Wednesday 2nd June
As a Waldorf School of Philadelphia parent (x2!) there are numerous aspects of the school I value.
The fact that a teacher stays with a class from First Grade through Eighth Grade is a huge factor for me. I taught college freshman in an interdisciplinary engineering/design program for 10 years, and was constantly frustrated by class rosters that changed every 10 weeks. I ran some numbers once, and discovered that 50% of our students had two or more teachers across the three terms of the program. A friend of mine whose wife is a physical education teacher at a traditional public school had an additional take on this: he said the kids at the school are most comfortable with the music, phys. ed, and art teachers because they get to know them over the four years at the school.
That’s just one aspect.
On the pedagogy side of the house, I value the creative and critical spirit that a Waldorf education strives to encourage and impart. This isn’t a Waldorf thing; the influential Association of American Colleges and Universities is working with hundreds of institutions to prioritize the skills and values that matter most to a 21st century America: critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork, civic knowledge, ethical reasoning, lifelong learning, and others. The Philadelphia Waldorf School comes at all of this from a very natural, holistic, and intuitive perspective, but the goals are quite similar. AACU’s point is that standardized tests, giant lecture halls, and No Child Left Behind are initiatives in exactly the wrong direction. And they’ve reached out to employers (for those worried about whether a particular type of educational experience will lead to substantial employment opportunities) to prove that these are the skills that matter most. Simply being able to crank through an economics problem, or solve a chemistry equation won’t get you very far in today’s economy.
“Revenge of the Bruppies,” A recent article in the Philadelphia Magazine takes a different tack on this whole question.
The main argument is that many workers in the “creative and knowledge classes,” made famous in a Seven Habits Highly Effective People kind of way by the 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, are burned out on the abstractions of finance, law, and software, and are returning to crafts like furniture design, electrical contracting, and similar.
It’s an important topic, although nothing new. That you can make a good living, work with your hands and mind, and avoid a bunch of book work that isn’t your thing should be a message communicated to young people much more clearly. When I was coming up, taking courses at the “Vo Tech” school was seen as equivalent to admitting an IQ below normal. But you can’t outsource skilled woodworking to a cheaper labor market. You can’t hire an electrician from China to rewire your garage. And many workers in Philadelphia have long realized this. As a straight arrow college student, intent on a job with a big multinational, I never realized that people could make a good living and be their own bosses doing something they deeply valued. Through my wife, and living in Philadelphia, I’ve learned I had a twisted version of the world. My wife’s friend Jayne, who loved photography, has a studio in SoHo, three books to her name, and has met (and photographed) more novelists and other luminaries than I ever will. Her friend who loved to cook? She became Martha Stewart’s right-hand person during the launch of the Omnimedia empire, and has gone on to be a professional food stylist who designed all the dishes in Julie and Julia. In Philly, I’ve met master craftspeople like Jim Moore and TR Risk, and the Waldorf School’s own John Fiorella, who made a screen door for my house that could have come from an Adirondack Great Camp.
These people have inspired me, and I’ve been much happier carving out a non-multinational path of my own (alas, without any talent in the food or furniture departments).
Mr. Fagone, in his article for Philadelphia Magazine, seems intent on coining a phrase. Maybe he’s already got a book deal for “Bruppies,” a term that doesn’t seem likely to stick. I still don’t understand it (he defines the term as blue-collar yuppies…so, blue-collar, upwardly-mobile professionals…which would be “bcuppie” or “buppie” – where did the “r” come from? But bcuppie is non-sensical, and “buppie” is taken by “Black Urban Professional,” so I guess it was the best he could do).
Fagone mixes a hodge-podge of stories to make the general point that physical work is important. Duh. Mixing medical doctors who raise chickens (but who are still Main Line doctors) with lawyers who teach woodworking and corporate accountants who quit to start bakeries doesn’t tell us much. Most would agree that a physical activity, whether hobby, sport, or business, is a great outlet. Howard Gardner discusses this need in his theory of Multiple Intelligence. Rather than limit the definition of intelligence to the linguistic-mathematical domain that is the focus of most traditional education, Gardner identifies seven additional intelligences, including bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Gardner argues that we all have skills, to some extent, in each of the eight areas and that a progressive education curriculum would be designed to address all of them.
I don’t think of the Waldorf School as a “trade school.” Everything is integrated, from my perspective – and that’s the point. Drawing and music help children understand math; storytelling and preparing food aid science education; seeing the origin of food and materials, for instance by shearing a sheep and spinning yarn and then knitting a hat, teach history and systems thinking. Fagone chose some odd ways to characterize our school, and I fear we come off as some sort of Urban Amish Institution for BMW Driving Parents (now coined as UAIFMWDP, or Yoo-I-Fum-WuDeePee), when the reality is much different. The very off-center ending, with a weird objectifying of Haiti, seems to purposefully cast Waldorf families as eccentrics looking for third-world-chic experiences for their children. While I’ll take any high-profile publicity, I hope readers who learn about the Philadelphia Waldorf School for the first time from the article choose to dig a little deeper.
The reality is much more mundane and wonderful. We are musicians, ‘real’ blue-collar workers, software designers, lawyers, personal finance planner, small-business owners, yoga teachers, psychiatrists, teachers, stay-at-home parents, chefs, etc. etc. Some of us write tuition checks with ease, and give substantially to the school, while others work weekend gigs to make it all work (and give generously on top of that). The tuition is among the most affordable of any independent school in Philadelphia, and we don’t seem to waste time raising money for squash courts while there are countries to visit, community service projects to contribute to, and amazing things to learn. Our oldest graduates are still in high school, so we don’t know what they’ll “grow up to be,” but they have gone on to just about every high school you might imagine in the area, from CAPA, to GFS, to Central. Maybe some of them will go on to become bakers, or furniture makers, or plumbers, or maybe even accountants (I bet their spreadsheets will be the most visually pleasing, and creative in a very ethical way).
I’ll end with another example of the difference, for me, of a Waldorf education.
My older daughter is in fourth grade. She recently had some math homework (centered on a cougar eating one of the children in the class, and sharing out fractions of the victim with his animal friends – exactly the kind of gruesome stuff fourth graders love) that sent us into a debate about reducing fractions. The question was ambiguously worded, and I didn’t think it made sense to reduce (remember that?). When I next saw my daughter’s teacher and asked her about it, she asked me if my daughter had explained that they always debate the way problems are answered and written.
She hadn’t, but I was immensely pleased. Engineers, bakers, writers, and politicians can’t just focus on getting the “the right answer.” They need to think critically about the question being asked, and challenge simplistic versions of complex situations. It’s an approach that might have helped improve “Revolt of the Bruppies.”
- Andrew McCann