Small children understand each other; they play and make spontaneous contact, hardly conscious of cultural, religious or ethnic differences. That changes in the middle of childhood, particularly if accepted authorities such as teachers, parents or even older pupils emphasise the differences. Only then do children become aware of these differences and learn to connect them with the concepts "better than" or "worse than". Where pupils of varied social and ethnic backgrounds are brought together, as they are in most Waldorf classes, mutual tolerance and understanding can be cultivated. Foreign language teaching, history and geography have important roles to play in deepening and guaranteeing mutual understanding.
As an independent being of its own, each child bears within itself a law of development proper only to itself. This has been repeatedly discovered in the course of the history of philosophy, and subsequently forgotten. The child bears within itself intentions and aims which are entirely his or her own. Each child has his Self working within, the Spirit of Mankind. Despite all the individual differences that will prevail, this makes every human being equal to the others. The dignity of the human being is based on this Self, as is his continuous process of becoming and developing that which is inherent in himself. This is independent of a person's ethnic or racial origins. As a spiritual being, the Self not only takes hold of the body but of all the sense experiences in particular of language. It also takes hold of the soul, of its intentions and of what it has gleaned from experience as wisdom. The Self, or "I", is alive in play and in work, in joy and in mourning, from our first breath to our last. The substantial "one-ness of all human beings" is based on the spirit, the Self of every one of them. The different cultures of humankind all over the world are the organs and instruments of the Spirit of Humanity – the Spirit of all human beings – just as body and soul are organs and instruments of the individual Self.
These considerations lead us to the question of what education can do for the global problems of understanding among the various peoples of the world, of peaceful relations between them, of international consciousness, of multicultural existence. Waldorf education does not consider this to be a set of problems that we have only been confronted with in very recent times and to which a new educational approach will have to be discovered, but rather as something that concerns the whole of education.
As public awareness of pressing social issues such as racism, inequality, sexism, environmental concerns, social injustice and so on grows, there are ever more demands on education to find solutions. One cannot simply continuously add to the already overbearing demands on education. The task of tackling these global problems needs to be embedded and integrated within the more comprehensive one of moral and social education as a whole. Individual subjects can be taught in schools in such a way, for example, as to cultivate in the pupil the ability to overcome and transform the instinctive reaction of fear and aggression towards foreigners and strangers.
Subjects that lend themselves to developing a healthy interest in other peoples include the history of cross-cultural influence, geography and economic inter-dependencies as well as the teaching of the children's own mother tongue. Above all we see the significance of the early teaching of two foreign languages (taught orally from Class 1 and not written until about three years later) which is accepted practice in Waldorf Schools all over the world.
Working with language and speech shows children ways of approaching the world which they had not previously been aware of. In 1918 even before the founding of the Waldorf School, Rudolf Steiner already insisted that, "After the War we will have to work to break down the horror people presently experience at the sound of foreign languages ..." Language divides one cultural community from another. Everything in the lives of individuals, however, depends on understanding. Such understanding and a familiarity with the infinite variety to be found among the many peoples of this world is the result of teaching history and geography. It is therefore essential for them to be taught without national prejudices, chauvinism or cultural stereotypes and especially without Eurocentric or Neo-colonial attitudes.
The achievements and the cultural contribution of every individual nation and people can be characterised in these subjects if they are taught with an open heart and a comprehensive view of mankind as a whole, as Waldorf teachers try to do. From the experience of such lessons, children grow up aware that there must be a multiplicity of different nations and countries because every individual part of humanity is differentiated from the other in order to become an instrument through which a particular musical texture is added to the world symphony. In such a harmony not a single instrument should be missing.Stefan Leber / Martyn Rawson