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.

The heavenly host

The anthroposophical festival of Michaelmas is upon us, celebrated in Steiner schools and other anthroposophical institutions all over the world. The celebration of Michaelmas goes back much further than Rudolf Steiner of course. It is the historical Christian feast of Saint Michael, also known as the Archangel Michael. Falling on September 29th, in bygone times it was one of the “quarter days” which evenly marked time through the year as one season merges into the next. It was a time not only for celebration but also for hiring new servants, calling in debts or renewing contracts. The word Michaelmas is still in use in legal circles and in the older British universities as the name for the first term of the academic year.

For Steiner, Michael had particular significance. He is in fact an ‘Archai’ – a spiritual being one level higher than an Archangel. Here’s Roy Wilkinson on Steiner’s hierarchical view of the spiritual world:

“One stage further developed than man are the Angels. They have no physical body and no need to incarnate. The Angels have the task of watching over man and guiding him in certain matters for which he himself does not as yet have the capacity… We speak of a Guardian Angel, or Guiding Spirit.

The Archangels are not concerned with individuals but with groups of people, e.g. nations. The expression ‘folk-soul’, although generally used in an abstract sense, can be taken to indicate a reality.

The next rank is that of the Archai, the Primal Beginnings or the Spirits of Personality. Whereas Angels are concerned with individuals and Archangels with race, the Archai have the guidance of a whole epoch as their mission. The expression ‘Spirit of the Times’ can also be taken as a reality. The Archai have the task of guiding a particular period which is not restricted to a particular people.”

Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Spiritual World-view, Anthroposophy by Roy Wilkinson, pp 197-198

Of what relevance is this to education? Well, the importance of sleep is often emphasised by Steiner educators, not only for its restorative mental and physiological benefits and the consolidation of learning but also because sleep gives us the opportunity to connect directly with the spiritual world. As Kevin Avison puts it in his Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers:

“Recall is a fundamental part of the Morning Lesson…. without active recall the teacher cannot claim to be including the spiritual world, the activity of the night, in the lesson. Recall time is the moment in the lesson when what is beginning to individualise itself in the child through their unconscious communication with the hierarchies (especially the Angels, Archangels and Archai…) during sleep can express itself.”

Avison, Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers, p42, SWSF 2007

Avison also recommends communing with the angels “when nothing seems to be working”:

“Wrestling meditatively with a few paragraphs from Allgemeine Menschenkunde [Study of Man] will also help, especially when accompanied by the angels of the children (interest in every detail of their development) and your own work with those Beings that concern themselves most closely with education.”

Avison, Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers, Appendix I, p86, SWSF 2007

It would be worrying if a naive Steiner teacher took any concerns to the angels before turning to more experienced colleagues or a child’s parents.

For anthroposophists, the Archangel Michael was elevated to an Archai when the current ‘Age of Michael’ began, very precisely, in late November 1879. It is expected to end in 2239, when another of the seven Archangels will take their turn as the spirit of the next epoch. Michael’s previous reign coincided with the life of Christ, which for Steiner was an especially significant period in human history. Dorit Winter, Director of the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, talks especially eloquently of the significance of this for education:

“For Rudolf Steiner, the connection between Michaelmas, Michaël, and the Christ Impulse was straightforward… When we celebrate Michaelmas, we are celebrating the Christ Impulse. As teachers we should not have any doubts as to what we are doing. We are not celebrating the story of St. George and the Dragon. George (who was claimed by the church as a saint, and thus deprived of his cosmic heritage) and the story of the dragon he slays to save a village are earthly cloaks for mighty, cosmic, spiritual realities.

But then, our entire Waldorf curriculum is an earthly picture of mighty, cosmic, spiritual realities. Or should be.”

“The Chariot of Michael”, Dorit Winter, in “And who shall teach the teachers?”, Waldorf Research Institute, 2007

She goes on to explain the purpose of Steiner education as a means to bring about the next transformation in human consciousness. As is to be expected in the second Age of Michael, this will be nothing less than the second coming of Christ:

“so sensitive are our schools to the sting of the epithet “religious” that, in our attempt to avoid it, we become removed from our source, anthroposophy, let alone its source, the Christ Impulse. It is not far-fetched to say that anthroposophy is the Logos of the consciousness soul, and its garment is Waldorf education.

Here is Rudolf Steiner’s picture for this: “Michaël needs, as it were, a chariot by means of which to enter our civilization… By educating in the right way we are preparing Michaël’s chariot for his entrance into our civilization.”

In other words, as the entire lecture cycle (The Younger Generation, from which these words are taken) makes clear, Waldorf education is the vehicle for Michaël, the “Messenger of Christ,” the “Herald of Christ.”

ibid

This is heady, fantastical stuff from authoritative figures in the world of Steiner education. It is very hard to reconcile this kind of Messianic fervour with the way the schools outwardly present themselves. I think all the quotes here demonstrate that we are far removed from the realms of merely personal belief. You might now understand why Steiner schools take the ancient festival of Michaelmas so seriously.

Statue of the Archangel Michael in the grounds of Hereford Steiner Academy

Statue of the Archangel Michael in the grounds of Hereford Steiner Academy, by David England.

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. 🙂

A question for the anthropopper

An interesting new blog has appeared: anthropopper by Jeremy Smith. Smith is well known in UK Steiner circles: he has worked as an executive member of the SWSF, acted as a school trustee and is currently a lay inspector of Steiner schools for Ofsted.

In his first post giving his reasons for starting the blog, Smith explains:

“Steiner knew with absolute certainty that we human beings are not just physical creatures in a material world but in fact we are spiritual beings who are currently having human experiences in a physical body – and that we are subject to constant cycles of life, death and rebirth… if you feel there may be rather more to life than just one lifetime, then you could find it worthwhile to find out more about Steiner.”

Knowing such things with absolute certainty is of course a characteristic of religion, although most anthroposophists are keen to disassociate themselves from that word.

Continuing his theme of reincarnation, Smith’s next post reminds us of the story of English footballer Glenn Hoddle (via a talk given by Alan Swindell, principal of the new Steiner Academy Exeter, at the 2014 Anthroposophical Society of Great Britain Summer Conference). Hoddle was dismissed as manager for the England team after expressing his view that disability is related to karma, being a direct result of actions in a past life.

Smith fulminates about the ensuing “media witchhunt” and the apparent monopoly “materialists” have on public opinion. He goes on to say that:

“In such a climate of opinion, those of us who think that anthroposophy has something to offer could be forgiven for keeping our heads below the parapet. Our views are seen as heretical in the prevailing orthodoxy.”

I believe that Hoddle had every right and anthroposophists have every right to express their beliefs in public and agree with Smith that the world is a poorer place if they feel unable to do so. However, the flip side of this is that disability advocates and others have every right to be offended by them. Whether it was right for Hoddle to lose his job, I don’t know, but I am certain that his beliefs have nothing do with football.

Unlike Smith, I do not believe that:

“Glenn Hoddle was articulating something, however clumsily, that many people know instinctively and have a great need to express.”

I think that most people (in the Western world at least) would not instinctively make the link between disability and karma and would never feel the need to express it. Now, there are some Buddhists, for example, who also happen to be disabled and they do find this idea personally helpful to them. To those people I say, good luck. To others, I say: feel free to discuss the subject but be prepared to say why it is a useful concept, or risk being seen as merely offensive.

Smith also explains the appeal of anthroposophy for him as a source of inspiration for practical endeavours in agriculture, education etc. My question is: what role and purpose, if any, does karma have in Steiner education? We know that anthroposophy is the basis for Steiner education. It’s time for Steiner advocates to put their heads above the parapet and engage in a public discussion on the details.

What it’s like to be a Waldorf teacher – some facts and figures

Steiner education has it’s own academic journal: RoSE: Research on Steiner Education. It is bi-lingual with roughly half of the articles in English and half in German. It’s run as a collaboration between the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences near Bonn, Germany and the Rudolf Steiner University College in Oslo, Norway, which are both anthroposophical institutions. It calls itself (perhaps erroneously) “an independent organ of intellectual dialogue”. To their credit it is an Open Access journal with the full text of all articles freely available online and authors retain their own copyright. (Those unfamiliar with the world of academic publishing might be surprised to learn that this is often not the case!)

The archives are an interesting source of anthroposophical reflection, especially on the practical expression of anthroposophy in education.

The article “What it’s like being a Waldorf teacher: Results of an empirical survey”, Vol.4 No. 2, by Graudenz, Peters & Randoll is a revealing snapshot of the thoughts of some 1,807 teachers in 105 Waldorf schools in Germany. Although the authors found a high level of job satisfaction, the teachers surveyed also expressed a number of concerns that are specific to the Steiner Waldorf environment.

One of the most important statistics is that almost 75% of all teachers are either actively involved, practising anthroposophists or described themselves as “positively disposed” towards it. Interestingly this proportion rises with age, to over 80% for teachers in the older (over 60) age group. 18% were members of the Christian Community, the anthroposophical church, rising to 25% for the over 60s. The authors note that there is an ongoing difficulty in recruiting younger teachers.

On the subject of qualifications, only 46% had a university degree with a teaching qualification, although over 80% had undergone some kind of training in Waldorf education. A substantial minority (38%) expressed the opinion that their training had not prepared them adequately for their profession. Unsurprisingly, those who felt best prepared had previously taken a degree with conventional teacher training, followed by a Waldorf course.

Teachers in Steiner Waldorf schools are often poorly paid compared to their peers in conventional schools, especially in the private sector. Only 35% in this survey said they were satisfied with their income. 77% were “of the opinion that not enough money is allocated for personnel costs at their school.”

In spite of their low remuneration, the survey found that over 90% of Waldorf teachers were happy in their profession (compared to just over 70% in state ‘comprehensive’ schools). The authors cite a number of possible reasons for this level of job satisfaction: the relative autonomy teachers in Waldorf schools have in shaping their lessons, the selective nature of the schools and a generally positive relationship with parents (who will share, at least superficially, some of the educational ideals of the teachers). Another of the reasons given, that Waldorf teachers have a perception that their relationship with students is somehow special, has some negative connotations: “they also seem to have a tendency to idealise this relationship and to over-estimate their role as teacher (as shown by comparing personal and external images of this).”

One major area of concern was the management structure at Waldorf schools. It was felt that the collective, collegiate approach, without a headteacher, led to inadequate information exchange with communication that was not always open and transparent, inefficient decision making, the development of fractured “groups who do not (any longer) attend the teachers meetings” and “individuals who strongly influence the climate of opinion – i.e., “hidden headmasters”. All of this will be familiar to parents who have had cause to complain to a Steiner school. It must be equally frustrating for a teacher with a grievance to have it resolved satisfactorily.

Other problems cited were a “preponderance of older colleagues in the teaching body and the concomitant tendency towards a split into “traditionalists” and “reformers”. The turnover rate among young teachers tended to be high.

The inadequacy of Steiner teacher training courses has already been noted. I’ll quote in full the author’s reservations on “the insufficient quality of teacher training at Waldorf seminars and colleges.”:

“Over decades there has been a failure there to take stock of developments in modern educational research and to integrate this new knowledge into their own curricula. Indeed, the opposite gesture has been most apparent, namely that of dissociation from educational theory in order to pursue their own path. The consequence of this is that in Waldorf education further development is scarcely discernible.”

Quite simply, the problem is that Steiner teacher training courses focus exclusively on the study of Steiner’s works with very little or no attention paid to any other educational ideas.

The survey ended with an open question asking teachers for their view on the greatest challenges for Waldorf education in the future. A major theme in response to this question was the need for further development, “renewal of the body of anthroposophical thinking”, whilst at the same time “maintaining [a] hold on the anthroposophical foundations”:

“Many have a keen awareness that Waldorf education is in need of transformation, but without wishing to jettison its ‘roots’, its ‘foundations’, in the process. ‘Steiner’s thinking must be carried further’, ‘not set in tablets of stone’, which is the gist of quite a number of comments, could set in motion a widespread debate on the renewal of Waldorf education. Against the impulse towards further development stand those comments focused upon preserving, defending and being loyal to tradition.”

This would be a positive development, were it to ever come about. I’m not optimistic though. There is 100 years of more or less static thinking on Steiner education. Even the terminology seems frozen in time since Steiner himself founded the first school and lectured to its first teachers.

The authors close with the thought that the public image of Steiner education is another subject that preoccupies many teachers. They have their own recommendations as to how this can be improved:

“This involves having a well-aimed information policy, open engagement with anti-Waldorf prejudices, good presentation of one’s own qualities, and stronger involvement in the public debate on education.”

This advice applies equally well to Steiner educators in the UK, where the public image of Steiner education is in decline. Overall, I suggest that given the uniformity of structure and approach in Steiner education throughout the world, their findings would be equally valid here too.

A watershed moment

Last night was a watershed moment for Steiner education in the UK. It was the subject of a critical report and studio debate, for the first time on national TV. This followed the release by the Department for Education of documents revealing that they were aware of concerns parents had about the inadequate handling of some serious incidents at several schools. It was claimed this could be explained by their underlying philosophy (anthroposophy). Briefly, these include incidents of racially motivated bullying among pupils that were not dealt with despite repeated complaints, the use of racist epithets by teachers, bullying of pupils by staff in 8 (out of 25 independent Steiner schools in the UK at the time), a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability. Full details, including the documents themselves can be found on the BHA website.

The BBC Newsnight report is available on YouTube:

In light of the fact that it is the way these incidents were handled by staff at the schools involved that is especially worrying, I thought it would be interesting to highlight the reaction of the Steiner representatives brought in to respond on the broadcast.

Firstly, Sylvie Sklan of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) vigorously denied that modern Steiner schools would have any time for the more objectionable of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas:

“The idea that we have incarnated through the races is a very controversial idea that is not part of our modern thinking in Steiner schools at all. In fact I would find it quite outrageous and unacceptable. It is not a basis upon which one would want to found any criticism of Steiner schools today because it just does not exist. It is not what we believe.”

Clearly that is the official party line, but a close look at the history and structure of anthroposophy tells a different story: that this “very controversial idea” is in fact central and, according to reports, has been reflected in the actions of a minority of teachers.

Sylvie Sklan’s SWSF colleague, Janni Nicol, comes dangerously close to giving the game away when she discusses how Steiner schools can embrace multiculturalism:

“Karmically we choose to be born into different races to have a specific environmental, cultural and racial experience. Perhaps this is part of learning how to live together, to grow in awareness and empathy?”

On the more general subject of bullying, Rachael Black, a Steiner parent, responds with her own experience. She comes across as relatively convincing and articulate in the report:

“There was an incident where my child was attacked in class and it was terribly traumatic for everyone involved. The school, however, were incredible at dealing with it. The teacher in the classroom, the assistant, were both very nurturing, very caring and my daughter has flourished and grown after the event. The school management team pounced on the problem very, very quickly.”

Good. That is how it should be. In fact, I want to believe that this is the way incidents of bullying would be handled in all Steiner schools, in 100% of cases. No school is perfect, however. The true character of a school and its supporting organisational structures is revealed in how they behave when things go wrong. If reports of bullying weren’t followed up, one would expect an honest admittance of failure, an apology and a commitment to not making the same mistakes in the future. Instead, it’s alleged in the studio debate that in some cases “bullying was not just tolerated but in some sense ‘thought of as a good thing'”.

Frances Russell (introduced as an ex-Steiner parent, Greenwich Steiner school, she is also the Business and Policy Director of the school) responds:

“This is total rubbish what you’re talking about now. I am a parent who had a child at the school but I’ve also been involved with setting up and running this particular school for the last six years, been involved with it for ten and been involved with the movement. The allegations that were raised in those reports were never tested. This was just some parents who had written to the Department for Education and they were being raised in the reports as issues of how do we manage if parents come up and say these kinds of things with the media. There’s absolutely no proof at all. What you’re describing does not happen in Steiner schools. That would never happen in our school. It would never happen in any of the schools that I know anything about.”

I would suggest that a blanket denial was not the wisest approach to take here. Whether through incompetence, inadequate management structure or a misguided belief in karma, the allegations are serious in nature and scale. They deserve a more considered response.

Today the SWSF issued a press release that is similarly dismissive:

“The two papers… include a number of allegations received by the DfE but without detail or corroboration. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is aware of & seeks to refute several allegations recorded in these papers.”

The lack of engagement with the substance of the allegations does not reflect well on the SWSF.

Frances Russell went on to say:

“All this stuff about the pseudo-spiritualism and everything is all to do with Steiner’s views on anthroposophy, which are not taught in schools. It is there for some adults to use as a way of guiding their lives, if they choose to do so. It just does not form any part of a modern Steiner school.”

Let’s assume that Ms. Russell, despite her ten years of involvement with the movement, genuinely believes that. When writing for an anthroposophical audience however, rather than the general public, there are Steiner teachers who are clear on the importance of anthroposophy in modern Steiner education.

I’ll close with an excerpt from the curriculum document published on the Brighton Steiner school web site:

“The curriculum for Class 5 has a main theme of Ancient Civilizations. The narrative thread for this theme often begins with the fall of Atlantis and the exodus led by Manu in his boat pulled along by a giant fish. Manu and his followers initially settle in the Gobi desert. From this original settlement groups set off to establish new civilizations in India, followed by Persia, then Babylonia, Egypt and finally Greece…

Through studying these ancient civilisations in sequence, the children experience the qualitative changes in the development of humanity that took place through these different cultural epochs. This process of human development has a direct resonance with the child’s developing consciousness.”

Even if only taught as interesting myths to fire the imagination, the stories of Atlantis and Manu seem an odd place to start learning about ancient history. The link between the developing civilisation of humanity and the developing consciousness of the individual child is perplexing. However, all becomes clear when you read Steiner’s book Cosmic Memory!

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.”
From: http://www.waldorfcritics.org/articles/schwartz.html

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.”

However:

“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.

rainbowbridge

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.

A state funded Steiner teacher speaks out on Anthroposophy

Originally published as a guest post on the excellent blog Stop Steiner in Stroud.

The current (Spring 2014) issue of New View magazine has an article by Paul White titled “Anthroposophy and Steiner schools – time for a reassessment?”. Mr White is an experienced Steiner practitioner and now a class teacher at the Steiner Academy Frome. New View is an Anthroposophical publication, available in print form only, which I expect has a fairly limited readership. As a place where representatives of the Steiner movement seem apparently able to write candidly, it deserves to be read more widely.

The article begins with a series of questions the author imagines being asked by those new to Steiner education: “So is it a religious school?”, “Do you teach the children anthroposophy?”, “What do you mean the teachers teach ‘out of’ anthroposophy?” All good questions, of course. And then there are the laments from those within the movement: “it used to be a Steiner school, but the anthroposophy has gone out of the place now” and “We must use language that people can understand… we don’t need to talk about stuff like reincarnation that will just put people off”. White suggests that the relationship between anthroposophy and Steiner education “has always been a living question”, which I take to mean that there is no widely held agreement on the answer. I agree with him that now is “a particularly pertinent time to revisit this question”, with the fourth UK state funded Steiner academy in Bristol opening this September.

Unfortunately, White brings us no closer to an answer when he admits that anthroposophy itself is undefinable and that any attempt to do so is tainted by a “reductionist/materialist perspective” that could never capture the whole picture. I’d counter that, nevertheless, I know anthroposophy when I see it and that this intuition, if you want to call it that, is something that anybody else can acquire too.

White goes on to opine, at length, the unfortunate rise of science to the point of it replacing religious dogma in supplying definitive answers to life’s questions. Not only definitive but destructive: “the rapidly deteriorating ecological situation of the planet… calls into question the effects of our abstract, intellectual thinking… A strong case could be made that our intellectual thinking… may ultimately lead to our own extinction.” Those damn scientists and their ivory tower intellectualism! Never mind the greed and short-sighted policies of the fossil fuel industry and political class, it’s all the scientist’s fault. This is in fact a surprisingly widely held view, at least among anthroposophists. These people cannot be trusted to teach your children how science really works.

Or maybe they can? Memorable, inspiring teachers can even be found in mainstream schools, after all, despite having to work within ‘the system’. White explains how Newton took a leap of imaginative insight to go from observing the fall of an apple to his theory of gravity. Indeed he did. As did Darwin, Einstein, Crick & Watson and Hawking in deriving their own theories. No practicing scientist would deny the importance of imagination and intuition. Unfortunately, Goethean science as practised in Steiner schools, with its approach of putting the direct observation and experience of nature centre stage, misses the point: which is that real science is full of careful statements of doubt, caveats and limits. Theories stand or fall based on their predictions about future observations, completing the circle of the scientific method.

Despite his earlier misgivings, White attempts to define anthroposophy as “a way of approaching the world… involving a very concrete appreciation of the working of spirit in matter.” By analogy with the way Newton ‘saw’ gravity at work in the fall of the apple, anthroposophists can ‘see’ the spiritual world at work in human experience. Indeed they might, but how do they know it is no more than a figment of their imagination? What predictive power does it have?

So is anthroposophy taught in a Steiner school? “On one level yes”, White admits. “Awe, wonder and reverence, the prerequisites of the spiritual scientific approach, are cultivated from the kindergarten upwards.” Yet, it would be ridiculous to think that Steiner education therefore has a monopoly on awe, wonder and reverence. White cites the Goethean approach to science education as an instance of anthroposophy in action, which indeed it is. “Also, it might be argued that in teaching the children of human development through the ancient civilisations, the Steiner school is enabling them to see their own place in the evolution of human consciousness”. This sense of giving the life of the individual context within the history of humankind is an appealing facet of anthroposophy. Unfortunately there is also the temptation for a misguided teacher to go much further, offering Steiner’s very alternative views of history as truth.

“On another level”, White goes on, “that of the concern of an imposed set of beliefs or alleged facts, children are not taught anthroposophy”. Steiner made many statements about the nature and history of the cosmos, the place of humans within it, the importance of the “Christ event” and of a hierarchy of supersensible beings: from the elementals to angels, archangels and archai. As White explains, Steiner “emphasized the importance for teachers of working with [these] spiritual entities”. Yet, Steiner’s extensive thinking on all these arcane and esoteric subjects does not constitute a body of beliefs so much as a “provocation to think, to investigate”. White highlights the importance for the teacher of meditating on these concepts, thus developing their own “inner life” in order to enhance their pedagogical practice. Anthroposophy is a self development course for adults, sometimes to the detriment of the children who are unwittingly caught up in it. So much for a child centred education.

White expresses concern at the “downplaying of the role of anthroposophy in some Steiner schools to make them more acceptable to a broader public” and goes on to say that “those of us involved in Steiner education should not be apologetic about anthroposophy, embarrassed perhaps by its esoteric origins. Indeed, it is disingenuous to suggest that anthroposophy is not central to the work of the school staff.” He concludes that “It is children that bring forces of renewal into the development of humanity. Schools working out of a true anthroposophical impulse will allow children to go on to do this, and it is precisely such forces of renewal that are urgently needed in our time.”

I believe that this call to arms for the cult of Steiner is dangerous and misguided, but White does at least bring a refreshing level of honesty to the debate.