Rudolf Steiner in the Waldorf School
Educational Practices in an Age of Decline and the Educational Practices of the Day to Come
11 June 1920, Stuttgart
Ladies and gentlemen! I would like to warmly welcome you here to this room, where we are gathered for the second time to relate important issues in the life of our Waldorf School. We are especially glad that so many of you have come. The theme I have chosen for tonight’s lecture is “Educational Practices in an Age of Decline, and the Educational Practices of the Day to Come.”
This is no mere theoretical problem for you, now that our Waldorf School has come into being. All the more reason for choosing a theme such as this, so it seemed to me. My remarks today are intended as an introductory formulation of this theme, which for you is not merely an intellectual problem but an issue in which you discover real possibilities of entering into debate with our present times. Having decided, in the course of this debate, to send your children to the Waldorf school, you demonstrated your confidence in the new things this school is trying out. Taking your confidence as a basis, I would like to try to come to a conclusion of sorts by undertaking to illuminate everything that is falling away and dying off and now lies behind us, and by attempting to keep in mind the encouraging things that are coming towards us out of the work of the school up to this point.
In looking at this issue, it will be useful to keep in mind what the moment in which a child first enters school signifies under present circumstances. Circumstances being what they are today, we might say that the freshness and immediacy that are available to growing children at home have escaped from the compartmentalization and limitations that characterize our public life. The possibility for free human expression does exist at home, in the nursery. Not many contemporary children still have the possibility to give their energies free play in a way that corresponds to the deep urges of the individual nature of their will. That they will never again be able to do this is something that has developed over the last two centuries.
When children are sent out of this home environment to go to school, something happens that is very significant, of serious consequence in this day and age. No matter how much of the above-mentioned compartmentalized life we have been able to keep out of the nursery, it all lies in wait for the young person who is growing up. It begins to take effect on the very first day of school; it becomes relevant in the very moment the child enters school. Its effect is so great that it is no exaggeration to speak of a significant crisis in the life of the child.
This crisis consists of the child being confronted with a ready-made system of old educational practices that are in possession of something that is presented to the children in the form of a curriculum that is already worked out. This is fixed in the form of a comprehensive method that has been passed down to us, and in connection with its educational goals there is also a very specific way of enforcing discipline in school.
All of this is unfortunately structured in such a way that we cannot say that the actual driving forces of the present, especially the deeper currents of social change in the immediate past and in the present, have flowed into these structures at all. With regard to the curriculum, until just a few years ago it was generally the case that it existed in the form in which it had been drawn up fifty years ago. This contributed to lessening some negative consequences that could have proceeded from the curriculum. This will be touched on later.
Something was present in finished form, and we cannot say that the experience of people active in education had been able to flow into making it, since the people whose office entitled them to establish it may perhaps [only] have had a specific connection to the schools in the early stages of their development. Very soon this connection was severed, perhaps not by virtue of their outstanding quality as teachers, but because they had proven very adept at finding places in the school system’s administration as up-and-coming officials who awakened hope. The so-called drawing-up of the curriculum as administered by these bureaucrats was cut off from the actual development of the schools themselves, although in fact we can hardly call it that. We might better speak of developmental forces being held back, as an attentive observer would have had to see.
From day one, the child was confronted with this curriculum, with something foreign and cold that determined with unrelenting strictness everything comprising the child’s life of soul and spirit from the first day on. Not only the entire goal of teaching was already set, but in the last few decades it had even been determined at what stage instruction was supposed to be and at what date, from class to class and from week to week.
And how to reach this goal had been prescribed in detail through what was known as the state-approved method. This method was such that it was not possible for the individual teacher to freely disregard it. This would have been only briefly possible before he or she came into conflict with the officials who had to administrate this.
Now, how did this method work its way in? This method stems from presuppositions about human life that have basically been outdated for a long time. In the Middle Ages, schools developed under the sovereignty of the church. Then the states took over the ecclesiastical school system in its entirety and the state schools consolidated their position. The more their basis was prescribed in detail, the less possibility for evolution remained, we might say; the more the modern primary school was flaunted outwardly, the greater the gaping emptiness within this school system became. And the reason for this great emptiness was that the method of teaching stemmed from the old church schools, the Latin schools, whether directly transplanted into the modern Gymnasiunr 2A classical German secondary school that prepares its pupils for university study. or adapted in some way. The old legalistic Latin method of teaching was still to be found in schools of all sorts. Combatting this and attempting partial reforms may have had historical significance, but did not release any forces of transformation.
So now we have the curriculum as it has been passed down to us, and we have the method. In what way were both of these presented to the children? Were there other assumptions, not purely instructional in character, that influenced the children’s lives and destinies? All our schools are based on separation by social class. A lot has been said about comprehensive schools, but nothing was actually done in this direction until we founded the Waldorf School. This was done out of the recognition that we were meant to take on a great social mission.
Children coming to class on their very first day experienced not only the crisis we have described as a soul and spiritual one, but also a social crisis. On that day, children coming home from primary school or from the Gymnasium and meeting their playmates necessarily became aware of so-called class differences. From the very first day, they were fed this poison produced by the separation of the different classes of society. This is the crisis in social feeling, in the child’s naive feeling-life as a whole, that confronted the child on the very first day.
What is the outcome of something like this? We can know what modern spiritual science has worked out on the subject. We can see that what develops into a formative force in teaching children around the age of seven can be effective and can set itself certain tasks because at this point certain forces have been set free in the child as a result of an organic development that has already been completed. These are forces we can work with. We can work with them in such a way that they bring about the inner development and education of the human being and leave their imprint on the further course of organic development. Spiritual science, whose methods we are trying to incorporate, supplies this basic way of looking at the matter.
If we contrast this to old school practices, it must be said that the old school had no connection to the forces that are freed up organically and that come under consideration at this stage of life. Thus it sinned in failing to acknowledge a view such as this, which it would have had to discover if its instructional practices had been sound. On the one hand, because the old school was not able to shape these freed-up forces, they began to run rampant, so that urges developed that were not guided into the developmental direction laid out for them. On the other hand, organic forces that should be freed up only much later, that wanted to become free only much later (if we understand the nature of the child), were pressed into service from the very first day of school.
This brought about what you can observe in the skeletal system. Inner support was weakened; the skeleton was weakened. Certain possibilities of standing upright in life were taken from the children because they were presented from the very first day with an education that addressed only their heads, that spoke only to their understanding. It could not or did not want to penetrate any deeper.
Facts such as these are often reflected in small symptoms. In this connection, it was interesting to find the statement in Haug’s book that French, which we introduce in the first grade, as you know, should not be taught at that stage because it is an irrational language.
What is revealed in this characteristic statement? We can clearly see here that what is standing in front of the child is not a living person but a big fat book entitled Grammar; a fateful book for all of us. Grammar cannot be presented to children at this grade level; this is an impossibility tantamount to the impossibility for people with old-school habits of letting the living power of language play into the child’s development. In the Gymnasium, this book stands there, and in the primary schools something else replaces the living personality who is actually meant to bring life’s contents to the children. In the primary schools we have gotten away from the big book; instead, there are many more cards, charts and tables, all of which are supposed to be presented to the children so that they will learn to form judgments and conclusions.
If we understand the nature of the child correctly, we will be forced to admit that children have subtle reasons for not paying attention when they are confronted with a lesson of this sort. The power of wisdom that wants to protect them from harm makes them resist the big book, resist an intellectual way of looking at things. The inattentiveness that appears is a means of self-defense for them. They are evading the leveling influences of a lesson of this sort. If you teach like this from the first hour to the last, then the children attempt to escape from the lesson by being inattentive.
But how can this attempt possibly succeed in a school with any form of discipline? Not only is the material presented in the way described above, but the children are also expected to adjust to a different subject matter three or four times in the course of a morning, so they are thrown from one level to another. Those who know how to follow the school’s development clearly realize that most recently the attempt was made to shorten the lessons still further, to 45 minutes each, to have the subject matter flow past in a movie-like fashion. This division was then extended to the individual lessons. How was that done? The formal stages of instruction established by Ziller are a masterpiece of modern methodology, and have been universally accepted in the primary schools. 3Tuiskon Ziller, 1817-1882, a student of Herbart and author of Einleitung in die allgemeine Pädagogik [An Introduction to General Pedagogy], published in 1856, and Grundlegung zur Lehre vom erziehenden Unterricht [Laying the Foundations for a Theory of Educational Instruction], published in 1865. Let me make it clear to you what a teacher of this sort has to accomplish in a single 45 minute lesson. The material is supposed to be presented to the children in six stages: First, the introduction. Second, consolidation. Third, enlivening the subject matter. Then comes the stage of making the subject accessible. This stage is not very extensive. Then comes the stage of mastering the material, and last the stage of putting it to use, all in the same lesson. But this is repeated four times in the same morning in different subject areas.
You will have to admit that I am right in saying that our children cannot be dealt with according to this abusive method. But what happened when these mistreated children tried to evade the effects of the methodology and curriculum that required that on Tuesday, May 11, this particular goal must have been achieved in all classes at this grade level? What happened then?
This is where discipline came into effect. From the very first lesson, it worked with means that inevitably poisoned the children’s entire moral life. Children who had been accustomed to expressing themselves freely and naturally found themselves confronted with praise or blame at every turn. Schematization set in. From the very beginning, the children adapted to the possibility of being called upon, so only in some cases did they participate attentively in the lesson. If they had been accustomed to expressing themselves freely and tried to do the same in school, they found themselves reprimanded and cut off whenever they tried to approach the teacher in this way, and had to be prepared for punishments that must have occasioned grave misgivings in their naive soul life. They then had to complete specific assignments rather than having the attitude awakened in them that it is a pleasure to be permitted to do schoolwork. Homework received the stamp of a punishment. The children got a very strange impression of lessons of this sort. Instruction as a whole had something to do with a system of punishment, and this was expressed in organic impairments that stunted their young growth and allowed certain things in them to grow rampant that would otherwise have unfolded in a healthy way.
I would like to point out that this is related to a very specific phenomenon that occurs in the later grades. Students deal with the school system as a whole with a sarcasm that pervades all of their behavior toward their teachers and their schools. You all know from your own school days what fun it was to be critical of the teachers. Add to that the phenomenon of suicides among children of school age. These ominous phenomena are becoming ever more pronounced, and school administrators are ever more helpless in the face of them. Real life forces that want to become active in a natural and appropriate form of instruction have been dammed up. Everything that has been held back in this way then causes the nervousness that we see as a typical ailment of the times manifesting in the school system.
Now let us ask ourselves what has been accomplished, what has been brought to a conclusion of sorts, when grade school has been completed. Our primary-school students leave school in their fifteenth year. People who have had a lot to do with the proletariat and who have often had to look working people in the face will notice the phenomenon of a harshness of sorts that leaves its mark on these people’s faces. Much has been said about this, but little thought has been given to it. It has not been observed, however, that this is inevitable, an unavoidable consequence of the fact that the life of feeling is set free in the fourteenth year, and for the majority of our compatriots, their education has been cut off at this point. How could anything different come of it, if feeling abilities are not able to become formative forces in these people’s destiny?
Those who continued on were now seriously introduced to the old Latin method I spoke about in the beginning. The study of classical languages was emphasized more, or alternatively the study of the sciences, which in a certain respect are also only the heritage of the Roman Empire and of Roman law.
The consequence of this was that if people leaving primary school had inevitably been restricted in their development, the people leaving the humanistic Gymnasium were supposed to represent the ideal of humanistic education. Being able to speak languages that were studied for their own sake was regarded as an accomplishment. People failed to notice, however, that being preoccupied with such languages reflected back on the entire being of the person in question, and that people who had spent many hours in the study of ancient Greek had become incapable of understanding the language of everyday facts. And the people coming out of the Realschule 4A modern secondary school emphasizing modern languages, mathematics and science. later became the practitioners of Realpolitik, always insisting on facts and on laws of all sorts, but failing to see that reality is influenced by trends totally different from the ones they call their laws.
Keeping this in mind, we can see the fateful consequences of graduating from all three of these types of schools — forces were held back that could have worked to form organs, influencing education in the deepest sense of the word, 5Translator’s note: there is a play on words in the German here — “forming” and “education” are the same word, “Bildung.” while on the other hand forces that were not able to flow in had to run rampant. If left uncultivated, the life of feeling has the tendency to fall into sentimentality at every turn.
And what happened to the will? Either it was so broken that we now have human wrecks serving in responsible positions, or on the other hand we have those brutal and violent human beings who come out trampling everything under their feet as a consequence of not having been able to cultivate their will.
These phenomena have been frequently summed up and abundantly criticized. During the revolutionary period, the opinion arose that now, out of the foul-smelling vapor of new forces brewing, something like a new stream of life would be able to flow into the school system as such; it would be possible to whip up criticism to the point of doing something constructive. Since then we have not grown tired of using the term “comprehensive school” over and over again to label efforts that thought to get in touch with the times. But when we look at the legislature’s omissions, we will not be able to avoid seeing the great danger that confronts us. Although the traditional structure of the schools has been changed outwardly, we see that because of the desire to expand the so-called “school franchise,” the danger is imminent. We are seeing that primary schools can turn into denominational schools, party schools, or schools of specific economic groups. Even less thought than before is being given to the universal human aspect, and this is now happening at the insistence of a legally functioning bureaucratic apparatus.
You will find that the relevance of bureaucrats has not been reduced under recent conditions. On the contrary, they are able to have a much greater effect and to subvert much more than they could under the old system. Just observe how jealously they make sure that all regulations are observed. In the face of this brutal will, we will not be able to avoid the conclusion that it will not be easily possible to realize our educational ideal. We must be prepared for the possibility that the instructional content we are supposed to bring to the children will be regulated to an even greater extent than it was previously, especially in the subject of history.
What will the further consequence of this be? The result will be that the bureaucratic character of teaching will become even more pronounced. All of this stands in contrast to our world of today, to the needs of our times, which are asking for something totally different from the pale glimmer of things to come that people want to spread over the school system and beyond it. Why is it impossible for existing innovations to lead to that goal? Here we come upon a very strange law: If something is conceived of somewhere and it is not able to pour itself out fully into the object of its concern because people are not putting all their energy into it, its effect is not to decrease the negative circumstances, but to unite with them. Beneath the surface, it flows over to join them. Lichtwark put it like this: “Partial reforms accomplish only an intensification of existing tendencies.” 5Alfred Lichtwark, 1852-1914, art educator. What we must expect in this case is anything but a restructuring. We can only expect a further intensification of efforts that are already present.
Now, I have spread out this picture before you to clarify something that does not seem exaggerated to me, something that many teachers would like to see eliminated from their lives and destinies, because if we want to have the efforts of our independent school flow into the public life of our times in the right way, we must know the danger that threatens us from the old school system. It cannot be the task of my remarks today to describe these efforts again.
Even if the prescriptions that legally regulated the old school system are lacking in our school, that does not mean that we have made our task any easier. In fact, we have made it more difficult. Our times require us to take up heavy burdens for the sake of the evolution on which we base our hopes for the future. Having taken up these heavy burdens, we will be able to carry them only with the help of all those who have lent us their confidence. They must be aware that the smallest results are of significance; they must follow the progress of our life in the school with great seriousness. Not a single lesson, not a single other undertaking that belongs to the school, is envisaged in the way in which it would result from old educational practices.
What is being accomplished here is a life-force for our nation itself. It is a force whose effects we need. Our times are thirsting for them. We must bring about a totally different encounter between home and school than was the case under the old school practices. Either there was a conflict, or the children were thrown back and forth between home and school, so to speak. We often encounter the opinion that parents are happy once the children are in school; they want them to be in school all day long and are very upset by “unreasonable” demands that they should support the activity of the school. In a very subtle way, children pick up on all the nuances that are circulated in their environment. When the children can observe that their parents look at things in ways that differ from what is said in school, the children get involved in a conflict, and it becomes impossible to focus on the children to the intended effect.
Now that we have brought our school into existence, now that we have worked with all our might to realize a part of it, the old educational practices are still alive, and people who grew up under them are trying to introduce old requirements into this new thing. They would like to judge the whole thing according to a compartmentalized standard. It can happen that people are concerned when our school, which tries to develop all of a child’s forces, cannot show why a child has not yet learned this or that. They are very concerned about it. We must take into account that these concerns are not justified, or we would not be able to speak of a new school, but would simply have taken up old educational practices and repackaged them in some way. What deviates from the old practices in the Waldorf School is done out of educational practices that do not flow out of clever, rationally thought-out ways of looking at things.
Rather, it flows out of forces that are related to the developmental forces of young people and of our nation as a whole. Having assured you of this, we hope that you will feel sufficiently connected to what we are doing to grant us your confidence. You must have patience and wait for this to bear fruit.
Meanwhile, the mood that ensouls and enlivens all our children can be taken as an indication of what the fruit will be. They bring it to school with them; they realize that learning is not a punishment here. Take this mood, which is even evident in the fresh red cheeks of some of our pupils, as a sign that things are coming to fruition. Do not let yourselves be intimidated by the ghosts trying to take our declining times by storm. Tell yourselves that on stepping out into life as a mature person, a child who has grown up here shall be compared only to him or herself.
When we apply this way of looking at things to the school, the creative joy that enlivens us will bear fruit, and we will see that contemporary life is forced to take the school into account. Creative forces can only come out of schools in which such forces are not held back but are developed, so that the children’s first day of school does not constitute a crisis. Instead, the children are introduced to school in a way that opens them up to their life to come. They leave school, not as violent individuals and not as people burdened merely with head-knowledge, but as individuals who can stand for an education of a new sort, the truly human education of a new age. Inherent in truly understanding the human being is a pledge to support our nation’s evolution in the future.
This task, too, is great, but harshness is a sign of our times. People do not want to see the face of our times so clearly that its embittered lines are visible. They want to avoid seeing it, to draw veil upon veil over this face because they are afraid of what it might say. The tasks that we have taken on are great and severe.
But we believe that there can be people who love these tasks doubly because of their very greatness and severity. We unite with you in the hope that you will learn to love them for this. Something new and fresh will be able to come from this severity.
What we have to stand for is harsh and severe, but this severity will give those of us who work out of the Independent Waldorf School the strength to inscribe a fiery sign on the brow of our declining age. May this school, as it lives out its life among hollow phrases, find the strength to die a mighty death so that the sun of the day to come may shine on it.