Stars Shining at Midnight -
The Historical Context
of the Waldorf School

Nancy Parsons Whittaker

The following essay is the original text of the introduction I wrote for Education as a Force for Social Change. The differences between this essay and that printed in the book were created by someone else. If you have comments or questions, you may contact me at e-mail


For the Western world, the years 1914 to 1918 were cataclysmic. Western society, whether in Europe, England, or America, had collectively marched out of the nineteenth century waving the banners of Science and Prosperity. People widely believed that this wonderful tool, rational science, developed and refined by the best minds on both continents, had placed humanity just steps away from being able to completely eliminate suffering, poverty, and despair.

If you read German, English, and American newspapers and journals from the turn of the century, the dominant message, though couched in the specific culture of each nation, is the same. In Germany, the human intellect, through the objectivity of science, was going to breathe so much wisdom and strength into the political structure of the state that the German people would be able to create an empire that would endure for a thousand years. In England, this same science was going to restructure social relationships so that economic life would be lifted above the vagaries of the marketplace and justice and equality for all would become a reality. In the United States, conventional wisdom held that science was going to eliminate everything that stood in the way of unending progress and prosperity -- diseases would be healed, engineering and agricultural problems would be solved, cities would be built or renovated, so that they would shine golden on the horizon.

By 1913, the overriding popular belief within these three nations was that their dearest cultural goals were about to be realized. Germany was building a rock-solid political state to guide the nation far into the future, England was moving toward a society that would ensure economic equilibrium and social justice, and the United States was embarking on an exhilarating path of discovery and achievement, unfettered by everything that had plagued humanity before the Age of Science.

Then came the Great War. From August 1, 1914 to November 11, 1918 volley after volley, battle after battle, drove home the enormity of the error of these beliefs. In England, Germany, and the rest of Europe it was not just the reports of the staggering number of lives lost -- ten million killed -- or the even more incomprehensible number of wounded and maimed -- twenty million crippled. It was the blackened earth and gutted fields of the countryside, the family homes that lay in rubble, the empty places at the table, the crutches resting in the corner, the guest room that was now the invalid's chamber that tore hope from the human soul and showed the promises of just half a decade before to be but straw in the wind. The German state collapsed completely and English social relationships became confused and uncertain.

In the United States, where all but two million of its young men--of whom 115,000 would die in battle--could witness the war an ocean away from the fighting, the numbers of dead and wounded, of course, were shocking; but more shocking was the emerging picture of the technologies used to wreak such havoc: tanks, planes, machine guns, and, most horrifying of all, poison gas -- all made possible by a science thought to be only beneficial. In the United States, this picture of humanity's unwavering friend arching back as a horrific fiend bent on human destruction elicited a stunned, shocked uncertainty. Everywhere people numbly tried to piece together a new vision of the future. Progress and prosperity were as uncertain as ever--and possibly not even worth the risk.


There is another story about this war, a true story about foot soldiers in the trenches on Christmas Eve, somewhere on the plains of France. The German soldiers crouched in their trenches against the cold, away from the enemy. The English soldiers did the same. Between them lay the battlefield, where they knew many would draw their last breath on the following day. But that night it was quiet, very quiet. In the stillness of midnight, an English soldier drew a small musical instrument from his pack and began to softly play "Silent Night." The air was winter crisp, the sky star studded, and the solitary notes of one English soldier's song escaped the trenches and filled the battlefield. From the other side, a clear, young tenor joined in with "Stille Nacht." Then, one by one, voices on both sides of the battlefield, in two languages, sang this carol of deepest love in unison. Other carols were exchanged, some known to both armies, others gifts of one side to the other. Afterward, cautiously at first, then in waves of enthusiasm, the soldiers climbed out of their trenches, met each other midway, exchanged chocolates, showed each other pictures of their families and girlfriends, and even struck up a makeshift game of midnight soccer. When the game ended, the first hints of dawn were on the eastern horizon and the soldiers did as soldiers must -- they went back to their trenches. The fighting resumed that morning, the war went on. Nothing had changed, except what lived in the hearts of those soldiers and the fact that a small seed of love and understanding had been sown into the life of the Earth.

This story stands in sharp contrast to the raging tides of destruction the West had loosed upon itself and to the confusion and despair that followed. It is a small story, so small that it appears to be but a pinpoint of light, barely visible on an sea of unending darkness.

There is a way of looking at this period of time, however, that brings more than the destructive madness of this war into focus. From this other vantage point, it becomes increasingly clear that this epiphany on the battlefields of France was more than just a wondrous anomaly. It was, in fact, representative of an impulse of much greater significance and truth than anything the Great War brought. Active love was becoming available not just to the hearts of human beings, but to their thoughts and deeds at every level of awareness. This fact has emerged thousands of times, before, during, and after this war. It can be found in stories of groups lifted beyond the desperation of the moment into a place of healing--the Christmas Eve story is only one of dozens documented from the battles of the war itself. It can be found wherever deeply compassionate people devoted their lives to alleviating the suffering of others, and to securing the dignity of all human beings. It is most visible in the message and lives of the great seers of the day, who apprehended this impulse most consciously and strove to share it. The soldiers' Christmas, when placed in a truer context, becomes not a solitary pinpoint of light, but one of a million stars hung on a velvet canopy, offering both light and direction on the darkest of nights.

Rudolf Steiner was one of many at that time who apprehended this impulse in full awareness and sought to convey it to others. His contributions to the world are unique in that he did not consider it sufficient to share only his experience and understanding of the highest spiritual realities, though his understanding may have been the clearest and most precise. Beginning in 1917, he worked tirelessly to forge these truths into organizations that could sustain acts of physical, soul, and spiritual healing upon the Earth. Many of the spiritual leaders of the day easily succeeded in conveying the concepts of universal Love to human thinking, and a few outstanding individuals were able to breathe it into human feeling. But only a handful ventured into the realm of human will, and no one did so with more vibrant clarity, energy, and strength than Rudolf Steiner. It was his particular gift and task to guide the recognition of the highest spiritual truths from sublime thoughts through ennobled feelings, all the way to the spiritualized acts of those he could find who were capable of such conscious activity. Nowhere was his work more fruitful than in the founding of Independent Waldorf School in Stuttgart.

These six lectures in Dornach during August, 1919, can be seen as an act of unification which made possible the laying of the spiritual foundations of the Waldorf School two days later. Seen in this light, the form and dynamics of these lectures assume a significance equal to that of their remarkable content. Throughout the first three lectures, Steiner presents again and again the disastrous futility he beheld in the popular political and religious viewpoints of the day -- the emptiness, the selfishness, the blindness, the assumptions that, if followed, would tear the human being out of earthly life. To read these sections with an open heart is to enter a realm so oppressive and dark that one feels continually on the verge of losing all bearings. This was the Western world after World War I; this was the numbingly cold midnight experienced by millions of people.

Into the heavy darkness of these first three lectures, Rudolf Steiner weaves one principle: the transformation of the guidance we give to children at various ages. The type of guidance adults provide becomes a living force within the child, which manifests later as adult capacities. The principle he spoke of stood the conventional wisdom of the day on its head, for it arose not from an abstract, logical construct, but from a deep observation and understanding of the interactions of body, soul, and spirit and from an experiential knowledge of the forces of metamorphosis active in all creation.

In brief, Rudolf Steiner stated that, if we wish to educate children so that they are fit to be free adults, we must see to it that, while they are below the age of seven, we offer them an environment where they can intensely imitate the activities of worthy human beings. If we want to prepare children so that, when they are adults, they will experience their fellow human beings as equals, we must insure that true authorities stand before these children when they are between the ages of seven and fourteen. Finally, Steiner stated that, if we wish our children to become adults who can base their economic, material decisions on the principles of community and human love, while they are teenagers we must teach them with love and direct them constantly to the highest ideals. In other words, if we want the adults of the future to achieve the goals of freedom, equality, and community, while they are children, we must first have them imitate, follow, and revere.

There is nothing in the darkness of the world that makes this principle obvious. What Rudolf Steiner accomplished when he brought this principle forth was to shine a bright, steady beam of light into the seemingly impenetrable darkness of Western society. Once he brought light into the darkness, he was able to pour the most profoundly beautiful spiritual truths into the potential of human activity.

In the final three lectures of this cycle, Steiner's focus is no longer on social forms or even principles of human development. Forms and principles are revealed as mere frameworks, which must be properly filled in order to serve. Once he had established a light in the darkness, what streamed forth was the truth that living, conscious Love, that Christ as Strength, as living motive Impulse, as Principle itself is available to every human being on Earth, and that it is the deepest personal misfortune when we fail to experience the presence of living, conscious Love in our lives.

Here, Steiner sets the deepest goal of what has come to be known as Waldorf education. Should it be the destiny of a child to experience the rebirth that is the direct apprehension of Christ as Being of the World, this education is to have prepared him or her to be capable of fulfilling such an experience. The world needs human beings permeated with the Strength, Impulse, and Principle of Love, called by whatever name the human heart can sing. This education is to be a channel whereby active, conscious love can manifest as the Principle of Life itself.

In these six lectures, Steiner performed spiritually the deed that all schools inspired by his insights must realize, in soul and body. He brought light into the darkness of human confusion and then poured reality itself into the space that light had prepared. Throughout his life, Rudolf Steiner added many, many stars to that velvet canopy. All of them heighten our thinking and ennoble our feeling; few of them evoke more responsibility than does the deed of this lecture cycle.

Enliven imagination.
Stand for truth.
Feel responsibility.

--Rudolf Steiner's "Motto for Teachers"


© 1997, 1999 Nancy Parsons Whittaker