Schooling the Imagination

January 24, 2010

This is a repost of an interesting article by the Atlantic Monthly on Waldorf Education:



Waldorf schools, which began in the esoteric mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, have forged a unique blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods that seem to achieve impressive results — intellectual, social, even moral

 DRIVING down out of the foothills of Yuba County, California, at dawn recently, past wide, flat fruit orchards, abandoned stony gold mines, and endless river levees, I asked my escort, Ruth Mikkelsen, the principal of the local school for juvenile offenders, what the area’s main industry was. “Methamphetamine,” she said with a chuckle. Yuba County lives with some of California’s most dismal demographic statistics. Its unemployment rate is 12.8 percent, twice the state average. Teen pregnancy rates and the proportion of children on welfare are among the state’s highest. The county sends a larger percentage of its adults to prison than any other county in the state. It also has the highest proportion of children classified as low-income (68 percent), and the state’s stingiest dads when it comes to child-support payments.

As we entered Marysville, the county seat, we passed a scattering of burnt-out storefronts bandaged with dry, broken boards — reminders that until the 1950s this town was locally famous for its rich economy of bars, brothels, opium dens, and gambling houses. Descendants of those days now fill Ruth Mikkelsen’s classrooms at Thomas E. Mathews Community School. “If you take all the kids who are being thrown out of school and put them in one room, those are the kids we have,” Mikkelsen said. “One of those kids in a normal class will pretty much destroy that class.”

It was easy to see what she meant. When we pulled up to the school, a group of boys playing basketball on a crumbling court out front were guarding each other with real hostility. Inside, a dozen boys and girls, dressed in the school’s official uniform of blue jeans and white T-shirts, jostled and sassed each other in the tiny common room. One hulking skinhead leaned against the wall, alone, slump-shouldered, quiet, angry.

Underneath this toughness, one could see signs of softness and hope. Before I’d even started exploring, Gary, a skinny fourteen-year-old, spontaneously grabbed me for a quick tour of what I had come to watch: how the Waldorf-school movement, an old, Austria-bred system of private education, is working in a new venue — a hard-boiled public institution for troublemakers. After introducing me to each of his teachers, Gary walked me past the primary tools of the Waldorf day: the recorders every student learns to play, the numerous paintings and art projects, and a pile of “main lesson books” — lengthy creative reports by students on their studies in each academic subject, which they must generate every few weeks.

Later, during an English class, I noticed a fifteen-year-old I’ll call Robert waving his hand desperately. A small boy with an angelic walnut-brown face, Robert had been expelled from his previous school for smoking marijuana; soon after his arrival at Mathews, he jumped out the probation officer’s window and ran away. On the day I visited, Robert sat attentive throughout a two-hour class. When the teacher finally called on him, he flawlessly recited six lines memorized from The Merchant of Venice. In the early days, Evelyn Arcuri, the teacher, said later, when she asked the students to return their materials, “they would just toss stuff at me. Now there’s better control. They’re more engaged.” I noticed something similar. One twelve-year-old boy sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he’d been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize. These roughnecks even like Waldorf’s focus on art. Thomas, an outgoing and restless seventeen-year-old, had found that when he was forced to draw pictures of stories he had read or heard, “you get more visual ideas of what you’re doing.” Arcuri believes she can see that the students are learning more from what they draw. “This year kids are saying, ‘Can I take this home?’ We never had that happen before.”

Mikkelsen and her teachers attribute these changes to the battery of skills they learned at Rudolf Steiner College, a small private school near Sacramento that serves as the West Coast teacher-training center for Waldorf schools. Much of what teachers learn there is how to reach children through all their senses. Child-development experts have long advocated a multisensory approach to learning — as a way both to deeply imprint lessons in a youngster and to accommodate the different learning styles that are bound to exist among diverse students, particularly those with learning difficulties. Yet few education systems in this country have the history with these methods that Waldorf schools do. “I now have a way to give it to them many times, in different ways,” Arcuri told me. “We had tried everything with these kids,” Mikkelsen recalls. “Nothing worked. You can’t lecture to them. Independent study doesn’t work. They need constant support and a lot of socializing.” During Mikkelsen’s discussions with teachers at the Steiner College, “I said to them, ‘If this is so good, ifRudolf Steiner is as hot as you say, then this will work for our kids. Otherwise, it’s another bunch of elitist B.S.'”

Several years later an outside evaluator dropped by the Mathews School. After his visit he told Mikkelsen that the effectiveness of her program for juvenile offenders couldn’t be fairly judged, because it was clear that she did not have truly problem kids. “I suddenly realized it was working,” Mikkelsen recalls. John Cobb, the local probation manager, has a similar impression. “Kids who can’t make it anywhere else can make it here,” he told me.

The main lesson books at Mathews and other Waldorf schools illustrate Waldorf’s unusual mixture of teaching techniques. The books are filled with students’ careful records of field trips and classroom experiments; impressions of the teachers’ regular oral presentations; and, in more advanced classes, syntheses of what the students have read in primary sources. (Waldorf teachers avoid textbooks, considering their digested information a poor substitute for original material.) The texts were neatly handwritten, with fountain pens. They were also often accompanied by detailed drawings and poetry, some of which the students had written themselves. Playfulness is encouraged in these books, because Waldorf teachers believe that imaginative wonderings can be just as educational as objective facts and conclusions, if not more so.

This notion, that imagination is the heart of learning, animates the entire arc of Waldorf teaching. When that concept is coupled with the schools’ other fundamental goal, to give youngsters a sense of ethics, the result is a pedagogy that stands even further apart from today’s system of education, with its growing emphasis on national performance standards in subjects such as mathematics, science, and reading and its increasing rigor in standardized testing — to say nothing of the campaign to fill classrooms with computers. This is not to suggest that Waldorf schools have a monopoly on contrarian ideas; Quaker and other religious schools teach ethics too. And various alternative private schools have been practicing innovative approaches to learning for years. Obviously, some Waldorf practices will resemble those in many of these schools. But that makes the Waldorf method all the more intriguing, because the daily experiences of one creative education system ought to tell us something about the challenges and possibilities for other schools, both alternative and traditional.

It is odd, actually, that the public knows so little about Waldorf schools, because they’ve been operating in this country since 1928 and have collected quite a few famous followers (Waldorf parents have included Paul Newman, Joe Namath, John DeLorean, and Mikhail Baryshnikov; graduates include Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, and Ken Chenault, the president of American Express). During the past twenty-five years in particular, Waldorf schools have proliferated vigorously; roughly 130 now operate in the United States, and 700 worldwide. Waldorf schools are quite possibly the world’s fastest-growing independent school system; David Alsop, the chairman of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, calls them the world’s “best-kept education secret.”

The secret is getting out. In the past decade a dozen public schools have adopted Waldorf methods, in an effort to enliven classrooms that many educators see as having become sterile job factories. Unfortunately, some of the Waldorf methods have caused trouble of their own, both in public schools and in private Waldorf classrooms. There has been controversy and a lawsuit, stemming largely from the attention that Waldorf teachers pay to an unorthodox form of spirituality. (To some critics, this threatens the prevailing taboo against teaching religion in a public school.) Running through these bumps, however, is a substantial record of achievement — one that has earned the respect of a number of leading figures, from Howard Gardner, the prominent Harvard professor of education and psychology, to the well-known education reformer Theodore Sizer, to Saul Bellow, whose hero in the novel Humboldt’s Gift is fascinated by the philosophy of Waldorf’s creator.

Proletariat Beginnings

WALDORF education was born one spring day in 1919, when Rudolf Steiner, a maverick Austrian philosopher and scientist, visited the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to give a speech to its workers. The First World War had ended just five months earlier, and Steiner talked about the need for a new social order, a new sense of ethics, and a less damaging way of resolving conflict. After the lecture Emil Molt, the factory owner, asked Steiner if he would consider starting a school for the workers’ children. Steiner agreed, insisting on some conditions, including that his school be run by the teachers. (That rule has spawned occasionally chaotic but cooperative styles of Waldorf-school management today. And it prefigured the modern-day theory, popularized by the Yale psychiatrist and school reformer James Comer, that for education to work, teachers and parents must be involved in school decisions.) Steiner also insisted on a highly ambitious curriculum. “The need for imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility — these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education,” he once said. Twenty years after the Stuttgart school opened, the Nazis shut it down, along with six other Waldorf schools that had sprung up by then. The reason, according to the state press at the time, was that Germany had no room for two kinds of education — one that educated citizens for the state and another that taught children to think for themselves.

By then seven other Waldorf schools had been started around the world — three in Switzerland, and one each in London, Budapest, Oslo, and New York City. (The Waldorf schools in Germany reopened after the Nazi regime collapsed, and the German contingent now numbers approximately 140.) Today, although the schools’ Old World academic philosophy runs counter to some academic trends, it may dovetail with others. “All the things you read about public schools,” Mikkelsen told me, “that you need to do this, you need to do that — hell, they’ve been doing it for eighty years.”

Mikkelsen was referring to myriad reforms that policymakers incessantly propose to reverse a range of problems besetting American youngsters: gradually weakening morality and family structure; students’ shrinking capacity for creativity and self-discipline, and their increasing turns to violence; diminishing appreciation for the nuances of language in reading, writing, and conversation; and graduates’ spotty preparation for the professional world. When pressed on such issues, school administrators often grumble that they’re being asked to handle problems better solved outside school — at home or, later, in the workplace. That may miss the main piece in the education puzzle. Steve Grineski, the interim dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Moorhead State University, in Minnesota, said, speaking before the Littleton, Colorado, horror, “The most serious problem in schools is kids not getting along. The reason people get fired isn’t their lack of job skills, it’s their lack of social skills.” That is precisely why Mikkelsen was attracted to Waldorf. “It’s like learning to be a really good parent, plus tapping into every creative thing you ever thought of,” she says. Ben Klocek, a high school senior at the Sacramento Waldorf School, whose family has been involved in Waldorf for years, says, “Have you ever heard of that thing about emotional intelligence?” He is referring to Daniel Goleman’s provocative bookEmotional Intelligence (1995), which suggested that IQ isn’t nearly as important as personal traits such as self-awareness, confidence, and flexibility. “Waldorf,” Klocek says, “gives you very high emotional intelligence.”


Although the Mathews School has embraced Waldorf teaching techniques with enthusiasm, it has chosen to forgo parts of the Waldorf curriculum, which can be too involved for a thinly educated student body that comes and goes as this one does. I was eager, therefore, to visit some of the private Waldorf schools elsewhere in California and on the East Coast, where the full program has been practiced for decades. There, I hoped, I would see how both teachers and students have fared in their attempts to realize Steiner’s dreams of enriching people’s imaginations and ethical sensibilities, and putting them to work in modern daily life.

Click here to go to parts two and three