Learn to change the world

Reflections on what matters in education from Rosemary Gentle OAM, an esteemed educator and leader with 50 years’ experience in education to draw upon

The wellbeing of our society tomorrow depends on the wellbeing of our young people today.

Nearly 40 years ago, I tearfully farewelled my 16-year-old daughter as she left Australia to attend an international Steiner/Waldorf* youth conference in France. Attendees came from North and South America, Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom, bringing with them a cultural diversity, fresh ideas, passion and a global humanity. Together with the 6 months exchange she undertook at a Steiner/Waldorf school in Germany afterwards, this was, as she has frequently acknowledged, a life-changing experience for her.

This week in Brisbane, 250 students from Steiner schools around Australia (and one school from New Zealand) are gathering at another Youth Conference to mark the centenary of Steiner/Waldorf education around the world.

The world has changed over the past 40 years. In 1981, it was the era of the Cold War, a divided Germany, assassinations, threats of nuclear warfare, fear of Communism and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. My daughter went on protest marches in West Berlin as young people expressed their anger against the aftermath of the decisions of their elders.

This week, the Australian Youth Conference, hosted by the Samford Valley Steiner School in Brisbane will focus on Social Renewal as its theme. Over 4 days, Senior High School students will explore different but pressing issues of our times. These will include racism and prejudice; political, religious and economic division; world conflict; indigenous perspectives; minority groups; Australian and world-wide response to refugees; climate change and its impact on our environment; sustainability; education and imagining the future; the role of the Arts; money and ethical business. One can easily picture the insightful and passionate discussions that will take place amongst these young people and I am sure it will be a life-changing experience for them as it was for my daughter.

It was a life-changing experience for me as well when I first met Steiner education nearly 50 years ago as a parent and teacher. The fact that it was about not only the optimal development of the child, but, at its core Steiner education was about the essential wellbeing of each student, struck such a chord with me. For me, it defined the purpose of education then and now – to support the wellbeing of every child on every level.

Today, there is great concern about the wellbeing of our young people. Health issues, both mental and physical, are particularly worrying. The National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.) notes that mental disorders are now the chronic diseases of the young. Beyond Blue statistics show that 1 in 14 people in Australia between 12 and 17 has an anxiety disorder. Furthermore 1 in 4 aged between 16 and 24 have experienced a mental health disorder. Whilst there may be a number of causal factors in this scenario, these young adults have spent ten or more years of foundational learning in the education system and we must accept some responsibility for their level of stress and anxiety.

Young people are the future of our society. Its wellbeing depends on their wellbeing. As teachers, young people come to us in trust that they will be safe, they will be recognized, and their unique capacities will be nurtured. Above all, they will be “en-couraged” in the true sense of the word, so they can become makers of change when it is their turn.

I was honored to receive an Order of Australia Medal in 2008 for “services to education” (especially Steiner education). The NSW Governor at the time was Dame Marie Bashir – a highly respected Governor but also an eminent psychiatrist. Her words to me, as she pinned the medal onto my jacket, were:

“Your education is needed as never before”

Let’s re-define the purpose of education before it is too late!

*‘Waldorf’ is sometimes used as an alternative to ‘Steiner’

In 2019 Steiner and Waldorf schools around the world celebrate 100 Years of Steiner education. For more information about celebrations in Australia please see https://steinereducation.edu.au/steiner-education/100-years-of-steiner-waldorf-education/