Interview with Author Stephen Keith Sagarin
Waldorf education is said to be the fastest growing form of independent education in the United States. Many families now come to Waldorf education from exposure on the internet. But what do we really know about Waldorf education in the United States? Waldorf education began in the United States nearly 100 years ago and has a history of its own. I had the good fortune to interview author and teacher Stephen Sagarin PhD. and learn about his new book The History of Waldorf Education in the United States: Past, Present and Future.This interview took place on December 12, 2011. Put the kettle on, pour a cup of tea and enjoy! Lisa
What prompted you to write this book ~ how did it come into being?
I went to a Waldorf school for high school after 10 years in public schools; this felt, as I say in the book, like coming home. In my junior and senior year, the school faced challenges among colleagues who couldn’t get along—teachers I respected treated each other poorly. Where were their ideals? This puzzled me. And, years later, teaching at the same school, I recognized that those entering Waldorf teaching in the 1980s had a different conception of their work than those I had had as teachers, who were educated in the 1940s and 50s. Also, later Waldorf schools have an alternative, countercultural feel that schools founded earlier often do not have. All these contrasts made me think there was a dissertation—and now a book—in this.
How did Waldorf education come into your life?
My mother’s father sought medical advice in the 1940s from a doctor who turned out to practice anthroposophical medicine. He and Dr. Winkler became great friends, and my grandparents became anthroposophists sometime later. So I grew up knowing about Waldorf education and Rudolf Steiner, although these were in the background, never thrust on me. When I was entering kindergarten, I interviewed at a Waldorf school, but my mom then remarried and we moved elsewhere, where there was no Waldorf school (remember, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were barely two dozen Waldorf schools in the U.S.). My mom then gave us Waldorf “homeschooling” after school—teaching us to knit, draw, model with clay, and so on—although no one in the early 1970s was calling it homeschooling. We moved to Long Island as I was entering 9th grade so that my brothers and I could attend the Waldorf School of Garden City.
How I became a teacher is another story. I never intended to be a teacher—I entered college thinking I would be an environmental scientist and left it thinking I would be a journalist. After college, I went on an archeological dig in Cyprus for a season, and, when I returned to the U.S., needed knee surgery. As I was recovering from this, the Waldorf School of Garden City offered me a job mowing the lawn—I could ride the mower with my bum knee—and giving admissions tours. A teacher left for graduate school, and I was offered her job. One thing led to another, and I postponed career plans to teach for two years. Two years became six, and after this I knew that teaching was challenging enough for me—previously, I was such a snob that I couldn’t have imagined teaching as a career.
How did Waldorf education begin in the USA?
The Rudolf Steiner Educational Union in New York City, a group of artists, poets, businesspersons and anthroposophists, started the Rudolf Steiner School in NYC in 1928, first in Irene Brown’s living room, and the next year—October, 1929—in a school building. For almost a decade it was the only Waldorf school in the country. The spread of Waldorf education beyond this school was spurred significantly by Hermann von Baravalle, a mathematician and colleague of Rudolf Steiner, who came to the U.S. several times in the 1930s, returning for good in 1937. He was associated in one way or another with nearly every school founded through the 1960s.
What is distinct about Waldorf education in the USA when compared to Waldorf in other countries?
I don’t really know the answer to this question. It has occurred to me to try to get a research grant to look at exactly this question, which would mean travel in Europe. In general, I can say that Waldorf schools in Europe and South America apparently receive more state funding than Waldorf schools in the U.S., and, perhaps as a consequence, other countries often have far larger schools, approaching 1000 students in some cases. The largest schools in this country have between 300 and 400 students, and there are very few such schools.
Did you come across any surprises in your research to write this book?
Yes! Some examples: The connection between the Anthroposophical Society and the Steiner School was much stronger than I’d realized prior to World War II. The ways in which different Waldorf school teachers came to learn about Waldorf education are often surprising. Most important, I believe, Steiner himself never defined Waldorf education! When I first started looking into this, I thought I’d look up Steiner’s definition of Waldorf education and go from there. Then I discovered that there simply wasn’t one. I go into this in detail in the book.
Why is it called Waldorf here in the U.S.A. and Steiner everywhere else?
I don’t believe that’s the case. In England they often call it “Steiner-Waldorf.” And in Germany, I believe, it’s mostly Waldorf.
Does the institutionalization of these ideas in Waldorf Schools brought by Rudolf Steiner allow for the growth of Waldorf education or does it impede its growth in some ways?
Through most of the 20th century, institutionalization was probably the only real way that Waldorf education was going to spread. We can point to a couple of hundred schools in the U.S. that have arisen in the past 80 years or so. There really wasn’t any other way until later in the 20th century, with critiques like Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and the unschooling and homeschooling movements.
I’m not sure whether or not we’ve reached a tipping point at which institutionalization allows for growth. Standardization and objectification are part of this picture. For instance, the phrase “Waldorf education” isn’t used in print in the U.S. until the 1960s—A.C. Harwood’s 1958 book, The Recovery of Man in Childhood (Harwood was an English friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, but his book was published by the Myrin Institute in the U.S.) doesn’t mention Waldorf education at all, even though that’s what it’s about!
I worry that the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) is not sensitive enough to the dangers of standardization and objectification, and that may hinder the growth of Waldorf schools and the spread of Waldorf education. (I think the term standardization is clear enough. By objectification, I mean the creation of a mental “object” when such a creation is uncalled for. The dangers of this are clear if we remember the creation of “IQ” as a concept to measure “intelligence,” as if intelligence is an object that we can weigh and measure.)
Steiner talked about teaching and learning, not “Waldorf” teaching and “Waldorf” learning. We should remember this more frequently.
Are there shibboleths with Waldorf education? What can be done about them?
For whatever reasons—insecurity, lack of deep understanding or commitment—teachers and schools too often represent themselves defensively and superficially. They can cling to weird things—dress, diet, candle-lighting, and so on—that make them look strange and cult-like. But you can’t find most of these things in Steiner’s profound educational lectures and writings.
Also, given the lack of a traditional American culture, we’ve imported elements of German, Swiss, Austrian, and English culture and “made” them Waldorf. I’m talking about crypto-Protestantism, May poles, St. Nick, you name it. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with these customs. I’ve been in “The Shepherds’ Play” for many years. But we shouldn’t mistake this somewhat artificial culture for what’s essential, and we should be prepared to change it when the way we do it alienates part of our school community.
What to do? First, be less ideological and less dogmatic. Think for yourself, and develop a contemplative, reflective practice of active thinking. Second, join your local community. Coach Little League, join your Community Center, create a joint Waldorf-public school project. Get a non-zealous, thoughtful parent in your school elected to the local school board. Early Waldorf schools were more engaged and did not see themselves as “alternative” schools. They were willing to talk to other schools and to see their work as experimental.
Is Waldorf education a movement in the USA?
I’m not sure what you mean by this. Some might say that it is, but I’m not one of them. I’m not an activist. For it to be a movement, to me, would imply an ideological commitment that I can’t, in good conscience, make. My commitment is to teaching and learning. I worry less and less about whether or not to call it “Waldorf.”
Can you tell us a little about the Charter/Public school movement with Waldorf education in the USA?
Sure. There really is no public school growth in Waldorf schools. The only such school of which I’m aware is the Milwaukee Urban Waldorf School. I don’t see why other large districts couldn’t copy Milwaukee’s choice model, including a Waldorf school, but they haven’t.
There has been real growth on the West Coast, especially, in charter Waldorf schools; I believe there are now 40-50 such schools, all founded in the past 18 years or so. They have their own association (the Association for Public Waldorf Education, APWE), separate from AWSNA. In the long run, however, I see charters as a band-aid on public education. Maybe it’s a good solution for those who want it, but it’s not a long term solution to whatever it is that ails education in our country. Among other things, charter schools won the voucher vs. charter debate in the 1990s because teachers’ unions can control charters more easily. This is oversimplified, but still true, I believe.
I should add that I’m skeptical of too much talk of crisis in public education—I believe you could easily show that public education was founded in the 1840s in Massachusetts to address perceived crises (the growth of factory towns, immigration of Irish Catholics) and has been perceived as in crisis ever since. I wonder who is served by this rhetoric, and I worry that it’s not our children. More likely, it’s teachers’ unions, textbook publishers, computer manufacturers, and politicians.
The sad truth is, we probably have the schools we choose to have. They reflect a consensus about what’s important, what a human being is, and how to educate one.
It is said the Rudolf Steiner intended for this type of education to be freely available to all children, is this the case in the USA today?
Clearly not. If we believe that children have a right to an education separate from state intervention—and I’m not sure this is clear to many people at all—then we need to work for all children to have this possibility, even if we’re unhappy with some of the choices their families make. If I can choose a Waldorf education for my child, then others should be able to choose a religious education, a technology-based education, or whatever they believe will best serve their children, within the bounds of the law. I believe we should work for real competition in education—a competition of ideas and methods, not a competition of dollars. Then we may learn what works and what doesn’t.
Separate from school choice or vouchers, which can work in large, urban districts, but which are hard to imagine in small, rural ones, we can imagine that teacher themselves could find more approaches to their work. I’m aware of a few teachers who are educated in Waldorf methods but who have chosen to teach in public schools. I don’t know much about their successes and challenges, but I support their work.
Thank you Steve.
Stephen Keith Sagarin, Ph.D., is Faculty Chair, a cofounder, and a teacher at the Great Barrington Waldorf High School in western Massachusetts, where he teaches history and life science. He is also a former teacher and administrator at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School and the Waldorf School of Garden City, New York, the high school from which he graduated. Dr. Sagarin writes, lectures, mentors teachers, and consults with Waldorf schools on teaching and administration. He is an associate professor and former director of the M.S. education program in Waldorf teacher education at Sunbridge Institute, New York. He is the former editor of the Research Bulletin of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education and has taught history of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City; human development at the City University of New York; and U.S. and world history at Berkshire Community College, Massachusetts. Dr. Sagarin has a Ph.D. in history from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in art history, with a certificate of proficiency in fine art, from Princeton University. He is married and the father of two children, Andrew and Kathleen. His wife, Janis Martinson, is Chief Advancement Officer at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He blogs at What is Education?
Steve is offering as a give away ONE copy of his book The Story of Waldorf Education in the United States to ONE reader. To enter, please share this on Facebook or Twitter by clicking the blue square with the F or your local Waldorf school and be sure to leave a comment below.
The winner will be drawn and announced here on Monday January 9th.
The winner is ….Liz, “I enjoyed reading this interview and am interested in reading the book!”
Liz, please contact me at lisaboisvert at yahoo dot com