The role of karma in Steiner education

Jeremy Smith – aka the anthropopper – has replied to my question about the role of karma in Steiner education. I’m grateful for his considered, detailed response.

Jeremy prefaces his reply with the following:

“I think it’s fair to say that Mark’s blog is not friendly towards Steiner schools and his question has a hostile intent behind it. However, it seems to me that Mark is asking a genuine question in a civil manner so I’m going to do my best to answer him.”

I think this reflects an unfortunate tendency among anthroposophists to view any form of criticism as inherently hostile and potentially malicious, even if it is a genuine question asked in a civil manner. Anthroposophists aren’t alone in this of course: it’s commonly found in adherents of other faiths and even scientists (human as they are) aren’t immune. People don’t like having their beliefs questioned.

Let me reassure Jeremy that my intent is not hostile. Later in his reply he says:

“In the UK at least, you have plenty of choice of schools and if the ideas outlined here don’t appeal to you, then please put your child in a different system.”

It’s for precisely this reason that I think it’s important that anthroposophy is openly discussed with families investigating Steiner education as a possibility for their children. The purpose of this blog and my question on karma was to help encourage that.

So, on to karma. Jeremy begins by underlining the importance of the concept:

“Rudolf Steiner considered it his main life task to increase people’s understanding of the laws of karma and reincarnation and their operation in our lives. I call them ‘laws’ because they operate as inevitably as any other law of nature such as gravity or action/reaction.”

I think that by comparing the “laws of karma and reincarnation” with the laws of physics, Jeremy means that they operate in a very real, objective sense whether or not you believe they do. I’d rather take the more pragmatic view that a ‘law’ can always be proven wrong, or shown to work only within certain limits. I don’t think that ‘spiritual laws’ fit that description and are therefore not comparable with physical laws.

Jeremy goes on to define karma and to give it some historical context as a belief shared by ‘millions of people across the world.’ The anthroposophical version of karma is derived from theosophy. One of the ways in which theosophical karma differs from, say the traditional Buddhist concept, is that it is not only a characteristic of the individual but can also be identified with groups at all levels: families, schools and other communities, countries and whole races. This is reflected in Jeremy’s words:

“The teacher will assume that there is some kind of link between his or her own karma and that of the children and that they are therefore there to learn from and to help one another.”

In other words, it is the mutual karmic destiny of teacher and pupils in a Steiner class to be together. This begs the question: what happens when things go wrong, if a child is a ‘bad fit’ for that school, for that teacher? I’m sure there is always something to be learned in this situation, but is this still their inevitable karma?

Jeremy also has this to say about the attitude of ‘reverence’ expected of a Steiner teacher:

“The teacher receives the child in trust from its parents but also with the understanding that the child was in the heavenly world until its recent birth”

Here it seems Jeremy is referring to a child’s pre-earthly existence in the spiritual world, prior to birth. Roy Wilkinson in his book ‘The Spiritual Basis of Steiner Education’ expands on this idea:

“From the spiritual world the human being comes into earthly incarnation with certain tendencies, potentialities and ambitions, acquired as a result of experiences in previous existences …[T]he purpose of Steiner education is to help the individual fulfil his karma. The teacher is an intermediary and his task is to guide the incarnating individualities [i.e., children] into the physical world and equip them for earthly existence, bearing in mind what they bring with them from the past and what they are likely to take with them into the future.”

The task of the Steiner teacher is overwhelmingly a spiritual one. The spiritual wellbeing of a child in their care is inextricably linked to their karma, to events in past lives and their potential in this life and future lives. On the other hand, and here I agree with Jeremy:

“I have never heard a teacher say anything that would seem to indicate that they know what a child’s past life had been or how its karma would unfold in the future. Indeed, unless you are a great initiate or at least a clairvoyant of prodigious insight, how could anyone make such a statement without inviting derision?”

I certainly wouldn’t want a clairvoyant with delusions of spiritual grandeur teaching my child. Clearly then, karma is not a sound basis on which to make pedagogical decisions and yet… “it has the most wonderful and enlivening effect” on teaching practice. Something doesn’t add up here. I look forward to my next incarnation with interest. 🙂