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The Anthropology of Waldorf Pedagogy

Every approach to education is based on anthropological ideas and principles that are an “inextricable part of our day to day actions” (Meinberg, 1988, 10). One of the essential and sometimes controversially discussed characteristics of Waldorf pedagogy is that it explicitly addresses the understanding of the human being that underlies its pedagogical approach (Kranich, 1990; Ullrich, 2015: Schieren, 2016). As Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf pedagogy, once formulated:


“Everything that needs to be taught and learned should be developed out of knowledge of the developing human being and his or her individual dispositions. True anthropology needs to be the foundation of education and of teaching.” (Steiner, 1915-1921/1982, p.37)


The thought that ideas regarding education need to be founded on a substantial understanding of the human being is one essential aspect of a pedagogical approach which focuses on the child at the center of all teaching and educational practice. 


Anthropology as the Basis for Individualized Pedagogy


As Steiner described in the essay quoted above, educational practice that is guided by “the developing person and his or her individual dispositions” is fundamentally different from educational practice that is determined by societal demands. The wishes and interests of “the economy” or “the state” should not determine what and how teaching is carried out in school. Rather, the continual striving of teachers to determine the needs, developments, and undiscovered potential of their pupils should be the deciding factor as to what goes on in the classroom. This approach to education requires intensive work with anthropological questions and themes, to allow for a deep understanding of children. It is for this reason that such study is continually encouraged and cultivated, both in Waldorf teacher education and in faculty meetings in Waldorf schools. 


Anthropology as Heuristic


In the teacher education institutes within the INASTE network, the anthropological foundations of Waldorf pedagogy are approached in a manner that takes account of, and bears reference to, contemporary scientific discourse. Anthropological and anthroposophical ideas and terminology are not approached as dogmatically held truths, but rather they are understood as a form of “heuristic”, meaning that they are practiced as a method of thinking about humankind which can incite new experiences, and thereby motivate deepened reflections on human experience (see also Rittelmeyer, 2001, p. 316).


Holistic Understanding of the Human Being


Waldorf pedagogy aims to cultivate an open, anti-reductionist understanding of the human being, consciously approaching topics from diverse viewpoints and perspectives. In the course of Steiner’s lectures about “The Study of Man”, he emphasized that the human being can be seen not only from a “physical” perspective, but also from a “soul” and a “spiritual” point of view (Steiner, 2019/1996). These three different ways of understanding the world correspond with three levels of human existence. On a physical level, the human being has a body that complies with physical and biological laws. As a soul being, he or she has an individual inner life expressed in feelings, thoughts, and will impulses - which heredity and socialization alone cannot fully explain. As a spiritual being, a person has the potential to reach beyond the limits of subjectively constructed meaning, to experience concepts and ideas whose truth transcends individual subjectivity. The human being is thus approached and understood in terms of bodily existence, in terms of sociality and emotionality, and in terms of spirituality and the ability to achieve knowledge and - by extension - freedom. 


Development in Community


The anthropology underlying Waldorf education places particular value on abilities of self-development and of self-transformation. Rudolf Steiner describes the basis for these abilities, among other places, in his main philosophical work, the “Philosophy of Freedom”. Here, the human being is described as striving both towards individual autonomy and also towards social responsibility. This dual striving is expressed in what Steiner defines as the “fundamental maxim” of free human beings, which is “to live in love towards our actions, and to let live in the understanding of the other person’s will” (Steiner, 1995, p. 90). Elsewhere, Steiner describes clear patterns of development in the human biography that happen in roughly defined periods of seven years. Yet even within these patterns, there is always variation resulting from differing dynamics in the interplay between individual and social impulses. This is why Waldorf pedagogy places particular emphasis on age-appropriate social spaces and the development of social relationships and community on the one hand, and on individually pursued projects on the other. Common practices in Waldorf schools, from the conscious promotion of a heterogeneous but close-knit class community and a stable relationship between the teacher and students over a period of up to eight years, to the comprehensive individual research projects typically carried out in eighth and twelfth grade, are examples of concrete applications inspired by this anthropological concept. 


Leonhard Weiss

Vienna, Austria

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