By Steve Sagarin
(This brief article is based on part of my talk, “What Makes Waldorf, Waldorf? Separating Myths from Essentials and Making the Future Bright,” a keynote address at the annual Governance, Leadership and Management (GLaM) Conference, Steiner Education Australia (SEA), Shearwater, The Mullumbimby Steiner School, NSW, Australia. May 2, 2015.)
A Steiner school gives its graduates—high school graduates—five gifts. Primary school parents and graduates will recognize these gifts, but they will also recognize that they do not come to fruition by 7th or 8th grade.
1.) The first gift is the gift of ideas and ideals.
A Steiner school does not provide beliefs or a worldview. Belief, knowledge, and worldview may be “about” spiritual matters, but are not them. The school provides a pathway or method for discovering profound ideas and ideals, should a student wish later in life to pursue them.
In fact, all we can give with regard to spiritual realities—the realm of ideas and ideals—is a path that can be followed or retraced. In geometry, I can show you how the steps of a proof lead to logical proof, but you must take that final intuitive leap yourself. If you do not “see” that these steps constitute a proof, all I can do as a teacher is retrace the path with you, perhaps using different language or different symbols in order to help you again to the brink of intuitive understanding.
2.) Second, a school addresses its students as developing human beings, beings uniquely capable of inner transformation.
In nature, metamorphoses and transformations are primarily visible. We can see a plant grow from shoot to leaves to flower, each stage presenting unforeseen changes of form. No one looking at a caterpillar for the first time would guess that it will soon be a butterfly. In human life, especially after childhood, transformation and development are not so visible. For Steiner, all cats belong to the same species, but each human being is a species unto himself or herself.
3.) Third, a school introduces students to different ways of knowing and being, three in particular.
(Psychologists recognize these with terms like “cognition,” “affect,” and “behaviour.”) You can know cognitively, you can live in your head. You can contemplate or reflect, observe or compare, analyze or synthesize. These accord most closely with what the world outside a Steiner school means by knowing.
But you can also know with your heart. I call this aesthetic knowing, knowing in which you are awake to beauty, to an ethical understanding, and even to truth. The path to truth may be cognitive, but the recognition of truth is a feeling. Playfulness is the true expression of aesthetic knowing. One way to understand what I mean is to contrast aesthetic knowing with its opposite, “anaesthetic knowing.” Something that anaesthetizes you puts you to sleep—you cannot know anything. The aesthetic awakens you.
Last, you can know in your body and in your senses. Michael Polanyi calls this “tacit knowing,” knowing more than we can say. You can read a book about playing the piano or performing heart surgery, but I hope you would not say after you put the book down that you knew how to do these things.
4.) Fourth, a school can provide profound examples and guidelines for a healthy life with other persons.
If they choose to, Waldorf school graduates know how to care for others in brotherhood and sisterhood, in solidarity. They know how to respect the equality of any man or any woman. They know where their individual freedom lies, the sort of freedom that laws and conventions cannot touch, and how to accord others their own freedom and dignity.
5.) Fifth, students receive a reverence for life and for the world; a concern for the environment, however defined.
I mention this last because as a society we have probably embraced this gift more fully in the past fifty years than we have the others. Any school, any teachers, may give these gifts. But the sad truth is that in our world today only in Steiner schools can you regularly find teachers united in common purpose to give their students as fully and consistently what I have outlined here.