Grandparents and Friends Address by David Barham, 10/2111

How Meeting the Whole Child Allows the Child to Meet, Love and Transform the Whole World

     Visitors come to our school- parents, grandparents- and they fall in love with the beauty here. Beautiful, happy children with caring teachers in thoughtfully designed buildings doing meaningful, purposeful work and creating beautiful objects, singing beautiful songs, finding the beauty in number and measure and the progression of history, works of great literature- and amidst all this joy and beauty, we often get asked the question, but will the children be prepared to meet the real world?

     It is true- The world we educators and parents and grandparents are preparing our children for is an unsettled and sometimes even scary place. We are anxious about a future we do not really understand and how to insure our beloved children will be ready to meet that world. However, the world of 1919, when Rudolf Steiner gave us the underlying philosophical and pedagogical principles of Waldorf education, was also an unsettled and frightening time. The principles given in 1919 to help children and young people meet and make sense of their world hold true today. In fact, they may be more relevant then ever.

     The beauty about Waldorf education is that it answers two questions at once. The first, will my child- or my grandchild, be ready after his/her Waldorf education to meet the challenges of today? Second, will my child be educated enough in her will, in her feelings and in her intellect to see the world the way it is, and transform it into the way it needs to be.

     Thankfully, the answer Waldorf education offers for both of these questions is a resounding YES, and the best part is this: we use the same tools to achieve both of these goals. This second task of Waldorf education, this far more radical task of preparing children to meet their world and alter it when necessary, goes hand in hand with the first task of preparing children to meet the demands of their time and to be successful. We use the same tools to educate a child’s hands, heart and head, for the short term and for the long run.

     I use that term radical quite consciously, though I do feel it important to explain what we in the Waldorf movement mean by that term. It does not mean politically radical- we have no hopes or expectations that our students will join either the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movements. Rather, our approach to education is radical in that it puts the child and his/her natural path of development front and center. We are not educating to meet the needs and expectations of the White House or Congress, of Wall Street or the Ivy League. We are not striving to create an education that harkens back to an idealized world of the past- a golden age of purity– or one that follows the trends and fads of the moment. If we truly believed that putting an iPad 2 into the hands of all of our pre-schoolers would create better human beings, we might do it- but we simply do not believe that easy technological fix- will help us to achieve our educational goals. We don’t go with the mainstream flow nor do we fight against it merely for the sake of being rebellious.

     When Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education first laid out the underlying principles of the approach, the world was in chaos. World War One had ended and Europe and the world were shaken from the violence and barbarity, the sense that the world had gone mad. Steiner, a profound social thinker, desperately tried to get various heads of Europe to listen to his ideas regarding social transformation, knowing that if he could not effectively communicate his ideas and help bring about fundamental changes, that an even worse calamity than the world had just experienced would occur. He was unable to find enough people who understood and were able to act on his ideas about changing society and of course, within a few years, Europe moved inexorably towards an even worse situation than it had known in 1919.

     This experience convinced Steiner that if the world was to be changed, transformed, that what was needed was an approach to education that set as one of its goals, helping children and young people come to new ways to think, but perhaps even more, importantly, to feel and to act. Steiner understood that after a time, enough human beings educated in this way, would be ready to look out at their world, and to take hold of their own lives in meaningful ways. Waldorf education was created to give people the tools to look at the world around them and if they saw it was lacking in fairness and love and care and hope, to be able to recognize that the way things are isn’t the way they ought to be. And coming to that realization, recognize they had the courage and strength and skills to change themselves and the world.

     So back to Waldorf education being radical: our goals and objectives are not set from society, but rather from the demands of human development. We believe each child comes to Earth to become fully him or herself and we want to do all we can to aid in that ultimate goal. And we believe Rudolf Steiner left us with an extraordinary set of insights and tools to do that sacred work.

     Our school is based on the delicate unfolding of the human being over time. This determines what we teach and when, why we teach it and how. Waldorf education understands what Zorba the Greek understood when he tells the story:
     I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in a bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it I tried to help it with my breath. In vain.
      It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of its wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.
      The little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience, for I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.

     Following the Truthfulness of the great laws of human development, Waldorf education teaches first to the hands- as the young child is a being of Will. When one takes the long view, one realizes there is no rush. Steiner teaches us that the human soul requires something quite specific at each phase of its development. No need to teach a child to read at an age when really, they need to be learning to do. To make things. Beautiful things. Though the hands are honored and celebrated every day and in every lesson throughout the Waldorf curriculum- from early childhood through grade 12- they have a special place of importance in the early years. This is the reason we have just constructed a gorgeous new Handwork building and put it right in the center of our campus.

     Over the years the children in Waldorf schools will learn to crochet a hat, knit a pair of socks, sew a pair of pajamas on a sewing machine. They will make all sorts of beautiful and useful objects in the woodshop (including their very own sword!), leading up to the creation of a three-legged stool- that begins as a log. They will bake bread, model in bee’s wax, eventually working up to clay and other sculptural materials. They will draw, first in bee’s wax crayons, later with colored pencils and other materials. They will paint- not occasionally, but every week, year after year. In the high school they will work with metals- with the blacksmith’s forge and with graceful copper. They will learn the ancient art of bookbinding. Other arts will round out their days- every day of their education, children will sing. Our schools are filled with the sound of song. They will recite poetry and other dramatic recitations. (My son woke up this morning stomping around the house saying, “I am a Viking bold…”) In the early grades they will learn to play wooden flutes and recorders and starting in grade four, will take up the cello or violin. We requite our students to play an instrument- a string instrument or a wind instrument all the way through twelfth grade because none of us has ever heard a grown up say, “Boy, I sure do wish I had never learned to play an instrument when I was younger!” Every year the students do a play, usually based on themes from the year’s curriculum. Through the arts and crafts the child learns to solve problems- recognizing there are many solutions to every problem, to think anew, to love the work they do and to think artistically in all aspects of life. Perhaps our children can think outside the box because their hands have constructed a sewing box or built an actual box in woodwork!

     We recognize that harmoniously developing the human body in a world that wants to feed children on poisoned and worthless food, keep them tied to the couch or desk chair and only exercising the finger that moves the mouse or touch screen is radical. We had a Waldorf alum come to one of our panel discussions to discuss how his Waldorf education prepared him for the adult world. He was 45 or so and a surgeon. He spoke about how his hands had been trained to become intelligent from an early age and how that made all the difference in his work as a surgeon. He asked the audience that night, “When you are going in for an operation, don’t you want a surgeon who has been learning to work with his hands his whole life?” From handwork to heart surgery!

     We love the fact that all current brain research shows how working with the hands and developing fine motor skills increases brain activity- but we actually knew that in the Waldorf movement long before the scientists and neurologists proved it.

     Many comment that what makes Waldorf students and graduates really stand out is their refined and educated feeling life. That they seem to be able to actually know what they are feeling, to put it into words, to honor the fact that other people have feelings too. They are able to feel a wide range of subtle emotions- not be stuck in black and white extremes such as Happy or Sad or most likely- Mad. They are able to weigh and judge and because they know how they feel, often are able to respond to situations in a reasonable way. This is radical. Many people are head smart. Many schools focus on teaching stuff and ideas and concepts. Waldorf education knows that wise men and women created ideas such as capitalism and communism and hedge funds and water boarding and jihad. The world thought its way into the challenges it faces- but the same type of thinking that got us into this mess can’t possibly be the type of thinking that gets us out. A Heart-imbued thinking that leads to thoughtful action is what is called for. You don’t get that accidentally. A school will not produce that result in a student accidentally- that requires intention and prioritizing. Waldorf education without the arts and without addressing the feeling life is unthinkable. In every lesson, year after year, the Waldorf teacher strives to engage the child’s feeling life, and to stimulate the imagination. Truly this is every bit as important to us as the intellectual content, the subject matter of the lesson.

     But at a certain point in human development, addressing the needs of the head, of the intellect is not only appropriate, it is the way to nourish the full human. After the years of focusing primarily on the hands, then primarily on the heart, there is a time for the head. In a world full of lies and propaganda, advertising and politics, the modern human being, needs to know how to think for himself. The rock band, Talking Heads said it best, “They can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you.” The adolescent needs to have his thinking awakened. Discernment. Education is not an industrial process where we pump in X amount of information, data, facts and expect a certain outcome- a memorization of that information, that data, those facts, regurgitated on an exam. We teach our students to learn to see behind the veil of propaganda, to know if something is True, to synthesize information from a wide variety of sources. To truly think- not just manipulate data. And the radical truth is this- without a foundation built on doing and feeling, this is not really possible. So our curriculum changes and grows with the student.

     I want to share just a single example, though one could come up with many. In sixth grade, the Waldorf student meets the Middle Ages. Like all main lesson subjects, even historical and factual information comes to the students in the form of stories. The sixth grader hears stories about people they can care about, figures they can revere or revile, but who make an emotional impact on their lives. Figures such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, Charlemagne, Saint Francis, King Henry VIII, Mohammed and many others live large in the imaginations of the students. They paint colorful pictures of castles, battles, cathedrals, and mosques. They learn ornate calligraphy like the scribes in medieval monasteries. They will sing music from the period and play pieces on their recorders. They will dance sword dances. They will read or hear tales of chivalry, of the Arthurian Knights, and of the Grail Stream. They will have strong mental pictures brought to them about the Black Plague, feudalism, the impact of the Church, the Dark Ages and more. Coming off of their study of the Romans, they will live deeply into how a vast and powerful empire can fall apart and crumble at the hands of barbarian invaders. These images will fill them as if they themselves had lived through this period.

     And then this period of history will be allowed to slumber within them for five long years. The artistically presented middle ages will have become a part of the students.

     In eleventh grade, it will be brought back to them in a totally new way. Lucky is the Waldorf high school humanities teacher with a class of Waldorf students who were educated about the Middle Ages in a “thinking-feeling” way. Now the students are ready to be educated in an intellectual way. Building on that magnificent foundation, the class is ready to soar. Now the high school teacher can speak about the economic impact of the Black Plague and the rise of city-states. Now the teacher can speak about the specifics of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, what was lost and what was rediscovered when European Christians rediscovered their own intellectual heritage in the texts translated by Jewish and mainly Arabic scholars. Profound questions can now be raised: What impact did the philosophy of Plato have on Augustine and how did that influence the unfolding of medieval Christianity? What influence did the teachings of Plato’s student, Aristotle, have on Thomas Aquinas and how did that further alter Christianity and society? Further, one can explore the significance of Aristotle (an ancient pagan!) on Moses Maimonedes and medieval Judaism and on Averröes and medieval Islam. The whole question of the relationship between Faith and Reason can be taken up.

     One can now speak honestly about the Crusades as the origins of Holy War and help the students come to an understanding of the historical roots of the crisis between the three Western monotheistic faiths. We look to the year 1095 to understand 9/11. This is a wonderful time to explore the roots of Islam and to understand the period of its extraordinary spread, its enlightenment and vast accomplishments.

     Teaching in this way is part of what we mean by addressing the whole child. This whole human being can go forth into the world and find her place. This whole human being is not afraid to take risks because it is something done every day at school- a bit more blue in this painting and what happens? Open my mouth wide to sing in a voice strong and true. Take on an entirely different persona on the class play. Run on the running team or ski on the ski team. Venture an answer in a discussion in a high school course. Take the time to articulate one’s point of view.

     This is all important stuff but there is more- a powerful, radical aspect that has been part and parcel of Waldorf education since Steiner’s time. I recently came across an article in the October 10 edition of The New Yorker on the challenges of adequately funding the research and development of alternative energy so that it can hope to one day be competitive with energy produced by fossil fuels. The article states, “The economics of alternative energy are such that private investors, left to their own devices, are bound to underinvest in it, since the considerable social benefits- cleaner air, fewer greenhouse emissions- accrue to everyone, not just to direct customers.” This article made me think once again about Steiner’s great hope that we are producing human beings able to see that we need a world in which recognizing the considerable social benefits that accrue to all- is part of the value. We are hopeful that Waldorf graduates will be the type of person to go out and recognize the inherent flaws in an economic system, in an energy system that fails to make space for social benefits- benefits like clean air and fewer greenhouse gasses for all the world’s inhabitants, not only more money for a select group of investors or shareholders. We believe that a child educated through the hands, the heart and the head will be able to identify the challenges the world faces, see the missing pieces, identify the places where we are simply missing the mark; care enough to bring about changes and have the ability to follow through on what this heart-inspired thoughtfulness understands. They will be able to find and sustain meaningful work, meaningful adult relationships and meaningful roles in their communities. They will be able to give direction, meaning and purpose to their own lives. This is what we mean by education the whole human being.

     An education that meets the needs of today and gives the student the tools to meet an unknown and unknowable world yet to arrive- that is radical.



Grandparents & Friends Day Address by David Sloan,


       Good morning, you lucky grandparents.  I must confess from the outset that I stand before all of you with a twinge of envy that you are all, indeed, grandparents and I, alas, am still a grandparent-in-waiting.  I have several promising candidates to elevate me into your exalted ranks—that is, four grown children, ranging in age from 22 to 31—but only one is currently married, and since that blessed event took place just two weeks ago, I suppose it’s a bit impatient of me to expect too much too soon.  My three sons and my daughter all went through 13 or 14 years of Waldorf education in New York state, so they are products of the Waldorf nursery/kindergarten, elementary school and the high school, what in Waldorf circles the students refer to as “lifers.” I suppose that makes me a “half-lifer,” as I have been a teacher in a Waldorf high school for over thirty years.  Since the Merriconeag Waldorf School is now in its fourth year of existence, during which time we have grown from 16 to 40 students, I thought I might take a few minutes to describe how the high school builds upon the foundations provided for younger students in the earlier years.  Read more.