A talk by Nathaniel Williams on April 19, 2019, at the Emerson Waldorf School, in Chapel Hill, NC, as part of the Waldorf 100 Festivities
Tonight we are gathered together to celebrate one hundred years of the Waldorf movement. I am so excited about the topic that I’m sharing, and I hope that by the end of this short presentation you’re able to receive some of this excitement. I’m going to speak about the history of the Waldorf school, but not from the perspective we might be used to hearing about it—which is a perspective that’s really focused on developmental psychology, child development, and pedagogy—but from a perspective of economic and social justice, including societal reform.
Today I went to get some coffee. On my way, I was behind a minivan, and there was a tiny little sticker on the minivan that said “Pay teachers first!” Have you seen that sticker? Is that a common sticker around here? I have just been reading about the May 1st teacher’s strike in North Carolina, which is coming up in one week. It seems that 750,000 students in North Carolina will not be going to school because the four largest school districts in the state have canceled school because they know the teachers aren’t going to show up. And the teachers are not going to work, evidently, because they are not getting “paid first.”
They’re striking in order to receive more support so that they can do their work well, in a way they feel has dignity. They are seeking better health insurance and the expansion of certain benefits. One person they invited to come to their strike was William Barber. Now, William Barber, if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t live far from here. In 2013 I first started hearing his name because he started the Moral Monday gatherings at the North Carolina state legislature building. He was getting arrested pretty regularly—he was involved in what he calls “raucous democracy” and was arrested for trespassing—and so at one point he was banned from entering the state building while his trespassing charge was pending in court. However, two weeks ago that ban was lifted and so he’s going be at the state legislature on the first of May, addressing this crowd of teachers.
He wrote a book called The Third Reconstruction. I don’t know how familiar you all are with his work. The Third Reconstruction is somewhat biographical, and in part it’s about his social and political ideals. By calling it The Third Reconstruction he ties it to moments that are particular to the United State’s political and social history. You will be familiar with the first reconstruction, after the Civil War in the United States, when the southern states were occupied by troops that were loyal to the Union. Governments were established from the North, and for a moment there was a much more egalitarian society in the South. This was the time that the Freedmen’s Bureau was active. Unfortunately, it did not last. At the end of the 19th century the Jim Crow laws and segregation were instituted in the South, and there was pretty much an apartheid society here. They had a strange philosophy called ‘separate but equal,’ which got half of it right: the separation.
Then we come to the period sometimes referred to as the “second reconstruction,” which is also known as the civil rights movement. We see this unbelievably brave upsurge of activists, and also very organized lawyers coming from the NAACP, who fought cases particularly in relationship to educational reform, the desegregation of universities in the 1940s and 50s. Then we come to the period sometimes referred to as the “second reconstruction,” which we might know more casually as the civil rights movement. The second reconstruction is much better understood than the first reconstruction. That is also a time when civil disobedience became a major strategy in the United States, largely through Martin Luther King Jr’s use of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
Countless people worked diligently and made great sacrifices, alongside the better-known activists like Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks, at this time. They achieved really revolutionary changes in society. But when King was in the fourth decade of his life, the age in which he would be murdered, he started to express some concerns. This was also the time he started the Poor People’s Campaign, which is actually what William Barber has picked up from him. And he said, ‘I am very impressed with the legislative revolution that we have achieved in the country, but I’m deeply concerned that it hasn’t also been a revolution of values. And that all that we have achieved won’t last, because of the fact that it hasn’t been a revolution of values.’ Because he saw that, actually, in many ways, one group of people—his people—was using economics and politics in order to create laws against the wishes of certain other people. They were using coercion, through boycotts and civil disobedience, to re-shape society. So, for instance, in the south desegregation had to be forced. The national guard was called into schools in order to protect people brave enough to be on the front of line of desegregation. King knew that was not sustainable. The only thing that would be sustainable would be if, as he said in the “I Have a Dream” speech, people are not judged by outer, rather arbitrary, characteristics that assign them to groups, but are judged by the true content of their character.
This is what he was concerned about. What if we make all the legal reforms, but haven’t shifted the deeper values? What will all the laws in the world do if we don’t have that attitude? The laws on their own are not sustainable.
These questions of character and value are one place where the Waldorf movement resonates profoundly with the civil rights movement. One of the fundamental pedagogical philosophies of the Waldorf movement, pursued by teachers all over the world, is not only that children should be approached as individuals and educated in reverence and love for their individuality, but also that they should be taught to experience others as individuals. If you have ever wondered why art is such a huge part of the curriculum in Waldorf schools, one of the reasons is because through art we learn to see and love the individual. An art work is a thing that is unique and self-referential. Artistic experience informs social life when it becomes an underlying sentiment. There is a philosophy and political theory on the significance of beauty that Rudolf Steiner was very inspired by, that of Friedrich Schiller. So we can foster this awareness that the Waldorf movement is contributing toward the values of the civil rights movement, which includes a real cultural shift from understanding people through their part in a group—which leads to racism and sexism and other isms—to conceiving, and seeing, people as possessing individuality.
I’d like to close this section with a thought and a question. King, in one of his reflections on the civil rights movement, said, “one thing that characterizes this movement is there is a deep faith in the potential for goodness in the human being”... A deep faith in the potential for goodness in the human being. There is a deep faith in the potential for goodness in the human being! Now the question I would like to raise is, if we feel that, if we sense that, then:
How do we organize life individually, but also on the societal level collectively, that that potential for goodness can most thrive, can most manifest and come out? How do we organize our lives so that that potential goodness becomes real?
I’d like to address this question in light of the fact that it’s a presidential year in the US. This year we’re going to hear a lot about two opinions regarding this question, because it’s a presidential year in the US. We know already that there are two answers that we can really rely on. We know because they are so habitual to us. Almost every story we tell ourselves about politics comes through these two lenses. One was, I think, characterized pretty well by the French economist who wrote a book about capital about seven years ago, his name is Thomas Picketty. He did this massive data study on economics and came to the conclusion that the capitalist system is only going to increase inequality, and that the cardinal question to decide is how to tax capital. In short, capitalism should not be eaten raw—we need robust democracy, taxes, and wealth re-distribution in order to not get ill. Either through a global tax on capital or corporate taxes on capital, there must be administrative agencies of the government that complement this one-sided way of life. In the Democratic Party platform this view is central. It’s an answer to the question I asked, how do we organize society in a way that the potential goodness in human nature can most fully manifest? For Picketty it is about policy, taxes, and wealth redistribution.
Then there is the other perspective, articulated by someone like Milton Friedman, who was one of the most active free market theorists in the latter part of the 20th century. He said, ‘I really relate to your aspirations for morality, but if you try to make people share, to make people treat each other well through using the government, you will never ever make a better society. The best possible society that we can have is through voluntary cooperation in the free market. It will mean that there will be inequality, and it will mean that there are different amounts of power amongst citizens, but it also means that people who are crazy enough to try to start a Waldorf school, will be able to try, because it’s a free society!’ Friedman believed that the minority of people do have good impulses, impulses that are also social, and the only way that those will be able to flourish is if we have a free market system. If you try to use the government you squander the little virtue you have in your community! So really how Friedman responds to King is ‘Yes, I see that potential, but this is as good as it gets. And it’s not because I don’t love the idea of a better, more moral society.’ Milton Friedman, he can relate to that idea, but he just doesn’t think it’s realistic.
Now I’m going to tell you some things about the first Waldorf school that you might not believe. The first Waldorf school was started in 1919, a hundred years ago, in the German city of Stuttgart. It wasn’t a stand alone school. It wasn’t like this school; this school is just sitting here on this beautiful hill surrounded by pine trees, just getting by on its own. It was connected to a bunch of people who were producing cigarettes at the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette factory. The owner of the cigarette factory dedicated a percentage of the profits to pay the tuition for all the worker’s children and also to welcome children from other families into the school. This is the first thing about the Waldorf school that isn’t widely known. You have the school and you have a cigarette factory.
Then, by 1920, there are about 18 corporations connected with the Waldorf school. There is a pharmaceutical company, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, a chemical plant, multiple farms, a bank, an oil producer, a wheat and grain mill. However they’re not only supporting this school with their profits, there is also a clinic and a scientific research institute. And they’re all connected together in one association. This is the first conscious experiment in associative economics.
Rudolf Steiner had written a book on sociology called Towards Social Renewal. It was a best seller in Europe and was reviewed in 1923 by the New York Times. The Waldorf school movement is one part of a big social-political movement that was partly articulated in that book. So how did Rudolf Steiner answer the question: How do you organize society so that the potential for goodness in human beings is most likely to become manifest? He didn’t actually put forward a solution that was similar to the Democratic or Republican parties. And that’s why I’m so interested, because I know those solutions so well. They are terribly tired thought forms, and I like novelty!
I’m going to try to walk you through 3 really interesting characteristics of associative economics, and tell you about how they were connected to the first Waldorf school. The first characteristic is that: in economic life there needs to be concrete association between producers, distributors, and consumers. That may sound abstract, but I hope you’ll appreciate it after I say a little more.
One of the most influential forms of associative economics is the Community Supported Agricultural movement. At least one of its origins comes from associative economic practices in Europe. The other one seems to come from Japan, the origins of which I’m less familiar with. They seem to have come to the United States at the same time. So what happens, for instance, if all of you are interested in having food as consumers, and I’m a farmer. I have this little farm at the bottom of this little school? I could make a budget, and I could list everything that I needed, from tractors to seed to manure, and I could tally all that up and say, ‘I can grow enough food that I could give you all a basket of food every week during the growing season, and a smaller basket in the winter if I have a greenhouse, but I need a $107,000. And if there’s a drought I’m not sure I’ll come through, and if there’s a blight I’m not sure I’ll come through, but I’m actually pretty good at farming. Then we could pass the piece of paper around and everyone could say what they’re willing to contribute on a monthly basis, and I could say ‘Wow, we’re at $98,000.’ And then we could pass it around again, and then you might get more. And this is actually how the first CSAs were funded in the United States. You can find it described in Farms of Tomorrow by Trauger Groh.
Because everyone has concrete knowledge of production, distribution, and consumption process in local agriculture, they may be willing to pay more for food. The price changes. Right now, when you go to the grocery store, there’s a part of the grocery store where you have some knowledge about the production. It’s the organic section, it’s the fair trade section, it’s wherever there are sustainability labels and any other label that tells you something about the production process. And you know what, people pay more for those. They’ll pay more. Steiner suggested the sociological hypothesis that reveals a fundamental error of most capitalistic theories. They don’t recognize how association, if you have practices of association, like in the CSA movement, actually can lead to people paying more and maybe consuming less. And they don’t necessarily feel like they’re torturing themselves. They’re not necessarily saints, or the virtuous few that Friedman refers to. Steiner suggested there is a counter to egotism in the economy through association (Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, that focuses so heavily on the art of association, is really interesting to read from this perspective). Can you follow that? It counters egotism. A social sentiment is activated through associative economics. Already here you see one concrete objection from Steiner to Milton Friedman: ‘No, human nature can be better. We can develop relationships that are more social, but we have to talk about the way we produce, distribute, and consume things to come to the right price.’
The second principle is separating income from work. I was recently hired to teach at the University at Albany as an adjunct in the political science department and my first paycheck came a month after I started teaching. It wasn’t much so it didn’t really matter but I was shocked that they would wait that long to give me any money! I had worked so hard already. Now let me give you another example. RSF Social Finance is an impact investing group in San Francisco, California. They are working with hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly in the form of investments and loans, but also some grants and donations. When you get a job at RSF, just about on your first day of work you get a paycheck. And they tell you ‘This is so that you can meet your needs so you can do good work with us.’ Consider the question, “What do you work for?” in this light. Not for money. Money is only a means so you can take care of yourself while you do good work.
Steiner saw that one core economic problem is the wage. It makes people believe they are not working for one another, helping one another, which we are all doing all the time. We think we’re working for money. And so even the way that we give pay can counter this misconception. We give pay so that people can be supported while they work. And what do you work for? Well, in your case, you’re doing God’s work here at Emerson—helping young people develop into free people. That’s way more important than working for money. That’s what the work is all about. The money is just a way you can take care of yourself so you can do that work. And this is important when it comes to finding colleagues. You want colleagues that don’t simply want the money, you want people that want to do the work. If you see someone come in, and they’re lit up about the work, that’s the person you want. Not the one that starts talking about pay right away.
It is interesting to think about this and to read Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy. He’s a political philosopher at Harvard, who has investigated some of these issues, but Steiner’s notion adds a whole different dimension to Sandel’s findings. Again, separating income from work. This is another way you can organize collective life to help more goodness arise, taking what was mere potential in the human being and making it active and real.
The third principle: neutralize capital. The first Waldorf school was connected to 18 or so corporate enterprises that were producing things—from cardboard, to oil, to wheat, to agricultural equipment. The owners of these enterprises, when they joined this association, which was called “The Coming Day,” agreed to include themselves in the budget on a fixed salary. Typically, the way we think about corporate ownership is that if you own a corporation, and you make profits, you can give yourself raises and create profit-sharing structures. You get more money as your business becomes more profitable. This isn’t something you do only in your typical private enterprise, but also in many cooperatives. If you have, for instance, a grocery store coop, you can have a profit-sharing structure. Steiner saw this as a structure that encouraged anti-social sentiments and thoughts. Rather, give people what they need! Everyone is on a salary that allows them to have a dignified life, and then any profits and capital that are created, they are a social asset, a social commodity. So the owners were salaried. Then 5% of each corporation’s profit goes to fund a clinic, a school, a research institute. It should be understood that this 5% was only a beginning. But Steiner was adamant to make a start, and he was the chair of the association. The leading thought is that this 5% is given not because the managers of the company are great philanthropists! No, it wasn’t their capital! The profit was created through the division of labor, and all these corporations were possible because of that division of labor—all that profit, it was everybody’s! So it should go towards the common good. And what is the common good? The best schools we can have. And for who? For everybody. You all understand. This was recently described very well from another perspective by Armin Steuernagel in a TedX talk.
The Coming Day association failed, it dissolved because of hyperinflation within three years. They set up the structure and started to work together, but if you know anything about Germany in 1921-22, you know this is not an easy time to try something like this. I would say that it was not a fair time to test this because of hyperinflation. Steiner had nothing to do with the decision of the German government to print huge amounts of money with no regard for economic productivity in Germany. That was up to the politicians who were in charge at that time between the First and the Second World War. But The Coming Day association could certainly not escape the consequences of such inflation. And they dissolved the association to save the Waldorf school, as well as a company called Weleda. Perhaps you’ve heard of Weleda, it’s one of the oldest natural pharmaceutical production companies in Europe. It’s very successful to this day, and it was in the association.
These are just three of the characteristics of associative economics, but can you get a flavor of them? And it’s really interesting when you look at the difference between these characteristics and the suggestions for organization that we often hear from the Democratic and Republican parties, and you see how interesting this actually is as an idea for organizing corporate life. This is actually about organizing the economy. But you know what, it’s conceived of as voluntary. And you say ‘Oh you’re crazy! Those corporate people, they’re so egotistical, they’ll never do this!’ Maybe you won’t say that, but I have talked to many people who have this response right off. But one of the most fascinating things about Rudolf Steiner’s insights in Towards Social Renewal is that they weren’t simply connected to revolution or reform. He said ‘This is what's happening, society is dividing us into three parts, and this is how I think we can best work with it.’ It’s dividing into an economic sector, which should be guided by associative economics, a political sector, which should be guided by democracy, and a cultural sector, which should be independent and free. Now I would like to point out that we definitely have an economic sector in the United States, that’s just one part of a global economy, we have a democratic government, which is intended to be an area where legislation is created, and we have civil society, a cultural sector which includes Emerson Waldorf School, Harvard, Wikipedia, public radio, and all the churches around here, and all the philanthropic foundations.
And now, I would like to point out that this is where I find Steiner so interesting, because in one way his study, Towards Social Renewal, is prophetic. He says ‘No! No! The real principle of economic life is not competition, it’s cooperation, without government central planning.’ And do you know some of the fastest growing innovations in American corporations right now are fair trade and benefit corporations? These are manifestations of what Steiner suggested a century ago. They align with some of the ideals for corporate life that Steiner indicates in Towards Social Renewal. But they also happen to align with what Jeffrey Sachs, the American economist who is working with the UN on the sustainable development goals, is articulating. That we should be working for three bottom lines in the economy—namely profit, positive social impact, and positive ecological impact—and these are only possible where there is good governance, no corruption, and transformed self-interest.
If you want to start a business you can now incorporate as a benefit corporation in almost 40 states in the US. Benefit corporations writes into their incorporation papers these audit practices, and every year they show that what they’re doing is beneficial for society, ecology, and for the ‘pocketbook.’ How can we work together to make good things? That’s the benefit corporation’s model.
You can see when you look at society that it is indeed dividing into three parts: a global economy, a democratic government, and an independent cultural life. You can see the tendency that Steiner was talking about, and he was writing in 1917-18 in Germany, after WWI. And he said this is going to become more and more the case in the future because of the industrial revolution and other factors that are playing themselves out in modern society.
So in a way, this Waldorf school is a bit of an orphan. From the perspective of the bigger social-political movement from which it was born, every Waldorf school is an orphan. One of the teachers who founded the school I live near, which is the Hawthorne Valley School, was Karl Ege. He was hired by Rudolf Steiner at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. He was a very young teacher at that time. He attended some youth events where Steiner spoke and, at one of these, one of the young teachers came to Steiner—this was after The Coming Day association had dissolved and many schools had to charge tuition to finance the schools—and said, ‘How can you justify charging tuition and not allowing people who don’t have money to develop themselves? How can you justify this?’ This is a very serious moral question. And Steiner said this, ‘It is a social lie what we are doing, but until the threefold social order can be created in some form, I don’t see another way to deal with the situation.’ And you see in the Waldorf movement in the United States that people fall on two sides of this. Some people say ‘I will give up independence (which is the free life of the mind) for accessibility, and I’ll work in the charter school movement of public schools.’ Then you are regulated in how you can teach, but you get students from all over society. You have total accessibility, which is certainly right. The first students of the Waldorf movement were children of the cigarette factory workers. The whole intention was to make it accessible for the working class.
Then, on the other hand, you have the independent school movement, which is able to maintain its integrity and its practice of pedagogy, fiercely sometimes, because it will not take any money from the government. But because of that they become privileged, exclusive spaces in society. But we have to imagine the scope of the intentions of this movement. Between 1920 and 1930 Rudolf Steiner wanted hundreds and hundreds of Waldorf schools to open in Europe. I’m trying to give you some picture of scale. This association I’m telling you about, with 18 corporations, there would need to be an association like that connected to every school. That’s the scale of the social movement Steiner was imagining. In scale it is like what Bernie Sanders is trying to do, not merely with the old trade union spirit, but rather with associative economics. Today there are a thousand Waldorf schools around the world, which is something to be thankful for, particularly if you think of what happened to Germany in the 1940s, when all the Waldorf schools were shut down. Now we have a thousand Waldorf schools. I’ll still be thankful for that even if they are orphans.
So again, like King asks, in essence, How can you organize society so the potential for goodness can be more manifested than it is right now? Steiner suggested that through associative economics you can counter egotism in corporate life, through, in part, the practices we have covered. He also advocated for a very specific direction in education which I think you probably know much more about—for instance, what I mentioned before about an artistic or aesthetic education. That is also a way of helping the potential goodness in people manifest more.
It’s really exciting when you think about it. And I’m so happy that there are places out there where these associative principles are being actualized, from RSF Social Finance in California, to the Sekem corporation in Egypt, to some of the ethical banks in Europe where every investment is public. So you know where all your money is invested, where it is working, what it is doing while you are sleeping at night. One time I got a call from my bank, and they said ‘Hi, we see that you made a visit to the branch recently. We just wanted to get a little feedback. Are there any recommendations you have for the bank?’ I said, ‘Yeah! Would you mind just publishing all of your investments publicly so I can see what you’re doing with my money?’ She replied, ‘Thank you for that…’ and that was the end of that conversation. It was Key Bank and they haven’t done that yet. So when we think about all these public school teachers who are gathering in Raleigh, I hope that even though they are dealing with very different things, we can see that we’re all caught up in the same problem. If you’re a public school teacher fighting for freedom and dignified pay through civil disobedience or a Waldorf teacher trying to offer a dignified education in a private setting like this—this is one societal problem.
I feel a huge amount of optimism related to these ideas. I’m also aware of the unbelievable amount of work that endeavors like this require. But tonight when we gather together to remember the beginning of the Waldorf school movement, which was a hundred years ago this year, it is good to call all these things to mind. It is good that we have the courage at least to look at the big picture, and the social and political facets of this movement. I really appreciate this. I hope it was lucid enough for you to feel what interests me about it, and how it is related to contemporary public discourse in the United States. It is great to be here, I’m really happy to see what’s going on in the high school. Thank you so much.