Waldorf Education

My mother died in 1953 and my father’s second wife was a German woman whose family was deeply committed to anthroposophy, the world system that had been devised and promoted by the Austrian-born seer and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Our family was Quaker, my parents had joined the Society of Friends just after the Second World War, and by the time my step mother came along I was away at a Quaker boarding school, then university, and off to Canada in 1962.  Thus I never really got much exposure to anthroposophy; but in the 1960s my father gave up his job as a bursar at a Friends’ school and went to become bursar at a large Steiner School, or as they are known, Waldorf School, where he remained until he retired (and died shortly thereafter) in the early 1990s. 

I should say that in the 1980s, then a single parent, when I went on sabbatical in England my kids lived with my father and stepmother and went to his school for a year. They were then teenagers and they enjoyed the experience.  For them, there was not a lot of difference from a regular school, although with perhaps more emphasis on the arts and on foreign languages, and a number of rather strange festivals involving bonfires, which I think they found a bit mystifying but fun all the same.  

I say this as a preliminary to my discovery that Waldorf education—it is thus named after a rich tobacco manufacturer who, just after the First World War, asked Steiner to start a school for the children of his workers—seems to be undergoing explosive growth. Apparently in 1980 there were worldwide 200 schools. Today, in 2010, there are a thousand schools! My suspicion is that this is reflected in other Steiner-influenced activities, for instance so-called biodynamic agriculture. I should say that in some countries there is state support for Steiner education, including in some parts of the USA. (Some of Steiner’s followers started a religion, the Christian Community, reflecting his beliefs, but anthroposophy—thinking of itself as a philosophy-cum-science—has always kept itself separate from this.)

Why is this growth happening? I am writing a book on Gaia, the claim that the earth is an organism, and have been led fairly naturally to Steiner because the interfusion of life with matter is a central part of his world picture. So for the first time I have been digging a little into what he believed and how this related to his philosophy of education.  He had some very, very strange ideas indeed. He claimed to have insights into the spiritual world, one which is apparently very densely populated. There are for a start all sorts of beings on the planets and the sun, concerned with our welfare down here. There are various ages through which humankind has gone, including a spell in Atlantis. There were two Jesuses, and it was Lazarus who wrote the Gospel according to St. John. And there is reincarnation. Apparently I was a woman the last time around and will be again the next time. 

There are related oddities. Early in his adult life, Steiner edited Goethe’s scientific works, and as a consequence anthroposophists are into rather creepy pastel water colors based on Goethe’s anti-Newtonian theory of color.  But here I don’t want to badmouth Steiner and his followers as such. I think there was (and still is) a huge commitment to getting things right and in living a full and worthwhile life. To Steiner’s great credit, the Nazis loathed him, suggesting that he was a Jew (or, even worse, a Jesuit), and closed everything down as soon as they got to power. Steiner himself was very concerned about the education of people with developmental issues and today there are Camphill Communities inspired by his teaching, where mentally handicapped adults can live together in a meaningful atmosphere. 

But there is no question that the educational philosophy of Waldorf schools reflects a lot of Steiner’s basic thinking.  The human apparently is a bit like an artichoke, with a central soul surrounded by layers. The outer layer seems to be the physical body. This is the matter side to humans and is what is left and decomposes after we die. Then there is the etheric body, which seems to be brute life, something we share with plants and which dominates up to the age of seven, when the second teeth come along. Following is the astral body, consciousness, something shared with animals and holding sway until about 14 and adolescence. Finally, the Ego, which is self consciousness and is that which reincarnates. 

(As one English-born, I was sorry to find that animals do not have Egos and hence do not reincarnate. None of your Rupert Brooke heaven for fish, I am afraid –
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,…)

Waldorf education is explicitly molded in the light of this picture of human nature. So for instance there is a positive disinclination to start a child reading before seven. Unlike most schools—especially private schools for the middle classes—there is no frenetic use of alphabet cards as soon as a kid can focus, worrying that without such a start for life refusal of entry into Harvard is practically guaranteed. Teachers rather tell fairy stories and kids act them out and paint them and that sort of thing. There is also eurythmy, a dance form invented by Steiner and his second wife. All children have to do it. This seems to involve a lot of prancing around a stage in bare feet, dressed in flowing garments that seem to have been borrowed from a production of a Wagner opera. It is not an incidental add on, like chess club or cheerleading. It is something that expresses the “art of the soul” and is very much intended to be part of our karmic development or training. 

Basically, my first question is, has the world started to take Steiner’s visions seriously. Are my fellow Americans—actually, in large part the Californians—now buying into angels on the moon and reincarnation? Or is there attitude, somewhat like mine, that it doesn’t seem too harmful and is balanced by the obvious dedication of the schools to the wellbeing of their children? I can put up with a bit of daft dancing around the stage for the sake of people who really worry and care about their charges. My second question is whether any educational philosophy for children really matters? What is important is that a school has one, whether it be Steiner-inspired, or pragmatism, or something based on training for Italian slum kids. Without being entirely cynical, so long as a philosophy does not do positive harm (and I am to be frank still not sure about Steiner and early reading) what really counts is that teachers are inspired. Looking back, I think the Quaker high school I went to was nothing like as good as it should have been. It aspired to being a minor public school, rather than something governed through and through by the Quaker ethos. And this was reflected in the atmosphere. We were certainly trained to jump through examination hoops, but caring about us as rounded people was not the first priority.

Judging by past experience, having read this post an awful lot of people are now going to jump all over me, claiming that I don’t care about teachers in public schools and that sort of thing. Actually that is not true. I am dedicated to public education and my kids down here in Tallahassee have all attended the local schools. I am certain philosophical theories of education play significant roles for many schools and teachers. It is just that I want an answer to the five-fold jump in Waldorf education in the past 30 years. That doesn’t seem to me to be obvious given the beliefs of Rudolph Steiner.


(Photo: Steiner)

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