Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Steiner and Racism

I've been mulling over a blog post on anthroposophy for a long time now. You see, it touches on a very touchy and contentious subject: racism. And I haven't been sure I really want to step into such murky waters. Much of the criticism of Steiner published online revolves around the racism question, and it is so inflammatory and biased that I hesitate to add another voice to the discussion.

However it's something that I think anthroposophists cannot shirk from. Steiner exhorted us to shine the light of consciousness on everything we say and do. And I certainly don't think that a balanced view of this issue can be obtained by reading what is already out there.

Steiner had a lot to say about human development, evolution, and the role "races" have to play in the spiritual development of mankind. Unfortunately, many of his statements, if taken out of the overall context of his beliefs and other statements, sound baldly racist to modern ears. And that is a valid concern today, given that Waldorf teacher training includes extensive reading of Steiner's books and lectures.

Much of the discourse on this subject has been based on cherry-picking quotes to back up opposing claims, as can be done with the Bible (e.g., Thou shalt not kill vs. thou shalt not suffer a witch to live). I don't think that kind of argumentation is productive, so here I will not give any quotations but merely give my perspective.

I will be clear from the start: in my opinion, Steiner was not racist in the way that we use the word today. He believed in the exalted spiritual nature of each human being, regardless of their physical or cultural ancestry. To him, any artificial divisions among groups of people -- race, religion, nationality -- are materialistic and counter to the goals of spiritual development both for individuals and humanity as a whole. Time and again in his books and public speeches Steiner declaimed against divisiveness (in fact, his writings against nationalism were in large part why the Nazis suppressed anthroposophy and Waldorf schools in Germany).

I will give one example, though I tread lightly here. Steiner believed that the function of Jewish culture and religion was to properly develop a hereditary stream for Jesus to incarnate into. Therefore, after Jesus was born, in some sense the Jewish culture and religion were no longer necessary for humanity's spiritual development.

He did not mean, to my understanding, that Jews should be eradicated or are somehow less developed or valid than other people. He just meant that the impulse of the Jewish faith was no longer the most current in the overall stream of human spiritual development.

You see how tricky this gets?

Now the question is: how much of this affects Waldorf schools? The fact is that some of Steiner's lectures that include discussion of race are typically included in Waldorf teacher training programs, though in my experience not for the purpose of discussing race or even really anything to do with teaching. They are merely part of the overall picture of Steiner's work and belief about human evolution and Christianity. And teachers do typically continue to study Steiner's works during their work as teachers. So this question does merit some examination into current Waldorf methodologies.

And the next question: even if we were to decide that some of Steiner's comments were racist, does that mean we have to reject everything else he said and did? Perhaps it's overly apologetic, but after all, he was a white male Roman Catholic from the 19th century German culture. No matter how much we think he was clairvoyant and special, he was still a human being, and error could have crept in. Do his beliefs about the ancient evolution of humanity truly cast a pall over the demonstrable good that his other works do: Waldorf schools, biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophic medicine, socially beneficial banking, to name a few?

Steiner said explicitly that we no longer need gurus. We no longer need to take anyone's words as articles of faith, and in fact doing so will hinder our development. Concepts must grow and develop, and to simply take what was given in the past leads to petrification instead of fruitfulness. So we have to read Steiner and decide for ourselves whether what he said even applies to our time today. I believe he was showing us the way that race was important in the past, and in doing so he underscores how unimportant it is for the present.

3 comments:

cry it out! said...

Just had to say thanks for such a thoughtful post -- very well done.

Mike

Caroline in Rome said...

I have other issues with Steiner education but I never thought the racism issue was a problem. Even if we assume he was a racist, I do think that it is possible that there are other elements of his pedagogy that were good and that one should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I have bigger problems with delaying scientific explanations to children, delaying reading until age 7 (even if a child is clearly ready much earlier), the total emphasis on fantasy to the exclusion of learning about the real world, but I am a Montessorian at heart.

Henitsirk said...

Caroline: Thanks for your comment. I think indeed there are aspects of the pedagogy that do not work for all children, and in fact may not be appropriate at all...I wonder about modifying much of the "Germanic" structures for American culture, for example.