Waldorf education was begun in southern Germany over a century ago and is now enacted all over the world. This raises a number of questions. Is Waldorf education practised in ways which are fit for and responsive to its present-day contexts? Do all belong equally in Waldorf education? Do all feel that they belong equally? Is Waldorf education sensitive to location, to culture, to difference? Or is it something which, however well-meaningly, is imposed on the contexts in which it is practised?
The importance of context
So much has altered since 1919. Do we need to reinterpret Waldorf education for our «liquid» (Bauman, 2013) and «postnormal» (Sardar, 2010) times? Have we thought it through sufficiently? The Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum has put forward the topic of Interculturality and Curriculum as a focus for the coming years. This provides a good opportunity to begin exploring these questions.
UNESCO defines interculturality as «the existence and equitable interaction of diverse cultures and the possibility of generating shared cultural expressions through dialogue and mutual respect» (UNESCO, 2005). To unpack this a little, let us consider what «equitable interaction of diverse cultures» could mean in the context of Waldorf education.
Equitable and equity are terms which are currently both popular and contested. Where equality is about sameness, equity is about fairness, not just treating people as equal, but addressing and remediating imbalances, or unfairnesses, among groups of people. These unfairnesses are sometimes so ingrained that they can be invisible and accepted as normal, «just how things are», so remaining unquestioned (Ahlgren & Miltersen, 2022).
Why this is a thing
Beginning in the 15th century, some European countries extended their territories to include much of the rest of the world. This has been called different things: voyages of discovery, voyages of exploration, European expansion, settlement, colonisation and, more recently, invasion (Selvanathan et al., 2022). It was accompanied by the taking of land by force, acquisition of resources, genocide, slavery, and the destruction of traditional ways of life for much of the world’s population.
As well as physical colonisation, colonial discourses «reached into our heads» (Smith, 2001, p. 23), disrupting, weakening and in some places eliminating traditional knowledges, what Santos has called epistemicide (2014). Ultimately, Western1 colonisation has fundamentally shaped global discourses around what is accepted as knowledge, ethics and values, weighting power relationships in favour of Western models. Western knowledge and technology are often seen as «superior» and to represent progress. World history is most frequently seen through the eyes of colonisers. This privileging of colonial ways of thinking is widespread and is not just found in former colonial powers. Although many colonised countries have gained their independence, the effects of colonisation continue to influence knowledge institutions, including schools.
Effects of colonial thinking in schools
In 2015, I ran a small study in New Zealand enquiring into experiences and thoughts of a group of my former students who were Māori, Indigenous New Zealanders, who were teaching in New Zealand Steiner schools (Boland, 2015). Many of their comments were insightful and strongly supportive of Steiner education. In the words of one participant, Māori culture and anthroposophy walk side by side, «in tandem,» «not the same, but travelling in the same direction,» and that in Steiner education there is «a breadth of thought, a bringing together of many streams which can appeal not only to the west» (p. 195).
At the same time, these teachers were critical of qualities they had experienced in individuals in Steiner schools, who could appear
mono-cultural, Eurocentric, privileged, unquestioning, over-reliant on tradition, disinterested in others with no real impulse to understand, more interested in distributing knowledge than in learning from others, unconsciously arrogant, «guardians of the truth», and able to be plural and diverse, but hold themselves back. (p. 195)
Further comments included that «People [Māori] understand the spiritual aspect but won’t go [to the schools] if they don’t see their culture reflected,» that there is a «need to see brown faces among the teachers, parents and students,» and, most strongly, the need to feel «culturally safe» (p. 195). This was despite the long-term efforts of New Zealand schools to welcome Māori students and families. To remedy this, the teachers I spoke to asked that Māori values be promoted through the «choice of languages taught, [that they] should be present in every subject, through the arts, in science, in history (especially), the story of the land, the choice of poems, pictures on the wall, fables, myths, biographies and so on» (p. 195).
Shortly after this, a Māori curriculum document was created in New Zealand
to encourage the full participation of all students in the experience te reo Māori, tikanga and kaupapa Māori 2 as a fully integrated part of not only te reo Māori lessons, but within the whole cultural life of each Rudolf Steiner School in Aotearoa New Zealand. (Taikura Rudolf Steiner School, 2015, p. 4)
This is one small instance of the impact of colonial thinking in Steiner education, identifying that Steiner schools can be ‘unsafe’ places to be for a minority group. It can lead us to consider the question more broadly.