TW - racism, bullying, religion
This post follows this one and this one follows it. if you read the first, what follows will make more sense. It talks about Rudolf Steiner and his religion anthroposophy. But if you don't want to read a big thing, here's the gist:
The Steiner school curriculum is based on anthroposophy. Anthroposophy’s chief deity is Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a self-proclaimed divine being who could see the ‘super-reality’ of the everyday world, “...the secrets of its activities and existence which unveil themselves to him” (Rudolph Steiner, Occult Science: An Outline).
One unveiled secret was astral travel. This allowed Steiner to ascend through various levels of consciousness until he got to the top where he gained access to the Akashic Records. These contained the lost knowledge of all the events in the world’s spiritual and physical history. Anthroposophy is these revelations made manifest by Steiner. It’s deeply mystical with a fundamental all-inclusive non-negotiable view of life from birth to death and beyond. Spiritual realities and beings are seen to influence physical ones and anthroposophy is ‘true’ for everyone on the planet always.
Based on feedback to my previous post, a moral obligation to call things out, my intense intellectual and emotional involvement in education, and that I think it's interesting, I’ve decided to write two more essays. This one focuses the ways Steiner schools refuse to front foot their anthrosophical heritage. The second one will be about racism (yep. I'm going there).
Thank you to those who were/are part of the Steiner system for getting in touch after last time. I appreciate hearing both your positive and negative experiences. I welcome opportunities for reflection, even when they're uncomfortable. I hope everyone does.
I do want to point out however, that every defence I heard related to individual experiences within individual schools, the joyful children and pretty artwork etc. No one engaged in the legacy systems and anthroposophical facts I wrote about, how they might contextualise, connect, influence and rationalise today's classroom practice. This was the point of my post.*
So I'll repeat, my intention is not to deny the happiness some people derive from their Steiner education. I also understand anthroposophy’s visibility varies between schools. But it is the foundation for all Steiner schools. It is the system and can and should be interrogated.> I challenge individual Steiner schools to really truly scrupulously reflect on themselves beyond the local, visible, and superficial. Then decide if there's anything in it and if so step up (e.g. change your fucken website).
Let’s get into it then.
There are schools in Aotearoa with philosophies that give me the shits.1 There are faith-based schools in Aotearoa with beliefs I do not share.2 There are schools in Aotearoa with spiritual components3 and those that rest on the ideas of a single educator.4 I know a reasonable amount about these schools – what they offer, how and why they offer it – because they’re all decently transparent; up front and standing by their approach.# Whatever I feel about their respective curriculums, I have to respect this.
It is not the same with Steiner schools. Steiner schools consistently fudge where they come from and why they do the things they do. I can see two possible reasons for this. First, the secrecy schooling directives that came from Rudolf Steiner,
“We should not speak to people outside the school, except for parents who come to us with questions, and in that case, only about their children....” -
Second is that many of the ideas held by Steiner are extremely problematic when considered and espoused in the modern world. At best they’re ridiculous, at worst stomach-turning and damaging.
Whatever the reason (both?) Steiner schools do not properly share their anthroposophical roots and it is a problem. When product disclosure is inadequate there can be no informed consent. Prospective parents cannot easily get the information they need and may therefore choose something they don’t know they’re choosing. (Obviously if they get the information and decide a Steiner school is right for them it's fair enough. None of my business).
Whakapapa, the birthing of ideas, the layering of these over time, matter. If you don’t acknowledge the past and trace its connections to the present then you cannot act in transformative ways (assuming that's what you want to do). We see an attempt to do this right now with the introduction of the Aotearoa NZ Histories curriculum in public schools. This is fumbly, not perfect, but it is official recognition of our colonial history and its enduring, inequitable impacts. And it's happening despite the fact that some people are 'happy' with their current colonial lives. (I will be fascinated to see how Steiner schools incorporate this new curriculum, without addressing the ideological parallels of their founder).5
Alternately if Steiner education's done the work, explored the layers and really moved past their history, why hide it? Please share how! The insights would be of value to the whole world.
Either way, just saying you 'don't really do anthroposophy' doesn't cut it. If it's not true don't say it is. If it is true, show us how you got there. At the very least tell us which of Steiner's ideas are in and which are out and why.
But instead Steiner Schools duck, dive, and deflect. And they are really good at this! So good that almost everyone is flabbergasted to learn about the obscure, esoteric, often repugnant and unproven teachings upon which they rely. People tend to see only the beautiful wooden toys and small class sizes. But then, this is what they’re shown.
When it comes to fudging, Steiner schools operate on both the offensive and defensive. Let’s look at some common strategies from both categories.
Evidence for the following comes from Aotearoa New Zealand’s Steiner schools' websites. This directory links to them.
These pre-emptive ‘look how lovely we are’ moves are at best naive (which is unacceptable. A Principal should be all over their school). At worst they're craven and disingenuous.
Pretty and oblique language: You can more read about this in my last post, how Steiner schools couch things in vague and appealing language and how when they do this they’re not exactly lying but they are speaking in a kind of anthroposophical code. If you don’t know it you can’t fully understand the message. I provided the example ‘developmental stages’. In a Steiner context this refers to the process by which a reincarnated soul instantiates itself into a physical body. Is this the meaning that would enter your mind?
Omission: Considering they’re called ‘Steiner schools’ it's interesting how absent Rudolf Steiner is from their websites. When he does appear he’s only ever described as a philosopher or educator, never a mystic (his self-proclaimed proud identity). The (occult) process by which he received his ideas is never mentioned. There are never links to his writings. Anthroposophy is almost never referenced.
What you do get is ye olde timey photo of him looking wise and some selective, context-free inspirational quotes. I guess these are easy ways to get your Steiner visibility quota up without actually saying anything about the man.
Some Steiner quotes that appear on school websites:
A Steiner quote that doesn't appear on a school website. Go figure:
Making reassuring connections to the broader education system: This is where Aotearoa’s integrated Steiner schools say things like “…combined with the NZ Curriculum” and “…incorporates the latest education research” and “...prepares students for external assessments”.
These kinds of statements make parents think they’re getting the best of both worlds - a cosy, alternative, leafy green experience for their child which also provides the relevance, skills and competencies needed to effectively understand and function in the complicated modern world. Result!
I ponder if and how Steiner schools manage this, especially the ‘based on research’ claim. Most modern educational, neurological, psychological, scientific, and child developmental evidence would seriously call into question, for example Steiner’s 'stages of development’ and 'temperament' theories, yet they endure. How is this reconciled?
Insist they work to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Steiner websites are full of proud announcements regarding their 'consultation with iwi'. I bet you one million dollars that during their 'consultations' they do not lay out the obscenely racist views of their founder; that they don't for example, explain his 'primary race traits' theory where 'blacks' are 'instinctual', 'yellows' are 'emotional' and 'whites' are 'thinking' and how each race has a corresponding brain, 'rear' for 'blacks', 'middle' for yellows and 'head' for 'whites'. Here's a fun Steiner illustration:
Rudolf Steiner, Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde
It does not matter how bicultural a school's roll is, this is some serious constitutional shit! If schools are not working through it with their communities they can be said to be failing in their obligations to Te Tiriti. They're not acting in good faith or partnership; they're not acknowledging nor making an effort to redress the pain of the past.$
Steiner schools often become defensive when questions about anthroposophy are raised. Here are some of their classic responses and why I'm not convinced.
Concerns are historical, Steiner was a product of his time, it doesn't apply to the modern movement: First up where is the evidence? Any significant debate or shift in the anthroposophical movement would surely be documented (like when the Church of England decided women could be ordained as priests or Copernican heliocentrism replaced Ptolemy’s geocentric model). I can find no record of this nor of any evolution in anthroposophy’s overall purpose and practice. Here's a selection of quotes from modern, practising anthroposophists who aren’t Steiner. See if you think they describe a serious shift.
Besides, dropping anything would be difficult. This is just logic. If the movement questioned Steiner’s core beliefs (like reincarnation) it would put into doubt all his teachings, undermining the whole edifice.
Remove one layer and the edifice falls.
Also if a school moved too much could it still legitimately call itself ‘Steiner’? And receive all the financial and reputational benefits the name brings with it? Again, at the very least Steiner schools should tell us exactly what’s in and what’s out and why.
The idea that Steiner inhabited a time when racism, classism, sexism was acceptable is just wrong. At the end of the twentieth century there was a significant amount of writing, philosophy and action challenging these things (e.g. Marx, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglas, the suffrage and abolitionist movements). Steiner saw this and actively worked against it, creating the ‘First class’ (see the ‘mumbo jumbo’ section coming up).6
I continually fail to understand why Steiner’s offensive ideas get a free ‘of his time’ pass. Does everyone? Can we selectively ignore every horrible thought, thinker, action, event because it happened before now? Would a Ghengis Kahn school movement be ok? I mean, sure he was a ruthless killer but he was also a devout Buddhist and super at communicating.
Steiner schools graduates are successful and happy in their lives: Well, often yes. But there are ‘winners’ in all forms of education. Plus most students in Aotearoa who’ve have been through Steiner education are pākehā, have educated and supportive parents and come from relatively wealthy families. They have social and cultural capital in spades and are the kinds of children who tend to do well whatever the school type. In addition Steiner schools are designed for this exact demographic (will talk about this more in my next post).
As with any school there are also those for whom this is not true, who feel damaged by their experience. Plenty of blogs by ex-students detail this. Here’s a particularly thorough one. There’s even a Waldorf survivor’s group.
Steiner schools are excellent and unique: I would suggest that the subtext of these statements is that public schools aren’t excellent and/or unique and therefore you should choose a Steiner school. The tactic here is an assumed counter-factual, i.e. the answer to faults in mainstream education is Steiner. Which clearly isn’t true, there are a million different responses to this.
Steiner teachers ignore any ‘mumbo jumbo’: Well, to ignore ‘mumbo jumbo’ it has to exist. So this is an admission.
Sometimes teachers (especially new ones) don’t even know about the mumbo jumbo. They may be drawn to Steiner schools because of their small class sizes, emphasis on relationships and the natural world (which are real). Anthroposophy is presented as the progressive and caring ideology upon which these rest.
Newcomers are certainly not told that at anthroposophy’s heart is a group of initiates called the School of Spiritual Science / First Class / Goetheanum (named after the famous eugenicist Goethe. Go figure). Established by Rudolf Steiner, its purpose is to keep anthroposophy going and influential. He called it a ‘regenerating organ. It’s still responsible for high-level oversight of anthroposophical organisations (including schools) and direction-setting the world over. (After two years of service Steiner teachers can apply to join even if they don’t know they can, although they’re likely to be unsuccessful, you need hardcore credentials).
Litigation and silence: Steiner schools sometimes get heavy. They can be litigious, officially challenging threats, real or perceived. This is common with British and American schools but also happens here.
Conversely Steiner schools are sometimes taken to court or formally complained against, (often for failing in their pastoral care, more about this in the ‘bullying’ section). When this happens Steiner schools generally ignore things until they can’t at which time they financially settle and provide a half-arsed apology. Aotearoa NZ Steiner schools are not immune.
Anthroposophy is not taught to children: Sure, it’s not explicitly taught but this misses the point. Anthroposophy is a practice, a pedagogy, a ‘how’ not a ‘what’ and it permeates all aspects of Steiner schooling. The NZ Federation of Steiner schools states (‘special character’ is a synonym for ‘anthroposophy’),
"Special Character is not confined to any single aspect of a school’s activity. It is expressed in educational aims, curriculum content and delivery, teaching methods and organisational structures, as well as in the social and physical environment of the school".
Here are just a few examples of how this happens.
Technology: Steiner schools are open about discouraging computers and other forms of technology. Their rationale is usually something about freeing children from an oversaturated media world or the benefits of nature or encouraging co-operative play. All of this is reasonable but none of it’s the actual reason. Rudolph Steiner forbade technology because it embodied an evil spiritual called Ahriman.
Ahriman, carved by Rudolph Steiner
Ahriman’s a nasty demon who literally exists and uses people’s physical and astral bodies to try and draw them towards evil. Ahriman is responsible for fax machines but also for preventing the weaker humans from journeying to Atlantis.
Eurhythmy: This is a prescribed form of dance and movement traditionally used in Steiner schools. It’s considered to be a combination of exercise, performance, music appreciation, and meditation and it probably is these things. However none of this was eurhythmy’s primary use. Instead Steiner intended it to facilitate the joining of the reincarnated spirit with all the parts of its new body (it can be lovely to watch).
Visual art: Steiner had heaps of (racist) rules for art. He considered white to be pure spirit, the most beautiful and righteous of all the colours hence it’s given to children first. The rest proceed (in moral worth and introduction) from lightest and brightest to brown and finally black. The hierarchy represents anthroposophy’s belief in the eternal battle for men’s souls between good white angels and pesky, nasty old Ahriman.
Then there are those fuzzy abstract damp paper pictures, always in light and bright colours. These exist because Steiner believed children’s souls were not developed enough to cope with sharp lines and distinctions.
Behaviour and bullying: Questions over bullying and behaviour understandably freak Steiner schools out. After racism it is the thing they are most defensive about. I really do think Steiner school leaders are genuinely horrified at the idea their students are not being kept safe and I know some schools have anti-bullying programs in place. This is obviously a good thing but it doesn’t address legacy issues.
As I said earlier transformative change cannot take place if histories and their connections to the present are not seriously studied and consciously dismantled. However successful a localised programme may be, the fact is it’s been stuck on top of some awful and entrenched beliefs about child behaviour. If this is not true please explain how.
Every school deals with bullying but not every school has bullying as a part of its classic pedagogy, which Steiner schools do. In my last post I explained the anthroposophical cause-and-effect reincarnation system where each new life reflects the positive and negative actions of the previous one. If you behaved badly last time, you’re going to have crap thrown at you this time and you must work through it if you want a better deal next time.
It follows then that when children are bullied (or have disabilities, learning difficulties, whatever) it's because their karma dictates it. Steiner believed teacher intervention stuffs this up, inhibiting the spiritual journey of the child involved. I do not understand how a school can adhere to the ‘developmental stages’ doctrine if they don’t believe in reincarnation and karma. It's the same logic in the diagram above. How do 'anti-bullying' strategies navigate this? Maybe it's all very successful, but who'd know?
But enough! Clearly Ahriman has entered me and I have not been strong enough to resist.
# E.g. Christian schools do not pretend they have nothing to do with the bible
* In case you're wondering Steiner himself is still in the education business. His current role is as a Lord of Education in the Ascended Masters retreats
> All Western, inherently powerful systems should be interrogated
1 E.g. Bridge International Academy, ATC Military Prep School.
2 E.g. City Impact Church School, Hare Krishna School.
3 E.g. Kura Kaupapa Māori, Ficino School
4 E.g. Tamariki School, Montessori schools
5 NZ has 10 integrated Steiner schools and 1 private. An integrated school receives government funding (but can also charge ‘attendance costs’ ffs). They have a designated ‘special character’ (e.g. Steiner) but must teach the NZ Curriculum combined with whatever this is. The whole integrated system drives me nuts but that is for another day
$ Even Australia has apologised ffs
6 Thank you for your insight here, Maryanne