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 ourelves, 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 be come 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 or 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 shutdown creativity, imagination and self-direction, and get on 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 benmefits and drawbacks

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

In response to these kinds of concerns, a colleague, Richard House, inspired the founding of a Waldord Steiner School in Norwich, Norfolk, UK. I asked him to tell me how he did it

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

I have had 7 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 both of these motivations, as I personally identify strongly with both of these influences.

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, 7 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 if not thousands 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.

The original founding group 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: although there is a lot of support available for new initiatives from the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, 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 materialistic people with lots of spare wealth 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.

But first, a bit 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); biodynamic agriculture (a precursor of organic agriculture); holistic (anthroposophical) medicine; architecture and design; the arts (Eurythmy, painting, speech and drama); organisational consultancy; ethical banking and finance – 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 materialistic modernity, that Steiner’s remarkable insights are beginning to attract the widespread attention they richly deserve.

Some eighty 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 well over 800 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 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) and ‘spiritual intelligence’ (Dinah Zohar) 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 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 Waldorf school has a ‘flat’, non-hierarchical 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 that, almost unnoticed, dominates 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 his 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; and it is only now, when so-called ‘new paradigm’, postmodern 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 1996) that Goethe’s scientific worldview is beginning to gain widespread recognition within the emerging paradigm of ‘New Science’.

Steiner was a relentless scourge of the one-sided materialism that prevailed in his day, and he brought a spiritually informed perspective to his educational worldview, which viewed the human being as far more than a material body. His 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.

Between birth and seven, for example, the child learns predominantly through imitation, repetition, rhythmical activity and free, unhindered play; and its main task is the (unconscious) development of the will in a milieu of reverence. In this schema, formal, intellectual learning is strictly 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 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.)

There is a lack of competitive testing and examinations in Waldorf education; and the intrinsically holistic approach in Waldorf education means that teaching is always done from the whole to the part, and not the other way around – thereby providing an antidote to the mechanistic reductionism of the modernist worldview. Moreover, the recently articulated, holistic notions of ‘emotional intelligence’ (Goleman) and ‘spiritual intelligence’ (Zohar) were quite explicitly prefigured by Steiner in his educational philosophy, critical as he was of the one-sided intellectualism which he saw as being only capable of giving a severely limited understanding of the world.

The ‘death of childhood’ 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. 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 year’.

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.