The other day I hurried along East 79th Street on my way to the Met Museum when I glimpsed a likeness of Leonardo da Vinci paired with the promise of teaching the principles of the Italian Renaissance to children in elementary school. “How nice,” I thought, before realizing that it was the New York’s Rudolf Steiner School making this promise. I had a vision of myself, aged nine, attending a Steiner (Waldorf) School in Hanover, Germany.
Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian educator and philosopher, founded his first “Waldorf School” for the children of the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in 1919. Steiner developed many new methods of education, including attention to the capabilities of individual students, absence of grades, strong ethics, tolerance, a close relationship between teacher and student and immersion in particular subjects. The homeroom teacher, heading a particular class for eight years, taught history, mathematics, geography, anatomy or German every day for weeks at a time. The curriculum emphasized eurhythmics, a system of movements intended to promote musical understanding, anthroposophy, a deeply spiritual philosophy, music, and crafts. The school rapidly ran afoul of the Nazis, who eventually closed it. We read and wrote poetry, illustrated our essays, and yes, learned about the Italian Renaissance, as well as about Norse Gods, and the myths of other countries.
In my case, my parents did not select the Waldorf School because of its principles, but because it was willing to accept a Jewish kid like me in the Nazi-dominated Germany of the 1930s. In many respects the school fit me like a glove. I was smart and highly creative, but since I was slightly dyslexic, a condition not recognized then, I had a very hard time mastering the conventional subjects like reading, spelling, and arithmetic. I performed erratically because, I now believe, I also suffered mildly from ADD (attention deficit disorder). I often got and get lost when someone tries to teach me something complex. Even today, I learn best by figuring things out for myself.
I attended the Waldorf School for three years. Most everybody in my class was tolerant of me and of Ruth Iris, the other Jewish kid in my class. I was a loyal student, honestly believing that I loved the school and Herr Lange, our teacher. He actually was an actor and teaching was a second choice. He broke out in a sweat whenever he tried to teach us the rudiments of arithmetic, and I blame him for my lifelong difficulties with the subject.
It is only much later that I realized how deeply I hated growing up in Nazi-dominated Germany and how this included my attendance at the seemingly tolerant Rudolf Steiner school. With my mind’s eye I could “see” students and teachers thinking that I was “a nice little girl who was unfortunately Jewish.” I detested being special. I was relieved when we left Germany and I attended a traditional French lycée, though there too I was special, since to begin with I did not speak French. In Belgium some people disliked me for being German, others for being Jewish. By then, however, I was getting used to being different.
Unfortunately it is hard to evaluate the effects of a liberal education. As an adult I approve of many of Rudolf Steiner’s principles, some of which now permeate traditional education. I have done very well for myself in spite of a very spotty education. The creative aspects of the school fit my quirky intelligence. The homework assignments stressed long essays and fostered my verbal skills, and the absence of grades was good for someone with learning difficulties. I, however, missed the concrete evidence of grades that should indicate when making a special effort does pay off. I also question the eight-year-long relationship with one and the same homeroom teacher. What if a student does not get along with her or him? I was glad to leave the school when we left Germany and I entered the rather strict and conventional Lycée de Forest in Brussels.
It took decades for me to realize that it was not the Rudolf Steiner School I hated but growing up in Nazi Germany. Though I experienced only moderate antagonism and hatred, especially when compared with what was to come, these years left me with deep scars. It does not take much to make me again feel like a second-class citizen! I suspect that I have tons of soul-mates, since today half the world’s billions lord it over the other half, and there must be many children who are made to feel “inferior.”