A golden lesson?
It was beginning to seem like the whole country had constipation. In bars, in cafes, in sports clubs and in living rooms Kiwis sat with furrowed brows and clenched fists, grunting whenever another rider lost contact with his horse, groaning whenever the opposition put another soccer ball or hockey puck into the back of the net. Was New Zealand destined not to win a single Olympic medal? Could the dismal record the All Blacks carved out last month have been an augury?
After Saturday night's surge of medals, brows unfurrowed, faces lost their unhealthy purple tingle, fists unclenched into applauding palms, and the cliche-mongers of the media pronounced the salvation of New Zealand. After rower Mahi Drysdale battled Beijing belly to wear a vomit-stained bronze medal, the New Zealand Herald crowed that the spirit of 'national toughness' had not died with Edmund Hillary. With his willingness to rise above adversity and leave his body, or rather his breakfast, on the battlefield, Drysdale was, the Herald reckoned, a model for young Kiwis raised in an era of emasculating, anti-competitive
One of the Herald's gang of civic-minded letter writers took up the same theme with reference to the Evers-Swindell twins, who overcame a couple of pumped-up Germans and Peter Montgomery's senile TV commentary to narrowly win their second successive rowing gold. Contrasting the broad sweet smiles and bulging biceps of the Evers-Swindell girls with the bulging boobs of the naughty girls Steve Crow wants to parade down Queen Street, the Herald's correspondent insisted that 'here we have two different models of womanhood'. Apparently the Evers-Swindells hark back to an older, better world, where girls knew how to sew before they knew how to spell, and only visited sinful places like Queen St to watch the Santa Parade or cheer the return of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Before we turn Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells into symbols of the sort of good old New Zealand Brian Tamaki and Garth George are forever eulogising, though, we ought to consider where all three rowers went to school. Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells didn't spend their formative years at an ultra-conservative, militarised institution like the one John Graham created at Auckland Boys Grammar; nor did they even experience the rough and ready pleasures of a proudly old-fashioned school somewhere in New Zealand's rural heartland.
Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells are all proud ex-students of Taikura Rudolf Steiner School in Hastings. The school was founded more than half a century ago, though it was only in 2000 that the word Taikura was added to its name. As the school's website
explains, the meanings of the new word illuminate the philosophy of Steiner education:
heartwood of trees with red wood;
currents (of influence, of emotion, of sensibility)
streams (of consciousness, of philosophy)
tides of life
sanctum of learning
I don't know whether that little incantation would appeal to John Graham, Martin Deaker, or any of the other red-faced schoolmaster-coaches who are always complaining about the 'softness' of young New Zealanders, and the lack of 'guts and grits' shown by young Kiwi sportsmen and women. For his part, Rudolf Steiner would probably have been quite uncomfortable at the barracks-like school John Graham ran at Auckland Grammar in a desperate effort to turn out 'hard' sportspeople with 'a will to win'.
Steiner, a stern critic of the ideological and cultural conformity demanded by
modern industrial society, set up schools that were intended not to churn out robots for the factory or the football team, but to 'educate the whole child', by making the emotions and imagination of pupils as important as their reading and arithmetic skills.
In a fine post on this blog, Skyler described her experiences at one of New Zealand's handful of Steiner schools:
The teachers at my school worked hard to produce well-rounded individuals - people who could learn from life as well as books. Field trips to beaches and forests and school plays were as important as exams. The arts were taken as seriously as the sciences, and imagination was celebrated rather than stifled. Ours was a 'hands on' way of learning: we were encouraged to do our own research, rather than simply swallow facts and figures. I remember learning about history and English literature not by sitting in class taking down a teacher's monologue, but by touring the North Island with our class putting on a play about Nazism and the resistance to it in continental Europe during World War Two. While studying Indian Mythology we heard stories, learnt music, poetry, cooked Indian food and learnt traditional dancing and some of the language, and put on another play. As twelve year olds studying geology we went camping and caving at Waitomo.
Our school would acknowledge the rhythm of the year by celebrating the change of seasons. In autumn we would dress up in autumnal colours, have a harvest table of food we would give to charity, sing songs and eat a meal we had cooked together. For winter we built a bonfire, made lanterns, went for a lantern walk at night and sang winter songs – very magical! These celebrations gave us a sense of stability and connectedness to the world around us.
The Nazis rushed to close Steiner's schools down, calling them breeding grounds for weak and undisciplined citizens. Today, Steiner's detractors sometimes still use similar language. You won't see a Steiner school first XV taking out a regional schools' title anytime soon. Sport is a part of Steiner education, but it is often not even competitive, let alone militarised and commercialised. Twenty year-old fifth year seventh-formers aren't paid to skip classes play rugby at any Steiner school.
Isn't it remarkable, though, that a single, small Steiner school has delivered New Zealand such Olympic riches? If The Republic of Steiner could appear on the medal board, it would stand above a sports superpower like Argentina, which has so far only won a single bronze at Beijing. Could it be that the strength of character that helped Drysdale overcome acute pain to take bronze, and enabled the Evers-Swindells to come from behind to win a tight race, is acquired more easily in the relaxed, anti-authoritarian, creative atmosphere of a Steiner school? Perhaps the narrow, high-pressure, hierachical education that many sportspeople marked as 'promising' now get at mainstream Kiwi schools has something to with the ability of our rugby players and our cricketers to so often steal defeat from the jaws of victory at the business ends of sports tournaments? Perhaps Rudolf Steiner has something to teach the sports coaches and headmasters of this country?