An Introduction to Waldorf Education

Rudolf Steiner


The aims Emil Molt [1] is trying to realize through the Waldorf School are connected with quite definite views on the social tasks of the present day and the near future. The spirit in which the school should be conducted must proceed from these views. It is a school attached to an industrial undertaking [2]. The peculiar place modern industry has taken in the evolution of social life in actual practice sets its stamp upon the modern social movement. Parents who entrust their children to this school are bound to expect that the children shall be educated and prepared for the practical work of life in a way that takes due account of this movement. This makes it necessary, in founding the school, to begin from educational principles that have their roots in the requirements of modern life. Children must be educated and instructed in such a way that their lives fulfill demands everyone can support, no matter from which of the inherited social classes one might come. What is demanded of people by the actualities of modern life must find its reflection in the organization of this school. What is to be the ruling spirit in this life must be aroused in the children by education and instruction.

It would be fatal if the educational views upon which the Waldorf School is founded were dominated by a spirit out of touch with life. Today, such a spirit may all too easily arise because people have come to feel the full part played in the recent destruction of civilization [3] by our absorption in a materialistic mode of life and thought during the last few decades. This feeling makes them desire to introduce an idealistic way of thinking into the management of public affairs. Anyone who turns his attention to developing educational life and the system of instruction will desire to see such a way of thinking realized there especially. It is an attitude of mind that reveals much good will. It goes without saying that this good will should be fully appreciated. If used properly, it can provide valuable service when gathering manpower for a social undertaking requiring new foundations. Yet it is necessary in this case to point our how the best intentions must fail if they set to work without fully regarding those first conditions that are based on practical insight.

This, then, is one of the requirements to be considered when the founding of any institution such as the Waldorf School is intended. Idealism must work in the spirit of its curriculum and methodology; but it must be an idealism that has the power to awaken in young, growing human beings the forces and faculties they will need in later life to be equipped for work in modern society and to obtain for themselves an adequate living.

The pedagogy and instructional methodology will be able to fulfill this requirement only through a genuine knowledge of the developing human being. Insightful people are today calling for some form of education and instruction directed not merely to the cultivation of one-sided knowledge, but also to abilities; education directed not merely to the cultivation of intellectual faculties, but also to the strengthening of the will. The soundness of this idea is unquestionable; but it is impossible to develop the will (and that healthiness of feeling on which it rests) unless one develops the insights that awaken the energetic impulses of will and feeling. A mistake often made presently in this respect is not that people instill too many concepts into young minds, but that the kind of concepts they cultivate are devoid of all driving life force. Anyone who believes one can cultivate the will without cultivating the concepts that give it life is suffering from a delusion. It is the business of contemporary educators to see this point clearly; but this clear vision can only proceed from a living understanding of the whole human being.

It is now planned that the Waldorf School will be a primary [4] school in which the educational goals and curriculum are founded upon each teacher's living insight into the nature of the whole human being, so far as this is possible under present conditions. Children will, of course, have to be advanced far enough in the different school grades to satisfy the standards imposed by the current views. Within this framework, however, the pedagogical ideals and curriculum will assume a form that arises out of this knowledge of the human being and of actual life.

The primary school is entrusted with the child at a period of its life when the soul is undergoing a very important transformation. From birth to about the sixth or seventh year, the human being naturally gives himself up to everything immediately surrounding him in the human environment, and thus, through the imitative instinct, gives form to his own nascent powers. From this period on, the child's soul becomes open to take in consciously what the educator and teacher gives, which affects the child as a result of the teacher's natural authority. The authority is taken for granted by the child from a dim feeling that in the teacher there is something that should exist in himself, too. One cannot be an educator or teacher unless one adopts out of full insight a stance toward the child that takes account in the most comprehensive sense of this metamorphosis of the urge to imitate into an ability to assimilate upon the basis of a natural relationship of authority. The modern world view, based as it is upon natural law, does not approach these fact of human development in full consciousness. To observe them with the necessary attention, one must have a sense of life's subtlest manifestations in the human being. This kind of sense must ran through the whole an of education; it must shape the curriculum; it must live in the spirit uniting teacher and pupil. In educating, what the teacher does can depend only slightly on anything he gets from a general, abstract pedagogy: it must rather be newly born every moment from a live understanding of the young human being he or she is teaching. One may, of course, object that this lively kind of education and instruction breaks down in large classes. This objection is no doubt justified in a limited sense. Taken beyond those limits, however, the objection merely shows that the person who makes it proceeds from abstract educational norms, for a really living an of education based on a genuine knowledge of the human being carries with it a power that rouses the interest of every single pupil so that there is no need for direct “individual” work in order to keep his attention on the subject. One can put forth the essence of one's teaching in such a form that each pupil assimilates it in his own individual way. This requires simply that whatever the teacher does should be sufficiently alive. If anyone has a genuine sense for human nature, the developing human being becomes for him such an intense, living riddle that the very attempt to solve it awakens the pupil's living interest empathetically. Such empathy is more valuable than individual work, which may all too easily cripple the child's own initiative. It might indeed be asserted — again, within limitations — that large classes led by teachers who are imbued with the life that comes from genuine knowledge of the human being, will achieve better results than small classes led by teachers who proceed from standard educational theories and have no chance to put this life into their work.

Not so outwardly marked as the transformation the soul undergoes in the sixth or seventh year, but no less important for the art of educating, is a change that a penetrating study of the human being shows to take place around the end of the ninth year. At this time, the sense of self assumes a form that awakens in the child a relationship to nature and to the world about him such that one can now talk to him more about the connections between things and processes themselves, whereas previously he was interested almost exclusively in things and processes only in relationship to man. Facts of this kind in a human being's development ought to be most carefully observed by the educator. For if one introduces into the child's world of concepts and feelings what coincides just at that period of life with the direction taken by his own developing powers, one then gives such added vigor to the growth of the whole person that it remains a source of strength throughout life. If in any period of life one works against the grain of these developing powers, one weakens the individual.

Knowledge of the special needs of each life period provides a basis for drawing up a suitable curriculum. This knowledge also can be a basis for dealing with instructional subjects in successive periods. By the end of the ninth year, one must have brought the child to a certain level in all that has come into human life through the growth of civilization. Thus while the first school years are properly spent on teaching the child to write and read, the teaching must be done in a manner that permits the essential character of this phase of development to be served. If one teaches things in a way that makes a one-sided claim on the child's intellect and the merely abstract acquisition of skills, then the development of the native will and sensibilities is checked; while if the child learns in a manner that calls upon its whole being, he or she develops all around. Drawing in a childish fashion, or even a primitive kind of painting, brings out the whole human being's interest in what he is doing. Therefore one should let writing grow out of drawing. One can begin with figures in which the pupil's own childish artistic sense comes into play; from these evolve the letters of the alphabet. Beginning with an activity that, being artistic, draws out the whole human being, one should develop writing, which tends toward the intellectual. And one must let reading, which concentrates the attention strongly within the realm of the intellect, arise out of writing.

When people recognize how much is to be gained for the intellect from this early artistic education of the child, they will be willing to allow art its proper place in the primary school education. The arts of music, painting and sculpting will be given a proper place in the scheme of instruction. This artistic element and physical exercise will be brought into a suitable combination. Gymnastics and action games will be developed as expressions of sentiments called forth by something in the nature of music or recitation. Eurythmic movement — movement with a meaning — will replace those motions based merely on the anatomy and physiology of the physical body. People will discover how great a power resides in an artistic manner of instruction for the development of will and feeling. However, to teach or instruct in this way and obtain valuable results can be done only by teachers who have an insight into the human being sufficiently keen to perceive clearly the connection between the methods they are employing and the developmental forces that manifest themselves in any particular period of life. The real teacher, the real educator, is not one who has studied educational theory as a science of the management of children, but one in whom the pedagogue has been awakened by awareness of human nature.

Of prime importance for the cultivation of the child's feeling-life is that the child develops its relationship to the world in a way such as that which develops when we incline toward fantasy. If the educator is not himself a fantast, then the child is not in danger of becoming one when the teacher conjures forth the realms of plants and animals, of the sky and the stars in the soul of the child in fairy-tale fashion.

Visual aids are undoubtedly justified within certain limits; but when a materialistic conviction leads people to try to extend this form of teaching to every conceivable thing, they forget there are other powers in the human being which must be developed, and which cannot be addressed through the medium of visual observation. For instance, there is the acquisition of certain things purely through memory that is connected to the developmental forces at work between the sixth or seventh and the fourteenth year of life. It is this property of human nature upon which the teaching of arithmetic should be based. Indeed, arithmetic can be used to cultivate the faculty of memory. If one disregards this fact, one may perhaps be tempted (especially when teaching arithmetic) to commit the educational blunder of teaching with visual aids what should be taught as a memory exercise.

One may fall into the same mistake by trying all too anxiously to make the child understand everything one tells him. The will that prompts one to do so is undoubtedly good, but does not duly estimate what it means when, Later in life, we revive within our soul something that we acquired simply through memory when younger and now find, in our mature years, that we have come to understand it on our own. Here, no doubt, any fear of the pupil's not taking an active interest in a lesson learned by memory alone will have to be relieved by the teacher's lively way of giving it. If the teacher engages his or her whole being in teaching, then he may safely bring the child things for which the full understanding will come when joyfully remembered in later life. There is something that constantly refreshes and strengthens the inner substance of life in this recollection. If the teacher assists such a strengthening, he will give the child a priceless treasure to take along on life's road. In this way, too, the teacher will avoid the visual aid's degenerating into the banality that occurs when a lesson is overly adapted to the child's understanding. Banalities may be calculated to arouse the child's own activity, but such fruits lose their flavor with the end of childhood. The flame enkindled in the child from the living fire of the teacher in matters that still lie, in a way, beyond his “understanding,” remains an active, awakening force throughout the child's life.

If, at the end of the ninth year, one begins to choose descriptions of natural history from the plant and animal world, treating them in a way that the natural forms and processes lead to an understanding of the human form and the phenomena of human life, then one can help release the forces that at this age are struggling to be born out of the depths of human nature. It is consistent with the character of the child's sense of self at this age to see the qualities that nature divides among manifold species of the plant and animal kingdoms as united into one harmonious whole at the summit of the natural world in the human being.

Around the twelfth year, another turning point in the child's development occurs. He becomes ripe for the development of the faculties that lead him in a wholesome way to the comprehension of things that must be considered without any reference to the human being: the mineral kingdom, the physical world, meteorological phenomena, and so on.

The best way to lead then from such exercises, which are based entirely on the natural human instinct of activity without reference to practical ends, to others that shall be a sort of education for actual work, will follow from knowledge of the character of the successive periods of life. What has been said here with reference to particular parts of the curriculum may be extended to everything that should be taught to the pupil up to his fifteenth year.

There need be no fear of the elementary schools [4] turning out pupils in a state of soul and body unfit for practical life if their principles of education and instructions are allowed to proceed, as described, from the inner development of the human being. For human life itself is shaped by this inner development; and one can enter upon life in no better way than when, through the development of our own inner capacities, we can join with what others before us, from similar inner human capacities, have embodied in the evolution of the civilized world. It is true that to bring the two into harmony — the development of the pupil and the development of the civilized world — will require a body of teachers who do not shut themselves up in an educational routine with strictly professional interests, but rather take an active interest in the whole range of life. Such a body of teachers will discover how to awaken in the upcoming generation a sense of the inner, spiritual substance of life and also an understanding of life's practicalities. If instruction is carried on this way, the young human being at the age of fourteen or fifteen will not lack comprehension of important things in agriculture and industry, commerce and travel, which help to make up the collective life of mankind. He will have acquired a knowledge of things and a practical skill that will enable him to feel at home in the life which receives him into its stream.

If the Waldorf School is to achieve the aims its founder has in view, it must be built on educational principles and methods of the kind here described. It will then be able to give the kind of education that allows the pupil's body to develop healthily and according to its needs, because the soul (of which this body is the expression) is allowed to grow in a way consistent with the forces of its development. Before its opening, some preparatory work was attempted with the teachers so that the school might be able to work toward the proposed aim. Those concerned with the management of the school believe that in pursuing this aim they bring something into educational life in accordance with modern social thinking. They feel the responsibility inevitably connected with any such attempt; but they think that, in contemporary social demands, it is a duty to undertake this when the opportunity is afforded.

[1] Emil Molt was the founder of the first Waldrof school in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919.
[2] The Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory, of which Molt was director. The school was originally intended for the workers' children. Hence the name "Waldorf".
[3] The reference is to the First World War.
[4] A "primary school" of grades one through twelve, however.

This essay was written during 1919. In the Collected edition of Rudolf Steiner's works, the volume containing the German texts is entitled, Aufsatze Uber die Dreigleiderung der sozialen organismus und zur Zeitlage 1915-1921 (Vol. 24 in the Bibliographic Survey, 1961). It was translated from the German by E. Bowen-Wedgewood; the translation was revised by Frederick Amrine.

For many books, lectures and articles by Rudolf Steiner, see the Rudolf Steiner Archive