Tools for Teaching

Waldorf 2.0
by Eugene Schwartz

This article originally appeared in the
WaldorfToday Newsletter on October 11, 2021

During a recent shopping trip, I found myself in a supermarket bakery aisle, facing an imposing stack of Wonder Bread loaves. Unable to resist, I picked one up, squeezed it hard and, as expected, it bounced right back. And then there were those ingredients, all thirty of them, many unpronounceable and most likely inedible. The price of this chemical cornucopia? $2.20 a loaf.

My next stop was our local organic foods market, where I bought the bread that we were going to serve. Freshly baked, it smelled delicious, and its label listed only four ingredients: organic flour, spring water, sea salt, and organic yeast. Since it contained only one-seventh the number of ingredients of the Wonder Bread loaf, one would guess that its price would be about 30 or 35 cents, but it cost $6.00. The bread’s packaging was emphatic: Non GMO. No Corn Syrup. No Hydrogenated Oils. No Preservatives. Allergen Free. The price differential, it seems, has to do with my willingness to pay more for the ingredients that are NOT there.

I relate the above not as nutritional advice, but rather to point to an analogous phenomenon within the Waldorf movement. For decades, Waldorf schools have courageously opposed exposing children to (in chronological order) recorded music, movies, television, computers, video games, the Sony Walkman, the iPhone, the iPad, and smart watches. For many years this oppositional stance elicited little but dismissiveness from the mainstream. However, that attitude changed significantly in 2011 when a news program, broadcast on Waldorf’s old nemesis, a TV station, and a subsequent NY Times article, revealed that many of Silicon Valley’s most discerning engineers and executives chose Waldorf education for their children. The reason they gave was unanimous: Waldorf classrooms kept their youngsters away from technology and electronic devices. With that, the die was cast: eschewing their remarkable curriculum and age-appropriate methodology, American Waldorf schools were certain that they would raise enrollment if they focused on what they did NOT offer.

In the decade that followed, one could not open a Waldorf school newsletter without reading an attack on hardware or software, screens, or devices, and with scorn directed at those who claimed that technology would transform education. Legions of class teachers insisted that their parents sign contracts pledging that their children would have no exposure to devices, schools threatened expulsion if children appeared to have surfed the Internet, and families scurried to cover their computer screens with silks before a class teacher arrived for a home visit. No matter how many pedagogical wonders occurred within its classrooms, the American Waldorf movement was perceived as a one-trick pony, sans screens, sans devices, sans everything.

Until, one day, it wasn’t. The term "one day" may be an exaggeration, for many schools took only a few hours (and others merely minutes) to effect this reversal of attitude and policy — this quantum leap, this utter and complete abandonment of principles. In the blink of an eye, screens, devices, Google, and Zoom were being touted as the sole mode of transmitting Waldorf education. Recasting its reversal of long-held convictions as "courage," the Waldorf leadership then stole the script from hospitals to declare its coerced teachers "heroes" and their awkward Google classroom sessions as "healing." George Orwell couldn’t have put it better.

Class teachers, who would once have blanched at the suggestion that their class should draw with Crayola crayons or write on lined sheets of paper, now had to tell parents that their children would be taught via the Internet and that families must have their computers, devices, and broadband connection activated and ready for the Morning Verse. (What became of all those Anti-Screens contracts? And what became of all the trust and confidence that tuition-paying parents had invested in the resoluteness of their school’s faculty and administration?)

Lest the above sound like yet another attack on the Internet, I want to give some personal history. Anyone who is familiar with the Online Conferences for Grades 1-8 that I founded knows that I have never been a fierce foe of computer technology. (But I am not a starry-eyed fan of information technology and its dubious benefits, either.) Before I developed the conferences that have introduced over 4000 teachers to online Waldorf training, I spent ten years attempting to "climb under the Dragon’s skin," as Rudolf Steiner would put it, and consciously enter the counterworld that Ahriman has wrought. It was my goal not only to provide teachers with a rich experience of the grade to come — I also wanted to see if it was possible to put Ahriman’s automata to work on behalf of Waldorf education. 

For this reason, I was determined not to use ready-made web pages or hire IT people to do the technical work, nor to simply plug into web services that would present our courses, handle our registration, and provide customer service. I wanted to understand every detail (for the Devil, they say, is in the details) and create conferences that would overcome, and to some extent even redeem, the imprisoned elementals whose labors animate every pixel of the computer screen.

While I worked on the online conferences, I continued my work as a consultant to Waldorf schools. At faculty meetings the Internet was often a topic of discussion, especially after the 2007 advent of the iPhone. It was clear that most Waldorf teachers had little understanding of "information technology," but had a great deal of fear about its impact. Ahriman and his minions thrive on our fear, and their machinations triumph where our knowledge and understanding are deficient. One example of this Waldorf naïveté are the signs in Waldorf school parking lots announcing that smart phones were not permitted on the school grounds. Teachers were convinced that this would free the school of electromagnetic force fields, even though that prohibition is as effective as banning thermometers from the school grounds to prevent the temperature from going up and down. (In 2012 I created a video that attempted to offer a nuanced view of screens and their effect on children. It may be
viewed here.)

Many teachers told me that their fear and loathing concerning technology had been encouraged in their teacher training programs. This didn’t surprise me, for every step that I took to help Waldorf education make its way into the 21st century was opposed and maligned most virulently by those who led the training centers. Over the years, I was warned not to record my lectures, not to produce YouTube videos about Waldorf education, and not to create the first and only Waldorf app for the iPhone. As the Online Conferences grew in popularity, the Waldorf leadership insisted that a genuine Waldorf training could never be given online because the Internet could only convey information, and not provide person-to-person experiences. At one point, I made the Online Grade 6 Conference available to all the training center leaders in North America, so that they could see and hear it for themselves. Like the Church leaders who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, the Waldorf authorities told me that they didn’t have to view the conference; they already knew that it would not be useful.

In the light of those encounters, it was almost risible to observe the training centers tripping over each other as they scrambled to be the FIRST to offer online teacher conferences in the summer of 2020. AWSNA had compelled its member schools to go online by replacing teachers’ fear of technology with another fear: if they didn’t get with the program their schools would be closed by the state. It is hard to ascribe the training centers’ passionate embrace of the Internet to anything other than hypocrisy. Like the parent contracts in the schools, the training centers’ longstanding rule that a Waldorf training could deliver not more than 10% of its content online must have been trampled and shredded in the training centers’ rush to work with Google and Zoom, Thinkific and Teachable, and a host of local techies.

It is significant that not once have any of the individual Waldorf schools, AWSNA, or the training centers acknowledged that they have completely reversed their oft-repeated negative statements about online education. In fact, the widespread ignorance and fear that I have described as characterizing the Waldorf approach to the Internet in the first two decades of this century made Waldorf practitioners on every level "easy marks" for Ahriman’s opportunistic con. And even though most Waldorf schools have reopened their classrooms and are returning to "face-to-face" pedagogy, it is certain that the training centers will continue and even expand their online offerings. The possibility of reaching thousands, rather than merely hundreds, of teachers and trainees (and their tuitions) at the flick of a switch makes it quite tempting for the training centers to simply jettison their lofty principles. "All these things I will give you if you fall down and worship me . . . “

Since the Ten Days That Shook the Waldorf World in March of 2020, a great deal has returned to "normal" (in the pandemic sense), and the pedagogical utilization of the Internet may be judged as less of a tribulation. But if it were still an issue needing discussion — and we can safely assume that we will be under pressure to work online again and again — there is no forum in which to do so. Not long after teachers struggled to find their way with distance learning, AWSNA deftly swept those concerns under the rug and announced that Anti-Racism was the new Burning Issue. I won’t deny the importance of DEI, but I don’t believe that we have finished — or even begun — discussing what happened in March of 2020. The intended theme of the June, 2020 AWSNA conference was going to be "Innovation," which proved to be more prescient than anyone could have realized. Since that conference was cancelled due to the pandemic, the theme might easily have been carried over to the 2021 conference and served as a frank and transparent review of what had gone well and what had gone terribly wrong. But that sort of institutional self-analysis has never been the modus operandi of the Waldorf movement’s leaders.

Whatever one’s stance on the Internet as a Waldorf modality, the most important question is: How could AWSNA and its affiliated schools hold the evil nature of the Internet to be a sacred truth, only to instantly turn around and say the opposite? And not apologize for all the confusion they have caused! And what is the next "evil" that the Waldorf leadership will tell us is really "good”? This begs the question of how much we Waldorf practitioners believe in what we are saying and how fully we are willing to act on it. "Every idea that does not become an Ideal slays a force in our soul," Steiner once said, and we must wonder if the same gap between what we say and what we do is permeating the Waldorf classroom, much as it has the Waldorf Boardroom and AWSNA headquarters. Those who are passionate about anti-racism, LBGTQ rights, or any other cause, should think twice before asking AWSNA to advocate on their behalf. If history is any guide, the more stridently the Waldorf movement waxes about a cause, or an issue, or its own pedagogy, the more readily will it forget or desert that cause, and often with alacrity.

And likewise, history would indicate that there will be no discussion or reflection concerning how the momentous decision to take Waldorf online was made, whether the coercive methods used to activate that decision were justified, and, above all, how much the anthroposophical foundations of Waldorf education really matter anymore. In the absence of angels, the Waldorf leadership seeks inspiration from its lawyers. Although we claim that a Waldorf education helps a child recognize how much she can learn from her mistakes, as a movement we are often remarkably opaque about our own mistakes. When Rudolf Steiner College shut its doors in 2017, was the embarrassing fact that a once-thriving, AWSNA-accredited training center had failed ever discussed or analyzed anywhere? Its closing was not even announced. 

Perhaps the real "heroes" in this sorry tale are the teachers who had the courage to reject distance learning, risking their own financial security to teach their classes in someone’s home. Some of these efforts have led to small and vibrant "community" schools, many of which try to take Steiner’s educational principles to heart.

AWSNA and its member schools are quietly widening the division between Waldorf education and Anthroposophy. When the call to “denounce” Steiner appeared on the AWSNA website member schools were encouraged to follow suit. In a
2020 online interview, an ASWNA Executive Director supported the Association’s denunciation of Steiner’s “racist” statements and described him as “misguided.” (Without any apology or even an explanation, AWSNA recently removed the word “denounce” from its site.) With this as a background, the formation of unaffiliated community schools may provide an urgently needed foundation for the genuine renewal of Steiner’s educational impulse. If the compelled distance learning of “Waldorf 2.0” represents the nadir of Waldorf education in our time, the teachers and parents of the Waldorf Diaspora may be the ones sowing the seeds of the Michaelic schools of the future.

These ideas are developed more fully in Does Waldorf Still Matter?, a new lecture series by Eugene Schwartz. For more information, click here.

Eugene Schwartz has been a Waldorf educator for nearly five decades. As an author, mentor, and consultant, he has shared his class teaching experiences with teachers and parents at over 125 schools worldwide. He is director of the Online Conferences for Grades 1-8 and continues to work with schools and teachers. His website is
millennialchild.com, and he may be reached at iwaldorf@icloud.com.