What They Talked About
The following exploration of Waldorf schooling
draws primarily from a series of books
published by the Anthroposophic Press
dealing with the “Foundations of Waldorf Education.”
I originally posted or announced the stages
of the exploration at the
Waldorf Critics discussion site.
The writing is a bit informal,
but that may come as a relief.
(I have edited these items slightly
for use here.)
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 Awful statements must be withdrawn, or they stand.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, or they stand uncorrected. 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?
On other pages at Waldorf Watch, 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 roots of the word mean 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? Listen to Steiner himself:
“Anthroposophy will be in the school....” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 495.
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. Steiner was a self-professed, we might say a self-confessed, occultist. He said such things as this:
“[I]n occultism we call the Moon the ‘Cosmos of Wisdom’..." — Rudolf Steiner, THE INFLUENCE OF SPIRITUAL BEINGS ON MAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1961), lecture 6, GA 102. [See "Occultism".]
"In occultism we." (In occultism he: Rudolf Steiner.)
Anthroposophy, the occult belief system created by Rudolf Steiner, will be in any true-blue, Steiner-affirming Waldorf school. Think about it.
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 at the first Waldorf school once suggested that plants may be considered the Earth’s dreams. Steiner immediately corrected him:
“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, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 129.
Waldorf teachers tend to be Anthroposophists or semi-Anthroposphists, trembling on the brink of full commitment. You need only consider the statements that Waldorf teachers made to Steiner to see what sorts of folks he wanted to employ. Or consider some of Steiner’s own statements:
◊ "[Waldorf’s] staff consists of anthroposophists.” — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION FOR ADOLESCENTS, Foundations of Waldorf Education (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, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1998) , p. 118.
In the instance we are considering. the suggestion that plants may be the earth’s dreams is bizarre — or it would strike rational folks as bizarre. But it does not strike Steiner in this way. He accepts the proposition as having meaning; he accepts it as a point worth discussing. The problem with the teacher's suggestion, from Steiner's perspective, is not that the suggestion is bonkers. It is that the suggestion is factually askew (or, in other words, it does not align with Steiner's own teachings).
"[P]lants are in fact the 'hair' of the living Earth." — Rudolf Steiner, THE ROOTS OF EDUCATION, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 65.
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, Foundations of Waldorf Education, 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 [Waldorf teachers] gradually form [in children's' minds] a view of life lived under the Earth during winter [i.e., deep down, the winter Earth is deeply asleep]. 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 Anthroposophical fantasies or falsehoods. Saying that the Earth is asleep in winter is okay in a metaphoric or imagistic sense, but it is simply, factually wrong in an objective sense. (Remember, for one thing, that seasons are different on different parts of the Earth. Deep winter in Canada is the middle of summer in Australia.)
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 Anthroposophical tenets (plants are the Earth's hair, and the Earth has emotions), and he says at least some such tenets 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 lessons and later mouths any of these (“the earth has feelings just like us”) in, let us say, 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.” — Rudolf Steiner, DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, Foundations of Waldorf Education, 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, sanguines are “the most normal” individuals. 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 would nominate Steiner for that post. Steiner always knew best, according to Steiner: 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.” — Rudolf Steiner, DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, 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.” — Rudolf Steiner, 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, Steiner wanted Waldorf teachers to move on to deeper analysis of students’ inner natures. Sadly, for Steiner, going “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".]
In any case, many Waldorf teachers continue using the concept of the four temperaments well into the 21st century. See, e.g., this book, written by a Waldorf teacher and released by a Waldorf publisher:
Does Rudolf Steiner matter? Are Waldorf schools important? How about Anthroposophy — is there any point in spending time thinking about a minor, cultish religion that denies it is a religion, bearing in mind that almost no one has ever heard of it, and fewer still can even pronounce its name? What are we doing, talking about these things? Wasting what little life we are given?
Digging into this stuff is a waste of time. Except...
One could argue that Waldorf schools are important because they constitute a fast-growing “educational”/occult movement that sucks in ever-growing numbers of children, at least some of whom may be severely damaged. Absolutely, seen in this way, Waldorf schools are important.
But there’s an even larger perspective in which, although they are minor, Waldorf schools are major: They are one manifestation of humanity’s predilection for self-deception; they represent one instance of our willingness to buy snake oil. Not just willingness but, indeed, desperate enthusiasm. Deliver us. Show us the way! SAVE US!
Save us from what, exactly? From the wonder and beauty of life? Quarks. Muons. Galaxies. The aurora. Cheetahs. Dolphins. Sunrises. Wildflowers. (Okay, Cheetahs can bite. Save us from them.) Is this what we are so desperate to transcend? Life is hard, life is short, our condition is difficult, we will die. But in the meantime, here we are, alive, in the cusp of magnificent creation — it is all around us, free for the taking. Yet we desperately want to escape, to believe lies, to embrace fantasy — even though our imaginings pale in the face of reality.
We humans are a dissatisfied bunch. That's why we clawed our way to the top of the heap, becoming the dominant species on our planet. If at any stage of our long history we had been satisfied, we would have sat on the bank of the stream, watched the pretty fish swim by, and been happy. But that's not our way. Human history is a dreadful succession of struggles, conflicts, wars... Our hearts are seldom light. Our dissatisfaction has been built into us by evolution: The biggest and baddest guys too often have clubbed the rest into submission, gotten the most mates, and monopolized the pick of the foodstuff. The genes of these striving conquerors have been passed on to their numerous offspring, so that subsequent generations have continued their struggling, battling ways, seeking to scratch the unending itch. We are dissatisfied. So, among other consequences, we have repeatedly fallen for the offers of illusory satisfaction held out by a long, long line of false prophets. Of course, rather than bringing us to the light, these frauds have generally led us even farther into darkness. That is the very definition of false prophecy.
Enter Steiner, his nutty religion, and his deeply flawed educational scheme. Steiner's inventions represent one particularly odd version of mankind’s rush into darkness. It’s a rush we must stop if we, and all the creatures of the Earth that are subject to our dispensation, are to survive. Steiner, and Anthroposophy, and Waldorf schools occupy one little corner of the loony bin we have built for ourselves. If we can disassemble this little corner, maybe we can move on to disassemble the rest, and maybe one day mankind can face the light unflinchingly, and the future will be bright. I hope so. I’m not confident that humankind will opt for sanity — our record so far doesn't inspire much confidence — but I do hope.
In the following set of passages, I’d like to concentrate on a single subject: A School Run by Anthroposophists. What is such a school like?
Here's a relatively innocuous statement made by Steiner. And I promise you a surprise: I will agree with part of the statement.
“We [i.e., Waldorf faculty] ought to make use of the unknown or half known [sic] in order to facilitate the children’s effort at fitting the details into a totality ... As we get used to working in this way we shall...feel the need to make ourselves ever more familiar with the nature of the human being ... [A]s out of our anthroposophical knowledge we ponder this nature, this wisdom of the human being, much will become clear to us and lead to increased teaching skills.” — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION FOR ADOLESCENTS, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), pp. 19-20.
As I indicated earlier, the word “Anthroposophy” literally means "wisdom of the human being." Urging Waldorf teachers to ponder human nature as seen in the light of Anthroposophical knowledge is effectively a prescription for deeper and deeper immersion in Anthroposophy. As for the “nature of the human being,” we must realize that the Anthroposophical conception of human nature is utterly bizarre. I’ll go into this, in some detail, below. [Also see "Oh Humanity".]
Teachers become better teachers by delving more deeply into Anthroposophy and the “knowledge” it provides, says the founder of Anthroposophy. Think of the implications. Think of the effects on Waldorf students. The point of developing teaching skills, obviously, is to use these skills on one’s students. So, subjected to the “improved” teaching skills of Anthroposophical teachers, Waldorf students may be deeply affected. Led by teachers who embody Anthroposophical attitudes and perspectives, the students may be drawn toward the same dark pathways down which their teachers wander.
Now, to momentarily agree with Steiner: Making “use of the unknown or half-known” is not as fearful as it might seem, considering the source. Steiner is not saying that he wants Waldorf teachers to use the unknown and the half-known to inculcate the untrue, leading children down into mystical crapola. Rather, his point is that teachers should leave the students in suspense at the end of a lesson: A subject has been raised, some information (or misinformation) has been imparted, and when the students’ interest has been piqued, stop, leave the rest for the next lesson. The kids may think about what they’ve learned, and they may then form a better sense of the “totality” of the subject. All right. Not a bad instructional strategy.
But (my momentary acquiescence now behind me) should teachers disguise their underlying purposes? Should they seek to draw unwitting students into the snares of a weird, heretical, cultish religion? Drawing students into Anthroposophy is what Steiner ultimately wanted from his teachers, working in a “roundabout” way. I’ll document this as we proceed.
“A lively interest in human nature is, of course, the condition for succeeding in this endeavor [i.e., teaching in a Waldorf school]. Such interest can be developed, and anthroposophy will provide you with all the hints you need.” — EDUCATION FOR ADOLESCENTS, p. 29.
Addressing Waldorf teachers, Steiner says that Anthroposophy will show the way. You, Waldorf teachers, don’t need to look for any other source of wisdom or knowledge — just go with Anthroposophy. "[A]nthroposophy will provide you with all the hints you need.”
The implications are frightening. Waldorf teachers should be guided by Steiner's conception of human nature. What is that conception? According to Steiner, all real human beings  are reincarnated ; we have hearts that do not pump blood  and brains that do not really think (unless we are completely materialistic) ; we have both spirits and souls ; we can develop organs of clairvoyance ; we have twelve senses ; we incarnate nonphysical bodies, some of which ascend into the spirit realm every night while our physical bodies are asleep ; we each embody one of four temperaments (melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) variously mixed ; we belong to spiritually different races — some races are higher than others .
In Steiner's system, people can be categorized in various ways. Individuals who fall into negative categories may not actually be real human beings at all, or — if they are real humans — they may be relicts of previous evolutionary stages that should now be discarded. There are “higher” and “lower races”  (I’m repeating myself, but this point needs to be driven home: Steiner was a racist [see "Steiner's Racism"]). Moreover, there are “people” who are really just robots  or blind “moles” , or more generally “not really human.”  (I'm repeating myself again. But both these points need to be driven home: Steiner said that some people belong to inferior races — and he also said that some people are so profoundly inferior, they are not really human beings at all.)
At the risk of sacrificing my fiercely guarded reputation for impartiality, I’d like to say that Steiner’s doctrines on such matters are atrocious, and for Waldorf teachers to bring these — in any way, to any degree — into their work with children is appalling.
 Some people are not really human, Steiner taught. E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), pp. 649-650.
 E.g., POLARITIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF MANKIND (Steiner Books, 1987), p. 59.
 E.g., AT HOME IN THE UNIVERSE (Steiner Books, 2000), p. 84.
 E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, p. 115.
 E.g., KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1944), p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 E.g., THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), pp. 142-145.
 E.g., THEOSOPHY OF THE ROSICRUCIAN (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1981), pp. 22-25.
 E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, pp. 80-81, pp. 90-91, pp. 345-346, p. 687.
 E.g., THE UNIVERSAL HUMAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1990), p. 75.
 E.g., COSMIC MEMORY (SteinerBooks, 1987), pp. 45-46.
 E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, p. 115.
 E.g., DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS, p. 92.
 E.g., FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, pp. 649-650.
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remaining sections of "Foundations".