A state funded Steiner teacher speaks out on Anthroposophy

Originally published as a guest post on the excellent blog Stop Steiner in Stroud.

The current (Spring 2014) issue of New View magazine has an article by Paul White titled “Anthroposophy and Steiner schools – time for a reassessment?”. Mr White is an experienced Steiner practitioner and now a class teacher at the Steiner Academy Frome. New View is an Anthroposophical publication, available in print form only, which I expect has a fairly limited readership. As a place where representatives of the Steiner movement seem apparently able to write candidly, it deserves to be read more widely.

The article begins with a series of questions the author imagines being asked by those new to Steiner education: “So is it a religious school?”, “Do you teach the children anthroposophy?”, “What do you mean the teachers teach ‘out of’ anthroposophy?” All good questions, of course. And then there are the laments from those within the movement: “it used to be a Steiner school, but the anthroposophy has gone out of the place now” and “We must use language that people can understand… we don’t need to talk about stuff like reincarnation that will just put people off”. White suggests that the relationship between anthroposophy and Steiner education “has always been a living question”, which I take to mean that there is no widely held agreement on the answer. I agree with him that now is “a particularly pertinent time to revisit this question”, with the fourth UK state funded Steiner academy in Bristol opening this September.

Unfortunately, White brings us no closer to an answer when he admits that anthroposophy itself is undefinable and that any attempt to do so is tainted by a “reductionist/materialist perspective” that could never capture the whole picture. I’d counter that, nevertheless, I know anthroposophy when I see it and that this intuition, if you want to call it that, is something that anybody else can acquire too.

White goes on to opine, at length, the unfortunate rise of science to the point of it replacing religious dogma in supplying definitive answers to life’s questions. Not only definitive but destructive: “the rapidly deteriorating ecological situation of the planet… calls into question the effects of our abstract, intellectual thinking… A strong case could be made that our intellectual thinking… may ultimately lead to our own extinction.” Those damn scientists and their ivory tower intellectualism! Never mind the greed and short-sighted policies of the fossil fuel industry and political class, it’s all the scientist’s fault. This is in fact a surprisingly widely held view, at least among anthroposophists. These people cannot be trusted to teach your children how science really works.

Or maybe they can? Memorable, inspiring teachers can even be found in mainstream schools, after all, despite having to work within ‘the system’. White explains how Newton took a leap of imaginative insight to go from observing the fall of an apple to his theory of gravity. Indeed he did. As did Darwin, Einstein, Crick & Watson and Hawking in deriving their own theories. No practicing scientist would deny the importance of imagination and intuition. Unfortunately, Goethean science as practised in Steiner schools, with its approach of putting the direct observation and experience of nature centre stage, misses the point: which is that real science is full of careful statements of doubt, caveats and limits. Theories stand or fall based on their predictions about future observations, completing the circle of the scientific method.

Despite his earlier misgivings, White attempts to define anthroposophy as “a way of approaching the world… involving a very concrete appreciation of the working of spirit in matter.” By analogy with the way Newton ‘saw’ gravity at work in the fall of the apple, anthroposophists can ‘see’ the spiritual world at work in human experience. Indeed they might, but how do they know it is no more than a figment of their imagination? What predictive power does it have?

So is anthroposophy taught in a Steiner school? “On one level yes”, White admits. “Awe, wonder and reverence, the prerequisites of the spiritual scientific approach, are cultivated from the kindergarten upwards.” Yet, it would be ridiculous to think that Steiner education therefore has a monopoly on awe, wonder and reverence. White cites the Goethean approach to science education as an instance of anthroposophy in action, which indeed it is. “Also, it might be argued that in teaching the children of human development through the ancient civilisations, the Steiner school is enabling them to see their own place in the evolution of human consciousness”. This sense of giving the life of the individual context within the history of humankind is an appealing facet of anthroposophy. Unfortunately there is also the temptation for a misguided teacher to go much further, offering Steiner’s very alternative views of history as truth.

“On another level”, White goes on, “that of the concern of an imposed set of beliefs or alleged facts, children are not taught anthroposophy”. Steiner made many statements about the nature and history of the cosmos, the place of humans within it, the importance of the “Christ event” and of a hierarchy of supersensible beings: from the elementals to angels, archangels and archai. As White explains, Steiner “emphasized the importance for teachers of working with [these] spiritual entities”. Yet, Steiner’s extensive thinking on all these arcane and esoteric subjects does not constitute a body of beliefs so much as a “provocation to think, to investigate”. White highlights the importance for the teacher of meditating on these concepts, thus developing their own “inner life” in order to enhance their pedagogical practice. Anthroposophy is a self development course for adults, sometimes to the detriment of the children who are unwittingly caught up in it. So much for a child centred education.

White expresses concern at the “downplaying of the role of anthroposophy in some Steiner schools to make them more acceptable to a broader public” and goes on to say that “those of us involved in Steiner education should not be apologetic about anthroposophy, embarrassed perhaps by its esoteric origins. Indeed, it is disingenuous to suggest that anthroposophy is not central to the work of the school staff.” He concludes that “It is children that bring forces of renewal into the development of humanity. Schools working out of a true anthroposophical impulse will allow children to go on to do this, and it is precisely such forces of renewal that are urgently needed in our time.”

I believe that this call to arms for the cult of Steiner is dangerous and misguided, but White does at least bring a refreshing level of honesty to the debate.