What every parent needs to know (but can’t find out) about Steiner schools?
Last night’s Lewes Skeptics in the Pub talk was the first one where I felt that some of my own beliefs (or at least lived experiences) were going to be challenged, as I attended a Steiner school for four years and have mostly positive feelings about it.
Andy Lewis is clearly a very good and thorough writer, presenter and rational thinker. But like most persuasive skeptical speakers he has some tricks up his sleeve – the main one employed in his talk last night being the cherry-picking of the most extreme and nonsensical viewpoints espoused by Rudolf Steiner and his followers. I do think it is important to scrutinise Steiner’s writings, especially his views on the spiritual hierarchy of different racial groups, and to note that there is no empirical basis for most anthroposophical beliefs/approaches (aka they are INSANE). However I don’t agree that Steiner’s views constitute damning evidence against Steiner schools. Many philosophers and scientists in the early part of the twentieth century wrote and believed things that seem fanciful, outrageous or plain wrong today. Disciplines and movements based on the thinking of one individual are not bound forever to every word that individual wrote. This doesn’t excuse Steiner but we shouldn’t conflate the man (then) with the movement (today).
Lewis also quotes from a Steiner academy FAQ that admits ‘some teachers may believe in reincarnation’, but this is hardly controversial in itself. Statistically, some state school teachers must believe in it too, as do approximately 900 million Hindus worldwide. State Church of England schools may teach the existence of heaven and hell, Catholic schools may teach the literal truth of transubstantiation. Even the most mainstream, standardized state education is not based on rigorous scientific principles. As most state school teachers will tell you, it is driven by methodological fashions, policy based on flawed or partial research, and arbitrary targets set by politicians, with very little reference to what we know about child development. None of this means that Steiner schools should NOT be critically examined, it’s just that a lot of the criteria for ‘failing’ this examination would see other forms of schooling fail as well.
The focus on Steiner schools is admittedly timely since they have been approved to participate in Michael Gove’s Free School programme, although personally I have a bigger problem with my taxes paying for actual faith schools (eg. 4000+ Church of England schools and 2000+ Catholic schools) than with non-denominational ‘spiritual’ schools becoming academies. And as a parent my biggest worry about Free Schools is that the standard of teaching will be even more patchy than it is in the current state system. But Lewis does make the very fair point that Steiner schools seem especially ill-prepared for state integration and the greater scrutiny that will bring.
Speaking of scrutiny, Lewis believes there is an endemic lack of openness in anthroposophical enterprises and schools, citing the evasiveness of Steiner teachers he has spoken to about the extent of their belief in Steiner principles, and Steiner’s own suggestions to deliberately tone down hardcore anthroposophy/religion when talking to parents and visitors etc. This is definitely worrying, but it’s a claim that is hard for the Waldorf school movement to counter. (Not that it is prepared to try, officially – its policy is not to engage with critical bloggers, which in itself looks damning from Lewis’s perspective.) Many audience members last night protested ‘but they have been open with me’. The response was that they only seemed to be open and in fact were presenting a misleading facade. Lewis has never visited a Steiner school, which he defends by saying that a visit wouldn’t tell him what he wants to know – the facade would be in place. He is quite possibly right, but there is still a massive methodological issue with deciding what you’re going to find before you find it. It sets up a Catch 22 trap for any defender of the Steiner school cause: if you reject scrutiny you have confirmed you have something to hide, but if you appear to allow it you won’t be believed.
Overall it was still an important debate to have, and more interesting in some ways than ones which simply reiterate that no, water (aka homeopathy) can’t cure cancer. The very problem with evaluating whole education systems (ie their rightness or wrongness is not really subject to empirical testing using the scientific method) is also what keeps the discussion open. And it’s to Andy Lewis’s credit that he was able to maintain a civil, enlightening and rational conversation even when under attack by articulate, intelligent but vocally partisan sections of the audience.