The Value of a Holistic Education

Photo and Design Editor Kyly Clark

Photo and Design Editor Kyly Clark

Kyly Clark, Photo and Design Editor

With strategies put in place to overcome Sierra Nevada College’s recent budget cuts, many students and faculty are expressing concern about the future of SNC’s academic mission. This got me thinking about what an academic mission is, and what makes up a well-rounded college education.

I grew up in the Waldorf school community, an alternative education curriculum developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist and thinker who developed spiritual research called “anthroposophy.” Steiner’s philosophy recognizes human beings as threefold in nature, consisting of a mind, body and spirit. A child’s education is tailored to each developmental stage of growth, and the life experiences at that time from early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence.

Steiner’s holistic method of learning includes studying art, architecture, drama, music, dance, theater, literature, science, agriculture, economics, religion and many more subjects. This kind of multidimensional and personalized education created some of the most influential figures in the 20th century.

Today there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 70 countries, as well as Waldorf associations and teacher trainings around the world. I was fortunate to attend one of 250 Waldorf schools in North America, Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, N.H.

My education began in my preschool and kindergarten years, dancing around the maypole and tending to my very own garden. In the first grade, my main lesson teacher (also the teacher who typically stays with the same class through the eighth grade), taught us how to draw our most perfect circle, standing up with our arms overextended, tracing in the air over and over again above our canvas until we felt our square, wax crayons could mark the page with confidence. The year included drawing, painting, listening to mythical stories, playing the recorder and dancing eurhythmy (a system of rhythmical physical movements to music, used to teach musical understanding). I could speak the alphabet with my body.

By second grade, I was reciting French poetry, counting in German and learning sign language.

Writing wasn’t introduced to me until I was in the third grade, when I learned how to write in cursive and practiced calligraphy.

The idea of competition is not in the nature of Waldorf schooling, unlike the competitive practices that are engrained in the average American child’s education. My physical education classes were about self-exploration consisting of “movement,” or gymnastics-like exercises, and circus arts like unicycling, juggling, tightrope walking, diablo and baton.

It is because of my holistic education that I am curious about the world. I can think for myself, I value lasting human relationships, I help others, I have high standards and am constantly looking for quality, and I am motivated by my ethical and moral code and committed to a life-long learning process. According to a survey of Waldorf graduates, many other “Waldorfians” share these traits.

The Greek philosopher Plato also understood that there were different educational requirements meant for different life stages. He believed that integrating traditional disciplines with the arts was essential to the development of a well-educated society.

Similarly, Aristotle’s central idea of education was that “a fulfilled person is an educated person,” something that modern day liberal arts educators can understand. The word “liberal” derives from the Latin word “liberalis,” which means freedom. A liberal arts education is designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills to become productive members of a free society, capable of free thinking.

In many circles, a liberal arts education is criticized as a curriculum that doesn’t prepare students for financial success in the workplace. Critics say it is too broad in its scope and covers too many “unimportant” subjects. But the alternative—pursuing a single discipline or area of study—can hinder a person’s full potential as well as the potential of a thriving society, especially when that single discipline is centered on how best to make money.

In 1998, Martha Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, “An education that is liberal…liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.”

My early Waldorf education paved the way for a meaningful and multifaceted approach to life. When I reached college age, I chose to attend Sierra Nevada College because I saw potential in this liberal, free-thinking institution. SNC is unique in its setting, filled with opportunities to be immersed in nature, and small enough to take a bold approach to education. While here, I have taken advantage of learning interdisciplinary methods to evaluate the questions that are just too big to understand in a single discipline or mode of thought.

SNC philosophy professor Samantha Bankston spoke to the value of a liberal arts education in a recent Eagle’s Eye interview about the college’s future.

“Universities were created for the purpose of freeing the mind and serving the public good. They are intended to express democratic values,” she said, explaining that the university system was traditionally subsidized by taxes, encouraging it to function on knowledge and intellectual inquiry. “Value cannot solely be reduced to profit margins or quantifiability.”

A liberal arts education supports the idea of doing good for good’s sake, making morally sound and ethical decisions based on reasoned thought, and creating a meaningful space to support what we need as human beings to flourish as our unique and independent selves. Students who study in the liberal arts tradition become free-thinking, curious, confident, and able to see clearly the societal pressures to perform based on a capitalist system where money is the sole motive.

In this diverse, complex and ever-changing world, we need bold leaders to challenge the mind, body, and spirit, who work to better our society. And that’s why I chose to come to SNC—because I believed this was a college that supports these noble ideas. I hope that never changes.