A Steiner Homeschool: 2: History of Steiner Homeschooling

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A Steiner Homeschool: 2: A Creative Approach to the Rudolf Steiner Impulse: History of Steiner Homeschooling

By Alan Whitehead

Copyright Alan Whitehead & Earthschooling: No Part of this book, post, URL, or book excerpt may be shared with anyone who has not paid for these materials. Additional note by Kristie Burns of Earthschooling.

Alan speaks in a very symbolic manner in some parts of the book. Although they can be read anthroposophically, passages speaking of Atlantis, archangels, gods, etc. do not need to be taken literarily to be meaningful. I have kept the writing as close to one-hundred percent original so you will also find that he speaks of Australia often and some spelling or manners of speaking may be cultural. Any words I have changed are presented like this: <word>.

 Also keep in mind that these books are written by a Waldorf teacher with decades of experience who also studied with Steiner himself so he speaks to an audience that is dedicating their lives to the Waldorf method without exception. Not all of his views will be reflected in the Earthschooling curriculum and not all of them may be ones you want to embrace or are able to use. However, as I read through these passages, I am finding I can distill wisdom from even those paragraphs that do not apply to me.

We invite you to read with an open mind and heart and with eagerness to learn and discuss.

Note from Kristie: As I read this I was so struck by how inspiring and reassuring this would have been to read when I was first starting with homeschooling. I am excited that this chapter and more are available for Earthschooling Lifetime Package & Teacher Support members! I am going to recommend that everyone reads this chapter. As I read it I was also struck with how perfect this would be as a little story to tell to your 8th grader(s). Not only does it let ‘them in on the secret’ of their schooling (which they are now old enough to be part of), but it also talks about the Industrial Revolution and World War I – both 8th grade topics! I highly recommend including this in your eighth grade lessons (although I might take out the part about the different degrees of homeschooling). I think it will provide a great relatable story for them to connect with history.

Rudolf Steiner was homeschooled – until the age of twelve at least. He was the son of an employee at a remote Austrian railway station. Little Rudolf would wander among the edelweiss, communing with nature and chatting with the simple mountain folk who lived there.

He later spoke fondly of his early self-education, with many light-filled experiences re-emerging later in life – as in the wise old herb gatherer (also ‘homeschooled’); whom he wrote about in his Mystery Dramas. Indeed this colossus of Central European intellectual life (Steiner that is) didn’t even read before the age of twelve. Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861, arrived at the threshold of a remarkable social revolution in the West – compulsory, universal schooling. In former times only children of the rich enjoyed a formal education (as opposed to learning in life). The boys were packed off to Eton, while a tutor was employed to teach silverpoint to girls in the west wing.

Less financially endowed children were put to work at around 7-years-old. Some went on to become virtual slaves (or worse, still, captive catamites); others toiled on the land, their endless labors assuring premature departure from their miserable lives. Girls automatically became domestics (slaves again). Luckily children were apprenticed to workshops and studios.

With the Industrial Revolution children provided a cheap pool of forced labor for the factories and sweat shops spawned by this ‘new prosperity’. In fact the pathetic images of sunlit-deprived little souls eating and sleeping at their machines gradually incited the public outrage which resulted in the birth of universal, compulsory education.

Trenchant opposition of course came from the exploiters, based on the argument that if the poor were made literate, it would represent a danger to society; the end of civilization even – as they knew it. And in the long run they were right – thank the good gods!

Most state schools in Australia date from the 1880s; public education was provided for children at first up to twelve, and later to fourteen. This was still the school leaving age when your author was the grateful recipient of his compulsory education in the 1940s and 50s. The leaving age has risen incrementally throughout the 20th Century, until today there is a defacto leaving age of eighteen years.

Although not enshrined in legislation, social pressures, like limited welfare access, low wages and high youth unemployment, coerce most young people to stay in school until their 12th year. On the face of it this education revolution (or evolution) seems a good thing, but the filthy factory was replaced by another child-eating monster – the education sausage machine!

Schools have become the main propaganda vehicles to shape societies values in almost every country. This is reinforced by the striving for uniformity, whether in mind or body – textbooks or uniforms respectively – and the suppression of individuality. Programming of the generations to a perceived acceptable norm has been the central role of the schooling system. The Big Brother perception today is not literacy, but individuality, which is the great ‘danger to society’.

In fact Steiner was, as mentioned earlier, not only homeschooled, but was a homeschooler himself. As a university student, he made money for his book expenses (which were considerable in the late 19th Century) by tutoring children; especially those with learning difficulties.

One seemingly hopeless case, a severely hydrocephalic boy, would only grid a hole in his paper when asked by his school to sit for a test. Steiner contributed to this same boy later graduating as a doctor! The story has a sad ending. Alas, the brilliant young physician was sent to the mud-and-blood trenches of World War I – and was killed.

A second education revolution occurred one hundred years later in the 1960s with a curious groundswell, driven by the counterculture, of opposition to the established photocopy, production-line education. This took the form of a spate of small ‘progressive’ schools based on a variety of humanist or even libertine principles. There was also a logarithmic growth of Rudolf Steiner schools during this time.

Your author was a member of the foundation faculty of the first Steiner high school in Australia in 1967. He was also the principle founder of the second Australian Steiner school, one with more radical pedagogical policies, in 1971.

More pertinently, disillusion with conventional education expressed also in the many parents who chose homeschooling in the 1960s and 70s. These were very brave people, as community views regarded this as a form of child neglect (so what has changed in thirty years?); of denying the diminutive victims of homeschooling any hope of a prosperous life. In some cases they were sadly right – in most, not.

The successful homeschoolers had three qualities in abundance, courage, love, and a quest for truth; their will, feeling, and thinking triune intact!

To homeschool a child, even in today’s enlightened age, one does need courage, and a lot of it. This is mainly to counter the oft venal objections and detractions of family, friends, community, and officialdom. All seem to feel that your child’s welfare is somehow their responsibility! Courage also implies a belief in your own ability to actually teach the child/ren; or even to successfully arrange for one of the many homeschooling options (more on this later).

Love is expressed by the fact that you choose the onerous, but – in your eyes at least – better educational alternative for your child. Impoverished folk who struggle to send their offspring to private and presumably better, schools demonstrate this same love principle; that is to sacrifice one’s own well-being for that of one’s children.

Truth is about what a child learns, both in values and content. Many homeschoolers cannot bear the thought of little-known schoolteachers having such a profound influence on their children. This can be an invisible, and often questionable, programming; one which can have ramifications for the whole life. A persuasive teacher can propagandize children’s souls with anything from fascism to fundamentalism.

Your particular ‘truth’ may not resound in the marble halls of eternal verities, but it’s the best one you have – and if you believe in the Law of Karma, the best one for your children. Homeschooling is, above all else, a matter of the heart, and the heart is an organ of courage, love, and truth. It is this cherished trinity Steiner homeschoolers are so ardent in nurturing in their children.Since the socially turbulent 60s, homeschooling has grown apace; your author and wife Susan recently lectured and a ‘Natural Learning’ conference attended by some 400 home educators. The movement is strong and growing right within Australia. It is supported by networking, newsletters, and an increasing opus of helpful publications, including the Golden Beetle Steiner Teaching Materials.

Initially there was a strong pressure from the educational mafia to intimidate the scattered and isolated homeschoolers; today however their approach – in response to the popularity of the movement – is more often one of cooperation. In short, if you want to homeschool, you can; within the bounds of reasonableness of course.

This raises the question of degree. The extreme left are people who don’t believe in the relevancy of schools or schooling period. These families may let children stay at home, play at the creek, play video games, or any other number of mostly free-range activities. I try not to judge the validity of the various degrees, but I do represent one only, Steiner homeschooling – and it is not of the ‘mostly free-range’ or ‘video-game-playing’ style.

The second degree are people who feel that helping around the home, farm, or family company is a better education than is available at school. Shades of the old child labor practices can sometimes be seen here, though not always.

The third degree are those who hate schools but not schooling. They may have had unpleasant experiences at school themselves, socially or academically. More common is the fact that the child is unhappy at school, being bullied, refusing to go, bedwetting – that kind of thing. Another is the sick or disabled child. Some children may also be low achievers at school and need a different environment in which to learn.

Your author, like these people, is repelled by the ‘institution’ that schools invariably become; those which demand that the child fit the system – uniformity in action – rather than the more individualized and human opposite. Degree 3 children do not go to school but are often provided with a conventional curriculum.

Degree 4 are those who do not object to school as such, but to the content taught. These objections may be educational, philosophical, religious, or artistic. Science-enthusiastic parents may homeschool to give their children an intensive science education at the expense of other, what they might call ‘namby-pamby’ subjects.

Then there are the 5th, the advocates of ‘child directed’ learning. These people reject not schools, or even schooling, but the approach to the learning, the process. They present a menu of options from which the child may (or may not) choose an activity for the day, week, or term even. The harried homeschooler (if the child chooses, say ornithology and the parent knows nothing of the subject, and cares even less) provides resources and instruction as the child demands, er, requests.

The implication here is that if the child doesn’t want to learn a subject, it is not worth learning – for him/her anyway, Of course if the number-paranoid child never chooses to learn arithmetic, s/he could remain innumerate for life. I know a homeschooled adult who to this day is illiterate as an outcome of extreme child-centered learning. He’s good with motor mechanics though, something he chooses to do ad infintum.

The 6th degree is Steiner homeschooling. Why this when Steiner schools exist?  Two reasons really; there may be no Steiner schools within easy access (physically or financially) – or the parent thinks the local Steiner school is inadequate in some way. Perhaps it imposes a rigid, anachronistic German structure and curriculum, one out of step with  a third millennium liberal culture like Australia. Maybe the school does not reflect true Steiner values, but is kind of a hybrid. Or it might be incompetent, with poor discipline and bankrupt lesson content – it all happens! Many people are disenchanted with Steiner schools, if not Steiner education.

Steiner homeschooling has effectively educated generations of children for over eight decades. It exploits the best of the five other degrees and rejects the worst. The children do not idle the day away, but there is still plenty of free time. Homeschooling provides the option of the working when it suits your situation, not some inflexible organization (as opposed to organism, which a homeschooling situation usually is).

You may work for three long days and have four off – or maintain a conventional 5-day program. You may begin early in the morning and conclude at mid-day or work weekends but not Thursday and Friday. Any time configuration is okay in Steiner homeschooling as long as the total of hours equals normal community expectations (about 25-hours a week in Australia at this time).

Steiner homeschooling of course benefits from being free of the oft suffocating constraints of school as of course to the first degrees homeschoolers but provides a rigorous learning regime in place of endless lazy days. It also frowns upon the exploitation of children as latter-day slaves as in the second-degree examples I provided (keep in mind these degrees are based on the extreme of each category). The third-degree homeschoolers provide learning all right, but so often soul-numbing, traditional curriculum, unlike the creative, intelligent, artistic, and practical Steiner program.

It is the same for the fourth-degree homeschoolers, except the curriculum is not limited, or subject to the parents’ biases, but is universal and objective. This is roughly the same as that used in Steiner schools, and is based on the voluminous indications of their eponymous founder. One syllabus interpretation, especially relevant for Australia is found in the Golden Beetle Teaching Manuals; these are as applicable to home as conventional schooling.

If these are used as the soil in which both the parents’ and children’s flowers of creativity can bloom, the latter will be assured of all-important balance in their learning program. Over twelve years, the young learners would be exposed to every major area of human endeavor.

This has been the case with a multitude of homeschoolers, Steiner and otherwise, since 1990, the year of the first Golden Beetle publication, Hathor the Moon Cow, a treatise on sex education.

So who is actually going to teach the children? The obvious answer is one or both parents. This area again has a wide range of options. Freedom, after all, is the true spirit of education, as Rudolf Steiner often asserted. Perhaps the family can employ one or more tutors. These can be students (like Steiner was); friends, retired teachers, neighbors, relatives – and even <older children in the home.> Grandparents are also a useful resource here; these are the  most likely to initially disapprove of your enterprise, but after teaching their grandchildren, the often come around to a support position.

All these extra teachers do not have to have a deep commitment to Steiner principles, but must be prepared to adhere to your stated requirements. In whatever contingency, you must control the educational agenda. Control, after all, is what homeschooling is about. Again the tutors can either be part or full-time. They could even be irregular.

A good idea is to draw up a lesson plan for the whole year (easily done with the help of Golden Beetle Books<and/or Earthschooling>), then gradually find the human (and other) resources to fit the lessons. In all cases, flexibility and continuous modifications are key here – so use pencil so that you can change it! A lesson plan is not a prison, rather a firm scaffold which provides a base for true freedom.

Another option is part-time homeschooling. Some schools are agreeable to having children come and go, according to mutually convenient agreements. Options are even open for the bigger learning picture; one person may wish to homeschool while the children are very young – or in the last two years of high school – or primary only.

The homeschooling choice is not life-threatening; after a few days, weeks, terms, or even years you can send the children back to school There is no marked disadvantage to this; the children just seem to pick up where they left off, quickly re-establishing their former ranking in the class, whether socially or academically. Of course there are no requirements to homeschool children under seven. The <rhythmically-run> home itself can serve as the only resource the littlies need.

The only disadvantage of Steiner homeschooling is if parents are negligent in the social realm. Extra effort has to be made to keep the children in contact with other children. This can be done by networking with other homeschoolers; or inviting friends, cousins, etc. to frequently visit, especially overnight. You can also enjoy outings with other people. <Frequency will depend on the needs of the child(ren).>

Then there are groups like art courses, sporting clubs and holiday camps. There are legions of children out there eager to meet, play, and work with your child. It’s your job to see these opportunities are used wisely. Isolation can be the enemy of homeschooling <for both the parent and child>. If physical contact is difficult, there is always the phone <or in modern times, video chatting>. Or how about the gentle art of letter writing? Pen friends are as good as any other.

Conventional schooling makes this implied promise; that the education it provides will equip a person to earn a living at worst or enjoy a meaningful vocation at best. As we pass through the roundabout from the 2nd to the 3rd millennium, both pillars of this promise are as ashes in the wind. Those who are low achievers in our competitive public schools are more often than not condemned to a life of welfare dependency.

On the other hand, many in the upper echelons live with the perennial anxiety of job insecurity; especially if they have highly specialized skills, which become obsolete as the bullet train of technology speeds by. Their rail-line, single track education creates a mindset where they simply cannot diversify.

Steiner homeschooling makes a different implied promise; it might be compared, say, with the freedom of riding a horse rather than a train: that is to equip its graduates with as wide a range of life and academic skills as possible. This includes access to any and all tertiary qualifications they may want or need (see details in my A Steiner High School and later in this book). This provides all-important mobility in life. The Steiner homeschooled child/student need miss nothing significant in their schooling but gain so much more than available in ‘normal’ education – and in many cases, even in Steiner schools!

A woman rang me recently; she was upset because she was told by a Steiner school, that it was not possible to manifest Steiner education in a homeschool setting. I told her the story of German Steiner schools in the 1930s. These were banned by the Nazis; so in spite of the ever-attendant terror of a visit by the Gestapo, they split up and continued underground – in people’s homes! This act of raw courage and perseverance was rewarded in 1945 after the Allied victory, when they popped back up like optimistic mushrooms, re-formed.

Homeschooling, in its manifold forms, from its founder’s tentative beginning with the hole-in-the-paper boy, is no stranger to true Steiner education. Have courage.

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2 Comments

  1. My favorite part of this entire chapter is the one line, “…A lesson plan is not a prison, rather a firm scaffold which provides a base for true freedom.”

    When people become concerned with their schedule or rhythm or ‘if they are doing it right’. this is exactly what I want to respond, but he has said it much better than I ever have – in just one line.

    Kristie
  2. I would be interested to see more from Steiner or Whitehead on how to mold Waldorf for the various spectrum children’s challenges, and still retain some achievement of structure and accomplishment.

    Sidonie Burton

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