In the devastating aftermath of World War I, as Europe lay in ruins and 35 million people were either dead or wounded, Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner conceived of an education whose aim was nothing less than the reinvention of society.
Steiner imagined that education’s promise could lead us from a world driven by strife and conflict to one where diverse individuals could learn, collaborate, and strive toward their full potential in harmony with one another.
“We look back at the terrible times humanity has recently lived through in Europe…the rivers of blood that have flowed…bodies broken and souls shattered... When we look upon all this, the desire wells up in us to ask, “In the broadest sense, how must we bring up people so that this will be impossible in the future?” Out of this privation and misery, an understanding must awaken for the role of education in restructuring human social relations.”
— The Spirit of the Waldorf School, Rudolf Steiner, 1920
Lecturing on education in the years after the war, Steiner came to the attention of Emil Molt, a forward-thinking businessman who owned the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Molt asked Steiner to open a school for his factory workers’ children. Thus the first “Steiner school” was opened in 1919 and was considered revolutionary for its time.
Unlike other schools, it was co-ed, socially and economically diverse, and featured a developmental (as opposed to rote) curriculum—long before that approach became popular. The school quickly grew to more than 1,000 students. Other Waldorf (or Steiner) schools soon sprang up in Europe and in New York. Today, as we approach the 100th anniversary of Waldorf education, there are more than 1,200 Waldorf schools and an additional 1,200 early childhood centers on six continents.
Why Waldorf? There are many answers. Waldorf’s arts-integrated curriculum engages and motivates students. Waldorf's screen-free environment supports children’s healthy academic and social development. Waldorf schools educate the whole child—in mind, body, and spirit.
But above all, Waldorf education is a social endeavor, seeking to build bridges of empathy, understanding, and tolerance among people.
Why now? We live in a time when communities are divided by prejudice, racism, and violence. When terrorism and hostilities engulf nations and threaten our security. Waldorf education cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But it can educate students with the vision, character, and capacities to build a healthier society.