In high school, my class studied “The Odyssey”. We read about the alluring yet deadly sirens, the fearsome Cyclops, and Penelope’s ever-growing blanket. However, the way we studied the Odyssey started out a little differently than most schools. In the morning, before we pulled out our books, our English teacher would lead us outside to the soccer field. We would line up and one by one, we would take turns throwing javelins across the grass. Exhilarated and enthused, we would then head back to class to take turns reading the epic verse. If this doesn’t sound like your typical English class, you would be correct. I attended a Waldorf school, which incorporates some unique learning methods into its curriculum.
If you haven’t heard of a Waldorf school before, it was founded by Rudolph Steiner on September 19, 1919. Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany earlier that year. In the years following Germany’s defeat from the war, the country was on the brink of economic, social, and political collapse. Steiner saw the need for a social renewal, to organize the political and cultural life of the country’s citizens. After speaking to the workers at the Waldorf Astoria, the factory’s owner asked Steiner to create and lead a school for the workers there. Steiner agreed on several conditions: first that the school be open to all children, second that it be coeducational, third that it be a unified twelve-year school and fourth, that the teachers have primary control of the school with as little interference from the state as possible. All of these went against most of the common educational practices today, but the factory owner agreed.
There are now Waldorf schools all over the world. Each is different in its own way but runs along the same principles. These principles focus on ideas such as each child developing in their own individual way and practical work like gardening, cooking, or woodwork are vital to learning about the processes of life instead of just learning outcomes. One principal in particular that I enjoy is that seasonal and other festivals are celebrated according to the geographical and cultural surroundings. In my high school, every fall we celebrated Michaelmas, a pagan holiday which honors the day Saint Michael defeated a dragon and saved a princess. I fully loved my high school education. I felt that it challenged me and gave me room to be creative and grow all at the same time.
One of my former high school teachers recently moved to Nepal and we’ve kept in touch off and on. A handwork teacher, Mr. Katzman was a tall, soft-spoken man who taught us about knitting, book-making, and weaving. He recently told me that his friend had decided to develop a Waldorf school there in Nepal which had Tibetan-Buddhist themes in a monastery that belonged to a famous Rimpoche (or highly respected religious teacher). What’s different about this school is that besides providing children with an education, this school would incorporate the history and folk traditions of the local area. Mr. Katzman had informed me that often in the past, people who came from outside that area would come into the community and attempt to bring their own ideas of what an education meant. This often amounted to students being taught without any connection to their culture. Though not exactly “Waldorf,” this school would coalign with what students needed to learn. With the long history of white people moving to a native area and trying to colonize its people, this was a refreshing change to hear about. Mr. Katzman further explained that Waldorf philosophy was in itself not Euro-centric.
I absolutely loved the way my school encouraged creativity and a connection to community and nature. I never questioned it until I arrived at college and realized not everyone learned about topography by being taken into the middle of the woods and finding my way back to camp. This isn’t your average education.
I haven’t studied the Waldorf philosophy very much until now. But as I think about my education, as well as that of any kids I might have someday, I realize how important it is to reflect on how it shaped me. I believe it made me a better team member personally and professionally. I think it also pushed me to consider ideas from many different perspectives. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Waldorf school. I will say that unfortunately, private education in the United States is expensive. As a small school, Waldorf also costs more than you would expect. I was very privileged to attend thanks to financial aid and hardworking parents who wanted the best for me. I would love to see other schools incorporate some of the philosophy into their curriculum. It’s an interesting way to make an education work around each child instead of the other way around. Not everyone learns the same way, and because of that, I’m grateful that my high school helped me to learn in the best way for me.
I encourage you to learn more.