“Building Bridges or Building Walls? The task of Waldorf Education” – an impression of a lecture by Christopher Clouder

It has been a tradition for years that Christopher, who is also an ENSWaP core group member, gives a lecture during our conferences. This is always a delight and attracts many interested local people, not only the participants of the conference. This is the third time that I have the privilege to give an impression of these lectures. I would like to stress that everything written here has gone through my own sieve, has turned into my interpretation. I hope you take the time to get an impression of my impression…

Christopher started out by a poem written by the Hungarian poet Sándor Kányádi, which was first read out in Hungarian (impressively translated by Peter Zollman), then in English.

Isten háta mögött

üres az istálló s a jászol
idén se lesz nálunk karácsony
hiába vártok
nem jönnek a három királyok

sok dolga van a teremtőnek
mindenkivel ő sem törődhet
messzi a csillag
mindenüvé nem világíthat

megértjük persze mit tehetnénk
de olyan sötétek az esték
s a szeretetnek
hiánya nagyon dideregtet

előrelátó vagy de mégis
nézz uram a hátad mögé is
ott is lakoznak
s örülnének a mosolyodnak

Behind God’s Back

bare is the crib and bare is the stable
and bare this year is the christmas table
don’t wait for the chime
the three kings are not coming this time

lord there is plenty to be done
you can’t give your time to everyone
the sky is too far
we can’t all expect to see your star

we understand it’s only right
but lord it’s dark and cold at night
and when love is lost
we shiver bitterly from the frost

you see ahead but look behind
there too are people of every kind
so stay for a while
you would delight them with your smile

In history there have always been moments when it was hard to find a smile. We live in such times. There is a present tendency to build walls: in 1980 there were 17 walls to keep people from other countries, cultures, religions out – at the moment there are now 70. We see many more frowns than welcoming smiles. Smiles are important, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry told of a personal experience where he thought he was going to be imminently killed during the Spanish civil war, but because of one of his jailers smiling at him he knew he would be safe.

Steiner Waldorf schools could be places of smiles. Children do smile – adults less so. How can we find or refind our smiles? We can connect and reconnect with our smiles. Our identity can create a wall, I with my customs and you with yours, and it often takes great courage to build bridges between them. But it is worth it.

How is it still possible that we can be so unkind towards other human beings? The Croatian journalist, Slavenka Drakalic attended the war crimes tribunal in The Hague in order to try to understand what made people murder and maim each other in Bosnia-Hercegovina when neighbour turned on neighbour, friend turned on friend. What she saw was that by losing the sense of individuality of the “other”, a person can be reduced to an idea, an abstraction, and there is no barrier to killing another human being because a negative mindset prevails.

However well we work together it is easy for the “otherness” to creep in. And even though people mean well, we get fragmentation. And what happened to compassion? Suffering used to be in front of us: we directly saw our family, our village suffer. People had a choice to do something about it or not. But now we have artificial eyes, every day we experience a media indirect bombardment of terrible stories, awful things. What are we to do? This voyeurism gives us great moral dilemmas. For artificial eyes we need to create artificial hands. And when the question arises: “am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer should be: “Yes, I am” even if the physical distance is very great.

Children of today experience the anger and frustration that lives among the adults around them. There is an epidemic of mental illnesses amongst children. In the UK one out of 10 youngsters has to cope with eating disorders or self-harm before the age of 25. Hospitalization has doubled in the last three years. In the last 60 years the average age for the onset of depression dropped from 45 to 14 years of age! This is an enormous challenge for not only parents but also for schools. Education needs to reform and learn to work with multiple intelligences. In this the Steiner Waldorf schools should have a leading role.

We must relate to each one another, whenever possible; equally we need to help our students proceed from recognition to admiration, and from admiration to the enduring desire to pursue truth, beauty and goodness in their own lives.” (Howard Gardener. The Disciplined Mind)

Children need protection and we parents, who are the reality for the child, need to build the right sort of wall for them. And build many bridges, of which one of the most important is the bridge between home and school. It is a joint task for parents and teachers to create truly human education of a new age.

In history wars have been fought not only by weapons, but also by art. An art-rich curriculum for children is not a privilege, but a right. Without it they will flounder. The challenges and difficulties in arts communicate the soul. Art is self-creation and it is a bridge. Every child needs this, not only children of the Steiner Waldorf schools. Unfortunately, testing, the dictatorship of numerical results is taking over, children are deprived of arts and are increasingly left with abstractions.

How to oppose this exploitation of the soul? The sense of wonder has to be kept and the finding of wonder in other people. It is a task of Waldorf education to create places of wonder and to wage a war against cynicism. The world is wonderful, and wonder creates love.

Luckily over recent years “new” words are being introduced into educational discourse: well-being, care, happiness, and the “ethics of care” that give an inner feeling of being cared for and caring for others. Our children choose Waldorf schools, we need to help them – and ourselves – to rediscover a sense of love and wonder.

And how can we build bridges? The first pillar is to hold back any kind of prejudice. But bridges are built from both sides, so it is not only our task to build them but also to let it be built from the other side. And if we work hard on it, they will meet each other somewhere in the middle.

Whereas the egotistical point of view makes man more and more abstract, theoretical and inclines him toward head-thinking, the unegotistical point of view urges him to understand the world with love, to lay hold of it through love.” (Rudolf Steiner. Education as a Social Question. Dornach 5/8/1919.)