For over ninety years, the Waldorf school approach to the teaching of history has been based on two principles. Throughout the tumultuous and mutable twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first, the Waldorf history curriculum has remained true to its focus on the myths, legends and biographies that underlie the development of “Western culture.”
The history curriculum generally follows these lines:
- Grade One: Fairy Tales. “History” is not a separate subject.
- Grade Two: Legends and stories of saints. “History” is not a separate subject.
- Grade Three: Stories of the Jewish Bible. “History” is not a separate subject.
- Grade Four: Norse mythology. History is taught as part of an introduction to the cultural geography of the child’s local surroundings.
- Grade Five: Ancient History. The peoples of India, Persia, Egypt, Babylonia and Greece: their myths, their monuments and their everyday life.
- Grade Six: Roman History, from Aeneas to the decline of the Roman Empire and the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor.
- Grade Seven: The Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Age of Exploration.
- Grade Eight: From the Reformation to the Age of Revolution. American history. Twentieth Century history.
At this grade level, great stress is placed on the mythological dimension of ancient cultures, and the legendary human beings who stood halfway between the gods and humanity, i.e. the “heroes.” The Waldorf schools’ approach to history teaching in the middle grades is based on the premise that the need for heroes in the growing child is as natural and healthy as the need for mother’s milk in the developing infant. Experience has convinced us that children can penetrate the Zeitgeist of a civilization most thoroughly by re-experiencing the deeds and sufferings of that culture’s champions.
Although this may run counter to the anti-heroic stance of our own time, Waldorf teachers find that children in the middle grades seek to emulate heroes wherever they can be found. While the ancient mythologies consistently present heroic figures who embody the highest ideals and qualities of the human being, modern American children must rest content with such paragons as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Batman. These modern figures often represent distortions and caricatures of the human form. By watching them by the hour in darkened rooms, by wearing them as icons on shirts, bedclothes or bath towels, by assembling them as “action figures” around his bed, the young child is drawn into what could be characterized as a modern form of idolatry.
In his recent study of the crisis in American public schools, The End of Education (1995), Neil Postman acknowledges that “For school to make sense, the young, their parents, and their teachers must have a god to serve, or, even better, several gods. If they have none, school is pointless. Nietzsche’s famous aphorism is relevant here: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’ This applies as much to learning as to living. (4). In a similar vein, the distinguished University of Chicago Professor of Social and Political Ethics, Jean Bethke Elshtain (Snell, 1995), cites a story told by the psychiatrist Robert Coles “of a little girl named Ruby whom he met during the early days of desegregation”:
So it is less of a question as to whether heroes are needed for a child’s healthy development than which heroes are going to be espoused; it is not whether stories will be presented in school, but rather which stories will be heard. Paradoxical as it may appear, it is those myths which were told in the distant past that best explain the present to a child, and it is those demigods and heroes whose nature is divine who are best able to tether today’s child to everyday life. The eminent psychoanalyst Rollo May, wrote the book The Cry for Myth (1991) after decades of research into the psychological and social illnesses of our time:
The figure of a Heracles or Krishna, Moses or Achilles, imaginatively apprehended by the young child, tends to take root and grow as an heroic impulse within the child. The plastic and electric Power Ranger, its facial expressions simulated by computer, will soon reveal its feet of clay (or polystyrene). As the modern media heroes are recognized as mere creatures of artifice, born and bred in the special effects studio, the child who had been mesmerized by them may fall prey to disillusionment, and eventually feel that nothing is real or worth valuing. The consequence of the real hero is the inculcation of heroism; the consequence of the “superhero” is the antihero.
During a recent visit to a New York City public school classroom I experienced something of the “healing power” of the heroic myth. When I entered the combined 4th/5th grade room, the teacher told me that she had to set aside her lesson plan for a while in order to deal with an argument that had arisen between two girls involving jealousy and cliqueishness, which had led to some acrimonious insults. Utilizing a “brain-storming” methodology, the teacher set up a flip chart and asked two students to moderate. The two principals in the conflict were asked to give their versions of what had happened — which led to more acrimony — and other children were asked what they thought was best to do in such a situation. Ideas and suggestions were duly noted ad recorded on the flip chart: “Ignore people who insult you,” “Be nice to your friends,” “Don’t use bad language,” etc. It was clear that by this time of year (late December) such discussions were not new among the children, not had they proven terribly effective. The overall feeling I had was of children who had been trained to intellectualize their emotions in order to “control” them, but whose real feelings were lurking behind the scenes, ready to erupt as soon as the discussion ended and the flip chart was put away.
During a break time, the teacher, her principal and I discussed what I had seen, and she acknowledged that little or no progress had been made in healing the rift between the two antagonists. I stated that Waldorf teachers perceived such a love of arguing, or even vindictiveness, as a natural part of fourth grade behavior.
“So what do you do about it?” she asked. “What do you do in a Waldorf school when this stuff breaks out.”
I smiled. “We tell a story,” I said, “In which the antagonists are given a mythical dimension. That tends to objectify the experience. In fact, in fourth grade we tell many Norse myths, in part because the Norse gods are the most argumentative and aggressive gods in world mythology — that, and their liveliness, provide an accurate reflection of the fourth grader’s own nature. We don’t say very much directly to the children involved, but let them ‘digest’ the story and see the effect of their behavior as though it were happening to someone else.”
The teacher looked skeptical.
“And that works?” she asked.
“It takes a few weeks,” I conceded, “Or a few months, or sometimes a few years. But, yes, eventually it works.”
“If you tell these kids a Norse story, they’ll just use it to make fun of each other even more,” she said, “And they probably won’t even listen in the first place.”
“Let him try it,” said her principal. Within a few minutes I was standing before the class, relating the tale of Loki’s jealousy towards Baldur. The envious and spiteful Loki finds a way to kill the almost immortal Baldur, but, instead of being accepted by the Aesir, he is scorned all the more. In the tried-and-true Waldorf method, I did not draw any link with the events of the morning as I told the story, and I did not look at the two girls involved, but rather spoke to the class at large. They proved to be a quiet, attentive and completely involved audience.
Later that afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, one of the antagonists came up to me and handed me a piece of lined paper. Upon it she had written her name, her school name, the date, and the following (spelling has not been corrected):
ODIN = King ASGAARD
THOR = King’s son AESIR = GODS BEINGS
LOKI = Jokester OF LIGHT
BALDUR = Nice man
Comments: I think the story was nice and
it had a good morale.
Morale: Should not be jealous enough
Your a great Teacher!
P.S. Can you come again?
You don’t have to answer me now!
Since all of the fairy tales and heroic sagas to which I refer arise out of oral traditions, Waldorf teachers always commit the stories to heart and tell them to their class. It is difficult in our time for an adult to convey the nature of heroes and their deeds without lapsing into cynicism, but every effort is made to see the hero from the child’s perspective, which is still filled with unconditional love and belief. Fostering such love so that it unfolds as idealism in adolescence — rather than jaded disillusionment — is probably one of the greatest challenges facing teachers today.
After the children have heard such a story for the first time — for example, the life of the great Persian sage and hero Zarathustra — the teacher does not immediately throw out questions to test the children’s comprehension. Instead, the teacher allows the children to “sleep on it,” and engages the whole class in an oral review of the story the next day. (Although we do a lot of “reading comprehension” these days, not enough is done to assure that youngsters listen to what the teacher says!) Now that the children have inwardly pictured events from the hero’s life, the teacher may draw a definitive scene from that life on the blackboard, or ask the children to depict an event with which they felt linked.
On the third day, the teacher tries to guide the children to connect their own lives and strivings with that of the hero. Following this discussion the teacher may give a written assignment. That is to say, on the first day the children took in the story as a sensory experience, related to their thinking processes; on the second day the tale’s content arises in their feelings, and on the third day it is accessible to their will. This is, obviously, a slow process, which values the child’s depth of penetration over his facility at rattling off newly-acquired facts. The pre-adolescent thrives on those assignments in which she feels her life as one with the life that under study. Here are excerpts from a fifth grade girl’s response to the story of the birth of Zarathustra, the ancient Persian sage:
My nation was at one point one nation, but things changed
Our god, Ahura-Mazdao, gave our king, King Yimir, a golden blade. Ahura-Mazdao told Yimir to cut through the earth with that blade, and then to sow seeds into it. This was the first farming ever done. When they saw the next year that the seeds had grown, about half of the Turanians rejoiced at this, and followed his example. Now these were the first farmers. After that, they learned how to raise cows, build fences, grow vegetables etc. This new people called themselves Iranians…
The Turanians became more and more evil…and one day the Iranians couldn’t take it anymore. So a war was fought. The Iranians kept losing the war because they were not very experienced fighters. So they prayed to Ahura-Mazdao.
Ahura-Mazdao heard their prayer, and promised to send a prophet. But he said that the prophet would take many years to descend. He told the wise men to look up to the sky, and they would see the prophet’s Daena [soul] in a star form.
So they waited many years, and the wise men saw the star growing bigger and closer every year.
One day my Daena became a baby bird. I came into a nest, where two snakes had attacked the eggs. So I went up into the tree and attacked the two snakes. For this, the parent birds fed me. One of them fed me a seed. I chewed it, and spat it out.
That chewed seed became my new Daena. I was growing very quickly, and within one night I was fully grown. The people of the town thought this was a sacred plant. They called it a Haoma plant.
One night, a young woman of fifteen had a dream, that she was to bear the son of Ahura-Mazdao!…While she was sleeping, there was a light around her, that grew brighter every day. Some said that her light was bright enough to give light to the whole town. The townspeople thought that she must be a sorceress. So they brought her to another town where the people gladly accepted her. Her name was Dugdhova. She had a husband whose name was Pouroshaspa.
Pouroshaspa also had a dream one night. He dreamt that he took a piece of the Haoma plant and mixed it with milk. When he woke up, he id just as he was instructed to do. He gave his wife one half of the mixture and he drank the other.
About nine months after that, Dugdhova gave birth to me. They named me Zarathustra. Just as I, Zarathustra, was born, a very bright light covered the town and everything around it. This disturbed Ahriman greatly. He told the Turanians to go and destroy this child at once.
So they went, a whole army. When they arrived, they pushed down our humble door. There they stood, with weapons drawn. But I just laughed and said, “I think that Vohu Mana [the leader of good forces] will conquer Ako Mana [the leader of demons].” With that they all fled. Kings of the Turanians were to try to overcome me, but always in vain…
Rosemary Boyd (Margulies, 1996), a Waldorf graduate now active in economics and politics, recalls, “Waldorf gave me a good foundation in World History. For example, I remember studying Zoroastrianism (10th grade), the ancient Middle Eastern culture centered around the pillars of fire that burned over oil seepages. This historical insight helped me build a strong relationship with the Persian Chief of the Oil and Gas Division of the World Bank, which led to my assisting him with his book on financing energy projects in developing
In this eleven year-old’s work, the mood is one of a healthy acceptance of the transcendent nature of the Persian hero, and the stark contrasts of the battle of the forces of good with the forces of evil. It should be noted that this essay is not a “creative” work, drawn from of the child’s still-nebulous life of feeling, but is rather a re-creative effort, drawn from a melding of the teacher’s presentation and the child’s inner response to the material. Re-creation stands as a necessary foundation for the truly creative work which will be done by the adolescent youngster a few years hence; it is sad that our times the word “recreation” has been so trivialized.
By way of comparison, excerpts from an eighth grader’s work indicate an understanding of the complexities of a relatively modern figure — in this case, King Henry VIII of England:
Catharine? Catharine of Aragon? The former Queen of England sitting at his side? It could not be! And yet, Henry felt young, alive! He saw his musicians, playing the piece he had composed, the dancers dancing at his command, people laughing and talking. Henry smiled–it was the old, happy life again.
One of the dancers caught his eye. It was his second wife, Anne Bolyen. Henry suddenly realized that he didn’t want to go through all those long years again. Taking over the Catholic Church, divorcing Catharine, marrying Anne and then beheading her…
She stood on a platform and said, “Henry, I love you and will always love you!” And with that, she kneeled and placed her head on the block. The ax came down as if in slow motion. A split second before it severed her head from her body, there was blackness once again…
The smell of the streets faded away. Henry felt ill and tired and could hardly breathe. Catherine Parr, his last, loving wife, sat next to his bed, weeping. But he was not in the bed…or was he? There was a duplicate of himself on the bed. Henry looked down upon it from where he seemed to be floating…King Henry VIII was dead.
The eighth-grader’s composition, like that of the fifth-grader, was based on material presented by the class teacher, but the adolescent writer brings more boldness and individuality to her treatment of the subject matter. Reversing the chronological sequence, placing a far greater stress on the subject’s emotional response to his deeds than did the teacher, and charging all the events with high drama, the author makes it clear that she is ready to strike out on her own and write in a more original and creative vein.
This narrative approach contrasts markedly with the methodology proposed by the team of scholars and teachers responsible for setting the standards for teaching history in the next century. In the history curriculum developed as part of the “national standards” to which the federally-mandated Goals 2000 program aspires, history-as-story disappears. This living and stirring approach to history is replaced by the tired warhorses of academia: history-as-ideology, history-as-concept, in short, history as the inexorable pressure of abstract forces. Compare these sample essay assignments from the Goals 2000 (Shanker, 1995) study with the Waldorf student essays above:
Summarize the evidence for and against the proposition that Mesolithic peoples, such as lake-dwelling Maglemosians, were pioneer innovators taking advantage of opportunities offered by changing climate, rather than its victims…
Analyze the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in the [Mughal] empire and [compare] Akhbar’s governing methods and religious ideas with those of other Mughal emperors, such as Aurangzeb…
In the middle school years, the activities of the gods and nature beings withdrew, to allow for the deeds and sufferings of the heroes. With the onset of puberty, the Age of Heroes fades, and young people are eager to hear biographies, tales of flesh-and-blood figures whose lives can be documented, who lived and struggled and died bearing physical bodies as tangible as the bodies the pubescent students are themselves taking on. In order for the study of history to awaken and vitalize the forces of feeling and will that the contemporary child possesses in such abundance, teachers must bring human beings, rather than abstract forces, to the forefront of their lessons.
The epistemological foundation for this approach may be found in such thinkers as R.G. Collingwood. In his The Idea of History, (1973), we read:
Although each history main lesson block focuses on this single subject, the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum calls on every class teacher to weave a number of other subjects around this central core. Above all, it is essential for the Millennial Child to bring every subject into her will; after studying the neurological development of school-age children, Robert Sylwester (Hancock, 1996)of the University of Oregon said, “Children need to be more physically active in the classroom, not sitting quietly…Knowledge is retained longer if children connect not only aurally but emotionally and physically to the material…” (59)
In sixth grade, for example, the study of Rome, from its ancient origins to its regeneration as the “Holy Roman Empire” is studied. In those weeks in which the sixth graders are learning their history, a number of other subjects are attended to as well:
• English and Composition: Students in the Waldorf grade school do not use textbooks, but create their own “texts”: the “Main Lesson Book,” described above is a compilation of all that a student has learned about a subject during a particular block. Much of the text of a sixth grader’s main lesson book has been written by the student in draft form, corrected by the teacher and then rewritten neatly into the book. Compositions are also read aloud as part of each day’s reviewed, critiqued by classmates and teacher etc., so that every history block is also a period of intensive work in composition.
• Drawing and Painting: Rather than cut and paste magazine illustrations or photocopy textbook illustrations, Waldorf students learn to draw and paint images that they copy from primary sources or imaginatively create themselves. As a youngster carefully recreates a detail from a Roman sarcophagus or depicts a naval battle against Carthage, he lives much more fully into the subject than he would by passively gazing at photos or digitized images on “interactive” software. Clay modeling is another artistic medium that can be put to good effect in this grade.
• Mathematics: From three to five times a week, the class teacher will begin the morning with a few minutes of math work, using worksheets or asking the class to do “mental arithmetic.” Here, too, the children’s interest in Roman life can be put to good use, e.g., “A Roman legion was composed of 10 maniples of hastai, 10 maniples of principes, 10 maniples of triarii and 10 turmae of cavalry. Maniples of hastai and principes each were made up of 150 javelineers, 50 velites and 10 commanders. Maniples of triarii were composed of 60 spearmen, 40 velites and 10 commanders. Turmae of cavalry had 30 horsemen and 6 commanders. How many men were in such a legion? The legion was led by six tribunes; that meant that each tribune commanded how many men? Create a pie graph that tells us what percentage of the soldiers were on horseback. What percentage were spearmen?” And so on! Time/distance problems involving the construction of the Via Appia, area problems involving Roman monuments and arenas, or problems concerning the growing and decreasing population of Rome through the ages exemplify the way in which the children’s enthusiasm for history can be channeled toward other subjects.
• The Sciences: The integrated Waldorf curriculum for sixth grade indicates Mineralogy as the central natural science for this year, while Mechanics will be central in the Physics studies of seventh grade. The engineering genius of the Romans, and their thorough mastery of quarrying and masonry, provides much in the way of source material and cross-referencing for the science work in both sixth and seventh grades. An excerpt from a sixth grader’s composition illustrates how history and science can intersect. It was written from the point of view of an African infantryman who accompanied Hannibal across the Alps.
Hannibal only shouted out, “Gather wood and pile it around the boulder!’
We did that, and then he told us to light the wood so that a great bonfire was created. But didn’t our commander know that rocks don’t burn?
He shouted out once more–“Empty your wineskins onto the boulder!”
Our wineskins!! Did he want us to die of thirst? But you know how it is with Hannibal–we did what we were told, and quickly!
Then, wonder of wonders, as we poured our wine over the boulder, it sputtered and groaned and CRACK! The boulder split into a million smithereens, and we could easily march over it!
One of the soldiers from Carthage told me that Hannibal knew that something in the wine could dissolve the boulder, which he said was made of “limestone.” When I return home, I must learn more about these wonderful things, but right now we are bound for the conquest of Rome!
• The Performing Arts: An historical period is never taught in a Waldorf classroom without being accompanied by poetry and song from that particular period. Waldorf students routinely learn long poems by heart, and, through the grades, sing increasingly demanding musical pieces, from American folksongs to Gregorian chants and Elizabethan madrigals. Macauley’s lengthy poem Horatius at the Bridge is often recited by sixth graders during their Roman history block, and many classes learn poetry in Roman Latin and Church Latin as well. No less important are the class teacher’s efforts to embody the historical period as a class play, which is performed for the entire school at the end of the year. Students not only learn their parts; they are also responsible for helping to design costumes, props and sets, so that all that they have learned now takes palpable physical form. A modern youngster who is able to experience the weight and warmth of a toga (up to eighteen feet of cloth gathered around one body) learns a great deal about the aggrandizing nature of the Roman aristocracy.
These examples only hint at the fullness of experience that the Waldorf curriculum provides the developing child. The class teacher, who must, of course, prepare for all of these subjects, and who never gets to repeat anything for eight years, is similarly enriched as she teaches. A multitude of integrated curricular examples could be garnered from the teaching of history in the seventh and eighth grades, but these would go far beyond the scope of this section. It is my hope that what has been discussed indicates that history can be successfully taught as part of an integrated curriculum. If, as Cicero has said, “Those who do not learn what happened before they were born must always remain children,” the teaching of history in our turbulent times is a grave responsibility. To teach history in such a way that it illumines every other subject in the curriculum is a challenge that we should forcefully take up.
Two examples may give some sense of the effect that the Waldorf approach to history may have on students. Elyssa Moseley, a former student of mine, visited Israel in the summer after eighth grade, and in a letter described a visit to David’s Tower, a medieval castle:
For Elyssa, history was a magnifying glass that allowed her see the myriad interweavings that make up humanity’s collective past. For another Green Meadow graduate, history becomes a lens allowing insight into the future. Will Eaton is an engineer who is working in Hanford, Washington, with Westinghouse, to turn radioactive waste into glass that will contain the radioactive components for hundreds of thousands of years. In a recent interview (Margulies, 1996), he remarks:
The most important aspect of Waldorf education is that it teaches you how to think. Real problems in life or in work come up all the time where you say, there’s no way to solve that with the tools I’ve been given. How do you picture a hundred thousand years from now? In a way, mythology, and an understanding of how various cultures developed through history is closer to that kind of thinking than analytical, scientific thinking. Every day I have to attack problems where I have to think freely to gain any foothold, and that’s the kind of thinking that was cultivated in the Waldorf schools.
In a Waldorf school that don’t break subjects up into well-defined categories, like this is math, this is physics, this is chemistry. We had these three-week blocks where we’d study a piece of something, like Greek history, or art history, or light, and we’d experience how all these disciplines, or subjects, were woven together into what we call culture. By studying different cultural epochs, by studying various disciplines and science in an artistic way, you get a larger perspective of life — a broader vision. I’m able to think of the life of my planet instead of just my lifetime. (44).
on Eugene Schwartz’s web site www.millennialchild.com.
Collingwood, R. G. (1973). The idea of history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hancock, L. (1996). Why do schools flunk biology? In Newsweek. February 19.
Margulies, P. (1996). Learning to learn. Fair Oaks: AWSNA Publications.
May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. New York: Norton.
Postman, N. (1995). The end of education. New York: Knopf.
Shanker, A. (1995). Where we stand. In The New York Times. December 31.
Snell, M. B. (1995). Turn down the volume: interview with Jean Bethke Elstain. In Utne Reader. November-December.