"We Don't Teach It"


Waldorf Schools and Freedom

THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION is one of a series of books — published by the Anthroposophic Press — that chronicle the fundamental beliefs underlying Waldorf education. The editor of THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION quite rightly describes the book as being, by Waldorf standards, unusually frank.

“THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION is exceptional among Rudolf Steiner’s many lectures on Waldorf education for its breadth, depth, daring, and accessibility.” — Christopher Bamford, introduction to THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XV (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), a collection of Steiner lectures, p. vi.

Digging into the book gives us considerable insight to the spiritualistic agenda of Waldorf schools. One note of caution is in order, however: In this book, Steiner is more candid than usual, but he is also occasionally defensive and disingenuous. He sidesteps many issues, he uses euphemisms, and he gives a conventional gloss to many of his occult teachings. What he does not say, and what he only hints at, is at least as significant as what he states plainly.

[Anthroposophic Press, 2004.]

Here are some of the main points Steiner made

in the lectures contained in this book.

I will quote Steiner, then add some comments

of my own.

(I will also add some illuminating quotations

from other Steiner texts.)

At the first Waldorf school, children were free to choose which type of religious instruction they would receive.

“The instruction in religion based on spiritual science [i.e., Anthroposophy] is increasing [in the Waldorf School], and more and more children come to it. Some have even deserted other religious instruction to go to the anthroposophic religious lessons. It is quite understandable, therefore, that people should say that these anthroposophists are rather bad people, since they lead children to abandon their Catholic and Protestant religious lessons for the religious instruction based on spiritual science. We do all we can to discourage them from coming, because it is very difficult for us to find religious teachers in our own area. Nevertheless, despite the fact that we never planned on this instruction except in response to parents’ requests and the unconscious requests of children (to my great distress, I might almost say), the demand for anthroposophic religious instruction constantly increases.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), p. 115.

Waldorf schools don't want to give Anthroposophical religious instruction, but the parents' "requests" and students’ “unconscious pleading” force their hands.

You might keep this statement in mind as we work our way through THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION. Steiner often sought to mislead his followers as well as his critics. The truth of any issue discussed by Steiner is often found in its antithesis, or it is found in a tangent, lying somewhere in the general vicinity of Steiner's statement. To read Steiner sensibly, we need to constantly test his statements against what we know of reality, and plausibility, and truth. Don't let Steiner deceive you.

We might entertain some doubts about the very great desire of Waldorf schools to turn students away from Anthroposophical religious teaching. But there is another important point we need to recognize here. It is this: By Steiner's own admission, such a thing as Anthroposophical religious teaching exists. The clear implication is that Anthroposophy itself is a religion, standing as an alternative to Catholicism, Protestantism, and other mainstream faiths. [To investigate Anthroposophical religious instruction and practices in Waldorf schools, see "Schools as Churches" and "Waldorf Worship".]

According to Steiner, Waldorf teachers operate from the correct “spiritual point of view,” which involves such Anthroposophical doctrines as the belief that human beings are "microcosms" of the entire universe or cosmos.

“Consider a Waldorf teacher’s attitude toward children ... [Waldorf teachers] see in a different way than do those who [lack] the spiritual point of view ... We may rest assured that changes out in the cosmos will be somewhat conservative [i.e., gradual], but when it comes to transitions in human nature, from early childhood to the teens, then, ladies and gentlemen, the sun that rose before may not come up again. In this human microcosm, anthropos [the human being], such a great change occurs that we face an entirely new situation.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 123-125.

I realize that Steiner is hard to read. Here's a paraphrase: Waldorf teachers see children and the growth of children from the correct spiritual point of view. They know that changes in the universe occur only gradually, but in human beings changes sometimes occur quickly and dramatically. One such change occurs when a child passes through puberty. The child then moves to a new stage and cannot return to the prior stage. This is true even though changes in humans reflect the changes in the universe: a human being ("anthropos") is a "microcosm" of the universe, a small replica containing all that the universe contains. [See "The Center".]

To teach well, Stainer said, Waldorf teachers need to grasp Anthroposophy. Ideally, this means becoming clairvoyant and gaining direct knowledge of the higher, spiritual worlds. Not everyone can do this, of course, but non-clairvoyant individuals can at least follow the indications given to them by the great souls who possess psychic powers.

“A few people in the world can develop such higher knowledge ... Everything these few discover, others can recognize through sound judgment and sound observation ... One can argue that, as teachers, we cannot immediately become clairvoyant. [1] We cannot train in such methods. How can we manage teaching if we are first confronted with this complicated method of reaching spirit?“ — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 25.

The “complicated method” is the series of steps people should take to achieve occult initiation, according to Steiner. Initiation means gaining entry into the inner circle; receiving the secret knowledge possessed only by insiders. Steiner outlines the necessary steps in his book KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT; in essence, they are steps toward becoming clairvoyant. [See "Knowing the Worlds", "Inside Scoop", and "Occultism".] [2]

Steiner says that teachers do not need to be clairvoyant at first — such a requirement would put too heavy a burden on them. They need not "immediately become clairvoyant." But note the corollary. Steiner indicates that Waldorf teachers should aim for clairvoyance eventually. Clairvoyance is a central goal for all of Steiner's followers, including Waldorf teachers. [See "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness".]

[1] The key point to recognize here is that Steiner posits the existence of clairvoyance. For him, clairvoyance is a given, it is real. But Steiner is wrong. Clairvoyance does not exist. [See Clairvoyance”.]

One way to test Steiner, and to retain our hold on reality, is to transpose his words into other people's mouths. Ask yourself how you would feel if you visited a public school and found the teachers there talking about their goal of attaining clairvoyance. You might conclude that you had entered a nuthouse.

[2] The steps — a series of rather vacuous exercises — do not work, of course. They cannot. Their goal, clairvoyance, is unattainable. And this is a source of much potential pain for Anthroposophists. Steiner's followers must either admit, in the end, that they cannot attain their goal — or they end up deluding themselves that they have attained their unattainable goal, which means almost entirely severing their ties to reality. Thus Anthroposophy can be seen as a path leading either to severe disappointment or deep delusion.

A word about the word "occult": Steiner openly called himself an occultist and he affirmed his teachings as occult. [See "Occultism".] He was not talking about devil worship. He meant that he dealt in hidden, mysterious spiritual knowledge. He used the term "occult" to apply to things that are esoteric, supernatural, and secret.

A teacher who fails to attain full-blown clairvoyance can still be effective if s/he turns from intellect and relies on imagination, which might be termed a limited or introductory type of clairvoyance: the ability to formulate true mental pictures. [1] Through disciplined imagination, you can create images that are productive and creative. But if, on the contrary, you create images through the use of intellect, the results will be dead.

”This teacher can be effective, even without clairvoyant vision of the spirit. Spirit is active there. You are working in active spirit when you believe in your own [imagined] pictures. If you do not believe in your image [i.e., your imagined picture], but make up an image only through intelligence and intellectuality, you remain outside reality with your intellect and mind ... Spirit is productive and creative. And it is essential to become creative and to be at home in creating if we wish to be active in spirit.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 27.

Being spiritually active is central to Waldorf teaching. It is, in a sense, the whole point of being a Waldorf teacher: You become "active in spirit" and you convey the effects of your spiritual activity to your students. Note that the essential requirement is producing pictures that you yourself believe in. Steiner often called such picture "imaginations." They are not as trustworthy as the findings of full-blown clairvoyance can be, but they may nevertheless be vibrant with spiritual power, a power that you feel and that you help your students to feel. [2]

Relying on intellect or the brain, on the other hand, is a grave error; it causes you to "remain outside reality." [3] Steiner taught that the brain and the use of the brain cannot lead to true cognition or wisdom; true cognition is clairvoyance, which is not seated in the brain. [See "Steiner's Specific".]

Disparaging the brain and its use is, surely, a dubious precept to place at the foundation of an educational system. Yet here we find precisely this precept at the foundation of Waldorf education. For most readers and thinkers, this may call the validity of Waldorf education into question.

[1] Steiner often described imagination as the obverse of intellection. So, for instance, he said this about teaching kids at around the age of puberty, when they first become capable (he said) of logical thought:

"As teachers, we must develop something different from what children have in themselves. If children are coming into the realm of logic at the age of puberty, we must in turn develop imagery and imagination. Children will be able to hold onto what we give them if we can pour it all into images." — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 14.

[2] Steiner often urged his followers to be fervent — to believe deep down in their hearts. The implication is that fervent belief is a sort of guarantee of truth. But of course this is incorrect. Many people fervently believe nonsense. Anthroposophists who follow Steiner's admonition to believe may join the ranks of the self-deluded. [See "If Ony It Were So".]

[3] Steiner says that intellect and mind (the rational mind) may leave one outside reality. But precisely the opposite is arguably true: Clairvoyance and imagination separate us from reality: They are delusive and fantastical.

This, at least, is a central issue to contemplate. What faculties, in your opinion, afford the clearest view of reality?

Clairvoyance stands in opposition to intellect or, as Steiner sometimes put it, clairvoyance builds upon intellect before transcending it. Considered in the latter way, clairvoyance begins with the true findings of natural science, but then it applies "soul-spiritual methods" that lead beyond the ordinary world to the "spiritual world" that is hidden from ordinary perception.

“[W]e must approach clairvoyance through soul-spiritual methods, without damaging our bodily fitness through ascetic practices. [1] And we can do this, because we have gained exact ideas through a hundred years of natural scientific development; we can discipline our thinking through natural science. [2] I am not describing something that is antagonistic to the intellect. Intellectuality must be the basis and foundation of clear thinking. And we must build something that can lead to the spiritual world upon the foundation of this intellectuality. [3]” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 30-31.

Note that even here when tipping his cap to intellect, Steiner was discussing the sovereign importance of clairvoyance and the need to "build something" (Anthroposophy) that reaches farther than intellect can.

Steiner zigged and zagged on the subject of intellect, sometimes denouncing intellect, sometimes acknowledging it. But his core conviction was that clairvoyance is the faculty we need if we are to attain truth. The problem in all this, obviously, is that clairvoyance is a delusion; it does not exist. [I am repeating myself, but the repetition may be necessary. Steiner was wrong about his most basic proposition. See “Clairvoyance”.]

Steiner likewise was inconsistent about the natural sciences. He sometimes claimed that spiritual science, Anthroposophy, grew out of the natural sciences, and in this spirit he sometimes said that the natural sciences will eventually confirm the findings of spiritual science. But far more often Steiner described the natural sciences as the enemy of spiritual science. [See "Science".] And we should note that, in the decades since Steiner's death, the natural sciences have not confirmed spiritual science; instead, they have increasingly established truths that make spiritual science less and less plausible. [See "Steiner's 'Science'" and "Steiner's Blunders".]

[1] Steiner here distinguishes his system for attaining clairvoyance (or achieving occult initiation) from systems that require physical deprivartions or scourging (fasting, flaggelation, and the like). His system, Steiner claimed, was modern and reasonable.

[2] Steiner wanted his "spiritual science" (Anthroposophy) to be taken seriously as a science. Here, he indicates that his spiritual science (which deals primarily with the spirit realm) is an extension of natural science (which deals with the physical world). Natural science establishes fact about the physical world, while spiritual science establishes facts about the spirit realm, or so Steiner claimed. (Critics would dispute Steiner's claim. To consider whether Steiner actually understood and accepted natural scientific truths, see, e.g., "Steiner's Blunders".)

[3] Here Steiner claims that the thinking in Anthroposophy is an extension of the thinking in natural science — it is clear and intellectually valid. (Critics would dispute Steiner's claim.)

What is wrong with intellect?

◊ “The intellect destroys or hinders.” — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 1, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XIII (Anthroposophical Press, 1995), p. 233.

◊ “[A]s long as one is occupied solely with intellectual activity and observations, one lives in emptiness and mere images, remote from reality.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 23.

◊ “The brain is an instrument for purely intellectual apprehension. Intellectualism and materialistic thinking are one and the same ... [T]he materialistic brain represents a process of decay: materialistic thinking unfolds only through processes of destruction, death-processes, which are taking place in the brain.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FESTIVALS AND THEIR MEANING (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1996), pp. 147-148.

Sending children to a school that downplays the brain and intellect — what we might call intelligence — is not a step to be taken lightly. Even if we agree that intellect, on its own, is not everything — even if we think education surely must do more for a child than stimulate intellectuality — we still might find much to question here. Perhaps we can put it this way: If Steiner was wrong about clairvoyance, imagination, and intellect, then schooling based on his doctrines may severely shortchange students. The issue boils down to asking in which direction truth lies: in the direction of clairvoyance or in the direction of rationality. We will return to this point.

Steiner was aware that at least some outsiders think that his followers are kooks and Waldorf schools are devoted to a kooky cult, Anthroposophy. Steiner's defense was to say that Anthroposophy is indeed present in Waldorf schools, but this is fine because Anthroposophy offers the correct view of reality.

“It is true that many people may claim to have encountered many fanatics in the anthroposophic movement. But if they look at things more closely, they will find that the goal of spiritual science is to make knowledge universal and to spiritualize it ... If people have found fanaticism and dogmatism within the anthroposophic movement, this came from outside; it is not inherent in the movement ... Consequently, when someone says that there is some sort of cult behind Waldorf education, one in which people indulge all kinds of crazes, that individual should study the matter properly....” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 134-135.

Allegations of “fanaticism and dogmatism” have swirled around Anthroposophy and Waldorf schools since their founding. If you are considering a Waldorf school for your child, you should try to determine whether such allegations are justified. The very possibility "that there is some sort of cult behind Waldorf education" should certainly inspire you to dig into the matter.

This is not a question that can be settled quickly. And you should remember that many people have gone on the record praising Waldorf schools. Still, there have been a multitude of reports indicating serious problems behind the attractive Waldorf facade. You probably should devote at least a few hours to review and weigh the complaints that have been made. [See, e.g., "Cautionary Tales" and "Complaints".]

Of all the criticisms that have been lodged against Waldorf schools, perhaps the most salient — a criticism that brings us back to the core of the issues we have been discussing — is that these institutions lead children away from reality, failing to equip them for their real lives after graduation. Steiner apparently addressed this issue directly, insisting that Waldorf education boldly confronts the conditions of modern life:

“The point is to educate children so that they stay in touch with society as it exists today. There is no point in saying that society today is bad. Whether good or bad, we simply have to live in it. And this is the point: we have to live in it, and so we must not isolate the children from it. Thus I was confronted with the very difficult task of carrying out an educational ideal without losing contact with modern life.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 91.

Many people who have been associated with Waldorf schools would question Steiner’s statement. Waldorf schools quite often say or imply that society — the world outside the schools — is desperately bad. Steiner himself often said so. Thus, for instance, he gave this description of modern people as seen from an Anthroposophical perspective:

“When we today — permeated even a little with anthroposophical consciousness — take a walk in the streets, we no longer see human people; rather we see [blind] moles that move about in the smallest of circles, circles into which they were placed, moles whose thinking is limited to these narrow circles, [and] cannot reach beyond them, moles who take no interest in what is happening outside these circles." — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION FOR ADOLESCENTS, Foundations of Waldorf Education, X (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 92.

Steiner generally taught that modern society — especially in America — is not merely degraded but actually demonic. In particular, he said, the terrible demon Ahriman holds sway in the modern world. This arch-deceiver is leading us toward doom.

◊ "Who stirs up nations against each other? Who raises the questions that are directing humanity today? — the answer is: the Ahrimanic deception [i.e., deceit caused by Ahriman] which plays into human life." — Rudolf Steiner, THE AHRIMANIC DECEPTION (Anthroposophic Press, 1985), GA 193.

◊ "[T]oday...the spirit-soul is asleep. The human being is thus in danger of drifting into the Ahrimanic world [i.e., the realm of Ahriman], in which case the spirit-soul will evaporate into the cosmos. We live in a time when people face the danger of losing their souls...." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, Foundations of Waldorf Education, VIII/1 (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 115. [See "Ahriman". For more on Steiner's view of the modern world, see, e.g., "America" and "Steiner and the Warlord".]

The Waldorf perspective on modern life is stitched together from many occultist threads, such as belief in karma.

“[A]nyone who can look at human history with a certain intuition will perceive that in our time there are many who have very little inner joy. On the contrary, people are burdened by heavy doubts and questions in terms of destiny.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 53.

To understand such statements, it is helpful to know that in Anthroposophy, "destiny" is karma, the self-created fate that humans must fulfill in their earthly lifetimes. [See "Karma".] Also, in Anthroposophy, “intuition” is a term — like “imagination” — designating a stage of clairvoyance. Such doctrines are central to traditional Waldorf teacher training. [See "Thinking" and "Teacher Training".] Here is a bit more about Steiner's vision of human destiny or karma:

“One does not merely train in a teaching method; we must also have our own ideas concerning the destiny of humanity, the significance of historical epochs, the meaning of present life, and so on.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 127.

The term “historical epoch,” as used in Anthroposophy, refers to the belief that humans are evolving through stages or epochs of spiritual development. "Cultural epochs," for instance, are periods of evolution since the sinking of Atlantis. (Yes, Atlantis. [See "Atlantis and the Aryans".]) All of this is tied up with karma or destiny, a subject Steiner returns to over and over, stressing its importance for Waldorf teachers.

“Only by adopting a spiritual standpoint can we become truly practical educators in the physical world. But this is possible only when teachers themselves have a philosophy of life — when their view of the world causes them to feel the deep meaning of the question of the universe and human destiny.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 129-130.

The significance of karma for Waldorf education has perhaps been summarized best by one of Steiner's followers, himself a Waldorf teacher:

“[T]he purpose of [Waldorf] education is to help the individual fulfill his karma.” — Roy Wilkinson, THE SPIRITUAL BASIS OF STEINER EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1996), p. 52.

As for intuition, Steiner frequently made statements such as the following. Note that "intuitive perception" is virtually synonymous with at least one form of clairvoyance:

"The ether body [one of our three invisible bodies, according to Steiner] cannot be understood intellectually, but only through the imagery of intuitive perception. It would have great significance if teachers could come to understand the ether body. One should not use the excuse that teachers cannot all be expected to develop clairvoyance...." — Rudolf Steiner, HUMAN VALUES IN EDUCATION, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XX (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), p. 94. [For more on our invisible bodies, see "Incarnation".]

Waldorf schools may seem progressive, putting emphasis on each individual child’s unique attributes — Steiner and his followers have often claimed this virtue for their approach — but actually the thinking behind Waldorf schools is extraordinarily backward, as for instance in the concept of the four classical temperaments.

“We must enter more and more into what is personal and individual. Provisionally, we are helped by the fact that the children we educate have different temperaments. From the very beginning, a real understanding of temperaments has been very important for the education I am describing as practiced in a Waldorf school.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 79.

Classifying people according to the four “temperaments” (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric) is an ancient practice long since discarded by science — but it is embraced in Waldorf schools, where it mingles with other occult concepts.

“We begin to comprehend children with a melancholic disposition only when we realize that they are affected most powerfully by their purely physical nature, and when we understand that melancholia is the result of an intense deposit of salt in the organism ... When we consider children of a more phlegmatic temperament, we must realize that they live less in the physical body and more in what I call the ether body; this is a more volatile body ... Sanguine children are especially difficult. The activity of the rhythmic system very much dominates in them ... Choleric children must be treated in yet another way. Choleric children are typically a step behind normal in development.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 79-82.

Such categorization, based on occult nonsense (“ether bodies,” and so on) obviously has the potential to inflict real harm on children. [See "Temperaments".]

Clairvoyance. Microcosms. Karma. Temperaments. These are key Waldorf beliefs. So is belief in "Anthroposophical medicine." By the standards of modern science, the alternative medicine practiced by Anthroposophists is little more than quackery. [See "Steiner's Quackery".] But, worrisomely, such medicine is used at many Waldorf schools. The key concept in Anthroposophical medicine is that the cause of physical conditions lies in the spirit realm. Thus, for instance, if a girl's "spiritual nature" becomes "separated" from her body, she will become anemic:

“Among girls, you might see a slight tendency toward chlorosis, or anemia, in the developing organism. The girl’s blood becomes poor, and she becomes pale. This is because, from fourteen to sixteen, the spiritual nature becomes separated from the organism as a whole.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 108-109.

The great danger in such thinking is that physical cures may be neglected if the cause of a condition is thought to exist in the spirit realm — and Steiner almost always located the causes of disease in nonphysical conditions. For instance:

“With pneumonia, the cause is always in the astral body [another of the nonphysical bodies Steiner said we have]; pneumonia can occur in no other way.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE TEMPLE LEGEND (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1997), p. 60.

Such thinking leads to results like this, reported by a mother whose daughter became ill while attending a Waldorf school:

“The Anthroposophic doctor made a diagnosis: my child had lost the will to live. He announced one of the potential cures ... [W]e were to give our daughter red, yellow, and orange crayons to color with! I looked at my husband in disbelief. When the doctor instructed us to make the sign of a flame out of Aurum cream over my child’s heart at bedtime, I was dumbfounded ... He told us to apply the gold cream from below the heart upwards, towards the sky ... [W]e left the school and I turned to my husband and said with certainty, 'We are in a real live cult!.'" — Sharon Lombard. [See the section "Doctor" in "Spotlight on Anthroposophy".]

"[T]here are certain cosmic, suprasensory influences that work on human beings from the external world, and these affect the female organization [i.e., organism] more intensely between the tenth and twelfth year than they do the male organism. ” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, pp. 121-122.

Steiner often spoke of "suprasensory" or "supersenory" phenomena — he meant things that lie beyond the reach of our ordinary senses, things that can be perceived only through the use of clairvoyance. The most important suprasensory beings are gods. Anthroposophy, which is polytheistic, recognizes a vast panorama of gods. [See "Polytheism".] These gods are the source of the "cosmic, suprasensory influences that work on human beings." True-believing Waldorf faculties, by extension, consider themselves to be the instruments through which the will of the gods works on the students and reaches the wider world beyond:

"We [Waldorf teachers] should always remember that when we do something, we are actually carrying out the intentions of the gods, that we are, in a certain sense, the means by which that streaming down from above will go out into the world.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, Foundations of Waldorf Education, VIII/1, p. 55.

When Steiner spoke of "external" phenomena, he often meant merely physical things, the lowly stuff of the physical plane of existence. Here, however, he means the cosmos, the world outside the subjective human being: the world from which flow "cosmic, suprasensory influences."

Whether the distinction Steiner draws here between girls and boys makes sense is moot. Girls and boys are physically different, of course, but Steiner is referring to differing receptivity to the gods' influence. Steiner taught that, generally, in the process of reincarnation we alternate between female and male incarnations (female in one life, male in the next...), so ultimately we are all alike. But he also taught that being a member of one sex makes one spiritually different from members of the other sex during that lifetime. Females are more attuned to the cosmos, he said, and males are more attuned to the earthly. Therefore females and males should receive somewhat different forms of education, to the extent that, for instance, they should be given different reading materials or told different kind of stories. Arguably, then, a form of sexism has been built into Waldorf education from its founding. [See "Gender".]

The proper attitude for Waldorf teachers, Steiner said, is essentially religious. This may seem right to you, if you are a person of faith. But bear in mind that the religion involved in Waldorf schooling is Anthroposophy. Only if you approve of Anthroposophy can you truly approve of the religious attitude adopted by devout Waldorf faculty members. Very often the Waldorf perspective is clothed in attractive terms, but make sure you understand what those terms mean.

“If we have received children in religious reverence, and if we have educated them in love up to the time of puberty, then after this we will be able to leave their spirit free and interact with them as equals. Our aim is not to touch the spirit, but to let it awaken. When children reach puberty, we will best attain our goal of giving them over to freely use their intellectual and spiritual powers if we respect the spirit. We must realize that all we can do is remove hindrances from the spirit — physical hindrances and, up to a point, hindrances of the soul.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION, p. 56.

Sounds great. But what, specifically, does it mean? Steiner taught that we reincarnate. Each time we are born on Earth, we incarnate gradually — our soul, spirit, and invisible bodies blossom only slowly. An important part the Waldorf teacher’s religious role is to “receive” children and guide them in such a way that incarnation occurs properly, with each invisible part of a child's spiritual nature awakening in its own time. [See "Incarnation"; also see the entries for "astral body", "ego body", "etheric body", "soul", and "spirit" in The Brief Waldorf / Steiner Encyclopedia.]

The fundamental purpose of Waldorf schooling, in other words, is not education as it is ordinarily understood, but occult reception of spiritual parts and powers. Some parents may approve of Anthroposophical occultism; others surely will not. But all students in Waldorf schools will be exposed to it, to one degree or another. You should subject your child to such schooling only if you truly understand, and embrace, the occult purposes enunciated by Rudolf Steiner and enacted by true-believing Waldorf faculties.

We should also note that in passages like the one we see above, Steiner was describing a process of indoctrination. Waldorf students are not encouraged to use their own judgment until at least age thirteen or fourteen ("the time of puberty"). Prior to that, they are immersed in an atmosphere of "reverence" and "love" — they are immersed in an Anthroposophical ambiance that they are expected to accept without question or demurral. Such immersion — intensely emotional and spiritual, extending all the way through early and middle schooling — is likely to leave a deep, deep imprint on children. Hence, when the children are finally encouraged to start thinking for themselves, their thinking will almost certainly run along the channels that have become so familiar to them: They will think and feel as their teachers have prepared them to think and feel. Their newly sanctioned "intellectual powers" will be tightly paired with "spiritual powers" (the result of Anthroposophical conditioning) — they will, in other words, lean heavily toward Anthroposophy and away from anything that contravenes Anthroposophy. This process may justly be called brainwashing. And it is the core of Waldorf schooling. [See, e.g., "Indoctrination", "Freedom", and "Mistreating Kids Lovingly".]

— Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings

Waldorf-reminiscent art.


"We [Waldorf teachers] want to be aware that physical existence is a continuation of the spiritual, and that what we have to do in education is a continuation of what higher beings [the gods] have done ... Our form of educating can have the correct attitude only when we are aware that our work with young people is a continuation of what [the gods] have done before birth." — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, Foundations of Waldorf Education, I (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 37.

A question worth asking is how Waldorf teachers know what the gods did and what the gods want.

Here is an explicit statement of the religious goal of Waldorf education:

“Waldorf education, which we at the Goetheanum [the Anthroposophical headquarters] are endeavoring to cultivate and carry into the world, sows in the child something that can grow and thrive from early childhood into old age. There are men and women who have a wonderful power in old age; they need only speak and the very tone of their voices, the inner quality of their speech, works as a blessing. Why, we might ask ourselves, can some people raise their hands and have an influence of real blessing? Our educational insight tells us that only those can do so who in childhood have learned to pray, to look up in reverence to another human being. To sum it up in one sentence, we can say that all children who rightly learn to fold their hands in prayer will be able to lift their hands in blessing in old age." — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 1, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XIII (Anthroposophic Press, 1995), p. 208.

What does this mean? Waldorf education is meant to teach children the proper religious attitudes and actions (specifically, how to pray) in order that they may grow up to be saint-like spiritual paragons who can offer blessings. The purpose of Waldorf education is ultimately to enable children to "rightly learn to fold their hands in prayer."

What is the right way to pray? The proper religious attitudes and actions are, from an Anthroposophical perspective, Anthroposophical attitudes and actions. Anthroposophy centers on the human being (Anthropos: man), and the correct form of prayer sketched here centers on a human being.

"[Children are taught] to pray, to look up in reverence to another human being." Steiner said that we all need gurus, human spiritual leaders in whom we can place absolute trust.

"[A spiritual seeker] would find himself plunged into the stormy sea of astral [i.e., soul] experiences if he were left to fend for himself. For this reason he needs a guide...a Guru on whom he can strictly rely." — Rudolf Steiner, AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1986), lecture 12, “Occult Development”, GA 95.

For Anthroposophists generally, the great Guru is Steiner himself. [See "Guru".]

Waldorf education is fundamentally religious. the religion involved — the right spiritual approach — is Anthroposophy. And the leader of that religion was — and in an important sense remains — Rudolf Steiner.

Climbing such steps as these

— into a characteristic Anthroposophical building —

can be dangerous. Before entering, be sure you

know what to expect inside.

[R. R. sketch, 2010.]

Here is another Steiner statement on the purpose of Waldorf education:

“This is precisely the task of school. If it is a true school, it should bring to unfoldment [i.e., incarnation and development] in the human being what he has brought with him from spiritual worlds into this physical life on earth.” — Rudolf Steiner, KARMIC RELATIONSHIPS , Vol. 1 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), lecture 5, GA 235.

Anthroposophy — which calls itself "spiritual science" — is a religion having a mystical conception of mankind. To understand it, Westerners generally need to detach themselves from mainstream Judeo-Christian theology. Thus, for instance, karma and reincarnation are central to the Anthroposophical account of human life. We descend from "the spiritual worlds" (not Heaven) into life on Earth. Here we "unfold" the capacities we have brought down from the higher worlds. These are capacities bestowed on us by the gods (Anthroposophy is polytheistic) as well as those we have created for ourselves through the process of karma. During life here below, we seek to improve our capacities before returning to the higher worlds. Thereafter, having received further divine instruction up above, we will descend again to Earth (reincarnation) for another life during which we will again try to "unfold" and improve our capacities. According to Anthroposophy, this is the central task of spiritual evolution, through which we will gradually perfect ourselves so that we become gods. In the largest sense, "this is precisely the task of [a Waldorf] school" — fostering this spiritual process.

To look into some of these matters, see "Karma", "Reincarnation", "Higher Worlds", "Polytheism", "Evolution, Anyone?", and "Matters of Form".

“One could say that Waldorf education has a hidden agenda. Its curriculum is described in terms common to public schools in general; arithmetic, writing, reading, geography, botany, handicrafts, history, and so on. But in Steiner schools the dimensions of these subjects are threefold: they are artistic, cognitive, and religious ... There is a continual interconnecting, a relinking, a re-ligioning, of one activity with another." — M. C. Richards, TOWARD WHOLENESS: RUDOLF STEINER EDUCATION IN AMERICA (Wesleyn University Press, 1980), p. 164. [Also see “Looking Into It”.]

“[A] former Waldorf instructor [has said]: ‘I heard in a faculty meeting that there were many important souls waiting to reincarnate in this century and that they would only be able to do so if there were enough Waldorf schools. By the end of the year I taught there I was completely convinced that Waldorf constituted a cultlike religious movement which concealed its true nature from prospective parents.’" — Meagan Francis,”What’s Waldorf?” (SALON, 5-26-2004).

Rudolf Steiner said that Waldorf teachers

serve the gods; they are, in effect, priests;

and their work is a form of religious service.

This, indeed, is Waldorf's spiritual agenda.

The following quotations provide

further elucidation.

(I have highlighted key phrases,

setting them in bold type.)

"We [Waldorf teachers] want to be aware that physical existence is a continuation of the spiritual, and that what we have to do in education is a continuation of what higher beings [the gods] have done without our assistance. Our form of educating can have the correct attitude only when we are aware that our work with young people is a continuation of what higher beings have done before birth." — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, Foundations of Waldorf Education, I (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 37.

“[W]e must all be permeated with the thoughts:

“First, of the seriousness of our undertaking. What we are now doing is tremendously important.

“Second, we need to comprehend our responsibility toward anthroposophy as well as the social movement.

“And, third, something that we as anthroposophists must particularly observe, namely, our responsibility toward the gods. Among the faculty, we must certainly carry within us the knowledge that we are not here for our own sakes, but to carry out the divine cosmic plan. We should always remember that when we do something, we are actually carrying out the intentions of the gods, that we are, in a certain sense, the means by which that streaming down from above will go out into the world. We dare not for one moment lose the feeling of the seriousness and dignity of our work." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, Foundations of Waldorf Education, III/1 (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 55.

“Thank the...[good Spirits] who gave [Emil] Molt the idea [of founding the Waldorf school]. The Gods will work further with what our Deed will become.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, p. 48. (Emil Molt was owner of the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Company. Rudolf Steiner created the first Waldorf school — named in honor of Molt'd company — for children of Molt's employees.)

“[T]he teacher is not so much an instructor, as an artist, whose calling is more priestly than profane.” — Rudolf Steiner, HUMAN VALUES IN EDUCATION, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XX (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), p. x.

[T]he gods allow their grace to flow down in the form of divine spiritual beings ... We come to see ourselves as helpers of the divine spiritual world, and above all we learn to ask what will happen if we approach education with this attitude of mind ... [A] teacher’s calling becomes a priestly calling, since an educator becomes a steward who accomplishes the will of the gods in a human being.” — Rudolf Steiner, HUMAN VALUES IN EDUCATION, pp. 8-9.

“[A]nthroposophic education grew out of the Anthroposophical Society ... [W]hat the gods have given, not what we have made, receives the greatest blessing and good fortune. It is quite possible that the art of education must lie especially close to the hearts of anthroposophists. ... [W]e can contemplate the mystery of the growing human being with sacred, religious feeling that evokes all the work we are capable of.” — Rudolf Steiner, HUMAN VALUES IN EDUCATION, pp. 193-194.

“The unfolding of the child’s being must fill us as teachers with feelings of reverence — indeed, we could speak of priestly feelings ... This mood of soul allows us to see the child as a being sent down to Earth by the Gods to incarnate in a physical body. It arouses within us the proper attitude of mind for our work in the school." — Rudolf Steiner, THE ROOTS OF EDUCATION, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XIX (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), p. 60.

"[W]e feel direct contact with the spiritual world, which is incarnating and unfolding before our very eyes, right here in the sensory world. Such an experience provides a sense of responsibility toward one’s tasks as a teacher, and with the necessary care, the art of education attains the quality of a religious service. Then, amid all our practical tasks, we feel that the gods themselves have sent the human being into this earthly existence, and they have entrusted the child to us for education. With the incarnating child, the gods have given us enigmas that inspire the most beautiful divine service." — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 2, Foundations of Waldorf Education, XIV (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 161.

Strange beliefs and strange practices

await within a Waldorf school.

Some are harmless, some are not.

Eurythmy, the strange form of dance typically

required of all students in a Waldorf school,

is supposed to forge a direct link to the spirit realm.

[Photo rendering by R. R. 2010, based on

image on p. 31 of

THE GOETHEANUM: School of Spiritual Science.]

[Philosophical-Anthroposophical Press, 1961.]

The Goetheanum is the worldwide

headquarters of Anthroposophy.

In effect, it is a cathedral.

[See "Is Anthroposophy a Religion?"]

The first Goetheanum was destroyed by fire.

This is the second, which still stands today.

[R. R. sketch, 2013 — based on

a photograph on p. 10 of

THE GOETHEANUM: School of Spiritual Science.]


“[Waldorf] education is essentially grounded on the recognition of the child as a spiritual being, with a varying number of incarnations behind him, who is returning at birth into the physical world ... [Waldorf teachers] will know that it is their task to help the child to make use of his body, to help his soul-spiritual forces to find expression through it, rather than regarding it as their duty to cram him with information....” — Anthroposophist Stewart C. Easton, MAN AND WORLD IN THE LIGHT OF ANTHROPOSOPHY (Anthroposophic Press, 1989), pp. 388-389.

Waldorf schools aim to benefit children in a number of ways, few of which have much to do with education as it is usually understood. In many sorts of schools, the goal is giving kids the knowledge and skills they will need in later life. Easton disparages this as cramming a child with information.

Here is a synopsis of the Waldorf approach. Various Waldorf schools follow this approach to varying degrees. Some Waldorf teachers hold this approach firmly in mind; others do not. But all Waldorf schools that are highly devoted to Rudolf Steiner and/or Anthroposophy strive to fulfill this vision:

◊ The overall Waldorf curriculum is designed to help children incarnate on a fixed schedule (etheric body by age seven [1], astral body by age fourteen, “I” by age twenty-one). [2]

◊ A basic objective is helping students fulfill their karmas so that they can evolve properly. (As Easton indicates, reincarnation is a basic Waldorf belief.) [3]

◊ An effort is also made to maintain children’s supposed innate connections with the spirit realm. [4]

◊ Magical forms of thought (characterized or mischaracterized as imagination, inspiration, and intuition) are emphasized — they are meant to lead toward development of full-bore clairvoyance. [5]

◊ A warm, hazy love of the mystical and fabulous is encouraged, in the hope that students will, as adults, become full-fledged Anthroposophists. [6]

◊ Arts are emphasized because Steiner said they provide direct avenues to the spirit realm. [7]

◊ Science is de-emphasized because Steiner associated it with the dreadful demon Ahriman. [8]

◊ Children are classified by race and “temperament,” and the schools endeavor to help the kids overcome the “drawbacks” of the races and temperaments to which they belong. [9]

None of this makes a particle of sense. And very little of it has any connection to what we normally think of as education. [10] Certainly, Waldorf teachers do not "cram" their students with information. The less a Waldorf student is exposed to real knowledge of the real world, the better Waldorf teachers will be able to pursue their aims.

Footnotes for "For Their Sake"

[1] Completion of this stage is signaled by the replacement of baby teeth with adult teeth — a process given extraordinary importance by Anthroposophists.

[2] Anthroposophists believe that in addition to a physical body, a fully developed human being has an etheric body (essentially a constellation of life forces), an astral body (soul forces), and an "I" (spirit forces that realize divine human individuality). According to Waldorf belief, the latter three bodies are invisible; they can be discerned only through clairvoyance. They incarnate gradually, through a series of seven-year-long phases. [See “Most Significant”.]

[3] For background, see "Karma" and "Reincarnation".

[4] See, e.g., "Thinking Cap".

[5] See, e.g., the book, Rudolf Steiner, THE STAGES OF HIGHER KNOWLEDGE: IMAGINATION, INSPIRATION, INTUITION (SteinerBooks, 2009).

[6] See, e.g., the section "We Don't Teach It" in the second half of "Waldorf's Spiritual Agenda".

[7] See "Magical Arts".

[8] See "Science" and “Ahriman”.

[9] See “Races” and “Humouresque”.

[10] Indeed, little of it is clearly revealed in standard Waldorf PR mottoes: The schools say they educate “head, heart, and hands,” and they claim to equip students for "freedom." [See "Holistic Education" and "Freedom".] As descriptions of Waldorf methods and objectives, such statements are fundamentally misleading unless they are accompanied by detailed expositions of Anthroposophical doctrines.

Use this link to go to the second part of

"Waldorf's Spiritual Agenda"