Common Sense

Waldorf teachers often claim that the principles of Waldorf education are perfectly sensible and not dependent on Rudolf Steiner’s occult teachings. [1] This is disingenuous. What they really mean, consciously or not, is that Waldorf principles seem sensible to them precisely because they accept so many of Steiner’s occult teachings. 

Roy Wilkinson was associated with Waldorf schools for many decades, first as a student and then as a teacher. His book COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING (Henry Goulden, 1975) gives us a good look at what passes for good, solid common sense in Waldorfworld. Here are some excerpts, good, bad, and...

“ a being of body, soul and spirit. Through his physical body he is related to the world of matter. He has a life force in common with the plants. Emotions and sensations he shares with the animals. In his inner core he is an individual possessed of the divine spark. Man is related to all things and is the centre of all things. His evolution is not yet complete. He has the possibility of infinite development.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING, p. 7.

Here we see several central Anthroposophical teachings. Steiner taught that we have both souls and spirits, as Wilkinson dutifully repeats. Steiner also said that we have three invisible bodies: etheric bodies, astral bodies, and spiritual egos or “I”s. Wilkinson speaks of these without candidly using their Anthroposophical names: His purpose is to make Waldorf schooling seem to make sense, so — wittingly or not — he disguises and conceals as much as he reveals. The “life force” he refers to is the etheric body. Steiner said that plants, animals, and humans have etheric bodies, consisting of spiritual forces connected with the "soul world" but also tightly bound to the physical universe. By “emotions and sensations,” Wilkinson is speaking in a roundabout way of the astral body. Steiner said that animals and humans have such bodies, consisting of higher spiritual forces, sometimes referred to as sentient souls or faith bodies. “The divine spark” Wilkinson lists is the “I” or spiritual ego which defines our humanity: It is (according to Steiner) a set of spirit forces (remember that Steiner distinguished between soul and spirit), our link with the gods, our transcendent selfhood.

Still more occult doctrines peek out at us from Wilkinson's brief, camouflaged statement. Steiner taught that human beings are microcosms of the entire universe, we stand at the center of all things — the universe was created for us. We are evolving spiritually and in all other ways. Our evolution will take us to almost unimaginable heights — we will become God the Father. All of this in embedded in Wilkinson's statement (we are "related to all things," we are the "centre or all things," we are involved in our own "evolution," and we can attain "infinite development"). All of this is common sense, from a Waldorf perspective. Why? Because it is what Steiner taught.

Basically, we have already reached the end of our investigation. Case closed. Waldorf education embodies, and serves, Anthroposophical religious doctrines.

But I promised more than one excerpt, so let’s look at some others — the good, the bad, and the...

[subtitle]: “Based on the indications of Rudolf Steiner"

For his followers, Steiner’s “indications” are any clear directions he gave them, plus any hints or obscure remarks he made that require interpretation. Anthroposophists pore over Steiner texts, looking for guidance. Waldorf teachers generally do this as well, whether or not they are deeply committed Anthroposophists. Question: If Waldorf schooling is based on common-sense precepts — that is, principles that should be obvious to average folks — why do we need to consult the "indications" given by a self-professed clairvoyant?

“Man’s struggle today is to preserve his identity as a free spiritual human being.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p. 1.

Spiritual “freedom” is central to Steiner’s doctrines. It is a fine ideal, and it certainly appeals to many parents and their children. In fact, however, in Anthroposophical doctrine real freedom means willingly conforming to the plans created for us by the gods. There is little or no actual freedom in such submission. [See "Freedom".] We will return to the subject of freedom, below.

“[E]ducation must, among other things, concern itself less with actual learning than with developing a flexibility and adaptability of mind....” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING, p. 3.

Steiner downplayed brainwork and minimized the importance of conveying factual information to students. [See "Thinking".] The question becomes whether Waldorf schools offer good educations if they are less concerned with "actual learning" than with other things. Flexibility of mind is surely important, within the limits of rationality. But Waldorf schools want to sidestep rationality — they emphasize imagination, which in Steiner's  scheme of things is a step on the path to clairvoyance. (Another Waldorf teacher who has written books somewhat like Wilkinson's openly discusses the clairvoyance Waldorf teachers think they have and use in their work. See Eugene Schwartz, WALDORF EDUCATION: Schools for the Twenty-First Century (Xlibris Corporation, 2000).)

“The government may decree that religion shall be taught but unless it lives in the hearts of the teachers, children will reject it.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING, pp. 4-5.

Some governments decree the teaching of religion, some ban it. But focus on the other element in this statement. Children will reject the religion taught them unless their teachers have this religion in their hearts. Do Waldorf school teachers have a religion in their hearts? Steiner said that Waldorf teachers must be true Anthroposophists in their hearts, and they should bring their spirituality into the classroom. [See "Faculty Meetings".] Sometimes the result is scandal, when parents realize what the schools are up to" shepherding kids toward the religion called Anthroposophy. [See "Scandal".] A useful light is thrown on these issues by a chapter in Wilkinson's book THE SPIRITUAL BASIS OF STEINER EDUCATION (Sophia Books, 1996): "Esoteric Development and the Teacher". Steiner often denied that Waldorf schools try to implant Anthroposophy in their students, just as he often denied that Anthroposophy is a religion. But often enough, he said (or inadvertently revealed) the opposite. In fact, if they are to fulfill Steiner's intentions, Waldorf teachers should have the religion called Anthroposophy in their hearts and they should lead their students toward that religion. [2]

“ a being of body, soul and spirit. Through his physical body he is related to the world of matter. He has a life force in common with the plants. Emotions and sensations he shares with the animals. In his inner core he is an individual possessed of the divine spark. Man is related to all things and is the centre of all things. His evolution is not yet complete. He has the possibility of infinite development.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p. 7.

I’ve already discussed this passage. I’m repeating it because it is so central — and because I need to make the following point. COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING is fairly typical of Waldorf PR. Wilkinson wrote it for outsiders: He was putting the best face he could on Waldorf education, trying to make Waldorf education seem unobjectionable. But Wilkinson wrote many other books and booklets, most of them intended for Anthroposophists, potential converts to Anthroposophy, and Waldorf teachers. In these publications, he discussed Steiner's occult doctrines quite openly. For instance, if you doubt that the quotation above is really about etheric bodies, astral bodies, and spiritual egos, check out Wilkinson's book RUDOLF STEINER: Aspects of His Spiritual World-View, Vol. 1 (Temple Lodge, 1993): 

"Thus, we can now define the four members of the human being: physical body, etheric, astral, ego." — p. 28. 

All of the other occult concepts I point to in COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING — sometimes hidden, sometimes not — are explicitly laid out in Wilkinson's other publications, which have titles like THE SHAPING OF DESTINY: Reincarnation and Karma (1980), THE CURRICULUM OF THE RUDOLF STEINER SCHOOL: Guides to Teaching in Rudolf Steiner Education (1975), and THE SPIRITUAL BASIS OF STEINER EDUCATION (1996). I discuss some of these publications elsewhere here at Waldorf Watch.

“Today education has become mainly informative, but it would appear that another role, already mentioned in the first chapter, must be allotted to it: it must be curative.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p. 11.

Steiner gave Waldorf teachers a messianic mission, to “cure” humanity by fulfilling the “divine cosmic plan.” In this context, passing along information — that is, actually educating the kids — distinctly takes a back seat. For a bit more on such matters, see, e.g., "Waldorf's Purpose" and "Thinking Cap".

“In a general way, then, it can be said that one of the tasks of education is training in intellectual and manipulative skills [sic: italics by Wilkinson] ... [A] further aim is an awakening of social conscience ...  A third aim of education is thus cultivation of means of self-expression ... There is yet a fourth aim ... Rudolf Steiner expresses the ideal in these words: ‘Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and directions to their lives.’ This ideal, this ability to find and develop oneself, can be called spiritual development.” — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  pp. 12-14.

The first three of these goals probably strike most readers as perfectly sensible, while the fourth may catch some by surprise. Significantly, Wilkinson steers this list of goals to arrive at Rudolf Steiner’s concept of spiritual development. Spiritual development is the highest aim of Waldorf schools, he says. Fine. But bear in mind that the process of spiritual development in Waldorf schools is the one we have already outlined: We, standing at the center of all creation, with our three invisible bodies, will evolve infinitely upward until we become God the Father. We must do this willingly, freely — but note the internal contradiction, we must move in a sort of enforced freedom that takes us in a single, predetermined direction, established by the will of the gods. Whether or not you like the sound of this, you should realize that this is basic Anthroposophical doctrine. The highest goal of Waldorf schools is to facilitate human evolution as described by Rudolf Steiner. [3] If you think this is what a school should do, you may want to send your kids to a Waldorf school. But if not...

• "[T]here is a fairly uniform general pattern of child development ... The ages of six to seven and thirteen to fourteen are main staging posts in a child's development." — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p  21.

• "We spoke of the three distinct phases of child development — 0 to 6, 7 to 14, 14 onwards — and it would seem a natural consequence to organize a school with three corresponding sections: The Infant School [up to age 7] ... The Middle School [ages 7-14] ... The Upper School" [ages 14 and above]." — Ibid., p. 29.

Steiner taught that children grow up in three distinct stages, each of them seven years long. [See "Most Significant".] Wilkinson, of course, agrees. What Wilkinson doesn't mention is the occult significance of this conception. Steiner taught that we reincarnate every 2,000 years or so. Between lives on Earth, we dwell in the spirit realm; when we return to Earth as infants, we bring with us memories of life in that realm. Young children should be kept young so that they will retain these memories, Steiner taught. [See "Thinking Cap".] But even beyond that, the growing process should be leisurely: We arrive with a physical body, but our etheric body, astral body, and "I" become fully manifested only slowly, on a — you guessed it — seven-year schedule. [See "Incarnation".] Thus, the basic organization of a Waldorf school reflects the concepts of reincarnation and the gradual emergence of three invisible bodies to supplement the physical body. "Infant school" takes a child up to the time when the etheric body is fully manifested about age 7, "middle school" is geared toward the emergence of the astral body at about age 14, and "upper school" is oriented to the full emergence of the "I" at about age 21.

"From the state of minimal consciousness of the small child to the full waking consciousness of the mature adult is a long way. The child should not be shocked into awareness by too much factual knowledge or demand for skills. The world is still a little vague to the child and the path is from story via simile to knowledge. The child's mind can be led and encouraged, but should not be forced. Let us always bear in mind organic development." — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p. 47.

We have already covered several points that help us understand the Waldorf slant behind statements like this. Waldorf schools emphasize the development of the "whole child." This sounds great. [See "Holistic Education".] And who can argue against such ideas as that we should not unnecessarily "force" children or "shock" them? But consider. In Waldorf belief, the "whole child" is a reincarnating being who has both a soul and a spirit, who will develop three invisible bodies, who possesses twelve senses, who has a karma, who has an aura, who has memories of past lives, who exhibits one of four "temperaments" (we'll get to this), and so forth. Most of this is sheer fantasy, but it is what Waldorf schools focus on. So, factual knowledge and even skills are minimized. Underlying this is the concept of "organic growth" of "consciousness." Steiner taught that each child repeats mankind's spiritual evolution, which is a process of developing higher and higher stages of consciousness. We began on "Old Saturn" where our consciousness was extremely dim. We have passed through "Old Sun" and "Old Moon" to arrive here on Earth with our current level of consciousness. In the future, we will proceed to Jupiter, Venus, and Vulcan, expanding our consciousness at each stage. This is basic Anthroposophical dogma, and remember that Waldorf teachers 

"must be true anthroposophists in the deepest meaning of the word in our innermost feeling." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 118.

"A good teacher will know how to shape his lesson to appeal to all elements in his class. There will be the noisy, rowdy members to whom some dramatic action will have appeal. There will be a few melancholics who may want to sorrow over some sad thing. There will be a collection of dreamers who need to be awakened, as well as the will-o-the-wisps who need a succession of quickly happening events to arrest their attention." — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING,  p. 68.

Waldorf schools often divide children into four categories, as laid down by Steiner: The categories are the four "temperaments." Using their imagined clairvoyant powers, Waldorf teachers make judgments about the souls of their students, and then they often segregate the kids on the basis of these bogus judgments. The four categories Wilkinson alludes to are called choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine. [See "Temperaments".] The underlying concept comes from ancient times and has been rejected by modern psychology, but Waldorf schools often embrace ancient fantasies in preference to modern knowledge. Labeling children according to empty, outmoded ideas is clearly a bad plan, having potentially damaging consequences. Do you want your child to be labeled a "phlegmatic," for instance, and assigned to sit in a particular part of the room, and do particular activities, based on that label? Wilkinson advocates such treatment, as do most Waldorf schools, because Steiner advocated it. For more on this, see Wilkinson's booklet THE TEMPERAMENTS IN EDUCATION (self-published, 1983).

"[K]nowledge of the particular children with which one particular teacher deals is only obtained from day-to-day observation and one could go even so far as to say, a nightly meditation; for knowing the child does not mean external observation only." — COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING, p. 94.

What, if anything, is wrong with that? Of course teachers should try to know their students well, inside and out. Of course teachers should think about their students at night (i.e., during their off hours) as well as during the school day. But once you have learned the particular language and concepts used by Waldorf teachers, you will find other meanings in statements like this. What, for instance, does Wilkinson mean when he says that teachers should not use "external observation only"? And what does he mean by "nightly meditation"? The opposite of external observation is internal observation — but you cannot look inside another person using ordinary senses, you have to use clairvoyance. So Steiner taught, anyway, and so Waldorf teachers believe. Steiner also prescribed a great many meditations, spiritual exercises, and prayers for his followers to use. Wilkinson's "nightly meditation" involves these. It also involves something else: Steiner taught that when his followers have made sufficient spiritual progress, they will have reliable, true dreams. Waldorf teachers who consider themselves spiritually advanced will thus believe their dreams. If you want your child to be educated by people who think they are clairvoyant and who make judgments about children based — in part of in whole — on dreams, then a Waldorf school might suit you and your family. But if not...

I won’t drag this out. The rest of COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING is much the same. Behind statements that may strike some readers as quite inoffensive, the occult doctrines of Rudolf Steiner lurk. These are what Waldorf education is devoted to. Please get a copy of COMMONSENSE SCHOOLING (or almost any other defense of Waldorf schooling written by a Waldorf teacher) and have a look. Occultism hides quietly behind the scenes — or strides proudly, out in the open — in any exposition that reflects the real nature of Waldorf education.


[1] Not all Waldorf teachers are alike, of course. But those who have gone through Waldorf teacher-training programs, and especially those who are deeply devoted to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, share a special point of view, what Steiner called the Waldorf teacher's consciousness. In essence, this consists of the ideas and values of Anthroposophy. In referring to "Waldorf teachers" on this page, I am primarily thinking of such teachers. [See, e.g., "Teacher Training" and "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness".]

[2] The central Anthroposophical organization is the Anthroposophical Society, headquartered in what amounts to a cathedral, the Goetheanum, in Switzerland. When discussing the first Waldorf school, Steiner explicitly categorized the Anthroposophical Society as a religious group. 

"When the school was founded, we placed great value upon creating an institution independent of the Anthroposophical Society. Logically, that corresponds quite well with having the various religious communities and the Anthroposophical Society provide religious instruction, so that the Society provides religious instruction just as other religious groups do." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 706. 

The original Waldorf school was officially, legally separate from the Society, just as most Waldorf schools are today. But, unofficially, the ties between the schools and the Society are often quite strong. These institutions are indistinguishable in one fundamental sense: They devoted to the spiritualistic teachings of Rudolf Steiner.

[3] By the way, there is another problem here. Like Wilkinson, many Waldorf educators attribute the quotation (“Our highest goal...”)  to Rudolf Steiner. Many may do so because of Wilkinson. But in fact the statement was made by someone else: The words were written by Steiner's second wife, Marie Steiner. You will find it on p. 27 of THE NEW ART OF EDUCATION (Philosophical-Anthroposophical Publishing, 1928) — introduction by Marie Steiner. I mention this only because it shines a light on a curious problem confronting anyone who tries to investigate Waldorf education. Much of the "information" provided by Waldorf schools is incomplete, misleading, or false. In this instance, the falsehood is minor: The words are not Rudolf Steiner’s, but the thinking behind the words is: This is what Steiner taught. 

Anthroposophical art:

"Birth" by Elizabeth Lombardi.

— Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings

To visit other pages in this section of Waldorf Watch, 
use the underlined links, below.


A look back, plus

Mystical thinking, realistic thinking


Reports and advice from parents whose children attended Waldorf schools

A report by a mother who was drawn to a Waldorf school but left disillusioned

Talking it over

Had enough?

Describing the near-collapse of the Waldorf school I attended

Deprogramming myself after Waldorf

Who the heck am I?

Doom and deliverance

Short and sweet

Can you trust me?