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