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Highlights in the Development of Curative Education and Social Therapy

(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 36-41, Note the Copyright!)

More than 500 institutions serving curative education and social therapy exist in more than 40 countries all over the world. They cover a wide range of work with children, young people and adults with special developmental needs - early intervention, curative education and integrative nurseries, day schools, residential school communities, training opportunities for young people, workshops, residential homes and village communities.

The beginning

Anthroposophical curative education developed from three initiatives 77 years ago. A number of children at the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart had learning difficulties, and Dr Karl Schubert (1889–1949) gathered them in one “class for children with special needs”. At the same time children with developmental disorders came for investigations and treatment to the Institute of Clinical Medicine in Arlesheim, Switzerland, to have the advice and help of Rudolf Steiner (1861– 1925), Ita Wegman (1896–1943) and their colleagues. Finally a group of young people - Franz Loeffler (1892–1962), Albrecht Strohschein (1899–1962) and Siegfried Pickert (b. 1898), established the Lauenstein home for care and education in Jena, Germany. This institution was developed in close collaboration with Rudolf Steiner, who then gave a course for curative teachers in June 1924. Representatives of the three institutions met in Dornach for this. An educational, a medical and a life community-building impulse thus marked the beginning of anthroposophical curative education. In the years that followed each developed intense activity and differentiation.

Until the National Socialist regime came to power in Germany, work expanded enormously, with great intensity. It was Ita Wegman who provided a focus and maintained links with and between the initiatives, originally within the Medical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. Even when she had been excluded from the General Anthroposophical Society, almost all institutions and the people working in them maintained the connection with her. Right from the beginning, Wegman supported the active development of curative education in various countries. Institutions were thus established in England, the Netherlands and Iceland in those early years.


During the Third Reich period, the German institutions were at first faced with more and more obstacles, threats were made, and finally they were closed, with a few exceptions - Lauenstein, Seewalde and Eckwaelden. It was not only their existence which was threatened but even more so the lives of the children and adults living in them. When Action T4 (the code name for the euthanasia programme in which more than 100,000 people with disabilities lost their lives) started after 1941, many children had to be taken back to their families, where they found better protection. Some of the people responsible for the institutions fearlessly resisted the chicanery and investigations and were able to prevent children being deported. Loeffler and Strohschein were in prison at times, Martin Kretschmer (1897– 1942) died in a concentration camp. Among the senior staff were people of Jewish origin who had to emigrate during those years. This led to further centres being established in Europe and beyond. The emigration situation also led to the establishment of the Camphill Movement by Karl König (1902 – 1966). This started in the north of Scotland, from where it spread to many countries as an impulse for community building involving people with and without disabilities.

New beginning

After the war, the first priority was to rebuild the curative education work in Central Europe, establishing new institutions, and also to find a new cohesion in the curative education movement. War had left many children on their own, their development profoundly affected. Large numbers of young people came to the institutions looking for a way of life and for training. Most of them found their vocation not primarily through curative education as such but in their search for anthroposophy. In the curative education institutions they were able to get to know it and live it. Thus the first training courses for future curative teachers started soon after the war. Again, they were not primarily seen as professional training courses but also as a school of life imbued with anthroposophy.

Anthroposophical curative education had genuinely evolved directly out of Rudolf Steiner’s science of the spirit, having no connection with developments in specialist science and the institutions serving people with disabilities at that time. It was specifically with the life community principle in comparatively small, family-oriented institutions that the anthroposophical work proved innovative in the field. The work anticipated many things which were only to be generally accepted at a later date - teaching not limited to an elementary reduction of subject content, therapeutic and medical treatment, work places in the manufacture of products made to meet specific needs, and a social and cultural life where the individual nature of each person was taken seriously. Life was, however, insular, sometimes with monastic severity and authoritative leadership, so that there was an element of narrowness and isolation. On the other hand consistency in maintaining a life style and intensive curative education care also led to significant results in the children’s development and to a holistic curative education method of inestimable efficacy.


In the early 1960s, the character of curative education institutions began to change. It had become apparent some years earlier that a new sphere of work had to be developed for the life needs of adults with disabilities. This led to the establishment of social therapy institutions such as Botton Village in Great Britain. Here the principle of the village community arose, communities where the aim was to overcome the distinction between disabled and non-disabled people by sharing life, work and culture.

Those were the years when a government-backed system of help for the disabled was slowly evolving, truly aiming to improve conditions of life for people with disabilities with regard to their rights and material provisions for them. This also made a major difference for the institutions in anthroposophical curative education and social therapy. A price had to be paid, however, for material and legal security. New institutions developed, staff were paid salaries rather than pocket money, and the life situation of the institutions themselves became increasingly more subject to legal provisions.

The volume of work increased progressively as training was made available, staff became more professional, working in differentiated fields, and children then came for whom little could as yet be done, e.g. those with autism.

Meanwhile a sphere of work had evolved where people saw themselves primarily as an international movement, with the manifestations in specific countries and regions only secondary to this. Nevertheless, national associations and work contexts also had to be established to provide an internal national structure and work in partnership in relation to the authorities and other associations working for the disabled. Initial fear of contact and the awareness that one was not speaking the same language - the “anthroposophists” as a strange species, “though” they did good work - gradually gave way to a situation where it is possible to work together as partners and objectively. The big international conferences at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, and the international structures evolving within the Medical Section continued to be the primary bonds in work that was progressively growing more differentiated, with new developments such as day schools and nurseries, psychiatric after care and other ways of working added to the traditional life communities and social therapy villages.

Radical change

The 1980s brought new challenges for many institutions and indeed the curative education and social therapy movement as a whole. This was due to the generation change. People who had developed many things as young founders of institutions after the war, taking the movement into great expansion and to its flowering, either died or handed over responsibility to younger people. It is not surprising that this resulted in crisis if we consider that a number of the institutions had been run in an authoritative way and that in quite a few institutions competence in curative education had rested with a few outstanding personalities. A vacuum arose. The leadership crisis of the 1980s and 1990s also had some connection with the fringes of the anti-authoritarian movement, initially resulting in profound uncertainties in some

Areas of the social and professional structure. All in all this did, however, lead to clearer perception of ways in which social and professional structures might be managed.

Two further developments also came at this time. Early intervention for children with disabilities or potential disabilities and care through home visits made a border transparent which creates an apparent distinction between children with and without disabilities. Rudolf Steiner’s statement that healing and education have the same source and origin, and that a healing influence, creating balance, needs to be part of every form of childhood education (“Education for Special Needs”, p. 207) proved to hold true for many children whose development was in danger in general nurseries, schools or occupational training. Experiences gained and measures taken in curative education thus began to have an impact in the field of education in general. Another general development which came in those years was that parents and family members had already shown initiative, e.g. in establishing new institutions, yet were remote from the life in the institutions and not seen as partners by the staff. The epoch-making change in collaboration with the parents also came to be accepted in anthroposophical curative education and social therapy. Avenues opened up for working in partnership, mutually respecting potential, rights and responsibilities and finding ways of acting together. The associations of institutions were thus joined by more and more parent associations.

The character of the curative education and social therapy movement underwent a further important change when the Iron Curtain fell. With tremendous energy and a real will to develop opportunities for people with disabilities, institutions were established in many former eastern bloc countries, often by very young people or by parents. The countries of the West and Central Europe on their part faced the challenge of supporting and helping those developments. Sponsorship relations developed between old and new institutions, materials needed were transported over long distances, and intensive activity arose in providing expert and experienced advice. This development called for new insight into something which had simply evolved through decades. Higher insight had to be brought to established practice so that it might be “taught”. It has also been found that anthroposophical curative education, being a Central European impulse, needs to go through a process of transformation if it wants to manifest in other cultures and under different social conditions. South America, southern Africa and countries to the East now reached the stage which had marked the beginning in Europe after the First World War - to wrest the spiritual impulse of curative education from life, in outer poverty and under difficult social conditions but unswervingly, only able to qualify gradually for the curative education tasks in practical terms.

Yet in the very places where decades of experience had led to familiar situations and where compared to the situation in the above-named countries a high standard had been attained in material life, people became aware of another kind of poverty. A time had come when the substance of the anthroposophical study of the human being and the methodology had to be regained by working them out in new ways, now that the pioneer generation had gone, and perhaps put on a broader basis. This is the development which marks our present situation.

The process of development and renewal does not have to be gone through in isolation and independently in the anthroposophical curative education and social therapy movement but is embedded in today’s social and cultural conditions of life. As part of this, anthroposophical curative education and social therapy has increasingly become part of general expert knowledge and practice in working with people with disabilities. A balancing process is in progress between delimitation and adaptation, so that it will be possible to preserve and develop our own approach. This also affects the language we use to communicate with representatives of associations and science and above all the parents of people in our institutions. Neither fundamentalism nor over-eager attempts to curry favour will meet the case. The same applies to collaboration in the field of science. There we meet with growing interest among those representing academic special and curative education and perceive greater opportunities to hold our own in this field. The change of paradigm in the 1970s, when attention came to focus on social and interactive processes as causative factors in disability, led to the principle of normalization and the idea of inclusion - fully integrating people with disabilities in all fields of society - becoming the guiding principle. Disenchantment was inevitable. Western societies in particular have been less prepared to accept integration than was hoped. Legislation, professionalization and an increasingly powerful supervisory system are making it difficult to develop autonomous social processes. The way people working in the field see themselves has thus also changed. In terms taken from the sphere of economics, they see themselves providing services to meet the needs of customers or clients. On the other hand and in view of progressive discussion on ethical issues, biomedical developments and debates concerning the value of life and right to live, the philosophical dimension in curative and special education has grown, leading to an emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative methods with an anthropological basis, so that people with disabilities are perceived as individuals. Another development goes hand in hand with this. People with disabilities are increasingly standing up for themselves and forming their own associations and self-help groups as citizens who have equal rights in our society. In spite of limitations and the discrimination which still tends to continue - they are no longer objects of help provision but partners.

Prospects and tasks

With all this we cannot fail to realize that in all those years the curative education and social therapy movement has not only tried to bring an autonomous impulse to realization. The people in the movement have lived this impulse much more powerfully also in its social and historic context - in give and take - than is usually acknowledged. It was different when work with the disabled was still wholly institutionalized, different when the Movement of ’68, for instance, and alternative concepts of life governed our ideas of life. This may help to show that the curative education impulse cannot only be seen in its traditional form, with people expressing regret that the old forms are getting out of date, but that it must always be made to arise anew and be transformed out of its source of inspiration. If we consider Rudolf Steiner’s course on curative education (“Education for Special Needs”) in the light of this, we can see how little was actually laid down in it where the actual work and collaboration are concerned. Instead, everything bases on curative teachers with independent courage approaching the powers of initiative and intuition which lead to an authentic reality of life, where our understanding of and the development of people with disabilities are the focus, so that ways of work and life may arise that may become therapeutic institutions.

When the Assembly for Curative Education and Social Therapy Council, an organ of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum, has its annual plenary sessions, representatives from all countries form a round table. Two things become evident. We are all different and so there is no hierarchic relationship, with one teaching and the other learning. Instead it is a situation where we learn from one another and awaken through one another. However different, we share the same questions and problems. Where we want to work together we not only see good results of the work but also know problems, questions and helplessness. We have unanswered research questions and problems in developing the spiritual scientific basis of our work further. We face inner and external pressures at a time when social initiative is increasingly penalised by having restrictions and rules imposed. Yet this can also make us underestimate our potential. This lies in the brotherly bond we have established with the people who live in our institutions, the rich variety of institutions and opportunities representing a broad basis for work in the curative education and social therapy movement, and last but not least the fact that the work bases on a broader basis than ever and is reflected in enormous - perhaps even confusing - variety. Anthroposophical curative education and social therapy is a recognized part of the social support system in many countries today. It has an international network of collaboration which rests on mutual help and support, and the people who use what it has to offer - people with disabilities and their families - not only make use of it but share in its further development.

In conclusion I wish to thank the Friends of Waldorf Education most warmly in the name of the curative education and social therapy movement. They have always helped generously in material and personnel terms wherever support was needed, providing help in areas where we were unable to manage from our own resources.


Rüdiger Grimm
PhD, Diploma in Education, born in Gunsenhausen, Germany, in 1952. Trained at the Camphill Curative Education College on Lake Constance, studied Waldorf Education and Special Education in Weingarten and Reutlingen, gaining his doctorate. Worked for many years in curative education communities of the Camphill Movement, becoming Secretary to the Assembly for Curative Education and Social Therapy Council in the Medical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, in 1995. Editor, author and publisher.

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