Keeping the faith

Are Steiner schools religious? It’s rare to find a straightforward answer to this question and it is one the movement itself struggles with. Usually the question is answered along the lines of not adhering to any particular faith or denomination but instead cultivating a more vague form of spirituality. The word “reverence” pops up a lot in relation to a child’s appreciation of nature but, especially in the earlier years, they are also meant to revere their teachers. I can’t help feeling that there are slightly sinister undertones to that.

The Steiner educator Eugene Schwartz was unequivocal on the place of religion:

“I’m glad my daughter gets to speak about God every morning: that’s why I send her to a Waldorf school… I send my daughter to a Waldorf school so that she can have a religious experience. So that she learns something about reverence. So that she learns something about respecting a higher being… To deny the religious basis of Waldorf education… to satisfy public school superintendents, or a talk show host, or a newspaper reporter, is very, very wrong. And the Waldorf leadership, I would say, are waffling on this matter. I would say we are religious schools.”

But what kind of religion is he talking about? Unfortunately, Schwartz does no better a job explaining this than anybody else.

The truth is that Rudolf Steiner took as his starting point Christianity but developed his own very different interpretation of the place of Christ in the history of humanity. As a result he’s equally derided for this by both secularists and mainstream Christians.

In the Autumn 2011 edition of New View magazine, Jill Taplin in the article “Reflections on some early childhood questions” discusses two book reviews originally published in Kindling, adding her own thoughts on issues that the books raise. Taplin is a Steiner early years consultant and educator. She currently teaches on the North of England Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies Programme.

The first book, “The Seasonal Festivals in Early Childhood: seeking the universally human”, is a compilation of articles on the important place the celebration of festivals has in Steiner education. Christmas and Easter are celebrated in Steiner schools but also the more unusual Michaelmas and St John’s, around which the customs and practices are recognisably anthroposophical. The book acknowledges that the festivals have been

“very traditionally Christian and Eurocentric and that we should at least be considering a more globally aware and inclusive attitude. Hence there are discussions about a more ‘inclusive’ name for the Advent Garden – Midwinter/Evergreen – tying in with puppet shows and stories which do not mention the Christ Child but refer to the Child of Light.”


“This raises the question whether we are throwing out the anthroposophical baby with the bathwater of traditional Christianity. Anthroposophy is inseparable from the concept of evolutionary Christianity – that the facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ were essential to the survival and development of humanity and the earth. Steiner declares that Christ, unlike other religious leaders, is not a teacher, but a deed for the evolution of humankind.”

This is strong stuff for a movement which publically distances itself from any particular religious creed.

But what is this about “seeking the universally human”? According to Taplin:

“Steiner drew the picture that during humanity’s time on earth we are evolved from a time of group tribal souls to a future time when we will be able to really accept that all human beings are our brothers and sisters, not just those of our tribe, nation or race.”

The advent of the telegraph (the latest technology in Steiner’s time), international travel and the internet certainly enable our growing appreciation of other cultures and those aspects of our joint humanity that Steiner schools claim to celebrate. Taplin acknowledges that while the history of western civilisation is centred around the “Christ event”, other parts of the world developed along parallel paths, citing the achievements of the Chinese and Aztec civilisations. And indeed these sometimes feature in the curriculum of Steiner schools, especially elsewhere in the world. However, Taplin worries:

“Are we opening ourselves to misunderstanding and rejection, as western proponents of Steiner Waldorf education or of anthroposophy, because we come from a part of the world that has a long history of Christianity as the established religion?”

Undoubtedly, the answer is yes and yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

The second book Taplin refers to is “Meeting the Child in Steiner Kindergartens: an exploration of beliefs, values and practices” which is based on a joint research project by the University of Plymouth and the Hereford Steiner Academy. “Meeting the child” refers to an acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension in Steiner education and the unusual practices this can lead to:

“We trust the spirit within the child and we endeavour to meet and understand that spirit and its purposes. One of the academic contributors to the book, Mary Jane Drummond, admits that she finds ‘fascinating and puzzling’ the comments of a kindergarten practitioner in Leeds on the topic of not intervening in a situation with her children… We trust that the child, given time to play uninterrupted (as part of a rhythmically structured day), will do what he needs to and learn what he needs to.”

I can’t help wondering whether this commitment to uninterrupted play extends to an explanation of the frequent and widespread reports of bullying and physical violence, even in the Steiner kindergarten, that is allowed to continue and get out of hand, alledgedly for the greater good of the children’s karma and spiritual development. Taplin acknowledges that it is the responsibility of the Steiner practitioner to ensure that parents understand how the pedagogy works:

“The question of evolutionary Christianity and the question of the unique way in which the Steiner kindergarten practitioner comes to meet the child are both fundamental and distinctive. And so often it is… the kindergarten teacher… who has the task of explaining such things to parents – so they find themselves on the frontline as publicists for both Steiner Waldorf education and anthroposophy.”

When problems arise, Taplin blames a breakdown in communication with the parents or a failure to “meet the child”. For parents with more conventional approaches to parenting who, for example, believe that young children do need to understand where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie, Taplin explains that

“The next step is frequently to do some research online and immediately they find ‘Waldorf Critics’ sites portraying our movement as racist, a religious cult, or, at the very least, doing and saying some very odd things. Many Waldorf critics…are former Waldorf parents. They are examples of breakdowns in communication, perhaps because through various experiences they believe that they have encountered religious intolerance or even indoctrination, or perhaps because they feel that the school has misunderstood and let their child down badly in some way. Somewhere along the way, the universally human has not been acknowledged or the child has not been met, to refer back to the two books.”

Taplin wonders: “Can we learn to talk more effectively about what we do?” and asks what practical steps can Steiner practitioners take to improve their communication skills? Her answer is to look inwards and draw on Steiner’s words for inspiration, to become a better anthroposophist:

“The obvious answer is by drawing on more of what we should be already doing. In order to deepen our understanding of the foundations of anthroposophy and in order to deepen our understanding of the child, we know that we must strengthen our understanding of the spirit within us… We must never forget the golden rule to be found in [Steiner’s] Knowledge of Higher Worlds that each step of advancement in esoteric knowledge requires at least three steps in the self-mastery that underpins a moral life. This is already part of the work of the Steiner early childhood practitioner endeavouring to be a model in thought, word and deed, worthy of imitation for the children in her care.”

Becoming a better anthroposophist is supposed to enable greater clarity of thought and speech:

“…clarity of thought should be what we are aiming for no matter how simple or complex the thought might be. We can also speak out of habit without appreciating that our listener doesn’t understand some of the phrases that we use so easily…When thoughts are clearly expressed they are more easily trusted.”

Now that is a sentiment I can agree with, but I’d go further: by all means keep the faith, but stop taking parents for mugs. Stop pretending that anthroposophy is not promoted or taught in the schools, as if it were somehow unimportant. Be honest, tell us what you are really about and don’t underestimate the ability and motivation of parents to understand what’s really going on.


Glimpsing past lives

A central aspect of anthroposophy is reincarnation. This is a concept that will be familiar from more mainstream religions. Steiner believed that some aspects of our past lives can effect our health and wellbeing in our current incarnation and that an understanding of the past lives of children in their care would aid teachers in their work. Younger children are particularly “close” to the spiritual world and most likely to have residual memories of their previous incarnations.

The process of incarnation continues throughout childhood and is fundamental to Steiner education, as described in the previous post. When things go wrong with the incarnation process this is thought to lead to learning difficulties such as autism, as will be described in a later post.

Here are two excerpts from Kindling, the “Journal for Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education and Care”. It is published by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in the UK and edited by Janni Nicol, their early childhood representative.

The first is a caption for a picture on the inside front cover showing a girl playing with puppets. It reads:

“As children grow older, they have many possibilities for ‘re-living’ earlier forms of consciousness. Puppet performing offers one opportunity for this.”

What could these “earlier forms of consciousness” be other than past lives? Puppet plays are a common form of entertainment at Steiner schools. Cute and fun though they can be, do they really have this higher purpose? What could the other opportunities for reliving past lives be in the Steiner kindergarten? That’d be a good question to ask at an open day.

The importance of puppet plays

The second excerpt relates to the story of “The Rainbow Bridge” which is often associated with the celebration of a child’s birthday.

A dialogue between two five and six year olds while looking at the pictures in the Weleda calendar:

Child 1: ‘Look, there is the Rainbow bridge!’
Child 2: ‘Yes, have you walked over the rainbow bridge?’
Child 1: ‘Yes, I did once, in a dream.’
Child 2: ‘I have walked over it too’
Child 1: ‘Really?’
Child 2: ‘Yes, when I was born’
Child 1: ‘Oh yes of course!’

The Rainbow Bridge is one of many pieces of anthroposophical folklore which appear in the life of the school. According to Janni Nicol and Jill Taplin in their book “Understanding the Steiner Waldorf Approach: Early Years Education in Practice”

“The picture of the rainbow bridge is one which easy to share. The rainbow bridge is, in Steiner education, the one where the child comes from Heaven to their earthly home – the bridge to the world is through the kindergarten.”

It’s a charming story but as with the puppet shows, you might be surprised how seriously it’s taken by the adults in a Steiner school.


Anthroposophy as the basis for Steiner Waldorf education

“The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum” edited by Tobias Richter and Martyn Rawson was the book recommended to me by Hereford Steiner Academy when I asked about the content of their science curriculum. It is “about as comprehensive as you can get and what we use as a guide to what we teach when”, I was told. It is a very useful book and I would advise anybody with an interest in the subject to get hold of a copy.

Its first chapter is titled “Anthroposophy as the basis for Steiner Waldorf education” and is a concise, two page summary of the anthroposophical view on childhood development. This chapter is authored by Martyn Rawson, who has more than 30 years experience as a Steiner teacher, lectured at the (now defunct) Steiner teacher training course at Plymouth University and was a member of the Pedagogical Section of the School of Spiritual Science. It begins

“Steiner Waldorf education is founded on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of the human being, which was based on empirical study and observation, enhanced by his direct insight into psychological and spiritual realities”

This supposed empirical basis for anthroposophy is why it is sometimes also called “spiritual science”. Steiner’s “direct insights” he referred to as his own clairvoyance.

“Steiner himself described anthroposophy as “a path of knowledge that seeks to lead the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe.”

Anthroposophy has been described as a self development course for the individual:

“Steiner maintained that spiritual insight, such as he himself possessed, can be developed by any individual to a greater or lesser extent.”

These insights, as described in Steiner’s own books and lectures, are very wide ranging: from alternative descriptions of the history and destiny of mankind, reflections on Christian doctrine, the existence of a hierarchy of spiritual entities to practical matters of medicine, agriculture and of course education.

The one area that Rawson chooses to focus on here is the development of the child through the process of “individuation” or “incarnation”, that is the integration of the three different bodies identified by Steiner: the physical, etheric and astral. Rawson explains:

“The physical body is that part of the human being that is directly sense perceptible and through which the individual is connected with and embedded in the material world.”

It is thought that the physical body is predominately active from birth until around the age of 7, which is when Steiner students will enter Year 1 and begin their formal education. There are several criteria on which they will be judged ready to enter Year 1: primarily the first appearance of adult teeth but also certain aspects of physical appearance and coordination. Before this stage, according to Steiner, children learn primarily through imitation rather than understanding.

The transition to Year 1 marks the appearance of the child’s etheric body which

“comprises all those forces which enable the physical body to function as an organism and which regulate the life rhythms, growth, regeneration and reproductive processes… [it] also constitutes the activity of thinking, mediating between the physical organs of the nervous system and the experience of the soul”

At the age of 7, according to Rawson, children become capable of a

“distinctive inner life and particularly… the process of mental picturing and the formation of memory, two processes essential to learning.”

I find it hard to believe that Rawson is seriously suggesting that these processes in particular, as commonly understood, are absent before the age of 7. On the other hand, Rawson does not expand further and tell us what he means by them in this context.

The next stage of development, at puberty, brings the astral body into play. It is only now that

“the soul activities of thinking, feeling and willing, which have hitherto been integrated into the processes of the physical organs… begin to emancipate themselves. The ‘I’ [or ego] becomes active within the soul in aiding the young person to make judgements, form independent concepts and gradually direct their own behaviour according to conscious intentions motivated by ideals.”

Is Rawson suggesting that it is only in adolescence that a sense of morality develops, albeit gradually? Anybody with any familiarity with younger children will know that they can quickly develop their own sense of what is right and wrong, not merely by imitation but by empathy with the feelings of others: “how would you feel if…?”

What Rawson is describing here is the rather rigid, anthroposophical framework around which the curriculum of Steiner education is built. The simple fact is that different children develop at vastly different rates and that their chronological age and state of physical development can have very little to do with their reading ability, for example. If your Steiner educated child hasn’t yet lost their baby teeth but wants to read at school, too bad.

Slightly incongruously, Rawson concludes with a lengthy quote from Steiner where he reminds the parents of the first Waldorf school that anthroposophy is not taught in the classroom, a refrain often heard from Steiner schools today. According to Steiner, it is merely

“the ‘how’ of education [that] we are trying to gain from our spiritual understanding”

That is, the methods of Steiner education are based on anthroposophy. This is why trainee Steiner teachers spend a great deal of time learning about it, rather than the practicalities of everyday life in the classroom. Let’s be charitable and assume that there is a perfect firewall between the spiritual motivation and understanding of the teacher and the content of their lessons, over a period of many years. (The Steiner way is for a class teacher to stay with the class, at least from Year 1 to Year 8.)  Let’s assume that nothing anthroposophical ever leaks through. Even if that were the case, what’s so wrong with anthroposophy that the movement seeks so assiduously to maintain that firewall? Is it merely because Steiner insisted that is the way it should be?

Here’s Steiner discussing this subject with teachers (rather than the parents) of the first school:

“[W]e have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf School with its anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck.”

This duplicity persists today.