TW - racism, potential shattering of parental illusions
This is the first of two posts. The second one deals with the way Steiner schools minimize their connections to anthroposophy and why this is not ok. You can read it here.
I know there are some lengthy footnotes but the subject is so layered and complex. You'll really get a fuller picture of you read them. Also they're not in numerical order becaude I kept thinking of new ones I had to add in.
I used to teach at an intermediate that had a Steiner school up the road. Over the time I worked there I had several ex-Steiner kids pass through my class and I became fascinated with them. They were obviously not all the same, were cool and distinct people and I cared for them in the same way I cared for all my students, but they did share interesting and sometimes problematic attitudes toward learning.1 So I did some deep-dive research (which has lasted about twenty years).
Like many people I figured Steiner schools (sometimes called Waldorf schools, they’re the same thing)2 were about being pastoral with minimal technology, maximum outdoor activities, intense teacher-student bonding and a ‘whole child’ approach. I was kind of right. Steiner schools do have these things but not because they’re valued in and of themselves, rather Steiner schools have these things because they’re considered the best educational means to deliver a religion called anthroposophy.3 Anthroposophy also dictates a specific, oppositional and educationally unusual definition of ‘whole child’, the main subject of this post.
Before I get into it I want acknowledge that some students and families have lovely and worthwhile experiences with Steiner schools and I have no doubt the teachers work hard and genuinely care. All good. However some students and families have lovely and worthwhile experiences at Catholic schools with teachers who also work hard and genuinely care. But this doesn’t make the doctrine of the Virgin birth any less problematic. Good individual experiences don’t negate the influence of broader contexts.
Also I'm not trying to persuade anyone not to send their child to a Steiner school. It’s none of my business.
And on we go.
Steiner schools and anthroposophy
The Steiner school curriculum is based on anthroposophy. Anthroposophy’s chief deity is Austrian esotericist Rudolph 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.
It's all very complicated and often unpleasant (there’s a particularly hideous racist element. I might write about this one day but in the meantime here’s someone else’s essay. It’s from 2010 but this shouldn’t matter because Steiner’s ‘truths’ span all of space and time so theoretically remain as relevant as the day they were revealed. And yes it's an issue in Aotearoa NZ schools).
There’s a lot I don’t know (and am not allowed to know)4 but at the same time I know more than enough. I’ve even read some of Steiner’s works first hand (they are PUNISHING). This post covers just one teeny tiny aspect of the absolute mindfuck that is anthroposophy.
Steiner schools and the ‘whole child’
Modern Steiner schools inevitably do two things, 1) try to publicly distance themselves from the more extreme ideas of their founder5 and 2) say they take a ‘whole child’ approach. I’ll be concentrating on the second.
My position is that within a Steiner school the ‘whole child’ is a paradoxical anthroposophical doctrine enacted on students. It is not a pedagogical effort to understand, support and work with a ‘whole’ unique child and all their life complexities. The intentions, blanket-beliefs and prescribed actions of anthroposophy preclude any possibility of this. Instead Steiner schools squeeze all children into a pre-ordained cosmic identity made up of generic components, which they then work to reinforce.
They’re kinda up front about this, kinda
The Steiner Education Aotearoa NZ website says,
“Steiner/Waldorf Education focuses on the whole child……the Steiner/Waldorf curriculum recognises that children pass through distinct developmental stages at which times specific forces are at work and capacities develop. The curriculum is designed to deliver the right stimulus at the right time, thus allowing each of these developmental stages to unfold fully.”
First up please note the absence of ‘anthroposophy’ or indeed any reference to Rudolph Steiner. These omissions are one way Steiner schools attempt to distance themselves from the dodgy reputation of their founder and his doctrines. But although the words are missing, the ideas are not. You’ll only recognise this though if you know the anthroposophical ‘code’. If you don’t, you’ll likely just see a lovely-sounding parentally-appealing paragraph.
Before I crack the code I want to reiterate that all Steiner’s ideas were revealed to him on the astral plane and that he considered all of them to be literal truths. ALL OF THEM. However there is no objective proof for any of it. NONE. In fact Steiner's ideas contradict almost everything we do know about effective teaching and learning, including brain development and neuroscience; child psychology; classroom practice; educational achievement (both conservative and progressive); most credible education philosophies; feminist, queer and people of colour critiques; indigenised spaces, and the development process and content of Aotearoa's own education documents - The NZ Curriculum,10 Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, and Te Whāriki. None of the above are perfect or definitive but they do each have an Earth-related evidence base.
In anthroposophy “…distinct developmental stages…” (as above) refers specifically to the process by which the reincarnated soul slowly instantiates in the body. To understand you need a quick primer on reincarnation - souls incarnate into physical bodies which are left behind at death, at which time they re-enter the spiritual world before being born again into a new body… and repeat. After each physical death the spirit reviews their life. This determines the karma it needs to work through in the next and an appropriate body in which to do this. Souls ascend through their various lives via a repulsive race-based hierarchy with reptiles at the bottom and Aryan men at the top.9
Each reincarnated body lives their life chronologically via seven-year cycles, moving away from the physical and closer to the spiritual with each one. Each period is a 'developmental stage' -
In Steiner education the term ‘whole child’ means the physical, spiritual, social, and intellectual combination associated with each stage (or 'body') in the reincarnation journey, which is identical for everyone.
Each seven-year stage has fixed characteristics which require ‘appropriate’ boundaries to be placed on learning. This is what’s meant when Steiner Education Aotearoa states, “…the curriculum is designed to deliver the right stimulus at the right time thus allowing each of these developmental stages to unfold fully”. Note the repeated use of the word ‘right’. It's clearly important and indicates that learning is considered correct, defined and general. It is not considered contextual, evolving and personal.
Steiner schools no longer teach anthroposophy directly but its reincarnation-based notions of human development impact every part of their curriculum. Steiner lays it down,
“The subjects you teach will not be treated in the way they have been dealt with hitherto. You will … have to use them as a means with which to develop the soul and bodily forces of the individual in the right way” (Rudolph Steiner: Practical Advice to Teachers).
The doctrine of the teeth is an example of this in action. Remember how until age 7 a child’s in their ‘physical’ body? In practice this means they have a mandate to focus only the somatic (talking, sleeping regularly, balancing, running etc.) Supporting cognitive development during this time (i.e. reading, putting things into sets, questioning etc.) is seen as inappropriate, even damaging because it deprives a child of fully experiencing the first phase of their reincarnated life which threatens the quality of their whole karmic journey.
According to anthroposophy the loss of baby teeth/arrival of adult teeth signal a child’s readiness to move from the ‘physical’ to the ‘etheric’, at which time things like reading, writing, maths etc. may be introduced. Teeth are the indicator because they are the hardest substance a child can produce, the body’s ultimate display of physical mastery. Seems legit.
Modern Steiner schools don’t go on about teeth but they do enforce ‘delayed learning’ and explicitly discourage children from reading before the age of 7 even if they want to. Hey! Whole child! Too bad if you’re 5 and yearn for symbols and pages and pondering. STEINER SAYS NO.6
The theory of ‘temperaments’
When they enter their etheric body (age 7) children are allowed to begin to read and write and explore numbers and sets etc. It’s also at this time that a child’s ‘temperament’ begins to definitively appear.7 The theory of temperaments is another mystical no-evidence lump-children-together ‘truth’ Steiner picked up whilst tripping on the astral plane. It's based on ancient Greek medicine so is obviously relevant for today's schools.
There are four temperaments - melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and choleric and everyone in the world is dominated by one of them. They are “…connected, to a remarkable degree, with the whole life and soul of a person’s previous incarnations.” (Rudolf Steiner, Discussions with Teachers). Each temperament has an associated colour, planet, body type, walk, flower, season, rock, element, dominant emotion, key personality trait and fuck knows what else. Here are lots of explanatory diagrams and here is a very light, incomplete once-over:
In Aotearoa NZ
Classroom use of the temperaments is alive and well in Aotearoa NZ. The Federation of Rudolph Steiner Waldorf Schools in NZ curriculum guidelines say the following,
“Teachers use the concept of the four temperaments, which were described by Steiner as the cornerstone of education, as a means to understand and work consciously with the behaviour and personalities of children. These temperaments: the choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine, express personality and the characteristic way the child perceives and interacts with the world…Working with the temperaments is implicit in classroom organisation, behaviour management and the optimising of individual learning styles”.
As with many Steiner school messages this paragraph is a truth that’s only understood when the anthrosophical code is broken and the pretty language cleared away. When this is done we can see the temperaments are just another dogmatic anti-whole, pro-generic child definition situation.
Let’s look closely at the words, “…described by Steiner as the cornerstone of education…” This is another way of saying the temperaments are the opinion of just one man but they must be treated as fact (in a calculated move the ‘because Steiner was a divine being’ rationale is omited).
Then we have “…a means to understand and work consciously with the behaviour and personalities of children…” or alternately, a means to categorise children then uniformly interact with each category according to some cosmically mandated guidelines.
Next is, “…express personality and the characteristic way the child perceives and interacts with the world…” I.e personalities and characteristics are not part of a complicatedly unique whole child but are instead dictated by temperament and are the same for everyone at that particular rodeo.
Finally we have “Working with the temperaments is implicit in classroom organisation, behaviour management and the optimising of individual learning styles”. Essentially children can never escape their temperament; can never be seen, defined, taught, understood or considered ‘whole’ outside of it. GAH.
Head, heart and hands
Finally, a personal rant. The Steiner school movement has co-opted the phrase 'head, heart and hands' to describe their 'whole child' (not) approach. This is disingenuous and fucks me off no end. Yes there's the usual vague loveliness and omission; 'Head, heart and hands' is clearly less alarming than 'physical, etheric and ego' which is what's actually meant. But I'm furious also because the phrase is pinched.
Unlike pretty much everything else 'head, heart and hand' was not bestowed upon Rudolph Steiner during one of his heavenly jaunts. Instead the philosophy originates with the 18th century Swiss educator and reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a fascinating, socially concerned, quite radical guy who only hung out on planet Earth.
What Pestalozzi thought was that children should be free to pursue their own learning interests and draw their own conclusions, and that this process could and should be done through the head, heart and hands. Pestalozzi thought letters and numbers (head), physical labour and the senses (hands), and kindness and collaboration (heart - he abolished flogging at his school) had equal value in the learning process and should be used in combination by students according to their needs and wants.
So actually really fucking different from the Steiner school version, in that -
Tune in next time when you’ll hear Rudolph Steiner say, “We must not be afraid to talk to the children about Atlantis. We should not omit that…“ (Rudolph Steiner, Practical Advice for Teachers).
Rudolph Steiner's drawing of the Atlantis location
1 For example, one kid knew what flower they were, but could not read (true story).
2 'Waldorf' comes from the cigarette company that sponsored the first Steiner school in 1919.
3 Many say anthroposophy is a ‘philosophy’ not a religion but by any accepted definition this isn’t true. Religion is based on a set of incontestable beliefs and dogma about human existence, related to the supernatural and arising from a single point of view (god, prophet, leader, whatever). Philosophy is about multiple people asking questions, thinking critically and actively about existence through various different, permeable and evolving methods. Anthroposophy is dependent on the edicts of one 'exceptional' man, Steiner, who considered his teachings as a ‘truth’ applicable to everyone and it comes with absolutes and rules and there are angels and gnomes.
4 There’s lots of stuff only a group of ‘chosen initiates’ knows. This group’s called the School of Spiritual Science or the ‘First Class’. Only a select few are invited to join and they’re sworn to secrecy. The First Class is anthroposophy’s overall authority, direction-setter and decision-maker. It ultimately oversees all Steiner schools.
5 Paradoxically in their attempts not to be Steinerish schools are fulfilling a Steiner directive. He was big on keeping the anthrosophical agenda secret. He said "We 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).
6 I AM NOT arguing against the importance of play nor the problems with rushing children into things. But defining ‘play’ as the same thing for everyone and preventing children from experiences they’re ready for is unfathomable, potentially damaging and the literal opposite of catering for the whole child. Also, although we can generalise (based on actual evidence) there is no ‘right’ age to begin reading. A child’s desire, readiness and ability are influenced by a complex mix of nature and nurture.
7 When in their ‘physical’ phase orthodoxy says children have the same temperament as their mother.
8 The 'ego' stage is when the knowledge of previous lives is made explicit.
9 Many modern editions of Steiner's writings have had the racist stuff expunged. An entire chapter, 'The essence of Jewry' was removed from a 1999 English translation of Steiner's book ‘From Beetroot to Buddhism’. The chapter contained such gems as "The best thing that the Jews could do would be to disappear into the rest of humankind, to blend in with the rest of humankind, so that Jewry as a people would simply cease to exist. That is what would be ideal".
10 Steiner schools that are integrated are meant to incorporate the NZ Curriculum alongside their 'special character'. I don't see much evidence of this in the primary schools although the secondary school ones do do NCEA. I struggle with this, the approaches seem so opposed. The Ministry of education does not share my concerns however, just like they won't designate Steiner schools as 'faith-based'. I find it all very puzzling and unsatisfying.