A Report from Think OutWord’s Conference “In Context: Waldorf Education and the Crisis of Today”
My ride from Burlington dropped me in the dusk of Ghent, NY’s anthroposophical enclave. I followed signs to a lazured basement room where 40-odd woolen-wrapped people sat in a circle. The group was intent, racially homogenous but generationally diverse. They were listening to Jon McAlice telling the story of the political awakening of Thomas Clarkson, a respectable bourgeois Englishman who through the intensity of his awakening to the realities of slavery became a prominent early abolitionist. Jon spoke of a “leap from the top of a mountain”: when those in a privileged place plunge into something new, leaping from knowledge into action, from the safe into the unknown.
This motif, like a hot coal, raised burning questions in me, and smoldered throughout the weekend. What would it mean today for the successful, respectable, enlightened Waldorf movement to take a leap? A leap from a lofty vantage point, a leap out of simply contemplating the vista to flinging ourselves toward its horizon, abandoning the safety of aloof, critiquing “knowledge” and embracing the swerving, rickety, dangerous flight of action? How can we leap into flight off a heavy mountain of privilege, into the unknown air of new cultural, political and economic forms?
I’m going to focus on this aspect of what was necessarily a multi-faceted conference, in which fruitful pedagogical, spiritual and aesthetic discussions proliferated. I make this selection due to the constraints of space and the fact that the conference represented a unique concentration of the “political wing” of anthroposophical educationalists, including governance shake-up expert Jon McAlice and prominent reformer Gary Lamb, as well as a large number of threefold-emphasizing Think OutWorders and young and old Occupy participants and sympathizers.
Several rickety, daring answers to the question of the “leap” began to nail themselves together over the weekend. If slavery was the great evil at the basis of Thomas Clarkson’s economic world, today’s slaves are the fossil fuels we burn to build our artificial mountains of privilege, not to mention the slavery of the human and nonhuman beings who make up the lower strata of the pyramid. At our salaries, most Waldorf teachers stand not on the top of this mountain, but on a comfortable, sharp-eyed lookout somewhere up its flank. We are the 99%, but a very small slice of it. The Occupy movement hovered in the background of conversation all weekend, and a workshop I facilitated asked how its energy might help fuel our leap into the new.
Many at the conference suggested that our movement needs to outgrow its sense of dogmatic superiority, and go out in search of conversation, learning and allies from “outside,” while also taking our own light out from under the bushel. For this, we need spaces where dialogue can happen, where we are not caught in the position of teachers or proselytizers. We need to occupy new spaces for discourse with our potential allies in building a new society.
Jon also spoke about the relative freedom which “we” in the rich North enjoy. But while we are essentially free as individuals, in actuality the broken structures of late capitalism constrain and distort our freedom, turning it into the poor working mother’s “freedom” to buy her child a flat-screen on credit, and the CEO’s “freedom” to rob her to buy his third yacht. How can we create spaces where freedom, solidarity and human rights can truly become themselves? Not simply by knowing and naming and teaching others about the problem. However, we can perhaps draw a metaphor from Waldorf pedagogy. Several conference participants spoke about the need for teachers to “create space” for learning, rather than pouring teaching into the students. An old theme, but constantly renewed in different contexts: like the Waldorf teacher in the classroom, the teachers, parents and activists in our movement must join with others to construct spaces where ideas about a new society can become real. This means building new kinds of institutions. In the uprisings of 2011, the occupied squares, parks and Capitols around the world forced open a space for democracy, a chamber to amplify the voices of the oppressed. But these were precarious spaces—to be sustainable, the global movement for social renewal must build more durable, institutional spaces for organizing, education and campaigning. This means building in the Byzantine, decaying structures of late capitalism. Perhaps some must be demolished, others occupied and re-purposed. But surveying from a lookout and diagnosing will not be enough. Hoping a Waldorf-educated next generation will solve our problems for us is not only not enough; it is a crime against our children’s children. A major premise of the conference’s organizers was that a renewed engagement with threefolding, Steiner’s social theory, must be part of Waldorf’s “leap.”
After a delicious Farm breakfast, the Saturday morning session embarked on OutWord Thinker Travis Henry’s presentation of the essentials of Steiner’s social theory of threefolding, which holds that the cultural, political and economic spheres need to be disentangled and made independent. What if the threefold movement had taken off to the extent that Waldorf schools did, he asked the group. Why didn’t it? Could it yet? Travis worked from the premise that threefold theory was meant to be applied at a state-sized scale, implying that its proponents should not content themselves with merely creating small prefigurations of a threefold order, the way Waldorf schools can exist as a model within the decaying educational systems of late capitalism.
Participants raised what struck me as some pertinent questions for 21st-century people trying to grasp and rehabilitate threefolding. How does the intention of the threefold model to build a new kind of state deal with the perceived eclipse of states by trans- and increasingly supra-national capital, terrorism and environmental problems, not to mention the deep problems of modern nation states in the postmodern, postcolonial South? How can culture be free not only of the state but also of the economy?
With respect to these questions, some episodes from the uneven history of the threefold theory and erstwhile movement were aired. The story of Steiner’s attempt to create no-strings-attached private funding for cutural work sounded quite different from the nonprofit sector of today, which is often kept moderate and timid by its existential need to appeal to the wealthy, and specifically the institutional frameworks of increasingly managed, rationalized, strings-attached “venture philanthropy.” The question for me is, could a genuinely transformative social movement today raise the kind of support Steiner did among the wealthy and powerful, and is that where we want to look for support, with or without strings attached? Free Columbia, an art course and sister project of Think OutWord, seems to have taken the opposite route, crowd-funding itself more in the manner of an artists’ union with sliding-scale dues than arts philanthropy. It seems to me that while big donors who are truly sympathetic are wonderful, our cultural (and eventually political) movement should be as independent as possible from “big money” and the fragile economic system that creates it.
A participant also raised a vital contemporary comparative perspective in the notion of the separation of ethnic “nation” and political state in post-colonially carved-up territories. The South African VhaVenda struggle for cultural survival and independence has apparently taken an interest in threefold ideas.
Following the preliminary discussion of threefolding, the format shifted into an “Open Space,” in which participants listed “burning questions” on the theme of rights and the political as a sphere. Threefold theory holds that politics in the sense of a democratic state apparatus should concern itself exclusively with those aspects of life that have to do with human rights, in which all people are equal. There were many urgent questions on the right to education and how an independent school movement can recognize it. We discussed the role of the state as the guarantor of rights to full participation in the economic and cultural spheres, and the problems of enacting this role without exercising undue influence over what Steiner would have termed the essential functions of economics or culture. To my mind, the discussion of the relationship of state interests and imperatives to cultural and economic rights suggests a great many fruitful directions for discussion within the re-emerging threefold movement. How can the state become a robust guarantor of rights without becoming a Stalinistic bureaucracy? How can it withdraw from the economic and cultural spheres without giving those spheres up to the rights-trampling “freedom” of capital and the 1%? The issue of school choice, which was the focus of later presentations and discussions, is a case of these questions coming to the fore. How to achieve major educational reforms, which would render Waldorf schools accessible to millions and begin to free the cultural sphere from state and economic control, as threefolding envisions, is a monumental question which the remainder of the conference addressed.
The evening’s presentation was by Gary Lamb, the leading Waldorf advocate of school choice. Lamb joins a small slice of the politically progressive who advocate for such reforms, which are usually the pet project of right-wing Friedmanites. On the left, he’s joined by none other than Herbert Gintis, mid-century giant of critical education theory and author, with Bowles, of Schooling in Capitalist America. Lamb’s views differ significantly from those of Gintis, who doesn’t mind strong state involvement with choice schools, including standardized testing. Lamb’s talk on threefolding was an excellent background to understanding his unique position on education reform in the US.
Conference-goers entering Lamb’s talk were greeted by a diagram on the blackboard in the shape of a wi-fi symbol: a quarter-pizza with concentric bands seeming to radiate out from the vertex. At this vertex was “Spiritual Science.” Emanating, as it were, from thence was “View of the Human Being,” then “Threefold Social Order,” then “Waldorf Pedagogy.” The diagram, Lamb explained, was meant to show both “a historical and an archetypal progression.” Waldorf did in fact grow out of the threefold movement in inter-war Germany, which grew out of Anthroposophy and Steiner’s spiritual insights. However, according to Lamb, this order of influence was also representative of a healthy social order. The interesting point to note is that social theory stands between the healthy system’s anthropology and its pedagogical practice (or perhaps the practice of whatever work a healthy social system is undertaking). From this work — teaching in the case of a school — the forms of “Administration” take their cues.  These forms, in turn, emanate out into the “Cultural Sphere,” which finally is supposed to exert its wholesome influence on economics and politics.
The basic schema struck me as typical of Steiner’s idealistic orientation to politics: idealistic in the sense that culture, and ultimately spirituality, are supposed to be the drivers of social change. Steiner in his lifetime articulated this idealism quite openly against the materialist orientation of the Left of his time, which he saw (rightly) as overly economistic and determinist. However, as Gary Lamb admitted early in his talk, the wholesome influence of cultural and ideological innovations is blocked by the current configuration of state-economy collusion — the hegemony capital is able to exert in the political process, whether or not there are the publically financed elections and banning of super PACs which many progressives and Occupiers seem to think will solve the problem. Lamb, who worked for years as a lobbyist and reform campaigner, exhibited a bracing honesty about the limits of legislative and media campaigns, that is, with the strategies of a liberal politics of persuasion and reform, given the structural solidity of state-capital collusion. In a moment of pessimism, he even went so far as to suggest that individual-to-individual persuasion was the only strategic route open to those seeking change. However, questioners quickly drew him out in some more hopeful directions.
A questioner asked how we can convince not those in political power, but the rank and file of mainstream educators, of the need for structural change toward cultural freedom and thence to political equality and economic solidarity. Lamb felt that people working in classrooms have an intuitive sense of the desirability of teachers’ control and academic freedom. He intimated the possibility of rank-and-file organizing of teachers for campaigns against increased state/economy-driven rationalization of their work. This struck me as an interesting strategic suggestion for the Pedagogical Section or whatever non-teacher political wing of anthroposophy could exist to push the insights coming out of the classroom into the political sphere, as Lamb said that Steiner suggested.
I raised the question of the mutual interplay of legal, economic and cultural developments — while a linear progression starting from culture (and blocked by the state-economy nexus) was portrayed in Lamb’s “wifi” diagram, another diagram on the board showed the three spheres arranged around a sort of “recycling” symbol. I raised the example of Civil Rights in the US, where legal change did not require an already-changed consciousness, but rather material resistance to power forced through some legal (though sadly not economic) rights for Black people, with the resulting partial integration paving the way for the ongoing work of eradicating cultural racism. The gains made against cultural racism, meanwhile, have been largely ineffective at addressing continued material, structural racism (i.e., the school-prison-industrial complex). Lamb responded with a reaffirmation of the potential of “grassroots movements” to force the necessary structural changes.
An Occupier followed up this exchange with an anecdote about the failure of a recent Occupy shutdown of a Department of Education meeting to prevent the closure of twenty-odd public schools in NYC. Lamb asked how many had occupied the meeting. Five hundred, the man answered. What if you’d had fifty thousand, five hundred thousand? Lamb asked. He didn’t elaborate, but to me the message was clear: shutting down one meeting is not a campaign. Only a mass base organized in sufficient numbers to shut down entire economies can wrest serious reform from the economy-dominated state. While Steiner sometimes derided strikes for being implicated in unhealthy interpenetration of political and economic spheres, the only way to the heart of the state is through the wallet of the economic elite that controls it. In other countries they understand this. When academic freedom and accessible education are threatened in Chile, student leaders are able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of workers to shut down entire cities, and a large percentage of the countries schools were occupied and held by students and teachers for months on end last year. While the US situation is very far from this, and the goals of anthroposophists and the Chilean students are very different, if not at odds, the range of political possibilities needs to be expanded beyond liberal reform’s toolkit, if anthroposophy is serious about reforms of education as inimical to the interests of the state-economy hegemony as those under discussion in Ghent that evening.
Several other important issues were raised in the Q&A. A woman pointed out that numbers are not sufficient: social movements needs strategy. Lamb responded, and he should know, that the current state- and capital-dominated education system is the result of years-long strategic work by our adversaries. Lamb documents this highly coherent thrust of capitalist-state education reform in his pamphlet-like book The Social Mission of Waldorf Education (AWSNA Publications, 2004). He called for widespread analytical awareness of this, followed by strategy and will. He expressed the hope that “the moment of activation does not come in a burst of instinct.”
A questioner who identified as a philosophy and education student at Columbia asked about the prospects for mobilizing the masses, who have “no room to maneuver” in the current economic situation. Lamb pointed out that far worse-off people have mobilized again and again in history. The questioner asked further about the limitations of a “politicians-out-of-education” program. This was the progressive program at the turn of the last century, she said, and it opened the way not for free culture and cultural workers’ control, but for increased business hegemony in education, and the re-drawing of school districts to promote segregation. “There are loci of oppression other than the state,” she cautioned, sometimes under the banner of “local control.” This read to me as a clear caution against the anthroposophical school movement allying itself too closely with ideologically anti-government, free-market fundamentalist approaches to school choice. As noted above, Friedmanites may be strange bedfellows for left-leaning anthroposophists, but there are other progressives, even socialists like Gintis, in Lamb’s camp as well. It’s a question of emphasis and execution.
A few final points on Lamb’s presentation (I missed his final talk on school choice policy, but his policy positions can be found in The Social Mission of Waldorf). To conclude my analysis of the TOW conference, I want to draw out a few connections between pedagogical Waldorf and the political discussions of threefolding.
Steiner, according to Lamb, said that Waldorf was to be the spearhead of the threefold movement. But today, with that movement largely nonexistent, Waldorf from this perspective would be like a beautifully wrought artifact lying in the dust, sans shaft or arm to throw. This is in no way to denigrate Waldorf education, an alternative cultural movement to which I am personally dedicating my career. The thrust of the conference, to me, was toward a re-imagining of Waldorf in the context of a radical social as well as spiritual vision. The “freedom” in which Waldorf so assiduously strives to leave its graduates is severely curtailed by the structural constraints of modern politics and economics. Waldorf tries to develop students capable not only of the thin conception of personal freedom amenable to capitalist society, but of an expansive freedom for all to participate fully in a humanizing politics, culture and economics. This means that Waldorf schools must renew their emphasis on creating students capable of fighting for this kind of expansive human freedom. This does not, of course, mean the didactic teaching of threefolding as an ideology. What it means, according to Lamb, is building the feeling for solidarity and fraternity, the will to “make word flesh” and work practically out of an ideal, and the clarity of thought to form that ideal and to formulate strategy to guide effective action. These three must be in balance, or all are distorted. One-sided intellectualism, as Steiner was fond of saying, becomes the impractical theory of much of the Left, or else the capitalists’ instrumental rationality in the service of egoism. But (and this is harder for the alternative culture movement to grasp) one-sided exaltation of feeling and aestheticism leads to a bohemian torpor or a hazy New-Age spirituality, while fetishizing will-activity (the current justifiable enthusiasm for farm education might produce good farmers, but their efforts at sustainability will be re-commodified unless people have the analysis, passion and will to transform the food system through political, economic and cultural means acting together in strategic synergy).
Applying this kind of change strategy to the educational system and our own movement implies some practical next steps:
- A continued exploration of new forms to make Waldorf schools accessible;
- A renewed engagement with threefold social theory to politicize the vital function of Waldorf schools as worker and parent self-education communities;
- Outreach and networking with potential allies in other educational and social movements;
- A serious effort to grapple with the difficulties of social change theory, and the search for strategies of transformation that can still function under the serious constraints of advanced state-capital hegemony.
These steps could lead our movement to a point from which we can take the “leap” from the comfort of critique into the rigor, uncertainty and exhilaration of action.
 In the cultural sphere, including Waldorf schools, Steiner seems to have advocated a pragmatically democratic (or, as he termed it, “republican”) form of workers’ administration and control that is quite radical. However, he diverged from such far-left “councilist” tendencies with regard to the economy proper, where he advocated managerial “initiative.” He is thus hard to pin down in either a traditionally socialist or capitalist camp, even aside from his non-party-line approach to liberal individualism (appropriate in the cultural and possibly economic sphere as long as one is in the capitalist or managerial class) and socialist “brotherhood” (appropriate in the economic sphere, through workers’, managers/capitalists’, and consumers’ “associations,” the governance models of which are somehow supposed to meet everyone’s needs fairly while preserving ownership and managerial “initiative”). See, for example, GA 23, or Steiner’s essay “Culture, Law and Economics,” in The Renewal of the Social Organism.