Multiculturalism

This article taken from the Homeschool Journey newsletter, April 2004

Occasionally, one reads or hears someone say something along the lines that Waldorf is not multicultural or not multicultural enough. This always puzzles me, and sometimes seriously irritates me. If Waldorf does anything it draws from the rich cultural traditions of peoples across the globe and across the millennia. Waldorf, addressing the spiritual realities of the developing child, speaks to all people. It is simply a matter of how any given school, teacher or parent chooses their lesson material.

Sure, Grimms is favored in kindergarten and First Grade. And I think Grimms’ fairy tales are superbly crafted, speaking of spiritual truths that transcend nation or race. These are the great archetypes of the prince, the princess, the witch and the giant; they are not ‘owned’ by any particular culture. The simplicity and clarity of these tales – whether they be stories of transformation, of overcoming obstacles, of incarnation – is fantastic. And some of these themes can be found in stories of non-European cultures. The Cinderella story, for instance, appears again and again around the world. I would, though, warn parents that if they are trying to present the deep wisdom of a story such as Cinderella, and not merely a story about a wicked step-mother who mistreats her daughter who then goes on to find her handsome prince – but rather a story filled with transformation and magic, then one has to look rather carefully. I’ve been doing a bit of research on this and have been disappointed by quite a few of the Cinderella stories I have found. For instance, I found a story from the Hmong people but decided it had more to do with a literal girl finding her literal husband than a spiritual story involving aspects of the soul!

Anyway, the point is that Grimms is wonderful and I would definitely recommend that parents use these stories. But there is a whole world of stories out there which can also be used, as indeed many are in Waldorf kindergartens and schools.

As the children get older, losing their connection to their spiritual homes, the clever stories of tricksters and of animals which embody human characteristics (usually in excess!) become appropriate. Stories of Bre’er Rabbit and his African grandfather, Anansi, are perfect for this age, as are Native American stories of the Trickster, Coyote. Aesop’s Fables are also wonderful (don’t read the moral: just let it surround the child so he figures it out for himself!).

Well, I’m not going to go through the entire curriculum, year by year, but I should think my point is clear. Whether it’s story materials for Main Lessons, books chosen for read-aloud or reading practice and then, later, chapter books and novels, there is no reason why any child can’t be nurtured by the wonderful stories, legends, tales and fables from around the world. And, of course, if you follow the usual Waldorf curriculum, you’ll be spending a lot of time with your child studying myths from Northern Europe, India, Babylon, Persia, Egypt and Greece.

During a Third Grade Building block, why not have a look at traditional houses built by peoples across the globe? In Third Grade Farming, why not look at different crops grown by different peoples? When you study Local Geography in Fourth or Fifth Grade, there is an excellent opportunity to look at who lived here first – an appropriate question if you live in the US, Canada or Australia! In Sixth Grade, during Roman History, why not study the various cultures of the Northern Africans, Celts, Parthians and Goths whom the Romans encountered? And whilst studying the Middle Ages, you would do your child a disservice if you did not take time to look at the rise of Islam and the great civilization during the time of Haroun al-Raschid – and don’t forget to spend time on the Silk Route, that great flow of people, goods, information and culture which linked Persia and China.

It seems to me this is a pretty rich and diverse way to educate one’s children!

As homeschoolers, we have further opportunities to help our children appreciate the cultures and traditions of other people. Those who live in big cities can explore various ethnic neighborhoods, taking in the flavors, sounds, smells and happenings there, and perhaps participate in festivals and celebrations. Visiting museums, cultural centers and houses of worship, not to mention having friends and neighbors of different cultures, will also broaden the experience.

If you don’t live in a place where there is a variety of ethnic groups (or the scope is rather narrow, as where we are, where folks are generally either of Scandinavian or German origin!) then another possibility is to do a block or Main Lesson on a country and get to know something about its people that way. One could design a great block on Mexico, for instance, making Mexican food, reading Mexican folk tales, drawing maps, making a piñata and other crafts… This is, incidentally, a great multi-age block. The little ones can hear stories and draw pictures and help you cook while the older ones make maps and study the history of the chosen country. Everybody can enjoy a trip to Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the big city near you!

Another very satisfying way to learn about other cultures is to look at other religions and their festivals. I shy away from the ‘let’s celebrate everybody’s festivals’ approach as it can turn into a meaningless grab bag. Similarly, I also tend to avoid the lowest common denominator approach which tries to find the common thread from different religions and celebrating that.

Now, before I seriously upset people, I want to quickly say that there is much good to be said for both of these approaches and the spirit of sharing and reaching out to others which infuses both. And I’m sure that people find meaningful ways of doing either – or both! – of these things. But I want to suggest a third approach.

My suggestion is to pick a religion – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity – and to live into that religion over the course of a year. Celebrate the festivals, mark the observances, learn some prayers. Learn about how different people in different parts of the world practice that religion. Read stories from the tradition to your children and, if you have teenagers, encourage them to research questions arising from your conversations about the religion.

In this way, I feel that the religion can come to life and instead of being on the outside looking in, one might be able to have a glimpse, even if only fleetingly,  of what it’s like to be a part of that religious group and to stand in that tradition.

By immersing our children in the riches of other cultures – not in a pseudo-scientific or anthropological way but in a way that ignites a flame in our children, that same flame carried by every person in every culture on this earth – we can illumine possible ways for our children to overcome the barriers between peoples. If we live and breathe African-American, Dutch, Mexican, Arab, Italian or Chinese cultures as if they are our own – if the stories and music and food resonate in our souls – then we take a big step in healing the rifts that threaten to tear our world apart.

The highest aim of Waldorf education is to develop individuals who, out of their own sense of inner freedom, can be engaged in the world in a positive and fruitful way. In our day, perhaps more than ever, there is a need to ensure that through experiencing and embracing the cultures of other people our children learn that the world is indeed a good, a beautiful and a truthful place to grow up in.

The healthy social life is found 
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community finds its reflection,
And when in the community
The virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Motto of the Social Ethic

* * * * *

Here’s a very personal and incomplete list of books to get you started on your family’s explorations of other cultures. (W) means the book is available from the Rudolf Steiner College Bookstore or possibly from WaldorfBooks (Bob & Nancy’s).

Young Children

Robert San Souci: Sukey and the Mermaid, The Talking Eggs, Cinderella: A Caribbean Cinderella, Sootface: An Ojibwe Cinderella Story, Little Gold Star: A Spanish-American Cinderella Tale, and The Samurai’s Daughter
Phyllis Savory: Classic African Children’ Stories
Rafe Martin: The Monkey Bridge (and many other stories)
Richard Walker: The Barefoot Book of Trickster Tales
Yen Shen: A Cinderella Story from China
Pete Seeger: Abiyoyo
Barbara Juster Esbensen: The Star Maiden
Demi: The Greatest Treasure (and many other stories)
Katherine Orr: My Grandpa and the Sea
UNESCO: Children Just Like Me and Children Just Like Me: Celebrations
Julius Lester: Sam and the Tigers and Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales
John Steptoe: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters
Eileen Browne: Handa’s Surprise
Naomi Adler: The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales
Verna Aardema: Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain
Mary D. Lankford: Hopscotch Around the World (W)
Suzanne Down: Multicultural Stories (W)
Aesop’s Fables (W)
Joseph Bruchac: The Boy who Lived with Bears, The First Strawberries, The Girl who Married the Moon, The Story of the Milky Way

Middle Years

Geraldine McCaughrean: The Thousand and One Arabian Nights
Joseph Bruchac: The Journal of Jesse Smoke, The Arrow over the Door, A Boy Called Slow: The True Story of Sitting Bull, Children of the Longhouse, Crazy Horse’s Vision and The Winter People
Kate Seredy: The White Stag
Demi: Muhammad
Robert San Souci: The Hired Hand: An African American Folktale
Nancy M. Armstrong: Navajo Long Walk
Michael Dorris: Sees Behind Trees
Elizabeth Foreman Lewis: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze
Eloise Jarvis McGraw: Moccasin Trail
Gloria Whelan: Homeless Bird
Laurence Yep: The Star Fisher and Dragonwings
Armstrong Sperry: Call it Courage
Luther Standing Bear: My Indian Boyhood

Teens and Adults

Hyemeyohsts Storm: Seven Arrows
Dee Brown: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Forrest Carter: The Education of Little Tree
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eyes (and many others)
Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (adult content)
Gloria Naylor: The Women of Brewster Place (adult content)
Linda Goss: Talk that Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling (W)
The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass
Julius Lester: To Be a Slave

All Ages

Beatrice Silverman Weinreich: Yiddish Folktales (W)
Rukhsana Khan: Muslim Child: Understanding Islam Through Stories and Poems
Eric A. Kimmel: A Hanukkah Treasury
Malka Drucker: Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays
Ann Druitt et al: All Year Round (Christian festivals from an anthroposophical perspective) (W)
Noorah al-Gailani & Chris Smith: The Islamic Year: Surahs, Stories and Celebrations (W)
Fitzjohn, Weston and Large: Festivals Together: A Guide to Multicultural Celebration (W)
Philip Sherlock: West Indian Folktales
Virginia Hamilton: The People Could Fly
Theodora Ozaki: The Japanese Fairy Book (W)
Rebecca Schacht: Lights Along the Path: Jewish Folklore Through the Grades (W)
Virginia Hamilton: In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (W)
Betty Staley: Hear the Voice of the Griot (W)

Posted on July 3, 2005 in Waldorf Curriculum

COMMENTS
  • Emily says:

    Very useful article.
    However, I feel that you are doing the principle of multi-culturalism a disservice by including, of all things, “Forrest” Carter’s Education of Little Tree.
    Please tell me you weren’t already aware that the book is the hoax of Asa Carter, an ex-Klansman and political speechwriter who wrote “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Please tell me you didn’t notice the book’s “Noble Savage” stereotyping and racist undercurrents! (Education doesn’t even get its Cherokee traditions and words right.)
    As such, Education is a poor choice for teaching kids about Cherokee/NA culture and cultural acceptance/tolerance. Why not replace the title with a legitimate book about NA life?

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