Following the anthropopper’s last post, my attention was drawn to comments on the Waldorf Critics’ forum alleging cult-like behaviour in Steiner Waldorf schools. Such criticisms have been around for some time, of course. Several long-standing allegations of cult-like behaviour have come from Dan Dugan of the organisation PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) in the USA. Dan listed nine “cult-like characteristics of anthroposophy” on the Waldorf Critics’ website on February 9th 1999.
Just a year or so before that, my wife and I decided that we wanted to send our daughter to a Steiner Waldorf school. Our daughter had had a happy first year of school in the Reception class of our local state primary school. I remember her skipping down the road on her journey to school, eager to get there to meet her friends and enjoy the day. This changed, unfortunately, when she moved into Year 1 and the National Curriculum kicked in. We began to notice some distinct and disturbing changes in our daughter. She started to become clumsy and was often falling and bruising herself. This happy, outgoing child started to become pale and withdrawn. Most alarming of all, the spontaneous dancing and painting and drawing she had previously done just stopped.
At this point we decided we had to act. We went to visit various Steiner schools with our daughter where she met the teachers and the pupils in her age group and took part in sample lessons. Eventually she decided that she wanted to go to the Kings Langley school. Things moved fast from that point; our house went on the market in July and sold within one week for our asking price; we went on a frantic house search process and eventually found a house we liked and could just about afford. We moved in at the beginning of September 1998 and our daughter started at the Kings Langley school three days later.
Why did we want to send our daughter to a Steiner school, even though any rational assessment would show that we couldn’t afford the fees and that we faced the prospect of years of scrimping and saving and few, if any, holidays? There are so many reasons but here are just a few:
- A truly child-centred curriculum that allows children to develop at their own pace and to have a proper childhood
- A method that uses art and creativity to teach every subject
- The main lesson system which allows subjects to be studied with both depth and breadth
- A noticeable quality of warmth in the schools and friendly relations between staff and pupils but also mutual respect
I would like a school with such qualities to be available for every child who might benefit from it, especially for those whose parents can’t afford the fees of the independent schools. That is why I am so pleased for those parents who live within the catchment areas of the new publicly-funded Bristol, Exeter, Frome and Hereford Steiner Academy schools. I wish there were many more, throughout the country, to supplement the good work of the independent schools.
Dan Dugan’s own history with Waldorf schools is interesting and has been set out in some detail here. Dan describes himself as a “secular humanist” but his humanist values do not seem to prevent him from engaging in campaigns of misinformation, defamation and myth-making. In the USA, of course, with the separation of church and state, schools have a delicate balancing act to perform, which PLANS has sought to exploit by bringing legal cases against Waldorf schools – which PLANS have subsequently lost. In seeking to make his case that Steiner Waldorf schools are religious schools, Dan has listed what he calls their cult-like characteristics.
These alleged cult-like characteristics, as identified by Dan, are shown below in bold while my comments on these are shown in italics.
Cult-like characteristics of Anthroposophy include:
1. It clings to rejected knowledge. (The heart is not a pump, etc.)
Here’s an extract from an article on the AnthroMed Library website which deals with this question:
“To any doctor trained in today’s medical schools, the idea that the heart may not be a pump would, at first sight, appear to be about as logical as suggesting that the sun rises in the West or that water flows uphill. So strongly is the pump concept ingrained in the collective psyche that even trying to think otherwise is more than most people can manage. Yet Rudolf Steiner, a man not given to unscientific or slipshod thinking, was quite clear on the matter and reiterated time and again that the heart is not a pump. “The blood drives the heart, not the heart the blood.”
This topic requires more space than is available here, but anyone wishing to find out more might wish to start with this article from the Journal of Anthroposophical Medicine. There is also a useful description of what is taught about the heart in Steiner Waldorf schools here.
A further interesting fact, which medical science is unable to explain, is that in embryological development, the blood starts circulating in the embryo before the heart organ has been created. In other words, blood circulation in the embryo pre-dates the heart.
2. It requires teachers to commit to the world-view for advancement in status. (college of teachers).
Many Steiner Waldorf schools do not have a head teacher or principal but are instead organised by a body of staff (mainly teachers but often including administrators) called the College of Teachers. The criteria for becoming a College member usually include a commitment to working meditatively on oneself, thus seeking an active connection between oneself and the spiritual worlds; on being on a continuous path of personal and professional development; and on taking an active part in the running of the school beyond one’s normal teaching or administrative duties. Becoming a member of College does not lead to any increase in status, nor to any increase in pay. What it does lead to is a deeper commitment to the work of the school and a fuller realisation of the seriousness and responsibility of the task of the educator.
3. Its core doctrines are not published. (First Class).
It is true that what are called the class lessons of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science have not been published – although these can now be found online, published without support from the society. During the refounding of the Anthroposophical Society at Christmas 1923/24 as the General Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner also introduced the School of Spiritual Science, which was intended to have three classes, leading from one to the next. Owing to Steiner’s death in 1925, he was only able to provide lessons for the First Class. His intention was that there should not be any published texts of these lessons released for personal reading but that the content of the lessons should be passed on by word of mouth. It was also his intention that anyone who wished to belong to the school should be “a worthy representative of anthroposophy before the world.” The reason for this is that the lessons are steeped in esoteric knowledge and require much background preparation from the student. They are not to be read or talked about like stories from a newspaper, or thought about with our everyday kind of thinking. “One can accomplish nothing whatever in esoteric life if one does not know that in esoteric life truth – absolute truth – must prevail, and that we cannot merely speak of truth and still persist in taking these things in the way one would in the profane, external life.” So these texts are not for intellectual or casual reading, but require a certain cast of mind, as well as preparation and commitment, before engaging with them.
4. It is exclusive. (Only Anthroposophical knowledge of man leads to right education.)
It’s not obvious what Dan has in mind here – Steiner Waldorf schools of course teach all kinds of knowledge from many different sources, as does any school. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, is not taught to the children, nor is it necessary to be an anthroposophist before teaching in a Steiner Waldorf school. Clearly, the schools hope that anyone who comes to teach in a Waldorf setting will have an interest in anthroposophy and will want to find out more; but it is not a requirement and teachers do not have to sign up to any particular set of beliefs.
5. It guards revelation of “difficult” knowledge. (Prospective parents won’t be told about the role of Lucifer.)
When Dan Dugan wrote this list of cult-like characteristics in the late 1990s, it was probably a fair criticism to say that prospective parents were not told much about anthroposophy in many school prospectuses. I don’t believe this was for any sinister reason, but simply because it would be difficult to know where to begin with such a complex and extensive body of knowledge. However, in the light of criticisms from organisations like PLANS, school websites and prospectuses are nowadays much more likely to be more forthcoming about anthroposophy, and this is very much to be welcomed. Parents should of course do their own online research and reading about educational systems, as well as pay visits to the school and talk to other parents before committing their child to any particular school.
6. It is a closed system. (Almost all publications referenced are from Anthroposophical presses and periodicals, all writers refer to Steiner.)
Inasmuch as it applies to anthroposophy, this is probably a fair criticism. I think such a criticism might also apply to other specialist areas originated by a towering figure, eg Jungian psychology, in which new territory was being opened up by the founder. The passage of time will change this, as is already being seen within anthroposophy, where the contributions of people such Bernard Lievegoed, Otto Scharmer, Arthur Zajonc and other highly respected thinkers are building on Steiner’s foundations.
Inasmuch as it applies to Steiner Waldorf schools, the same situation applies, with Steiner’s educational ideas gradually being added to by other experienced educationalists. Steiner Waldorf schools have been to a certain extent insular in their relations with the wider educational world. There are reasons for this, of course, in that the Waldorf system deplores much of what it regards as the excessive pressures and unreasonable demands put upon children and schools by modern politicians; and does not see many of its own ideas understood or referred to in mainstream educational publications. Clearly, however, it is not ideal for the schools to be isolated from the educational culture of their countries and Steiner would undoubtedly have wished there to have been much more interaction between Waldorf and other school systems. I have written more about this here. In those countries (now including England) where Steiner Waldorf schools are able to receive public funding, there is much more of a sense that the schools are part of a pluralistic educational culture.
7. It uses Jargon that redefines common terms. (Child development)
When Steiner Waldorf schools talk about child development and age-appropriate education, they have in mind the importance of not bringing any form of knowledge to a child before he or she is developmentally ready to receive and benefit from it. Rudolf Steiner has given the schools a model of child development which has been tried and tested now for over 90 years, and on the whole it works very well, because it accords completely with the actual nature of most children.
8. It maintains separation from the world by generating fear and loathing. (Denigrating public schools, “us vs them” attitude, paranoia)
I’ve not heard any reports of this from schools in the UK but there are certainly allegations of this nature made in the USA. If this has ever happened in any Steiner Waldorf school, it would certainly be deplorable and would be completely contrary to the intentions of Rudolf Steiner.
9. It suppresses critical dialogue, resulting in elaboration but no development of theory. (Consensus government, “like it or leave,” Shunning)
It is, of course, very difficult in any school if a parent or group of parents starts to create serious unrest in the parent body with vociferous complaints. In such cases, if the parents do not respond to offers of dialogue and discussion but continue to spread disharmony, then they may be asked to leave. The challenge for schools is to be as open as possible about anthroposophy before parents enrol their children; and then to provide plenty of opportunities through parents’ evenings, study groups and orientation days for any issues to be discussed before they become contentious and divisive. If the school attended by Dan’s son had been more open all those years ago, perhaps Dan would have realised in advance that it was not somewhere he would choose for his son’s education.
I am not an uncritical defender of Steiner Waldorf schools and I do recognise that on occasion, things can go wrong. Some schools seem to have an unfortunate knack for upsetting parents and then failing to deal properly with the consequences. The reasons for this can be many and complex and in my post on leadership & management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools, I’ve listed some of these. Improved teacher training, school management and customer care are required before these problems will start to disappear. But I also think that when Steiner Waldorf education works well, as it does for many thousands of children (including my own daughter), it’s one of the best, and most human, systems of education you can find.
I hope it is clear from what has been written above, and in my previous post on anthroposophy, that Steiner Waldorf schools cannot legitimately be described as being part of a cult, or cult-like. But it is also clear that Steiner Waldorf schools need to be as open and transparent as possible with parents about anthroposophy and the part it plays in the approach that teachers take to their teaching. I believe that most Steiner Waldorf schools today are more aware of these issues and that school brochures and websites are far less reticent about anthroposophy than used to be the case. It is not in the best interests of any school to have parents who do not support the Waldorf system or who feel that somehow the school has been less than straightforward with them about what lies behind the education. Well-informed and supportive parents, who understand what the teachers are trying to achieve and who are prepared to work with the school for the best outcomes for their children, are the bedrock of any school system, Steiner Waldorf or mainstream.
There are several posts on this blog about Steiner Waldorf education, or which touch on aspects of it. For ease of reference, here are the links:
September 4th 2014 – Rudolf Steiner visits Margaret McMillan
September 11th 2014 – The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools
September 16th 2014 – Karma and the Steiner Waldorf teacher
September 27th 2014 – Why some atheists like anthroposophy
October 4th 2014 – Different strokes for different folks
February 15th 2015 – “Every school could use these methods…”
December 1st 2015 – “A right good evening, the best of cheer…”
December 13th 2015 – Guest Post: Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf schools