The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

It is ironical that the internet, which is connecting people throughout the world, is also isolating us from real human interactions. An additional irony is that the isolating technology of the internet has the ability to bring together so many new groups of people online , who then tend to polarise into factions. We have Darwinists versus creationists, secular humanists versus religious believers, neo-con right versus liberal left and so on.

The internet has turned us all into self-publishing writers and that factor, combined with the near-ubiquity of Twitter, has put many of us into broadcast rather than receive mode. We are no longer good at listening to one another and prefer instead to promote our views, or the prejudices of our favoured factions, to anyone we can persuade to click on the link. Even at our most solipsistic, however, some traditional media practices remain useful, such as targeting suitable individuals or organisations for hate campaigns and going after them without mercy. Inventing heretics and then sending in the attack dogs is great sport for everyone – we can all agree on that.

Steiner Waldorf schools have certainly come in for more than their fair share of online abuse and attack. The people working in these schools, however, have tended to stand aside from such polarised online arguments, despite the critics’ best efforts to get them to rise to the bait with some truly ferocious onslaughts. Perhaps that’s because the schools’ traditional response to criticism has always been to ignore it, keep their heads down and get on with their work. I recall one critic who was amazed and frustrated that whatever she said about the schools, however extreme or libelous, never resulted in any public response.

Nonetheless, if you’re an anthroposophist and you spend any time online, you can’t help but be disturbed by some of the vehemently anti-Steiner critics out there, only too happy to pour buckets of bile and scorn over our heads.

I used to work for a Steiner school and my younger self tended to get quite upset by the sheer malice and ill will that the online critics manifested towards the education. I would dearly love to offer these critics and their readers a more balanced view, one which is based on my own, mainly positive, experience of Steiner schools. However, despite my wish for interaction and dialogue, I’ve reluctantly concluded that there is little to be gained by joining discussion with the critics. After several bruising online encounters, it became clear that many of them are really not interested in reasoned discussion. No, what they want is to destroy Steiner Waldorf education. I wish I had read the following advice from Steiner before getting involved:

“Observe the opponents, indeed in our anthroposophical circles it would be most advisable to study our opponents carefully. They renounce attacking the truths, and lay chief stress on personal attacks, personal insinuations, personal insults, personal calumnies. They think that truth cannot be touched, yet it is to be driven out of the world, and they believe that this can be done by personal defamation. The nature of such an opposition shows how well the leading opponents know how to proceed in order to gain the victory, at least for the time being.

But this is something which anthroposophists above all should know; for there are still many anthroposophists who think that something may be reached by direct discussion with the opponent…people do not hate us because we say something that is not true, but because we say the truth. And the more we succeed in proving that we say the truth, the more they will hate us.
Of course this cannot prevent us from stating the truth. But it can prevent us from being so naïve as to think that it is possible to progress by discussion.” 1

Steiner here was clearly referring to opponents who went about their business by way of ad hominem attacks, distortions and lies – the kind of behaviour, in fact, which the internet with its anonymity and distancing effect seems to encourage. Taking his advice, I won’t be getting into any more online exchanges with critics who behave in the ways he described. I might, however, respond to what seem to be genuine questions or genuine concerns, because I am interested in real discussion and dialogue – and also because I think that in the long run the critics are doing Steiner schools a favour by shining their critical spotlight on the education.

A point I have often made in talks with teachers is that our best, perhaps our only defence is to be excellent at what we do. If we are consistently providing an excellent all-round education for our pupils, then the critics will have very few arguments left. However, the weakness of the leadership and management arrangements in some of the independent Steiner schools has meant that achieving necessary change can be very difficult. I shall have more to say about this subject in a future posting but for now I will simply observe that, to the extent we are able to rise successfully to this challenge, the critics will have helped Steiner schools into becoming an accepted and valued part of the educational culture of this country – and this might even come to be reflected in what is said about us on the internet.

1 From “Knowledge Pervaded with the Experience of Love”, GA 221, Dornach, 18th February 1923

3 Comments

Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner

3 responses to “The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

  1. Carol

    Listening to Waldorf teachers respond to some of Steiner’s more erroneous and biased comments is cringeworthy. I love Steiner. I love his approach to education. But, unfortunately, the anthropop movement still refuses to treat Steiner like a human being who had constraints and filters and had absorbed many of the assumptions of his time.

    Until this addressed, it will remain in its current orbit. It will require great courage. But it’s the only way. Thanks.

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  2. Tom Hart Shea

    In a general way I agree with what I believe you are trying to say here, but I wonder about this phrase, ‘ to be excellent at what we do.’ Who judges your excellence, and how do they do it?
    I have found Steiner publicity making claims for people who are ‘master teachers’, or that the aim of their institution is to be a ‘centre of excellence’. When I have challenged them , usually about the use of the term, ‘Master Teacher’, I get a variation on, ‘Everyone SAYS that X is wonderful and X have been doing it a long time…’
    Unfortunately there are some very poor teachers who go on doing it for a very long time and some poor teachers who are good at developing a cult of personality around themselves ( I notice this more in the Steiner context). In the state system there is a higher level of salary paid to people who are deemed to be Excellent Teachers (ETS). My experience was and is that those people who get this grade have not been more excellent at teaching but were excellent at manipulating the system so that they got the extra salary!
    Another way to express what I am trying to say here is ,’How is quality controlled in Steiner schools?’
    We know how Ofsted attempt to do it, through sampling and observation. Unfortunately this method, when done by outsiders, just gives a snapshot which may be completely untypical. The only way to get a better view of how teacher’s actually perform in the normal context is for them to be observed regularly by people they know well and trust, and who have been trained in how to give constructive feedback and coaching. (The same way actors can be coached)

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  3. Hello Tom,

    You ask a good question: “Who judges your excellence and how do they do it?” In the context of a Steiner school, my view is that the best way is to follow SWSF’s Code of Practice (downloadable from the SWSF website) and in particular, to aim to comply with the ‘Best Practice’ recommendations. If schools work with the CoP in their college study sessions and take steps to improve teaching and administration in line with best practice, then they will have no problems with the SIS Ofsted inspections. They will also be working towards being the best kind of Steiner school that they can be, rather than trying to get the best possible Ofsted judgement (although the outcome should be a Good or Outstanding in Ofsted terms).

    Best wishes,

    Jeremy

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