Measles and Waldorf Education: Caught in the Crossfire

BY ED MANNING

The US measles outbreak and the vitriol between antivaxxers and vaccine supporters waned with the summer break. But the embers still glow, a breath away from conflagration as the new school year gets under way under NY legislation now mandating measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccinations. The controversy added yet another dimension of divisiveness to our not-so-civil discourse, and with Rockland County an epicenter of the outbreak, Waldorf Schools and their families were dragged into the fray. In June, The New York Magazine’s headline labelled them “Liberal Luddites,” and The New York Times dubbed the Green Meadow Waldorf School a “Bastion of Anti-Vaccine Fervor.”  The headlines and partial truths fueled the debate but misrepresented Waldorf education to the point of making it unrecognizable – journalistic roadkill on an expressway to a making a story viral.

For those unfamiliar with the curriculum, the schools are easy targets. I know. After 12 years as a Waldorf parent, I still make light of some core principles, a self-deprecating acknowledgement of how startling some practices must look to outsiders. Through sixth grade, there is a no-media policy. Lower school kids knit, felt, and work in biodynamic gardens. All students from 3 rd grade forward learn a string instrument and perform in class orchestras. But none of these and other activities are meant to stand alone. They are threads in a tightly woven fabric that augment the core studies of reading, writing, history, math, foreign language, and science.  To report them in isolation and out of context, and to report, for example, that the Green Meadow Waldorf School bans textbooks and forbids media, presents a grossly distorted perspective.  It is akin to reducing Dr. Martin Luther King to a man who actively disparaged public bus transportation and inspired audiences with passionate orations on dream theory.

In 2006, my wife suggested we enroll our kids in the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, NY. That meant a 33 mile commute each way from our home in Rye. Hoping to nip the conversation in the bud, I reminded her that we moved to Rye primarily due to the blue-ribbon public school 100 yards from our doorstep. More to the point, grades one through eight were “free,” prepaid by our exorbitant Westchester property taxes. She countered with reviews and research supporting decades of innovative education from over 1000 Waldorf schools worldwide. I reverted to solid hearsay evidence that the school was “alternative,” “experimental,” and catered to tree huggers and people noted primarily for consuming large amounts of kale.

We enrolled our kids and moved.

In the first few weeks, I watched Green Meadow revive our children’s spark for education, embers which had been dimmed after a year in the standardized blue-ribbon setting. Children didn’t just learn the core subjects; they lived them. Students created their own textbooks. They performed in musical ensembles. As they tackled fractions in class, they also played the math through whole notes, half notes, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. In lieu of iPhones, TV, and video games that the school disallowed, the pedagogy inspired independent thinking, creativity, play, and academic curiosity. In high school, fully wired teenagers not only learned the classics, they wrote alternate endings to the Odyssey in Homeric hexameter. They applied physics by building working models. Sophomores lived abroad on exchange programs with other Waldorf Schools, becoming fluent in a second language and immersed in foreign culture. 

Most importantly, in a society in which people are so connected electronically that they can no longer communicate face-to-face, Waldorf education nurtured inclusion, diversity, and young adults that are present, media literate, and engaged.

 Perfection is not an attribute of Waldorf. As is true of any educational system, theirs has occasional issues with teachers, administrators, policy, and a community with disparate and often conflicting needs.  The parent body does lean left. There is a faction of families who simultaneously chide the Washington administration for turning a blind eye to the science of climate change while paradoxically disavowing the science of vaccinations. But that number is not as egregious as reported. While the percentage of vaccinated Green Meadow families was just over 50% prior to the measles outbreak last year, that number reached over 80% by May.

Elitist, homogeneous, cultish, swarming with science deniers, stifled technologically: These are not characteristics of Waldorf education. What they are is best reflected in their graduating class. Creative thinkers. Confident public speakers. Activists pursuing positive change, and global citizens challenging convention with a healthy balance of passion, reason, and respect.  The only thing infectious about them is how they lift each other, treat setbacks as steppingstones, and focus on the promise of possibility over the fear of failure.

We vaccinated our children when they were young, and I respectfully find the antivaxxers rational misguided. But that debate is not rooted in or perpetuated by Waldorf Schools. What is, is a compelling and vital educational culture, a way of thinking, learning and living designed to immunize a generation against a world losing its hold on facts and a culture predisposed to rage, rhetoric, and divisive rants.