Democracy in Education: Kevin Avison reviews an article by Phillip Woods

Leadership and Governance in Waldorf Education


There is a general view that Waldorf school are purely "republican" organisations. The following review of Philip Woods book challenges that idea. I think the schools need democracy in order to be republican. In my view Ernst Lehr's little essay has resulted in misunderstandings that sometimes cost our schools dear...
Review of “ Democratic Leadership in Education” – Philip A Woods (PCP 2005) – A Steiner Waldorf Perspective

Books about leadership have the propensity of super-fertile rabbits, & educational leadership is a fecund sub-species. That’s not to say that the subject lacks the importance it has acquired, merely that much that is published tends to a rabbit-ual sameness, adding more holes to the warren while further depleting the bio-diversity of the subject. Philip Woods’ book is an exception to this: not another bunny, but a welcome academic fox, which like Ted Hughes’s thought-fox, signifies more than his bark.

This is also a book that deserves discussion by those concerned with governance, management & leadership in Steiner Waldorf schools. It is striking that among the many books recently published in English on the subject of Waldorf quality development, awkward questions of who leads & what leadership in a collegial organisation is are seldom addressed, or receive only superficial treatment. One of the results of this involves implanting a crude notion of “line management” into a professional culture that clings to rather vague principles of “collegiality”, resulting in innumerable inner contradictions & not infrequent injustice. Our continental colleagues also seem generally to regard leadership as a “difficult” question, a hot potato best left to grow cold & fester, sometimes leaving the starchiest questions in the hands of “school director” or “business manager”. Unfortunately, in such a climate, calls for greater “accountability” or sermonising on the need for “trust”, may amount to mere wishful thinking or word-spinning. Unless genuine leadership is practiced in each realm of the schools’ organisation, the core activity is left under-supported & older students grow disappointed at the ineffectiveness of the adult community. It may be that some readers begin to feel uneasy at the use of the words “leader” or “leadership” when speaking about Waldorf schools, if so, that uneasiness is what this essay is about.

There remains a common misconception that Waldorf education & leadership belong in different dimensions; that Steiner schools operate according to “flat management” (a concept rarely explained, still less justified) & that leadership inevitably involves “hierarchy” (which, it seems is always & forever, a bad thing, also rarely explained!). The consequence of such thinking is to reduce by one the dimensions of social space. A Waldorfian equivalent of disc-world, or flat-land, replaces one in which differentiation & depth is valued. To increase the general confusion, it is usually opined that Waldorf schools are “republican, not democratic”, a statement that derives from an essay by Ernst Lehrs[1], who has the authority of having been among the first generation of Waldorf teachers (though not one of the twelve founding teachers). This is a particularly problematic use of words for schools in the United States, but setting such local difficulties aside, the usual interpretation of the “republican” principle goes on to claim that the teachers lead the school & adds further refinement to the problem by reserving (especially in the UK) primacy to the “College of Teachers” (a phrase Rudolf Steiner never used[2]), & which may exclude many or even most staff members. Strained notions of “the College” give rise to difficulty on many levels. In the context of the UK regulatory structure & charity law, unhandy compromises or over-zealous dogmatism can involve so many perceived & actual conflicts, contradictions & uncertain consequences that discussion typically sinks to its axels in threefold theorising or claims that the teachers must have primacy in all things. The title of Philip Woods’ book then already raises a number of issues for Waldorf educators & it will be best to start here, meeting the democratic dilemma & what leadership means in a “republican” context head on.

Early on in Lehr’s essay[3] he adds a footnote about the apparent conflict between his argument & Steiner’s use of the phrase “republican-democratic” (see Conferences January 16th 1921). Lehr’s notes this phrase, dismissing it, however, on the grounds that “this formulation was meant to be used for the ‘general public’”, a strange solipsism given that Steiner was speaking to an internal meeting of the faculty. In fact, Lehr’s has to qualify his dismissal of democracy later by characterising it in terms that show he is thinking of “the modern concept of parliament with its various systems of representation of group interests by elected representatives based on majority vote”[4]. He then goes on to describe a democratic process whereby “officers” of the school are elected: “the faculty thus creates a hierarchy of officers, but subsequently abstains from further democratic relations with them” (my italics). In this way, Lehr’s argues, the quality of “aristos” (“the officers constitute an aristocracy by whose decisions the ‘folk’… [demos]…have to abide”[5]) is established & with it the republican character of the constitution. Thus for Lehrs, a republican median is to be found between “democracy” (rule by all – “folk-rule”) & “oligarchy” (rule by the few):
…”there is the danger on the part of the officers that their rightful aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy, since in order to safeguard their freedom of action, they may not sufficiently inform the community, or evade discussion[6]

Neither Woods nor Lehrs provide specific solutions or working procedures to solve the practical problems all this entails. While Lehrs is concerned with qualities, Woods’ more academic approach supplies the reader with a number of highly differentiated conceptual frameworks to help understand how different types of democracy & leadership relate on the test-bed of education. Whereas Lehrs, in common with a majority of writers from within the anthroposophical movement, avoids the question who leads & what the nature of that leadership might be, Woods provides a number of perspectives from which these questions can be viewed. Taking sociology as his starting point (one sees the influence of the tradition stemming from Max Weber in particular), Philip Woods is far less cavalier than Lehrs in assuming that democracy is a single type of organisation or relationship, indeed, he offers as the essence of democracy a quote from R. Williams’ Culture & Society[7] “how people govern themselves, as opposed to how they are governed by others”, something that should ring bells for Waldorf educators concerned with “self-administrating” schools. In fact, Woods characterises four types of democracy, the first of which is closest to Lehrs version, while the second & third contain many of the aspects of republican constitution as Lehrs sketches it. A fourth transformation is, I believe, one that has enormous practical potential for anyone seeking to real-ise Rudolf Steiner’s social intentions regarding communal & pedagogical leadership. These four types of democracy are:
· Liberal minimalism
· Civic republicanism
· Deliberative democracy
· Developmental democracy
While each of these involves a transcending of the possibilities of the preceding type, each one builds on its predecessor. While liberal democracy is mainly concerned with the protection of self-interest, & civic republicanism involves emphasis on the interest of the collective (this is the classical dispute between capitalist & socialistic modes), deliberative & developmental democracy introduce social discourse & social pedagogical (the “unity in diversity” sought by Gandhi added to the “polis” as educator of its citizens proposed by Plato). Within these can be found potential for a healing of conflict between social & fiscal liberalism, between individual & communitarian approaches. The associative relationships envisaged by Steiner’s threefold social order may, in fact, be unobtainable without a developmental form of democracy.

Philip Woods is very clear about the limitations of “distributive leadership”, contrasting this with “democratic leadership” in a way that should put us in mind of the reasons Rudolf Steiner gave for the staff taking control of their own work. Distributed leadership (as encouraged by the National College of School Leadership) assumes a point of leadership (head teacher, principal) from which the process of distribution precedes & (in extremis) to which it can return. Democratic leadership, as characterised by Woods is far closer to the intentions of Waldorf, collegial, leadership (also called “associative leadership”) because it involves shared governance of equal, free leaders working for a common task. In the case of education, that task is both transcendent & implicitly developmental in practice. Thus, this form of leadership calls for a firm framework of moral transformation. Lehrs too, points to something similar. He quotes what Rudolf Steiner proposed as a motto for spiritually responsible collaboration, “to sacrifice freedom for the sake of higher freedom”, a situation encapsulated in Lehr’s account of the “republican attitude” of two colleagues speaking critically about the order of the programme for a school festival. When asked why they hadn’t tried to change the order of the programme themselves, Lehrs was told, “Once a job has been given to one of us, we must abide by their decision”. The perfectionist might prefer the collegial support to extend to a silencing of off-stage complaints, but the aspiration is refreshingly modest & commonsensical.

Democratic Leadership in Education reminds the reader that collegial decision-making is subject to a number of potential problems: ineffective, time-consuming debate; differentials in terms of commitment, capacity, or willingness to participate; implicit differences (unacknowledged & thus intractable) in power or status; lack of internal critique or challenge. Without work on the processes that sustain & are sustained by effective, affective relationships within the school community, the sort of leadership Steiner schools aspire to becomes inordinately risky. Many schools suffer from constant second guessing of the responsibilities carried by others. The lack of “firm framing” that would ensure the giving of responsibility as a conscious decision, not simply a process of default, leads to endless conflict & wasted time & energy. Lack of knowledge of what is involved in a responsibility provides opportunity for fruitless criticism & destructive interference. Without the methods & courtesies of democracy, “republican” leadership remains a mere echo of what Steiner intended. A collegiate that abdicates responsibility to the loudest or superficially competent colleagues may soon find itself in thrall to collegial tyranny, & inaction can condemn a school to years of in-fighting, crisis & incoherence.

No school exists in isolation & the success of a distinctive form of education like that of Steiner schools, depends on creating a practical basis for unity in diversity. The fundamental task of a Collegiate in that context is to look to the education of the whole community starting with the professional community itself, but never excluding friends, supporters, parents as potential collegial learners. That, I suggest, is the essential nature of the developmental democracy that should inform (provide firm framing for) Steiner Waldorf schools[8]. A “republicanism”, or might we call it a “federation” of remit holders/responsibility carriers can then be sustained within clear, accountable & transparent procedures which include timescale, budgetary constraints, the nature of any necessary consultation & a schedule of competencies (whether required or to be acquired). The very complexity of our society & its ever-increasing regulation is both challenge & opportunity. If Waldorf education is to continue to serve the needs of coming generations as a creative process, school leadership will need to become more conscious & precise. The contribution of writers like Philip Woods, should spur us to see the development of social skill as essential as those needed directly in the classroom. Rudolf Steiner’s assertion that this would make for a teaching team more grounded & better equipped to teach children should always balance with service to core the task of the school, but that service is itself predicated upon relationships & capacities that cannot be developed outside of a democratic context.

Kevin Avison 6th February 2006
[1] Republican – Not Democratic E Lehrs 1987 (AWSNA) Lehrs suggests that this phrase was used by Steiner in a “missing” section of the transcript of a teachers’ conference 23rd January 1923, a remark he adds remembered b6 “at least several of those present”. Those interested in the theme would do well to study carefully the context in which these words were possibly said & then consider what, if anything, they add to the record. There are a number of inconsistencies & uncertainties in the text of the Conferences – a visit to the Steiner archive in Dornach is most instructive when considering these matters. In the light of Democratic Leadership & with regard to this essay, the apposite question might be, “what sort of democracy & what sort of republicanism” was Steiner referring to & what do Waldorf schools need more than eighty years after the founding of the first school?
[2] See Republican Academies F. Gladstone 1997 (SWSF) - the 2001 edition of this book includes an explanation of this on its title page.
[3] See note 1 – p1
[4] Ibid p4
[5] Ibid p5
[6] Ibid p7
[7] R.Williams, 1963 - Harmondsworth, Penguin
[8] We should note here the very close connection between the founding of the first school & the workers education class organised by Emil Molt at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory to which Rudolf Steiner contributed.


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