Waldorf education was founded in the climate of social and economic chaos that followed the First World War. Those concerned for the future of Europe after witnessing the breakdown of past social forms sought to reorient themselves. Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany was such a person. He turned to Rudolf Steiner, founder of the anthroposophical movement, and at that time one of the leading figures in a movement for social renewal, with the request that he plan and initiate a school for the children of the factory workers. Six months later, in September 1919, the Waldorf School opened its doors with 12 teachers, eight classes and 256 children.
After World War I, there was a period of revolutionary unrest in various parts of Germany, and an intensive public search began for means of radical change. Revolutionary councils were set up, attempting to find forms for their impulse towards self-determination and self-administration. An initiative of a group of small industrialists, tradesmen, artists and writers appeared in Württemberg. Rudolf Steiner tried to focus their attention onto a more far-reaching perspective with his "Guidelines for a Threefold Social Organism". In this slim volume, he summed up the three impulses of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood – as maxims directed at the practical management of different functions of the social fabric. This differentiated social concept of a "Third Way" between capitalism and socialism initially met with a great deal of interest both in liberal-bourgeois circles and in groups of free-thinking socialists. However, the movement very soon faced the determined resistance of established political parties.
The Waldorf School sprang from this impulse. It offered a number of innovations, being the first German school to be co-educational in two respects: girls and boys attend the same classes all through the twelve years of their school lives, and children of all kinds of social backgrounds and of very varied abilities are educated together.
The name recalls the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory whose director was Emil Molt, an industrialist who had shown remarkable initiative in the period immediately following the War. The First Works council in Württemberg was indeed established in his factory. In the Waldorf Astoria Works, courses for adult education were opened, taking place during working hours.
These courses led to the employees asking to have a school opened for their children, "a place where one can get to know everything that has to do with life". Emil Molt immediately asked Rudolf Steiner who agreed and gave his advice on the group of future teachers that were then called together. With a "crash course" on the principles of education, he laid the spiritual foundations of the school. On September 7th, 1919, the school was ceremoniously opened in Stuttgart, Molt carrying the financial responsibility for a number of years to come.
As a Free School, in the full sense independent, and as a school for children of all abilities and from all social backgrounds, the Waldorf school put the impulse for self-administration and the principle of social co-education into practice.
As Waldorf schools multiply all over the world, there is a hope that they may in time introduce innovations not only in the educational field but also in the area of social development and community.