Nineteenth Century social innovator, mystic and eclecticist extraordinaire Rudolf Steiner sought to synthesize the entirety of science and spirituality through a new approach he called Anthroposophy. This philosophy and accompanying methodologies posited that the integral laws of nature could be applied to just about everything imaginable from the arts to medicine to farming. He asserted that mind is really just a sense organ like our eyes or ears and believed that our personal development starts by elevating our sense of awareness and widening our experience in nature—“To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world.”
In 1907 Steiner wrote The Education of the Child a somewhat radical treatise for the times that espoused principles of spiritual science, holistic learning and universal brotherhood. Given the era was the advent of the First World War and Kaiser was maneuvering to maintain control over a wider monarchy Steiner’s ideas about education were often considered seditious. In 1919 perhaps as a response to the disillusionment with the authoritative practices that lead to the decimation of Germany or maybe as a moment of enlightenment Emil Molt the owner and manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart opened a new kind of school for the children of the factory workers that emphasized the pursuit of their unique destiny. The idea of a progressive education for all quickly spread throughout a newly democratic Europe but kept the first name of the original location—Waldorf School.
Steiner proposed that an interdisciplinary approach to education is crucial for integrating physical, emotional and intellectual growth. He suggested that aim of instruction is help the student become a free and responsible person in full possession of their unique gifts. To do so the student is cast in a number of situations that gives them direct access to their sense experiences such as excursions into nature. They are encouraged to use empirical principles to discover what is often left unseen when they trundle through the day and reflect on their insights. Critical and creative thinking are then engaged to integrate the experience into personalized knowledge of both the object, the viewed, and the subject, the viewer. The Waldorf curriculum exposes students to everything from foreign languages to rhythmic dancing to advanced mathematics. Each student creates their own illustrated summary of their coursework in dossier or book form. Both the learning experience and the learner are customized via these generative activities. Steiner believed that “each individual is a species unto him/herself.”
As if Steiner didn’t have enough to do, he designed and opened the first multimedia lab the same year as the original Waldorf School. The Goetheanum, a homage to the multifarious visionary of the German Enlightenment Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was an innovative domed building that housed performance halls, studios, galleries and a library. It is considered an early example of Organic Functionalism an architectural movement later known for buildings that mimic nature like Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth geodesic dome that rises above the entrance of EPCOT at Disney World.
Less than five years after the opening of the Goetheanum it was destroyed by arson assumedly by those who felt threatened by Steiner’s revolutionary ideas that the church and state could not offer the freedom required for individual creativity and growth.
While today there are hundreds of Waldorf Schools around the world that continue to successfully advance the principles espoused by their founder, regrettably many critics still find the underlying idea that we can be put in charge of our own development a dangerous proposition. In the same way that Steiner’s integrative approach created the man himself to do the same is to put our own universal truth in motion.