Meet Elan: From the kibbutz to Waldorf

Catching up with the Princeton-based educator in 2021

(c) Elan Leibner

“Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower, we might know who we are and what the world is.” –Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

As part of his Academy’s education, Plato would deliver daily public lectures out in the fields of ancient Athens. Often, his lectures would range from the easily accessible to the obscure, slowly driving away his audience until he was talking only to himself. Without the knowledge of mathematical proofs of the good life (or any interest), Athenians forsook Plato’s abstract knowledge for more practical pursuits in the polis. Even today, education finds itself caught in between these same poles of abstraction and concretion. What is the use of knowing facts about mathematical formulas or art history jargon if you have no idea how they might apply to real-world conditions?

At the Waldorf School of Princeton, teachers embrace, a non-hierarchical vision of education based less on concrete deliverables than on the hands-on experience of learning. For these teachers, an important aspect of education is to impart a tactile sensation of the world, outside of any standardized exams. At Waldorf, there are no grades until high school and minimal homework assignments, allowing students to focus on being present in class.

Last spring, Back in America’s Stan Berteloot sat down with one of these teachers, Elan Leibner, who also serves as the chair of the Pedagogical Section Council of North America. 

“One of the core methodologies of the Waldorf school is to try to teach the children from experience through to the concept. If you can begin by doing, and then have a conversation about what you did, the concept lives in you in a completely different way,” he said.

But, because every student’s learning needs are unique, the Waldorf method also allows Elan to tailor his pedagogy directly to his students’ needs: “there are children who need to think about things first, too, before they come to engage with the physical and practical world,” he said. “The idea is to meet the learning needs of all the students, not to decide in advance what path their learning has to follow for some ‘correct’ reasons.”

When teaching his students about Ancient Greece and the various types of columns that might adorn a pagan temple, Elan helped his students carve a series of fluted ionic columns. Using materials provided by a parent, the class was able to learn about the sheer amount of labor and time required to construct an otherwise uninteresting column. “We set up a little workshop, and [the parent] brought all the materials, tools, safety goggles, and gloves to teach the children how to carve for about three weeks,” recalls Elan.

In the process, adherents to this “anthroposophic” method are thrust into the lived experience of the world, rather than focusing on symbolic systems of understanding. This storied method was innovated by German philosopher and educator Rudolph Steiner in the early 1900s. Up through the 1930s, Steiner led a series of popular public lectures outlining the tenets of his hands-on method which subsumed the need for basic categories of analysis. In Steiner’s eyes, there was nothing special about academic topics and professors who convolute the basic structure of the world with abstruse concepts. Instead, he suggested that there is an “objective, intellectually-comprehensible spiritual world that is accessible to direct experience through a person’s inner development.”

When Elan first encountered Steiner’s ideas while serving in the Israeli Defense Force, he wasn’t sure what to make of them: “I thought that this guy is either the most incredible teacher I'll ever meet, or the biggest charlatan in history. And I better find out which it is. So I came to America to find out.”

After his deployment, Elan moved to the United States to begin his firsthand experience with the anthroposophic method. Studying Steiner’s ideas, Elan was reminded of his childhood growing up on an Israeli kibbutz, a communal living collective that would split domestic tasks between all of the families involved. As Elan remembers it, “all of the children got the same education, the same medical care, the same clothing, and the same housing. The housing for all members was standard, so it was a lot less individualized that it is anywhere else in the world.”

That communal model, resonating with America’s own vibrant co-op communities, serves not only as a way of living together, but also a full-bodied philosophy of the flesh. From an early age, Elan wanted to answer the universe’s biggest challenges and was “absolutely certain that [he] was going to be a philosopher and physicist together.”

As an Israeli in America, Elan made a promise to himself to stay abroad so long as certain vital principles were satisfied. For him, the absolute ability to speak freely, to be left alone, to leave your community without asking for permission, and to retain your earthly possessions. And after 33 years, none of these sacred principles have ever been breached. 

And at Waldorf, Elan is able to tailor his lesson plans directly to his students’ needs and interests, rather than relying on a pre-set curriculum. Because teachers stay with the same class from first through eighth grade, they are able to develop lasting relationships with their students.

When he was teaching younger students, Elan would write original plays each year for his class to perform. Even without formal dramaturg training, he was able to design roles and choreography to challenge his students’ perspectives. “There’s something really wonderful about a teacher who looks at his students and asks, ‘what story do they need as a play? How do I write these lines that I want these children to speak?’” he said.

Transitioning into the Zoom School era was a totally new experience for Waldorf which had previously banned the use of all screens in their classrooms. But, as with any new experience, Elan and his students have adapted and become more comfortable with the new normal––Elan even took to writing some COVID reflections on his new website: “It takes great spiritual effort to “see” our students when the cold visuals and audibles of the screen are all we are given. Learning to love, to raise ourselves to the point where we can give what is needed, requires the opposite energy from the nervousness that these devices generate.”

Glancing towards the foreseeable end of the global pandemic, Elan and his wife are making plans to escape even the normalcy of stable jobs in order to go on the road and continue his writing projects. “We are selling the house and becoming nomadic. We ordered an Airstream, and plan on towing it all around the country for as long as it feels right (maybe three months, maybe a decade),” he said. 

Elan might not be sure where he will be 6 months from now, but those same Waldorf principles which motivated his teaching will be there alongside him, every step of the way.

To hear more about Elan’s journey and the Waldorf method, check out Back in America’s episode, available on Spotify, Podbean, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.