Aengus Gordon talks about the need for Waldorf institutions to audit themselves regarding time and place (1). When thinking about Gordon’s comments, it appeared to me that many pressing questions around Waldorf education do relate to time and place. However, my main concerns were initially clustered around what I would call community, around people and how Waldorf education approaches diversity and difference, both ideally and in practice.
There are many kinds of communities. There is a school community comprising students, teachers and families, the community in whose area a school is located, national communities of schools, the anthroposophical community, the larger Waldorf community, the community of a whole country and the global community. Vitally, there are non-visible communities – the community of spirits of place, of nature spirits, of those who have passed away, of people working towards a similar cause, a Michaelic community, among others.
Community was at the heart of comments from a number of my own ex-students who identify as Māori, Indigenous New Zealanders. In discussion, we explored the degree to which they saw their values and themselves as Māori reflected in the schools in which they had chosen to practice, and to send their children (2). Aside from many interesting and positive observations, their comments included:
· [for Māori, Steiner schools] “… could be good, but perceptions of the schools keep many away”
· “People [Māori] understand the spiritual aspect but won’t go [to the schools] if they don’t see their culture reflected”
· There is a “need to see brown faces among the teachers, parents and students”
· Most strongly, the need to feel “culturally safe” in the school environment is not always met.
This was in New Zealand a few years ago and with a small body of respondents. However, how is it elsewhere? Think of minority groups in your larger communities and ask yourself those same questions:
· Are some perceptions of Waldorf education keeping people away? Which people specifically? What could those perceptions be? Are they accurate?
· To what degree might families understand what is behind the school’s ideals but won’t send their children if they don’t see their culture reflected?
· Are these minority groups visible in the teacher body, trustees, students?
· Is the ‘cultural safety’ of students (and teachers) a concept you have discussed as a school? As individuals? Do you think it is valid?
The question of diversity and difference and how diversity is presented in schools and their communities is one that extends beyond the classroom walls. To what extent do or should schools reflect their wider communities? This is not a new question. When the first school was founded in Stuttgart in 1919, it was begun for workers’ children. This beginning had a strong element of social justice within it. Before many years had passed, it became more a school for the children of anthroposophists, and did not necessarily represent the wider community of Stuttgart (3).
Every school is different, but there are questions which may be relevant to all. In towns whose populations include those of many different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and beliefs, are these groups well represented within Steiner schools? My experience is that they often are not. There are understandable reasons such as accessibility and finance which play into this, but it remains a valid question.
I have asked teachers in different countries if their school communities reflect their wider communities and if they are satisfied with the status quo. I would ask the same of you. The answers I have received through this ad hoc, non-representative process have varied but fall into two identifiable groups: there are teachers who state that they want better minority representation within their school and that it is a concern that the schools do not reflect the wider population; others comment that they do not look for greater diversity in the classroom, that this can bring with it problems and that they would rather teach the children who ‘belong’ in a Steiner school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I have asked who the children who ‘belong’ are, they happen to be white and middle-class. In my experience, this is something which is not often talked about in teacher meetings.
Many teachers are familiar with the so-called Motto of the Social Ethic,
“A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.” (4)
It is a well-known verse in Steiner communities. Expanding the context of the verse, might the soul of a school need to reflect its ‘whole community’ for it to be truly healthy, and not just the school community? Conversely, if a school does not reflect its wider community, is it then by definition ‘unhealthy’? Certainly, reflecting the myriad viewpoints of the wider community while remaining a school teaching out of a deep understanding of Waldorf pedagogy, supported by Steiner’s spiritual science is a great challenge for this time of ever-increasing diversity.
Questions down this track include:
· Is the school community a reflection of the wider community? Where do you stand on that?
· In your school, are minority viewpoints actively acknowledged and considered? Are they encouraged and promoted? Are they welcome?
This then leads quite quickly to another one: Whose culture/s are being promoted in the curriculum? Whose are not visible? This needs time to unpack.
Speaking to teachers, I have had immediate denials that any specific culture is being promoted within a Waldorf school. The teachers see themselves as inclusive, liberal thinkers which I would agree with. However, travelling around the world, I see many instances of specific cultures being valued above others. This is what I believe my students were highlighting.
I’m going to navigate the next section with some care as I do not want to set off any landmines. I am not going to talk about the United States at all, but I hope you will be able to transfer what I say to your own contexts to whichever degree they fit.
New Zealand is a colonized country. It has a pre-European history as well as a post-European one. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 granted equal status to the Māori language, Māori customs, the Māori worldview (te reo Māori, tikanga Māori, te ao Māori), land rights, and so on. This was a noble undertaking on the part of the colonizing British but one which was reneged on almost immediately. Educationally, Māori were later dealt with apart, educated to be good wives or farm workers, not for the professions. The division of Māori and European education systems and the differing expectations ended only in 1969. Since then, like many countries, New Zealand has been coming to terms with its colonial heritage and seeking to redress past wrongs. This is at the forefront of contemporary education practice in the country. Viewpoints are contested, but few would disagree that substantial progress has been made.
Nowadays, including strongly in Waldorf schools, the Māori viewpoint is included alongside the ‘Western.’ Māori language, though not compulsory, is more visible than ever. Most schools are careful to follow Māori protocol, at least occasionally. The numbers of Māori students on the rolls in Steiner schools currently varies from 2% to 30%. I would argue that they do see their culture valued and reflected in the schools, and so send their children. It is a good thing. The New Zealand Federation of Steiner Schools has drawn up a Māori curriculum for Classes 1-12 showing how a Māori perspective can be incorporated within the ‘traditional’ Steiner curriculum (5). Again, this is a good thing.
My students wanted their viewpoint to be present in all subjects. So history would also be told and viewed through Māori eyes, art would have a Māori perspective, science would be approached holistically (easy in a Steiner school), the story of the land would be taught thoroughly and with reverence (Indigenous views work perfectly hand in hand with place-based pedagogy). The curriculum would be balanced and not tilted to favor the dominant, or dominator, worldview.
A further question which needs addressing though is, whose culture/s and values are being promoted in the hidden curriculum? Which are not visible?
The hidden curriculum is what transmits values, shows what is respected, what is desirable. It comes with cultural weightings. Identifying what it promotes is at least as important as identifying how the curriculum needs to be modified to suit different social contexts.
In a Waldorf schools this can include:
Whose point of view is history told from? What art is on the walls? Is it, for instance, European? Wonderful if so, as there is such a wealth to choose from, but imagine yourself from a non-European family. Do you want to see something from your culture on the walls? The ethnicities of images is an easy one to remedy, but it is one I sometimes see Waldorf schools not addressing. New Zealand is a hugely multicultural society; what needs to be done to ensure that cultures and minority groups beyond Māori are represented? To what degree are New Zealanders from other Indigenous cultures, Asian New Zealanders, Middle Eastern New Zealanders, African New Zealanders visible in schools? To what degree are their cultures (worldviews, customs and languages) acknowledged and valued? To what degree are they represented in the teaching body or on the school Board? To what degree are they visible in the teaching resources used (e.g. an English literature curriculum not dominated by familiar British or American male writers but which also includes writing by women as well as queer, subcontinental, African, Asian and Caribbean authors).
Education for social justice
Speaking from a New Zealand perspective, I believe it is possible that countries which have been colonized and whose dominant group is non-Indigenous have particular needs. This may well include Australia as well as North and South America. Education for social justice is an umbrella term which covers many perspectives (6); it primarily aims towards anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practices. It challenges dominant viewpoints and opposes racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, gender prejudices and the like. These are strengthened by cultural myths, historical traditions, orthodox, accepted knowledge, unexamined opinions as well as by complying with accepted behavior (‘I do this because I will fit in’). The movement towards social justice in education is gathering strength, and I believe it would be worthwhile to look long and hard at Waldorf education through a social justice lens.
I have a hope that if people are able to work their way through these three audits, they will gain a fuller picture of who they are as individuals, as a school and as a community. Once that is done, the real work starts and this is where one needs to have worked through all three.
For several years I have been thinking about Waldorf education and metamorphosis. I wrote a short article about Waldorf education needing to transform from an aging twentieth-century caterpillar into a twenty-first-century butterfly, Waldorf 2.0 if you will (7). This metamorphosing from one state into another happens in a safe space, the cocoon, and involves a breaking down of things, a creative chaos. Thoroughly going through these audits will provide the breaking down – the safe space is important. If we are going to question what we do, we will need to be able to say what is on our minds without endangering ourselves. To date, the only school I know of which has attempted this is the Honolulu Waldorf School, which has been addressing notions of place and belonging for over a year (8).
Once the audits have been completed, within the safe space of the cocoon, the formative processes which will help with the building up process need to be identified. In my opinion, as well as anthroposophy first and foremost, these would have to include decolonization theory and education for social justice.
Using these as tools, can we begin to shape something new within Waldorf education? It will inevitably involve major work, but how many of us have read Steiner’s education lectures utterly inspired by the breadth of vision, the world-changing scope of his intention and then compared it to what happens on the ground? We need to use that inspiration and enthusiasm to create and realize a movement for social justice, growing out of Steiner’s deep understanding of the human being, which is suitable for its time and able to respond to the varied needs of people around the world.
(1) Hougham, P. (2012). Dialogues of destiny: A postmodern appreciation of Waldorf education. Malvern Hills, United Kingdom: Sylvan Associates.
(2) Boland, N. (2015). The globalisation of Steiner education: Some considerations. Research on Steiner Education Journal, 6, 192-202.
(3) Tautz, J. (1982). The founding of the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart. Spring Valley, NY: Pedagogical Section Council of North America.
(4) Steiner, R. (1912-1924/1990). Rudolf Steiner - Edith Maryon: Briefwechsel. Briefe - Sprüche - Skizzen 1912-1924 [GA263a]. Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag.
(5) Taikura Rudolf Steiner School. (2015). He Reo Puāwai | Te Reo Māori curriculum: Guidelines for Rudolf Steiner/Waldorf schools in Aotearoa (Curricular document). Hastings, New Zealand: Taikura Rudolf Steiner School.
(6) The International Forum for Social Development. (2006). Social justice in an open world: The role of the United Nations. New York, NY: United Nations.
(7) Boland, N. (2014). Sticking wings on a caterpillar? Journal of Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner Education, 16(2), 8-9.
(8) Boland, N., & Demirbeg, J. R. (in preparation). (Re)inhabiting Waldorf education: Honolulu teachers explore the notion of place.
Neil Boland is senior lecturer in the School of Education at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. His research interests include Steiner's indications on music for young children, the contextualisation of Steiner education in non-European cultural and geographic settings, and issues around assessment. His work involves promoting the conversation between the Steiner education movement and other educational philosophies.
First published in the Pacifica Journal from lecture notes to the Pacific Rim Waldorf Education Conference, Honolulu Waldorf School, 2016.