This is the third of three posts about Steiner schools. The first is about Rudolf Steiner and his religion anthroposophy. The second deals with the way Steiner schools minimize their connections to anthroposophy and why this isn't ok. You don't need to read them before this one but things will make more sense if you do.
I am ashamed I haven’t written a piece like this until now and that I didn’t make the racism more explicit in my previous Steiner posts. I’ve known for years about racism in Steiner education and how it's kept secret but I bottled publicly confronting it. It felt too hard and I was worried about sparing the feelings of people I know within the movement. But in not doing so I was complicit and I don’t like how this feels. I was wrong and I am trying to make it right.
Racism is everywhere. It’s ugly, dangerous and it’s everyone’s job to talk about it even though this is confronting and uncomfortable (totally me). If you’re involved in a Steiner school and I hurt your feelings, bummer. But I’d truly like to try and understand how you morally manage your involvement in that system. So far all I’ve heard is the ‘children of all colours are happy together at school’ kind of argument. I’m not sure if this is what you genuinely think or it’s a deflection. Either way it’s inadequate. Racism is a system not a playground event.
Before I start properly, I need to say this stuff is dense and complex and there is no way, no how, no possibility I can do it justice, in knowledge, experience, ability to communicate or essay space. Please follow the links and read the footnotes for a more complete picture.
The post will be structured as follows:
And finally a reminder Steiner schools and Waldorf schools are the same thing.
Right then. It’s on.
We need to start with definitions to pre-empt the idea of racism solely as the unpleasant actions of one person to another. This is personal racism and yes it exists. Surrounding it though is systemic racism, which is very powerful, insidious and dangerous. As part of the tangle there’s also a passive ‘meh’ kind of racism. I’m going to cover all three.
Colonised countries are inherently racist. They have their roots in the Doctrine of Discovery, an international legal concept and Christian principle, originating out of the Vatican in the 15th century. It gave the monarchies of Europe the right to conquer and claim lands, and to convert or kill their indigenous inhabitants. The Doctrine of Discovery is the legal and moral foundation for the colonisation of Aotearoa and other countries.1
It's still a real thing, justifying decisions that prioritize the needs of Europeans over Indigenous peoples albeit less dramatically. A recent example is the Covid vaccine rollout that knowingly disadvantaged Māori.
Doctrine of Discovery-based racism is systemic. The result of a complex tangle of social, cultural, economic activities and values that over hundreds of years have shaped us in implicit and explicit ways. It results in the privilege of some people (essentially white) and the disadvantage of others (essentially non-white). Those of us who're privileged don’t usually notice it.
Buffy Saint Maire discusses the Doctrine of Discovery, "There were serial killers on the thrones of Europe".
When they hear the word ‘racism’ this is what many people think of. Personal racism is about the attitudes and acts of individuals and organisations toward others based on their ‘race’ (more about this word later). Examples are name-calling in the playground and dressing up as Hitler to go to a party. When people don’t see this kind of stuff they think there’s ‘no racism’ (the Steiner school position).
Personal racism is scaffold by systemic racism. Like when government security agencies focus on Muslim radicalisation and white supremacists are left unchecked.
This is where people don’t do anything about racism. They either don’t notice (those privileged by systemic racism usually don’t) or don’t think it exists or accept it exists but don’t consider themselves part of the problem or get defensive because it’s too scary and hard or don't want to offend anyone or feel they can’t change anything or just don’t get involved. Some of this is passive but it’s no less damaging for that.
Like I said, the whole of the colonised world is racist. Steiner schools embody the racism in Western education generally* but also they have a type all their own. Steiner school racism is unusually obvious and so clearly encapsulates the three different kinds. The next part of the post is all about how.
There are anecdotal reports of personal racism experienced by students and families in Aotearoa's Steiner schools and stuff like this letter from dedicated anthroposophist Colin Rawle. But I'm going to concentrate on King Racist himself, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). This guy was just a straight up old school racist and he created anthroposophy, a whole religion, out of his horrible ideas.#
In this post I explain in detail the anthroposophical basis for the Steiner school curriculum. Here’s a summary, Rudolf Steiner considered himself a divine being. As such he travelled the astral planes and gained access to the lost knowledge of the world’s history. Anthroposophy is these revelations made manifest. It’s a deeply mystical and dogmatic view of life from birth to death and beyond. Steiner considered all bits of anthroposophy to be literal truths.
One of anthroposophy’s key tenets is racist reincarnation, where souls repeatedly incarnate into physical bodies and in doing so ‘ascend’ through the races. They do this via a hierarchy with reptiles at the bottom and Aryan men at the top. Adjacent to this is Steiner’s 'primary race traits' idea, where 'blacks' are instinctual with a ‘rear’ brain; 'yellows' are emotional with a ‘middle’ brain; and 'whites are thinking with a ‘head’ brain. There’s also a racist theory of evolution (more later).
At this point we need to swerve into the definition of ‘race’. This is the concept of dividing people into populations or groups based on their physical characteristics. It is a fixed classification system invented by Europeans in the 18th century who used it to justify the superiority of some races over others. It helped fuel the Doctrine of Discovery. There is no scientific evidence for the idea of ‘race’. Physical difference is about geography not biology.
Definition of race from a 1964 children's dictionary
Steiner absolutely accepted and perpetuated the idea of ‘race’ and in an extreme way. Here’re his views on ‘the black man’,
“These blacks in Africa have the characteristic of absorbing from the universe all light and all warmth… Now this light and this warmth in the universe cannot go through the whole body because a human being is always a human being even if he is a black one. It does not go through the whole body but stops short on the surface of the skin, and therefore the skin itself becomes black…
He takes up light and warmth everywhere and uses it in himself. Now there must be something which helps him in this assimilation… what helps him in particular is his posterior brain.
In the Negro the posterior brain is specially developed… And since he actually has the sun-like, light and warmth, on the surface of his skin, his whole metabolism proceeds as if there were a cooking by the sun itself in his interior…There is really a continuous cooking going on within him, and what stokes the fire is the posterior brain.
The Negro not only has this cooking in his organism, it not only boils there, but he also has a frightfully crafty and observant eye… it is like this: If there in front is the nerve of the eye, the nerves go just into the posterior brain…and since that is specially developed in the Negro therefore he peeps out so craftily, is such a sly observer of the world. If one begins to understand the matter, it all becomes clear”.
Steiner's sketch of the 'black man' and his 'posterior brain'.
The above words and picture come from Steiner’s 1923 lecture Colour and the Human races which also contains equally fucked up explanations of ‘yellow, red and white’ men. This lecture is not an anomaly. There’s also this and this and this and this and oh-so-much more and it is all sickening.2 I do not understand how those working in Steiner schools, purporting to be anti-racist, can reconcile it (please tell me).
A common ‘we’re not racist’ Steiner school defence is that anthroposophy isn’t directly taught to children. I discuss this more here but the key thing is that this is irrelevant. Anthroposophy is not a ‘what’, it’s a practice, pedagogy or system; a system that embodies and perpetuates Steiner’s racist teachings.3 (Hideously the Ministry of Education funds - with our tax - Steiner schools to enact the anthroposophical system as part of their State-integrated school status. It’s their ‘special character’. I'll talk more about this soon).
Steiner had a very intense, complicated, garbled and (surprise!) racist theory of evolution that like all his stuff, he considered to be literally true. Here’s the gist,
Humans hung about as spirits for a long time while the Sun and Moon split from the Earth. They eventually incarnated physically on a continent called Lemuria where they were nurtured by good spirit beings (who were white) and stunted by evil ones (in particular a black demon called Ahriman who’s still hanging around in computers).
When Lemuria was destroyed by a volcano, gnomes, angels and salamanders helped the humans who had not given in to evil, move to Atlantis. Those who had, stayed behind and these are whom the ‘black’ races descend from.
On Atlantis humans developed the power of speech but then Atlantis was destroyed by a flood. Again gnomes, angels and salamanders helped the strong and virtuous humans move, this time to Europe. The weak and flawed stayed behind and birthed the ‘yellow’ races.
Once in Europe, humans - the surviving, superior ‘white’ ones - evolved chronologically through a hierarchy of ‘root races’ and ‘epochs’. Root races were those that were 'superior' at the time and included Egyptians, Greek, Roman and Nordic (each root race had ‘sub races’ also arranged in a hierarchy). This all culminated in the Western European epoch with Germans as the ultimate root race (these ideas were similar to that of another guy, Hitler, who was also hanging around at the time).4
The race-based evolutionary path as sketched by Steiner
Modern Steiner schools do not teach this story directly but it remains a fundamental part of their curriculum (i.e. system). Here's how it works,
In their publicity Steiner schools make a big deal about the way they use myths, fairy tales, and magical creatures in their teaching. The approach is described as age-appropriate, engaging, creative, imaginative etc. What’s not said is that the stories follow a pattern, stealthily designed so that over their school years children ‘act out’ Steiner’s theory of evolution. In an orthodox curriculum it goes roughly like this:
As Waldorf Education: The Family Guide states,
"The mythical and religious content of the earliest grades [in a Steiner school] bring the child to the same wellsprings from which humanity began its great journey into awareness.”
In another twist, Steiner schools often claim that in covering the epochs they are ‘embracing diversity’. Sometimes they also wedge in Māori myths to further drive the ‘not racist’ point home. This is just yuck but also conflates ‘race’ with ‘ethnicity’ and does not help abolish racism.
A racist Steiner quote that I guess someone's decided is inspirational. So gross.
This whole post is about the ways Steiner schools’ accept, hide, minimize and defend their anthroposophical foundations. They do this with everyone (except I guess each other) but most worryingly and dishonestly they do it when they ‘consult’ with local iwi (as they are all excited to tell you they do. Look at any school website). As I said earlier, they deny their whakapapa.
Tina Ngata explains whakapapa as being,
“…about relationships – it encompasses family but stretches far beyond conventional genealogy…Whakapapa is about layers, and layers, of ancestry. Layers of lifetimes spent growing into you. Whakapapa is about authentic connectivity – to space, to place, to the themes or issues that sit before us. Whakapapa is, so often, the root of a problem, and the source of a solution”.
Anything that has a beginning has whakapapa, including organisations, institutions, ideologies, and systems of belief. Whakapapa is an intractable and enduring part of identity, both the good and bad bits. The concept is fundamental to tikanga, mātauranga and te ao Māori, and in Aotearoa it should be the place to start whatever the issue or circumstance.
When their explicitly racist origins are not fully disclosed, Steiner schools are not enacting tikanga, nor behaving honourably or authentically. It is disingenuous and does not provide iwi or diverse communities with what they need to make informed decisions.
Whatever good things modern Steiner schools do (and there are some), the nondisclosure of their past is ethically and culturally wrong. It itself is an act of systemic racism. But there are also constitutional reasons Steiner schools need to sort their shit out.
Let’s circle back to that bit where I said the Ministry of Education funds Steiner schools to enact anthroposophy as part of their ‘special character’ State-integrated status.
All but one of Aotearoa’s Steiner schools are State-integrated This means they receive government funding5 and must teach the New Zealand Curriculum but can do this via their ‘special character’. Integration means Steiner schools are Crown entities.6 As such they’re beholden to the Education and Training Act which details the ways in which they should operate.
In 2020 the Act was revised and became more explicit about schools’ obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi through tikanga, mātauranga Māori and te ao Māori (section 127). The Act tries to frame these as ways of being rather than bodies of knowledge. It essentially says ‘work according to Te Tiriti o Waitangi’ not ‘teach a lesson about Te Tiriti o Waitangi’. So when schools engage with iwi, it should be done authentically and honourably through tikanga, which means whakapapa. When Steiner schools don’t do this they’re failing in their Crown obligations (as well as their moral and ethical ones).
Under the Act Steiner schools are also required to teach the NZ Curriculum, including the new Aotearoa Histories Curriculum. This curriculum is by no means perfect, but it is official recognition of Aotearoa’s past or whakapapa, and it does acknowledge there are connections between then and now,
“Me mātai whakamuri, kia anga whakamua. To shape Aotearoa New Zealand’s future, let’s start with the past”.
Feels negligent (not to mention hypocritical) for Steiner schools to do this in relation to Aotearoa but not themselves.
Finally, it is also worth noting the contradiction between an anthroposophical curriculum and the Government's ethnic diversity and inclusion agenda. The need for authentic dialogue with diverse communities provides a further imperative for Steiner schools to disclose their roots.
From the Māori Crown Relations Te Arawhiti annual report. Please note the phrases 'in good faith' and 'with humility and authenticity'
In 2016, following accusations of racism at Te Ra Steiner School (this Listener article is a good summary of the whole incident) the Ministry of Education undertook a review. Inadequately, confusingly, and appallingly this concluded that that there was,
“…specific evidence of racism…”
That, “…those responsible for teaching and nurturing children at Te Ra and in other Steiner institutions in New Zealand are, by their training and background, imbued with a world view underpinned with a hierarchy of races that sees indigenous races as having lesser value...”
And that, “The concerns raised…have substance and they are part of a worldwide issue. The writings of Rudolf Steiner are at the heart of the special character of Te Ra school, protected through the integration agreement, and some aspects of those writings are not compatible with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand’s education system.”
However nothing about the integrated school status or funding of Steiner schools changed. Hardcore state-sanctioned racism anyone?
But I feel like it is time to try again. Government understanding of systemic racism has grown. The revised Education and Training Act, the Aotearoa Histories Curriculum, the new agencies Māori Crown Relations Te Arawhiti and Te Aka Whai Ora Māori Health Authority reflect this. Sure they're problematic but they're also opportunities, and leverage for those of us seeking change.
Me? I’m going to write to relevant people, mention the above stuff and ask a few questions. It's a small thing and I am under no illusions as to my powers, but it is important to act. Like I said, racism is everywhere. It’s ugly, dangerous and it’s everyone’s job to call it out.
And you know I am serious because right here I'm sticking in one of those free clipart cartoons.
1 It was a brutal, violent global genocide. I caution you to steel yourself before reading anything detailed.
* Like the excess of white leaders - all the leaders in the anthrosophical movement - from the International association to the NZ association to Steiner Education NZ to the Principals of individual schools - present as white.
2 Go to the Rudolph Steiner Archive and do a search for ‘race’. There are ten lengthy pages of results.
3 One ex-teacher said, "The reason many schools exist is because of the Anthroposophy, period. It's not because of the children. It's because a group of Anthroposophists have it in their minds to promote Anthroposophy in the world...Educating children is secondary in these schools”.
# An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that anthroposophy's international headquarters is called the Goetheanum 'after the famous eugenics fan'. It is actually named after the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe not Charles M. Goethe, the eugenicist. This has been amended and thank you to those who pointed out my mistake.
4 Yes I know Steiner was hassled by Hitler but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have racism in common. History is full of ideologically compatible individuals fucking each other over – Brutus and Cesar, Plato and Aristotle, Stalin and Lenin etc. These acts are about power not values. This is a fascinating and considered essay about the anthroposophy - Nazi link.
5 Integrated schools can also charge compulsory fees in the name of maintaining their privately owned land and buildings. It’s a really fair system.
6 Crown entities exist at arm's-length from Ministers but are still part of the State sector. They’re governed by the Crown Entities Act but each sector has its own enabling legislation, e.g. the Education and Training Act.