Educating for Excellence

Sometimes I get the feeling that people forget to look beyond the “fluffy pink” beginnings of Waldorf and do not know much of where the education they are working with is aiming. Sometimes the Waldorf bubble encapsulates the parent as well – and she might not remember that the aim of such an education is definitely not to keep her child in a bubble for very long – and it certainly is never meant to keep her there!
A couple of months ago I had a consultation with someone who, over the years, has become more of a friend than a client or customer. I have met her and her family and her occasional contributions on my old yahoo group were highly valued. She was telling me about her experience of attending an end of year 8th grade projects display several years in a row at a very prestigious and well established Waldorf school in the Northeast and how disappointed she was in what the students had produced. Somewhat hesitantly, she “admitted” that she had hopes that after a Waldorf at home education (which might or might not include Waldorf school at some point) that her children would be able to attend Ivy League colleges.
I was surprised – not by her hopes for her children – but by the fact that it would even cross one’s mind that Waldorf children might not be ready for such institutions should that be the direction in life that they choose! Most of my graduating class attended selective colleges or Ivies when I graduated and my relationship to Waldorf education has always been one of pursuing academic excellence.
After speaking with my friend, I began to think about this – perhaps there are some people who feel that either Waldorf does not prepare a child for “life” (whatever that means) or that academics are not important. I began to think more deeply on this.
And then I had to admit that I have had, over the years, a number of experiences with Waldorf schools that made me think that perhaps it is so that academics are not as strongly valued as they might be in some schools. I can remember being in an 8th grade classroom at a school where I was giving a conference perusing through the bookshelves to see what the class was reading and was shocked at the low reading level of the books! I found books that really, 6th graders should have been reading, not 8th graders. Where I teach, some students come into the high school never having read a novel. And math – well – middle years math in many Waldorf schools is in a sorry state (however, largely due to the work of people like Jamie York in Colorado, real efforts are underway to improve this situation and bring math to the very high and demanding level that is intended in Waldorf education.)
And that’s the point – Waldorf is meant to start slow, very slow and then, because the children are ready and because they are engaged on all levels with a curriculum that resonates with their very souls, they are meant to be able to reach very high summits of academic achievement. This certainly remains the case in many Waldorf schools. But…. not only do I see a bit of a slide toward allowing younger children into first grade and pushing academics a little earlier on the one hand (and this seems to be mainly a West Coast phenomena) but also a weakening of academics in the upper grades.
We are homeschoolers – we can address this possible problem in our own homes. We can get to grips with the curriculum and its demands and really work deeply with out children so that academic excellence is theirs – though, of course, not at the expense of their emotional or physical well-being or at the expense of the equally important development of their other faculties. But this is the point – it is via art, via movement that academic potential is realized and developed. One does not come at the expense of the other! Should school administrators in the public schools finally realize this, the education system in this country would be revolutionized and America might become a nation of well educated thinking people…. But that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
Back to homeschooling, we are so fortunate to be able to work freely with our children, supporting them and nurturing them in their early years and then preparing them to really fly as they head toward adolescence. Instead of the dumbed down garbage which passes for reading material and the mind numbing worksheets and exercises that the vast majority of children in this country are subjected to on a daily basis, we can challenge our children with real books and with meaningful learning that is artistic, interesting and which stretches them to develop their thinking capacities. Instead of only viewing logical linear thinking as worthwhile, we can let our little ones remain in their picture consciousness stage until they are ready to move onto the next stage of thinking, knowing that more than ever before in history, human beings need the ability to be flexible in their thinking. Instead of viewing art as a nice thing to do if there’s time, we can work via art, educating out children holistically so that not only will they be flexible in their thinking but creative in their lives as well. And we can educate via movement, not regarding the body as some extra thing that needs its daily 30 minute cardio-vascular attention, but as the vehicle via which children learn about the world.
Waldorf education’s aim is academic excellence – holistic, flexible, creative excellence. Not all children grow up to attend Ivy League schools. They may become farmers or craftspeople or artists or walk some other path no one has even thought of yet. That is fine and does not mean that they are any less worthy of receiving a training in thinking and in knowledge that is the basis of the Waldorf high school years. But the point is that academic excellence can and should be firmly in the consciousness of every parent who chooses Waldorf education. It is precisely because of the early years Waldorf bubble that this becomes possible for most children, regardless of what path they choose to walk later in life. Academic excellence is not for the few – it is for the vast majority.

Posted on September 20, 2007 in General Homeschooling

  • donna says:

    Hi Kim,
    Thank you for your comments….I agree – leaving a child unprepared is not doing them a service. Or, phrasing it somewhat differently, not meeting their developmental needs is doing them no service. And I firmly believe that being challenged, being stretched, being intellectually stimulated and never, ever dumbed down is part of the birthright of every child, no matter what their interests or inclinations. It is a fundamental developmental need. Their brains need exercise and stimulation as much as their bodies do ! But the point from a Waldorf perspective is that only if their bodies have been properly prepared so that the child is grounded and balanced, can the intellectual work really begin. And the corollary to that is that premature intellectual work is counterproductive.
    Of course, there appear to be exceptions. We all know of children who seem to be all brain – who excelled at this or that by the time they were three, have been burdened with the dubious title of “gifted”, are singled out for a particular kind of intellectual training. But… if we look carefully at the majority of those children over time – if we spend as much care looking at their spiritual, physical and emotional health as we might look at only one shade of their intellectual expression, then we are sure to see a state of unbalance and disharmony – ie ill health of one kind or another.
    I could go on…I have a real bug bear about this….And I have gone off on a tangent which does not speak to what you wrote!! Sorry!
    Yes – how to do this? What are some strategies…. Let me chew over that (had to laugh, Kim, when you used that phrase as I use it all the time!) and post some more!
    One thing I can say for now is that our work at Christopherus is certainly created with an assumption of academic excellence and academic preparation. As a high school teacher and one who spends a lot of time researching other forms of education, I am certain that parents who buy our materials will be pleased at our high level of academic expectations. As always, feedback on this is very very welcome!!

  • Aurora says:

    Hi Mari-Ann,I’d love to read your Island Life Blog. cokelush at gmail Aside from being just plain nosy 🙂 I would LOVE to be an expat seewohmre… but can’t bear the thought of leaving my granddaughter & adult daughters so… I live vicariously through others who are living that life. We do love to travel tho’ & I <3 to learn about new places & people. Thanks!I'm going to be reading this Counting Coconuts from cover to cover! I have our 2.5 year old granddaughter 2x a week & we've been doing some Montessori & Waldorf activities. Your blog has already got my mind spinning with new ideas for us to do! Thanks so much! – Robin

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