Are Waldorf Schools Progressive?

by Peter Staudenmaier

Advocates of Waldorf education often present Waldorf schools as heir to the alternative educational traditions of Pestalozzi, Froebel, and similar figures. They are evidently unaware that Steiner took a dim view of Pestalozzi and Froebel, among other pioneers of alternative education.

Steiner defined Waldorf education against the projects of Pestalozzi and Froebel and rejected their work as a possible model or source for Waldorf. According to Steiner, Pestalozzi’s work is simply “not suited for other educators” (Steiner, Idee und Praxis der Waldorfschule, p. 232; see also the critical references to Pestalozzi in Steiner, Erziehungs- und Unterrichtsmethoden auf anthroposophischer Grundlage, p. 135, and Steiner, Die Erneuerung der pädagogisch-didaktischen Kunst durch Geisteswissenschaft, p. 45, among others).

Steiner taught that while Froebel’s ideas are well intentioned, they are inappropriate to “the true development of children” (Steiner, Der pädagogische Wert der Menschenerkenntnis und der Kulturwert der Pädagogik, p. 112). Although Froebel had some agreeable thoughts on education, they don’t work, Steiner declared, and need to be replaced by anthroposophical ideas, the only possible basis for reshaping education properly (Steiner, Rudolf Steiner in der Waldorfschule, pp. 181-183).

In his conferences with the original Waldorf teachers, Steiner insisted that though Pestalozzi and Froebel may have had a number of nice abstract ideas, there is no “inner spirit” to their pedagogical systems (Rudolf Steiner, Konferenzen mit den Lehrern der Freien Waldorfschule in Stuttgart 1919 bis 1924, vol. I, p. 163).

Many Waldorf enthusiasts thoroughly misunderstand this historical background. In several significant ways, Waldorf developed in conscious contrast to alternative pedagogy and educational reform movements, even while borrowing extensively from those sources. Central aspects of Waldorf pedagogy stand in direct opposition to standard principles of progressive education. Several of Waldorf’s more conspicuous weaknesses stem directly from Steiner’s rejection of progressive educational ideals and from the early Waldorf movement’s hostility toward alternative educational models.

In part through unfamiliarity with the history of Waldorf, admirers of Waldorf sometimes mistakenly view Steiner’s educational system as an example of the very same alternative educational institutions that Steiner and his followers emphatically dismissed. Much of the original Waldorf movement in Germany flatly rejected, and in some cases openly ridiculed, a variety of central alternative pedagogical principles.

Among other things, the original Waldorf movement repudiated small class sizes and concomitant ample individual attention. The Waldorf movement rejected an emphasis on the unique and changing character of each pupil as an individual. The Waldorf movement abjured the development of critical skills and independent thinking. The Waldorf movement rejected an international orientation, a focus on the self-actualizing and self-directed unfolding of each child’s individual potential, teaching that is child-centered rather than teacher-centered, democratic organization of curriculum, classroom practice, school structure, and so forth.

The original Waldorf movement often defined itself quite explicitly against such progressive educational ideals, dismissing them as un-German, spiritually unsound, decadent, and damaging instances of “international reform pedagogy.” Admirers of Waldorf schooling would do well to inform themselves about the contexts within which Waldorf education arose.