Steiner believed that grades forced teachers and students into a curriculum that taught to the middle of the class. The tyranny of the median student meant slower students felt stupid and frustrated and smarter students felt bored and disengaged. Only the average child did well in a graded system. And no one is ever truly average. A graded system fails us all.
Waldorf schools teach a pedagogy that is holistic and geared to meeting each individual child at their unique level. It uses a variety of techniques like having children make their own textbooks (called main lesson books) so they are never conforming to some idealized medium standard. At it’s highest ideal it means being compared only to your past performance. You don’t compare yourself to other students. There is no ideal grade at which a student will think “I am the best” as that is fruitless. How will the best student ever bother to improve if they always get a perfect score? Grades hamper the cultivation of genius.
This sounds idyllic right? Always improving yourself without external markers that say you are good or bad or even average. That’s the dream. A perfect schooling system. And if I am being honest it absolutely was what provided me with the curiosity and desire to always be learning. It sustains my career now.
But every shining light casts a shadow. A system without grades. A system without comparisons or averages also means you never ever get to win. I never got a gold star as child. I never got an A. I never got a trophy. I missed out on millennial laziness cultural tropes. I would have killed for a participation trophy as a kid.
Because nothing was ever good enough. Because I always knew I could do more. I could always improve. There was no resting on your laurels. I never got a chance to say I was the best in my class. I never got to win. Because I internalized there was no winning. There was only ever improving. I was always improving. I felt like Sisyphus. Except the bolder never rolled down the hill. The hill just kept on going. The mountain had no summit. It was only improving. I never felt like I could rest. I never felt like something was good enough. Because tautologically it couldn’t be.
The consequence of this system for me as an adult is that I never feel like I’ve done well such that I can ever rest. Even if I’m objectively the best compared to others, I remember the ethos of school. The school that said next time you can do better. Next time you can push harder. Next time you can improve even more. If you’ve ever seen the movie Gattaca it’s the scene where the hero wins because he never ever saves anything for the swim back.
I’ve yet to balance the shadow cast by the light of Waldorf school. I desperately want to feel like I’ve won. Not because I need to feel better than anyone else. But because I struggle to stop. I yearn for rest. To have a finish line. To have some mile marker or trophy or award that says I’ve done enough. One day I’d like to give myself that. Maybe I should find a trophy or ribbon store and buy myself something that says “That’s Enough.”