(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 180-183, Note the Copyright!)
At its northern end Argentina, shaped like an elongated triangle, shares borders with Bolivia and Paraguay. In the north-east the Uruguay River forms its border with Brazil and Uruguay. It lies between the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the mountains of the Andes in the west, and in the far south one comes upon glaciers and arctic cold. Here the Spanish word “sur” (the South) becomes a synonym for an Argentinian sense of deepest melancholy nourished by a yearning for absolute stillness, clarity and truth, at once a yearning, a dream and nightmare that finds expression as much in Argentina’s modern literature through the great works of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) or Ernesto Sabato (b.1911) as in the original form of the tango, the melancholy notion that can be danced.
A new home in Argentina
The pioneers of Waldorf Education in Argentina arrived here in the 1930s where Fred Poeppig and Franz Schneider were already conducting a study group on anthroposophy.1 One of these, Eli Lunde from Norway, had been sent by her parents to the Friedwart School at Dornach, Switzerland where every day she had met Rudolf Steiner who had taken a caring interest in her. Having trained as a teacher she had hoped to work at the Friedwart School but this came to nought owing to “personal misunderstandings”. She was then invited to work as governess to a family who took her to Uruguay. Once there, Eli decided to “pop in on the anthroposophists across the river”, the Rio de la Plata, which she did, and stayed.
Another pioneer, Herbert Schulte-Kersmecke, had been an architect in Germany. On 1 January 1923 he read a notice in a newspaper describing the “destruction of a temple by fire”,2 and immediately decided to find out about its architectural style. Later he gave introductory courses on anthroposophy at Siegen, even after the start of the Third Reich and in direct opposition to the SA. This situation made him want to get out into the world and because of visa problems he ended up making for Buenos Aires. The Nazis broke into his flat only a few days after his departure but found only his books worth confiscating.
Ingeborg Knäpper, a domestic science teacher, became the third pioneer when Eli Lunde taught her about the Waldorf method. Together these three set about founding a Waldorf School, which they did in March 1939 in a garage with furniture made from apple boxes and pieces of coloured cloth. Later they rented a house and began with a school up to Class 3 which is how matters remained until 1956 when new teachers came from Germany. This enabled the school to be extended up to Class 7. That was how the first Waldorf School in South America came into existence in the Florida district of Buenos Aires.
A school building in an organic style of architecture was then built, much to the enjoyment of the building contractor and all his workers. Students were sent from the university to study this new impulse in architecture. Shortly before the work was finished trouble broke out amongst the teachers which led to a complete break in 1966. The school was split and the original pioneers continued with their impulse in the San Isidro district of the city. This became the Escuela San Miguel Arcángel which since then has taken up residence in the Villa Adelina district in another organic-style building.
Reservations on the part of the education authorities
Argentina’s education policies are centrally organized which means that planning including the choice of method (e.g. how reading and writing shall be taught), textbooks and above all inspection are in the hands of the authorities. Mainstream and private schools are equally subject to inspection regardless of whether they receive financial support from the state or not. Even once a Waldorf School has been granted “method permission” there are constant misunderstandings with inspectors which then require time-consuming explanatory work to sort them out.
For a long time the authorities had reservations because they thought the schools were sectarian. Asked what their doubts rested on, they gave reasons that chiefly encompassed the following:
- The schools made use of key concepts and a choice of words comprehensible only within their circle;
- It was noticeable that the way of working required a degree of devotion and self-sacrifice which was otherwise not usual at such low wages;
- Even on first walking through the school building one noticed much that was symbolic in the way the rooms were decorated, and this was paired with a generally religious mood and devotional atmosphere.
In the end this prejudice of sectarianism was overcome by the fact that all the religious confessions were able to conduct their own religion lessons within the school. Over the past 15 years the work done by the schools has brought Waldorf Education into excellent repute even to the extent that a senior inspector was moved to state that what the Waldorf Schools achieve has either never been achieved by mainstream schools or has no longer been achieved by them for a very long time. However, even increasingly frequent statements such as this seem unable to open the way for Waldorf Schools to become entirely independent educationally.
Waldorf Education and integration
While Waldorf Schools are enjoying ever-widening public interest in Argentina, the opinion of the education fraternity can perhaps be hinted at by the following view reached during the Fourth International Education Congress in 2000 in Catamarca Province: “Waldorf Education is an interesting alternative system of education which can, however, only be applied within certain small social groups.” One aspect that is highly approved of is the integration of children with disabilities. However, this easily leads to the misunderstanding that Waldorf Schools are, actually, special needs schools. In addition to the Waldorf Schools, Argentina has two curative homes, the Fundacion Tobias founded in 1987 by Liliana Menéndez, and the Asociation Ita Wegman founded in 1988 by Maria Julia San Martin.
In order to make Rudolf Steiner’s Education known more widely, the teacher training seminar in Buenos Aires is building up a widely based publicly available correspondence course which can answer requests from teachers in both state and private schools who are growing increasingly convinced that traditional education is in a bad way.
A wave of educational reforms began to sweep Latin America in the early 1990s. This was one of the conditions stipulated by the IMF if it was going to grant further credits to be used to pay off these countries’ crippling foreign debts. The wave reached Argentina in 1996 since when the Waldorf Schools have been endeavouring to wrest from the new laws at least some elements that will give them a breathing space. The lowering of the age for entering school to five-and-a-half is one serious problem. In this matter the Waldorf Schools have taken varying actions, some risky, to enable them to continue doing justice to children’s individual development.
Although the official curriculum is laid down by the state, teaching in block periods gives the schools a good deal of freedom which they use as judiciously as they can. However, block periods for the upper school have to be laboriously fought for time and time again.
Waldorf Schools in rural areas
Argentina’s first two Waldorf Schools, the Rudolf Steiner School and the San Miguel Arcángel School, were founded in the Buenos Aires region and catered for children whose parents belonged chiefly to the middle classes (intellectuals, artists, self-employed professionals). Over the past decade other initiatives have started up mostly further inland. There is a great difference between the schools in and around the capital city where half the country’s population is concentrated and the initiatives further inland. These schools are less controlled by the education authorities and therefore have more freedom to shape their own curriculum and lessons. On the other hand their financial problems are greater. Traditionally it is the state that pays for education. Therefore although parents are willing to raise money for one-off projects they are usually not prepared (and now they are also no longer able) to contribute to teachers’ salaries. So the inland Waldorf Schools are having to find new social forms which will enable them to finance themselves.
The schools in the large cities, which have been going longer, are officially recognized but do not receive any state subsidies. The Rudolf Steiner School is complete including the upper school. The San Miguel Arcángel, the Perito Moreno and the Clara de Asis Schools are approaching this situation, while the three newest are at the moment working on building their lower school.
Including the culture of the indigenous population
Hitherto the Waldorf Schools in Argentina have striven to copy the European Waldorf curriculum as “faithfully” as possible. Only recently has the question arisen as to whether this should be adapted to fit in with what is in fact a very different reality in South America. How is it possible that this process of adaptation to given geographical, climatic and social conditions has only now become a pressing question? The reason is to be found in the development of South America as a whole. In Argentina the indigenous population and their culture were virtually wiped out by the European conquerors. Even today interest is slanted almost “slavishly” mainly northwards, or towards Europe, with Argentina being populated almost exclusively by immigrants. The country’s very recent history with its leaning towards the north and its succession of various dictatorships has made it difficult to develop a truly Argentinian identity.
With all this in view a group of several South American Waldorf teachers (from Peru, Chile and Argentina) has come together to work above all at developing a new history curriculum. The “official” history taught in schools begins with the continent’s discovery and Spanish colonization. What was there before Columbus and how the indigenous population came to be virtually annihilated are matters touched on only incidentally. Even the names of continent and country were determined by the conquerors.
Argentina’s Waldorf Schools also face the problem of there being insufficient specialist literature in Spanish. Historically they have always depended on having at least one member of staff who could understand German in order to keep them in touch with the flow of anthroposophical information. Translations into Spanish both of Rudolf Steiner’s works and of secondary literature and other topical publications, not only on education, pose a difficult problem the solution of which depends partly on having sufficient money. This is a difficulty that faces all non-German speaking countries.
Waldorf Education in the future
The future poses huge challenges for Waldorf Education in the short and medium term to develop entirely new and creative possibilities for coping not only with “new” children who exhibit remarkable behavioural problems but also with the disintegration of the traditional family, with the assault by new technologies, and with the consequences of globalization. At the same time it will also be necessary to find ways and means of staying afloat when the tendencies of increasing unemployment and the loss of a middle class will have come to a head.
On the other hand there is cause for hope in the fact that Waldorf Education is increasingly being asked questions concerning ways in which the current, indeed almost hopeless, difficulties in education can be understood and tackled. Waldorf teachers have a burning wish to put forward in their reply a profound respect for the child, an understanding of children’s developmental steps and a new illumination of what human dignity means and to do this so clearly that a new view of the child and of the process of education can emerge.
If they succeed in doing this, then Rudolf Steiner’s educational impulse can spread in Argentina and Waldorf Education will live on even if the schools themselves have to close down for lack of funds.
1 As a student at Weimar, Fred Poeppig (b. 1900 at Neustadt, Germany) discovered a book by Rudolf Steiner from which he learned about anthroposophy. His father Alfred Poeppig had gone to Argentina before the First World War, and Fred followed him with his mother and sister in 1920. In Buenos Aires he met Francisco Schneider who had arrived shortly after him as an employee of the German Overseas Bank. He, too, already knew about anthroposophy through having heard Rudolf Steiner lecture in Stuttgart. Later on he translated many of Steiner’s works into Spanish.
2 This was the so-called first Goetheanum built entirely from wood under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner at Dornach, Switzerland between 1916 and 1923.
Trained as a teacher. Took Waldorf teacher training in Stuttgart. Teacher at the Escuela San Miguel Arcángel.
Class teacher. Member of the co-ordinating group of the Seminario Pedagogico Waldorf in Buenos Aires. Advises teachers. Conducts teacher training and further training.