Discover Waldorf Education: The Renewal of Education

An Introduction to Rudolf Steiner's lecture series



In the year 1920, when these lectures were given, the Waldorf School in Stuttgart was barely eight months old, and the educational theories and methods developed by Rudolf Steiner were hardly known outside of Central Europe. Far more influential at that time – and still exerting a powerful effect on educational theories and methods to this day – were the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Maria Montessori.

In the year 1920, when these lectures were given, the Waldorf School in Stuttgart was barely eight months old, and the educational theories and methods developed by Rudolf Steiner were hardly known outside of Central Europe.  Far more influential at that time – and still exerting a powerful effect on educational theories and methods to this day – were the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. 

John Dewey’s work in education arose out of his original immersion in philosophy and psychology, and thus manifested a strong concern for the development of thinking in the child.  In formulating educational criteria and aims, he drew heavily on the insights into learning offered by contemporary psychology as applied to children. He viewed thought and learning as a process of inquiry starting from doubt or uncertainty – the so-called “Problem Approach” – and spurred by the desire to resolve practical frictions or relieve strain and tension.  For Dewey, the scientist’s mental attitudes and habits of thoughts represented the zenith of intellectual life, and the cognitive side of education should guide children toward this goal:

…the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry. Is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind.

Education must therefore begin with experience, which has as its aim the discipline and systemization of these natural tendencies until they are congealed into the attitudes and procedures of the scientifically minded person.  The “Problem Approach,” developed further by William Kilpatrick of Columbia University’s Teachers College into the “Project Method,” became the modus operandi of the progressive education movement which controlled many of America’s school systems for two generations.

Maria Montessori, who had been the first woman medical student in Italy, approached education with a passionate interest in the bio-physical basis of the child’s will.  Soon after her graduation the young physician worked at the Psychiatric Clinic in Rome, where retarded and emotionally disturbed children were herded together like prisoners.  She observed that after their meals the children would throw themselves on the floor to search for crumbs. Although they were still hungry after a meager meal, instead of eating the crumbs they moistened them with saliva and molded them into little birds or beasts:

Montessori looked around the room and saw in that the children had no toys or materials of any kind — that the room was in fact absolutely bare. There were literally no objects in their environment which the children could hold and manipulate in their fingers. Montessori saw in the children’s behavior a craving of a very different and higher kind than for mere food. There existed for these poor creatures, she realized, one path and one only towards intelligence, and that was through their hands…
…It became increasingly apparent to her that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one.2

It became clear to her that artistic activity is no less necessary to children than eating. In her renowned school for slum children in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter, Montessori discovered that certain simple materials aroused in young children an interest and attention not previously thought possible.  These materials included beads arranged in graduated-number units for pre-mathematics instruction; small slabs of wood designed to train the eye in left-to-right reading movements; and graduated series of cylinders for small-muscle training.  Children between three and six years old would work spontaneously with these materials, indifferent to distraction, for from a quarter of an hour to an hour.  At the end of such a period, they would not seem tired, as after an enforced effort, but refreshed and calm. Undisciplined children became settled through such voluntary work.  One of Maria Montessori’s early revelations was that, although wealthy benefactors of the school had given the children costly dolls and a doll kitchen, her students “never made such toys the object of their spontaneous choice.”  Healthy children, she discovered, prefer work to play.

The spring of 1920 found John Dewey serving as a visiting professor at the National University in Peking, where he lectured extensively on the philosophy of education and met with such influential Asian leaders as Sun Yat-sen.  Dewey’s educational ideas were to dominate Chinese pedagogy until the Communist Revolution.  At this time Maria Montessori had risen to a similar peak of predominance; just before the outbreak of the First World War, a  Montessori School had been established adjacent to the White House, under the sponsorship of Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, and by 1920 Montessori had given training courses for teachers in Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Spain, England, Austria, India and Ceylon.  Paying her first official visit to England, she was accorded a degree of adulation usually reserved for royalty.

In the years following World War I, Rudolf Steiner’s influence spread less visibly, but no less profoundly, than that of his more prominent contemporaries.  By 1920, a host of practical endeavors were undergoing transformation or renewal through Steiner’s anthroposophical insights.  Every profession or vocation requiring renewal, in turn, compelled Steiner to provide new imaginations and inspirations for its practitioners so that they, in turn, could act with new intuitions as challenges arose.  Steiner’s role as an educator, serving not only the renewal of education per se, but the renewal of human culture as a whole, was an essential theme of the year 1920.

One example of this comprehensive work: A small, but insistent group of medical students prevailed on Steiner to help them bridge the gap between a worldview that takes the spiritual nature of the human being into account and the growing materialism of modern medicine.  From March to April of 1920 Steiner gave twenty wide-ranging lectures, later compiled under the title Spiritual Science and Medicine.  To the healer, Steiner stressed, illness may be understood as the battle between the polarized forces of thinking and willing, as these opposites manifest in the physical body.  In speaking of the development of the child’s teeth, Steiner takes a characteristic leap:

…a considerable part of what is included in the educational methods of our Waldorf school, besides other things promoting health, is the prevention of early dental decay in those who attend the school. For it is indeed remarkable that just in relation to the peripheral structures and processes very much depends upon the right education in childhood…If a child of from four to six years is clumsy and awkward with arms, hands, legs and feet – or cannot adapt himself to a skillful use of his arms and legs and especially of his hands and feet, we shall find that he is inclined to an abnormal process of dental formation…
Go into our needlework classes and handicraft classes at the Waldorf School, and you will find the boys knit an crochet as well as the girls, and that they share these lessons together…This is not the result of any fad or whim, but happens deliberately in order to make the fingers skilful and supple, in order to permeate the fingers with soul. And to drive the soul into the fingers means to promote all the forces that go to build up sound teeth.3

Here handwork and medicine become complementary professions, and the physician recognizes the teacher’s proactive healing activity.   The interplay of dentition and limb activity, center and periphery, and inner and outer, which permeates Steiner’s approach to medicine, is no less evident in the education lectures given just eleven days after his talks to the medical students and brought together in this volume as The Renewal of Education.  Another concern is that teachers understand the physiological consequences of pedagogy in much the same way as the physician must understand that he is often continuing the therapeutic process begun in the classroom.  For example, speaking to teachers about the child’s experience of music, he says:

We must try to be aware of what a complicated process is happening when we are listening. Picture to yourself the nerves and sense organism which is centered in the human brain. As you know, the brain is constructed in such a way that only its smallest part is functioning like a solid, for the largest part of the brain is floating in the cerebro-spinal fluid…This cerebro-spinal fluid is no less involved as far as human consciousness is concerned, than the solid part of the brain, for with every breath we take, it is continually rising and falling…Now, while we are listening to a sequence of tones, we are breathing, and the cerebro-spinal fluid is rising and falling…4

Such a passage is especially striking when we consider that in this particular lecture cycle Steiner was not preaching to the choir.  These lectures were given not to teachers who were already versed in Anthroposophy and using the Waldorf method, but rather to a group of public educators in Basle, Switzerland, in a forum organized by the Basle Department of Education.  In spite of his clear and unconditional opposition to state governance of education, Steiner was never reluctant to cast seeds of regeneration onto any field he felt was fertile, nor was he timid about crossing the modern dualistic wall that neatly divides pedagogy from physiology.  Indeed, The Renewal of Education ranks among the most “physiological” of Steiner’s educational lecture cycles.

Although John Dewey’s contribution to the development of thinking through the “problem approach” is significant, it can easily lapse into dry pedantry that honors cognitive activity in only the most utilitarian ways.  And while Maria Montessori’s genius perceived the many ways in which the child’s will can serve its maturation, her methods can stress practicality to the point that child’s relationship to play is impoverished.  In The Renewal of Education, Steiner charts a course that incorporates the development of cognitive powers without sacrificing the unfolding of the will, in much the same way that his indications to physicians emphasized the importance of harmonious balance on the physiological level.  The key to this balance lies in his emphasis on the unfolding of the life of feeling.

In charting this course, Steiner approaches the child’s nature from four perspectives.  On the level of soul, he describes the human being as a threefold being, one who thinks, feels and wills.  On the level of consciousness, these three forces manifest as wakefulness (thinking), dreaming (feeling) and deep sleep (willing).  On the level of physiology, they utilize the three “systems” of nerve-senses (thinking), rhythmic -circulatory (feeling) and limb-metabolic (willing).  On the level of human development, these forces unfold in discrete seven-year periods: willing dominates the first seven years of life, feelings become accessible to the child in the second seven-year period, and independent thinking blossoms after age fourteen. Having laid out these twelve interpenetrating spheres, Steiner serves as a navigator, piloting his pedagogue passengers through shoals and narrows that grow increasingly familiar and even congenial as the lectures proceed. 

As we accompany Steiner on this journey, we can understand the appeal of Dewey’s “Problem Approach” and the Montessori method – as well as their limitations.  By emphasizing the education of the cognitive forces at any age, Dewey’s methods can heighten a child’s sense of independence and wakefulness, while Montessori’s stress on the will can strengthen the life of habit and inner discipline.  In Steiner’s terms, the  “Problem Approach” would not be appropriate until adolescence, and using it exclusively from the kindergarten years on up could result in “accelerated adolescence,” a premature wakefulness that would undercut  the childlike wonder and playfulness that are the foundations of a healthy adulthood.  When viewed from the vantage point of these lectures, the Montessori approach could be valid in the will-filled kindergarten years, but might hold the child back from the development of independent imaginative and creative forces as he or she matured.   With her emphasis on the teacher’s need to “hold back” and allow the child to discover things for herself, Montessori also weakens the strong bonds of feeling that can grow between a teacher and student.

Cultivating the balancing forces of feeling, which are unfolding most strongly between the ages of seven and fourteen, is the particular task of the Waldorf “class teacher,” who remains with his or her class from first through eighth grade – the longest, and most enduring relationship between a pupil and teacher to be found in any educational system.  The eighty-year history of the Waldorf movement has time and again validated the importance of this time-commitment, and the difference that it has made in the lives of tens of thousands of children.  When these lectures were given, however, the school’s first class teachers had been teaching for a mere eight months – and Steiner was obviously well aware of the daunting assignment that he had given them!  His audience was filled with teachers, and the more deeply the lecturer guided them into the Waldorf method, the more they wondered how anyone could be trained to fulfill this responsibility.  Rudolf Steiner’s response to this unspoken question is worth repeating at length:

    If I were asked what my main aims had been in preparing the present Waldorf School teachers for their tasks, I should have to answer that first of all I tried to free them from following the conventional ways of teaching.  According to these, they would have to remember all kinds of things which, subsequently, would have to be taught in the class rooms.  However, a typical feature of Spiritual Science consists of one’s forgetting, almost every moment, what one has absorbed, so that one has to relearn and recreate it all the time.  In order to gain knowledge of the Science of the Spirit, one has to lose it all the time.
    I hope that you will forgive me if I tell you something personal.  When lecturing on the same subject for the thirtieth, fortieth or even fiftieth time, I can never repeat the same lecture twice.  I could do this just as little as I could eat again what I have already eaten yesterday (if you will pardon the somewhat grotesque comparison).  In eating, one is right in the midst of living processes. And the same applies to one’s absorbing spiritual-scientific content.  One always has to acquire it anew.  And when preparing the Waldorf teachers, I wanted them to feel that every morning they would have to enter their class rooms with fresh, untrammeled souls, ready to face ever new situations and ever new riddles.  The Science of the Spirit teaches us the art of forgetting which. After all, is only the other side of digesting what one has taken in.  The is part of the self-education demanded by Spiritual Science.  Now you may remark: But we know some spiritual scientists or anthroposophists, who can reel off from memory what they have learned.  This is quite correct but it represents a state of immaturity among anthroposophists.  I have not been able to keep some of them away from these meetings and they will have to bear hearing such a statement about themselves.  To carry anthroposophical knowledge in one’s memory is a sign of imperfection, for Anthroposophy must be a living spring which constantly renews itself within the soul.  And this is the very mood in which one should face one’s pupils.  Therefore the real task of Spiritual Science is to revitalize the human soul in a similar way to that in which our digestion gives new life to the physical body every day.  All memorized matter should disappear from the mind to make room for an actively receptive spirit.  Allowing Spiritual Science to flow into one’s sphere of ideation will fructify the art of education.5

Even when speaking to a public audience, Steiner did not hesitate to point to the inextricable ties of Waldorf education and Anthroposophy; even when addressing people highly trained in the teaching profession, he did not back away from emphasizing self-education, i.e. self-development, as the most important element in pedagogical preparation.  To Rudolf Steiner, the “renewal of education” can be brought about only by men and women who, with courage and initiative, would be willing to undertake their own renewal.  These lectures are clearly dedicated to such individuals, and it is to be hoped that this new edition will find its way to their minds, hearts, and deeds.

 1. John Dewey, How We Think, (New York, 1910), iii.

2.  E. M. Standing,  Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, (London, 1957), 28.

 3.  Rudolf Steiner, Spiritual Science and Medicine, (London, 1948), 218-219.

  4. Page 31 in Steiner Schools Fellowship edition.

  5. Pages 54-55 of SSF edition.