Decolonizing means critically reflecting on what we teach, how we teach and why we teach what we do, to ensure that Waldorf education is truly inclusive, celebrates diversity and enables children and young people to develop intercultural competence. It means countering all forms of discrimination, giving voices to those who have been marginalized by history and avoiding essentialist ideas of culture, cultures, cultural evolution, peoples, nations, languages, historical periods and all psychological typologies of people.
Waldorf education has the potential to provide meaningful learning opportunities for cultivating the sensibilities, dispositions, skills and knowledge that young people require in a multi-cultural world and it should be at the forefront of education for diversity, inclusion and intercultural learning. It does, however, first need to put its own house in order.
Decolonizing is not something that can occur quickly by simply drawing attention to the problem, publishing statements of intent and changing a few things in the curriculum. It takes a long time for deep-seated, unconsidered, embodied attitudes to be acknowledged, made conscious and changed. This process has barely begun within the international Waldorf community.
Decolonizing is a multi-layered task that needs to take different forms and have specific focus in each location, in each school, in each community and nation. It is equally a task for teachers in countries that do not have a history of colonization (and more countries have histories of benefitting from colonization than is generally realized). The close historical links between European colonization, slavery, the founding of settler states, the suppression and disempowerment of women and the emergence of capitalism are not widely understood and certainly not represented in Waldorf curricula. Western ideas of rationalism and materialistic science led to racism and ecological exploitation and in the form of neoliberalism, have led to the Global economic North-South divide, which in turn has led to the economic dependencies and political manipulation that manifest in conflict, mass migration movements and the corresponding neo-conservative backlash that manifests in the rise of xenophobia and neo-nationalism and anti-wokeism. Neoliberalism shapes education by reducing it to measurable outcomes and high stakes testing.
Waldorf education is widely understood as a coherent, uniform approach that is applicable all over the world, with minor local adaptations. This arboreal view (all schools are seen as fruits of a single, original metaphorical tree that grew in Stuttgart) has to be replaced by more globalectic and rhizomic understandings (local initiatives emerge and grow from a common network of ideas that has no centre) and there is no hierarchy or central ownership of Waldorf ideas.
There are a number of aspects of Steiner’s anthroposophical works that are problematical with regard to diversity and cultural recognition, including his emphasis on overcoming generic aspects of identity (e.g. race, gender, cultural background, religion etc.). Part of the decolonizing process is to address these issues not merely from an apologetic position that aims to minimize or explain away the significance of the statement Steiner made, but critically. Admitting that Steiner made mistakes, misjudged situations, used inappropriate language (even by the standards of his own times) will not threaten the structure of anthroposophy, or undermine the credibility of Waldorf education as many people fear. Rather the opposite is the case. If these aspects of Steiner’s work are not understood, acknowledged and corrected, this will continue to weaken both anthroposophy and Waldorf education.
The task of decolonizing Waldorf education includes finding new approaches to how history and culture are taught (e.g. cultural epochs and essentializing languages), what narratives are taught, what music is learned, what arts and crafts are practiced and so on, that nevertheless acknowledge the generative principles of Waldorf education. Perhaps more importantly, Waldorf education needs a new approach to intersubjectivity, interpersonal relations and interculturality. Steiner’s approach to these aspects was incomplete and underdeveloped, though by stating (in his Philosophy of Freedom) that when we perceive another person, we should not try to understand them with our concepts and impose these on our understanding and recognition of the other, but should accept their own self-identification, Steiner showed the direction in which this should be developed. We should try to understand the other’s concepts from their perspective as self-interpreting human beings. One could call this empathic understanding, and this provides the basis for a dialogic understanding, leading to a fusion of horizons.
Waldorf education has a core of universalistic principles that have historically been interpreted in culturally specific ways, though this process has not been fully understood. Many aspects that are assumed to be inherently Waldorf, are actually coloured by local, social and cultural assumptions. This has also occurred over time. One need only think of how the 1968 counter-culture movement was projected onto Waldorf, or how the relationship of Waldorf education to the state is seen – by some as a justification for expensive private schools, by others as a means to social inclusion. One of the tasks of decolonizing through Waldorf, is teasing out the generally valid aspects from the locally specific aspects of the education.