On 12 October 1492, three ships under the command of a Genoese adventurer named Cristoforo Colombo (in english: Christopher Columbus) anchored at an island in the Bahamas. Somehow the Spanish crew of the ships were able to communicate with the island's inhabitants, glass beads were exchanged for cotton and parrot feathers. The sailors thought they understood that the island was called Guanahani by its inhabitants. The encounter was peaceful and the ships sailed on, coming across another very large island 500 km to the south, called «the wonderful» or the «mountainous land»  by the inhabitants. How did that day become the beginning of a gigantic catastrophe for all the inhabitants of the region now called the Caribbean?
Of the estimated 15 million inhabitants of the islands, only 100'000  were still alive 12 years later, and fifty years later there were practically no descendants left from the population of this paradisiacal island kingdom. Enslaved, murdered, carried off by the diseases introduced by the Europeans – the event that was celebrated in the so-called civilised world as the beginning of the modern age and the «discovery» of the «American» continent was for the peaceful inhabitants of Guanahani and the many other islands the beginning of barbarism and the end of their culture. The problem was, above all, the inability and lack of any motivation to develop a relationship with the people they encountered there.
On the cognitive level, there were huge preconceptions and misconceptions: Colombo thought Guanahani was south of Japan, from where he was about to reach Hangzhou on the east coast of China. He saw the world unknown to him through the lens of the concepts about China known in Europe at that time and did not recognise this new world as unknown. Instead of marveling at the newly experienced and getting to know it, he named everything he found with the names common from his homeland and culture: Holy Saviour (San Salvador), Christmas (La Navidad), Saint Martin (San Martin) and the Trinity (Trinidad) had to serve as names for the Caribbean islands and «the wonderful land» was succinctly declared a «Spanish Island» (La Isla Española). After all, the driving force behind his actions was not to get to know an unknown world, but to find as much gold as possible and become rich. For this purpose, he used the people he met; they had to search for gold or were shipped to Europe as slaves.
Since the Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic did not want to get to know the island world and its inhabitants, which were unknown to them, and did not want to build up a relationship with them, there was only misunderstanding and violence in the area of culture and religion as well. The hosts felt that they were only being used as a means for the purposes of the arrivals and could not suspect that the name «Christ», which was constantly mentioned by the arrivals, could be the name of a god of love and peace. Not out of interest, but only compulsion, the hosts paid lip service to the god of the brutal travellers.
For centuries, many Europeans behaved like Cristoforo Colombo. This led to the demise of countless cultures and religions and the spread of Western, materialistic civilisation, made possible by the Enlightenment and modern natural science. Many people today feel the loss, injustice and suffering caused by this.
With regard to the many other cultural currents that have also emerged in Europe – painting, music, philosophy, literature, pedagogy, including the not so conspicuous flow of «anthroposophy and Waldorf education», the question is being asked today: Did they spread through the power and dominance of the «arrivals», or was there and is there a mutual honest interest and relationship through which all participants worldwide are stimulated to creativity, and that cultures thus cross-fertilise and develop further?
Many involved in Waldorf education resolutely reject the accusation that a colonialist attitude might also have surfaced here or there in Waldorf education. And indeed: in many countries and cultures, educators and parents have repeatedly emphasised that Waldorf education precisely makes it possible to revive regional culture that has been pushed back under Western influence.
During Steiner's lifetime, no Waldorf schools were founded outside Europe. However, if we take to heart some of the basic things Steiner said to teachers at that time, it can help us to avoid falling into the Colombo attitude before Guanahani, e.g. this remark from 1922 in Oxford:
«The Waldorf school is from the outset an organism and cannot be organised by designing a programme as to how the school should be set up: Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2 and so on. Paragraph 1 or paragraph 5 would perhaps mean: the teacher should be like this or like that. The teaching staff does not consist of something that is kneaded out of wax, but one must look for the individual teacher; one must accept him with the abilities he has.»
In other words, the school should not be a machine that functions in the same way under all circumstances, it should be an organism that changes according to internal and external conditions. These conditions, Steiner then goes on to say, must first be perceived and studied: The teachers, the children, the parents. And so one can continue in his sense: one must also get to know the cultural religious, political and social conditions of the place where one is. A very clear invitation not to repeat Colombo's mistake on the cognitive level. Not to impose my familiar concepts on the unknown, but to get to know it without bias. Not to start from a programme, but to let the kindergarten or school organism develop gradually by incorporating the new perceptions and insights. In order not to repeat Colombo's mistake on the emotional level, the following remark of Steiner is helpful:
«If one wants to gain any understanding at all for humanity on earth in relation to its ethical-religious aims, one must on the one hand acquire the prejudice not to regard any ideal as intrinsically more valuable than another, but only to want to understand each one.»
An extremely difficult challenge! A person who has studied anthroposophy for years in Europe and now lives, for example, in Fiji and wants to found a Waldorf kindergarten there is invited to face the unknown world with a complete lack of prejudice, to want to understand the ideals of the people there, and to not consider his or her own ideals more valuable. In this sense I would also continue: one who has listened with empathy to how others have described their «ethical religious goals» and then also wants to formulate his own ideals cannot do so with the words he knows which come from a different context. The names Saint Martin, Trinity and Christ may point to the highest ideals of humanity for the speaker, but if no attention is paid to whether and what the listeners associate with them, the constant repetition of the names is a form of Colombo's behaviour meeting the people of Guanahani.
The third particularly serious fault of Colombo's is the manipulation and deprivation of freedom of his hosts. Basically, only those who subordinated themselves and accepted the culture of the arrivals had a chance of survival. In pedagogy, this kind of misbehaviour is expressed through a pronounced or unspoken tendency by adults to impose own values and norms on the children. Steiner was strictly against this:
«But this must be excluded from every art of education, that we should strive to educate people so that they become like ourselves.»
Those who have these thoughts in mind will rightly say that Waldorf educators cultivate precisely the opposite of a colonialist attitude (provided that no one simply adopts concrete proposals Steiner made a hundred years ago for a school in southern Germany without asking how they might metamorphose for a new time, for a different place....)
Today, we no longer have to travel long distances to experience cultural diversity – we increasingly find it on our doorstep. Every kindergarten and every school can therefore practice learning from Colombo's mistakes:
- Allow plenty of time for individual conversations with parents to get to know their history, their wishes, values, hopes and culture.
- In articulating the hopes, aspirations and values we have as Waldorf educators, be honest, look for words that one’s conversation partners understand and say only what we can permeate with personal feeling.
- Allow plenty of time for conversations with colleagues to consider whether, based on the acquired knowledge of the parents' biographies, the educational practice should be carefully changed: especially with regard to the stories we tell, the organisation of festivals, the teaching of history and language, to religious education (if it is practised in the school), and to the organisation of the daily school schedule.
- Be happy to accept children from all kinds of cultural backgrounds into the school and refrain from giving preference to parents who are already familiar with Waldorf education.
The authors of a guideline for Waldorf trainings, which is currently being discussed within the framework of the Pedagogical Section, put it this way: teachers and trainers in Waldorf schools «are context-sensitive and strive for diversity and differentiated methods. They understand their time and respect the qualities and history, as well as the cultural and social complexity of their place of activity».