Discovering a Genius: Rudolf Steiner at 150

by Frederick Amrine


A New Art of Education

Waldorf education is currently the best-known aspect of Steiner’s work.  In the aftermath of World War I, the social and political institutions, that had failed so miserably, crumbled away leaving a terrible vacuum. The world cried out for renewal. During the last decade of Steiner’s life, anthroposophy gave birth to a wide range of ambitious practical initiatives that were meant to address the crisis. After hearing Steiner address his workers, an industrialist named Emil Molt, who owned the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, asked Steiner whether he could provide the workers’ children with an education more appropriate to their needs and to their humanity. Steiner agreed, subject to a set of conditions that were revolutionary for the time: the school would be co-ed; all students would be taught to the same, comprehensive curriculum; and the teachers would be given the final say in all pedagogical decisions. With Molt’s generous backing, Steiner opened the first Waldorf School in 1919, near the factory in Stuttgart. Nine years later, the first Waldorf school in North America opened in New York City. The movement continued to grow, and, despite having been banned by the Nazis (and the Bolsheviks), Waldorf schools have gone on to become the largest non-sectarian educational movement in the world, with more than 900 schools and 1,600 early childhood programs on six continents.


The foundations of Waldorf pedagogy are Steiner’s deep insights into human and child development, the changing role of the teacher, and a rich, holistic curriculum. Steiner understood that children learn very differently at each stage of development, and that real learning should be a gradual metamorphosis not just of thinking, but also of feeling, and of the will. As Steiner’s contemporary, the poet and esotericist William Butler Yeats put it so very well, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Young children learn principally through imitation and play, and they learn best when one appeals to their imagination. Intellectual tasks (which even the youngest children can be made to perform – or rather, mimic) are best deferred until later, when the adolescent begins to develop real powers of abstract thinking, which can then be engaged directly in the high school curriculum. The foundation of cognition is play, and children who have not been allowed to play will become stunted adults – full of facts, perhaps, but lacking creativity. Steiner also understood that real learning is never linear, but always dynamic.  Rich experiences ripen in the unconscious, and then emerge years later as quite different capacities. For example, Steiner taught that the sense of artistic proportion gained by drawing and painting in adolescence will transform itself into sound judgment in the thinking adult.


Steiner prescribed that the class teacher stay with the same group of children, usually from grades one through eight, after which experts teach specific disciplines such as math, English, or biology. He wanted elementary and middle school teachers to become, above all else, experts on the group of children entrusted to them. Waldorf education imposes many demands on class teachers, who must become ‘Renaissance men and women,’ mastering new material each year, and growing together with their class. He asked teachers to reflect each evening on their students and on themselves. Steiner’s pedagogy is as much about the self-development of the teacher as the education of the student. But the heavy demands of teaching also bring great personal rewards and deep relationships with students that can last a lifetime.


Steiner gave the teachers of the first school a motto to guide them: “Receive the child in reverence; educate the child in love; send the child forth in freedom.” Although it respects many religions, and has grown out of a reverential view of the world and the human being, the Waldorf curriculum is as little about inculcating any specific religious or spiritual doctrine as hospitals are about teaching their patients anatomy and physiology. At the heart of the curriculum is Steiner’s view that the developing human being recapitulates in small the great, overarching evolution of consciousness that humanity as a whole has undergone. For the youngest children, the world is alive with magic; they live in a deep, dreamy sympathy with animals, plants, and stones. The curriculum feeds that consciousness with archetypal myths and tales from many cultures. By the third grade, children have become in some real sense little monotheists; by the sixth, they have become Roman jurists. As they grow into autonomy, children experience their own inner Renaissance; Steiner identified this moment as the keystone of the entire curriculum. Adolescence is an age of Great Revolutions. Waldorf education seeks the students where they live, and it knows that these recapitulated experiences will emerge later as a very different, appropriately modern, set of capacities. By the time they enter high school, students are ready for the most rigorous intellectual work we can give them, and they are able to embrace it with a rich array of inner resources. In this way, the Waldorf curriculum seeks to provide, as one school describes it, a “contemporary classical education that engages not only the head, but also the heart and the hand; not just ‘college prep,’ but ‘life prep’ ”.