Articles - Teaching Compassion at Waldorf

What People Say
I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.
Charles Greenhalgh, Parent

Is Waldorf a Christian school? If not, what religion does it espouse?

Perhaps this question should be asked in a different context.. People of many faiths send their children to our schools. We embrace them all. At the root of our spiritual outlook is a philosophy called Anthroposophy.

This broad body of research, knowledge, and experience holds a spiritual view of human nature and development. It sees the human being as more than a culturally conditioned, genetically determined, biological organism. Instead, Anthroposophy maintains that each individual human being has a spiritual core, or “I,” and that this I is in a continuous process of becoming, of evolving in freedom through spiritual activity toward ever greater self-knowledge. With the gradual awakening of the I, a corresponding awareness of the spiritual wisdom within the created universe arises in the soul.

The anthroposophical worldview understands the historical evolution of consciousness in many cultures as the background for each individual’s path of self-discovery. The fundamental tone of this worldview-which is not a religion-is in harmony with many world religions and philosophies. It stands in opposition, however, to the powerful, contemporary cultural currents based on materialism. In our culture a form of psychological conditioning occurs on an unprecedented scale through the cumulative impact of the 20,000 commercials that the average American child sees each year. Unchallenged assumptions about human nature convey reductionist views of the human being. These strongly influence how children form their fundamental “image of Self,” their view of the essential nature of the human being. This is distinct from the individualized self-image each child also forms.

Various one-sided theories of human development are projected through the popular media-the idea, for example, that the human being is merely an advanced ape or a biological organism that has arisen accidentally from the primordial ooze and whose ideals are epiphenomena of secretions of the brain. Other common images are of the human being as historically/culturally conditioned and behaviorally programmed; fundamentally egoistic and controlled by unconscious drives; genetically determined; a consumer to be manipulated; a unit of economic production in global competition; and a mechanism whose heart is merely a pump, whose brain is a computer. The human being is a couch potato, an action hero, a Barbie doll. Faced with this persistent tide of subconscious indoctrination, concerned parents look for an education that offers a more uplifting view of human potential.

And in the curriculum, methods, and festivals of the Waldorf schools such an alternative image of the human being is offered. Many parents are content to see their children thrive in a Waldorf school, sensing that dedicated teachers deeply care about their children and work with effective educational insights and methods. A few parents wonder further about Anthroposophy, the philosophy that inspires the education. Some inquire out of genuine interest, others to make sure that their children are not exposed to something sectarian, parochial, or dogmatic. Parents can rest assured that Anthroposophy is not taught, inculcated, or subliminally communicated in the school. That would be counter to the purpose of Waldorf Education as “education toward freedom.”

Parents have legitimate concerns: “How does your personal spiritual search as a teacher affect what you teach my children? You profess freedom as a value, but you may hold your values and views superior to what we hold most dear. Perhaps you intentionally or unintentionally promote your view at the expense of ours.” The question-Is Waldorf Education Christian?-may surface at key moments in the festival life of the school. While traditions vary from school to school, an Advent Garden is commonly held; Saint Nicholas may visit; there may be a Saint Martin’s festival; Michaelmas (the festival for Saint Michael) will likely be celebrated; and, along with animal fables, stories of saints will be told in second grade. At many schools there is a performance of a Christmas nativity play. With these events marking the course of the year, the obvious answer to the question seems to be: Yes, Waldorf Education is Christian.

Well, it is not so simple.

We Waldorf teachers also teach the Eightfold Path of the Buddha; the Old Testament and Judaism; Islam; the teachings of Confucius; the teachings of Zarathustra; and Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology. Although limited by our own personal backgrounds, we enter into diverse world cultures with as much reverence and depth as possible. While there are important differences between the world religions, a remarkable common ground-what has been referred to above as the spirit of humanity-is evident. As a school movement, we celebrate festivals of many religious traditions.

A more relevant and revealing approach is to ask: What image of the human being do the Waldorf schools seek to bring to the children as a model and inspiration? Here the answer is unequivocal. It is an image of the human being as loving, compassionate, reverent, respectful, engaged, tolerant, peaceful, joyful, patient, good, upright, wise, balanced, in harmony with the cosmos, nature, and humanity.

No religion or code of ethics can arrogate these fundamental and universal values as its unique possession. For an education that is of the heart and the will as well as the head, there is the practical question of how to help children develop these qualities. Much of what goes on in a Waldorf school that is perceived as religious and Christian-the festivals, the stories and legends of the saints, the Old Testament stories, and so on-has this intention.

Waldorf Education consciously nourishes the inner life of children in order to start them on a lifelong process of self-discovery. It places before them eminent persons-some of them great religious figures, some of them not-but all of them persons who overcame weakness, transformed themselves, expanded the horizons of the human heart, and inspired social change. It does this in the hope that a seed image of human aspiration will grow within each awakening I as the light within, as conscience, as the spirit of truth. Whatever may be achieved in this regard is within the context of an excellent academic education that equips young people for contemporary life with clarity of thought, wisdom of the heart, and practical skill for work.

Transposed from an Article by William Ward.