Thursday, August 09, 2007

More Waldorf school PR struggles...

...this time in Australia.

I don't know how the state schools incorporate Waldorf/Steiner methods in Australia -- if they are fully independent, charter schools (as in California) where some state requirements must be met, or some other structure.

But I do know a bit about the methods of education and the anthroposophical thought behind it, and feel moved to respond to some of the comments in the article:

"Critics say that its philosophical basis is too religious -- even comparing it to Scientology -- to be in the secular public system.

But supporters deny Steiner education is religious and argue it is a holistic approach to learning."

Anthroposophy is spiritual. In the anthroposophical view, all of human existence is imbued with spirit. Therefore any human interaction -- be it in a Waldorf/Steiner school, a public school, the grocery store, a prison -- involves the spiritual world. Only when we come from a materialistic, dualistic viewpoint does the concept of "secularity vs. spirituality" arise.

Waldorf/Steiner schools do not teach a religion to the students. They do foster the natural sense of awe, wonder, and respect for the world that children have. Anthroposophy is a philosophical world-view, not a religion. You can follow any religion you like, or none at all, and still work with anthroposophy.

"Supporters of Steiner are adamant anthroposophy is not taught to children, and that Steiner himself said the spiritual science was only for adults who chose to do it.

But parents and religious experts are concerned that Steiner teachers learn about anthroposophy in their training and these beliefs seep into the classroom. 'What a lot of people don't get is that Steiner is based on a spiritual system not an educational one,' says cult expert Raphael Aron.... It is implicit in everything they do."

Anthroposophy is never taught directly to children (though in some schools here in the US I believe it is included in some high school senior classes about world religion). Steiner specifically stated that teachers should never speak of anthroposophy directly to students: "If anyone thinks the Waldorf School is a school for Anthroposophy it shows he has no understanding either of Waldorf School pedagogy or of Anthroposophy." (Spiritual Ground of Education, lecture 8 of 8/24/1922.)

But yes, of course, it is the foundation of Waldorf/Steiner methods. Of course the beliefs "seep into the classroom," but only in that everything that the teacher brings to the students is informed by the anthroposophical worldview, not that it is included in the curriculum. If teachers are including anthroposophy in their curricula, they are making a mistake.

"[Aron] said there was a lack of transparency in the schools and often parents were not told about what Steiner believed, making it not dissimilar to Scientology."

I can't speak about Scientology, but I believe that it is possible, and perhaps even common, that schools are not forthright and clear enough with parents about anthroposophy. Part of the problem stems from what I perceive as a fear of talking about some of the beliefs outright, because they are far outside the mainstream. Guardian angels, etheric bodies, reincarnation, karma, elemental beings...these all come into play, albeit mostly in minor ways. And personally I don't think these things are the crux of the pedagogy anyway, but I can see how some of these beliefs could come as a shock to parents, especially if not presented in a clear way.

However I also think that it's unreasonable to expect schools to discuss every belief that informs the pedagogy. Steiner gave about 6,000 lectures during his lifetime -- how would it even be possible to fully "disclose" anthroposophy to prospective parents? Do Catholic schools describe every bit of doctrine to parents? Do Montessori schools give parents all of Maria Montessori's writings?

"Mr Pereira, who is from Sri Lanka, said his concerns about Steiner's racist beliefs were realised when his children were not allowed to use black or brown crayons because they were "not pure". He said Steiner teachers at the state-run school recommended they not immunise their children because it would lead to the 'bestialisation of humans'."

This to me sounds like teachers trying to explain concepts, and failing.

In early childhood, it is thought that children should experience color in a moving, feeling way, without too much hardened form, because that is the state of the children themselves: moving, feeling, still soft (bones, rounded bodies, etc.) and not fully incarnated. That is why children in Waldorf/Steiner schools do watercolor paintings instead of coloring pre-drawn images, and that is why black and brown are discouraged -- these colors are "earthly" and tend to create form instead of color experiences. I would say that calling them "impure" is not accurate.

And there are numerous explanations and thoughts about discouraging immunization, but using the word "bestialization" seems excessive and inaccurate. I've talked before about the issue of Steiner and racism; linking crayons and race is just silly. I think that people bring up the race card about Steiner because it immediately causes fear and doubt, and obscures real discussion.

"Rudolf Steiner Schools of Australia executive officer Rosemary Gentle said anthroposophy was not taught to children, although teachers were introduced to the subject during their training.

'It has nothing to do with what is taught. It is just the approach to teaching,' she said.

'The teachers are given an anthroposophy background ... and it allows them to look into a child more deeply. You look at children as you would in a family. You strive to understand the child and recognise their emerging personality.'"

Perhaps my comparison with Catholic schools was problematic, because it is an inherent goal of that school system to create more Catholics. Waldorf/Steiner schools do not work that way. Sure, if you think you've got the best way to view reality, you hope that everyone else will climb on your bandwagon so that everyone can benefit. And if you have a world-view of any kind, be it intellectual development at the expense of artistic and social skills or religion as the basis of all reality or anthroposophy or secular humanism or whatever, it will surely inform your actions.

But the commonly stated goal of Waldorf/Steiner education is not to create more anthroposophists. It is to provide a developmentally appropriate and healing curriculum to help the children become balanced, socially aware, and able to integrate all parts of their selves -- body, soul, and spirit -- into a healthy adult life.


szilvi said...

OK, copy from clipboard, then.
* * *

First of all, I think that trying to incorporate waldorf-methods to state school is bound to fail. Waldorf is not a "method", you cannot lift it away from its roots (anthroposophy) and squeeze it into a system that has intellectual excellence as its main goal. A lot of critisism comes from the disillusioned teachers/administrators who have tried this, and failed, without fully understanding why. They then start attacking the method, and its backround.

IMHO the Waldorf schools I know do make the mistake of emphasising to future parents that this is NOT a religious school, YET not stressing enough that it isn't an 'atheist' school either. A lot of parents do not make the effort to find out more about it beyond what meets the eye, and get surprised later. They then accuse the school for having 'hidden agendas'. My oldest son's class teacher WILL talk about the background of why he teaches a certain thing a certain way, how it related to the children's development at a given period, but will only talk in 'spiritual' terms when necessary. Hidden agenda? No. Simply knowing who your audience is. When asked directly, he will talk about his views on reincarnation, the religious develpoment of humamity, etc.

"This to me sounds like teachers trying to explain concepts, and failing." - you say.
Absolutely. Simplifications and misconceptions. Sad.

Henitsirk said...

Hi Szilvi,
Thank you for your insightful comments! I am always looking for other people's experiences to help me understand Waldorf, anthroposophy, and how they interact and work in the world.

I think the Waldorf world on the one hand places too much emphasis on the spiritual side, in that there are very practical reasons for the curriculum and methods, as your son's teacher sometimes discusses. On the other hand, we don't put enough thought into the spirituality sometimes, and we over-simplify or get sidetracked into the wonderful world of fairies and reincarnation!

Anthroposophy is hard work, and there will always be people who dip into it and perhaps they are wonderful teachers, but that dip will not serve them well enough in the future.

szilvi said...

I'm not sure I understand your last sentence (and hubby is abroad) about the dip and not serving them well.

I just wanted to say, that anthroposophy, like other spiritual paths, is very complex and would require constant questioning and self-evaluation. Schulung, Steiner said. Even with good resolves, we often can't keep it up. And we then, as you say, get lost in the detail, and start sticking to the "letter of the law" (am I using the right expression here?). For a long time I'd maintained a beautiful seasonal table. I made little flower-fairies, bought the right color silk scarves, carefully collected the right flowers and rocks and whatnots... It was picture-perfect. And about half a year ago I started feeling that something was amiss. It was "empty". I was doing it, because that's what a GOOD waldorf mother does. Now I'm taking a break, and I am hoping, that soon I find the resources in myself to start it all over again, but this time with inner content, if you get what I mean.

Henitsirk said...

Dear Szilvi,
I meant that I think some people might "dip into" anthroposophy in a shallow way, and that even though they might be good teachers, this shallow working may not serve them well later when they are confronted with questions about their beliefs and practices.

Your point about the "letter of the law" is apt: Steiner said many times that we should always think independently, he was not a guru, etc., and that what was right for one person may not be right for another.

My son seems to be strongly left handed. Most people in Waldorf immediately say that we should work to change him. However I have read several things from Steiner where he said that in general the right hand is preferred, but that if a child is very strongly left-oriented and changing that would be otherwise detrimental, then leave it alone.

I know what you mean about inner content. Sometimes we just have to do things in order to reach that inner understanding, and other times we need the meaning first.

I recommend The Not Quite Crunchy Parent as a blog by someone who tries to incorporate Waldorf principles but not too strictly. It's interesting to read how she tries to balance things.

szilvi said...

OK, I understand now!
Lefthandedness: my second son is left-handed, and NO, they didn't try to change him, believing, that that point of view of Steiners might not stand its ground. Indeed, I was worried before school, because I had read the same thing about writing and left brain, etc. As a matter of fact our anthroposophical doctor has been giving him exercises to become even more left-sided, because a clear sidedness is critical, but which side it is, is secondary.

Thanks for the blog-reference, I will check it out.

Anonymous said...

I think you're way off base about hidden agenda. We asked repeatedly about what the issue was with our son's supposed "cross dpominance," and we were promised repeatedly that they would send us info but they never did, instead the school put us off. After several very unhappy months we removed our child from school and he is back to his old happy school loving self. Waldorf is not for everyone. If you don't believe in faeries, gnomes, and Jesus and the Virgin Mary, you are better off staying away. Catholic schools don't hide their identity. Steiner was a kook. We very much like to feature less materialism, media and soforth in our lives, but since we leeft the school we have read Steiner a great deal and we are ashamed we left our son there.

Henitsirk said...

Anonymous: It sounds like you had a very unhappy experience at your Waldorf school. I'm not going to agree, however, that your experiences reflect the way **all** Waldorf schools work, or should work.

But I will agree with you that Steiner/Waldorf is not for everyone, certainly if you are not receiving information that you requested. In my opinion, parents should be as fully informed as possible, in any school!

I think the problem may center on the fact that while anthroposophy is the foundation of Waldorf education, it is not taught directly in the curriculum. So schools and teachers are left having to somehow figure out how much to share with parents, and when. And given that anthroposophy is extremely complex, that's a tough thing to figure out!

I'm glad to hear that your son is happy in school--that's the goal.

Anonymous said...

Hi- I think most people in Steiner Waldorf don't have a clue about the anthroposophical agenda. It is to help children re incarnate for the greater good of human kind. Their beliefs are religious and cult like- and I do know what I'm talking about. There are a few main players who know the full story- and are well versed in selling the holistic child centred education to people disillusioned with mainstream.
Hey- their views are also suspiciously racist- supremecy of the aryan race is well covered up. They have occult overtones too. And as a self named esoteric society- only a few have full knowledge- they can always explain things by saying unless you have the full anthro knowledge you can't know what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Anthroposophists are very reluctant to speak openly- they block information on the internet whenever they can. People are being blocked on youtube right now- they really don't want people to know their true agenda. They are also very wealthy- their fundraising for Camphill and numerous other organisations is phenominal.

Henitsirk said...

Anon (perhaps two?): I'm blogging at now, but I thought I would respond to your comments. I did a post over there on the "cult" issue, so I won't go into that here. I've also commented elsewhere about the racism issue.

There are anthroposophists who still believe that there are things that should remain "esoteric." I think this is erroneous given Steiner's repeated statements that esotericism is no longer necessary or desirable.

My experience is that anthroposophists are just like the rest of the population: some are rich, and some are not. Most of the people I have known and met here in the US have been somewhere in the middle, including people fairly "high up" in the US Anthro. Society. Most Waldorf teachers are not wealthy, by virtue of the fact that they are not typically paid well! If people are wealthy, it's because they have obtained their wealth in the "mainstream" world.

As for fundraising, yes, there are very wealthy people who donate a lot of money to anthro. endeavors. And there are people who donate pittances, because they want to do what they can. Again, most of the anthroposophists I know are somewhere in the middle. Fundraising at Waldorf schools often is quite large, but that I would say is a function of the overall parent population: people who can afford to send their children to private school.

Anonymous said...

Anthroposophy is available to read for free on the internet. You don't have to join a society or pay money at all.

The Anthroposophical Society is not wealthy at all. For one thing the membership worldwide is very small and has been that way for years. For another it is not a religion. If it was it would be in a much better financial situation!