Education and Hierarchies

I’ve been enjoying reading a lot of homeschooling blogs lately, both Waldorf inspired and others. I’ve always tried to hold the possibility of homeschooling my children, at the same time that I have major doubts. I believe these thoughts started a few years ago when a close friend and Waldorf-inspired daycare provider chose to take her son out of Waldorf school. She felt that he was being pressured to read in an unhealthy way–which is not really indicative of the Waldorf curriculum in general, but more likely of his particular teacher.

She chose to unschool him, meaning they did not use any particular curriculum. They had ample opportunities for informal learning: for example, they had farm animals, Dad was an engineer and loved to build things and tinker, Mom was an accomplished singer, and the boy was old enough to go fishing on the river by himself.

Around that same time, Anthropapa became intrigued by the work of John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning teacher from New York City who had come to believe that American public schools were unhealthy in their methods and in fact did not teach children what they need. He’s quite adamant that most modern educational methods and compulsory education work against the goal of educating children to be healthy and well-rounded human beings. But the part that was astonishing to read was what he said about the roots of compulsory public education in the US:

From the beginning, there was purpose behind forced schooling, purpose which had nothing to do with what parents, kids, or communities wanted. Instead, this grand purpose was forged out of what a highly centralized corporate economy and system of finance bent on internationalizing itself was thought to need; that, and what a strong, centralized political state needed, too. School was looked upon from the first decade of the twentieth century as a branch of industry and a tool of governance. For a considerable time, probably provoked by a climate of official anger and contempt directed against immigrants in the greatest displacement of people in history, social managers of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were doing. In a speech he gave before businessmen prior to the First World War, [US President] Woodrow Wilson made this unabashed disclosure:

“We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

I just finished editing a book about how the private and public education hierarchies in Istanbul interrelate with social hierarchies and economic class transformation. Many of the authors’ assertions about Turkish schools echo what Gatto says out about the US system:

A hierarchical system of attained levels of education is conducive not only to the reproduction of a social hierarchy but also attuned to economic hierarchies related to expertise and manpower needs for a developing division of labor in an emerging industrial economy. Together these features function to satisfy the role that the education system plays in socializing individuals to become loyal citizens and disciplined workers in modern nation-states. Just as the state legitimizes the education hierarchy, the education hierarchy lends legitimacy to the state and other hierarchies—political, economic, social, and cultural. (emphasis mine)

This also reminds me of what ElsieDeluxe has written about how she homeschools her sons:

[In schools] they’re just learning that somebody out there has a notion about what they should be doing all day, and they must sit still for it.

I’ll never forget how one day after reading some of Gatto’s writing, Anthropapa mentioned to me how he realized that despite the wonderful qualities of Waldorf school, it still involves a lot of sitting at a desk with the teacher as the authority figure at the front — the Prussian model of school as socialization.Now, I’m not completely knocking socialization here. I’d like my kids to be honest, and generous, and kind to others. I’d also like them to learn the rules of the road, how to be polite to strangers, and to learn compassion for other living things. All of this is part of socialization in my view.

But I’m not sure that learning to sit quietly for many hours at a desk is what some or even most kids really need. Certainly it fit my temperament as a child; I loved school, loved to sit still and read, and even played school at home. But I’d like my kids to be a little more involved with the world at large, to be physically active, to be artistic and musical, and to love not only book learning but life learning.

With at least of bit of the old “Question Authority” mentality mixed in, if only to free up their mental patterns (at this point I’m not quite ready for them to question my authority yet, thanks!)



Filed under Deep Thoughts, Parenting, waldorf education

13 responses to “Education and Hierarchies

  1. A quick response–my girls do not sit for hours at a desk. They are way more active than in they would be in a public school. The authority figure is definitely there at the Waldorf school. At first I wasn’t so sure about it, but now I don’t mind it. Kids who move into the class from public school have a great deal of trouble integrating. I think it’s because there is so much more structure.

  2. Sarah: I was mixing public and Waldorf in there a bit. And I’m not necessarily against the teacher as authority figure, if I am to go along with Steiner’s views on child development. But I think public schools take it all way too far.

    Waldorf schools generally aim to help students become well rounded and socially aware, not merely productive members of an economic class. However, the overall structure (children with a teacher/leader, the eight years of primary school, etc.) came directly from what was happening in German state schools at the time. So there is that foundation to be questioned, even in Waldorf.

  3. renaissancemama

    I love reading John Taylor Gatto. I was introduced to his writings during my senior year of teaching school 😉 Since I agree with so much of what he says, this made it difficult for me to teach in a public school. I was a first year teacher who wanted to change the whole system 😉

  4. domesticallyblissed

    I must read some of John Taylor Gatto, I’ve read some other unschooling stuff and it really resonates with me. I suspect that the level of structured at desks learning will be different in a Waldorf school now than it was 20 years ago, it certainly is in public schools from what I understand. I would hope Steiner schools will be leading the way, but it depends in how the teachers intepret Steiner I suppose. There is a huge difference between real ‘learning’ and formal ‘education’ isn’t there? What a thought provoking post!

  5. Bex

    Very VERY interesting!
    I’m still struggling with whether to send the girls to school or not, right now my ideal would be a half, half situation. But…for now, who knows? Xxx

  6. One question I’d raise is whether by challenging the status quo of state schools by removing children from them, one is inadvertently (unless your profession enables you to work irregularly from home) supporting another status quo – that of mother in the home, father out working. I say that from the circumstance of being a family seemingly heading inexorably towards that situation, mind (though I’m uncomfortable with it).

    And I have no clue as to how one would effectively work to change them from within (start with the PTA? Uh-oh)

  7. My kids are public schooled — the longer they go, the more I wish they weren’t there. And, I love our school.

  8. RenMama: Sounds like you went through an interesting teaching program!

    Gypsy: It could be that things have changed. I still suspect that a lot of public teachers’ time is spent directly on socialization, of the “sit down and be quiet” variety. And certainly things in Waldorf could be different, but I think there’s still food for thought regarding authority and social class.

    Bex: Aren’t these decisions difficult? I’m always waffling between wanting my kids to have the social aspect of being with a bunch of other kids, and then not!

    URD: That is a fairly big issue in my experience in Waldorf and anthroposophical circles. The traditional family structure you describe is also traditional to some extent in the Waldorf world, especially in families with young children. For example, until recently there were very few Waldorf preschools (and those only a few hours a week) or infant daycares, because the belief is that it’s best for small children to be home.

    I have no problem with the concept of one parent being home while the other works, but certainly it should not be compelled or assumed to be gender specific. I would want the decision to be made freely–why can’t it be the dad at home, for example? When my oldest was born, I had been earning more money than my husband, so theoretically I should have gone back to work!

  9. A thoughtful, carefully considered post. I really enjoyed reading it. It really does seem like Waldorf has so much to offer… and so much of a child’s experience seems to be up to the teacher. I guess that’s the way it is in every setting, though, really. Even in public school.

    Nice photos too.

  10. Wow, how do you address such a deep and complicated topic in a comment box?

    I have to say that I have no experience of what Waldorf is like in America. Although the Hungarian Waldorf schools are slowly developing their own styles, they are still heavily influenced by the first teachers in the 90 who got their training in Germany and Austria.

    Where my children go to school, they’re big on parents visiting the classroom, so I’ve seen quite a few hours of instruction time. Yes, the teachers are authority figures, but because the method involves lots of activity (singing, playing music, dancing, making things, learning games, drama) during the first few years, the teacher doesn’t have so much trouble keeping the children under control, because s/he isn’t trying to get small children to sit still and be quiet. The children’s abundant energy is shepherded into productive activity, and the children learn to trust that being guided by the teacher is pleasant and rewarding. With time, the children do more things quietly at their desk, as fits their level of maturity. Being quiet and concentrating IS a desirable skill and virtue in a human being, but is something to be grown into naturally, and not forced on one too early in life.

    What, in my observations, sets a Waldorf “upbringing” (the best translation I can think of for the German word Erziehung) apart from public schooling is the way the material the teacher brings to the classroom is dealt with in a manner that allows it to soak through all levels consciousness, all the way into the deepest levels of the subconscious, so that it really becomes a part of the pupil, and isn’t just superficially handled as abstract intellectual concepts. What a Waldorf pupil knows, s/he really KNOWS! It is a part of them. Their schooling builds the history of human civilization into their personalities in such a way that it will be an internal resource available to them for the rest of their lives.

    If a Waldorf child learns about sacred architecture, s/he sees it, touches it (visits an old church, for instance), draws it, calculates it, sings it (singing Latin church hymns meant to echo in the church vaults), personalizes it (hearing biography of a famous church architect) and builds it (making a model). And that’s still just scratching the surface of what goes on in a (good) Waldorf classroom.

    As a Rosicrucian, I have noticed that the incorporation of so many “rituals” in the classroom serves to place the life of the class in a bigger, spiritual context, and in which the children learn to respect the sublime rhythms and mysteries of the world. And the way things are revealed to them through the various dramas they participate in (the first graders’ “test of courage” in the forest, for instance) makes their experience initiatory, through which they learn from internal experiences and are made aware that they are passing from one level of “consciousness” to another (i.e. that they are growing up physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually).

    Indeed, there could be room for improvement, and there are surely elements of the system that are vestiges of older systems, but for my children, I cannot imagine better schooling, including teaching them myself.

  11. Alida

    I was on the homeschool fence for sooo long. A dear friend of mine who homeschools told me that if you start homeschooling and don’t feel comfortable with it, then you can put your kids in school. No harm done. However, if you start them in school, then it is so difficult to pull them out and it ends up that you are not pulling them out on good terms. (usually)

    I’m not familiar with Waldorf. I am familiar with my experience in a private school from 1st through 12th. Also in my older kids public education. (The best public schools in southern California) I can’t really say anything terrible about the experience except that they left me and my kids lacking of experiences.

    My small kids are…how can I put this? They are creative, courteous and curious. (real oddballs)
    My daughter dances her way down the grocery store aisles. I can’t imagine her sitting in a classroom. She doesn’t like following directions and likes to invent new ways to do things.

    I don’t think a teacher with 19 or 23 other kids would have the patience to deal with her, nor should she. I, however have all day long.

    My son read at 4 with very little, if any formal instruction. He is a rule follower. He likes to know beforehand, what’s going to happen. He is sensitive. He is slow to acclimate to changes. He doesn’t like messy projects.

    I fear that he would be labeled, that his curious spirit would be crushed. I have time to nurture his strengths and strengthen his weaknesses.

    I homeschool because I think it’s best for my kids. There are many good schools out there and many more great teachers. I think you really have to seek them out and be an advocate for your kids. In other words you have to be “that” parent that no one likes to see coming. So be it.

    Good luck and remember, you decision doesn’t have to be life-long. Take it one year at a time.

  12. Nana

    Having worked in the public school system and having sent Anthromama to both private and public schools, I have a unique perspective of public education, at least in California.
    In general, public schools teach to the middle student – not the brightest and certainly not the least bright. Schools have molded their curriculums to be successful with those with an average IQ. As a result, the education most children get in a public school is (and I shudder at this) average. The emphasis is for the children to do well on standardized state and federla tests.

    California spends a great deal of its education budget on children with special needs (and this category does not include the gifted). This is a very noble endeavor, however there is not enough left to properly educate the so called “normal” kids.

    And now for the caveat.
    Public schools in affluent neighborhoods enjoy the benefit of parents who are able to donate a tremendous amount of time and money in assisting their children’s schools. I was the PTA President at both the elementary and high school level. The major focus was, and still is, fundraising.
    Anthromama’s high school had an entire football stadium and swimming pool built due to parents matching the school district dollar for dollar for the cost. Upgraded computers and other expensive equipment are routinely donated.

    In affluent neighborhoods the expectation is that 90+% of each graduating class will go on to enroll in higher education; and I’m talking higher education at some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

    Where does that leave those students from low to moderate income neighborhoods? Struggling, that’s where.

    Whether a child goes to a public or private school is not as important as parental involvement and oversight. Parents must demand what is best for their children regardless of the choice of which school to send them.

  13. My goodness, I leave off blogging for the weekend, and now look! How do I respond to all this?

    Lizabeth: Yes, the teacher is the crux, isn’t it?

    Scribbler: I always appreciate hearing people’s impressions of Waldorf school, as I honestly feel a bit of a fake sometimes writing about them: since I haven’t been either a teacher or a school parent, but somewhere in between for so long. I like what you said about the teaching being absorbed on many levels, which reminds me of the spiral image that is one way to look at the progression of the curriculum over the years–coming back to a subject, but from a different perspective.

    Alida: I think public schools really have no idea how to deal with oddballs, no less the time or energy. That’s one of the consequences of both the origins of US public schooling that I mentioned, and the current overemphasis on testing: it’s all focused on numbers and not human beings!

    Nana: You were certainly a great role model of an involved parent. And your comments about fundraising remind me how sad it is that so much money is spent on schools and yet it never seems to be enough.

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