We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: Questions About the Political Curriculum of the Waldorf School in the Wake of the Presidential Election of 2016

By Peter Lawton

The recent presidential election has presented our nation with a new and very real opportunity to look deeply inside ourselves, to our cores, to question not only who we are but who we want to be.  It has also presented us with an imperative to act.  One of the questions we ask in our own school community is, what is a Waldorf school, and how do I make sense of this seeming bastion of white privilege in a time when we need all boots on the ground and in the trenches, fighting for the rights of our nation’s least privileged and vulnerable?  How do Waldorf methods, which resonate so deeply with so many of us on an emotional level, nonetheless intersect with the “real” world of politics, economics, and society?

A dear old friend who’s like a brother to me wrote recently the president is not, as is often said, the leader of the free world.  The leader of the free world is really the space between our ears, “the space inside our own head where we are and always have been free to engage with the inextinguishable opportunity to do the next true thing as we see it.”  (Thanks Craig Wright.)  At each moment in our lives we are free to destroy, create, hate, love, decay, grow, lay down, or fight.  Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The central area of interest in a Waldorf school is, in fact, that space between our ears, the space between stimulus and response.  That space, not the presidency, is the highest office in our land, and it’s in that space true freedom resides.

One of the central defining differences between traditional forms of education and Waldorf schools is that Waldorf schools are concerned not with what we know, but how we know.  When it comes to being leaders of the free world (in our heads), how we know is a much better indication of how free we are than what we know.  Of course as progressive, liberal-minded people (liberal not in terms of political parties, but in terms of not living in the Stone Age) we want our kids to have the right ideas, say the right things, and act in the right ways.  But more than that we want them to be open and available to new ways of thinking and interacting with the world we grown-ups haven’t even dreamed of yet.

I was recently having a conversation with another friend, you know the conversation where you talk about how in this information age, when all the world’s knowledge is at your fingertips, the real skill is not knowing stuff, but sifting through the BS and knowing which information is credible.  And I asked her, well, how do we know which information is credible?  She said, it’s hard because everyone seems to have an agenda.  Even math and science have agendas.  And she described the need to think on a meta level, to be able to digest information, but also see beyond the information to some larger truth.  I asked again, but how does one do that?  Again and again she appealed to the need to be smarter.  But I could tell her assessment wasn’t satisfying even for her.  We reached an impasse, and the question remained.  What does it mean, smarter?

The answer to the question of how one sees beyond information to the truth, it turns out, is feeling and intuition; our innate ability to connect with our own highest office, our inside spaces and the inside spaces of others.  Unfortunately several major cultural blind spots impede our ability to fully include those inside spaces in our modern thinking.  In addition to interference from hegemonic economic and political interests who benefit from our passivity, there are two major blind spots in our modern understanding of intelligence impeding our ability to think freely.  The first is, we employ our intellects to see only what we want to see.  And the second is, seeing only what we want to see, we’re unable to examine our own thinking.

It was Toto in the Wizard of Oz, after all, who found the wizard behind the curtain.  The other characters were too busy watching the screen.  They were all ruled by fear in one sense, but in another sense they were all trapped in a particular way of knowing.  Scarecrow, of course, represented the intellect, Tin Man emotion, and Lion the volition or will.  Toto and Dorothy were available to a way of knowing the others weren’t.  This other way is what we call intelligence or wisdom, an alchemical combination of the other three—the intellect, feelings, and will.  Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion each represented one aspect of knowing, but on their own, and each in their own way, they were unable to see beyond the information to the truth.

The real political imperative for education is not stuffing information into scarecrow heads, keeping the emotions subdued and entertained, or keeping the hands busy making widgets.  The real political imperative is helping kids grow into adults who think for themselves.  Citizens who think for themselves are less susceptible to magical explanations of phenomena.  They are less vulnerable to hypnosis by The Screen.  And they are less likely to lose themselves on the consumer treadmill.

So how do Waldorf schools work with young children to grow them into adults who think for themselves?  How do Waldorf schools address “real” world politics, economies, and culture?

It is certainly true that Waldorf schools in the US lag behind many public schools and some other private schools in representing diverse populations, both in our student bodies and faculties.  While there are over 1,000 Waldorf schools in over 60 countries worldwide with multi-cultural student bodies and wide-ranging curriculums, many Waldorf schools in the US remain fairly euro-centric in their curriculums and celebrations of festivals, although there is significant movement under way in our school and other Waldorf schools to change that.  Our own school has made inclusion and diversity one of the top goals in our long-range strategic plan, and has devoted our last two faculty in-service sessions completely to topics related to increasing diversity.  And we’re not just talking about diversity and multiculturalism.  We’ve rolled up our sleeves and are making real changes in both the administrative and pedagogical realms.  We recognize how important it is for students to see themselves reflected in the community and content of their school.

In addition to the need to expand the inclusivity of programming, Waldorf schools have a structural problem stemming from their educational principles.  Financial factors aside, the fact that Waldorf schools take a decidedly anti-intellectual (anti one-sided, scarecrow) approach to education may be one of the biggest impediments to increasing diversity in their staffs and student bodies.  In a world where intellect and so-called academic rigor are viewed as keys to success, choosing a radical and counter-cultural school for our children may be a choice only those with a strong societal safety net may afford to make.  For some, Waldorf schools are so far out in left field in their relationship to core curriculums and standardized tests, and in their rejection of the intellectualization of young children, they’re not even in the ballpark.  People who have been trying to get into the ballpark—or the country club—for generations may feel they have good reason to look past their neighborhood Waldorf school.  Waldorf schools are ultimately trying to grow Dorothy(s), but the pressure in modern education to teach to a nation of Scarecrows is immense.

The selection of story material is one of many examples of the internal challenges Waldorf schools face in making qualitative shifts to increase inclusivity in their curriculum while still maintaining their educational integrity.  A very simple example of this challenge regards fairy tales.  Waldorf schools acknowledge the deep wisdom of fairy tales.  Fairy tales represent a world of cosmic forces and truths, they represent supreme battles between forces of good and evil.  As such, fairy tales are also political allegories.  The story of the third “simple” brother is, in the end, a story of how goodness and selflessness trump cleverness and selfishness every time.  This lesson is not just political, it’s also highly practical!  In addition to the political or moral content, there’s an important developmental aspect to fairy tales. Waldorf schools understand the pictorial thinking represented by fairy tales matches the pre-operational thinking of the very young child, making fairy tales a powerful tool in the development of intelligence.  The magic of the fairy tale is the young child’s intellectual window into notions like right and wrong, cause and effect, etc.

Although fairy tales represent cosmic realities, they are also clothed in material language. Unfortunately part of that material clothing is often patriarchal, even racial. While Waldorf schools recognize the grand wisdom of fairy tales, we also recognize there’s absolutely no reason fairy tales should remain clothed in any racist or sexist language. We acknowledge the characters and families represented in fairy tales should be representative of our wider community, both in a real and aspirational sense. But while the material clothing of fairy tales can potentially get in the way of communicating something big and cosmic, something eternal, it may just as easily be an incredible resource for bringing home those same truths. Because mythic stories are ultimately a conduit for communicating something really true, and because the images are imaginative by nature, the storyteller has incredible freedom in how they tell the story. The example of Simpleton and his older brothers is not only the perfect potential medium for exploring how first-graders should meet each other, but how they might meet what’s coming to them from the outside world. And the teacher has the leeway, the responsibility perhaps, to tell the story in a way that not only meets the children where they are developmentally, but where they are in the real world. Almost anything children face in their “real world” lives may be addressed through mythic stories.

Waldorf schools cannot simply throw fairy tales and other mythic stories out of the curriculum as most schools do, nor would they. Fairy tales teach children how to think for themselves when they grow up. The ultimate challenge of working with mythic story material is telling stories that resonate with cosmic significance and truth without letting any material aspect of the language get in the way of that truth. For anyone. No matter how small. We humbly and gratefully accept this challenge! And the great reward is that fairy stories, fables, parables, legends, and so on, are soul food to young children. As opposed to giving children fish, as in admonitions or rules or intellectual concepts, right as they may be, myths teach children how to fish for themselves. The way young children enter into mythic stories is a powerfully creative and volitional act that ultimately teaches them how to think.

We’re all painfully aware of the challenges facing Waldorf schools in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  But perhaps the more provocative question arising in the wake of the presidential election is not, why are Waldorf schools not more multicultural, but why don’t Waldorf schools more explicitly or overtly address politics?  Why, for instance, do Waldorf elementary schools not have more overt ant-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-anything programming?  The answer to this question is, Waldorf schools DO have anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-other-things programming.  Our programming is just not overt.  And there are very important reasons it’s not overt.

Let’s start with an illustration not inherently political.

One question that often arises in Waldorf schools is analogous to the political question.  This question concerns technology and asks, how can our students be prepared for the modern technological world when the school doesn’t even have computers?  (Analogy:  How can students grow up anti-racist and anti-sexist if the school doesn’t explicitly teach anti-racism and anti-sexism?)  Well, the answer is, our students may actually be better prepared.  Waldorf schools not only teach technology, they have a very comprehensive technology curriculum (Waldorf schools may be more STEMMY than so-called STEM schools).  Waldorf technology is comprehensive because (1) it explicitly works with the process of knowing, that is to say thinking itself, and because (2) Waldorf schools start from square one, moving from the simplest to more complex technologies.  The reason Waldorf students work with crayons and paint instead of graphic computer applications has everything to do with the development of thinking that emerges as the theme of this essay.

Waldorf schools essentially start with the premise that all technology is inherently alienating.  This is not intended as an anti-technology statement.  It’s just true.  For example, the plow, while representing a monumental technological shift for its time, is a relatively simple technology.  And simply, the plow alienates the hands from the soil.  In order for the pusher of the plow to remain connected to the earth (to see beyond the information to some larger truth), she has to develop some inward qualities of discernment that compensate for the fact that her hands no longer touch the earth.  To this day we refer to someone who is not “in touch” with things as someone who “plows through” this or that.  Inward qualities, discernment, this is what is meant above by being smarter.  But one cannot explicitly teach these inner qualities.  One cannot present a bullet-pointed graphic or PowerPoint to the farmer explaining what she should feel or intuit as she drives her massive John Deere over the fields.  Her feeling may only be built up through hands-on experience with the soil, then with the hoe, and eventually her massive green machine.  This is how intelligence—as opposed to the intellect—is built.  You can’t tell the feelings anything!  Even though the potential always existed inside her, Dorothy could not have gone home without following the yellow brick road.  The yellow brick road schooled her.

Fast forward several thousand years from the plow to the cell phone and ask yourself, what types of inner ways of knowing or qualities of discernment does one need to possess to use texting or Facebook or memes or the next virtual monstrosity responsibly, or out of a sense for their own and the common good? Learning simple technologies closer to our hands and senseslearning to draw with crayons and paint with brushes before graduating to McDraw or McPaintallows children to grow the inner qualities that will ultimately give them a better chance as adults to use available technology and not be used by it.  Simply, learning simple technologies grows freedom.

There are countless other curricular examples applicable here, but remember this is an analogy for the political realm.  What, then, do Waldorf schools do with young children with regard to politics that grows adults who ultimately think for themselves?  What in the political, economic, or cultural spheres is analogous to simple technology?  The answer is the human being itself.  The central academic content in the Waldorf school is not math or language arts, or zoology or botany, or American history, but the human being.  The curriculum, the methodologies, are ultimately only tools to help us understand ourselves and each other.  However, if we want our children to learn about themselves and others, but still ultimately be free to think for themselves, a human-centered curriculum presents a whole set of technical challenges to the educator.  The challenges are analogous to those presented by technology.  What it means to be human must be built from the ground up (actually from the stars down), and address (1) the whole human being, that is to say the thinking-, feeling-, and doing-human-being, while simultaneously addressing (2) the developing human being, that is to say the human whose ways of thinking change as they grow.

The beeswax crayon is one of the simplest technologies in the technological realm.  In the human realm, one of the simplest technologies is the story.  The fairy tale of the “simple” third brother mentioned above meets the first-grader holistically because it addresses their feelings, and it meets them developmentally because it’s magical.  AND the story is also inherently political.  While Brother One and Brother Two are building walls and trying to cheat and steal from their neighbors and brothers, the youngest brother, Simpleton, only sees the suffering of his fellow travelers.  While the older brothers engage their intellects in service of themselves and their cronies, Simpleton engages his feelings and will in service of others.  And the karma, or magic, or natural consequences, or whatever you want to call it that inevitably and incontrovertibly descends over the players in the drama, is deeply meaningful to the young child.  The magic of these stories form the foundational building blocks of more complex ways of understanding the world, and this magic is ultimately more politically correct than a glossy classroom poster or intellectualized classroom discussion exhorting children to be kind.

Fast forward to fourth grade.  In addition to stories, another simple human technology is our relationship to the natural world, that is to say our nature.  The study of zoology in the fourth grade is in actuality the study of human nature.  The human in one sense is not an animal at all, and in another sense we are all the animals in the entire animal kingdom rolled into one!  Animals are so interesting, as are the questions that ensue through their study.  How do we humans clam up?  How do we camouflage?  How do we chew on our thoughts like cud?  How do we make a pearl of wisdom? How do we have eagle eyes?  How do we smell fear?  And on and on.  These questions form the topics of daily discussions, and the answers are the daily classroom bread.  Fourth grade thinking is no longer magical thinking, but analogical thinking, politically correct thinking for the concrete operational child.  The other day in the fourth grade, Ms. Crawford had the students running around the classroom pretending to be fishes, unable to turn their necks, able only to use their peripheral vision.  (Here’s an adult version of the daily fourth grade question: Is this type of vision “fair and balanced?”)  Who knew that imaginatively exploring how each animal relates to and interacts with the world is in actuality a political science class?!

Understanding our animal nature is yet another building block of innate intelligence.  But it’s important to clarify: the magical thinking of the first-grader and animalistic thinking of the fourth-grader are not desirable in an adult!  In fact, magical and animal thinking have brought our planet to the verge of self-destruction.  But these ways of understanding are part of our mind’s DNA, foundation stones in more complex and principled ways of knowing.  Just like the fetus sheds its prehensile tail in utero, one naturally must live in and explore a magical world, an animal world, in order to ultimately shed those worlds later in favor of more sophisticated ways of knowing.  Similarly, responsibly and intelligently navigating the political world as an adult is, in part, the process of identifying and jettisoning magical explanations and animal motives.

Fast forward to sixth grade.  In addition to the magic of cosmic laws and the natural law of our human nature, still another human technology is culture.  My sixth-graders are currently studying ancient Rome.  And in Rome—not in the Enlightenment as our founding fathers and textbooks would have us believe—one sees the genesis of the United States.  For in Rome one sees the introduction of the idea that the human is not a cosmic flash, or an animal, but a machine.  In Rome one encounters in most spectacular fashion the first modern notions of discipline and the ascendance of the intellect as the modern master of the human being.  As the fourth-graders explored their humanity through the animals, the sixth-grader explores their humanity through culture.  And culture is our loving mother AND our homicidal maniac father.  It plans and builds roads and cities, it brings fresh water, it flushes away our you-know-what, it builds libraries and football stadiums, and it also cheats, dominates, maims, and kills.  It herds the masses safely away from perceived outside dangers, and then oppresses them for the benefit of the few.

Just as the fourth-graders ran around like fishes, the sixth-graders have been marching like a Roman legion.  For the first time last Friday their drill sergeant (me) marched them right into the side of the school building (like the marching band at the end of Animal House).  What did that feel like??  That’s Monday’s question.  When else have you experienced something like that in your life?  When is doing what you’re told good and when is it bad?  How do we discipline ourselves?  These are questions for other days.

Flash forward to the eighth grade and beyond, where for the first time in the explicit curriculum, the human technology of interest becomes politics itself, where the medium for understanding the human being is itself political.  And the hope is, as the student explores abstract principles like liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights, self-evident truths, the pursuit of happiness, and all the technical stuff having to do with Washington, they have already constructed the framework for an inner space, a higher office, that allows them to see past information, rhetoric, public relations, spin, self-interested agendas, statistics, BS, and just plain old fashioned hatred and bigotry, to something actually real and true.  Then in high school and beyond, whether it’s a Waldorf or more traditional high school, the students are armed to increasingly involve themselves in the world as individual, political entities.  And the curriculum increasingly seeks to meet them there, explicitly and overtly.

This curricular path of exploring the evolution of the technology of the human being is but one of many other ways in which Waldorf schools address politics.  For example, in what other schools do students sing together in math class?  Is not singing together an inherently political act?

Ultimately, what we want for our children is not simply to think for themselves as adults, or be smarter, we want them to act on their knowledge and beliefs, to be agents of change in their own lives and on behalf of others and the planet.  If education is the preparation of the soil, it’s only our actions which are the actual seeds for the future.

If Waldorf schools largely remain bastions of white privilege, our graduates certainly don’t act like it.  If our alumni are any indication of the legacy of Waldorf education, then we must be doing something right.  A survey of Waldorf graduates presents a body of engaged, politically active citizens of the world—adults who are able to think for themselves. 

If one of the questions arising post-election is, what do Waldorf schools do to address the “real” world of politics, economics, and society, the answer is a lot!  AND probably not nearly enough.  One question I ask myself is, what does our school do when one of our community members, one of our students or families, faces real hatred and violence in the world?  I certainly hope when this happens all our rhetoric, philosophy, and pedagogy is thrown aside as we rally around and defend with all our might those whom we love.  The question as to why we don’t have more explicit anti-racist programming is one thing, I think separate from questions of how we think, feel, and behave towards one another.  We must continue our work to eradicate any non-inclusive material or practice from our own curriculum and methodology.  But to be fair, when our programming is compared to the more explicit programming of public schools, an equally valid question for those asking is, what is the actual nature of explicit, atomized, and highly intellectual politically correct programming?  How do these programs help children learn how to think?  Explicit programs certainly address structural inequities in our society.  How one addresses, say, a letter, is certainly important.  But more important ultimately is the content of the letter itself.  There’s certainly a lot of good being done in public education by good people.  The political question that remains to be answered is, how does one ultimately see past information to truth?  How does one see past ideologies, past screens, past fears, past stuff itself, to something true?

Well, how did Dorothy do it?  How did she get back to Kansas?

Comments 6

  1. Chris

    Very nice. Thank you Peter. As the parent of a kindergartener at CLWS, I am very pleased to read this essay. I know my daughter is in the right place and I look forward to the education she will receive through eighth grade at CLWS.

  2. Allysen Hoberg

    I would like more specific information on how this theory relates to what is actually happening, with Trump targeting Muslims and the issue of police brutality, since it is so close to home with both MPD and St. Paul PD being under harsh accusations of racial profiling, etc.

  3. Theresa

    Thank you Mr. Lawton. Your message is not lost on me. But I also think, at least for 8th graders learning about the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Constitution, and the Civil War, that included in those teachings the notion of White Supremacy inherent in our forefather’s minds should be discussed. As should the Reconstruction Amendments and how they have served our country and how they have failed our country. How all the decisions way back when lead us to where we are today. A nation of inequality. One only needs to look outside the doors of CLWS to see St. Martin riding up in his beautiful “horse” at the gates of CLWS with all “beggers” outside the castle gates (at the bus stop) to realize ours is not a nation where all have equal opportunity and equal protection under law. These are facts of our American History and should be taught…not assumed that a child of discernment will discover this one day on their own.

    1. Post
      City of Lakes Waldorf School


      Yes! Thank you. Awesome points.

      My article addresses the power of myth. But at almost 5000 words already, I didn’t mention how history is often mythologized. Myth is GOOD, mythologized history is BAD. And from sixth grade on, Waldorf schools absolutely should deal in history. Real history. Like in learning about the genesis of the US, everything you mention. When I write about not being explicit, I’m not referring to not explicitly teaching history, but to not explicitly telling kids what to think from a young age. Of course history must be explicit. And, of course, thinking must grow in a way that ultimately grows the quality of discernment. Hopefully that’s the gist of what I wrote. Our interest is in teaching kids how to think, not what to think. You can explicitly tell people what to discern, but you can’t explicitly tell them how to discern. And what I was hoping to do in the piece was unpack how one ultimately learns to truly discern, to see past information (whether it’s myth, history, advertising, political rhetoric, etc) to something true. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Theresa

    And thank YOU, Mr. Lawton, for the open dialog. I do believe Waldorf provides the opportunities for its students to learn HOW to discern. If we, as adults, have the important conversations-perhaps amongst each other-so that the students are introduced to and see our actions towards recognizing our unequal and exclusive America, I do believe our Waldorf students will discover this, with the teachings of TRUE American history, on their own. It’s good you wrote this blog… And it’s good we keep the discussion going…in our homes, in our work, in all areas. If we hide behind our privilege, are we no better than the cowardly lion?

  5. Cindy Fisher

    Thank you Peter Lawton.
    I have just finished rereading your article for the third time. It inspires me . It challenges me to ‘reset’ my balance. To ‘think’, to be active, and to face my fear of the comping political maelstrom. Your article and your friend summary are completely true. What exists between my ears is my highest bearing. And your article challenges me to not forget that.
    Cindy Fisher

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