Waldorf Charter Schools in America: some social observations

by Joel A. Wendt

[submitted to Renewal Magazine, June 2006 - its publication was refused
in such a way that it appeared that while the editorial people liked it,
the Board, which claimed a kind of power over editorial decisions, did not.]

The following material is rooted in several decades of social observation, following the methods of thinking and observation first pioneered by Goethe, and called by Rudolf Steiner: Goetheanism.   As I have only been related to Waldorf as a parent, and also, occasionally, as an anthroposophical friend of various Waldorf teachers, my vision of matters is more from the outside than the inside.

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The development of Waldorf Schools in America takes place within a social context, and as those who study plant biology know, what the seed becomes as a plant form is significantly related to the context in which it develops root, stem, fruit and flower.  A dandelion in the grass in your yard does not look at all like a dandelion that comes to development deep in a forest.  In this case our context for Waldorf is the general social conditions in America, and more deeply, the relationships of a Waldorf School to the nature of soul characteristics unique to the American Character.  Thus, the social form Waldorf creates also is interdependent with the social and psychological ecology in which it arises.

Waldorf Schools in America also arise for a variety of reasons, and are given birth from impulses connected sometimes to parents, sometimes to teachers and sometimes in connection with existing institutions, who for motives of their own adopt a Waldorf-like pedagogy.

Keeping these factors in mind, we need then to see that Waldorf Schools arise from a variety of inner impulses and then are given birth into a variety of contexts.   The inner impulses share certain characteristics, as do the contexts.  It becomes possible then to observe certain general tendencies in the Waldorf Movement in America as these inner and outer aspects reciprocally relate to each other.   It is with a significant few of these general tendencies that this article concerns itself, and the reader will have to do their own thinking in order to interpret what this means in the specific instances of a particular school.

One major general tendency as regards reasons and inner impulses that leads to Waldorf Schools is related to the differences in general soul characteristics between the Central European Soul and the America Soul.  The Central European Soul tends to live most strongly in the Ideal, and to express itself socially by an effort to incarnate that Ideal into the social.  The American Soul tends to live most strongly in response to social problems, which it then seeks to solve.  An Ideal will tend to only have meaning to the American Soul to the extent that it can be pragmatically realized.

This has led, in America, to that general tendency toward confusion in many Waldorf Schools between those who want more to apply the pedagogy as a system (an Ideal) and those who want to adapt it (pragmatize it).  At the same time, Americans, for example, who idealize Central European personalities, will tend to imitate that European Idealism, so one should be cautious about seeing this as just a matter of where someone is born.  Nevertheless, one can hear all manner of passionate discussions about what Waldorf should or should not be, which discussion's true roots are often in the inability to recognize these contrary impulses: the Ideal as against the Pragmatic.

Schools developed by parents, for example, will tend to apply the pedagogy in a more pragmatic manner, while schools developed by teachers (especially teachers trained in American teacher training centers with a strong Central European influence) will tend to a more ideal impulse.  We could perhaps deepen our understanding were social research to be conducted as regards many schools in America, not in a statistical manner, but more in the sense of a biography of the impulses underlying the school's birth, as well as where the teachers came from and what is the nature of their training.  An accurate telling of the story of a school, especially many such stories, would help greatly our understanding of the Waldorf Movement in America, its present conditions and future needs.

As regards context, clearly schools developing in various places in the world will exhibit characteristics belong to that area.  In America, we will have general American characteristics, and also regional characteristics.   Some social scientists conceive of America as having various distinctive cultural regions (the Northeast is quite different culturally from the South, for example).   In pointing this out, all I am suggesting is that folks keep in mind the regional aspects of their Waldorf School, not just its more general characteristics due to its being in America.

One phenomena that has been of particular interest to me, is connected to the number of master Waldorf teachers I have personally known, or become acquainted with, who have fostered, supported or otherwise been positively engaged with the Charter School Movement in America.  It is here, I believe, we find the true pragmatic impulse emerging from the American Soul in relationship to Waldorf.

The master Waldorf teacher (someone who has done at least two or more cycles of taking a class from 1st to 8th grade), who is also American, is confronted as a social being with the general failed state of education in America.  These are mature teachers, not just in terms of their practice as Waldorf teachers, but also as social beings within America.  They are part of the whole culture that is awake to a crisis in American education.

The same phenomena exists with regard to parents who, having found Waldorf in some form or another, want Waldorf for their children.  As social beings they can't just want a better education for their own children, however, but must as well wish for and even work for the general improvement of education in America.

Waldorf schools in America have also had a tendency to be tuition based, that is essentially to tax the parents for the cost of running the school.  In American society, with its strong egalitarian tendencies, it is difficult for many parents and many teachers to tolerate what feels like a kind of economic elitism without seeking some form of resolution.  Charter Schools offer one alternative form of resolution.

For many American master teachers, and Waldorf parents, to find then a means of acting as true social beings by creating Waldorf inspired Charter Schools is almost kind of predictable.  In this way, we find then a necessary melding of the tendency toward the Ideal of Waldorf pedagogy joined together with a healthy social pragmatic and egalitarian gesture.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that Waldorf in America should or ought to be Charter in social form, but rather simply observing that this tendency resolves and works with both the basic inner impulses of many Americans, as well as with the outer social context in which schools are born here.  It is socially healthy, and where people express concern that it isn't fully ideally correct, they have simply failed to actually understand just what factors will be involved in the incarnation of the Waldorf Impulse in the world.  The social world has its own laws (which can be studied and understood), and when we make of Waldorf pedagogy an ideology, we set it at odds with social reality.

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For further aspects of my research on Waldorf Schools, particularly in the sense of the threefold social order, one can find on-line my essay: The Social-Spiritual Organism of a Waldorf School Community, at http://ipwebdev.com/hermit/ssows.html

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