What They Talked About
Despite the impression I have surely created, I do not violently disagree with absolutely everything Rudolf Steiner ever said or wrote. In preparing Steiner-critical essays, I naturally focus on Steiner statements that I find flawed. Perhaps someday I’ll pull together a little list of Steiner statements with which I agree. It will be a short list, and pretty dull, since everything on it would have to be far removed from Steiner’s mysticism, racism, sexism, astrology, arrogance, irrationality, aversion to science.... I would have to steer my way past the many troubling characteristics of his typical pronouncements.
Perhaps, someday, I'll give it a go.
Or, heck, why not make a start today? Tentatively, I'll sketch a first draft of my this-seems-okay list right now. Steiner often spoke mildly. He knew what he should say to various audiences, and he knew what was incumbent on him as a religious leader. So he often spoke of love, kindness, gentleness, freedom, and the like: Good stuff, all. I admit it. On numerous occasions, Steiner spoke of treating people well, acting virtuously, aspiring to morality and spirituality and wisdom. Every single statement Steiner ever made along such lines is, to one degree or another, commendable.
In very tentative, very general outline, that is my list. Steiner said such things. The trouble is that he said such things while also making a vast number of statements that are appalling, lunatic, morally and intellectually and (dare I say it?) spiritually indefensible. How many sane statements are needed to counteract one nutty remark? How many commendable statements are needed to expunge an outpouring of hogwash? How many moral statements are needed to offset one racist slander? Three? Ten? 50?
Mental garbage is mental garbage. Awful statements must be withdrawn, or they stand. They must be denounced, repudiated, and explicitly retracted. No “good” statements can offset loony bilge. We should ask ourselves questions such as these: If Steiner was able to make so many appalling statements, how much confidence should we have in him as a guide and guardian of the young? And how much confidence should we have in his faithful followers, who find little or nothing wrong in all of Steiner's beyond-the-pale assertions? How much confidence should we have in them as guides and guardians of the young?
In other essays, I’ve catalogued many of Steiner’s more egregious statements. In order to play fair, let’s examine less explosive material. We’ll give Steiner the stage and allow him to explain the foundations of Waldorf education. Here’s a mild starting point:
Waldorf Teachers and the Spirit
Steiner is speaking:
“First, teachers must make sure that they influence and work on their pupils, in a broader sense, by allowing the spirit to flow through their whole being as teachers, and in the details of their work: how each concept or feeling is developed.” — Rudolf Steiner, DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 180.
Saying that teachers must be attentive to the effects they have on students might, at first blush, seem uncontroversial. But knowing that we are eavesdropping on Steiner instructing Waldorf teachers, we should parse his words cautiously. In discussing “spirit,” Steiner isn’t talking about school spirit or any other sort of spirit that would make sense to rationalists. For him and his followers, the word “spirit” has literal, occult significance. Steiner established a gnostic, occultist religion called Anthroposophy (the word means knowledge of the human). Anthroposophists believe in the omnipresence of an unseen spirit realm occupied by multiple gods, demons, and other invisible beings. So, Steiner says that Waldorf teachers must “allow” “the spirit” to “flow through” them, meaning they will convey the spirit (i.e., spiritual “truths” or the influences of the gods) to their students. This is not what a secular teacher — e.g., a public school teacher — attempts. Waldorf teachers attempt it with “their whole being.” So which approach is preferable?
Steiner further says that Waldorf teachers should not only “influence” their students but “work on” them, conveying both “concepts” and “feelings.” The sort of thinking imparted by Waldorf education is not intellectual but intuitive and emotional (i.e., it is not real thinking at all but gauzy wishfulness: see, e.g., “Thinking Cap”). Waldorf teachers “work on” their students in order to promote such flimsy thinking — and they generally do this without admitting it to the students or the students' parents. But Steiner, speaking to Waldorf faculty members, was less guarded. He told the teachers that Anthroposophy will be in the school: They are to convey spiritual truths, which means the doctrines of Anthroposophy; and he wanted the effects of the gods to flow through the teachers to the students. [Take a gander at "Serving the Gods"].
“The teacher must be true in the depths of being. Teachers must never compromise with untruth....”
Mull this over. “The depths of being”: i.e., teachers’ spiritual selves. “Untruth”: What is this to Anthroposophists? Anything that is contrary to Anthroposophy. So what is Steiner saying? The effects and influences flowing through the teachers to the students will be Anthroposophical; the teahers will convey the concepts and feelings advanced by Steiner in his occult concoction, Anthroposophy. In brief, Anthroposophy will be in the school. (Don’t believe me? See Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 495:
“Anthroposophy will be in the school....”
Don't think the term "occult" is fair? See Steiner's books AN OUTLINE OF OCCULT SCIENCE, OCCULT HISTORY, AN OCCULT PHYSIOLOGY, OCCULT SIGNS AND SYMBOLS, THE OCCULT SIGNIFICANCE OF BLOOD, etc. [See "Occultism".])
The Dreaming Earth
Let's look more deeply into the Anthroposophical conception of truth and how such truth is conveyed to Waldorf students.
A Waldorf teacher suggests that plants may be considered the Earth’s dreams.
“Dr. Steiner: ‘But plants during the high summer are not the Earth’s dreams, because the Earth is in a deep sleep in the summer.’” — DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, p. 129.
Waldorf teachers tend to be Anthroposophists or Anthropop fellow travelers. You need only consider the statements that Waldorf teachers made to Steiner to see what sorts of folks he wanted to employ. (Or take Steiner’s own word for it:
◊ "[Waldorf’s] staff consists of anthroposophists.” — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION FOR ADOLESCENTS (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 60.
◊ "As Waldorf teachers, we must be true anthroposophists in the deepest sense of the word in our innermost feeling.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, p. 118.)
This teacher’s suggestion that plants may be the earth’s dreams is utterly bizarre — or would be to rational folks. But not to Steiner. He accepts the question as having meaning, but — as usual — he corrects the interrogator: Steiner always knew best (in his opinion, which was the only opinion that counted).
As to when the earth is “asleep”: Anthroposophists believe that the Earth is an organism that is evolving, just as the beings on or under its surface are evolving. As Steiner put it, telling Waldorf teachers what they might say to kids,
“‘Just think children, our Earth feels and experiences everything that happens within it ... [I]t has feelings like you have, and can be angry or happy like you.’” — DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, p. 132.
There’s something attractive in this fantasy. And it can be tricked out in semi-scientific respectability. Nowadays, the “Gaia hypothesis” has proponents. Certainly we need to cherish and protect the Earth. We might even go so far, nodding to Gaia, as to agree that perhaps the Earth in some sense might be considered a single organism (depending on how one defines this word).
But is our planet an organism that feels anger and happiness? Steiner said so, so it must be true, hm? Steiner also taught that the Earth breathes in and out, slowly: once a day, in one sense, or once a year — out during the spring and in during autumn — in another sense. As always, Steiner's doctrines are far removed from ascertainable scientific findings. In effect, Steiner asserts that a Waldorf teacher may feed students junk science, since what is false for science can be, if Steiner says so, true for Anthroposophists. Immediately after saying that the Earth “can be angry or happy like you,” Steiner says
“In this way you gradually form [i.e., in children's' minds] a view of life lived under the Earth during winter. That is the truth. And it is good to tell children these things. This is something that even materialists could not argue with....” — Ibid., p. 132.
I beg to differ. "Materialists" — by which Steiner generally meant rationalists or non-Anthroposophists — may certainly argue with such fantastical assertions.
Waldorf faculty generally deny that Anthroposophical doctrines are taught to Waldorf students. Here we see what actually goes on, or should go on, according to the founder of Waldorf education. Steiner lays out an Anthroposophical tenet (that the Earth is a being that has emotions) and he says that this tenet can be explicitly conveyed to students. “It is good to tell children these things.” So, then, when will Anthroposophy be present in a Waldorf school? Almost always, both covertly and, less frequently perhaps, overtly.
Pity the poor student who accepts Steiner’s lesson and later mouths it (“the earth has feelings just like us”) in a college geology class.
The Four Temperaments
Steiner adopted the ancient, unscientific notion of humours and temperaments: We have four principle fluids in our systems (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm), and depending on which one is predominant in an individual, a certain temperament results (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic). Moreover, Steiner taught that temperament can be read in a child’s body type.
“The melancholic children are as a rule tall and slender; the sanguine are the most normal; those with more protruding shoulders are the phlegmatic children; and those with a short stout build so that the head almost sinks down into the body are choleric.” — DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, p. 34.
This, of course, is nonsense — and it is potentially very harmful nonsense. Waldorf teachers taking Steiner's guidance will categorize children, using a false system of categorization, and they will do this at least in part on the basis of appearance. A child may carry the scars from this treatment for many, many years. [See "Humouresque".]
Note that, according to Steiner, the sanguines are “the most normal.” In other words, they are not quite normal, but the members of the other three groups are even less normal. To one degree or another, then, all children are abnormal. It’s as if Waldorf schools exist in a sort of reverse analog of Lake Woebegone; they occupy a realm in which all the children are below average. Upshot: Every child (i.e., every human) needs correction. And who do you suppose Steiner held up as the person to give this correction? Steiner always knew best: When a teacher said that “the phlegmatic child sits with an open mouth,” Steiner rejoined
“That is incorrect; the phlegmatic child will not sit with the mouth open but with a closed mouth and drooling lips.” [p. 30] Well played, sir.
Ultimately, to his credit, Steiner urged the teachers at his school to get beyond the concept of temperaments. Toward the end of his life, Steiner said,
“[W]e need to find our way past the temperaments.” — FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, p. 687.
This later statement does not actually disavow the concept of the temperaments — Steiner was almost incapable of admitting that he had made an error. But, evidently realizing that the four-type categorization of students was proving to be unwieldy, he wanted Waldorf teachers to move on to deeper analysis of students’ inner natures. Sadly, for Steiner “deeper” meant hauling in esoteric concepts such as karma, which he said is tied up with the level of one's spiritual evolution, which he said is tied up with one's race. Steiner would have done better sticking with plain, unadorned temperaments. [See "Karma" and "Races".]
Use this link to go to the
remaining sections of "Foundations".
 Some people are not really human, Steiner taught. E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), pp. 649-650.