Our stay in South Africa has given me the chance to meet new people, cultures and challenges, one of them being Waldorf pedagogy. Though remaining an outsider on anything concerning anthroposophy, this has not kept me from being involved in the everyday school life of my kids. I have met fellow parents that are likewise fascinated and alienated at times.
On the first day of school, our family, kids and adults alike, noticed a few things approvingly. The school grounds are green, lush, tidy but not overly so. The children are actually allowed and encouraged to climb the trees, dig the ground and interact with their environment– not without filling in the inevitable indemnity forms first, though. 🙂 My son is allowed to bring his pocket knife as long as he demonstrates responsible handling. The class teachers are interested in their pupil’s individual development and have a precise understanding of their different personalities. I am impressed by teachers that regard their occupation as a personal challenge in life, keen on learning while teaching. They are not afraid to answer parent’s questions and are free and experienced in varying the teaching methods to suit the momentary needs of the class and themselves best. It is the most „hands-off“ school we could find in Cape Town, supporting kids in their curiosity to find and live their desires.
After three terms, we all feel at home at the school. On some occasions though, I am gravely reminded of the reasons why I am suspicious of most close-knitted societies: My daughter had a laugh when she was informed by a member of the teaching staff why Waldorf education makes you a better person. With her experience in life, she knows that education doesn’t make you „more whole“ than other people. At best, school education offers opportunities to discover your interests, chances to develop skills (also socially) and the necessary framework to keep at it and not give up easily. My daughter will be just as complete a person when she finishes public school in Switzerland – I’m glad she’s so sure of that. On these occasions, the Waldorf community seems just as inwardly-looking and self-involved as the Hangberg community I work at.
Some of the rules in Waldorf education seem beyond belief: Kids are not regarded fit to play ball games until they are in class 4 – I’m glad the teachers don’t mind the daily football tournaments during recess. Children should not watch movies until they are eight years old – I haven’t met the parents following that rule with their kids… White bread seems to come directly from hell, tempting us every day. As an outsider, anthroposophy seems like a religion, parting society in followers and non-followers. The frequency and manner in which Rudolf Steiner is quoted in speeches and texts makes me lose interest in his original writings. Leadership seems to be regarded rather an obligation than a skill or a talent or a pleasure. Despite all this, I’m glad we non-followers are welcomed warmly at the school, and certainly not only as funding pals. I wonder how reform takes place, if it is regarded as necessary and who from within the anthroposophical society has the format to rejuvenate the pedagogy and openly contradict some of the more outdated ideas – setting him- or herself next to and not beneath Steiner.
A rejuvenation could emphasize the need to invent sustainable societies rather than just living the good (or better) life. Apprehending society on the whole and sharing responsibilities that reach farther than the immediate circle of friends would seem satisfying goals. In the UK and USA, some Waldorf schools are funded by the respective governments. I find this step promising and worth following, as it opens the school for more children regardless of their parent’s income and brings it closer to its working-class roots: the Waldorf cigarette factory in Stuttgart. To follow this path, openness to discuss ideals, outreach to non-followers and leadership qualities will be needed.
I know of one example where a similar effort was made: a few years ago, the Chinese government asked WWF to give their support in writing the environmental curriculum for all school levels. The debates within the organisation seemed endless: The government will misuse the panda label for greenwashing! None of this will reach the children! Nobody will trust us after collaborating with the government! The result didn’t capture all of WWFs ideals, but it surely is one step in the right direction for environmental education in China. South Africa urgently needs to reform its education system. What better moment could there be to reach out and change the world?