Today marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the first Waldorf school, founded by Rudolf Steiner, in Stuttgart, Germany. Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School’s English and Drama teacher Eric Muller reflects on the legacy and impact of Waldorf education. Eric will be speaking on the theme of freedom, courage, and ideals on Sat, Oct 12 at 7 pm at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School (HVS). The evening will also include a musical presentation from Hawthorne Valley’s Middle & High School and a puppet presentation of “The Rock Spring Wonder.”

 

Waldorf 100

 “Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is? The children themselves are the book.” ~ Rudolf Steiner

Fentress Gardner gardening with a class of school children.

Hawthorne Valley co-founder Fentress Gardner gardening with a class of school children.

What is most striking during this celebratory centennial is to observe the extent to which Waldorf education has expanded and spread to the farthest corners of the world by some of the most unlikely people. In the span of a mere hundred years, this movement has grown from a single seedling school in Stuttgart, Germany, with 252 students, to one of the largest independent school movement in the world, numbering well over 1,000 schools and 2,000 kindergartens worldwide, educating tens of thousands of students.

Every anniversary can serve as a Janus moment, an opportunity to look back, take stock, and reflect on the achievements of Waldorf education, while simultaneously looking ahead to what the future might hold – how it can be met and shaped. Waldorf 100 allows us to celebrate and admire the astounding accomplishments of this unique education as well as urging us to recall and return to the source – to become more conscious of the inaugural impulses that have contributed to the undeniable success of the movement.

Defining impulses

Right from its festive opening celebration on September 7, 1919, Waldorf education was built on the foundation of tremendous idealism. Waldorf 100 is a welcomed call to once again remind us of the founding principles, which from its inception has created such awe-inspiring results. A closer look at these initial impulses reveal enduring values, confirming why this education has grown so rapidly and was able to overcome the most trying and nigh insurmountable difficulties, breaking national, racial, political, gender, religious, and social boundaries to become an educational movement that has universal appeal.

It took tremendous courage and hope to open the school, standing, as it did, in strong contrast to the mainstream educational system. In Waldorf education, Steiner outlined an approach that would provide solutions to the great social travails of the time (just after World War I) and those to come. We forget how radical his ideas were at the time, and indeed, still are to this day, though they have taken on new dimensions and perspectives within the current cultural, economic, and socio-political framework. But they have taken root, and proven themselves many times over.

In short, Waldorf education is a human-centered education based on love: love for learning, love for life, love for the world, and love for one’s fellow human being. Love is the key to the essence of Waldorf education.

Matt Davis preparing a garden bed with a class of school children.

Garden Educator Matt Davis preparing a garden bed with a class of school children.

In that sense, it was first and foremost a social impulse. Steiner often stressed the importance of people meeting one another with interest, which is the foundation of love. For the teacher it means recognizing the needs of each child. In order to do that, Waldorf teachers must deepen their understanding of the human being, thereby developing the faculties to “read” what each child needs, appropriate to their age and as an individual. And one can only truly know the human being if one understands the world. This presupposes that teachers remain learners throughout their lives.

Another maxim of Waldorf education, underscored by Rudolf Steiner from the outset, is that it remains grounded in practical life. This is especially pertinent for our digital age, so dominated by the intellect at the cost of other human faculties. Teaching with imagination stirs the feeling life of the children, which in turn wants to be transformed into an activity – to embody what they have been taught. Consequently, they arrive more easily at a well-rounded understanding of the respective subject matter. In this way, the whole human being is involved: head, heart, and limbs. However, this only works if the education is steeped in the artistic. This artistic element, fueled by enthusiasm, helps to make education joyful. And if all the lessons are permeated with truth, beauty, and goodness, then the children will thrive.

Waldorf education is a seedling education, where everything that is taught has the possibility for further growth. What is forgotten does not necessarily lose its power to change, metamorphose, and supply nourishment in the future. In that sense, this education is truly an education for life.

At the 50th anniversary of Waldorf education in Stuttgart in 1969, Herbert Hahn said that what was true for the founding of the Waldorf School in 1919, would still hold true for the next fifty years. I am convinced that these core impulses will continue to maintain their enduring value for the next hundred years.

Reflect and Inspire

During this festive time, it behooves us to honor the people who have gone before us: the teachers, parents, students, and friends alike, who have contributed in some way to the success of the movement, especially Emil Molt and Rudolf Steiner, the earthly and spiritual founders of Waldorf education. But even as we celebrate, we have to continue to deepen our understanding of the world and humanity, to connect with the true and good spirit of our age, and so plant new kernels that can flourish throughout the course of the next hundred years.

Thus, in the words of Rudolf Steiner at the last address to the students in Stuttgart, shortly before his death:

“Onwards, my dear students and my dear teachers, onwards!”