Keith Francis spent much of his life in service to Waldorf education. He rose to prominence, becoming Faculty Chair at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.
In his book THE EDUCATION OF A WALDORF TEACHER (iUniverse, 2004) he has many good things to say about Waldorf schools.
But he is also uncommonly candid, reflective, and even skeptical, by Anthroposophical standards (indeed, he calls himself a “wayward Anthroposophist”).
As a result, he offers us numerous glimpses into Waldorf closets that are usually kept shut. Here are some examples:
“Waldorf education is a form of practical anthroposophy ... The first Waldorf School had formidable growing pains and internal dissensions, and Steiner died while it was still in the midst of them ... Learning about all the good things that may be expected to happen in a Waldorf School is a relatively easy task. Coping with the way things actually turn out is more difficult.” [pp. xii-xiii]
Waldorf faculties often have very high opinions of themselves, believing that they are engaged on a holy mission. “Before I left England I had realized that there was something close to consensus among the teachers at Wynstones [a British Waldorf school] that their school was the one place in the world where things were being done correctly according to Rudolf Steiner’s wishes ... I also learnt that the staff at Michael Hall [another British Waldorf school] in Sussex thought the same thing about their school, although the exactly correct things being done there were often in contradiction to the exactly correct things being done at Wynstones. It did not occur to me that the same kind of scholastic chauvinism might operate in [Waldorf schools in] the USA until I had my nose practically rubbed in it ... The teachers at Wynstones and Michael Hall knew that they carried the sacred flame of Waldorf education. Some people at Garden City [a Waldorf school in suburban New York] had the same idea about themselves.” [pp. 59-60]
An underlying problem at Waldorf schools is that real knowledge about the real world is often rejected. Anthroposophists believe the occult, "clairvoyant" teachings of Rudolf Steiner, not the knowledge produced by modern science and scholarship. A subsidiary problem is that Anthroposophists can become arrogant in their belief that they — and only they — know the Truth. "Anthroposophists generally practise what they preach...but only up to a point. We certainly have no difficulty in rejecting most of the world's recognized authorities, along with the orthodoxies of politics, economics, medicine, science, art, agriculture and education that they represent — except when they just happen to fit in with something that we are pushing. As a group we believe that we have access to knowledge that puts us in a superior position, and the tendency to let this feeling of superiority show is one of the most off-putting features of the anthroposophical personality." [pp. 60-61]
Waldorf schools often pride themselves on the attractive art and lesson books created by the students, while skimping on the task of actually teaching the students. “I have attended countless [Waldorf] open houses ... I have seen scores of [student] notebooks, copied and illustrated with enormous care and devotion and riddled with all kinds of errors, placed where parents and visitors are most likely to see them. I can assure you that I am not exaggerating.” [p. 131]
Why does this happen? Teachers are expected to teach too many subjects with too little preparation. The best they can do, often, is to quickly memorize some material, write it on the board, attach an illustration, and then have the students make copies. If the teachers have limited knowledge of their subjects, these limitations are passed along to the kids in the form of unrecognized errors. This arrangement ensures that chilren will be misinformed by faculty who are unqualified in many of the subjects they teach. “Class teachers have to cover an immense range of topics. A seventh grade teacher, for example, has to teach courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, physiology, English language and literature, geography and history. Since most people have specialized knowledge of at most one or two of these subjects this means...the teacher is at the mercy of his or her sources ... [I]f you have only a few weeks in which to prepare to teach a block in physiology or medieval history you may well find yourself simply copying what someone has told you or what you read in a few — maybe a very few — books. Very often the time available is considerably less than a few weeks. Having completed sixth grade you are in a state of exhaustion [as you try to get ready for teaching seventh grade] ... That means about one week of preparation for each main lesson block, provided you do not take a vacation.” [pp. 131-132] In general, Waldorf teachers rely on teachers' guides written by fellow Waldorf teachers.
“Copying is the curse of the Waldorf Schools. There is altogether too much of it, and it is not confined to the elementary school. In high school, where there is much less excuse for it, it still goes on. The way in which many [Waldorf] teachers organize their work implies that they consider that the whole object of the course is the creation of a gorgeous notebook. And the way in which some teachers judge the work of other teachers implies the same thing.” [p. 132] Francis comments that one problem with this approach is that it gives little indication of whether a student has actually mastered a subject. An industrious, dutiful child can create a lovely (copied) notebook, but s/he may have learned very little, and neither the child’s teacher nor her parents may recognize this. Look! A beautiful notebook! My, isn’t little Sally doing well in school? [For more on Waldorf lesson books, see "Lesson Books".]
At most Waldorf schools, the inner council of faculty members is called the College of Teachers. The members study Rudolf Steiner's teachings, pray and meditate, and make administrative decisions for the school. “The College of Teachers of which I was privileged to be a member for many years had a strong tendency to oscillate between two extremes and I have seen similar tendencies in my travels as a visiting teacher [at other Waldorf schools]. One extreme is the position that the College should concern itself with purely spiritual matters and leave the nuts and bolts to other groups or individuals. The other is that the College should take the responsibility for everything, right down to the shape of the bathroom doorknob. Proponents of the first view say that it is the task of the College to maintain the lines of communication with the spiritual beings who hover over the school, and if the College doesn’t do it perhaps no one will. The school is a spiritual organism and there must be an organ to receive and cherish what flows in from the spirit [realm]. Those who take the second view say that decisions about nut and bolts are spiritual matters.” [p. 184.]
Academic studies are often given short shrift at Waldorf schools. The problem is especially acute in sciences and math. As a result, "In my thirty-two years as a Waldorf teacher I met very few classes in which more than a handful of students were fluent in the most elementary math." [p. 57]
Critical thinking is not highly prized at Waldorf schools or among Anthroposophists. Instead, Anthroposophists tend to be true believers who uncritically choose gurus for themselves. The gurus are, of course, almost always fellow Anthroposophists. “As anthroposophists we are enjoined to practice veneration and to silence the inner voice which is apt to be saying, 'But.. But... But...' ... Anthroposophists, however, seem to adopt their gurus uncritically, often simply on the strength of reputation or position. I have seen it happen often enough and it seems to be quite easy to become an anthroposophical guru ... I have no doubt that some of the anthroposophical authorities whom I have encountered over the years have been people of genuine insight ... Equally there are those who are ‘negative influences’, some of whom do it with charisma and some with bumbling sincerity. A few are self-serving charlatans.” [pp. 61-62]
There is often considerable turmoil within Waldorf faculties. "When Waldorf teachers work together the external opposing forces [i.e., opponents of Waldorf education and/or Anthroposophy] can be resisted effectively, if not defeated. Bitter experience has taught me, however, that these periods of well-being do not last, and that when things go bad they do so from the inside.” [p. 94]
"When it comes to ordinary human weaknesses, we cannot assume that anthroposophists and Waldorf teachers will be any better than average for the human race as a whole. Since there is a tendency for anthroposophy to bring out the very best and the very worst in people, the deviations from the norm are greater than usual, and this only compounds the problems of making good decisions and keeping the school on course.” [p. 99]
Competitiveness and jealousy are not unknown among Waldorf teachers. Consider a case in which several teachers are being considered for a high position in a Waldorf school. “[T]he flamingly idealistic enthusiasts who did not get the job are still present [in the school] and may have some difficulty in channeling their will forces cooperatively. Waldorf communities make very convenient homes for loose cannons ... I remember several occasions when the work of the College [of Teachers] ground to a halt for weeks or even months because of implacable bees in the bonnets of one or two members. I remember other occasions when good people left the school because they couldn’t stand it any more.” [p. 103]
"[T]hree years of productivity and relative peace were followed by a period of discord which led to another outbreak of the old scenario. Resistance was just as strong as before and this time it was more vocal. Soon after that the teacher in question took a job at another Waldorf school, leaving the faculty bitterly divided and the school seriously damaged." [p. 102]
When discord rends Waldorf faculties, the cause can often be found in the teachers' varying interpretations of Holy Writ — i.e., the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. The result can be, in effect, a sectarian conflict between opposing bands of true believers. "[S]everal teachers had, through a misunderstanding and misapplication of Steiner's words, become excessively, in fact obsessively, preoccupied with the development of the instrumental program [i.e., the creation of a student orchestra]. The program certainly needed developing, but the zeal and fervor with which the ideas were put forward would have been somewhat more appropriate for a religious revival. There was a great deal of talk about the need for the children to 'experience the string tone.'" [p. 109]
"Are such goings on the inevitable result when anthroposophy interacts with human nature? Perhaps it isn't just anthroposophy but anything that makes people think that they know better than everyone else." [p. 110]
"Between them the school's managers and their protégés had turned the Rudolf Steiner School into a place where I didn't want to be ... I got myself a job at the [non-Steiner] Lenox School ... My work at Lenox was rather trying, since the students were much nastier than the ones at the Rudolf Steiner School and this was only partly compensated for by the fact that the teachers were considerably easier to get on with." [p. 115] When conditions changed once again, Francis, returned to the Steiner School.
How Waldorf teachers talk about their students: "Amy and Jack must be very artistic children who are incarnating just a little slowly and need help ... Maria and Cliff are over-intellectual (tsk, tsk) and already too deep into the physical. Their intellectuality must be checked and they must be given more artistic work and made to recopy their main lesson books — several times, if necessary. Their parents must be instructed to keep them off the Internet, away from the TV and video games and to discourage them from reading the modern novels that fascinate them and doing many other things that an intellectually curious child is apt to do." [p. 133] The "tsk, tsk" comes from Francis, not me. To understand the reference to incarnation, see "Incarnation". Briefly, Steiner taught that human beings reincarnate. A child arrives on Earth with a physical body and then gradually incarnates various invisible, spiritual bodies. Waldorf schools are far more interested in helping children incarnate than in helping them to learn subject matter. This is part of the reason for the anti-intellectual bias at Waldorf schools. [See "Steiner's Specific".]
Although Francis seems to be a whistle-blower at some points, we should bear in mind that he is a devoted follower of Rudolf Steiner and an advocate of Waldorf education. Thus, he sometimes speaks in terms that only an occultist could take seriously. For example, when cautioning teachers against trying too hard to curry popularity among the older students, he writes "What you may not have realized is that you are splashing around in a sea of hyperactive adolescent astrality and that this may be dangerous to your health. The effects of all this astral interaction may be to punch a hole in your etheric. Not all the illnesses to which teachers are prone are caused by bacteria or viruses." [p. 149] Astrality? Etheric? Is he serious? If he is not wholly so, most true-blue Waldorf teachers accept such language without blinking. They believe that humans have invisible "astral bodies" and "etheric bodies." They also accept Rudolf Steiner's quack medical teachings, which ascribe many illnesses to the stars, karma, and other surprising sources. [See "Steiner's Quackery".]
Francis ultimately agrees with Steiner that Waldorf teachers must accept or at least make peace with the doctrines of Anthroposophy. Addressing new and aspiring Waldorf teachers, Francis writes "[Y]ou also have to come to terms with reincarnation, karma, the details of the life between death and rebirth and the work of the hierarchies [i.e., ranks of gods] in the evolution of the world and the human being. This is not all. Perhaps the most difficult thing is that you get the impression that anthroposophists think of Christ as a great spiritual being [i.e., He is just one of many gods]. That indefinite article on its own may be enough to give you the feeling that anthroposophy is not for you. The continual references to the members of the hierarchies as Gods do not help." [p. 183]
A Waldorf school, in the end, is a center of Anthroposophical belief and action. Return to the first quotation, above: "Waldorf education is a form of practical anthroposophy." Unless you can accept Anthroposophy, a Waldorf school will almost certainly be wrong for you and your children.
[For more on the Anthroposophical doctrines Francis alludes to, see "Karma", "Higher Worlds", "Polytheism", "Was He Christian?", "Sun God", "Everything", and "Steiner Static". That should get you started, at least.]
Disclosure statement: I attended a Waldorf school Francis mentions in several passages — the school in Garden City, New York. Francis also writes of John Gardner, who was the headmaster of that school during my years there. I knew Gardner well. I had a slight acquaintance with Henry Barnes, the headmaster of the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City in those days. There is a slight chance that I saw or even met Francis during his visits to Garden City, but I do not remember having done so. As the cover photo of Francis's book suggests, Francis became Faculty Chair of the Steiner School well after my Waldorf graduation in 1964. Francis taught at the Steiner School from 1965 until 1996, with one gap as he describes. (I would guess that the cover photo dates from the 1970s. During my school years, the students of the two schools wore conservative, 1950s-style clothing, and the guys kept their hair very short. The Steiner School kids were a bit more bohemian than we were in Garden City, but none of them resembled the students shown in the photo. I am acquainted with various people who were students or teachers at the Steiner School, but I do not recognize anyone in the photo.)
— Roger Rawlings
To visit other pages in this section of Waldorf Watch, use the underlined links, below.
◊◊◊ 6. FORMER WALDORF TEACHERS, ET AL ◊◊◊
If you'd like more information about any of the topics discussed here,
you might begin by consulting the following resources:
THE SEMI-STEINER DICTIONARY
THE BRIEF WALDORF / STEINER ENCYCLOPEDIA
WALDORF WATCH INDEX
WALDORF WATCH TABLE OF CONTENTS