Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cultivating Well-Rounded Students: Gender Roles and Waldorf Education

June 2009, by Lori Ann Kran, PhD

As I consider my class of eighth graders, particularly those who have been with me since the early grades, I am struck by their capacities, interests, and assessment of themselves. I love to refer to them as “Renaissance students”, and when I do they beam, proud of their accomplishments in diverse areas that include science, sewing, stringed instruments, softball, singing, Spanish, art, algebra, acting, Eurythmy, writing, knitting, volleyball: the list goes on and on. Particular to Waldorf education is that all of the students, boys and girls alike, take pride in all their work. There is no feeling that some skills or subjects are girlish or boyish. How is this possible in a world that is still constructed around gender stereotypes (even though, yes, progress has been made)? Remember, one’s sex is biologically determined; one’s gender role is culturally determined. I assert that inherent in Waldorf pedagogy and curriculum is the cultivation of well-rounded students who are comfortable and capable in every realm that life offers. Following are examples that illustrate my point.

Waldorf teachers encourage parents to give their children the gift of a media free childhood so that children can fully live into their imaginations and thereby play, grow, and mature unfettered by pre-conceived, product oriented, and gender-stereotyped confines. Early childhood and early grades teachers wonder how many students have seen the Disney version of a particular fairytale and if the children will be able to fully benefit from the story if they have been inundated with the simplified, sexist version. In their original form, fairytale characters do not represent role models for boys and girls, rather they present archetypal soul moods: good and evil, wise and foolish, strong and meek. When told orally, with no picture images, young children live into each of these archetypes: boys and girls develop the capacities of the prince and princess, the wise grandmother, and the beneficent king. They know on an intuitive level that they can experiment with all of these emotions. This freedom from gender imprisonment continues through the grades as students experiment with personas highlighted in the stories of Saint Martin, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth and Gandhi. These women and men are courageous, compassionate, and creative and embody what it means to be fully human.

Waldorf students are afforded the freedom to be comfortable with their archetypal masculine and feminine sides. To the outside, mainstream world boys who love to knit, girls who love mathematics, boys who write and recite poetry, girls who win at wrestling matches and love football, are anomalies. Not so in Waldorf schools. It’s so commonplace that we are surprised by outside reactions: “your son knit a pair of socks!”; “your eighth grade daughter spent seven days camping in the woods without bathroom facilities?”
What is our secret to cultivating strong and sensitive boys and girls? We make sure that all students cultivate their academic, artistic, athletic, and social selves. There is no option to opt out of choir or geometry, clay sculpture or physics, the Medieval Games or an eighth grade Shakespeare play. Waldorf pedagogy and curriculum helps students feel comfortable and indeed excel at everything. That is why they will go out into the world equipped to revolutionize our old notions of acceptable gender roles and finally validate the masculine/feminine, the yin/yang in everyone.