It is with a sinking heart that I write this post. Last summer, my son graduated from Aberdeen (in politics and international relations). He enjoyed his time there. It’s a wonderful place with some very distinguished alumni. It’s had a good reputation in science and medicine.
So why has the University of Aberdeen been dabbling in the mystical barmpottery of the Steiner cult?
According to a rumour on twitter yesterday, the university has avoided making an idiot of itself. Nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from this episode and it needs to be recorded for posterity.
The University of Aberdeen owes a huge debt to James Gray who, more than anyone else, revealed the facts about their anthroposophical involvement. They should give him an honorary degree.
Aberdeen has two connections with the Steiner movement. One is the BA (Hons) in Social Pedagogy. The other is a potentially more dangerous proposal to establish a chair in anthroposophical "medicine" in return for large donations, partly from Germany.
The BA (Hons) Social Pedagogy appears on the university’s web site, though I’m told that it isn’t running this year. I’ve applied under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to see exactly what’s taught. But James Gray has already revealed the gist of it on his blog, Heavenly beings and astral forces: the real meaning of ‘social pedagogy’. Does the vice-chancellor believe in astral forces and reincarnation? I doubt it, so why does he allow this sort of nonsense to be taught to hapless students?
The Dunlop chair of Integrative Health Care and Management
The word "integrative" is (US version of) the euphemism that is currently fashionable among quacks in an attempt to make alternative medicine sound respectable. Is the University not aware of that? See Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.
The print media caught up with bloggers at last, with a rather good article by Paul Jump in Times Higher Education this week, Aberdeen looks to feather its nest in a field dubbed ‘pure quackery’. This article doesn’t feature in the University’s media list, though a visit from the Prince of Wales’ wife does (she will, no doubt, approve).
Documents obtained by James Gray show that reveal that Dr Stefan Geider, co-ordinator of the Anthroposophic Health, Education and Social Care Movement (AHaSC) and anthroposophical doctor at Camphill Aberdeen, proposed that the University host a centre for anthroposophic medicine in 2010.
Some of the documents have (temporarily I hope) vanished from James Gray’s site. Luckily I have copies of them
- Starter paper and draft invitation to tender. This shows the proposals have been around at last since April 2010.
- Draft job description for Dunlop Chair
- Governance and Nominations Committee paper
- Professor Mike Greaves’s response
James Gray obtained the job description for the proposed chair. It says
"The University of Aberdeen, College of Life Sciences and Medicine, School of Medicine and Dentistry seeks to appoint a Professor of Integrative Health Care and Management (Dunlop Chair)."
The job is described with the usual weasel words about world class research. But read on and you find
"To develop collaboration within the [insert appropriate division please] and with the School of Education
particularly regarding BA in Social Pedagogy "
And, under ‘essential knowledge skills and experience’,
- In depth knowledge of and practice experience in the system of anthroposophic medicine as an integrative
- Strong track record of applied and methodological research published in leading peer-reviewed journals
What’s amazing about this, apart from the obvious incompatibility of these two requirements, is that the job description was approved by none other than Professor Mike Greaves, head of the College of Life Sciences and Medicine. On 12 December 2011, Professor Greave comments "This looks OK to me".
It is astonishing that high-ranking medical people in the university seem to be totally unaware of the nature of the Steiner movement, and the mumbo jumbo of anthroposophical medicine. Does Professor Greaves really believe in reincarnation? Does he think that mistletoe is an appropriate treatment for cancer?
After reading James Gray’s blog, Will Aberdeen University give green light to anthroposophic medicine centre?, I wrote to the vice chancellor, Professor Ian Diamond, and others, as follows.
Dear Professor Diamond
I was pleased to hear that Aberdeen was reconsidering the “social pedagogy” course. I was also pleased to see that someone appreciates the extreme reputation risk that this poses to Aberdeen’s reputation in medical sciences. I have no doubt that Hans Kosterliz, whom I knew well, would be turning in his grave if he were aware of the proposal that to appoint a Dunlop chair. You would go from Lasker prize to booby prize in a couple of decades.
This summer. my son graduated from Aberdeen (in a quite different area), and I don’t want the value of his degree to be tainted by the ridicule that will be poured on his alma mater for teaching about “astral forces”.
I was astounded by Professor Greaves assertion that “The College of Life Sciences and Medicine wish to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care and Management”. Has Prof Greaves not seen the nature of the material advocated by these people? I simply can’t believe that this sort of stuff is supported by your scientists. May I suggest that the university should conduct a secret ballot among it’s many good medical scientists. They are the people whose reputation will be besmirched if this development were to go ahead. I realise that it can’t be expected that those who run the university can be aware of what’s taught on all the courses, so I suggest that the ballot should contain references to James Gray’s blog (you should be very grateful to him for doing a job which should really have been done by the validation committee). You might also wish to refer the committee and governors to the three scholarly guest posts on my own blog that analyse the bizarre cult-like nature of the Steiner movement and the sheer dangerous quackery of “anthroposophical medicine”.
None of this is apparent in the official documents revealed here, but it should be.
It is astonishing that the documents should refer to “hospital centres such as The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM)” as though that were a recommendation. Are you not aware that most of the RLHIM building is occupied by real medicine: the homeopaths etc have been reduced to small rump? Are are you not aware of how often the RLHIM has been condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority because of the false claims it makes?
It is equally astonishing that the documents should say “Aberdeen would be the first university outside central Europe and the first in the UK to establish a chair in this area” as though that were a recommendation, rather a giant step back to 19th century medicine and mysticism. There are very good reasons why other universities do not have a chair like that which you are proposing.
I hope that, when considering this proposal, you will consider very seriously the damage to your reputation that would be incurred by taking money from organisations with such an obvious axe to grind. It will be all over the blogs, and then the newspapers if you were to go ahead. It is not unknown, even in the USA, for universities to turn down donations. Florida State University turned down $10m that someone wished to donate to found a chiropractic college, though admittedly only after one of their own eminent chemistry professors posted the attached picture. Is that really the sort of reputation that you want for Aberdeen?
I’m preparing my own blog post on the matter, but I won’t put it up until I have had a response from you.
Well, I have had no response from Professor Diamond, so I’m going to post it now.
Again, all has been revealed by James Gray.
"The correspondence shows that millions of pounds has been pledged by anthroposophical organisations to fund the Centre’s work. The bulk (£1.5m) will come from the foundation of the Raphael Centre, a private anthroposophical clinic in Kent that works with those suffering from complex neurological disabilities and from cancer. The Centre’s treatments include eurythmy, chiropractic, mistletoe therapy, oil-dispersion bath therapy and therapeutic hyperthermia.
A further €1.5m has been pledged by the Software AG Foundation. The Foundation – the charitable arm of a German software firm – funds various anthroposophical projects around the world, including the Steiner Academy in Hereford. (See Alicia Hamberg’s blog for more on Software AG’s relationship with anthroposophy.)"
It’s fascinating that the Hereford Steiner Academy tried to disguise the source of its funding.
According to a rumour on Twitter, the University has decided not to proceed with the chair. And I was also told that the BA (Hons) Social Pedagogy degree is not in fact running this year. Will that be abandoned too?
If the rumour is right, one wonders what Stefan Geider will say in his talk. "Head, Heart and Hands: Dunlop Centre for Integrative Health Care and Management”, at the anthroposophists’ conference in New Lanark (22 – 24 May). Incidentally it’s worrying that this conference appears to be sponsored by "NHS National Services Scotland".
Although, if the rumour is correct, the University has made the right decision in the end, it is worrying that serious academics in dark suits have spent two years discussing the matter, The proper reaction would have been, when the proposal was first made, to say "you must be joking, this is a medical school". That would have saved endless time spent in meetings to discuss what’s obviously a preposterous proposal. But according to the documents that Gray revealed, it seems very likely that it would have gone through if it were not for the fuss raised by bloggers. Can these senior academics not use Google? Why weren’t they aware of the nature of their proposals?
The really bad interpretation of these events is that they were well aware that they were promoting dangerous pseudo-science, but allowed themselves to be blinded to that fact by the sight of large cheques. Donations of almost £3 million can have a hypnotic effect on vice-chancellors. I do hope that isn’t the case. It would be even worse than the only alternative that I can see, and that is that senior managers can’t distinguish between pseudo-science and real science.
Watch this space for further developments.
28 April 2012. The comments on Paul Jump’s article in Times Higher Education seem to have disappeared. You can still see them, as of 08.49 this morning, in the Google cache, preserved at freezepage.com.
29 April 2012. Comments now restored at Times Higher, and a new one from Ben Goldacre
"Senior people from Aberdeen University reading this comment thread should take note of exactly who supports them: anonymous unnamed shouters who offer only childish abuse and dishonest personal smears. These are your allies now. It is downhill from here"
Robin McKie and Lauura Hartmann cover the Aberdeen scandal nicely in the Observer: Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation. But they fail totally to acknowledge their sources, in particular James Gray. That is pretty smelly journalistic ethics.
3 May 2012. As so often, the last word on the scandal of Aberdeen’s flirtation with the endarkenment has come from Laurie Taylor, in Times Higher Education.
“Hands off our northeastern Scottish colleagues.”
That was the vigorous response of Janet Fluellen, our Director of Curriculum Development, to all those critics who have lined up to attack the University of Aberdeen’s proposed chair in alternative medicine.
Ms Fluellen admitted that she was not “totally familiar” with the anthroposophical basis of the new post, or indeed with the manner in which this distinctive philosophy allowed for the complex interplay between physiological and spiritual processes in healing. Neither was she “thoroughly au fait” with the empirical basis for the discipline’s claim to cure cancer with the use of mistletoe.
She did, however, feel that “a proper university” should always be open to “new, exciting disciplines”, and instanced our own university’s Department of Rectal Communication, which had gone “from strength to strength in recent years under the exemplary leadership of Professor D.C. Butt”.
She reminded our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that there had been widespread scepticism about a discipline that stressed the psychological importance of shifting the site of consciousness from the cortex to the rectum. But advances in thermal imaging had now confirmed many of the discipline’s original claims about the crucial part played by the rectum in unconscious communication.
Professor Butt himself told Ponting that he appreciated Ms Fluellen’s “vote of confidence” in his discipline.
“In the early days, I was one of the very few people in UK universities who made a habit of speaking through my arse. But even a cursory survey of higher education today would show that the practice has now become widespread. That itself is a great testament to the discipline of rectal communication.”
8 May 2012
It seems the rumour was true. It seems that this mail was sent only internally. It will be interesting to see what public announcement is made.
Subject: Update on proposed Chair in Integrative Health Care Management
As some of you may be aware from press reports and social media, the University’s Governance and Nominations Committee met today to consider a proposal to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care Management.
The statement below gives the Committee’s decision and how this was reached:
The University has decided not to take forward a current proposal to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care Management.
Following discussion and consideration of the issues involved, the University’s Governance and Nominations Committee agreed that given the need for sustainability of funding for the longer-term, the University could not satisfy its requirement for the highest standards of scientific rigour with the funding model proposed, in particular the aspirations of potential donors to establish a Centre of Complementary Medicine.
The Committee further agreed that research to investigate the evidence base for the effectiveness or otherwise of complementary therapies in the treatment of disease was a legitimate academic endeavour, provided that it could be supported by sustainable and unrestricted academic research funding.
The dropping of this daft proposal was undoubtedly a triumph for bloggers, especially James Gray. My guess is that if there had been no fuss, the money would have been taken quietly. Of course it wouldn’t have stayed quiet for long. It amazes me just how ignorant of the blogosphere some senior academics seem to be.
The statement is, I must say, pretty disgraceful. It makes no admission at all that anthroposophy is a nonsensical mystical cult. All universities, in fact all big organisations, engage in this sort of dishonest doublespeak, but it’s particularly unpleasant when universities do it. They have done the right thing, probably for more or less the right reasons, but then give false reasons. I suppose they do this to try to save face. In fact it has the opposite effect.
11 May 2012. Paul Jump, in Times Higher Education, reported on the official withdrawal: Aberdeen decides against alternative medicine chair. He quotes form this letter, sent to Aberdeen’s VC on the day the annuncement was made public.
Dear Professor Diamond and Mr Purdon,
Thanks for sending the press release. Actually I got it last night (I have a lot of friends in Aberdeen since my son graduated there last summer).
I posted it on my blog, at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=5261#080512
As you see, I am delighted to see that you made the right decision. But, if I may say so, the wording of your press release is a bit of a PR disaster.
It is almost incomprehensible and (as you see from the comments too), rather than protecting your reputation, it invites laughter. All you had to do was to say something like “we have decided that a chair of anthroposophical medicine is not appropriate in a medical school and we shall therefore decline the offer of funding for the chair”. That would have been simple, it would (I imagine) be true and it would have brought credit on the university.
It’s true that for anyone who knew about anthroposophy, the decision should have taken 5 minutes not two years, but no need to emphasize that in the press release.
I do hope, quite seriously, that you consider offering an honorary degree to James Gray. It was, above all. his blog that saved Aberdeen for making a dreadful mistake, His blog (I imagine), and mine (certainly) were not intended to denigrate the university, but to save it from denigrating itself.
Schools of pseudoscience pose a serious threat to education
Maharishi and Steiner schools are just as dangerous as creationist schools
A lot of public concern has been expressed over the potential establishment of creationist free schools. This concern resulted in the government changing the rules for free schools to prevent them from teaching pseudoscience (“Richard Dawkins celebrates a victory over creationists“).
However, not enough attention has been paid to two equally grave threats to science education, namely Maharishi and Steiner schools. Maharishi schools follow the educational methods of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of the transcendental meditation movement, while Steiner education is based on an esoteric/occultist movement called anthroposophy, founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (“Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation“). The Maharishi school has as its specialist subject the “science of creative intelligence”, which is not based on science. It also teaches a system of herbal medicine, most of which lacks evidence of efficacy and safety. Anthroposophy is centred on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and advancing children’s connection to the spirit world.
The first Steiner academy opened in 2008, with a free school to open this September. The first Maharishi school opened last September. Both groups have interviews to open more schools in 2013. We believe that the new rules on teaching pseudoscience mean that no more of these schools should open.
Pavan Dhaliwal head of public affairs, British Humanist Association; Edzard Ernst professor of complementary medicine, Exeter University; David Colquhoun professor of pharmacology, University College London and blogger, dcscience.net; Simon Singh science writer; Andy Lewis Quackometer.net; Alan Henness zenosblog.com; Melanie Byng; Richard Byng medical academic; James Gray; Mark Hayes; David Simpson
This is the third part of a series of guest posts on the curious Steiner Waldorf cult
This post deals with the most contentious and serious aspect of Steiner schools, racism. It makes, in my view, a convincing argument that Steiner’s undoubtedly racist views remain a problem today. They can’t be dismissed simply by saying that Steiner was a child of his times.
This post was written by an ex-Steiner school parent, known on the web as @ThetisMercurio.
The essay supplies yet more reasons to think that Steiner schools are all based on pseudo science: Steiner’s Spiritual Science. It is important that we understand these schools because funding of these schools is imminent, through Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy.
Extracts from works by Olav Hammer and Peter Staudenmaier are included with the permission of the authors.
A Spiritual Elite
Our first two posts introduced Anthroposophy and our concerns about the state funding of Steiner Waldorf schools through the Free Schools policy. Anthroposophy, the belief system developed by Rudolf Steiner, undeniably underpins the pedagogy which informs teaching practice in Steiner schools. This is reflected in the course materials and recommended texts for Steiner trainee teachers, wherever these have been obtained.
What must be stressed is that an adherence to Anthroposophy and aspects of this pedagogy can lead teachers to make decisions about individual children based on race and disability, which many people would consider to be outright discrimination.
Ceiling, First Goetheanum, Rudolf Steiner. Spirit worlds.
This discrimination may be undeclared and subtle but we believe it is, when rightly understood, within the comprehension and scope of the Equality Act 2010 as interpreted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Does the ideological drive towards Free Schools justify a breach in the rights of children not to be exposed to such potentially damaging practice?
In this post I write about the history of Anthroposophy, and how Steiner’s privileged status amongst adherents has obscured understanding of Steiner Waldorf education. Although I’ll focus on Steiner’s race doctrines, it’s important to understand that an anthroposophical belief in karma and reincarnation must have an impact on children with learning disabilities. Some of the most distressing personal accounts on parent forums have described an encounter with this particular aspect of Steiner’s dogma. Liz Ditz, a writer on education and learning disabilities, has the same concern with regard to Waldorf Charters in the US:
“Waldorf/Steiner [is] particularly pernicious for children with educational special needs such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Because of the underlying beliefs in karma and reincarnation, teachers at Waldorf/Steiner tend to believe that such educational challenges are part of a child’s destiny to “work out”. The Waldorf/Steiner attitude does not satisfy US laws relative to educating students.”
Roger Rawlings indicates Steiner’s thinking on disability on Waldorf Watch and the UK site EASE online has an account of ‘karma in the classroom’ by a parent with a Steiner training. Swedish blogger Alicia Hamberg describes the University of Aberdeen’s programme on Rudolf Steiner’s curative pedagogy, which draws directly on Steiner’s clairvoyantly acquired ideas. This area demands greater investigation before English Steiner schools can be assumed to satisfy discrimination legislation regarding children with disabilities.
There is a determined lack of interest and comprehension about the nature of Anthroposophy amongst those responsible for overseeing the inspection of Steiner schools (Ofsted, which delegates to the SIS) and also amongst those who will make the decision to fund particular schools. It may appear too difficult. The structure of an esoteric belief system, with gradually imparted ‘knowledge’: impenetrable texts, study groups, a tradition of communicating certain information orally (a great deal isn’t written down) and a distrust of critical thinking, means that Steiner teachers themselves can be confused about the nature or real life implications of Steiner’s dogma, as well as largely ignorant of the Waldorf movement’s history. But there is an undeclared hierarchy of anthroposophical knowledge and influence within a Steiner school’s college of teachers; decisions about individual children are often steered by collegiate anthroposophical impulse. Obfuscation is deliberate: when explaining Anthroposophy, as far as the movement is concerned the answer depends on who is asking.
We can’t afford to be ignorant or to accept Steiner schools on their own terms. The history of Anthroposophy and thereby Steiner Waldorf education is essential reading. That history contains a warning, and we ignore this at our own risk.
Lessons on Spin from the New Schools Network
In November 2009, a meeting was held in London between representatives of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and English Steiner Schools, including Emma Craigie, Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network and Sam Freedman, Tory special advisor for education. It was called: ‘Moving forward, a special pre-election seminar about possible developments in the state funding opportunity for Steiner schools’.
A transcript of this seminar appeared online in March 2010 on both UK Anthroposophy and Liberal Conspiracy. I can reiterate that the transcript is a genuine account of a public meeting. No one present has to the best of our knowledge complained that this is not the case. Since there appears to be no attempt to dissuade from pursuing Free Schools funding the Steiner schools and initiatives mentioned in our second post (in fact many more than three of these schools are well advanced) I believe it is important to revisit this seminar.
The NSN is already under scrutiny. After an intervention by Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, it has been the recipient of regulatory advice from the Charity Commission regarding its responsibilities as an independent charity. The clarity of NSN funding arrangements has also been questioned. I suggest that if Rachel Wolf is expected to advise parents on the best way to educate their children, she cannot afford, in the case of 18 or more potential Steiner Free Schools, to ignore these two salient problems in the path of state funded Steiner education:
1) Accounts from parents who are or who have been unhappy with the Steiner schooling system and those who have had negative experiences associated with the schools.
2) The writings of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy
I agree with those at the seminar that the latter will be the greater problem. In fact, I assert that it’s an insurmountable one, or at least that it should be. This can’t be cured by good PR or by changing a name. Should the success of the Free Schools policy need to be bolstered by protecting Steiner Waldorf’s reputation from disenchanted parents, students and teachers, it will mean a concerted effort to ensure their voices are not heard or their stories are discredited. Such a tactic would be unsustainable, to put it mildly.
In the seminar, it was mentioned that there are racist aspects to Steiner’s writings. This accusation is far from new and it seems it was no surprise to those present. If Sam Freedman is aware of a potential threat to the reputation of the state from the funding of Steiner schools with an adherence to ‘Steiner says’, (an adherence which troubled the writers of the 2005 Woods report) he should be concerned that since the closure of the University of Plymouth Steiner BA there are no publicly accountable Steiner Waldorf teacher training courses in the UK. It’s unclear where the teachers are going to come from, especially since it appears there will be no requirement for Free Schools teachers to be formally trained. British Steiner Waldorf training will be essentially ‘in-house’ (perhaps at the Steiner Academy Hereford).
The issue of whether racism exists as an active agent within Anthroposophy was not addressed seriously at the pre-election meeting, although anthroposophical distinctions regarding both race and disability have human consequences and political implications.
Steiner’s drawing of the “evolution of humankind” through the various stages – Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis — from lower to higher forms (fish to reptiles to mammals etc), with the top three categories marked “apes,” then (American) “Indians,” then at the very top “Aryans.” Steiner’s 1907 lecture refers to both apes and Indians as “decadent side branches” of evolution.
Rudolf Steiner, 1907. Menschheitsentwickelung und Christus-Erkenntnis (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1981)
Pervasive racial assumptions run throughout Rudolf Steiner’s work. Anthroposophy itself is : “built around a racial view of human nature arranged in a hierarchical framework,” and Steiner’s doctrine awards a higher or lower place in the spiritual evolution of mankind for certain races, with their attendant characteristics. If Freedman believes the schools can simply not teach what Steiner said, he shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Anthroposophy, and of its role within Steiner schools. Anthroposophy is not taught to the children: it informs the pedagogy. It is taught to the teachers. But since it is an esoteric religion, with hidden knowledge, that teaching is often opaque. In addition, Anthroposophy is not a tradition in which critical thinking is prized, indeed the intellectual is suspect; Steiner’s spiritual science has its own, privileged internal logic and route to acuity. As Olav Hammer, a Professor of the history of religions, comments in his accessible book ‘Claiming Knowledge’:
“..anthroposophy has an overtly formulated epistemology, which claims rational status for its visionary means of attaining knowledge.”
“For the anthroposophist, spiritual science is as inexorably logical as the natural sciences. The path towards attaining knowledge of the higher worlds, including insights into the exact mechanisms of reincarnation, lie open to those who practice the methods of Geisteswissenschaft [spiritual science] to the full. It is not only part of Steiner’s experience, but also potentially part of the experience of every individual. A carefully outlined series of meditative exercises describes how one can attain knowledge of the spiritual truths.”
and the system is itself insulated from critique:
“Steiner frees himself from the need for empirical investigation by claiming the ability to clairvoyantly access the Akashic record. In the Akashic record, Steiner found innumerable specific details on the workings of the cosmos and the human being, all presented as empirical facts.”
Hammer notes that Steiner’s method of spiritual science may appear democratic but is in reality autocratic. The only truly authentic insights are Steiner’s.
For those who believe they are developing clairvoyant faculties in pursuit of Anthroposophy’s Higher Worlds; Steiner’s racist doctrines, existing within an anthroposophical structure of reincarnation and karma, can be seen as essentially benevolent and redemptive. Though adherence (and awareness) certainly differs amongst teachers, it is impossible to remove Anthroposophy from the Steiner school pedagogy, from the required reading on the teacher training courses, from the mission of the schools. It would be entirely naive to imagine anthroposophical allegiances and beliefs in Steiner Free Schools could be policed by the DfE, especially as British courses disappear from public view or teachers are trained in other countries. Nor can the public be shielded from evidence of Anthroposophy’s precise nature and history.
Anthroposophy, and consequently the Steiner Waldorf movement, resist external critical analysis. The occult has until fairly recently been largely ignored by serious academics, and those who have explored Theosophy and other esoteric movements have been generally sympathetic to the possibility of supernatural agency. But, as we’ve seen with Olav Hammer as example, this has changed. There is now extensive academic research into the foundations of Anthroposophy and the development of Steiner Waldorf schools, enabling a non-arcane understanding of anthroposophical texts. Much of this is of course in German, including Helmut Zander’s 2007 two volume study, ‘Anthroposophie in Deutschland’.
Zander describes the ad hoc nature of the first Waldorf school, as Steiner borrowed much from already existing educational reform movements as well as from traditional models, and added his own spiritual insights. The results could only in some areas be thought of as progressive: the schools were co-educational and did not focus on exams. But from the beginning, the Waldorf system was teacher-led, not child-led and had strong authoritarian tendencies.
Rudolf Steiner 1861-1925 – Spiritual Insights
Most importantly, Zander contextualizes Steiner as a historical figure, without needing to pass judgements on the accuracy of his supernatural claims. He focuses on the political landscape in which Steiner existed in real, not occult terms. And he demonstrates the significant role of Steiner’s race theories within his work, noting how anthroposophical race doctrine frequently involves implicit or explicit value judgements. Even though Zander encourages dialogue with anthroposophists who can tolerate some kind of external analysis, an extreme voice still demanded Zander’s university revoke his degree, on the grounds that he couldn’t determine the validity of any of Steiner’s claims without himself attaining ‘knowledge of the higher worlds’. Crazy as this sounds, it’s the singular manifestation of a familiar anthroposophical motif, a demand that Anthroposophy be understood – and respected, exclusively on its own terms.
Rudolf Steiner and race: the path toward the universal human
One of the most authoritative writers about Anthroposophy in English is American historian Peter Staudenmaier. His recent PhD in modern history, written at Cornell, concerns Anthroposophy in Germany and Italy from 1900 to 1945. A fluent German speaker, Staudenmaier had access to Steiner’s untranslated work as well as to original archive material. He stresses that Steiner’s prolific output can be internally contradictory, enabling supporters to claim that anthroposophical race doctrine is incidental or misunderstood. But nevertheless, there’s a dominant and explicable theme, owing much to Steiner’s occult interpretation of German nationalism. Steiner’s attitude to Jewishness is an example of insular preoccupations:
“The nature of Steiner’s hostility to Jewishness was thus both ordinary and anomalous; it incorporated the common misconceptions of the era and simultaneously transcended these within the peculiar framework of “occult science”. It was not so much hatred or fear of Jews that animated Steiner’s mature antisemitism, but ignorance of contemporary Jewish life, of modern Jewish culture and history, as well as a myopic commitment to German spiritual superiority. What Steiner did know about Judaism, moreover, was generally refracted through a Christian and Germanocentric lens.” Peter Staudenmaier ‘Rudolf Steiner and the Jewish Question’ Leo Baeck Inst. Yearbook 2005
Steiner’s claims to ‘spiritual science’ to an extent reflect an earlier association with zoologist and social Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. (Richard Dawkins comments in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ that Haeckel was “perhaps Darwin’s most devoted disciple in Germany” and while praising Haeckel’s draughtsmanship adds: “the devotion was not reciprocated”.).
Staudenmaier suggests a mutable concept of evolution may have mediated Steiner’s shift from ‘secular to sacred’, but that it was a conversion to Mme Blavatsky’s occult movement, Theosophy, that most inspired Steiner’s racial theories:
Madame Blavatsky: Theosophist and medium.
“Steiner’s doctrine of racial evolution is more than a biological appendage to his spiritual cosmology. For Anthroposophy as for Theosophy, evolution is the link between the human and the divine, it is a process supervised by higher powers and a vehicle for the soul’s elevation and purification. [ ] The guiding thread throughout Steiner’s race mythology is the motif of a small, racially advanced group progressing into the next era while the great mass of backward populations declines. In the current era, the dominant race is the Aryan race, which evolved out of a small number of specially advanced colonists from Atlantis. In Steiner’s words: “Ever since the Atlantean Race began slowly to disappear, the great Aryan Race has been the dominant one on earth.”
There is a crucial difference for Steiner between ‘race development’ and ‘soul development’:
“The two must not be confused. A human soul can develop itself in such a way that it incarnates in a particular race within a given incarnation. If it acquires certain capacities in this incarnation, then in a later incarnation it can incarnate in a different race.”
Rudolf Steiner, Christus und die menschliche Seele [Christ and the human soul] (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1997), 92
“As the incarnating souls ‘became steadily better and better’, Steiner explained, ‘the souls eventually passed over into higher races, such that souls which had earlier been incarnated in completely subordinate races developed themselves upwards onto a higher level and were able to incarnate later into the physical descendants of the leading population of Europe’. Steiner further contended that the very existence of different racial groups on the Earth at the same time was a cosmic mistake, a detour from the proper route of humankind’s development. This claim was tied to Steiner’s vision of the eventual emergence of a ‘Universal Human’, the goal of his teleological conception of evolution. While pointing toward the ultimate disappearance of race as a meaningful factor in human existence, Steiner’s theory of the Universal Human is built around a contrast with ‘lower types of people,’ which constitute the necessary counterpart to the ‘uniform, perfect, beautiful type of human being,’ the cosmic goal that underlies ‘the meaning of our whole earthly evolution’.”
Though potentially spiritually ‘enlightened’ to the initiate, Steiner’s views on race remain reprehensible:
“The white population, then, represent normal human beings who continue to progress, while Asians and Africans are abnormal peoples who were not as capable of evolving. Statements like these can be found throughout Steiner’s works, and may reflect the prejudices prevalent among educated Europeans of his era. Perhaps the most instructive instances are Steiner’s various statements about black people. [ ] Addressing the first generation of Waldorf teachers in 1923, Steiner responded to a question about teaching French with the following remarks:
“The French are committing the terrible brutality of moving black people to Europe, but it works, in an even worse way, back on France. It has an enormous effect on the blood and the race and contributes considerably toward French decadence. The French as a race are reverting."
Peter Staudenmaier, Race and redemption: Racial and Ethnic Evolution in Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy : Nova Religio 2008
All must have disclaimers
Returning to the seminar in London discussing Free Schools funding for Steiner Waldorf: Should Steiner schools engineer a more multi-cultural image? This strategy would cause embarrassment to a government facing the understandable fury of non-white Steiner parents who come across Steiner’s race doctrines – unless Rachel Wolf persuades Cornell to revoke Dr Staudenmaier’s PhD (with assistance from dedicated anthroposophical defenders). Waldorf’s biggest problem, acknowledged after the departure of Freedman and Wolf, is undoubtedly the teachers:
“It was felt that there may be some difficulty in making a blanket rebuttal of all Anthroposophy because many people throughout the Steiner schools system, especially teachers, strongly support many aspects of that belief system. If teachers were asked to make a blanket rebuttal of Anthroposophy, many of them may not do this.”
They cannot do this. For many, Anthroposophy is the point. Rudolf Steiner is considered by his followers to be irreproachable, a spiritual master blessed with clairvoyant powers. Pull the thread of the race doctrines out of the design, there is a corresponding pressure on Steiner’s doctrine of reincarnation and karma. The Steiner Waldorf pedagogy itself rests on anthroposophical dogma. Although a reappraisal of doctrine is not without precedent within religious movements, it would be especially problematic for Anthroposophy, as an esoteric belief system. Knowing this, the easiest way to protect the movement is to be pragmatic and to issue disclaimers. But these disclaimers bear analysis, since many anthroposophists still defend Steiner’s racial and ethnic teachings; believing them, as Staudenmaier explains, to be “humanitarian, tolerant, and enlightened.”
Here is the (current) disclaimer on racism from the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF).
Is it true that some of Rudolf Steiners writings and lectures contained statements that could be interpreted as racist?
Yes. Even though Steiner’s ideas are based on a profound respect for the equality, individuality and shared humanity of all people, regardless of race or ethnic origin, his works do contain a small number of quotations that are discriminatory. The SWSF rejects these statements and all racism. However, it should be noted that other great thinkers of his time including Darwin, Schweitzer, Gandhi and Carl Jung also spoke of race in a way that offends modern sensibilities. This does not render them or their work ‘racist’.
It is ironic that Steiner schools sometimes have to defend themselves against these accusations. Our schools thrive on every continent, in every culture and within a wide range of ethnic contexts. For example, during the period of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the only school catering for mixed races was a Steiner Waldorf school & today there are schools following Steiner philosophy of education in diverse cultures & communities, including: Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil or Hawaii, over 60 countries in all. It should be noted that all the Steiner schools in the UK actively are opposed to all forms of discrimination against any person or group of people on the grounds of race, gender, faith, disability, age and sexual orientation and are committed to promoting equality of opportunity and reflecting the diversity of the children, staff and parents served by their school.
Further clarification about this can be found on the Statements page of the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education website (by clicking the ‘Waldorf schools against discrimination’ link).
The first word is unusual, though the disclaimer’s tone betrays the movement’s haughty antipathy to external analysis – and frankly it’s simply untrue. There are a very large number of Steiner’s pronouncements which could not only be interpreted as racist, they are racist. Saying they are not racist costs the SWSF nothing and will not make them disappear. (To be candid, many of Steiner’s statements clearly discriminate between races in both an unpleasant and prosaic manner, the ‘spiritual’ is no excuse.)
But the statement reveals a significant misunderstanding of racism. It is historically naive to imagine that being represented in diverse cultures and communities can define a worldview. Catholic schools are similarly represented, this doesn’t alter the nature of Catholic teachings; Anthroposophy’s racial doctrines do not magically change because there are Steiner Waldorf schools in Kenya. The disclaimer also ignores the fact that South African Waldorf schools were founded by Max Stibbe (the Waldorf school in Pretoria is still named after him), a vocal supporter of apartheid. Peter Staudenmaier comments:
“[Stibbe] was also the editor of the Dutch Waldorf journal Ostara, as well as the founding editor of an even more influential Waldorf journal, Vrije Opvoedkunst, in 1933. Vrije Opvoedkunst is where Stibbe published his racist articles in the 1960s, which formed the basis for the "racial ethnography" courses in Dutch Waldorf schools well into the 1990s.”
In addition, under “What is Anthroposophy?’ the SWSF states:
“Like many inspiring thinkers from the past, Ghandi and Darwin being other examples, Rudolf Steiner provides us with important insights which continue to be relevant today, as well as statements which conflict with our contemporary understanding of inclusivity and equality.”
It’s extraordinary that in a description of Anthroposophy by the Steiner Waldorf movement’s umbrella organisation in the UK, there’s no mention of karma, reincarnation, higher worlds, spiritual science etc, or the fact that anthroposophists believe Steiner was clairvoyant. Zoologists do not believe Darwin was clairvoyant – nor did Darwin teach an occult racial doctrine. Steiner’s unique status amongst his followers means that he cannot be excused as simply ‘a man of his time’. Even so, such racial ideas were rejected by many of Steiner’s contemporaries.
From a historical perspective, racial remarks should not be assessed according to whether they offend modern sensibilities. What makes a particular text racist is its content, what it actually says about race.
The 2nd Goetheanum, designed by Steiner – world centre for Anthroposophy – Dornach, Switzerland
The European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education) disclaimer document ‘Waldorf schools against discrimination’, linked to by the SWSF, states:
“Anthroposophy, upon which Waldorf education is founded, stands firmly against all forms of racism and nationalism. Throughout Steiner’s work there is a consistent anti-racist sentiment and he frequently described racist views as being anachronistic and antithetical to basic human values and dignity. The Waldorf schools are aware, however, that occasional phrases in Rudolf Steiner’s complete works are not in concordance with this fundamental direction and have a discriminatory effect.”
This is extraordinarily mendacious, and only sustainable if no one else – specifically no politician – reads any Steiner. The ‘discriminatory effect’ is reflected in the actions and decisions of teachers in the classroom, behaving in accordance with anthroposophical dogma which they may not even believe is racist. It should not be confused with an accusation that Steiner Waldorf schools openly discriminate on grounds of race, for example at point of entry, which they do not. Whether Steiner’s teachings themselves are ‘discriminatory’ makes little sense in an early twentieth century context – what matters is that they are racist. A confusion between discrimination and racism further highlights the worrying anthroposophist misunderstanding of racism.
This ECSWE disclaimer is cited by the Rudolf Steiner school South Devon. This is one of three English Steiner schools nearing funding, with the support of the Tory MP for Totnes, Dr Sarah Wollaston. The school also seeks to distance itself from “any racism stated or implied in any of Rudolf Steiner’s speeches and writings (dating from the mid -1880s to his death in 1925)” It’s alarming to find this on a school website bearing the name of the seer in question. But the disclaimer doesn’t acknowledge any statements by Steiner, much less examine their racial content. There’s no explanation of why this statement needs to be there.
On the same ECSWE site there’s a link to a document called: ‘Overcoming Racism through Anthroposophy: Rudolf Steiner and Questions of Race’. This is an audacious title. Peter Staudenmaier responds (hyperlinks mine):
“Far from a denunciation of any and all racist statements made by Steiner, it is a defense of Steiner’s racial teachings. It also claims that Steiner opposed antisemitism throughout his life, that he was deeply opposed to any philosophy of racial or ethnic superiority, and so forth. The document is co-authored by Detlef Hardorp and Lorenzo Ravagli, among others, who have very vocally and quite explicitly defended a range of Steiner’s racist arguments. This remains the mainstream position for both the Waldorf movement and the broader anthroposophist movement today.
In my view, a perfunctory ‘denunciation’ of ‘any and all racist statements made by Steiner’ — even if we could find such a denunciation from some anthroposophist body or other — would miss the point. If anthroposophists want to face up the racist components in their ideological legacy, they need to analyze and understand what Steiner taught about race, not pre-emptorily denounce it, and they need to figure out how to revise the overall conceptual structure of anthroposophy, which in its current form is built to a significant extent around racial premises. Simply waving away the problem with a vague gesture of disassociation accomplishes nothing toward that end, indeed it actively hinders the steps that could lead toward that end.”
A 1998 report by Dutch anthroposophists concluded there were no ‘racist teachings’ in Rudolf Steiner’s work. Peter Staudenmaier believes that an attempt by anthroposophists to come to terms with Steiner’s race doctrines, the “Frankfurt Memorandum” 2008, is flawed partly by using that Dutch report as its inspiration.
Significantly, former Waldorf teacher Tom Mellett notes parallels between the Steiner movement’s denunciation of Steiner’s racism and statements made by the Catholic church regarding priestly sex abuse.
Race in the classroom
Anthroposophy impacts on real children. Ray Pereira noticed the racist overtones in his child’s ‘Steiner stream’ in an Australian school:
“Mr Pereira, who is from Sri Lanka, said his concerns about Steiner’s racist beliefs were realised when his children were not allowed to use black or brown crayons because they were “not pure”. He said Steiner teachers at the state-run school recommended they not immunise their children because it would lead to the `‘bestialisation of humans”.”
Two years ago, at an established English Steiner school now applying for Free Schools funding; a British couple were alarmed when their 12 year old daughter (who’d been at the school for a year) told them a German teacher had read out the word ‘nigger’ from a book of poems, a standard text in Steiner schools. The mother reports that the teacher did not agree with the children that this is a racist word, indeed it was her daughter who was punished for refusing to back down. As a foster parent for many years and a mentor for Kids’ Company, the mother concerned is used to dealing with challenging situations but the school’s response to this incident (amongst others) shocked her. The staff seemed not to take the family’s concerns seriously and delayed taking action. Looking online for information on Steiner schools’ policies regarding racism, the mother discovered that in the book ‘How to Know Higher Worlds’, by Rudolf Steiner, (an edition last published 2008, Anthroposophic Press) a book on which one of the school trustees was basing workshops, there is an account of ‘reincarnation through the races’:
“Peoples and races are after all, merely different developmental stages in our evolution toward a pure humanity. The more perfectly that individual members of that race or people express the pure, ideal human type – the more they have worked their way through from the physical and mortal to the super sensible and immortal realm – the “higher” this race or nation is.”
In a formal meeting with the school, the father, who is black, calmly read aloud a quote from Steiner which stated that: ‘the black man is the child of the races’. There was no response from those present, presumably the trustees convinced themselves it was outside the remit of the discussion. The couple were shown the school’s discrimination document. But they report that when they asked the school’s Education Coordinator if he believed in Steiner’s doctrine of the reincarnation of the soul through racial hierarchies, he reddened with anger and refused to answer.
This critical Steiner mother notes an obvious inconsistency. In reply to a trustee’s defence that individuals chose which bits of Steiner to believe:
“I asked her, how they could do that when Steiner received his knowledge clairvoyantly – if it all came from the spirit world surely it was all true? I also said I didn’t believe that’s where he got his knowledge, unless the spirit world itself is racist.”
The child involved is now at school elsewhere. Her family arranged for a racism awareness day to be conducted at the Steiner school; this is required of every educational setting.
A Steiner Waldorf classroom (from here)
In response to Waldorf supporters’ claims that their teachers are simply not capable of racism and that Steiner schools are both enlightened and benign, Peter Staudenmaier writes:
“Many forms of racist belief are not intentionally sinister, but are instead embedded in high-minded, benevolent, and compassionate orientations toward the world. It is this type of racist thought, whose historical heritage extends through the White Man’s Burden and many forms of paternalistic racial ideology, that may find a welcome home in some Waldorf schools and other anthroposophical contexts, where it can perpetuate its ideas about race under the banner of spiritual growth and wisdom. This kind of racist thinking spreads more readily precisely because it is not tied to consciously sinister intentions. Seeing through this kind of racism – which, furthermore, often has more widespread and more insidious effects on the real lives of real people than the intentionally sinister variety does – means paying attention to the background beliefs that animate a project like Waldorf, whether among its founding generation or today.”
Staudenmaier is a historian, not primarily a critic of Steiner Waldorf education. But a knowledge of the history of the anthroposophical movement is essential if we are to make any sense of the difficulties the schools face today:
“I would be pleased if my research provided an opportunity for Waldorf admirers to ponder this contentious history and take its lessons seriously. What is worrisome about the Waldorf movement’s continued failure to address anthroposophy’s racial legacy is not that Waldorf schools in the twenty-first century will start churning out little Hitler youths; what is worrisome is that Waldorf advocates and sympathizers may unknowingly help prepare the ideological groundwork for another unforeseen shift in the broader cultural terrain, in which notions of racial and ethnic superiority and inferiority could once again take on a spiritual significance that lends itself all too easily to practical implementation in a changed social and political context. For this reason among others, I strongly encourage those involved in Waldorf endeavors to take another look at the history of their movement and the doctrines at its core.”
There is a reprise of these themes in an insightful article by novelist Hari Kunzru.
If those concerned with Steiner Waldorf education read nothing else, they should read Peter Staudenmaier’s article “Anthroposophy and Ecofascism”. It is a compelling account of Anthroposophy’s history; essential reading, too important to ignore.
Like Peter Staudenmaier, I have an interest in progressive forms of education. Steiner Waldorf education, far from being progressive or democratic, is dogmatic, autocratic and anti-intellectual. The persuasive lobby for state funded Steiner schools in my opinion misrepresents Anthroposophy, there are no exceptional applications. It is this lack of honesty that causes most concern. Steiner schools have failed a particular responsibility to their clients, not shared by Church of England or Catholic schools, to explain at the beginning what is for most parents an unfamiliar world-view.
Most seriously, mindful of Steiner’s dogma of karma and the reincarnation of the human soul through the races: If genuine equalities impact assessments were conducted on these schools, in my view it is inconceivable that the implications for children from black and ethnic minorities, and those with learning difficulties, would permit the funding of Steiner education.
German children 1930s. Image from Black News Tribune
Download a pdf file of Anthroposophy’s racial doctrines: explanation and examples by Dr Peter Staudenmaier.
This is part 2 of a critique of Steiner Waldorf schools. Part 1 was The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1
The part 3 is Steiner Waldorf Schools Part 3. The problem of racism.
This essay is largely devoted to the methods used by the Steiner movement in the hope of getting state funding. That involves concealing from ministers and inspectors some of the less desirable aspects of the cult. That is sadly easy to do, because ministers and inspectors usually use a tick box approach that can easily be corrupted (just have a look, for example, at what goes on at the University of Wales). It is a classical case of bait and switch, a method that was used by chiropractors and acupuncturists to pervert the normally high standards of NICE. The technique is standard in alternative medicine, as described by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella, in The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine..
Steiner’s bible of the cult, 1905
The involvement of a few universities with Steiner training is every bit as disgraceful as their involvement with quack medicine, In fact Anthroposophical medicine is among the barmier forms of quackery.
Steiner Waldorf Free Schools – ‘Do we have to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?’
At the time of writing we are aware of 16 Steiner Waldorf schools and new initiatives in the UK applying for or publicly expressing interest in Free School Funding. The established schools are:
- Brighton Steiner School
- Cambridge Steiner School
- Elmfield Steiner ‘Academy’ Stourbridge (see weekly news sheet)
- Exeter Steiner School
- Meadow School, Bruton, Somerset
- Michael House, Steiner Waldorf School, Derbyshire
- Norwich Steiner School
- Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, Hertfordshire
- Rudolf Steiner School South Devon
- St Michael Steiner School, Wandsworth
- St Paul’s Steiner School, Islington
Initiatives & kindergartens:
- Mulberry Tree kindergarten, South Gloucestershire
- Beachtree kindergartens Leeds
- Cragg Vale, near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
The umbrella organisation for Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK is the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. The Chief Executive Director of the SWSF is Christopher Clouder but another prominent figure is Development Director Sylvie Sklan. As representatives of the SWSF they have been the plausible public face of Anthroposophy, working for many years within the establishment to create the conditions for wholesale public funding of Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK. As pragmatists they see Michael Gove’s Free Schools Initiative as the Movement’s big chance.
We will take you into the woods to show how the Steiner edifice of nonsense has been obscured by smoke and mirrors. A government report indicates the truth, but the schools themselves are reluctant to share their Special Knowledge.
Into the Woods. A government report, and a very special inspection service
There is no independent evidence to support the pedagogy of Steiner Waldorf education. But supporting the funding of the Steiner Academy Hereford, the only state funded Steiner school to date (created under New Labour), is a government report from 2005, The Woods Report ‘Steiner Schools in England’. Mike Collins of UK Anthroposophy, home to some meticulous investigative work, demonstrates how the Woods Report describes Steiner Waldorf as Anthroposophical education.
In fact the Report’s authors are unusually candid about the occult nature of Steiner schools. They also, elsewhere, make no secret of their own immersion in the ‘spiritual’ assuming a common understanding of that ambiguous word, a word which is rarely defined. But whether or not they are themselves to any degree adherents of Anthroposophy, they clearly believe that education would benefit from Steiner’s spiritual vision, stating in the Forum Journal in 2006:
"The point is that Steiner education offers a distinctive process of opening and nurturing children and educating the whole child in the twenty-first century."
There is, in the Woods Report, an elaboration of the pivotal role of karma and reincarnation [p93] a description of the use of ‘temperaments’ to classify children [p89] and of the variance in the precise nature of allegiance to Anthroposophy amongst teachers [p94] (as observed in our first post: reflecting the nature of an esoteric religion). But ‘Steiner says’ is nevertheless the dominant code:
"Steiner’s lectures are referred to and teachers constantly update themselves on the pedagogical principles outlined by Steiner, testing these in the practice of collegial discussion.” [p105]"
This should be no surprise:
“Steiner education takes a particular perspective and entails a set of practices which relate to each other in order to give Steiner schools their character. These include the role of the teacher understood as a sacred task in helping each child’s soul and spirit grow, which underpins the commitment to each pupil and is the basis of sustaining the class teacher-pupil relationship over eight years” [p120]
This may strike the reader as rather an unusual educational aim, especially if a school is not formally classed as a ‘faith’ or religious school. Would it not take sophistry to maintain that this is not an essentially religious impulse? (It does. p97/125/129) But we must remember that we are handicapped by our ignorance of Spiritual Science. The clue is given by one of the Steiner teachers quoted, who suggests what is needed is to:
“communicate to [the] wider educational community that in essence Steiner education is a spiritual approach beyond religion” [p116]
To do them justice, in other published work the Woods are cautious, although this problem strikes us as inevitable:
“None of this should be taken to mean that Steiner schools achieve their ideals or are entirely without their flaws. Many teachers, in our view, are too dependent on following the guidance and ideas of Steiner as if they were ‘sacred’ directions.” ‘In Harmony with the child’: Philip A Woods & Glenys J Woods: Forum 48/3 2006
The Woods Report ignores the consequences for children of teachers’ adherence to the anthroposophical belief in karma and reincarnation. It is obvious that the potential for harm has not been recognised, nor taken seriously by those who should have read the Report. Instead it has been accepted that because the pedagogy is ‘spiritual’ it must be good: and the Hereford Academy has been handed funds, allowed exemptions (including the freedom to teach Steiner’s ‘Goethean science’) and stands as the precedent for further expansion of Steiner Waldorf into the State sector.
What kind of barmpottery would be too extreme for the Woods? The fact that Glenys Woods maintains she is a Reiki Healer (Angelic and Atlantaen) suggests that her beliefs about what is real would seem extravagant to those working within even the most complex and nuanced concepts of modern neuroscience.
The Woods Report suggests that Anthroposophy should be better understood by educationalists and parents; the writers clearly believe that, as a spiritual entity, it is of value. But they also attempt to diffuse the presence of Anthroposophy by stating that the “curriculum is not designed to guide and encourage young people into becoming adherents of anthroposophy…” [p120] which may appear to lessen the obligation to know what it is. When we are told the disingenuous line: ‘Anthroposophy is not taught to the children”, we should not forget that it is not explained to prospective parents either, even if there may be a few (ill-attended & bewildering) study groups for parents who have already joined. It isn’t explained to the government officials who anyway appear so incurious, or to taxpayers. We have none of us earned the right to the Movement’s Special Knowledge.
But Ofsted understands this. It knows it is not qualified.
As of September 2009 Steiner schools in the UK have been inspected not by Ofsted, who used to do so but by the Schools Inspection Service. The SIS inspects only two types of schools: those run by the Exclusive Brethren and now Steiner Waldorf.
The lay Inspectors in each case are expected to understand the distinct character of the schools. In the case of Steiner Waldorf, they have all been connected in some way with Steiner schools or with the Anthroposophical Movement.
Ofsted, which we believe feels unqualified to understand the pedagogy, has effectively allowed Steiner Waldorf schools greater powers to inspect themselves.
Free school funding relies on these inspections: the results of which are rather more positive under the new regime.
The Hereford Steiner Academy – the Academy nobody wanted.
The only state funded Steiner school in the UK has already caused controversy. Francis Beckett wrote in the Guardian in 2008 that former director of education Eddie Oram had turned down initial plans submitted on his watch because “he did not think the Steiner staff had the right expertise to deal with pupils with individual needs.”
Oram’s proof of evidence: to the Public Inquiry for the original applications by the DCSF to build a new school for the Steiner Academy, is comprehensive. There is no need, no desire and no justification for such a school in Herefordshire, especially in the village of Much Dewchurch. The Project Lead for the DCSF, sponsoring the Academy, was the Rev. Mark Evans, a church of England priest on secondment to the Department. His proof of evidence glowed with praise for Dr. Steiner:
“The outcomes of this education can be seen in the quiet confidence of its pupils, their balanced approach to life and their capacity for innovative thinking.”
But the Rev. Evans produced no evidence for this assertion, nor did he mention karma, or reincarnation. This seems a significant omission; he was in all probability unaware of the nature of the pedagogy he was selling.
The Hereford Steiner Academy site does mentions Anthroposophy, although to find it involves a little searching. The assertion that “Anthroposophy is a developing body of research”, as stated here by Hereford, should rightly be disputed. Essentially Anthroposophy is dogma; gained through ‘clairvoyance’, inherited by studying Steiner’s words, comprehended by those ascending the ladder of esoteric Knowledge. But something has to be said about it, now the Movement is forced to do so.
The Steiner Academy followed one of the recommendations of the Woods Report: unusually for a Steiner school it has a Principal, Trevor Mepham. In a long exposition to ‘Herefordshire Life’ on the nature of Steiner Waldorf education, Mepham misses the chance to satisfy another of the Woods Report’s suggestions: he doesn’t explain, by name, the system’s fundamental credo.
Free School Hopefuls
The current group of Steiner Free School hopefuls vary in their willingness to discuss Anthroposophy. As an example, on the website of the Norwich Steiner School Anthroposophy is not mentioned, although in reality it is never absent. The Norwich curriculum policy describes the pedagogy without mentioning its essence but we catch stray glimpses of angelic forms. So, a moral aim is to cultivate ‘reverence’ for nature, the children stand not in a doorway but on a ‘threshold’ and ‘The narrative thread for Ancient civilisations often begins with the fall of Atlantis’.
In the March 2010 newsletter from Norwich (‘Talking Trees’) there is an observation by a class teacher which exemplifies the Steiner Waldorf attitude to less spiritual forms of education:
“I look at the children in Oak Class and see a luminosity that cannot be measured. When we do measure children, we diminish that luminosity. The world seems to be full of children whose inner light has been subdued, if not entirely extinguished.”
There is at the time of writing no mention of Anthroposophy on the website of the Rudolf Steiner School South Devon, except towards the end of the parents’ handbook. Although this is hard for outsiders to find, the handbook’s author still neglects to describe karma and reincarnation and includes the unusual proviso that this is ‘not a cult’. South Devon has stated on its site:
“The department [DofE] appears to be impressed by our application, in particular what they call our "strong educational vision". But before they can proceed to the next step they have asked to see stronger evidence of demand for Steiner education in the area, including from those outside the school community. They would prefer this to be in the form of a petition.”
Many of those who have agreed to sign the South Devon petition have done so in ignorance of even the name of the ‘philosophy’ that is so vital to the school, imagining that their plausible description of Steiner Waldorf is sufficient.
In a ‘circle meeting’ held at the South Devon School in 2008, found on the web, someone even asks the question: “Do we need to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?” It’s hard to lose the guru’s name without changing all the signs. But surely local people might be put off if they understood how the education at this school is intimately informed by the clairvoyant visions of the Mystic Barmpot. We’ve screenshot the site, in case there are any alterations.
This concern about mentioning Anthroposophy is driven by a fear that an undercurrent of critical analysis will become mainstream.
We trust we presented in our previous post a description of Steiner Waldorf Education that identifies the intrinsic role of Anthroposophy, making the system and its flaws intelligible, but we are not suggesting that our observations are original.
Not only have there been comprehensive posts about Steiner schools on the popular political blog Liberal Conspiracy (with much additional material from Unity, including the 5 Big Ideas of science that Steiner education can’t handle); there has been in the last few years an international stream of criticism from those who have experienced Waldorf pedagogy and its effects on families. Ex-parents, students and teachers of Steiner Waldorf schools have appeared on-line, seeking answers; making sense of their own distressing experiences, expressing bewilderment and anger and frequently offering support to others.
Their words appear on blogs, on internet forums and in the press in some countries, although no UK journalist has so far grasped the significance of their warnings. What should be reiterated is that it is difficult to make sense of an esoteric (hidden) philosophy in action, even if you have chosen to be involved at its aesthetically pleasing outer edges. For many parents, Waldorf is a form of bait and switch.
mumsnet: “You don’t expect a school to lie,”
In the New Schools Network document cited in our previous post, Free School hopefuls are advised how to advertise their projects: “Post something on mumsnet, netmums, or facebook.” If the NSN had done their homework, they would know that mumsnet Steiner threads have been so controversial (and incomprehensible to those not involved) that in 2008 parents were asked by mumsnet’s co-founder Justine Roberts not to post about Steiner education at all. Indeed the forum was threatened with legal action by Sune Nordwall, (also known as Thebee, Tizian, Excalibur, Mycroft etc) a Swedish anthroposophist; since discovered to be in the employment of the Swedish Waldorf School Federation. Blogger Alicia Hamberg aka zooey quotes (in translation):
“In England, the attacks on [waldorf] pedagogy have led to parents withdrawing their children from the waldorf schools. The [Swedish Waldorf School] Federation has employed Sune on a part-time basis to monitor the debate.”
We do not suggest on this blog that the Swedish Waldorf School Federation are responsible for or complicit in Nordwall’s activities on mumsnet or elsewhere, although as Alicia Hamberg points out, they have not sought to distance themselves from his behaviour. What is notable though is that representatives of Waldorf education in Sweden were concerned to monitor a UK debate held not in the press but in the relative obscurity of the supposedly safe, supportive world of mothers‘ chatrooms. The Steiner Waldorf movement understands the importance of a positive profile on the UK’s most influential meeting place for parents; the very people who form their customer base. But their tactics are counterintuitive. In anthro-speak everywhere, critics, the majority of whom are parents who have had children in Steiner schools, become attackers.
Even the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship’s Communications Officer Jeremy Smith felt drawn to issue a call-to-arms to rebuff those who dared to question Waldorf’s ‘good intentions’:
“I would be very grateful if teachers and parents who share these concerns would be willing to join me in posting replies to anti-Waldorf threads in an attempt to give a more accurate picture to the outside world of what Steiner education is all about. We are also co-ordinating this internationally through the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education. Please contact me at email@example.com if you are interested in becoming involved.”
We invite them to answer us here, instead.
Stockholm University: “scientifically unacceptable… simply untrue”
There are other interesting comparisons with Sweden. A recent announcement that UK Free Schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers indicates that the UK is traveling in the opposite direction to Sweden which, in an attempt to raise standards has just introduced more stringent teacher training requirements for all its schools, including Waldorf (the state funding of which pre-dates Sweden’s own Free Schools experiment). Swedish Waldorf schools will have to apply for exemptions from these guidelines (as well as from new requirements regarding early years literacy and numeracy), since there are no university accredited Waldorf teacher training courses in Sweden.
Indeed the aspirations of Swedish anthroposophists suffered a blow in 2008 when Stockholm University closed the Waldorf teacher training courses in the Institute of Education it had recently taken over. The VC of Stockholm, Kåre Bremer, agreed with his Education Faculty that the Waldorf literature did not satisfy the University’s standards of “scientific validity” and that “Some of the content is not only scientifically unacceptable, it is simply untrue.”
Alicia Hamberg described the ensuing outcry from the Waldorf community; quoting the dean of the faculty of natural sciences and professor of bio-chemistry, Stefan Nordlund, who stated in a Swedish newspaper article:
“In parts, the students’ course literature is not simply unscientific. It is in fact dangerous, and it conveys misconceptions which are worse than muddled. We are supported by the department of natural sciences as well as the department of humanities in taking this position.”
A relaxation of teaching qualifications here in the UK is essential if Steiner Free Schools are to be given the green-light, since the UK’s only Steiner BA and the Foundation Course in Steiner Early Years education at the University of Plymouth are also closing. Plymouth’s new VC, Prof Wendy Purcell, herself a scientist, can claim credit for ejecting the Mystic Barmpot from her faculty of education. It is certainly true that the course didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be viable, even though it appears that Steiner trainee teachers were supported by the beneficence of a ‘godparents anthroposophical training fund.’
Mike Collins posted a fascinating investigative report into the Plymouth closures in November last year. At the time of writing this, a representative of the University told us that they have no plans to reintroduce Steiner teacher training.
However: in a plot twist which links both countries, it is not Stockholm University (which had rejected their Steiner courses for being unscientific) but the University of Plymouth which is accrediting a European Masters Programme in Eurythmy, described as an anthroposophical ‘dance form’: in collaboration with Rudolf Steiner University College Järna, 50 km South of Stockholm. Except that Rudolf Steiner College, Järna is not regarded as a university college by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, nor can it issue formally recognized degrees. We do not imagine that anyone at Plymouth outside the dwindling Steiner BA is familiar with eurythmy, or its therapeutic arm, curative eurythmy.
One of the aims of the European Masters course is: “to place Eurythmy in the context of modern education,” but this can only apply to Waldorf.
Eurythmy is a physical expression of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical image of the relationship between the ‘spirit’ and the physical worlds. It is steeped in the supernatural. Of course what is happening in reality as participants sway and dash is not exactly what eurythmists imagine is happening, as anyone familiar with CAM will understand. But an intention clearly exists. Once again, in Steiner Waldorf schools, there is that anthroposophical concern for the ‘incarnating’ child. As Steiner told his teachers:
“You cannot teach anthroposophy directly to children but they can do eurythmy. And they will face life in quite a different way than if they didn’t do eurythmy.”
From “Times of Expectation: New Forms of Ancient Beauty out of the World of the Spirit.” Lecture, Dornach, 7th October 1914 (final section). Steiner introduces eurythmy to the anthroposophists
Where are the teachers to come from for these new UK Steiner Free Schools? More to the point: will taxpayers have any access to the content of their courses?
Waldorf Critics: criticism and scandal
Steiner Waldorf causes scandals across the world. In Norway earlier this year, Kristín Sandberg and Trond Kristoffersen, both former Steiner Waldorf teachers, published their book: "What They Don’t Tell Us = The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School." They have been part of a fierce debate, subject to threats from certain elements of the Steiner community, but Kristin is positive. What really matters to her, she says, are the many messages of support:
What They Don’t Tell Us. The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School
In Germany too, Steiner Waldorf has many critics. It’s interesting to reflect on the German Waldorf demographic, which suggests that their appeal lies in their status as ‘elite’ (although not academically elite) institutions.
In Australia, the introduction of ‘Steiner’ streams into public schools in the State of Victoria: ‘The Steiner Cult’s Grab for Schools’ has caused great controversy (see The delusional world of Rudolf Steiner). A document by the Australian Rationalist Society mirrors our initial post. After serious concerns were raised in a government report as long ago as 2000, and ignored; great division has been caused between parents in the schools involved and academic standards have proved to be low. Australian newspaper reports rehearse what will be in the news in the UK if Free School funding goes ahead for Steiner Waldorf. To quote from The Age:
“One parent, who did not wish to be named, said she moved her son out of the school after a Steiner teacher recommended he repeat prep "because his soul had not been reincarnated yet".
"I just don’t believe it is educationally sound," she said.”
Humanists are not the only Waldorf critics in Australia: some worry that Anthroposophy doesn’t sit happily with their Christian beliefs. Plus, independent Steiner schools have been accused of misappropriating Federal grants designed for new classrooms and libraries. It’s tempting to ask what use anthroposophists have for books.
In New Zealand, flaws in the accountability of independent schools compounds one family’s alarming treatment at the Titirangi Steiner School. Whether or not their experience is a direct consequence of Steiner pedagogy, the school’s reported ineptitude, delaying tactics and exclusion of children reflects behaviour familiar to many other Steiner Waldorf parents.
But by far the most well-known site for analysis of Steiner Waldorf is the US based PLANS: People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, an organization which opposes the presence of religious schools: Steiner Waldorf, informed by Anthroposophy, in American public education. It is difficult to imagine that any UK government intending to spend millions on funding a school system within Academy or Free Schools funding (and concerned with a responsibility to children regardless of the mantra ‘parent choice’) can have entirely overlooked the presence of such criticism, or of the existence of a Waldorf Survivors’ Group. Indeed, if they read the Woods Report, they will find PLANS featured there. (p35)
“The vast majority of parents at PWS [Pasadena Waldorf School] work in entertainment. Actors, producers, art directors, writers, and all others in TV, film and technology. Almost all tuitions are paid for by media. They could not function without our industry.”
The most comprehensive (and readable) critical guide to Anthroposophy’s relationship to Steiner Waldorf schools is at Roger Rawling’s ‘Waldorf Watch’. Rawlings was for many years a pupil at a New York Waldorf school, so he’s familiar with how it feels to be inside the system. His pages on Karma, central to Steiner’s doctrines, as well as those on the background to Waldorf’s distinct attitude to Special Educational Needs (including the use of Curative Eurythmy) are particularly instructive.
Steiner Waldorf – “We must worm our way through”
Steiner Waldorf Schools all over the UK are applying for Free School funding. Millions could be diverted from local schools to support them. The decision to fund lies ultimately with the Secretary of State. We have every reason to believe that he is now personally aware of Anthroposophy, even of the critical role of karma and reincarnation within Steiner schools and the content of the course literature that forms a central part of Steiner Waldorf teacher training courses. We would like to ask him: who would be served by the funding of these schools? We do not believe it can be the children, or the families (many involved with hopeful, small initiatives) who do not understand what Steiner education really is. So, Mr Gove: cui bono?
“We must worm our way through…[I]n order to do what we want to do, at least, it is necessary to talk with the people, not because we want to, but because we have to, and inwardly make fools of them.”
Rudolf Steiner, Conferences with Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, vol.1, 1919 to 1920 Forest Row, East Sussex, England: Steiner schools Fellowship Publications, 1986 [pp. 125]
Very sorry to see that the University of Aberdeen is running what seems to be a very dubious Steiner course.
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 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."
Rudolf Steiner, Faculty Meetings with Rudolf Steiner (Anthroposophic Press, 1998) p. 115
"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.
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.