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February 28, 2013 / playforth

What every parent needs to know (but can’t find out) about Steiner schools?

Rudolph Steiner House by stevecadman on FlickrLast 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.

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  1. Andy Lewis / Feb 28 2013 10:49 pm

    Hi Rachel. Sorry I could not stick around to answer more questions. This was obviously a talk that created debate!

    To answer your points.

    Talking about Steiner in under an hour is immensely difficult. His output and range of beliefs was extraordinary and my concerns about Steiner schools require much background. As such, I cannot help but cherry pick what I present.

    Are the bits I quoted extreme an unrepresentative? Maybe, but I would say only because these passages are intelligible and understandable for what they are. Much of Steiner’s work is rambling, impenetrable, spiritual gobbledegook. But Steiner’s worldview is underpinned by a consistent view of humanity that is based on a belief in karma and reincarnation with a racial, spiritual hierarchy forming its backbone. As such, it is quite right to ‘cherry pick’ the bits he writes about here.

    And indeed, his stated goals for his schools were to aid children through their spiritual incarnation for this lifetime. Yes, many teachers in mainstream schools may have beliefs in reincarnation, but my point is that Steiner schools are founded in such a belief and there to assist the incarnation process but without declaring this openly to prospective parents.

    My argument is that parents are not explicitly made aware of what Steiner’s goals were and why their various teaching practices are stuck to. Steiner had specific occult meanings to his teaching methods, but Steiner Schools tend to present him as a philosopher interested in child development. Many parents are not aware that they are becoming involved with a New Religious Movement with distinct and exact spiritual aims. That is the nub of my issue. No visit to a school would address that concern.

    As I acknowledged, it is possible that the Steiner School Movement has moved away considerably from these occult foundations into a genuinely progressive schooling system. But as I ask, where is the evidence for this? I present ‘cherry picked’ quotes from recent teacher training text books that suggest the teachers are being training in pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo straight from Steiner’s works. An example is that the heart is not a pump. As such, it was great to see an Anthroposophist in the audience defend this views and say there was scientific research to back this up. Now that is true cherry picking as that research is far from the consensus as to what the heart is and is in fact opposed by a vast amount of anatomical and medical knowledge. I also presented other aspects of Anthroposophy, such as Biodynamics, which has certainly failed to progress in light of modern knowledge and as such, the ‘cherry picked’ clip of a farmer making cow dung magical potions for his fields was entirely appropriate and representative of biodynamic practices and beliefs.

    That such views are still held by Anthroposophists amazes me, but unfortunately confirms that lack of progression in thought that is present. Steiner appears to be perceived as a infallible source of received wisdom, despite denials that this is true.

    What was even more saddening, poignant and mind boggling was the woman who declared that she felt deeply saddened by my talk as she had had such great experiences with Steiner Schools and that her parents were active Anthroposophists who wrote books on the subject. And that her sister had been killed by her beliefs in Steiner’s favourite form of medicine, homeopathy. How someone can hold the view that Anthroposophy had had a positive impact on her family with such a deep an terrible tragedy at its heart is something I cannot comprehend.

    Anyway, thanks for coming and being constructive in your response, unlike one or two people there!

  2. playforth / Mar 1 2013 12:07 pm

    This is great, thanks for the thoughtful response Andy. Absolutely take your point about the ‘cherry-picking’.

    I suppose the question for people like me who’ve spent time in the Steiner education system (as pupils, parents and even teachers) but have no lasting connection with anthroposophy is: how did we emerge from it with absolutely no inkling of the spiritual aims being worked towards through us, or any sense that we were part of an occult movement at all? And does the fact that we did suggest harmful deception, or something less sinister – that you can benefit from the progressive aspects of Steiner education even (especially?) if you don’t know about, or don’t choose to believe in, its spiritual foundations?

    I don’t think that anthroposophy is a brainwashing cult (and I don’t think you do either) – it’s certainly not a very successful one if so – but I’m prepared to accept that I was misled and that this is happening systematically. I wouldn’t send my daughter to a Steiner school and your points on this have definitely given me another reason not to. On the other hand, if involvement in the movement can (in many cases) have no lasting effect on beliefs or practices, and if the schooling produces well-rounded adults either by accident or design, is there real harm involved? Since I don’t believe in reincarnation etc, the fact that my education was partly designed to assist me towards a higher karmic plane is irrelevant to me.

    Nb I’m not saying anthroposophy can’t be harmful (it can), just trying to figure out whether *I* feel harmed by it. Still undecided!

  3. Andy Lewis / Mar 1 2013 1:26 pm

    Interesting points. I think the answer to your point about you not knowing about any spiritual aims is probably nuanced and layered.

    The strongest response I got from the audience was when I suggested Anthroposophy was a initiated belief system – with people further in having more revealed and stronger beliefs. This was rejected strongly by the anthroposophists.

    However, Steiner did indeed intend Anthroposophists to exist in various ‘classes’. The First Class – The Blue Card holders – are the most initiated members. According to the Goetheanum web site, “[Steiner] was very firm about restricting knowledge of the esoteric content of this “Michael School” to a group of people who fulfilled certain requirements.” This is a clear statement from a Steiner site that supports the view of levels of initiation within the movement, as Steiner intended.

    Although Steiner saw a structured series of levels of initiation, I think the more informal layering is quite predominant and I have seen much evidence of this whilst speaking about Steiner Schools. I would suggest that most parents and many teachers exists quite on the outside – possibly aware of Steiner’s beliefs, but not considering them important. Nonetheless, the teachers still teach in accordance with anthroposophical principles. These teachers are not going to give the impression of them following spiritual aims because they do not believe they are doing so. Teachers that do take on board Anthroposophy as a world view are more likely to be coy about this to fit in with the way schools are presented – often according to Steiner’s dictums to indeed be coy.

    This is complex stuff and difficult to unravel. A day in a school – as my detractors mock me for not having undertaken – would never do this.

    Is Anthroposophy a brainwashing cult? That is a difficult question and one I have chosen to leave open and have not addressed. I try in my talk to simply present Anthroposophical beliefs as they are and let the audience come to their own conclusions as to whether they are crackpot, cultish, dangerous etc. (This is a very hard task!)

    But the cult quesiton does need addresses, merely because so many people ask it and I do intend to write about this taking accepted definitions of brainwashing and cult behaviour and scoring the Steiner movement on it. As I said, Anthroposophy is not Scientology – but the more I look at it, the more boxes are ticked.

    For example, see Professor Robert J. Lifton’s eight criteria for mind-control within cults. Come to your own conclusions.

    http://www.watchman.org/na/assist3.htm

  4. Melanie Byng (@ThetisMercurio) / Mar 1 2013 2:24 pm

    hi Rachel,

    as background – I’m a former Steiner parent who even helped to start a Steiner school so I’m not an outsider. I wrote (along with another ex-Steiner parent) three posts about Steiner Waldorf at DC’s Improbable Science blog.

    It’s amazing that Andy manages to describe this complex subject in such a short time and in my opinion he’s fast developing an overview of the current state of play re Steiner ed in Britain. He is right to describe anthroposophy as an esoteric – I would say new religion.

    If it helps at all, my younger son liked his kindergarten and didn’t suffer at all from spending much of his early years in tree-houses. No critic I know of would be negative about allowing children to play for longer, particularly outside. However I’ve seen this happening elsewhere – anthroposophy is not required. It has if anything a baleful influence.

    Perhaps this would be an interesting read? The site it appears on is by Roger Rawlings, who was once a pupil at a New York Waldorf School and took many years to piece together what his education had been about. Grégoire Perra, a French former Waldorf teacher and former anthroposophist, who was once deeply involved, describes “The Anthroposophical Indoctrination of Students in Steiner-Waldorf Schools”:

    https://sites.google.com/site/waldorfwatch/he-went-to-waldorf

    In another article Perra describes a conversation with a former class-mate, who like you remembers his Steiner years with affection. Perhaps this is a better post to read first:

    https://sites.google.com/site/waldorfwatch/mistreatment

    best wishes, Melanie

  5. Simon Wood / Mar 1 2013 10:31 pm

    I’m looking forward to Andy’s talk coming to Cardiff but I’m a little disappointed I missed hearing it in ‘Steinertown’ as I don’t think we’ll get quite the same lively group of Anthroposophists.

    As you know, Rachel, but other readers may not, I also went to a Steiner school. I know where you’re coming from when you say you have positive feelings about school. I enjoyed school, I had some great teachers (as well as some bad ones) and in a sense I’m a product of that education.

    But if there may have been good things about the people and the experience, how much was that due to the Steiner movement? If those good people had come together the run a school that had nothing to do with Steiner, and made some of the same curriculum choices based on merit rather than dogma, wouldn’t that have been far better? In other words, I can’t help feeling that what good there may be in some Steiner schools is in spite of rather than because of the Steiner philosophy…

    I am disturbed by some of the prevailing ideas that it took me a while to examine critically after I left school. I do think also there were major deficits in aspects of my education that are due to the Steiner philosophy. However, yes, I think your criticisms of mainstream and other faith schools are fair, and so perhaps Steiner schools should not be singled out in this respect. But because Anthroposphy informs the curriculum there is a real barrier to the Steiner curriculum evolving and developing (for example, consider how much education has changed to embrace the opportunities new technology has to offer, while Steiner curricula have not really altered since the 1920s). This is where I am not really convinced there is anything substantive that differentiates Steiner the man (then) and the movement (today). It’s a movement in which I see little progress, and an unwillingness to take a critical approach in which outdated and/or offensive tenets are properly rejected and discarded.

    So yes, there are good people involved in Steiner schools but they are ‘outsiders’. Increasingly I am moving away from feeling that Anthroposophy is an essentially harmless but barmy by-product to fearing it is the rotten core that at best is preventing these schools from being more progressive and which may possibly be far more pernicious than that.

    I think, between now and Andy’s visit to Cardiff in April I should probably blog my current perception of Steiner education. I’ll be interested to see how much my opinion is changed by the debate.

  6. John Stumbles / Mar 2 2013 1:01 am

    Hi Rachel, Simon and everyone

    With regards specifically to Steiner’s racist beliefs and the implication that these must result in racism in Steiner schools there’s a paper by Ray McDermott & Ida Oberman who were members of an academic team studying a Waldorf School in inner-city Milwaukee. The paper discusses the issues of Steiner’s racist beliefs and their manifestation in practice in Steiner-Waldorf schools.
    It’s at http://www.waldorfcritics.org/articles/Racism_McDermott.html
    (Andy: I’m curious if you’ve incorporated any of this paper’s observations into your talk?)

    I won’t try to re-articulate my other thoughts on the pros and cons of Steiner Education and Andy’s and others’ reponses to it here as I’ve written most of them in my essay that Eugene posted a link to before your meeting (http://stumbles.org.uk/John/Steiner/skeptic/“).

    I would like to recommend another discussion of the subject from a former Steiner trainee teacher, Daisy Powell. For her dissertation Daisy interviewed both pro- and anti-Steiner people about the criticisms (such as the alleged secretiveness of Steiner schools, Steiner’s Racist attitudes etc) that Andy, Melanie and others make of Steiner education. Her dissertation is at http://www.waldorfcritics.org/articles/Daisy-Dissertation.pdf

  7. Pete K / Mar 2 2013 3:17 pm

    I, too, started a Waldorf school, and was involved in Waldorf for two decades as a parent.

    John, don’t forget to mention that MCDermott and Oberman are both Anthroposophists.

    From the article: ” 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.”

    Let me provide the damning evidence then: “The blood of people from Europe is more evolved than the blood of people from Africa and Asia”. That’s TEXTBOOK Steiner. This was taught to my child in physiology class by a teacher at Highland Hall Waldorf School in Southern California. Highland Hall, when confronted about this lesson, SUPPORTED the lesson, on two different occasions. Highland Hall is the home of the Waldorf Institute of Southern California – one of the major teacher training centers in the United States. The teacher received no reprimand and is still teaching children.

    http://thewaldorfreview.blogspot.com/2012/05/lake-champlain-waldorf-school-reviews.html
    http://thewaldorfreview.blogspot.com/search?q=racist

    For every student that graduates Waldorf, a dozen or more have been fooled into trying it and have left. That’s a LOT of disrupted education that could have been avoided if Waldorf practiced openness and honesty about what they’re about.

  8. John Stumbles / Mar 2 2013 4:03 pm

    “John, don’t forget to mention that MCDermott and Oberman are both Anthroposophists”

    I gathered that Ida Oberman has become quite keen on Steiner Waldorf education. I don’t know what her position on it was at the time of the Milwaukee study. I think she was a graduate student at the time.

    I’m not sure if Ray McDermott was a professor at the time of the Milwaukee study but he was clearly the senior figure in the main study and the report he wrote with Overman. I know little of him but I haven’t seen any evidence that he is an Anthroposophist, as you claim. How do you know this? You’re not confusing him with an Anthroposophist called Robert McDermott are you?

    • Pete K / Mar 3 2013 1:11 pm

      “You’re not confusing him with an Anthroposophist called Robert McDermott are you?”

      It wouldn’t be the first time, I’m afraid. Robert is the acknowledged Anthroposophist, Ray is the Waldorf promoter. I understand they’re brothers, is that your understanding as well?

      • John Stumbles / Mar 3 2013 2:11 pm

        “It wouldn’t be the first time, I’m afraid. Robert is the acknowledged Anthroposophist, Ray is the Waldorf promoter. I understand they’re brothers, is that your understanding as well?”

        I really don’t know. What evidence do you have that they’re brothers?

      • Pete K / Mar 3 2013 4:47 pm

        “What evidence do you have that they’re brothers?”

        My impression is based on a statement Dan Dugan made:
        http://groups.yahoo.com/group/waldorf-critics/message/8781

        I don’t have evidence that they’re brothers. I suppose it could just be a coincidence that they have the same first initial and last name – and both happen to have a common interest in a movement most people have never heard of. I’d love to read something that indicates they aren’t related.

  9. Steve Paris (@sjparis) / Mar 2 2013 10:09 pm

    “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.”

    I agree with you and don’t think Anthroposophy would deter any parent wishing their kids to attend a school which advertises itself to be a kinder, gentler alternative to education.

    What could give them pause for thought though is the alleged unchecked bullying. Is this something you encountered yourself or heard of others experiencing? You don’t tend to send your child to a kinder gentler school if you knew they’d get beat up physically and psychologically. At least I’d hope parents would be sensible enough not to.

    This is what happened to the Steiner school we sent our kids to. Our middle child was very happy at kindie for over a year and we’d integrated ourselves fully in the school’s very social community, but when we brought in our eldest, we encountered the dreaded unchecked bullying.

    That’s when other parents started talking to us in hushed tones and telling us how bad the bullying was at the school. While trying to deal with the situation, a teacher told us that to separate a bully would be damaging to the child, and an article was published in the school’s newsletter stating that stopping a bully would lead him to get addicted to computer games.

    To cut a long story short, the school expelled our kids, the parents and teachers smeared our name in the local area, we took them to Human Rights Mediation and had a positive outcome.

    But this took 3.5 years and our children were very badly damaged by the school’s action.

    That school prides itself at being independent and that they were teaching “pure” Steiner.

    We documented our entire experience and you can read about it all here:

    http://www.titirangisteinermessenger.com

    This site also includes ten additional testimonials from other parents, showing that this “pure” Steiner system views bullying as acceptable, and if you as parents don’t, then Steiner’s obviously not “a good fit” for your child.

  10. playforth / Mar 4 2013 6:51 pm

    Thanks all for your comments. This has been an enlightening and alarming journey of discovery (although I wasn’t a totally uncritical Steiner apostle to start with). Thanks too to Roger Rawlings who featured this post on Waldorf Watch. I can’t see a way to respond there but I’m a little unhappy about his conclusion (although accepting of most of his points): ‘warm childhood memories should not deflect us from making mature, informed judgments about the Steiner movement today.’ I hope this is what I’m trying to do!

  11. Stuart / Apr 13 2015 8:17 am

    Just to let you know that Andy is talking again about Steiner schools at Eastbourne Sceptics in May 2015. Check out our website! We look forward to hearing a lively debate.

    http://eastbourne.skepticsinthepub.org/

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  1. Can There Be ‘Good’ Steiner Schools? « Little Storping-in-the-Swuff

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