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Are Waldorf schools religious institutions? Well, they are bathed in religious feelings, and Waldorf teachers have the “office” of priests.
To follow what follows, you need to know that, according to Steiner, young children live in a naturally religious, prayerful soul-state because they arrived on Earth so recently from the divine realm. Until age seven, children are essentially asleep within their elemental religious condition. Then, around age seven or so (about when the baby teeth fall out), each growing child manifests a second element of itself, its etheric body. (This is a set of forces associated with the soul: formative life forces. The incarnation of the etheric body is the child's second birth.) The process of incarnation is tricky. Fortunately, priestly Waldorf teachers can help.
The quotation, below, is tough going. But give it a shot. I will quote Steiner without interruption, then I will offer a paraphrase, trying to express Steiner's meaning more clearly. I will also add a few comments of my own.
31) [Waldorf Priests]: “The child is surrendered to the environment and lives in the external world in reverent, prayerful devotion ... The life of the child is 'religious,' but religious in a way that refers to the things of nature ... If we observe the struggle unfolding in the child before us — within this fundamental, natural religious element — if we observe the struggle between the hereditary forces and what the individual’s forces develop as the second human being through the power brought from pre-earthly life, then, as teachers, we also develop a religious mood. But, whereas the child with a physical body develops the religious mood of the believer, the teacher, in gazing at the wonders that occur between birth and the change of teeth, develops a ‘priestly’ religious attitude. The position of teacher becomes a kind of priestly office, a ritual performed at the altar of universal human life — not with a sacrificial victim to be led to death, but with the offering of human nature itself, to be awakened to life. Our task is to ferry into earthly life the aspect of the child that came from the divine spiritual world. This, with the child’s own forces, forms a second organism from the being that came to us from the divine spiritual life. [paragraph break] Pondering such things awakens something in us like a priestly attitude in education. Until this priestly feeling for the first years of childhood has become a part of education as a whole, education will not find the conditions that bring it to life. If we merely try to understand the requirements of education intellectually, or try to rationally design a method of education based on external observations of a child’s nature, at best we accomplish a quarter education. A complete educational method cannot be formulated by the intellect alone, but must flow from the whole human nature — not merely from the part that observes externally in a rational way, but the whole that deeply and inwardly experiences the secrets of the universe.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE ESSENTIALS OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), pp. 23-24.
Here is a paraphrase:
Children descending from the spirit worlds surrender themselves to earthly life where they live in natural piety. The life of the child is essentially religious. Children bring spiritual forces into this life from the spirit worlds, forces that enable them to incarnate their etheric bodies — in effect, the children will be born a second time. But children also receive hereditary traits from their parents, and these clash with the children's divine, inner forces. Witnessing this struggle between divine influences and hereditary influences inspires religious awe in Waldorf teachers, who undertake the priestly task of helping children to incarnate properly. The "task" of a Waldorf teacher is to bring into earthly life the spiritual essence that children bring from the higher worlds.
Thinking about such things inspires the priestly work of Waldorf teachers. Until all of education is suffused with priestly feeling, it will be incomplete; it will not come alive. If we only use our intellects to create a "rational" kind of education based on what we can see of students on the outside, schooling will be only 25% of what it should be. We need to consider all elements of our students' natures; we need to look within our students, seeing the parts that respond to the secrets of the universe.
The most important thing to notice, here, is that Steiner describes Waldorf education in religious terms. Waldorf schools are religious institutions in which the faculty consider themselves to be priests. And the task that they set themselves has very little to do with teaching the students any ordinary subjects; the task is to assist spiritual beings, children, to incarnate in the earthly realm. This is a spiritual undertaking based on beliefs that you, as a parent, may or may not share. Do you, for instance, believe in etheric bodies?
Steiner's statement inspires many questions. Here's one more: Why does Steiner say that rationally designed education would be only 25% complete ("a quarter education")? The answer is that such education deals only with the physical human being, the physical body. In Anthroposophical belief, children incarnate four bodies: the physical, etheric, astral, and ego bodies. [See "Incarnation".] Only by focusing on all four bodies can education be 100%. A "rational" education would be incomplete; indeed, it would hurt children, because it would send them back to their lives before birth instead of helping to incarnate fully here on Earth: (31a): “You will injure children if you educate them rationally because you will then utilize their will [power] in something they have already completed — namely, life before birth.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 61.
Another question: How can Waldorf teachers see inside their students? How do they comprehend the "secrets of the universe"? The answer is clairvoyance. Steiner said that Waldorf teachers really should develop clairvoyance or, at a minimum, take the guidance of people who have clairvoyant powers — people such as himself: (31b): "Not every Waldorf teacher has the gift of clairvoyance, but every one of them has accepted wholeheartedly and with full understanding the results of spiritual-scientiﬁc investigation concerning the human being [i.e., the clairvoyant "findings" that constitute Anthroposophy]. And each Waldorf teacher applies this knowledge with heart and soul...." — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 2 (Anthroposophic Press, 1995), pp. 224-225.
Each Waldorf teacher does this, note. Note just a few. Each one. "[E]ach Waldorf teacher applies this knowledge with heart and soul."
Waldorf education depends absolutely on the existence of clairvoyance. If clairvoyance doesn't exist (and it doesn't), then there is no basis for Waldorf education. [See "Clairvoyance", "Fooling (Ourselves)", and "Why? Oh Why?".]
To look into a few of the other questions implicit in Steiner's statement, let's move along to some other quotations:
32) [Teeth] Note that, in the long quotation we have just seen, Steiner refers to an event he calls "the change of teeth." This event — also sometimes called "second dentition" — is afforded great importance in Waldorf schools. The reason? Loss of baby teeth and their replacement by adult teeth are taken as a signal that the etheric body has incarnated. This is, in Waldorf belief, the child's second birth. “When the child approaches the seventh year and the baby teeth are gradually being replaced, the covering of the etheric body loosens and becomes free [i.e., it is freed; it is incarnated], as the physical body did at physical birth.” — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION: An Introductory Reader (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003), p. 89.
33) [Taking Charge] We also should notice the relative roles of parents and teachers, in Steiner's discussion of childhood. Teachers become the children's priests, and one of their objectives is to help children over come the genetic influences they receive from their parents. Teachers thus rise in importance, in their students' lives, while the importance of parents wanes.
Steiner made similar points many times. The more Waldorf teacher can wean children from their parents, the better. Indeed, Steiner said to Waldorf teachers, "[I]t might almost be preferable from a moral viewpoint if children could be taken into one's care soon after birth." — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 2 (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 69.
Parents can foul up children in many ways, Steiner taught. In addition to giving bequeathing hereditary influences that must be overcome, parents are like to mislead children, filling their heads with falsehoods. As Steiner said to Waldorf teachers: "You will have to take over children [sic] for their education and instruction — children who will have received already (as you must remember) the education, or mis-education given them by their parents. — Rudolf Steiner, THE STUDY OF MAN (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004), p. 16. So it really would be better for Waldorf teachers to "take over" as soon as possible. [For more on the Waldorf view of children's parents, see, e.g., "Faculty Meetings".]
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