Anthroposophy and social justice

My eye is caught by an interview in The Guardian with Fran Russell, the recently-appointed executive director of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. My daughter also spotted the article and sent me the link, with the comment: “To my casual eye, she sounds like the sort of pragmatic, worldly advocate we need!”

That is exactly right – I have known Fran from when she was the administrator at the Greenwich Steiner School and have a high regard for her, both as a human being and as the right person at the right time for a very difficult job; Steiner schools in England, as anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will know, have been going through hard times in recent years, a period in which they have been under intense scrutiny from Ofsted.

What I noticed about Fran’s interview, though, is that she does not appear to have used the word “anthroposophy” once. One clue as to why this may be so can be found in the comments from readers appearing under the interview, in which quite a few people disparage both Steiner and anthroposophy.

I decided to take a look at the website of the Bristol Steiner School, whose head teacher, Ruth Glover, is mentioned in the interview. The school has clearly learnt its Ofsted lessons well and is now rated as ‘Good’. What is also notable is that there does not appear to be a single mention of Rudolf Steiner or anthroposophy anywhere in the website.

Presumably the reason for this absence is that a hard-headed and pragmatic conclusion has been reached that Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy detract from the message that the school wishes to convey about the benefits of its educational methods. This is a great triumph for Ofsted and the Waldorf critics, who have thus succeeded in separating Steiner from Steiner schools.

Perhaps such an outcome was inevitable, now that Steiner schools have been in existence for around one hundred years, during which time they and the wider anthroposophical movement have accumulated a quantity of historical baggage that has been unhelpful in today’s circumstances. I find it very sad, however, and worry that a Steiner school which cannot bring itself to mention Rudolf Steiner will eventually lose its way, as those running the school will find it politic to bend this way and that in order either to meet the latest Ofsted demands, or avoid the attention of internet critics.

I thought of these pragmatists and trimmers while reading a book called The Living Rudolf Steiner – Apologia by a Dutch medical doctor called Mieke Mossmuller. Here is a passage that drew my attention:

“One does not have to take blindly what he says and writes, one can simply leave it to Rudolf Steiner’s responsibility. Only dogmatists have to answer for their dogmas. A free man does not have to apologise for the statements of another free man. He knows that the free man reflects more deeply on his statements than the unfree man and thus knows that these free statements of free people are perfectly understandable. However, one must not surrender to the lack of freedom of public opinion. Judgements are widely prevalent there which are not intelligent and spiritual enough to bring about free statements or appreciate these statements. Thus, when a contemporary Anthroposophical Society wants to apologise for statements that Rudolf Steiner has made, it shows itself to be a dogmatic sectarian association in doing so. Or else it has striven itself finally to free itself from this Master of the Occident by pulling this master down to its own spiritless level”

This is perhaps a rather harsh and unforgiving verdict on people who are doubtless trying to defend and preserve aspects of anthroposophy within the hostile climate engendered by “the lack of freedom of public opinion”.  Such a pragmatic tendency is probably an inevitable necessity during the present phase of Steiner schools in England and their intense encounter with Ofsted. It is nevertheless one of two distorting tendencies for anthroposophy which have been identified in a perceptive essay by Robert Karp, a former director of the Biodynamic Association in the USA.

Talking about biodynamics but in remarks which are equally applicable to other anthroposophical endeavours, Karp says:

“We do not understand biodynamic agriculture, as well as Waldorf education, anthroposophical medicine and all the other diverse offshoots of anthroposophy, correctly if we think of them simply as “applications” of spiritual science to different vocations. This is an abstraction. In reality, these movements are the result of powerful forces of social conscience living in different individuals and groups of people in the early 20th century, which then received from Rudolf Steiner and spiritual science a certain direction, a certain form through which their social impulses were channelled and further cultivated”

(…) In his lectures published under the title Awakening to Community, (Steiner) describes ‘three acts in the soul drama’ of an anthroposophist, i.e. of a modern human being striving to work in the world out of the impulses of spiritual science.

The first act of this drama Rudolf Steiner describes as the emergence in our biography of a kind of inner refusal to participate in the destructiveness and superficiality of modern civilisation. He calls this a withdrawal or turning inward of the will away from conventionality—conventional thought forms, social forms, and ways of being—in search of something deeper. 

This turning inward of the will is the very ground of the social conscience, wherever it emerges. The tragic conditions of the modern world touch us in some way: through war, poverty, ecological destruction, racial discrimination, childhood abuse, illness, and so on. Whatever these events or trends are, and however they have impacted us, we can find ourselves disgusted, wounded, angered, depressed, sick, offended. Our will is hindered in its natural outward embrace of the world and we go inward in search for something new and different—we are thrust onto a quest for meaning and healing, both personal and collective. For millions of people in our time, this is the beginning of their hero’s journey of liberation from the oppression, violence, and emptiness of modern life.

(…) Biodynamics is not an agricultural impulse derived from the teachings of spiritual science; it is rather, a powerful social impulse working in the domain of agriculture that has united itself with the spiritual substance of anthroposophy. Biodynamics is thus not something that needs to be wedded to, or have grafted onto it, any type of social impulse, movement, or worldview from outside—it is a social impulse in and of itself— with an inexhaustible wellspring of inspiration for social deeds. The same can be said of all the different so-called “daughter movements” of anthroposophy. This uniting of our social impulses with the insights of spiritual science is what Rudolf Steiner refers to as the second act in the soul drama of an anthroposophist”.

Karp then goes on to observe that the social impulses that fuel movements at their founding are not identical to the social impulses that continue to fuel them over time; and therefore it is necessary for two different things to take place:

“First, that it is refreshed, again and again, by new people flowing into it with their unique social impulses and perspectives; and second, that these social impulses are continually wedded to and illuminated by the social and spiritual substance of anthroposophy; just as took place for the founders of the movement.”

If neither of these things happen, Karp suggests that an anthroposophical movement can be distorted in two different ways:

“a. It can close itself off to the fresh social impulses of succeeding generations or from people in very different regions and cultures, and thereby become less and less relevant to the present time, enclosing itself, as it were, in a kind of sectarian skin formed by devotion to the experiences of the founders and to an ever smaller circle of people in the present. We could call this the sectarian tendency. Or:

 

b. It can welcome new people and fresh social impulses but neglect the process of uniting these social impulses with, and illuminating them through, the substance of anthroposophy; instead adopting and grafting onto itself all kinds of perspectives, narratives, and agenda from movements outside itself. We could call this the grafting tendency.

I find this to be a very acute observation. It is clear that Steiner schools in England, because of the need to accommodate themselves to Ofsted’s requirements, are currently in the grip of (b), what Karp calls the grafting tendency.

One might also say that many Steiner schools find themselves in this position partly because of having been for far too long caught up in (a) the sectarian tendency.

This brings us on to what Steiner called Act III of the soul drama of the anthroposophist: 

“Essentially, he suggests we reach a crisis point in our biography as we seek to embody the universal impulses of anthroposophy within the unique circumstances of our destiny—a process that requires us to confront, ever more deeply, the limitations, wounds and weaknesses of our personality, which includes, of course, the limitations of our familial and cultural heritage. This is a drama marked by great inner struggle with our lower selves: our illusions, our biases, our fears. Yet through this process of self-confrontation and self-emptying, new capacities arise, new-born powers of soul that ultimately can allow us to unite our personal destiny with the destiny of the time and place in which we live. (…) We are reborn, you could say, as world citizens from the confines of our intimate anthroposophical and biodynamic communities. Rudolf Steiner calls this the awakening of a Sophia power in our souls, thus connecting this initiation, in a certain way, with the mysteries of the divine feminine in our time.”

In Karp’s view, the tragedy of the sectarian tendency is that certain existential questions of the time simply don’t get asked or answered, or the people who could ask and answer these questions are not invited to the table. The tragedy of the grafting tendency is that the right questions are asked, but they are not brought into relationship with the being of anthroposophy for illumination and guidance. 

What is the solution to these dilemmas? Significantly, at a time when the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has brought the spotlight as never before on racism and inequality, Karp suggests that what has been missing in our movement is an individualised approach or response to the questions of social justice drawn from the profound social and spiritual heart of anthroposophy.

Rudolf Steiner addressed with urgency the social justice issues of his time, including education; and together with the businessman Emil Molt, he founded the first Steiner school in Stuttgart in 1919 on the basis that it had to be accessible to both boys and girls from all walks of life, fees must not be charged, and the teachers needed to have complete autonomy to teach as they saw fit. Being free from most standards imposed by the state was seen as a way to teach to the child’s needs, rather than to fit that child into a social order.

This social mission is still felt in many places and Steiner schools around the world. In the US and the UK, however, Steiner schools began as private, fee-paying schools which by definition exclude many children who would benefit from such an education. The roots of anthroposophy are in social justice so it is sobering to reflect that today, one hundred years after that first school opened in Stuttgart, we are no nearer to achieving an educational system that is both free to all and free from state interference.

15 Comments

Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamics, Social justice

15 responses to “Anthroposophy and social justice

  1. Interesting observations. It is sad that “Steiner” and “anthroposophy” have devolved into “brand” labels and catchwords in the context of the schools. Which are then subject to contamination, negative branding. I imagine that is what the school leader is trying to distance herself from.
    The hysterical fear of what anthroposophy represents in a materialistic culture — as well as the muddled, dysfunctional and sometimes outright harmful thoughts and actions of some who represent anthroposophy to the world — are things we have to deal with today.
    How could the word be redeemed? How can we do, represent, incarnate what it truly stands for?
    Words are not magic spells, they are not immutable — what matters is what we do with them. Can we DO and BE anthroposophy, instead of just saying it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • David

      Lory, I’m responding to those last words of yours, in a positive manner: “Words are not magic spells, they are not immutable – what matters is what we do with them.” This to me is the crux of it. I agree that living out anthroposophy is what’s needed, but I still find it incredibly sad that in North American society today (and it sounds similar in the U.K.), we cannot use certain words without bringing down judgment on ourselves. Why is this? Are we as a society losing respect for anything from the past, only paying heed to the latest fad? How can we discuss a matter in a thorough way if we’re forbidden to mention someone’s name? These are questions that shock me about today’s world. It’s almost as though we were living in a time when words, certain words, have magical power – the power to bring down disapproving judgment from the self-righteous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, why is that? I think there are two main possibilities. One is that the reality behind those words conjures up the hysterical fear I mentioned. To truly meet that reality would mean dismantling the walls of materialism which have been built up in our thought life, and in unprepared souls — meaning nearly everybody these days — there is powerful resistance, created by the inability to face one’s own anxiety. We cannot do anything about that reaction except to stand firm against it, and trust in the reality that we ourselves have found in anthroposophy. But there is another reason why there may be judgment and resistance, and that is that others sense (if only dimly and unconsciously) emptiness, falseness, and hypocrisy in anthroposophical endeavors, that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not in alignment, that our words are not filled with life, that we lack integrity. And this we must take seriously and strive to overcome, in the deep humility of knowing how distant is our goal — and yet, we must take steps, or remain forever paralyzed and imprisoned in the prejudices of our current mindset. That paralysis is the “magic spell” which must be broken, and words cannot do it for us, although they can be our tools and instruments — if we strive to use them always in a living and healing way. No small challenge!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have written a thesis on the paradigm of the original Waldorf school in Stuttgart and the social and financial problems of the schools, as I see them, since the end of WW2. If anyone is interested, please contact me at Golden3000997@cs.com and I can send you a link to the PDF on Dropbox and/ or attach the PDF in a response. Stay safe and be well everyone!

    Christine

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David

    Jeremy, just a thought. Steiner himself encountered similar opposition when he first wanted to focus on karma and reincarnation with the higher-ups in the Theosophical Society, a focus he didn’t feel fit to return to until many years later, after the Christmas conference I believe. His solution was to disassociate with the Theosophists, and begin a new impulse. Just wondering and puzzling in my thoughts – is this a time for a new focus? How would Steiner deal with such opposition? Above all, how would the Spirit bring order to what seems a chaotic situation, and through what channels? A few questions to mull over. I’m just as shocked as any at the judgments made by the use of such words as “Steiner” and “anthroposophy”, and am seeing this same type of judgment here in North America over the usage of certain words – this is, after all, a time when statues referring to anything historical are being toppled. Strange world right now.

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  4. ininsoi

    With so much negativity coming from the mainstream it has been gratifying to me that a young alternative journalist with a sizeable weekly audience on Youtube, viz Daniel Liszt, host of the Dark Journalist site, frequently makes highly positive comments regarding Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy. For example see X-series number 58 among others.

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    • Hi Martin,

      Let me ask you a question. Why did you move to Peru back in 2006 based on all the Orwellian signs that made you do it? I personally find it very appealing, and I have seen your photos with all the fishing and boating. Yet, did not your escape also afford you with the dilemma we are facing today? What a place to escape. You even started a school in the name of Rudolf Steiner, is that not right?

      So, leaving a Youtube name like Daniel Liszt is very cognizant in support of your previous offerings. What was that? No matter, it was huge, and got your intended response. Kind regards, Martin for being where you are. It helps those of us who refuse to leave their easy and comfortable dwellings in order to entertain the vast beyond, which I am sure is stretching it on your behalf. You were only doing what your karmic destiny had already written for you. I like that very much, and this is the image I have for you today, Martin.

      Kind regards,

      Steve

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      • ininsoi

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks for your comment and obvious goodwill. Yes Karmic destiny about sums it up. It’s been quite a ride.

        I was a super-sanguine kid starting Steiner school in 1960 and I’m still an adult with a very sanguine temperament today. I clashed with Francis Edmunds during my 2 years at Emerson College, Forest Row, UK in the mid-1970’s but loved John Davy who calmed me down.

        I’ve been on a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Great Mystery that included 25 years as a disciple of an Indian guru, many, many sweatlodges and pipe ceremonies with north american Indians and many, many sacred medicine ceremonies with Shipibo tribal folks in the peruvian Amazon jungle (Ininsoi is my Shipibo name). My motto has been ‘whatever it takes’.

        But I started with Rudolf Steiner at 6 years of age and my destiny led me back to him in the third age of my life. I have infinite respect for him even though several anthroposophists have driven me up the wall down through the years. Now I’m married to a long-term Waldorf teacher with four daughters who are a eurythmy teacher, class teacher, special education teacher and kindergarten teacher at different Steiner initiatives in Peru and Switzerland.

        You would be welcome to come see our ‘Estrella de Sauce’ Waldorf community outreach project if you ever come to Peru and if you feel like reading my book ‘Long Road to Chavin’ (Amazon 2018) you would probably have your question answered. BTW I can send you a free e book copy if you don’t feel like shelling out on Amazon. Contact me at martinstevens25@protonmail.com.

        Steve, I appreciate your erudite comments on this website!

        all the best

        Martin Stevens

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  5. Steve Hale

    Hi Jeremy,

    This blog has a history of words going back some six years, and so you know what we have been talking about. My feeling is that we have covered every corner of it, and maybe most importantly the issue of Rudolf Steiner and his practical endeavours in bringing anthroposophy to the world. Thus, the idea of erasing Steiner from his own educational movement is not new. In fact, it can be a fad if that helps, but one day its source will have to be known. I notice Tom Hart Shea chiming in with an acknowledgement to someone, and he has a right to it because he was a trustee on behalf of Steiner schools some three times, and deserves some attention. My own contribution to the efficacy of Steiner schools here in America shows that they are indeed independent of all outside influence, and this needs to be the norm. Thus, England is its own breed, and suffers the consequences with its inspections. They are onerous, as depicted in many earlier essays, and that is why I felt the need to break out about what exists here in America; the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    With Steiner schools in England, the “new normal” existed long before the recent pandemic. So, go figure what that means. Here in America it represents little independent schools wherein privacy is allowed because of freedom and liberty. Can England match that? It appears not, and that is the sad dilemma.

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    • ininsoi

      I know Rudolf Steiner loved the British isles. In 1998 I hiked to the small pre-historic stone circle outside Penmaen-Mawr on the north coast of Wales and felt some kind of connection with Rudolf Steiner who must have done the same two hour hike almost one hundred years prior to my visit. It’s a beautiful, rugged, mysterious place and typifies the side of Britain that I love.
      What I don’t love is the other side of the coin, the Britain warned about by Eric Blair aka George Orwell way back in 1948. He just reversed the last two digits of that year to arrive at the title of his masterpiece. It seems Britain has been unable to resist shuffling year by year ever closer to Orwell’s dystopic nightmare to the extent that the UK now has the most CCTV cameras per capita in the world.
      It’s hardly surprising that Waldorf education, which above all champions human freedom, is under threat there.

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      • Steve Hale

        Rudolf Steiner was there in August 1923, and gives this account of what he saw and felt. The full lecture is a detailed delight to read:

        “It was a wonderful experience when I went with a friend one day to one of these mountains at Penmaenmawr, on which the scanty remains of two such circles are still to be seen lying very close to each other. Even today it can be seen from the position of the stones that there were once twelve of them, and if one wants to discover their purpose they must be observed closely. Now while the sun follows his course through the Cosmos, whether during a day or during a year, a quite specific shadow is cast beneath each stone; and the path of the sun could be traced by following the shadow as it changed in the course of a day or year.”

        [….]

        “Those Druid circles we visited — well, if we had gone up on a balloon and looked down from above on the larger and the smaller circles, for though they are some distance apart you would not notice that when you are a certain height above them — the circles would have appeared like the ground-plan of the Goetheanum which has been destroyed by fire. It is a wonderfully situated spot!”

        https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA228/English/RSP1966/19230914p01.html

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  6. Dr Richard House

    My follow-up letter that was published in the Guardian a few days later might interest folk >>

    https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/25/class-bubbles-and-other-troubles-in-education

    Class bubbles and other troubles in education

    The Guardian, Friday 26 June

    Your interview with Fran Russell, head of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, gave a broadly fair depiction of what Steiner education has to offer, as well as its alleged shortcomings (Steiner schools chief: what my time in prisons taught me about the UK’s education mistakes, 23 June). In the 2000s, the Labour government commissioned a report on what mainstream education could learn from the Steiner approach. Judging from the state of England’s Gradgrind mainstream schooling system, nothing has been learned – not least, about the damage done by over-formalised early learning.

    While Russell rightly advocates for key aspects of Steiner pedagogy, she mustn’t be too quick in jettisoning the high-trust ethos that these schools champion, or Steiner schools’ collegiate approach to leadership. Many parents choose a Steiner school because they eschew a legalistically minded obsession with safeguarding, and the low-trust milieu that such narrow proceduralism generates.
    Dr Richard House
    Stroud, Gloucestershire

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    • Steve Hale

      What I like most about Fran Russell is that she sees Steiner’s pedagogical model as one in which growth and development of the child is slow and progressive. Her advocacy that formal education shouldn’t even start until the child is six years old before beginning kindergarten is huge. You see, a child lives rather fully into the so-called “Kingdoms of Childhood” right into the fifth years of life, and I personally can attest to that fact because that is when I was rather abruptly sent to public school, less than one month after my fifth birthday. It was a very difficult year of adjusting to an outer-external world, and my teacher felt I should retake kindergarten to my mother’s dismay!

      Steiner gave an important lecture here to teachers working in Basel, Switzerland concerning his newly founded school system, and they requested for him to come back as soon as possible in order to give a full course of lectures. This is impressive stuff.

      https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA297/English/ALC1921/19191127p01.html

      https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Renewal_of_Education.html?id=A7BiyMa3shYC&source=kp_book_description

      Today’s pedagogical rationale would have youngsters racing through the so-called ‘A B C’s in order to become young geniuses and prodigies as soon as possible. Yet, history proves that this only leads to misery and strife. Children born into this world only seek to be normal, and only a truly normative system of education can suffice that desire. Steiner gave it, and yet here we are in today’s oh so progressive mode.

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  7. Ottmar

    I ve just read an article by Benjamin Cherry about Waldorf Schools in China, its difficulties with state demands and corona times. “A Story from the Childhood and Adolescence of Waldorf Education in China”. It s in a magazine “New View-Summer 2020”, an online journal, where also conspiracy happy people express their views. An interesting aspect of cyber teaching in one school: the teachers in the beginning mainly talked with the parents “so as to help them enrich their home lives and spend this extra time with their children and spouses in a meaningful and productive way.mainly with the parents, so as to help them enrich their home lives and spend this extra time with their children and spouses in a meaningful and productive way.” Ottmar

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  8. Steve Hale

    I agree that these online journals we are receiving today are reporting how living within the confines of the home environment must suffice to meet the needs, and yet, how can it? Either things return to normal in spite of the virus, or we are doomed. Steiner spoke of it here in the third lecture of GA 185. He was very candid, which suggests that it would come to an end, which it did in due time. Yet still, he had the near-term future to contend with. Here it is:

    “Just as modern history fails to penetrate to spiritual realities, so modern medicine, modern hygiene and medical health services fail to penetrate to the symptoms which are of cosmic provenance. I have often emphasized the fact that the individual cannot help his neighbour, however deep his insight into current problems, because today they are in the hands of those who are looking for the wrong solution. They must become the responsibility of those who are moving in the right direction. Clearly, just as the external facts are true that the outward aspect of James I was such and such, as I pointed out earlier, so, from the external point of view it is also true that a certain kind of bacillus is connected with the present influenza epidemic. But if it is true, for example, that rats are carriers of the bubonic plague, one cannot say that rats are responsible for the plague. People have always imagined that the bubonic plague was spread by rats.

    But bacilli, as such, are of course in no way connected with disease. In phenomena of this kind we must realize that just as behind the symptoms of history we are dealing with psychic and spiritual experiences, so too behind somatic symptoms we are dealing with experiences of a cosmological order. In other cases the situation of course will be different! What is especially important here is the rhythmic course of cosmic events, and it is this that we must study. We must ask ourselves: In what constellation were we living when, in the nineties, the present influenza epidemic appeared in its benign form? In what cosmic constellation are we living at the present time? By virtue of what cosmic rhythm does the influenza epidemic of the nineties appear in a more acute form today? Just as we must look for a rhythm behind a series of historical symptoms, so we must look for a rhythm behind the appearance of certain epidemics.”
    GA 185, lecture three, 20 October 1918.

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