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The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1

October 6th, 2010 · 109 Comments

The part 2 is The Steiner Waldorf cult uses bait and switch to get state funding. Part 2.

The part 3 is Steiner Waldorf Schools Part 3. The problem of racism.

I have to admit that until a few years ago I had thought of Steiner schools as being rather cuddly experiments in progressive education. Perhaps a bit like Montessori schools or A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School.

But then I discovered that they advocate "biodynamic farming". That includes utterly barmy doctrines about how the phase of the moon affects crops and such like astrological baloney (as well as some possibly sensible stuff about compost). Then I had a series of mails from a correspondent that made me realise that Steiner schools have some much more unpleasant ideas than a bit of astrological baloney, including the dangerous ideas about anthroposophical medicine.

faceless dolls
Faceless dolls used in Steiner schools. Waldorfwatch comments "In part, the goal is to stimulate children’s imaginations, which Anthroposophists believe contribute to clairvoyance. The deeper reason is the Anthroposophical belief that young children are incompletely incarnated in the physical world — they still live partially in the spiritual world, where nothing has sharply defined limits, edges, or details.". " many children find faceless dolls creepy and unsatisfactory". . ." Sometimes, indeed, the dolls come with pointed “elf” hats sewn on, suggesting that these are not human dolls by gnome dolls. Steiner taught that gnomes are real", Picture from Senderling Waldorf School.

The matter has acquired new urgency now that Steiner schools are seeking government support via the Tory’s "free schools" programme. It is important that both ministers and parents should know what goes on in these schools.

I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, but was deterred by the sheer amount of information. My only contribution so far was to add Rudolf Steiner to my Patients’ Guide.

"Anthroposophical medicine: followers of the mystic barmpot, Rudolf Steiner, for whom nothing whatsoever  seems to strain credulity"

Luckily I became acquainted with two of the most knowledgeable people on the topic. They are known on Twitter as @thetismercurio and @lovelyhorse_. After meeting them it occurred to me that I should ask them to write a guest post or two. Here is part one.

The true nature of Steiner Waldorf education

In a document produced this September by the New Schools Network, the (avowedly) politically neutral organisation set up to assist groups interested in Education Minister Michael Gove’s much vaunted and highly criticised Free Schools revolution, there is a question:  

"..what do you want your school to be? A traditional school with a highly academic curriculum, setting and streaming? Or a school following the Montessori method or Steiner-Waldorf?" 

This seems straightforward; in the case of Montessori it is so. The two school systems are often linked as ‘progressive’ alternatives but differ greatly. Montessori is a popular, predominantly early years education method, represented amongst the first wave of 16 Free Schools by the Discovery Free School, Crawley. Described as education adapted for each individual child, in the UK Montessori places itself within the remit of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) guidelines.

Steiner Waldorf schools are similarly called "child-centred" but are in reality underpinned by a fantastical edifice of nonsense which directs the teachers in the way they work with individual children. The schools have a distinct pedagogy in the context of which government guidelines are anathema; thus exemptions to the EYFS have been sought for the kindergartens at all Steiner settings. The Open Eye Campaign, championed by Steiner teacher Dr Richard House of Roehampton
University, stated in 2007 that they feared the EYFS was potentially harmful and ‘a breach of the human right of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their own philosophies’.

Few early years teachers reject the importance of play or would welcome an overly prescriptive regime, many support the review of the EYFS currently being undertaken by Dame Clare Tickell. But they may be surprised at the rhetoric of Richard House and Graham Kennish, Steiner teacher trainer and science advisor:

"Monoculture of children’s minds. Strip mining of children’s imaginative forces for short-term aims. The deep ploughing which destroys the soil and crushes individuality with heavy machinery. The application of fertiliser which turns childhood aspirations to dust which then blows away, leaving the barrenness of violence in adolescence. …. Education as the cultivation of inner resources for which an inner ecology is needed."


To make sense of this histrionic language, parents and policy makers must understand the philosophy that informs all Steiner Waldorf schools (Waldorf in the US and Europe): Anthroposophy. Wikipedia will not help here (it has been ‘cleansed’), parents who ask are told the literal meaning: ‘wisdom of man’. Anthroposophy’s inventor, Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) is presented by his proponents as a profound philosopher, a polymath; an expert in agriculture and architecture, medicine, social care, art and education. Triodos Bank, Camphill Communities, biodynamic agriculture (including wine) and the newly labelled ‘Social Pedagogy’ are all expressions of Steiner’s anthroposophical ideas. The first  ‘Steiner’ school, named Waldorf after its cigarette factory patron, was opened in Stuttgart in 1919. With typical bravado the Movement has for some time proclaimed Waldorf ‘the fastest growing school system in the world’.

Applying Anthroposophy to his subject, Science Advisor Dr Graham Kennish can be read some time before the Open Eye Campaign asking the important questions:

"How valid is the current popular and medical perception of the heart as a pump? What sustains this model and how much is lost in maintaining it?"

And in his: Teaching Biology in a Human Context  he describes Waldorf adolescents learning anatomy with a ‘sense of wholeness and meaning’.

Kennish was until recently the Science advisor for the University of Plymouth Steiner BA course (now closing) and is still featured on the University site as a researcher for the Steiner Waldorf Academy Research Network, linked to the only UK state funded Steiner Waldorf Academy, Hereford. Amongst the set texts at Plymouth (obtained through a recent FoI request) was a book called ‘Secrets of the Skeleton, Form in Metamorphosis’, the jaw-dropping fantasy of which presumably misled hosts of trainee Steiner Waldorf teachers. But this isn’t science: it’s Steiner’s ‘Spiritual Science’. As an advocate of this world view Dr Richard House made a plea in a comment on the TES website for an understanding of the supersensible world through Steiner’s ‘upgrading’ of science. But this is not, he suggests, for the intellectually lazy.

What is not mentioned by the Steiner teachers taking your child into their care is that Steiner was by the time he wrote and lectured about education an occultist, an ex-theosophist whose insights were gained, it is stated, through clairvoyance. Nor will they be honest about the core beliefs of Anthroposophy, described by historian Dr Peter Staudenmaier: 

"Spiritual advancement through karma and reincarnation, supplemented by the access to esoteric knowledge available to a privileged few".

The influence of Anthroposophy on Steiner Waldorf education

The pedagogy of Waldorf schools is informed by Steiner’s esoteric scheme of karma and reincarnation. The child ‘incarnates’ in 7 year cycles: the ‘etheric’ body is born at 7, the astral body at 14 and the ‘ego’ or the individuality that returns from past lives, at 21. Abstract reasoning is discouraged too early (before 14) because it interferes with the anthroposophical – spiritual – vision of human development. If parents are surprised at this information, or believe it to be a charming metaphor, we know that Steiner advised his teachers to be coy:

"[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."
Steiner, Faculty Meetings with Rudolf Steiner (Anthroposophic Press, 1998) p. 115 

In this interview the late Joan Salter, author of ‘The Incarnating Child’, (standard Waldorf recommended reading), explains the importance of her anthroposophical studies:

"JS: What appeals to me about Steiner is that he is thoroughly practical. We’re inclined to think of babies as children, but they have been old people. Our “little treasures” have been here many times. I think we need to be aware of this. You can see this if you observe the child. That is why I think observation is so important.
LM: Can you say more about this in relation to caring for young children?
JS: The reason we come here again is to redeem old karma and to establish new karma. We need to ask ourselves: If this is why the human being has come, how can we bring up the child, or what can we do, to help the child do this?
LM: That sounds like the key to parenting!"

The role of the Steiner kindergarten teacher is to facilitate the ‘incarnation’ of the spirits and souls of children into their physical bodies. If there is here a philosophy that the EYFS guidelines might “breach”: in our direct experience the significance and implications of this philosophy are inadequately understood by most Steiner parents. Teachers, if pressed, may repeat that ‘Anthroposophy is not taught to the children’ but this is disingenuous or naive. The transmission of Anthroposophy is subtle, through verses, stories and images. Every aspect of Steiner education is informed by Steiner’s clairvoyant ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ and has occult implications. Thus the Waldorf categorisation of children according to their ‘temperaments’ and their ’soul type’, school readiness linked to the ‘change of teeth’, the dance form eurythmy, the oddly uniform artwork, the gnomes (or elementals) and the faceless dolls, are all embodiments of the anthroposophical impulse.

Labeling of children according to a spurious philosophy could be seen as insignificant were it not for the pedagogical response of those Steiner teachers who, instead of acknowledging a child’s real, individual emotions and behaviour, respond to body-type, hair colour, gait and ‘humour’ in formulaic (occult) and potentially detrimental ways.

Four temperaments
The way Steiner Waldorf schools want classify your children (from openwaldorf.com). Click to enlarge.

Eugene Schwartz, a Waldorf Educational Consultant with his own US site Millennial Child, gave a series of lectures called ‘The Karma of Education’ at Rudolf Steiner House, London in April this year at the invitation of St. Michael Steiner School in Wandsworth. The podcast is available to download and is essential listening for Michael Gove. Schwartz is candid and even entertaining; if anyone could make Steiner’s Saturn/Sun/Moon evolution, Lemuria and Atlantis palatable it might be him. But this is adult fantasy, theosophical science-fiction; it is not a basis for the education of children, however well-meaning or well connected some of its proponents may be.

As Anthroposophy is an esoteric movement with an ‘inner circle’, it is not surprising that the undeclared hierarchy of Steiner schools includes practicing anthroposophists as well as some teachers making attempts to work assiduously for the benefit of their classes, trying even to ignore Anthroposophy. The turnover of the latter type of teacher is high. For those who imagine they will ‘take the good bits & ignore the rest’ of Steiner in any possible UK Free Schools, there are indications in this document from the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, directed at the many ‘Waldorf inspired’ initiatives budding in the States, that without Anthroposophy there is no Steiner Waldorf. Readers are instructed that essential to the "art" of teaching is: "an openness to reckon with the unseen spiritual realities which live behind the physical world and developing the perceptivity to experience what this reality is."

In addition, those concerned can buy a copy of the most recent (2007) edition of The Class Teachers’ Handbook’ by Kevin Avison, available from the bookshop of the UK Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship:

"…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 – see for example, The Hierarchies as the Source of Action Speech and Thought, April 28, 1023 – GA224) during sleep can express itself."

In the same Handbook, Avison advises teachers: "anything indicating what the class might have learnt or covered in Morning Lesson should be ‘lost’ before you leave the school," Many have taken him seriously, since the ‘loss’ of notes is a complaint made repeatedly by Waldorf parents all over the world.

The implications of spiritual science

So why are parents asking for these schools? Steiner Waldorf schools offer an apparently creative, ‘unhurried’, authentic childhood experience free from our dominant exam culture and from technology. They stress the ecological and holistic. They are alluring. The distinct aesthetic within the Steiner kindergarten: natural materials, wool, washed peach-coloured walls and gentle voices creates for some parents a lost garden of childhood, in contrast to which the brash plastic of the average nursery becomes an affront to the senses. There’s no reason to suspect anything odd, so Michael Gove can hardly be blamed for his positive reaction to the Bruton Steiner School, which appears to have been his moment of zen.

But the Steiner dream ends for many families with the realisation that their child is academically far behind his or her peers. Susan Godsland, an independent reading intervention expert, has helped many ex-Steiner children learn to read at 8, 9 and 10. Though she acknowledges that some children can blossom in Steiner school, that a percentage will learn to read earlier in spite of the pedagogy, she believes it’s cruel to deny a child the chance to read until so late. In the last paragraphs of her Room 101 she explains why early reading isn’t encouraged. A child is ‘blessed’ with not being able to read and write, since Steiner says early reading will hinder the later spiritual development of children. She adds: ‘this is simply mumbo-jumbo and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.’

While it is evident that this failure in basic teaching could cause low self esteem, the influence of anthroposophical medicine within Waldorf schools is an added concern (for example, mistletoe as a ‘treatment’ for cancer). In addition the measles epidemics linked to European Waldorf schools are an indication of an anti-vaccination culture. In the US Microbe Magazine, Bernard Dixon states:

"Steiner believed that febrile illnesses such as measles and scarlet fever were related to a child’s spiritual development. Adherents assert that the use of vaccines (especially measles vaccine) deprives infants of the opportunity to benefit from the experience of having those diseases."

In Norway, homeopath Gro Lystad enlists Steiner’s concept of a ‘transforming illness’.

"I am quite sure that it is positive for a child who is healthy. It is conceivable that some will die, but this applies to children who are impaired in advance," 

In our opinion, the disclaimer issued by the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education regarding vaccination is not entirely candid, since it states only that opposition to vaccination is not a part of their “specific educational objectives”, omitting Steiner’s belief that if children are vaccinated they will need a ‘spiritual education’. And it makes no mention of Karma.

The rejection of evidence in favour of a ‘spiritual paradigm’ by adherents of Anthroposophy is not surprising given that it is a belief system which is essentially anti-scientific. Peter Staudenmaier, a historian who has written extensively about Anthroposophy, explains that: ‘like other esotericists, anthroposophists regularly view themselves as privy to special knowledge which distinguishes them from the unenlightened — and an aggravated resentment against ‘intellectualism’ and critical thought and the ostensibly materialist cast of modern science and scholarship.’

These beliefs mean that the emotional and physical health of children is potentially being put at risk. We cannot agree that the satisfaction of lobbying groups or parent choice is enough to justify the public funding of Steiner Waldorf schools.


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Tags: Academia · anthroposophy · Steiner · Waldorf

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