Education Opinion

Three Models for a Changing World: Why the ‘Waldorf’ Movement Is Thriving in Eastern Europe

By Diane Ives Canniff — November 28, 1990 7 min read

Paradoxically, while we in American public education wallow in bureaucracy, in Eastern Europe, where restriction has been the norm, the free-market concept is already being applied to education. “High” on new freedoms, Eastern Europeans are seeking school models that bolster and safeguard those freedoms. And in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union, a model of choice is Waldorf education, a system founded 70 years ago in Europe that is proliferating here in America as well as in other parts of the world.

Richard Wilson, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s director of Central and East European affairs, has this to say about the Waldorf phenomenon: “When I was in Romania, there was much talk among trade-union people about establishing Waldorf schools. And in May in Czechoslovakia with leaders of the Strike Committee--those who had just taken over the trade-union structure in the country--I heard genuine excitement. The Czechs are a brave and admirable people, but reserved with outsiders. Yet sitting in the old strike headquarters, even with an interpreter their excitement came through. There was sincere emotion as they told me speakers from West Germany were coming to help them set up Waldorf schools in Prague.”

Just last May, the Romanian government signed an agreement officially sanctioning Waldorf as alternative schools. At least five cities there are establishing Waldorf schools.

Throughout Eastern Europe, educators and public officials are attending intensive seminars on Waldorf education and pedagogy: 2,000 in East Berlin in April, 50 in Soviet Georgia in July, 500 in Bucharest in September. Several hundred attended lectures in Leningrad, and a television interview with the speaker was seen by thousands more.

There are plans to open a Waldorf school in Moscow in 1992. East Germany opened seven schools this fall. Poland has two Waldorf kindergartens, and Polish grade-school teachers are applying aspects of Waldorf methods and curriculum in public schools.

In Hungary, a Waldorf kindergarten begun in 1988 generated such interest that the teacher had to inaugurate special group sessions to speak with public-school teachers who arrived by the busload, having traveled hours at their own expense to observe. Excitement generated by that initial kindergarten outside Budapest spawned an elementary school as well as a teacher-training program for 60, selected from 200 applicants. Three hundred East Germans are also attending teacher-training courses, a significant number at government expense.

Brigitte Goldman, a Waldorf early-childhood specialist from Vienna and an adviser to the Budapest school, says: “Waldorf teachers throughout Western Europe have been recalled from retirement to staff teacher-training programs in Eastern Europe. There are so many initiatives for schools we can’t keep up!”

Why Waldorf? What is this model Eastern Europeans are so enthusiastically embracing now that they have the freedom to choose? Perhaps buried in the collective European unconscious is the memory that Hitler closed German Waldorf schools because they were dedicated to developing independent thinking and creativity. Immediately after the war with wholehearted assistance from authorities in the American and British occupying forces, the Waldorf schools reopened--and for exactly the reasons they had been closed.

One of the largest nonsectarian, independent school movements in the world, Waldorf has more than 500 schools in 35 countries. In North America there are 120, including those in such U.S. urban settings as Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Washington, and the San Francisco Bay area. There and elsewhere, children are thriving in schools where the innovations of the current reform movement have long been established.

Yet most public-school educators in this country have never even heard the name Waldorf. Quietly, for seven decades, Waldorf schools have been educating children, preschool through high school, using methods originated by the Austrian educator, philosopher, and scientist Rudolf Steiner. Waldorf schools began under the sponsorship of industry and at the request of German laborers in the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory.

The first Waldorf school, in Stuttgart, Germany, was revolutionary in 1919 and embodied a remarkable number of characteristics that American educators are only now calling for in their reform and restructuring efforts. particularly appealing are the developmentally appropriate curriculum and site-based management, but others are there too: the interdisciplinary, multisensory curriculum that gives children the opportunity to learn through multiple intelligences; two foreign language with a strong multicultural emphasis throughout, and begun in grade 1; sciences taught experientially; exceptional emphasis on integrating the arts to enliven and deepen all learning; a culturally rich humanities curriculum. Not only has Waldorf pioneered practices currently receiving popular attention, but the latest educational, psychological, and physiological research is proving increasingly to be in harmony with Rudolf Steiner’s insights.

In this movement, teachers consciously endeavor to nurture childhood. Children are protected from the constant onslaught of technology and are encouraged to behave like children at the only time in their lives when that is appropriate. They are guided out into the world by a class teacher who typically stays with them for eight years. Consequently, Waldorf graduates, having been allowed to truly experience the wonder of childhood, can be responsible adults. As the Utne Reader’s editor (and Waldorf parent) Eric Utne observes of Waldorf graduates, “even more gratifying than . . . specific achievements are [the] ongoing infatuation with learning and absence of incapacitating cynicism.”

Our public schools still push children to read and to operate computers at earlier and earlier ages. Although some enlightenment is dawning, we in public schools rather unthinkingly often attempt to “pour in” tons of information and train students to access megatons more. The word educate, from the Latin educare, means literally to “draw out” talents and abilities. In Waldorf schools, this is the rule. Teachers strive to balance practical, emotional, and intellectual work by engaging children’s hands and hearts, as well as their heads, in all lessons. The emphasis is not on gaining knowledge for a “head” start, but on encouraging wonder, curiosity, reverence for the earth, and imagination. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Now what we need for our society are thinkers who can put knowledge to heartfelt and socially responsible use.

To educate children for such a role, teachers themselves need the freedom due professionals. Site-based management is inherent in this model, as each Waldorf school is autonomous and operated by faculty and staff collaboratively. Administrators are not common but when they are employed, it is the school’s faculty member who make the decision, define the duties, and hire. Administrators are staff members who “minister” to faculty, children, staff, and parents--a service occupation.

As the debate over how to revitalize America’s schools continues, a question we might ask is, “How can public education benefit from some of the proven riches of Waldorf education?” Rudolf Steiner’s intent, after all, was not to create oases for the elite but to establish schools that would serve as model and catalysts for the transformation of education, so that all children could benefit from the innovations they pioneered.

In this country, Waldorf has been somewhat exclusive simply because tuition is a necessity in the private sector. While state funding, in full or in part, for Waldorf is not uncommon in other parts of the world (Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Israel, and some Canadian provinces provide it), no U.S. states do.

That may be changing. Milwaukee School Superintendent Robert Peterkin, calling Waldorf “a healing education,” has initiated discussions with the Waldorf Association of North America exploring the feasibility of including a Waldorf school in the Milwaukee Public system as early as 1991.

And in California, the legal mechanism for including Waldorf as a “school of choice” within the public system already exists. Section 58500 of the California Education Code mandates that parents be apprised of the option that allows “any school district [to] establish and maintain . . . alternate schools within the district [in order to, among other purposes] maximize the opportunity for students to develop the positive values of self-reliance, initiative, kindness, spontaneity, resourcefulness, courage, creativity, responsibility, and joy.” That subsection alone sounds like a description of Waldorf goals.

Whatever the format--an open market including private schools; choice within the public system; public-school teachers learning about alternative methods and philosophy through summer institutes, inservice training, or college courses--in an ocean of educational anxiety, the Waldorf ark has proven seaworthy.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Three Models for a Changing World: Why the ‘Waldorf’ Movement Is Thriving in Eastern Europe