Aug 19, 2009

The following is an edited excerpt from several letters, in effect a compression, explaining to a former dean at the school why we took our son out of the San Francisco Waldorf High School this year.....

...In essence, we are paying a great sum of money, by our standard, for what? If you look at the colleges that SFWS seniors went to this year, I would argue the tuition is too high. If you look at what our son learned this last year, the tuition is too high. If you look at what the school is offering against comparable schools, the tuition is too high.

Or this. It says much about this school that there was such prolonged discussion among parents, a small number of parents, about acquiring a temporary gym but not much about asking teachers to take less salary. Does anyone seriously think Rudolf Steiner would put a gym before teachers?

I realize that’s a little unfair because the monies for the gym are separate from the school's operating budget. Still, if you were trying to find $1 million to pay teachers more not less, and create new courses we would be with you. But don’t you see that’s the identity problem I’ve tried to express so many times. What is it we're staying with? Those who would like a traditional school want a gym. Those who want an alternative school prefer the best teachers money can buy. And this is always the issue, for me: Is this a traditional school or an alternative school, and what do these terms mean? And what really is the Waldorf High School-offering?

No one has even been able to explain that fully and coherently… For me, the offering will always be in the ideas of Henry Barnes who explained to me once the need to teach, to imbue young people with a moral instinct, which, along with the most refined ability to reason and think critically, could help them approach the most difficult problems of our time — scientific problems, political problems, economic issues that demand not just a 'solution' but a solution with a moral dimension.... To get there you need to be able to first imagine something, an approach that may not exist, which may have to be created. Hence the endless emphasis on imagination and creativity.....

But how do you do that? And how do you manage the requirement for the most basic skills?

For my wife the decision to reconsider Waldorf came when she gave our son an impromptu summer writing course and found that after 9th grade he could not spell very well, nor could he write a simple comparative essay. He didn’t have a clear sense of the difference between an inductive essay and a deductive essay. He didn’t know what a topic sentence was. In sum, he did not know how to begin with an idea and develop it. All things that Barbara felt he should have known. All things that I for one had learned in 8th grade.

Another related issue was the design of the block system, in which students read several significant works but with no time to get below the surface. Another issue was poor communication between teachers and parents. Another issue was that several good people were leaving the school. Another issue was the matter of having parents sign a series of protocols designed to protect children from parents who, it was feared, might not guard the liquor cabinet or bedrooms. This was a parent-generated idea. Other schools do it. But it was not thought through. It's fear based. There was no effort to address these issues with students,who are after all the one who need to accept moral resonsibility.

Moreover, I don't agree with the premise. Rather than relying on signatures, I would rather rely on knowing the parents hosting the evening. And more than that I would rather rely on my trust of my son.....

Having said all that, the school has many wonderful teachers. Dr. Carini and Ms. Alba are great teachers, the best. There are none better.

But here’s the abstraction I'm trying to establish. The curriculum, and indeed the whole tone of the school, is not about thinking critically. It’s not about deconstructing. It’s not about questioning. The Socratic dialogue is weak. It’s about going along, acquiescing, harmonizing with… Not such a bad thing, I suppose, and you may well disagree, maybe I’ve shaded this too much. But from my perspective the school is finally built on a hierarchical model that you either agree with or don’t agree with. As any good school is. But what is this model? It’s not clear, nothing is clear, but whatever the model it’s built around a 'college'. In effect, it’s committee rule with the weight given to long time members of the community. Not always but generally speaking they seem unwilling to incorporate ideas from other schools. And by doing that, whether true or not, they further the notion that the Waldorf education is finally the expression of a cult. I don't think that's necessarily true. It depends on the Waldorf school you're talking about. And there are good cults and bad. The problem here is that the school has not done much to market itself properly and so the notion of a 'cult' education lingers.

Recently, the school has tried to present itself in a more traditional light, but without establishing a clear and an agreed upon identity. Agreed upon by faculty, administrators and parents. You can say you're 'traditional' all you like, however you define the word, but then you have to do substantive things to be that. Having a temporary gym in the parking lot is not enough. And I would argue the mistake is try to compete with so-called 'traditional' schools in this city. Better to work from a core strength, which is finally alternative and make that work. But how do you do that? The answer begins with working out a clear identity, which is made difficult because the further you get away from primary education the harder it is to find direction from Rudolf Steiner.

Ironically, the Head, Hands, Heart mantra, which should be the motto of Waldorf has been taken by Lick-Wilmerding, which is, I would argue, the finest school in the city. For many reasons.

But even a committee directing the Waldorf high school wouldn't be so bad if there was a consensus. But there isn't and no one has risen up who can lead the school on its way. This problem of direction is partly in the nature of Waldorf schools. From my experience over the last nearly 20 years... There is something about the personality of Waldorf parents, some call it a passive-aggressive quality (in my own case it's simply aggressive), which may suggest things are being worked out on the ethereal plain, but not on the physical plain. I don't know how else to describe it. Passivity and utter calm at one end of the spectrum; repressed anger and neurosis on the other end. I don't exclude myself.

The real problem is that there is much pressure to go along, to be loyal to the school, to suppress criticism. And once you become an outsider, as I did, then you have no say. At the last parent meeting of the year I volunteered to serve this coming year but as I looked around the room I realized that beyond being the bull in the china shop, I was not the conciliator that was required. I was never going to be in a position to change things, even as I came to realize how many parents agreed with me. And there are many. Many more than the administration might imagine. I would never be trusted by the people on the inside….

And so where does that leave us? In a school — and you may be surprised to hear this, a school that I dearly love — which I am forever at odds with, am forever frustrated with because it is finally not the high energy, courageous experiment that it could be. It’s low energy, careful, conservative, quiet, highly controlled, and becoming more and more traditional. And how can that be? Because after all it is the legacy of a mind at war with, among other things, the most dramatic evil of the 20th Century.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

Experimental ventures start out wonderfully....and then they fall into a 'tradition' of their own- or they fall back on the very tradition they sought to be set apart from.

The essence of your missive came through powerfully!