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How a Cigarette Factory Sparked an Educational Movement

Posted on February 12, 2019

By Kathy McElveen, General School Leader

Rudolf Steiner

The first Waldorf school was born in the wake of the hopelessness, chaos, and devastation of World War I. Rudolf Steiner had been lecturing widely about a “Three Fold Social Order” beginning before the war and in an attempt to prevent it. He argued for a social structure that would separate the economic, cultural, and political realms. While he was heard by many in positions of influence at that time, his message failed to be taken up by those in authority.

One of his many lectures was given to a group of workers at the Waldorf Cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany in April 1919. His appeal for a “new kind of education” for children inspired the workers to request a school for their own children. With the support of the factory’s owner, Emil Molt, including significant financial support, plans began to take shape and the school was founded within months.

Steiner had several conditions for the school:

  1. that the school be open to all children;
  2. that it be coeducational;
  3. that it be a unified twelve-year school;
  4. that the teachers, those individuals actually in contact with the children, have primary control over the pedagogy of the school, with a minimum of interference from the state or from economic sources.

Twelve teachers were chosen and Steiner prepared them with a two-week intensive of three lectures and discussions per day. These are collected in three books, Foundations of Human Experience, Discussions with Teachers, and Practical Advice for Teachers and these are still used as foundational texts for Waldorf teachers today.

The school opened with 256 students on September 15, 1919. It grew quickly until by 1926 there were more than 1,000 students in 28 classes. The founding of this school inspired others and over the next 10 years almost 20 more Steiner schools were opened across Germany and Europe and even in the United States (New York City in 1928). The Second World War saw most of the European schools closed by the Nazi regime, but most re-opened after the war. Today there are over 1,200 Steiner/Waldorf schools worldwide in about 80 countries. It is one of the fastest growing educational movements.

While the majority of Waldorf/Steiner schools are in Europe, North America is next with over 200 schools and a number of teacher education centers. Waldorf education has moved beyond the western world with many schools opening in China and a recent addition in the Middle East, the Waldorf School of Jordan in Amman. Initiatives in areas of conflict have also been established.

Educators are now challenging themselves to bring the richness of the pedagogy through the lens of each unique place so that the students are fully met and engaged in the way Rudolf Steiner would have intended. More about that in the next installment of the Waldorf100 series. 

“One of the things we are so grateful for is the opportunity our daughter has had with regards to varsity sports at Waldorf. Basketball has provided her an opportunity to be a leader and the chance to learn from a supportive and committed mentor. The benefits will serve her in a myriad of ways throughout her life that she cannot now imagine.”