Steiner education: a spiritual scientific no-man’s land

In the latest (Winter 2014-15) issue of New View magazine is an article by David Donaldson titled: “Secular Spirituality? The future of Steiner-Waldorf Education”. Donaldson is a retired class teacher from the Steiner Academy Hereford who still plays an active role in the management of the school, including a recent appointment as a governor there, made by the SWSF as a ‘sponsor governor’. (Source: SAH annual report 2013 )

His article begins by noting that Steiner schools have always resisted attempts to classify them as faith schools and asks the question: are they therefore secular in nature? In an attempt to answer this question, Donaldson turns to the British Humanist Association and their desire to “abolish all state funded faith schools” as part of their commitment to “secularism”. According to its website the BHA would like “to see an end to the proliferation of state-funded faith schools” on the basis of the special privileges and exemptions that they enjoy and the discriminatory nature of many of their admissions policies. They also campaign for “an inclusive, secular schools system, where children and young people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can learn with and from each other.”

Donaldson infers from this that the kind of school the BHA would like to see would be a “neutral space… allowing all our human differences to meet and mingle and come to mutual understanding and respect.” Sounds a lot like a Steiner school, right? Donaldson asks:

“If Steiner Schools, not being faith schools, agreed in principle to support such a proposal what would happen (in this ‘neutral space’) to formal learning not beginning until 7, to the teaching of reading out of writing [the children learn to write the letters first then read, the opposite from state schools], to the class teacher, the main lesson and the integrated curriculum, to the all-inclusive emphasis on the importance of the arts and the imagination, the cautious attitude to technology and the need to protect children from its effects… all of which arise out of a holistic view of the world and child development?”

The naive observer would think that these are solely issues of practical pedagogy and nothing to do with faith or belief. Donaldson is implying the exact opposite, of course, that the spiritual scientific, anthroposophical motivations for these things would collapse if Steiner schools adopted whole-heartedly the BHA approach.

Donaldson’s argument is that the issues raised by the Humanist approach go way beyond the socially divisive nature of faith schools. In defining Humanism the BHA nails its colours to the mast in its trust of the scientific method, the fundamental importance of reason and human empathy in ethical decisions and in the lack of an afterlife, from which follows the importance of making the most of this life. Donaldson claims that the latter statements in particular show “a scientific status quo overstepping the mark in an unscientific and dogmatic fashion.” Of course this refrain runs equally well in the other direction: if only the spiritually inclined would also keep from making public pronouncements outside their purview, on issues such as mitochondrial replacement therapy, to give a recent notable example. Personally, I prefer one of the alternative definitions of Humanism (which the BHA also gives on its website): “that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainty and that all opinions are open to revision and correction.” It’s ok to get on with life without knowing anything for sure.

Donaldson takes us on an historical detour in an effort to understand the word ‘secular’ from its original meaning as simply “not being subject to religious rule” to the modern “view of the world in opposition to dogmatic religious authority”. Donaldson sets up this false dichotomy and offers an imaginary “paradigm shift” of which Anthroposophy is part, as a possible way to resolve it:

“Today, it’s as if we’re back at the beginning of the scientific revolution but in place of the Catholic Church we have an established scientific Orthodoxy, materialistic, reductionist able – like the Church before – to make final pronouncements on the nature of reality even while new approaches and understandings are cutting the ground from under its feet… These understandings, of course, do not reinstate ‘the religious’ of old in any shape or form, but they do open themselves to the challenge of ‘the spiritual’ – that is, to forms of understanding which view the world as one unified phenomenon and do not posit any sort of duality between spirit and matter.

He then offers the unfortunate example of acupuncture, as described in Daniel Keown’s book The Spark in the Machine, as one of the challenges faced by the “Western scientific community when faced with modern or traditional holistic approaches to knowledge”. In reality of course, there is no evidence that acupuncture is any better than a placebo.

Donaldson suggests that a similar challenge is faced by Waldorf educators (including himself) who

“take up the artistic and imaginative approach to the teaching with great commitment and enthusiasm but [are] more reluctant to seriously engage with Steiner’s simple yet rigorous meditative exercises for training the objectivity of thinking and feeling, an essential prerequisite if genuine spiritual research is to be undertaken.”

Donaldson’s paradigm shift involves “the reintegration of the sacred and the secular, the overcoming of the false duality between mind and matter”, giving rise to a new “secular spirituality”.

Steiner Waldorf education is then firmly located in the “no-man’s land between faith-based and secular forms of education”. A position which, Donaldson argues, places “a peculiarly uncomfortable privilege and responsibility” on Waldorf educators and has deep implications for their professional development. Donaldson contrasts this with mainstream professional development as an essentially passive, objectively driven activity. Waldorf educators have an additional responsibility to work on their inner spiritual selves:

“Steiner expected such inward activity on the part of his teachers that the teaching body itself would be its own research faculty. This inward activity requires consistent study of and meditation upon the anthroposophical view of child development together with a wider understanding of the reach of anthroposophical insights and regular practice of the many exercises…”

Steiner himself emphasised that this should have positive, practical benefits in the classroom:

“Just as the metabolism makes you a living person, this meditative digesting of a true study of man [i.e. anthroposophy] makes you an educator… If you meditate on the study of man in the evening, then the next morning you will know what to do in any situation”
Meditatively Acquired Knowledge of Man (1920) R. Steiner, Lecture 3, Steiner Schools Fellowship 1982

Donaldson trumpets these few words as the “main objective of Waldorf teacher training” and warns that there is “no getting away from it”: the study of anthroposophy “is at the heart of Waldorf practice”. The implication of denying the importance of anthroposophy is clear. However, there is also a danger that in having an ulterior role as an anthroposophical seminary for adults, Steiner schools and individual teachers may lose sight of their primary purpose: to educate children. Taken to an extreme, the needs and best interests of the children in their care will become secondary to Steiner’s injunction for teachers to work on their own spiritual development.

The views of anthroposophical fundamentalists such as Donaldson are at odds with the line taken by the recent crop of Steiner free schools funded in the UK: that they “neither teach nor promote anthroposophy”. If we take this at face value, Donaldson would have us believe that in taking this approach, the Steiner free schools are neglecting a crucial aspect of their staff professional development.

Donaldson concludes that Steiner schools will continue to remain in their no-man’s land between faith and secular education for many years to come. But that this is good news: with the coming paradigm shift to secular spirituality, Steiner education must be the way of the future. I would argue that until Steiner education is clearer about the ways in which anthroposophy is promoted and how it influences classroom practice, decision makers and the general public need to be very wary of enabling and supporting it.