Waldorf High School in China
By ALLEGRA ALLESANDRI, PHD
How can an education for the future, one that strives to educate free human beings, exist in a Communist nation, one infamous for human rights violations and following the party line? This question was foremost in my mind when I accepted an invitation to introduce Waldorf high school education in Chengdu, China. What would I be able to say? Would someone be following me or listening in? What if I accidentally made an off-color joke about Mao or Hu?
The reality was that I had no fear, only a feeling of hope and excitement as I prepared for my trip to Chengdu with my good friend and colleague, movement instructor, Valerie Baadh. If all else failed, I knew Valerie and I would have a great time supporting each other, shopping, eating and sharing our knowledge and experiences of a combined 42 years developing high school curriculum and teaching high school students.
As a Waldorf high school graduate, high school founder, instructor and principal, I approached this trip as I do most everything in my life: with a feeling of wonder, an urge to share the truth of Waldorf education, and a sense of adventure to explore a new part of the world. With an open heart and mind, I set out to help introduce Waldorf high school education in China.
“Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and become a worker with both socialist consciousness and culture.” From Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
China is known for the drill and kill education. And yet as a culture, China values the three–fold human being, as evidenced by Mao’s dictum. His brilliance was to harness Chinese culture and turn it to the service of Communist rule. At an early age, students are shuffled into a rigorous university-bound test-centered education or left behind in vocational training. I found that the Chinese adult students we met had a rich background in moral, intellectual and physical education. They had been very unhappy and dissatisfied with their adolescent years and high school, but they did not come out of it poorly educated. And yet, Chinese students applying to American colleges are often “baffled by the emphasis on extra-curricular activities and may have never written a personal essay” (NYT 11-3-11), a clear indication that these activities are not a focus in Chinese high schools.
Europe has a similar model of siphoning off students as early as fourth grade to vocational training, and steering the best and brightest into university preparation. As a frequent visitor to Germany, my observation and anecdotal research tell me that in Germany, this dichotomy doesn’t hold the stigma that it does in China. Germans who are vocationally trained or university bound enjoy a strong middle class lifestyle.
China is different. Academic competition is high. The discrepancy between rich and poor is vast, both economically and educationally. The pressure of social status, income level and prestige is powerful. Children from families with resources take classes all day and have extra classes in the evening and weekends. And yet, according to the New York Times, 40,000 Chinese students arrive in the United States every year to attend colleges and universities, hoping for a better education and an advantage in business when they return home to China with an American degree (NYT 11-3-11). The Western allure is surely one of the reasons Waldorf education is gaining popularity and success in China.
In November, we arrived at a campus looking very much like any Waldorf school I have seen. I found a sanctuary from the concrete, high-rise, hustle and bustle of China’s third largest city. The Chengdu Waldorf School is an oasis of calm and tranquility. The school surrounds a small lake on which students learn to row. As in any Waldorf school worldwide, small children arrive on foot, holding hands with a parent or grandparent, skipping, singing, dressed warmly in hand knit woolens. We felt at home in a real Waldorf school.
“Our purpose is to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as a powerful weapon for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.” From Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
What we learned in our two-week Introduction to Waldorf High School and Training is that our colleagues in China are eager for the kind of education that we find around the world in Waldorf schools both public and private across the globe. It is the nature of the human being to strive for personal freedom, personal expression through art, colleagueship and community. It is our deepest human desire to save our planet and treat our Mother Earth with respect and to redeem our current state of the world. These are truths well now throughout the centuries in China.
I found that China is a place ripe for reform. This is a country that has known revolution, reform, and political discourse for millennia. Despite drill and kill education, I met groups of educators capable of the best kind of teaching I can imagine. Our adult students were artistic, creative, dramatic, excellent storytellers. They knew instinctively how to present artistic lessons. They were eager students both of the academic material and the exciting and active physical challenges of Spacial Dynamics.
In contrast, the teachers I work with and train in the U.S. need better arts education. They need to know more about their subjects. And they need to be taught systematically how to teach artistically, creatively and dramatically. The Chinese students in our program knew all this instinctively.
The prospect of a successful Waldorf high school for Chengdu is real. China is providing Waldorf education in nearly 200 kindergartens and 25 elementary schools throughout the country (Huang 2012 p. 6). The rich culture and deep respect for the arts create an environment ripe for successful Waldorf education. However, the real question is: how will Waldorf students meet the demands of Chinese university admissions and the economics of the job market? This is an age-old Waldorf high school question.
The plan in Chengdu is tentatively to prepare the current fifth and sixth grades to open a high school in 2014. The western consultants suggest that the school prepare to house boarding students from around China. Currently, Chengdu is the only school in China with graduating eighth graders. In 2012, Chengdu Waldorf School celebrates its second graduating eighth grade class. (The other school growing to the eighth grade is Guangzhou on the mainland near Hong Kong, which currently has a fifth grade.)
In January, Chengdu Waldorf School earned its license to operate from the Chinese Department of Education which took years of “pushing the government to except alternative education in China” (Huang 2012 p.1). Until the license, the Chengdu Waldorf School—as many other Chinese Waldorf schools do—operated in a “yellow light” zone. They are neither approved with a “green light,” nor are they shut down with a “red light” (Huang 2012). Chengdu enjoys the patronage of a Chinese educational minister close to the Prime Minister. While vastly different than Chinese education, the government seems to know that Waldorf education has the potential to succeed. Without embracing the methods wholesale, the government continues to watch and assess. As a 10,000+year-old culture, the Chinese understand how to adapt, endure and evolve.
In the meantime, the Waldorf schools operate like private schools. Parents pay tuition as they do in private schools in the United States. Families have to make difficult choices around sixth and eighth grade about how to best prepare their children for high school and college readiness. The current eighth grade experienced attrition after the Chinese New Year (the month of February) when families decided to send their eighth graders to a government school so they would have the eighth and ninth grade years to prepare for the high school entrance exam. Other families make the switch earlier. Still other families arrange to send their ninth grader to the West—to Germany, Australia, and America, Canada, where there are Waldorf schools and families ready and willing to make room for Chinese students to have the Waldorf high school experience.
The main difference between the Chinese and American schools is in expectation. One afternoon in Chengdu during our High School Introductory Course, we invited a wonderful young man who had just finished his end of high school exams for college. He told the group that he had spent three years studying for tests that should only have taken six months to prepare. The only meaning he found in high school was the literary journal he edited. In that club, students found the artistic outlet to express themselves. Yet they were in school eight hours a day studying for tests.
Students in the Waldorf introductory course brought in state textbooks, not the ten-pound hardback textbook of our California students, but paperback, workbook-style texts. They look like a math or test prep workbook. Students said that the Chinese way is for the teacher to read from the book and the students to follow, memorize minutia, and learn for the test (notes of conversations from introductory course 11-2011).
As this high school student spoke, I was struck by his cosmopolitan nature, his maturity and his eloquence. He was frank and funny in front of a group of adults. He reminded me of so many of my Waldorf high school students over the years—seeking meaning, yearning for truth, in search of beauty—in some ways, so much wiser than the system he faces. And his remarks reminded me of the voices from recent documentaries like “Race to Nowhere,” and the parenting book, Tiger Mom by May Chua. Education is meaningless when it is only about a test score, the number of AP exams, the SAT score, and the prestige of the college and universities one is accepted to. Hearing this young man speak, I had the distinct impression that for the Chinese, the high school experience of college preparedness is similar to the same preparation our high school students experience in the most rigorous high schools on the most competitive college or university track.
In our American democracy—and especially in California with its Educational Master Plan—high school students have a vast array of vocational schools, community colleges, state and private college and universities. We have choice. A high school drop out can attend a 2-year community college, work his/her way to UC Berkeley or Stanford and come out with a universally respected diploma. Our educational and economic systems support entrepreneurship and innovation.
The Chinese educational system is not so flexible. Our No Child Left Behind Policy pales in comparison to Chinese educational standards. There is one path to academic success, one path to the best university, one road to future success.
“Complacency is the enemy of study. We cannot really learn anything until we rid ourselves of complacency. Our attitude towards ourselves should be “to be insatiable in learning” and towards others “to be tireless in teaching.” From Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
Much has been made of the Tiger Mom pressure and intensive rigor of Chinese education and parenting. Active and aggressive study towards academic success is a national pastime. But there is another element of learning at play for the Chinese. As Evan Osnos suggests, there is perhaps another “ingredient in the national motivation that may not spring as much from boot-camp parenting as it does from a pervasive, deeply felt yearning for knowledge. In some cases it is knowledge to try to get into graduate school abroad; in others, it is simply to get from the factory floor into a better gig. None of this is unique to China, but it is especially acute these days” (Osnos, The New Yorker 2-17-11). Mao admonished his comrades “to be insatiable in learning.” As a teacher of adults, I felt my students’ insatiability for learning.
China needs innovation, it needs original designers, it needs young people who can think freely and who do not wait for the authority. The government and the people know this. Chinese Waldorf high school graduates represent the future of China. China needs students who are open-minded, freethinking, willing to challenge authority. This means they will become the thinkers and designers and innovators. Waldorf schools were intentionally established in order to affect social change—China is seeking inspiration for positive meaningful change in order to move the country into the 21st Century.
I asked Li Zewu, the principal of the Chengdu Waldorf School how these open-minded Waldorf students will fit into to their society, a society that, from the outside, seems so controlled by the government. Zewu told me: they will become president.
Bartlett, Tom and Karin Fischer (2011) “The China Conundrum, ” The New York Times. November 3, 2011.
Huang Harry , Huang Li, and Li Zewu (2012) “The Long March to Waldorf School License” email received 1-15-12.
Osnos, Eric (2011). “China’s Education Binge.” The New Yorker 2-17-11.
The November Course: Introduction to Waldorf High School and Teacher Training
Students presenting a Tenth grade lesson: the Misty Poetry Movement
The author Allegra Alessandri (right) and her teaching partner, Valerie Baadh in China at JinLi Street
Dr. Alessandri is a Waldorf high school graduate of Sacramento (CA) Waldorf school. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Spanish from Pomona College, Claremont CA, and a Masters in English Literature from Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Dr. Alessandri taught English at the American International School, Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela and at the Washington Waldorf School. In 1994, she returned to California and took on a 7th and 8th grade class at San Francisco Waldorf School. Fifteen years after founding San Francisco Waldorf high school, Dr Alessandri moved back to her hometown to open the first public Waldorf high school in the United States—turning around one of California’s worst performing high schools to become one of the top performing high schools in the school district and to complete her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership from UC Davis. She lives in Fair Oaks with her husband and two daughters who attend her alma mater.