Facilitate the power of love - confront the love of power

Sat, 30 Jul 2005

Giving children the education they deserve.

As the scale and depth to which domination and the love of power is entrenched in our daily lives become visible, a question that arises real fast is, how do we move from the love of power to the power of love?

So far as we become aware of this distortion of human potential in ourselves, we do what we can to rectify it. And then comes another question: how do we help ensure that our children or grandchildren don't become affected (I was going to say infected) by the cultures of dominance that we inhabit?

Conventional education, at least in the UK, too often seems to amount to 'schooling', regimes of deference of one or another kind in which, in classes of 30 or more, the child is required to drink from the fountain of a 'one fits all' state-defined curriculum.  Many, perhaps most, seeing the 'jobs', 'career', 'qualifications', writing-on-the-wall shut down creativity, imagination and self-direction, and get on with the hoop-jumping that is demanded. Not surprisingly, a substantial vein of children decline this opportunity, embrace some form of  'Oppositional Defiant Disorder' and find better things to do with their minds and energies, with corresponding benefits and drawbacks

So if this is indeed the prospect for your child, what do you do? One option - a tough option - is to found a school which - and how curious that it even needs to be said - educates in a child-centred rather than adult-centred way, as state and private education too often is.

In response to these kinds of concerns, a colleague, Richard House, was instrumental in the founding of a Steiner (Waldorf) school in Norwich, Norfolk, UK. I asked him to tell me how he did it. He replied:

Well, that's a big question, with many facets.

I have had seven or so years' experience of the Steiner schools movement now, since undertaking my first, Steiner Class Teacher training in the late 1990s. As well as being involved in the founding of a new Steiner school here in Norwich over the same time period, I am a trustee of a major and long-established Steiner teacher training course and a regularly published writer on educational issues.

The  decision to found a school in Norwich was very much a collective decision taken by a diverse group of people (of which I was a part) who both had major reservations about the nature of mainstream education and schooling systems, and also greatly admired the holistic educational experience that Steiner (Waldorf) education offers. I could say a great deal about each of these motivations, as I personally identify strongly with both of them.

There is currently very little if any choice for parents and families who are dissatisfied with 'mainstream education' (in which category I include both state schools and independent schools which broadly follow the national curriculum, and which mimic the testing and assessment regime of the state sector). Of course, families can opt for home education - and indeed record numbers are doing so; but for those parents who are either not inclined to home-educate, or for whom it would be quite impractical, Steiner schools, Montessori schools (which only commonly go up to about 8 years of age) and schools in the 'human scale education' (HSE) movement are just about all that is on offer in the UK.

Geographically, seven years ago there were just two other Steiner schools in the whole of East Anglia - a small one in rural Norfolk and a larger one in Cambridge. I know a number of families who have actually changed careers and life-styles in order to relocate their family so that they live near a Steiner school - there must be literally hundreds of families who have done this over the years. Norwich is a very independently minded part of the country, with lots of radical thinking people - the kind of medium-sized city that is a potentially ideal location for a Steiner school. (Note, however, that across the globe there are numerous examples of Steiner schools which are thriving in what are environmentally very unfavourable circumstances - not least, in sparsely populated rural areas. And despite a great amount of research having been conducted into what makes for a successful school, there still remains something of a mystery as to why some schools thrive in inhospitable circumstances while others struggle in what appears to be an ideal milieu. Perhaps the deep spiritual impulse that underpins these very special schools has something to do with this phenomenon.)

The original founding group of the Norwich school consisted of three parents of young children who wanted a Steiner Kindergarten and school for their children, and an elderly anthroposophist who has been a student of Rudolf Steiner's manifold cultural contributions for many years. ('Anthroposophy' refers to the spiritual stream founded by Rudolf Steiner after the First World War, a movement which draws upon Steiner's many 'spiritual scientific' insights into humanity, life and the cosmos.)

As I understand it, this is fairly typical of the way in which Steiner schools first begin. And although there is a lot of support available for new initiatives from the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (based in Forest Row, East Sussex),  new schools necessarily emerge from the independent initiative of local groups who see a vision for a new school in their area and/or for their children, and set about bringing it about. But needless to say - founding a new school which is independent of the state system, and which has to be entirely self-financing through the efforts of people who are commonly not materialistically oriented people with lots of spare wealth and resources at their disposal, is far far more easily said than done! But I guess your next question will perhaps take us more into the actual process of founding our school - though of course (and as Steiner himself always emphasised), schools are always and necessarily unique.

It will be useful to say something about Rudolf Steiner and his wide-ranging work and influence, against the cultural backdrop of a Western education system which is in abject crisis. But before this, I will set out ten summary 'recipe-points' for all those considering starting their own school:

(1) Find friends and like-minded people in your local area who share a common desire for a different, holistically-informed educational approach for your children, and start to meet regularly (there will almost certainly be fitting places in your local community where you can advertise such a founding group; see also # 8, below).

(2)  Starting up a study group is very worthwhile - and a great place to start is to study Rudolf Steiner's excellent and accessible lecture series THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD. It is also useful from the outset to read together some of the anthroposophical literature on community building, as you will inevitably encounter ordinary human difficulties and challenges in the course of building your initiative. In this sense, participating in building a school is very much a personal-developmental path for everyone involved. You could try starting with Frieddrich Glasl (1994) The Enterprise of the Future; Robert Rehm (1999)  People in Charge; or Christopher Schaefer and Tyno Voors (1999) Vision in Action: Working with Soul & Spirit in Small Organizations (all published by Hawthorn Press, Stroud, UK). And most recently, there is Margaret van den Brink's excellent new book, Transforming Organisations (2004).

(3) Inform yourselves about Steiner education through reading some of the vast literature that is available, and above all by visiting real schools, for it is only though direct experience, and by observing the qualities of Steiner-educated children, that one can really fully appreciate the wonders of this education. Many Steiner schools or Steiner teachers training centres also regularly offer lectures, conferences, workshops and short courses about Steiner's various cultural innovations, including education.

(4) Register with the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (in the UK; or the appropriate/equivalent national organisation in your own country) to enlist their support for your nascent educational initiative. In particular, inquire about and seek help with the structure and consensual working process of a Steiner school. These are very important questions to begin considering from the outset, lest you construct organisational structures which unhelpfully work against the founding of a successful school and then prove to be very hard to 'restructure' once they have become entrenched. Part of this process will be to set up a charitable company or organisation, and your national Steiner education umbrella body will be able to help with this.

(5) Related to the last point, actively and awarely cultivate a willingness to share power, empower each other, and to challenge unhealthy concentrations of power and responsibility in your nascent organisation. Any new organisation is open and vulnerable to becoming the ground upon which people can 'act out' their desire for power, control etc. Very subtle balances need to be struck here - not least, that of how to create an organisation which everyone involved will experience as empowering, yet without stifling the healthy initiative of those who have more energy, time and, even, ability to contribute to the organisation than others. In order to bring this about successfully, clear accountability structures and a deep understanding of the consensual decision-making process are pretty much indispensable prerequisites.  Very clear descriptions of the various committees and their respective responsibilities will help all persons wanting to be actively involved in the school to perceive where their personal and specific strengths could best serve the growing school.

(6) Start a Parent & Child group in as beautiful and peaceful a setting as you can find. The beauty of these groups, certainly in the UK, is that they are still unregulated by the state, so you needn't worry about being instructed to impose an absurd 'curriculum' encompassing early literacy and numeracy on the young children! Dot Male's soon-to-be-published PARENT AND CHILD HANDBOOK (Hawthorn Press, 2006) is a veritable goldmine for anyone wishing to start a Parent & Child group along Steiner-informed principles. Start as you mean to go on in terms of financing, making sure that you charge a fee that at least covers your expenses, plus a bit extra to start building up a working surplus for the initiative.

(7) Make enquiries locally about whether there are any Steiner-trained teachers in the local area or region who might support your initiative, or even become directly involved. If you are very lucky, you may find a teacher locally who can be instrumental in helping you set up a Kindergarten or even the first class of a school. In addition, find one or more locals who wish to train as Steiner teachers, starting with Kindergarten or Parent & Child trainings, and start the training! (there are both full- and part-time trainings available in the UK, for instance). Within a few years, you will then have trained and qualified Steiner teachers locally who can take the school-founding process forwards. More generally, trained and experienced Steiner teachers are regarded as the authorities on Steiner education, and their input into a newly developing initiative is crucial if not indispensable in order that the new initiative is properly founded in Steiner's educational approach.

(8) Publicity: early on in your initiative, it is important to research local publicity possibilities, and use them as much as possible to 'spread the word' about what you are offering and planning for the future. You will be amazed at the number of like-minded people out there just waiting to find out about you! Above all, you can be very creative with publicity - a small publicity group of people with imagination and the capacity to 'think outside of the box' is a great asset. Be aware that very large numbers of parents want 'something else' for their children, based on their intuition alone, and they just need to find the school that meets their concerns and aspirations - your school. This is indeed commonly the way in which families come to Steiner education. Publicity is always a combination of genuine enthusiasm and clear information. Many recent studies in the fields of psychology, education and neuroscience are corroborating what Steiner said more than 75 years ago, and it works very effectively to utilize such 'modern knowledge' to market the school and Waldorf education.

(9) Fund-raising: before too long, if you follow the route of creating an autonomous school, the issue of fund-raising will come up, as it is unrealistic the think that parents alone can support all the costs related to the functioning of the school. In Norwich, and in common with the experience of other Steiner schools, we have found that trying to raise funds from charitable bodies is very difficult, as we don't routinely cater for disadvantaged or deprived children. However, you may well find a wealthy local benefactor or notary who really believes in the education and is prepared to support you financially in the early stages. Other established Steiner schools have both traditional and more novel, idiosyncratic ways of raising funds, and it will be important both to inform yourselves of what has worked in other schools, as well as coming up with your own ideas that are unique to your particular circumstances.

(10) Finally, and above all, the virtue of perseverance is essential. There has never been any school (or human organisation, come to that!), including all Steiner schools, which do not from time to time experience challenges and set-backs, and even crises. The issue here is not somehow to expect your school to be a perfectly utopian conflict-free school, but rather, that you are open to facing and meeting the challenges that will inevitably arise with maturity, and see them as opportunities for individual and collective development. The book The Enterprise of the Future (see # 2, above) could be very useful in helping you to understand the 'normal' evolution of an organization, in turn helping you pre-emptively to avoid such 'developmental crises'.

If you succeed in achieving some or most of these 'founding principles', it is very likely that before too long, you will have set up an organisation and a community of parents that will generate its own self-sustaining momentum -  not least, because there is so much general disquiet with mainstream education that you will draw to yourselves a great deal of interest, once the quality of what you are offering is recognised in the local area.  

More, now, about Rudolf Steiner himself and the educational system he spawned, as a kind of mystique often surrounds the man, which it is best to demystify at the outset. Not least, it's a mystery to many just how one of humanity's most original and wide-ranging thinkers and seers is so comparatively little recognised in the range of fields on which he has had, and continues to have, such a profound influence. The author of over 30 books and the deliverer of over 6,000 lectures in his lifetime,  his full collected works (in German) come to a staggering 350 volumes; and his lasting legacy includes uniquely innovative 'impulses' in fields as wide-ranging as curative education and social therapy (the world-renowned Camphill Communities movement); biodynamic agriculture (a precursor of organic agriculture, and to which Prince Charles is the latest high-profile convert!); holistic (anthroposophical) medicine; architecture and design; the arts (Eurythmy, painting, speech and drama); organisational consultancy; ethical banking and finance (the Triodos Bank) - and, of course, education.

Steiner held passionately to a consistently holistic,  non-mechanistic approach to human experience; and it is only now, when so-called 'new paradigm' cosmologies are beginning to undermine the Zeitgeist of a one-sidedly materialistic 'modernity', that Steiner's remarkable insights are beginning to attract the widespread attention across the world that they richly deserve. Not least, this is because modern scientific research is consistently yielding results which amply corroborate the indications laid down by Steiner in a whole range of fields nearly a century ago.

Some 80 years after the first 'Waldorf' school was founded with Steiner's blessing in Stuttgart (in 1919), Steiner Waldorf is now the world's largest and most rapidly growing independent schooling movement, with approaching 1,000 schools and 1,500 Kindergartens worldwide. So flexible and adaptable has the Waldorf educational approach proved to be in different cultural conditions that it is represented in countries and continents the world over.  Steiner's educational philosophy is developmentally informed, with the teacher's task being to provide the appropriate learning environment consistent with the needs of the unfolding child. This in turn requires, on the teacher's part, a profound understanding of the subtleties of the developing child; and much of Steiner's educational and other writings are taken up with a detailed articulation of such an understanding.

There is a lack of competitive testing and examinations in Steiner (Waldorf) education, with co-operation and 'community' being far more valued than the individualistic competitiveness that inevitably creates winners and losers. The recently articulated notions of 'emotional intelligence' (Dan Goleman), 'spiritual intelligence' (Dinah Zohar) and multiple intelligences (Howard Gardner) were quite explicitly prefigured by Steiner in his educational philosophy, critical as he was of the one-sided intellectualism which he saw as giving a severely limited understanding of the world.

Steiner also saw education as very much a living creative art rather than as a programmatic science, with human relationship being an absolutely central aspect of any educational experience. In Steiner education, what we might call the being-qualities of the teacher are seen as being far more important than the amount of purely factual information that the teacher knows; and it follows that the teacher's own personal (not narrowly 'professional') development is seen as being a quite crucial aspect of being a successful Waldorf teacher. For Steiner, education at its best is also seen as being an intrinsically healing force for the child - and sometimes for the teacher too.

Organisationally, the Steiner (Waldorf) school has a 'flat', 'post-hierarchical' (or 'holonic') structure, with no headmaster/mistress, and with a College of Teachers which works consensually to decide matters of school policy, administration etc. In Steiner's time this was a quite unheard-of social innovation; and it is only in recent years that the emergence of similar, non-hierarchical forms is beginning to make itself felt within 'new paradigm' organisational arrangements. Freedom is, therefore, a central aspect of the education - not least, freedom from the quasi-authoritarian ideology and unquestioned 'regimes of truth' that, almost unnoticed, dominate so much conventional schooling. Finally, Steiner was a fierce defender of the right to a childhood unburdened by imposed and misguided adult-centric agendas.

The extraordinary neglect of Steiner's vast corpus probably has at least something to do with Steiner's thorough-goingly holistic, non-mechanistic approach to human experience, which, early in the last century, was quite literally decades ahead of its time. It is only now, when so-called 'new paradigm', 'transmodern' epistemologies and cosmologies are thankfully beginning to undermine the Zeitgeist of modernity, that Steiner's remarkable insights, which both incorporate yet also transcend modernity, are beginning to attract the rich attention they deserve.  To give just one example, over a century ago Steiner was the leading international scholar of Goethe's much-neglected scientific works - and yet it is only in recent years (cf. Henri Bortoft's The Wholeness of Nature, Floris Books, 1996) that Goethe's scientific worldview is beginning to gain widespread recognition within the emerging paradigm of 'New Science', the burgeoning growth of the global Scientific and Medical Network, and the like.

For Steiner, between birth and seven, the child learns predominantly through imitation, repetition, rhythmical activity and free, unhindered play; and her main task is the (unconscious) development of the will in a milieu of reverence and beauty, with the developing senses being protected as far as possible from unnecessary technological intrusion and over-stimulation. In this schema, formal, intellectual learning is carefully avoided until the change of teeth (between six and seven), and Steiner stressed how the introduction of formal, abstract learning (e.g. reading and writing) before this age was positively harmful to the child - a finding which is at last beginning to be confirmed by recent child-developmental and even neurological research. (This is indeed a common experience - that modern scientific research announces allegedly newly discovered knowledge about human development, yet which on closer examination, Steiner had himself systematically articulated in the early decades of the last century.)

The 'death of childhood' (cf. Professors Neil Postman, David Elkind et al.) is a theme that is increasingly echoing throughout modern culture, and Steiner was a fierce defender of the right to a childhood unburdened by imposed and misguided adult-centric agendas. Overall, Steiner's educational philosophy and Waldorf praxis together provide an impressively coherent and comprehensive 'new paradigm' antidote to the worst excesses of a materialistic worldview that has brought our world to the foothills of ecological disaster and unsustainability;  and in this sense it is supremely relevant as we struggle through the death throes of modernity and towards a new post-materialistic worldview.

Here are just a few quotations from Steiner on education which give a flavour of his philosophy:

·         If... mechanical thinking is carried into education,... there is no longer any natural gift for approaching the child himself. We experiment with the child because we can no longer approach his heart and soul.

·         If... the teacher continues to overload [the child's] mind, he will induce certain symptoms of anxiety. And if... he still continues to cram the child with knowledge in the usual way, disturbances in the child's growing forces will manifest themselves. For this reason the teacher should have no hard and fast didactic system.

·         For real life, love is the greatest power of knowledge. And without this love it is utterly impossible to attain to a knowledge of man which could form the basis of a true art of education.

·         You cannot teach a child to be good merely by explanation... What you actually are... is the most essential thing of all for the child.

·         Illnesses that appear in later life are often only the result of educational errors made in the very earliest years of childhood. This is why... education... must study the human being as a whole from birth until death.

·         In a state school, everything is strictly defined... everything is planned with exactitude. With us everything depends on the free individuality of each single teacher... Classes are entrusted entirely to the individuality of the class teacher;... what we seek to achieve must be achieved in the most varied ways. It is never a question of external regulations.

·         The important thing is that we do not rob teachers of their strengths of personality by forcing them to work within the confines of government regulations.

·         It is inappropriate to work towards standardising human souls through future educational methods or school organisation.

·         Our education... only lives when it is carried out. It cannot truly be described, it must be experienced.

·         Receive the children with reverence; educate them with love; relinquish them in freedom.

It will be pretty clear from the above discussion just what kind of motivations underpin our disillusionment with modern mainstream schooling systems and our desire to create something better for our children. But where to start?!...

The devastation that has recently been wrought in Britain's Early Childhood sector is symptomatic of the pernicious cultural forces that currently hold such uncritical sway in modern culture. Thus, modernist culture's 'managerial' ethos of over-active, prematurely intellectual intrusion into the very being of young children is part of a formal-schooling ideology which, since the mid-1990s, has been colonizing England's early years policy-making and practice - with the relentless bureaucratization of early learning environments stemming from, for example, mechanistic developmental assessments, centrally dictated 'Early Learning Goals', and the imposition of a 'curriculum' on to children as young as 3. These trends are, moreover, widely observable in the educational systems of Western world. In England, for example, we read in the Times Educational Supplement of 17th January 2003 that reception teachers are now having to work their way through no less than 3,510 boxes to tick, as they are forced to assess every child against a staggering 117 criteria. This story broke again last summer, when in the Daily Telegraph of the 21st June 2004, we read of teachers having 'to write reports the size of novels' alongside test scores for five-year-olds. David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was quoted as saying that 'I cannot think of another Government intervention which has caused so much anger among teachers of the early years'.

With OFSTED (the UK's Office for Standards in Education) taking over responsibility for early-childhood settings, we are witnessing a 'surveillance culture' ideology cascading down the education system, right to the earliest of ages. Not without reason did the prominent sociologist, Professor Nikolas Rose, write some years ago that 'Childhood is the most intensively governed sector of personal existence'. A whole range of factors continues to reinforce the one-sidedly cognitive 'hot-housing' atmosphere pervading modern mainstream education.

There is little if any empirical research being carried out on the medium- and long-term effects on children's overall social and emotional development of the soullessly mechanistic educational 'regimes' and one-sidedly materialistic values and practices to which young children are being unremittingly subjected. This is nothing short of a national scandal, at which future, more enlightened generations will surely look back aghast at our wilful neglect of what really matters in living a healthy life. Yet in the face of the mounting malaise and anomie experienced by young people in modern culture,  the mechanistic, 'modernizing' juggernaut simply ploughs on, apparently quite impervious to the insight that its own policies and practices are substantially contributing to this cultural chaos, and are storing up an anti-social disaster whose dimensions and ubiquity can scarcely be dreamt of.

One common effect of these disturbing trends is what can be called the dismembering of childhood (cf. Neil Postman's seminal 1990s text The Death of Childhood). Certainly, there is a growing 'counter-cultural' public mood which is clamouring for a humane and demonstrably effective alternative to the deeply unsatisfactory fare currently on offer in 'mainstream society' - and Steiner education is just one of the many humane cultural initiatives which are increasingly challenging the one-sided materialism of the modern age. Certainly, there are new Steiner education initiatives springing up all over the UK at the moment, so what we are doing here in Norwich, while of course unique, is just a part of a far wider cultural impulse.

Finally, I would be happy to receive communications about, or questions arising from, this posting - to richardahouse[at]hotmail[dot]com. And a big "thank you" to Denis Postle for extending this welcome opportunity to 'spread the word' about this wonderful educational approach more widely through his excellent website.

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