There are many approaches to the study of history. The lens through which one observes the past will determine the lessons one can draw from that past. For example, a Marxist approach would focus on the relationship and struggle between the economic classes. One can look primarily at cultural history or trends in the history of ideas. Some historians approach the past though social history, a people’s history, if you will. Each of these approaches has much to commend it.
In the Waldorf high school, we approach history through a different lens and with a different intention. Before students reach grade nine, the primary tool of history teaching is biography. Particular individuals are found who encompass and embody particular moments in history. The class teacher carefully chooses these biographies and, using all of her storytelling skills honed over the many years of the journey, brings this individual to life in the richest way possible. In this way, students create an emotional relationship- sometimes sympathetic but just as often antipathetic- to the figure. Then the history takes root in the heart and not just in the head. In this way, the life of a single individual can point the student to larger themes, movements and events in a given period of time.
In high school, we gradually shift the approach to history from the use of biography to that of symptomatology. One of our primary interests in the study of history in grades 9-12 is to understand that in the past, human beings did not think and feel as we do today. That in fact, human consciousness has changed over time. This notion that the human being is ever unfolding and expanding in his/her consciousness can fill a high school student with hope that despite the dangers and challenges in the world, a consciousness of justice and equality is growing in humanity.
Symptomatology seeks to peel back the outer events to understand the larger forces impacting those events. Some of these explorations can only be left as questions for the students to ponder long after high school graduation. Why did Communism take root in the souls of certain parts of the world and Capitalism in others? What did the long struggle between the two really signify and what does it mean for the world that in the period between 1989 and 1991, state sponsored Communism “lost?” What does the rise of fundamentalism in the major religions in our time tell us about ourselves? What do the outer stories, the “news,” tell us about the consciousness of those who have created our world and with whom we share the world?
The study of economics in the Waldorf high school is a monumental undertaking! Not only do we want to provide the students with the basics- the history of economic thought, the essential principles of economics, how to balance a checkbook and not get caught paying exorbitant credit card fees- but we want to do much more. We want to look deeply at how society is set up, how people’s material needs are currently met and to explore systems that work with ideas of capital, labor and commodities in ways that are not exploitative to humans and the environment. It is a chance for students to think deeply on the world they live in. Many of them have assumed it is the only possible world. But through study, interviews, readings, and discussion, and out of their own idealism, they come to a picture of alternative futures that allow for the possibility of greater human freedom. After students have learned about The Wealth of Nations and laissez-faire capitalism, The Communist Manifesto, Keynesianism, Small is Beautiful, Community Supported Agriculture, Time Banks, The Threefold Social Order and more, they can begin the hard work of clarifying the image of the world they want to help birth and nurture.
This is the essence of the Waldorf approach to history and economics at this precious age of 14-21. The young person, no longer guided only by the love for his/her teachers like in the years 7-14, now undertakes the sacred quest for truthfulness and true independent thinking. This courage and quest for the truth, combined with the ability to think for oneself, are the foundations for meeting the complexities of our modern world. We study the path to learn to think, so that we can move forward and create a better future.