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.