rudolf Steiner’s techniques and beliefs actually were.
In order to understand the phenomenon of Steiner school education it is necessary to understand something about the life and times of Rudolf Steiner himself.
He was born in 1861 in a small village in an area which is now part of Croatia but which, at the time, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was the village stationmaster, which set him apart from the other boys in the village, and he soon re-enforced this difference by showing an extraordinary appetite for learning.
He worked his way through the Austrian educational system and by the time he was in his twenties had become an accomplished linguist, classical scholar, mathematician, scientist and historian. Goethe seems to have been his role model at that time and he worked as a researcher at the prestigious library in Goethe’s home town of Weimar.
In addition to his academic studies Rudolf Steiner worked as a private tutor, which is perhaps where he formed his ideas about the methods most appropriate for the teaching of children.
His interest in spiritual matters led him to become involved with the Theosophical Society of London, which was trying to form a bridge between the spiritualism of the East and the Christian values of Europe. Rudolf Steiner split with the English members of the Theosophical society over their desire to bring the young Krishnamurti to the West and to promote him as a spiritual leader.
Rudolf Steiner himself became involved in founding the Anthroposophical Society in Germany, which was a society for the development of Spiritual Science. This endeavour absorbed most of his energy for the rest of his life.
The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was a time when all of the sciences were developing rapidly and Rudolf Steiner was determined that they should be based on spiritual, as opposed to material, truths. This led him to be instrumental in the founding of Weleda, the company that promotes and produces Homeopathic and Herbal medicines; to laying the groundwork for Biodynamic agriculture – which was the forerunner to the modern Organic movement in central Europe; to being involved in many curative and therapeutic enterprises and to taking part in a wide range of other scientific and artistic activities. He was a prolific writer and lecturer and became a major figure in the German-speaking world of that time.
Rudolf Steiner was always a charismatic figure, possessed by a burning energy and a formidable intellect, but the pace of his life appears to have gone up a further gear after the end of the First World War. Germany underwent a revolution in 1919; the Kaiser abdicated and the ruling class was swept from power. For a few months Germany was in a state of limbo, with none of its government institutions functioning and no one sure which direction the country was likely to take.
Rudolf Steiner decided that he should make a serious attempt to start a movement that would establish a system of government based on justice, compassion and fairness for all. He founded a movement for the establishment of the Threefold Social Order – in which the worlds of economics, politics and culture would each be given equal significance, and in which everyone would be accorded equal respect. This may sound fanciful to us today, but it is important to remember the times in which Steiner was living. There was a real possibility that the Bolshevik revolution could spread from Russia, and post-war conditions were causing serious hunger and deprivation for millions of people.
Steiner’s personal standing meant that his movement initially met with enormous success. He gave lectures attended by thousands of people, groups were set up to support his ideas all over Germany, and in Stuttgart a group of industrialists grouped together to merge their factories into an economic enterprise based on Steiner’s idealistic principles. One of these industrialists was the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory, and he asked Steiner to found a school for the children of the workers of the factory (this is the reason why many Steiner schools are called Waldorf schools).
Not surprisingly the movement for the Threefold Social Order soon ran into trouble. It met with virulent opposition from more well-established political groups and was riven by internal division. Rudolf Steiner could see that the moment in time when he might have been able to change the course of history was slipping away but, undiscouraged, he threw himself into the task of ensuring that, even if nothing else survived, the school in Stuttgart would be a success.
He gave a special training course for the school teachers; he supervised the conversion of the school buildings; he met the parents; he got to know the children; he attended the teachers’ meetings; he lectured, and he attended lessons. At the same time he was travelling back and forth to Dornach in Switzerland, where he was supervising the construction of a huge auditorium, the Goetheanum, (where he hoped to establish a ‘High School’ to which the Stuttgart pupils could graduate), and travelling around Europe, lecturing and trying to initiate more educational initiatives.
He seems to have worked virtually round the clock for the last few years of his life – perhaps aware that a darker phase of German history was about to commence, in which there would be no room for him, or for the things that he cherished. He died, exhausted, in 1925, just 64 years old. His school was a success, having more than doubled in size in the few years since its opening, but was shut down a few years later when the Nazis came to power, and all its records destroyed.
In the ensuing decades – the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and1960s – Rudolf Steiner and his ideas were viewed almost with disdain by a world that had fallen in love with new technologies and a purely materialistic view of human life. Recent years have, however, seen a rekindling of interest in a man whose intellect and originality of thought allowed him to develop a scientific method that pointed to the need for homeopathic methods in medicine, organic methods in agriculture, an artistic approach to architecture, a compassionate approach to government and an inspired approach to education.
A Definition of Steiner Education
Rudolf Steiner believed that education should be designed to meet the changing needs of a child as they develop physically, mentally and emotionally. He believed that it should help a child to fulfil their full potential but he did not believe in pushing children towards goals that adults, or society in general, believed to be desirable.
His approach was systematic, and appears to have been based on his own extensive experience of working as a tutor, and on his study of ‘anthroposophy’ or ‘spiritual science’.
Here are some of its key points:
- Up to the age of seven encourage play, drawing, story telling, being at home, nature study and natural things.
- Do not teach children younger than seven to read.
- Teach a child to write before you teach them to read.
- Do not keep changing a child’s teacher: allow one teacher to carry on teaching the same class for seven years.
- Allow children to concentrate on one subject at a time – do history two hours per day for several weeks and then do geography for two hours per day etc.
- Find links between art and science.
- Engage with the child and make sure that they are enthusiastic about the material being covered.
- Give a moral lead but do not teach a particular set of beliefs.
- Encourage learning for its own sake. Do not just work for exams.
He made specific curriculum suggestions for history, geography, mathematics, languages, literature, science, handwork, gymnastics, painting, music, shorthand and many other subjects that were taught in the school in Stuttgart. Obviously, some of these are more appropriate than others to today’s conditions.
It is important to remember that although an idealist who never compromised what he believed, Rudolf Steiner was also a pragmatist. He made an agreement with the authorities in Stuttgart that his school would not follow the same curriculum as the state schools but that its pupils would be able to transfer from one to the other at certain key ages. He was very rigorous in ensuring that this promise was fulfilled, and modified the work done in the school to ensure that the children had covered the same subject matter, and attained the same skills, as children in other schools at the appropriate ages.
The fact that Steiner schools still exist, and that they are noticeably different from other schools, is a testament to the drive and originality of Rudolf Steiner’s educational initiative.
The passage of time and the efforts of all the teachers involved means, however, that different Steiner schools located in different parts of the world now have very different traditions and different characteristics.
There are a few Steiner schools in the UK founded by people who knew Rudolf Steiner from the days of the London Theosophical Society; similarly there are Steiner schools in Switzerland that were started in the 1920s by friends and associates of Rudolf Steiner. German Steiner schools gradually reopened after the defeat of Adolf Hitler and were granted a measure of state financing, which has enabled them to become a major part of the German education system – but in exchange they have had to make concessions on the curriculum and staff qualifications. The United Kingdom and other parts of the world saw the creation of new Steiner Schools in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. These are often community based and owe their existence more to ‘new age’ thinking than to ‘anthroposophical’ traditions.
In some ways the Steiner movement is always in a state of flux. Its founder was so dynamic that everyone involved knows that he would not have allowed his school to stay as it was, but would have found novel and imaginative ways to meet the changing needs of modern times. It is difficult for the people now involved to know what direction to take, without losing the essence of what Rudolf Steiner brought to the world of education.
Rudolf Steiner and Home Schooling
The fact that Rudolf Steiner poured so much energy into the Waldorf School in Stuttgart tends to obscure the fact that he spent much of his life working with individual children.
Many of the ideas that he promoted resonate with the discoveries that have been made by Home Schoolers over the past twenty years. He respected the fact that children should not be forced into learning things before they were ready; he varied the curriculum according to the needs of the specific children with whom he was dealing, and he always stressed the importance of teachers engaging with each child and ensuring they were all treated as individuals.
Unfortunately much of what he said remains rather remote and unapproachable to modern home schooling families: he spoke in German – which means that most people have to make do with translations – and his references to anthroposophical ideas are no longer topical.
Nevertheless there is no reason why Home Schoolers should not be able to make use of the vast amount of literature associated with Steiner education, or be able to forge useful links with Steiner schools that are outward looking and community based.