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.