After two years as a Waldorf kindergartener, my six year old daughter,
Maria, just began first grade at Chapel Hill's Emerson Waldorf School.
Personally I would prefer to educate Maria "at home," but Maria,
like her mom, is a very sociable person, and - at Denise's insistence - we
discovered that Waldorf Education provided a happy
compromise. (Our attention was originally drawn to Waldorf schooling when
we kept bumping into Waldorf students - including a couple of baby-sitters
- all of whom were eager to talk with us like fellow human beings rather
than agents of The Borg.)
I realize that many parents are in a quandary concerning their
children's education, and send this information in hopes it proves
I should note at the outset that I'm deeply suspicious of Waldorf
founder Rudolf Steiner's claims to mystical realization. I'm also wary
of many Waldorf parents' exclusionary fondness for homeopathic medicine -
and their inter-related avoidance of vaccination. This latter custom
impresses me as personally and socially irresponsible.
Having said that, it is also true that several Waldorf parents are
mainstream physicians. One heads a cutting-edge research institute, which --
if current experiments "pan out" --could discover THE cure for cancer.
Another parent/physician is a research radiologist at one of the
Triangle's major universities. His life goal is to become a Waldorf
kindergarten teacher as soon as he's fully vested in his retirement scheme
(3 more years.) A third Waldorf physician serves as linchpin medical care
provider at a county clinic.
For anyone who might wish name recognition: Mikhail Baryshnikov,
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman educated their children at Waldorf
schools, and Victor Navasky, publisher of "The Nation," is a Waldorf
What I like about Waldorf is that it believes children have "an
intrinsic nature" and that kids "turn out" best when you respect that
"nature." Absent from Waldorf Education is all deconstructionist bafflegab
that peels away layers of the onion only to proclaim: "Eureka! There's no
there there! There's no "intrinisic nature" to anything. Life is
infinitely plastic. You can bend it as far as you want and it will never
break. You can make "it" whatever you wish. You can become "anything!""
Go tell it to the biosphere.
The Waldorf "method" maintains that a child's nature unfolds very
slowly and that human senses come into full play in their own good time.
It is considered axiomatic that the human sensorium - if cultivated with
patience - is "designed" to enrich an imaginative mind, an exploring
spirit and an eternal soul.
In light of Waldorf principles, it would seem that systems of
education which fail to educate children are - generally speaking -
systems that contradict the nature of childhood. (Although healthy family
structure can counteract the noisome effect of public instruction, it is
mistaken to credit public instruction with successes that are basically
due to integral family culture.)
In its determination to honor the child, Waldorf shuns television like
the Ebola virus, and provides no computer training until middle school --
at the earliest. Chapel Hill's Emerson Waldorf School provides no computer
exposure at all.
Each school year employs a different myth system -- Roman, Greek,
Norse, Judeo-Christian etc. -- as a background referent. In the early years,
Grimm Fairy Tales -- rendered in their original, unexpurgated versions --
are critical to each child's formation.
Also in the early years, instructions and "reprimands" are
"sung" to children rather than yelled or "barked."
A Waldorf school day is marked by frequent rituals.
Candle-lighting, song and poetic declamation are common occurrences.
Waldorf Education is peripatetic with lots of organized - and
'free play' - movement. Dance, music and "eurythmy" serve as vehicles to
exercise children's active bodies.
Children use their hands. All youngsters finger-knit, sculpt,
garden and work wood, thus receiving practical training in the basic
human functions of providing food, clothing and shelter. Kindergartners
learn to bake.
Children are not taught to read until second grade and even then
there is no "pushing." Adults often read to children, a habit that is
reinforced by frequent theatrical and puppet enactments.
If a child manifests spontaneous interest in reading prior to
second grade, parents are encouraged to provide as much instruction as
their child asks for. (Currently, I am astonished to see how easily my daughter is
teaching herself to read. Denise and I only answer her questions.)
All Waldorf students learn a foreign language. Emerson Waldorf students
study Spanish and German.
Generally, parents are extremely active in Waldorf education: the
Waldorf method depends on co-education. Although the scope of
collaborative endeavor is broad, one rubric requires all parents
to contemplate banishing television from their own lives as well
as the lives of their children.
Parents stay in "constant" touch with Waldorf teachers and
reinforce Waldorf methodology through abundant home-reading,
story-telling, music-making, conversation and the exploration of
handcrafts. These peaceful endeavors are made possible by the absence of television.
Most Waldorf homes know nothing of the American refrain: "Shhh!
I'm trying to watch this!"
Waldorf homes, like Waldorf schools, prefer personal contact and contemplative calm to
the hyperkinetic bustle and ersatz self-importance of "media"-ted experience.
Waldorf education reminds me of the Irish saying: "A good story is worth more than all the world's treasure."
I'm also reminded of Einstein's observation that "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
As a culture, we have biased our pseudo-meritocracy with obsessive focus on data, facts and information.
In the process, we have become spiritually arid and systematically subservient to the official, technocratic view of reality.
In brief, we have replaced the subtle -- often paradoxical -- processes of education with the predictable mechanics of tunnel-vision instruction.
As an antidote to these dispirited mechanics, Waldorf education cultivates stories of imagination, courage, audacity, moral peril and heart-rending decision.