The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

School Management
Compromise, childhood, curriculum, thinking, ideals, principles, renewal
By: Trevor Mepham, February 2015,

The ideal of compromise? No such thing! (Part 2)

This second part of Trevor Mepham's reflections on the issue of compromise concentrates on childhood and curriculum. Rather than turning to specific school subjects, Trevor explores the curriculum from the angles of time, place, communication, money, nutrition, relationships and coherence.

In the first part of this article, attention was given to the concept and nature of compromise and how such a predicament or approach impacts on the principles and practice of education. A compromise is rarely considered as a positive choice, but more as a negative response to a given situation. In contrast, education is like a magnet for ideals and the best that can be imagined. Put like that, ideals are generally seen as being about high aspirations, whereas compromises are usually regarded as falling short of such ideals. In part one, the following notions were explored:




  • that ideals are universal principles that demand to be locally applied in a timely and resonant manner;

  • that it is possible for ideals to age and be distorted into conventions-in-themselves; traditions that lack vitality and resemble empty vessels;

  • that compromises can be an expression of ideals reformed and refreshed.

In part two, the discussion turns to a consideration of childhood and curriculum.



In the 1940s, the theoretical physicist David Bohm was working on the Manhattan Project, which culminated in the detonation of an atomic bomb. His interests spanned quantum theory, philosophy of the mind and neuropsychology. In looking at the habits of thinking, Bohm (1991: 15) suggested that the ways in which we tend to think and therefore act, are often regurgitative, working to hold back progression and renewal:


"[Thought] seems to have some inertia, a tendency to continue. It seems to have a necessity that we keep on doing it. However . . . we often find that we cannot easily give up the tendency to hold rigidly to patterns of thought built up over a long time. We are then caught up in what may be called absolute necessity. This kind of thought leaves no room at all intellectually for any other possibility, while emotionally and physically, it means we take a stance in our feelings, in our bodies, and indeed, in our whole culture, of holding back or resisting. This stance implies that under no circumstances whatsoever can we allow ourselves to give up certain things or change them."



The idea of absolute necessity is germane in considering the concept and nature of compromise. Whether one considers the pitfalls of compromise, or the opportunities, it seems that the baggage that accompanies the term is often negative. Suggestions that a compromise implies or requires that something has been watered down, given up, or even ruined, are a long way from the spirit or the reality of a promise that has been made together (com-promise); an understanding that paves the way for a new development or opening.


The idea and practice of compromise can stir the juices and create tensions over matters of principle, theory and tradition. One person’s compromise is another person’s sell-out. Alternatively, someone who cannot compromise might be regarded as reactionary, or stuck in the past. Naturally, or perhaps especially, this clash of views pertains to a discussion of Waldorf principle and practice.


Steiner is reported to have said that if, in years to come, all his work was destroyed or forgotten, the essential, enduring contribution was his book The Philosophy of Freedom (1979). If this anecdote is true, it’s an interesting comment on the seminal importance with which he viewed that particular book. Might it also mean that some of his work needs to be understood as being within an applied context – important, yet temporal and local? Steiner undoubtedly operated within a set of social, cultural assumptions. In addition though, he claimed to be able to speak from a space uncluttered by those assumptions; a context of far-reaching and deep-rooted consciousness that can be renewed and is essentially not dependent on time, or culture. Such a prospect provides an invitation to research and renew, in order to bring about innate innovation and to re-apply first principles. On the other hand, one can imagine that such a prospect could act as a catalyst for forebodings and anxieties regarding change for change’s sake, or a dumbing down of the original work and primary research findings.



Does the concept of childhood face a similar dilemma? Is there something innate or fundamental about a healthy childhood; a conceptual core that grows from a set of principles that are universally applicable and unchanging? Or, does it all depend on context and environment; time and place? There are, after all, many childhoods possible in the world, both now and long ago. Take, for example, the splendour, care and protection lavished on the young Prince Siddartha-Gotama. Compare such a childhood with the miserable and frightening passage of a child who is abused or orphaned through war; and all the childhoods in between these two extremes.


If childhood is considered to be simply an environmental feature, or social phenomenon, we can talk either of an environment of animal fables, knitting and freshly-baked bread, or the social context of long days spent picking over rubbish heaps in faraway places, or 12-hour shifts making Adidas footballs in filthy, unlit, back-street sweat-shops. However we think of childhood, it is clear that the experience of childhood is not ‘given’, or innately ‘good’. Around the world and through the ages, children have experienced their childhood days across a wide spectrum, from the sublime to the dismal.


As teachers and parents, we are prime participants in creating childhoods for our children. What sort of childhoods will they be and what contributions can we make? Childhood resembles a field that children journey through. Children will pass through it regardless, so what kind of field do we make? What condition is the soil? How deep and even the furrows?


When considering what we can do, how might we act and work with children, with childhood and the world in which we live, Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov (2003) offers what I think is an enduring truth for children and childhood.


“. . . there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome for life in future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about education. But some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood – that is perhaps the best education. For if a man has only one good memory left in his heart, even that may keep him from evil . . . And if he carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe for the end of his days.”


Here is something which parents and teachers alike can really dwell on, with hope and energy. It hints at something that might be in our promise to children.



The term curriculum offers at least two rather different meanings – a fixed body of knowledge & practice, or a field in which to roam and explore. Put very crudely, a curriculum can be given over to training, or learning, or both. Techniques and skills tend to be attributed to training and applications, whereas principles tend to focus on values and starting points; ideas and ideals. Education embraces both principles and applications. They are the wings of learning. The Latin word currere conjures images of movement, flow and exploration; a matter of heuristics. A more limited view of a curriculum would be of a straitjacket, or a fixed canon of knowledge that is delivered and imbibed, but not necessarily questioned or challenged, and certainly not renewed.


The curriculum outline set out by Steiner (Stockmeyer, 2001) in the early 1900s was designed for a local, temporal context. It was for a time and a place. In parallel, or in conjunction with its ‘contemporary’ relevance, the curriculum outline was also offered as a working paper for learning and for childhood and how the two go together; the learning and the growing, the doing and the becoming. In this regard, the curriculum outline is a set of first principles, not a training manual. Because of that, it is possible to take the curriculum as a research paper; a working draft based on insight and intuition – a coming together of spiritual investigation and empirical verification.


If the curriculum is a flowing course what of the banks that give the river its integrity? How can a curriculum help to bolster life’s infrastructure and nourish the zest of childhood? A curriculum worth the name feeds into the journey towards a creative, considerate, loving, responsible life. In varying degrees, every curriculum is a vehicle for content. In addition to what, a curriculum must also consider the how, why and when questions. Perhaps a curriculum outline is most helpful as a tool to hone observations of children and childhood and their development in this society, not a previous one. Therefore, there are bound to be new areas, new features, in which the principles need to be applied afresh. In that regard, I want to touch on some present-day themes or topics that could be pictured as the banks of the curriculum river. By attending to these aspects, I would argue that we are underpinning the banks and preventing the erosion of curricular relevance and timeliness.



  1. Time figures explicitly in the curriculum in terms of practical maths and more tacitly, through the history programme. However, in an implicit or pedagogical sense, there is much more to it than that, since time is a mystery, a riddle and a construct, with different aspects and dimensions. Time has length and depth; it is linear and cyclical, it bears faces that are both qualitative and numerical. There is the rhythm and the beat of time; time does not simply come in minutes and hours. It is in the kindergarten where the experiences of time are perhaps most telling and radical, especially in an era of vanishing or accelerating time.


    The extent to which we value and respect time in its different aspects, is fundamental. Arguably, our sense of time is fragmenting and dissolving. “Now!”, “Quickly!” are constant refrains. Time is in need of help, or maybe it is we that are in need of help with our time-skills. Have we reached a point where education has to home in on the primary essentials of life and living, such as time, before these things are all commoditised and counted out.
  1. Harbouring a sense and a feeling for place is part of the bread and butter of life. In these times, it is more important than ever to foster a sense of orientation and to prepare a capacity for multiple orientations in later years. To learn the knack of being able, in time, to make oneself at home on the earth, in many different places, is a precious and vital capacity. The ways in which we regard spaces and pauses, the in-between moments and places, are best considered as life-skills, rather than pastimes. For some, perhaps many, the sense for place has come adrift; weakening the link between me and where I am. In all sorts of education the place of place needs strengthening and securing.


  2. In some ways, the theme of technology and communication is as important today as health and nutrition. On a BBC Radio programme, Farming Today (23rd March, 2013), a survey commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) reported that when 2000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 were asked, ‘What is a blackberry?’  82% replied that it is a phone!

A while ago, I was speaking to a primary school teacher of long-standing. She had been doing project-work on the Great War (1914-18) with her class of 9 year-olds. In the creative writing activity, one of the boys wrote about life in the trenches: “I woke up and felt cold, wet and tired. Would I live through the day? I felt really bad and decided to text my girl-friend.”


Adults of 35+ struggle to understand what it is to be born in an online world, where just about everything is networked or downloadable. Likewise, today’s children cannot understand that the ‘www’ just wasn’t here before 1991; that phones used to be fixed to wires that travelled through walls and that music was once piped from a box called a record player, or a ‘hi-fi’ cabinet. So, the theme of technology, as opposed to gadgetry, is calling us, linked to a study of the development of communication through time and place – thematic learning that straddles history and geography, culture and innovation and, crucially, health and well-being.1



  1. The curriculum needs to embrace the function and impact of money & exchange in worlds past and present and the changing nature and provision of food & nutrition through the ages and across continents. In our online, digital, virtual society, economic activity veers between greed and need; there are huge health implications for a world riven not only by malnutrition, but obesity too2. We have lived through this revolution of need and want and we continue to live through it and experience the social change and imbalance that goes with it. And so, by establishing an appreciation of the development of money and food through time and place and human consciousness, the curriculum flows and breathes into the 21st Century.


  2. The cultivation and tending of social relationships are widely considered to be a fundamental need, skill, and gift. Steiner schools are acknowledged proponents and practitioners of relational consciousness (Woods P, Ashley M and Woods G, 2005), both in the classroom and in the wider school community. The presence of vibrant relationships in life are, arguably, a huge distance from the ‘social’ phenomena of immediate and constant communication (ICT sic). Both at work and in social forums, relationships via email, social networking and video-conferencing are tending to replace meetings in time and place with a jig-saw puzzle approach, where isolated pieces are slotted or forced into place, or left on the side without any sense of ownership. So, while transparency appears to increase, opaqueness increases at the same time. At school and elsewhere, the means to perceive relatedness and relationships, with all their tentative flaws and faltering uncertainties, needs to be recovered and reclaimed. The alternatives are disconnectedness and virtual association; meaning, not real at all.


  3. In education, coherence is both a key and a fruit. One picture of coherence is where a flowing narrative of enquiry and experience leads to the creation of meaning. Where coherence is absent, continuity, progression, development and culture are cast aside in favour of a random mixture of events, people, issues, phenomena, theories and facts. In February 2013, the English Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, touched on this theme; a theme which might be described as an unreflective, superficial approach to learning. In setting out plans for a core knowledge curriculum, Gove said: “Unless you have knowledge – historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic – all you will find on Google is babble. . . . . The accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility.”

In the pedagogy and curriculum guidance that Steiner outlined, coherence and progression are approached via a pathway of practical, experiential learning, imaginative-aesthetic judgement and conceptual-cognitive exploration. Notions such as developmental learning readiness, analysing the parts of an identified whole and the positive role in the learning process of forgetting and sleeping, all serve to support the establishment and flourishing of coherence in the learner.


In an address to open the Waldorf School on 7th September 1919, Steiner (1996: 16) articulated the essence of his educational vision. All the trappings are stripped away and we are left with:


Science that comes alive!

Art that comes alive!

Religion that comes alive! 

In the end, that is what education is.”


For an ‘uncompromising’ statement that is open to renewal and reform, free of dogma and tradition-lite, it takes some beating

Trevor Mepham is Principal of the Steiner Academy Frome, a publicly-funded 'Free School' in Somerset, England. In previous jobs he was Principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, and Co-Director of the Steiner BA Programme at the University of Plymouth. Prior to that, he worked as a Class Teacher at the South Devon Steiner School. He has also worked as a classroom adviser and served as a member of the Executive Group of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) and the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE). He is a Trustee of the charity, Children of Peace - an organisation committed to working with the children of Palestine and Israel to build peaceful, positive relationships for a future generation.




  • D. Bohm & Mark Edwards (1992), Changing Consciousness, Harper, San Francisco

  • Dostoyevsky F (2003), The Brothers Karamazov, Penguin Classics

  • Steiner R (1979), The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner Press

  • Steiner R (1996), Rudolf Steiner in the Waldorf School, Anthroposophic Press

  • Steiner R (1971), Human Values in Education, Rudolf Steiner Press

  • Stockmeyer E.A. Karl (2001), Rudolf Steiner's Curriculum for Waldorf Schools, Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship

  • Woods P, Ashley M & Woods G (2005), Steiner Schools in England, Research Report 645, Department for Education and Skills / University of West of England

  • The Guardian Newspaper, 24-02-2009

  • downloaded: 30-12-2014

  • Farming Today, BBC Radio 4, 23rd March 2013

1 In 2013, Facebook was 9 years old. It is argued that social networking sites and on-line existence will have a significant impact on brain development. In 2009, Susan Greenfield suggested that there are three areas of concern: the ability to make real-life conversation with other people, the effects on attention-span caused by rapid interchange of action-reaction, instant screen images, and the ability to empathise. Mass autism could be one of the outcomes. “By the middle of this century, our minds might have become infantilised – characterised by short attention spans, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.” (The Guardian, 24-02-2009)


2 In the BBC Medical Review (February 2009): it was reported that around 27 per cent of children in the UK are overweight and the research suggested the main problem is a continual reduction in the amount of exercise children take. Many overweight children have overweight parents - it's often a matter of family lifestyles. Obesity increases the risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes which is normally a disease seen in later life in adults. Increasingly, children in their teens are presenting with Type 2 diabetes as a consequence of being obese. There are also marked psychological effects of obesity leading to low self-esteem.

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