Waldorf schools often claim to offer “holistic” education. They claim to educate the “whole child” — head, heart, and hands.
This certainly sounds good. But before sending your child to a Waldorf school, you should look a bit deeper. What do Waldorf schools really mean by their fine-sounding words?
Here’s the whole child as Waldorf schools see the concept. (Bear in mind that Waldorf faculties will rarely acknowledge their occult beliefs to outsiders. Following the directives of Rudolf Steiner, they conceal their "mystery knowledge" from the uninitiated. But I will provide extensive documentation to show that the following account of Waldorf beliefs is accurate.)
A whole child has a physical body, of course. But according to Waldorf beliefs, s/he also has — or is in the process of developing — three additional, invisible bodies. These are the etheric body, the astral body, and the spiritual ego or “I.” [See "Incarnation".] At night, the “I’ and the astral body leave the sleeping physical body and travel into the spirit realm where they consort with spiritual beings. The ether body remains behind with the physical body.
“[W]e go to sleep at night, setting forth with our Ego and astral body, leaving behind the body of our waking life...until we re-awaken.” — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS A PICTURE OF THE LIVING SPIRIT (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), a lecture, GA 228.
Drawing a diagram to show this, Steiner said: “Here (left) we have the physical body and the ether body (yellow). It fills the whole of the physical body. And here (right) we have the astral body, which is outside the human being at night (red). At the top it is very small and hugely bulging down below. Then we have the I (violet). This is how we are at night. We are two people in the night." — Rudolf Steiner, BLACKBOARD DRAWINGS 1919-1924 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003), p. 102. [RR copy.]
There is considerable room for doubt about these concepts. But our purpose right now is not to debate Steiner but simply to understand what he and his followers believe about human nature.
Our Organs and Parts
A whole child has a brain, of course. But Waldorf schools do not consider brains to be very important.
“[T]he brain and nerve system have nothing at all to do with actual cognition; they are only the expression of cognition in the physical system.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 60.
Real cognition, according to Waldorf belief, comes from clairvoyance, which is not produced by the physical organ known as the brain. We’ll consider clairvoyance in a moment, but for now, focus on Steiner's disparagement of the brain and its workings — that is to say, thinking.
“[W]hen we look inside the head, we find dying matter ... Once we have penetrated this hard, lifeless skin and reached the brain, we find in it fossilization everywhere...." — Rudolf Steiner, FROM CRYSTALS TO CROCODILES (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2002, pp. 148-149.
In Waldorf doctrine, the brain is said to play no role in real cognition; it is a mere dying tangle of fossilized matter. Naturally, then, the functioning of the brain — thinking, intellectualizing — is, by and large, worse than useless.
“The intellect destroys or hinders.” — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 1 (Anthroposophical Press, 1995), p. 233.
Steiner taught that humanity is now passing through a phase of extreme physical incarnation, and in this phase thinking — the use of the brain — does have some value for us, temporarily. But we will soon evolve beyond this phase, and even while we are at our present level of development, we must not expect our brains to lead us to real knowledge.
[For more on this, see "Steiner's Specific".]
A whole child has a heart, of course. The heart is traditionally considered the seat of the emotions, and it is considered the most essential of organs because it circulates the liquid essence of life, blood. When the heart stops, the organism dies. Waldorf teachers generally accept these concepts, with one amazing exception. According to Waldorf doctrine, hearts do not pump blood.
“[Science] sees the heart as a pump that pumps blood through the body. Now there is nothing more absurd than believing this....” — Rudolf Steiner, PSYCHOANALYSIS AND SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY, (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1990), p. 126.
“The heart is not a pump ... Basically the heart is a sense organ within the circulatory system, yet exactly the opposite is taught nowadays.” — Rudolf Steiner, POLARITIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF MANKIND (Steiner Books, 1987), p. 56.
You can already see a pattern: Waldorf schools generally oppose the findings of modern science. This is rarely clearer than in the quotations we have just now seen, in which Steiner openly states his rejection of modern knowledge. Science sees the heart one way, Waldorf schools see it another way.
[For more on such matters, see "Steiner's Quackery".]
A motto used by many Waldorf schools to summarize their “holistic” approach is “Head, Heart, and Hands.” Waldorf teachers claim to educate all of these. We’ve seen what Steiner had to say about the head and the heart. What about the hands? Waldorf students do a lot of handwork, such as knitting. Why? Steiner taught that handwork has amazing, magical benefits. Knitting, for instance, is good for the teeth:
“Go into our needlework classes and handicraft classes at the Waldorf School, and you will find the boys knit and crochet as well as the girls ... This is not the result of any fad or whim ... [T]o drive the soul into the fingers means to promote all the forces that go to build up sound teeth.” — Rudolf Steiner, SPIRITUAL SCIENCE AND MEDICINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1948), lecture 17, GA 312.
This is another place where we might be tempted to pause and debate Steiner’s ideas, but let’s resist — let’s push ahead to learn what else Waldorf schools mean by “the whole child.”
Organs of Clairvoyance
The key to “true” knowledge, according to the belief system of Waldorf education, is clairvoyance. Children are capable of developing high powers of clairvoyance, Waldorfers think, through the cultivation of imagination. This is why imagination is emphasized at Waldorf schools. Steiner taught that everyone used to have clairvoyant powers, and with the right schooling we can develop such powers again.
“Essentially, people today have no inkling of how people looked out into the universe in ancient times when human beings still possessed an instinctive clairvoyance.... If we want to be fully human, however, we must struggle to regain a view of the cosmos that moves toward Imagination again....” — Rudolf Steiner, ART AS SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 256.
Clairvoyance is not a function of the brain — an organ that Steiner disparaged. Waldorfers believe clairvoyance is a function of invisible organs that can be cultivated by following Steiner’s occult directives. Thus, we should meditate on natural objects:
“From the stone there flows into the soul one kind of feeling, and from the animal another ... Out of these feelings and the thoughts that are bound up with them, the organs of clairvoyance are formed.” — Rudolf Steiner, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1947), chapter 2, GA 10.
"Organs of clairvoyance" are invisible, nonphysical structures that exist apart from the physical body — or so Waldorf doctrine holds. The whole child may not yet have fully formed organs of clairvoyance, but Waldorf schools aim to help develop such organs.
[For more about clairvoyance and other psychic powers, see "Clairvoyance".]
The whole child has various senses, of course. Roughly speaking, human beings have five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. But Waldorf schools believe that children actually have a dozen senses, some of which are purely occult.
“First, we have the four senses of touch, life, movement and balance. These senses are primarily permeated by will ... The next group of senses, namely smell, taste, sight and temperature are primarily senses of feeling ... I need to add that the sense of I and the senses of thought, hearing and speech are more cognitive senses....” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), pp. 142-145.
Once again, we see the Waldorf view is distinctly at odds with reality.
The whole child is a reincarnated being having her/his own karma.
“As soon as we begin to think with our fingers — and one can think with one's fingers and toes much more brightly, once one makes the effort, than with the nerves of the head — as soon as we begin to think with that part of us which has not entirely become matter, when we think with the lower part of our being, then our thoughts are the thoughts of our karma." — Rudolf Steiner, BLACKBOARD DRAWINGS 1919-1924 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003), p. 126.
A child must fulfill her/his karma, even if this means s/he must suffer or even die. Speaking of a child who was crushed to death when a van overturned on him, Steiner said this: “Superficially, the death of young Theodor Faiss could also be described as a most unfortunate accident. In reality, however, the karma of this child was such that the ego, to put it bluntly, had ordered the van and the van overturned to fulfil the child’s karma.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE DESTINIES OF INDIVIDUALS AND OF NATIONS (SteinerBooks, 1987), pp. 125-126.
Waldorf teachers will interfere in a child's karma only rarely — they let the chips fall where they may. [For more on this topic, see "Karma".]
A whole child has a soul. But more than that, s/he also has a spirit — Waldorfers think the soul and spirit are different.
“The soul must not be impelled, through the body, to lusts and passions ... The spirit, however, must not stand as a slave-driver over the soul, dominating it with laws and commandments....” — Rudolf Steiner, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1944), p. 96.
Actually, things are even more complex than that. Steiner was not entirely consistent on this point, but he often said that human beings have nine natures, including multiple souls and spirits. These nine are: 1. Physical Nature, 2. Etheric Nature, 3. Soul Nature, 4. Sentient Soul, 5. Intellectual Soul, 6. Spiritual Soul, 7. Spirit Self, 8. Life Spirit, 9. Spirit Man. For more on all this, see “What We Are”. The main point for us at the moment is that a Waldorf education, aimed at the “whole” human, tries to take all of these nine components into consideration. (A secondary point is to realize how words have different meanings in the Waldorf universe than elsewhere. The "intellectual soul." for example, hardly facilitates intellect as it is usually understood — remember that for Steiner and his followers, the intellect destroys or hinders.)
A whole child possesses a certain connection with astrological forces. S/he is influenced by the stars, especially the constellation that was ascendant when s/he was born. Thus, a child born under Leo, for instance, differs in important ways from one born under Sagittarius. Astrology is never far below the surface in the Waldorf worldview.
“For as what man is today stands written in the heavenly spaces in the writing of the constellations of the stars, so stands written there too what is yet to happen with him. This is the ground of true astrology. You will see at once, from what we have been considering, that you really only need to know occultism [i.e., Anthroposophy] and you have at the same time the root principle of astrology.” — Rudolf Steiner, MAN IN THE LIGHT OF OCCULTISM, THEOSOPHY AND PHILOSOPHY (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964), lecture 9, GA 137.
Because the astrological impact of the stars is so great, a child’s condition can be understood through the use of horoscopes:
“By looking at what the horoscope shows we can see what is really the matter [with a child].
“Take first this horoscope (of the elder sister). It will probably have struck you that you find here in this region, Uranus together with Venus and Mars. You will not really need to carry your considerations any further than this triangle. Here then are Mars, Venus and Uranus. Consider first Mars. For this child, who was born in 1909, Mars stands in complete opposition to the Moon. Mars, which has Venus and Uranus in its vicinity, stands — itself — in strong opposition to the Moon. Here is the Moon and here is Mars. And Mars pulls along with it Uranus and Venus.
“And now I would ask you to pay careful attention also to the fact that the Moon is at the same time standing before Libra. This means, the Moon has comparatively little support from the Zodiac, it wavers and hesitates, it is even something of a weakling in this hour; and its influence is still further reduced through the fact that Mars (which pulls along with it the Luciferic influence [i.e., the influence of Lucifer]) stands in opposition to it.
“Now let us turn to the horoscope of the young child. Again, here are Venus and Uranus and Mars near together, the three of them covering between them no more than this section of the heavens ... On this second horoscope, Mars, Venus and Uranus are in close proximity, exactly as before; but when we examine more nearly the position of Mars, we find it is not, as before, in complete opposition to the Moon. It is however very nearly so. Although the younger child does not come in for a complete opposition, there is an approximation to opposition.” — Rudolf Steiner, CURATIVE EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), lecture 11, GA 317.
Not only is the whole child a creature of the stars, so are the various parts of the human body. Here are the astrological associations between body parts and the signs of the zodiac, as conceived in the Waldorf universe:
This image is based on the one shown on p. 48 of Roy Wilkinson's book, THE SPIRITUAL BASIS OF STEINER EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1996). Wilkinson had a long, leading career as a Waldorf educator. R.R., 2010.
A whole child possesses a certain temperament. Waldorf schools cling to an entirely outmoded concept of temperament, one that modern science set aside long ago. Waldorfers believe that every child is predominantly either choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, or melancholic. According to the Waldorf view, children fit into these categories as follows:
“CHOLERIC: Short, stocky, bullnecked; upright posture; firm gait, digging heels into the ground; energetic, active eyes; given to short, abrupt gestures; speaks sharply, emphatically, deliberately, to the point; friendly disposition, as long as s/he can be a group leader; feels the need to jolly others along; enjoys spicy, well-prepared foods; likes to wear individual clothing that stands out from the crowd; good powers of observation, but forgetful; interested in the world, the future, and the self; aggressive, showing a commanding attitude, but ultimately can be understanding; boastful,enthusiastic generous, intolerant, impatient, takes gambles.
“SANGUINE: Slender, elegant, well-balanced; walks lightly, on the toes; lively, dancing eyes; makes graceful, lively gestures; speaks eloquently, with flowery language; friendly to all, but fickle, changeable; has no fixed habits; nibbles at food, but enjoys nicely prepared meals; likes new, colorful clothing; excellent powers of observation, but a memory like a sieve; interested in the immediate present; kind, understanding, sympathetic; but superficial, unreliable, impatient.
“PHLEGMATIC: Big, fleshy, round; ambles along, rolling like a steamroller; sleepy eyes, often half-closed; makes slow, deliberate gestures; speaks ponderously, logically, clearly; friendly but reserved, impassive; has fixed habits, likes a fixed routine; eats heartily, almost any kind of food; dresses conservatively; observant and with good recall, when sufficiently awake; has a good memory for worldly things; is interested in the present but tends not to get involved; discerning, objective, faithful, stable, methodical, trustworthy, motherly, self-contented, lethargic.
“MELANCHOLIC: Large, bony, with heavy limbs and bowed head; slow, drooping, sliding gait; tragic, mournful eyes; makes drooping gestures; speaks haltingly, hesitatingly, leaving sentences unfinished; unfriendly, but sympathetic with fellow sufferers; likes solitary occupations; finicky about food, likes sweets; picky about clothing, dresses drably; not observant but has a good memory, especially concerning himself/herself; egocentric; interested in the past; helpful, artistic, self-sacrificing with fellow sufferers, but vindictive, fearful, easily depressed, moody, tyrannical." — Roy Wilkinson, THE TEMPERAMENTS IN EDUCATION (Roy Wilkinson, 1983), pp. 23-24.
Our Racial Characteristics
A whole child is a member of a race. According to Steiner, this means the child shares the important spiritual, evolutionary, and physical characteristics of that race. Indeed, in Anthroposophical doctrines, the child’s soul is deemed a reflection of the race’s oversoul. Steiner knew that such thinking is rejected by most moderns, but he insisted that it is correct:
“We are at the very height of this materialistic development which prefers to deny such beings as folk-souls and race-souls.” — Rudolf Steiner, ROSICRUCIAN WISDOM (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2000), p. 113.
A whole child stands at the evolutionary level of his/her race. According to the Waldorf belief system, we all start at low racial levels (black) and, if we behave ourselves, we proceed upward to higher racial identities as we reincarnate in subsequent lives. Steiner and his followers see no racism in such a tenet; others may disagree.
“As all persons in their different incarnations pass through the various races, therefore, although it may be argued that the European has the advantage over the black and the yellow races, we should not be prejudiced thereby. Here the truth may, indeed, be sometimes veiled, but you see that with the help of spiritual science we really do come upon remarkable truths." — Rudolf Steiner, THE MISSION OF THE FOLK SOULS (Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1929), lecture 4, GA 121.
“A race or nation stands so much the higher, the more perfectly its members express the pure, ideal human type ... The evolution of man through the incarnations in ever higher national and racial forms is thus a process of liberation [leading to] an ideal future.” — Rudolf Steiner, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1944), p. 149.
A child’s personality, moods, drives, and behavior are deeply influenced by the race into which s/he incarnates during any given life. Consider a black child, for instance. “[E]verything connected to the body and the metabolism is strongly developed in the Negro. He has, as they say, powerful physical drives, powerful instincts. The Negro has a powerful instinctual life. And because he actually has the sun, light, and warmth on his body surface, in his skin, his whole metabolism operates as if he were being cooked inside by the sun. That is where his instinctual life comes from. The Negro is constantly cooking inside, and what feeds this fire is his rear-brain.” — Rudolf Steiner, VOM LEBEN DES MENSCHEN UND DER ERDE - ÜBER DAS WESEN DES CHRISTENTUMS (Verlag Der Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, 1961), GA 349, p. 55.
This is all so horrible that I want to add that, so far as I know, most Waldorf teachers are not racial bigots. But racism is certainly built into the teachings of their leader, Rudolf Steiner.
[For more on this subject, see "Steiner's Racism".]
A whole child may have an evil double within, according to Steiner. Our spiritual selves don’t easily enter our physical bodies, and this disconnect creates an opening “for another spiritual being, apart from our soul, to take possession of our body, namely, the subconscious part of our body [sic].” — Rudolf Steiner SECRET BROTHERHOODS - and the Mystery of the Human Double (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004), p. 56. The beings that sneak into our bodies, our “doubles,” “lead their lives by making use of human beings to enable them to inhabit the sphere in which they wish to dwell.” — Ibid. The sphere where they want to live is the corrupting physical realm, specifically the Earth.
Our doubles are “ahrimanic beings,” that is, they are associated with the arch-demon Ahriman. “Shortly before we are born another being indwells us [sic]; in the terminology we use today we would call this an ahrimanic being.” — Ibid.
What to do about one’s evil inner double is a complex matter. But for our current discussion, the important point is that Waldorf educators believe in the existence of Ahriman, ahrimanic beings, and evil inner doubles.
[For more, see "Double Trouble".]
Our Spiritual Ties
According to Waldorf beliefs, a whole child comes to earthly life with memories of — and connections with — his/her former life in the spirit realm. For this reason, Waldorf schools try to keep children from developing their mental capacities quickly. An effort is made to keep the kids in a hazy, youthful dream-state.
“Childhood is commonly regarded as a time of steadily expanding consciousness.... Yet in Steiner’s view, the very opposite is the case: childhood is a time of contracting consciousness.... [The child] loses his dreamlike perception of the creative world of spiritual powers which is hidden behind the phenomena of the senses. This is...the world of creative archetypes and spiritual hierarchies.
“In mastering the world of physical perception the child encounters difficulties in that he first has to overcome a dreamlike yet intensely real awareness of spiritual worlds. This awareness fades quickly in early childhood, but fragments of it live on in the child for a much longer time than most people imagine.
“... [I]n a Waldorf school, therefore, one of the tasks of the teachers is to keep the children young." — A. C. Harwood, PORTRAIT OF A WALDORF SCHOOL (The Myrin Institute Inc., 1956), pp. 15-16.
"Although it is necessary, especially today, for people to be completely awake later in life, it is equally necessary to let children live in their gentle dreamy experiences as long as possible, so that they move slowly into life. They need to remain as long as possible in their imaginations and pictorial capacities without intellectuality." — Rudolf Steiner, A MODERN ART OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), pp. 103-104.
Waldorf schools aim to educate the whole child, which — as we have seen — is a spacious, occult concept when seen from the Waldorf perspective. We need to note, also, that Waldorf schools have a rather different attitude toward children who are not whole. Steiner taught, indeed, that some children are not really human beings.
"That little girl L.K. in the first grade must have something really very wrong inside. There is not much we can do. Such cases are increasing in which children are born with a human form, but are not really human beings in relation to their highest I; instead, they are filled with beings that do not belong to the human class ... [T]hey are human beings only in regard to their form. We cannot, however, create a school for demons ... I do not like to talk about such things since we have often been attacked even without them. Imagine what people would say if they heard that we say there are people who are not human beings.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), pp. 649-650.
Note that Steiner made these remarks to Waldorf teachers at a Waldorf faculty meeting. The record does not indicate that any teacher challenged Steiner or questioned his statements.
Honoring Each Child’s Individuality
Waldorf teachers have ample opportunity to get to know their students well. Waldorf schools are often small, and the teachers typically see the same groups of students year after year.
Certainly Waldorf teachers strive to understand their students, and they usually think they have clear knowledge of the kids in their charge. But, unfortunately, the screen through which they view their students consists of false concepts that inevitably distort and conceal the truth.
In accordance with Anthroposophical tenets, Waldorf teachers think that children can be differentiated by age, sex, temperament, race, and astrological sign, among other factors. The real character traits of the students tend to disappear in the fog produced by such Anthroposophical misconceptions.
Do all students of the same age stand at the same level of spiritual/mental/emotional development? Do they all have essentially the same needs and interests? The Waldorf approach answers yes to these questions. [See, e.g., the section “Year by Year” on the page "Waldorf Curriculum".]
Do boys and girls have inherently different minds due to gender? Should children of different genders be taught different things in different ways? Rudolf Steiner said so. [See, e.g., the section “Sexism” on the page “Clues”; also see "Gender".]
Is the ancient doctrine of “temperament” correct? Can children be divided into the four classical “temperaments” (phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric, and sanguine)? Waldorf schools typically do this. [See, e.g., “Temperaments”.]
Are the differences between races more than skin-deep? Do children of each race have significantly different mental, emotional, and bodily natures than the children of other races? Do children of different races stand at different evolutionary levels? The Anthroposophical answer is yes. [See, e.g., “Races”.]
Is astrology for real? Does the astrological sign of a child have any meaning? Does a child born under one astrological sign have different character traits than a child born under another sign? The Waldorf belief system affirms astrology. [See, e.g., “Waldorf Astrology”.]
Possibly you agree with the Waldorf/Anthroposophical perspective in one or two of these matters. But do you agree on all of them? Do you recognize that, to put this mildly, contemporary scholarship and science cast grave doubts on all of them?
One problem with these Waldorf metrics is that, arguably, they are all utterly false. Another problem is that they stereotype children. It is wrong to judge human beings based on race, or sex, or “temperament,” or astrological sign... Pigeonholing people according to these categories is discriminatory and demeaning. If you judge a child to be a “choleric,” for instance, you are stereotyping the child, not seeing her or him as a distinct individual.
Now, granted, if you use all of the Waldorf metrics together, each child in a group may be labeled differently than any other child in that group. A “white choleric male Scorpio” would thus be clearly differentiated from a “black sanguine female Aries.”
Moreover, we could admit shadings to the picture. Thus, we could say that a child may chiefly exhibit one temperament while also bearing traces of other temperaments. Maybe a child is mostly phlegmatic, for instance, but with a large admixture of melancholia and a trace of choler. Likewise, kids within an astrological sign were born on different days, so they would have different horoscopes — we could acknowledge these differences. And some children are born of mixed-races parents, so we could adjust our racial evaluations accordingly. Taking such distinctions into account, we could “individualize” children in these ways.
But such individuation would be deeply, damagingly false. Making subtle distinctions between nonexistent temperaments (choleric, sanguine...) is nonsense — these temperaments do not exist, so positing subtle shadings between merely compounds the nonsense. The same problem applies to all the other Waldorf metrics. You cannot learn the truth about an individual human being by judging that person based on false stereotypes. But, in effect, this is what the Waldorf approach requires.
Waldorf teachers have ample opportunity to get to know their students well. But the Waldorf approach almost invariably thwarts this effort. The Waldorf approach cannot produce accurate, true portraits of individual human beings in all their marvelous, unique complexity. Within the Waldorf worldview, human individuality tends to disappear in a fog of mystic error.
— Roger Rawlings
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