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.