Mark Hayes of the Steiner’s Mirror blog has asked me a question: ““What role and purpose, if any, does karma have in Steiner education?”
I think it’s fair to say that Mark’s blog is not friendly towards Steiner schools and his question has a hostile intent behind it. However, it seems to me that Mark is asking a genuine question in a civil manner so I’m going to do my best to answer him.
I should state right from the outset that, although I have worked in and around Steiner schools for many years, I am not a teacher nor have I been through Steiner teacher training. What I have done, however, is spend considerable amounts of time with Steiner teachers, in teacher meetings and College of Teacher meetings. I have also helped to recruit and interview teachers (and on occasion have also had to engage in teacher disciplinary and capability panels). My response to Mark’s question is based on my experience of what happens in a typical Steiner Waldorf school.
Rudolf Steiner considered it his main life task to increase people’s understanding of the laws of karma and reincarnation and their operation in our lives. I call them ‘laws’ because they operate as inevitably as any other law of nature such as gravity or action/reaction.
What is karma? Stated very simply, karma is the cosmic law of cause and effect. I see it as an extension of the physical law of action/reaction because it ensures that each of us receives back the exact results of our actions. The idea didn’t originate with Steiner, of course. According to Wikipedia, it has its origins in ancient India and is a key concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Ching Hai and others. And although most traces of it have been eliminated from exoteric Christianity, even there you can still find references to it, such as from St Paul, who said: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
So karma is not some weird, occult notion dreamed up by Steiner but is part of the belief system of millions of people across the world. It is of course closely associated with two of the other great cosmic laws, ie reincarnation or the law of rebirth; and the law of opportunity, which ensures that the reincarnating soul is drawn to the circumstances that will bring opportunities to pay off old debts and acquire the knowledge and experience that it seeks.
To come to Mark’s question: “what role and purpose, if any, does karma have in Steiner education?” Perhaps the first thing to say is that not every teacher in a Steiner school is an anthroposophist. I would guess that most class teachers are but probably not so many subject teachers. One would hope that, if they are teaching in a Steiner school, then they would at least have an interest in anthroposophy and be open to finding out more about it, but it’s not a requirement and during my time they were not asked about it at interview. I never knew for sure how many people in the school would describe themselves as anthroposophists and I never asked.
But let’s assume that the teacher is an anthroposophist and works with the notion that karma and reincarnation are active in the lives of all of us. What effect does that have on their teaching practice? From my perspective, it has the most wonderful and enlivening effect, which can be summed up in this quotation from Steiner: “Receive the children in reverence, educate them with love, send them forth in freedom.”
“Receive the children in reverence.” The teacher receives the child in trust from its parents but also with the understanding that the child was in the heavenly world until its recent birth and therefore comes, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “trailing clouds of glory.”
“Educate them with love.” The teacher will assume that there is some kind of link between his or her own karma and that of the children and that they are therefore there to learn from and to help one another.
“Send them forth in freedom.” The teacher does not seek to impart his or her own beliefs to the children but rather to teach them to think for themselves so that in their future lives they can operate as free men and women, able to fulfil their destinies.
A Steiner teacher doesn’t ask: “What do I need to teach this child so that she will get through the SATS test?” or “How can I ensure that this child’s exam results won’t drag down the school’s overall rating in the league tables?” or even “What can I teach this child so that he will become an efficient member of the workforce?” (And by no means do I blame state schoolteachers for the intolerable political pressures put upon them.) Instead, a Steiner teacher will ask something like: “What does this child need in order to develop into an effective member of society who is well balanced and happy?”
In all the teacher meetings I have attended over the years, I have never heard a teacher say anything that would seem to indicate that they know what a child’s past life had been or how its karma would unfold in the future. Indeed, unless you are a great initiate or at least a clairvoyant of prodigious insight, how could anyone make such a statement without inviting derision? If ever anything like this has happened in a Steiner school, then I condemn it as utterly inappropriate and wrong. What I have heard, on the other hand, is some really insightful discussion in child study sessions, in which teachers will focus on a particular child and share their particular experiences and observations made during lessons.
Nor do I recognise the allegation that Steiner teachers ignore incidents of bullying because of some misplaced sense that, if a child is being bullied, it must be something to do with its karma. In the schools I know about, bullying is dealt with quickly and effectively and any incidents of bullying are notified to all the teachers so that they can keep an eye open in case of any further outbreaks. If there is a Steiner teacher anywhere in the world who believes that they should not intervene in cases of bullying, they are not only very wrong but also completely misunderstand the concept of karma. In my old school any such idiocy would have led straight to a disciplinary hearing for that teacher.
Visit Steiner schools and you will find there is a friendly and relaxed relationship between teachers and pupils. There is also a notable quality of warmth that one does not always feel in other schools, where it’s all too easy for teachers to become classroom managers and for pupils to be seen as examination statistics.
All of the above will seem like nonsense and delusion to some, or to use the skeptics’ favourite imported terms, “woo” and “wibble”. (What’s wrong with our homegrown British terms of abuse, I’d like to know.)
In the UK at least, you have plenty of choice of schools and if the ideas outlined here don’t appeal to you, then please put your child in a different system. After all, as Steiner observed somewhere, belief in the spiritual realities is a matter of karma and if you don’t like these concepts, then they’re clearly not in your script for this lifetime (which you probably believe is the only one you’ve got).
As I’ve already mentioned some of the cosmic laws, I will touch here on another one – the law of balance and equilibrium. This law shows itself throughout nature in phenomena such as day and night, heat and cold, expansion and contraction, acid and alkali etc. It’s a fundamental law regarding the human mind and body because it acts as a safeguard, ensuring that extremism can only be taken so far before reaction sets in and pulls us back towards the place of balance. Over successive incarnations it causes the soul to swing between poles, for example between introversion and extroversion, until a more balanced expression of being is reached. It may cause a soul that has been fanatical in one incarnation to be just as fanatical in the opposite direction in another lifetime, so as to adjust the soul’s equilibrium. Therefore, although I’m not clairvoyant, I can predict with complete confidence that Richard Dawkins’ next life will be as an Islamic fundamentalist; that Dan Dugan will be general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America; and that Pete Karaiskos will come back as a kindly little old lady whose characteristic phrases will be: “If you can’t say something nice, then it’s better to say nothing at all” and “Oh well, mustn’t grumble.” 🙂