Tag Archives: consciousness soul

Re-imagining anthroposophical education for the 21st century

When Michael Hall, often regarded as Britain’s flagship Steiner school, reached its 90thanniversary in 2014, it published a splendid commemorative history written by Joy Mansfield and with additions and editing by Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

Called A Good School, the book’s title referred to an interview that four young women had had with Rudolf Steiner in 1923, while at the summer conference on education held in Ilkley that year, in which they asked for Steiner’s consent to their founding a school based on his educational methods.  Here is an account of that interview as related in the book:

“Steiner was seated at the end of a long table, Marie Steiner, his wife, was also present. George Adams (Steiner’s translator during his visits to England) put their case for them and he listened with close attention. They waited in trepidation. Then with great force and warmth he said one word: ‘Ja!’

After this confirmation of their decision, Steiner at once became extremely practical. They must realise, he said, how important it was that this first attempt should be a real success. They must think ahead to a modern, well-established school. It must not be a failure – and it was obvious that if it remained small and little known he would consider this a failure – or the whole possibility of spreading the educational work in England would be irredeemably weakened. It must not be amateurish in any way. They must see to it that it became a really ‘good’ school and acknowledged as such. It should be able to take its place in the educational life of the day.”

I referred to this story last February when introducing a talk by Aonghus Gordon at Emerson College, just before lockdown, on the theme of “Re-imagining anthroposophical education for the 21stcentury”. I then went on to say: 

“Thus was Michael Hall school born in 1925. Today, nearly one hundred years later, that really good school has been given a different verdict by Ofsted, the government quango which inspects schools in England. At the top of its inspection report dated 26thMarch 2019, Ofsted put the phrase: “This is an inadequate school.” And it’s not just Michael Hall: during recent rounds of Ofsted inspections of Steiner schools in England, nine schools were rated as “Inadequate” and a further seven were judged as “Requiring Improvement”.  We have also seen in the last few years the closure of a number of Steiner schools – Aberdeen, Canterbury, Michael House, Kings Langley – and recently Wynstones School was ordered by the Department for Education to close for an indefinite period due to safeguarding concerns.

So, however much we may disagree with Ofsted or question their methods, this is the situation of Steiner schools in England today; it is our present reality. In terms of what Steiner wanted – for our schools to be really good and acknowledged as such within the wider educational culture – as far as the public, media and government are concerned, we appear to have lost our way.”

It was against this background that Aonghus Gordon, founder of Ruskin Mill Trust, came to give his talk. Aonghus is an outstanding social entrepreneur whose educational work based on the insights of William Morris, John Ruskin and Rudolf Steiner is highly regarded both in governmental and anthroposophical circles. He founded Ruskin Mill Trust in 1981 as a centre for cultural development and it is now one of the UK’s leading educational charities working with learning disabilities, with twelve centres across England, Wales and Scotland. Thousands of young people have benefited from the integrative education method practised at these centres, which brings together the arts, crafts and work on the land. Aonghus has an ability to translate his educational method and the resulting successes for young people into terms that are measurable and visible to the eyes of the funding authorities and so has been able to secure public funding for his many projects. With apologies to Richard House who dislikes the phrase, Aonghus can not only render unto God that which is God’s but is also able to render unto Caesar that which the state requires of him – a skill which all Steiner schools need to acquire, if they are not only to survive but also to thrive in our current times.

Aonghus Gordon (photo via Ruskin Mill Trust)

It was therefore particularly interesting to hear Aonghus’s reflections on anthroposophical education in the 21stcentury and the kind of organising principle which may be needed to sustain us through these testing times. He began with a quotation from Rudolf Steiner:

“Anthroposophy herself is a human being. If she were not, she could not transform us. She makes another human being of us, is herself a human being. I say this very seriously: anthroposophy is not a teaching but has real being, is a human being. And only when our inner nature is wholly permeated by this, and when, like a person who thinks but also feels and has motions of will, she thinks, feels and wills in us, as, really, a whole human being – only then have we grasped her and possess her fully. She works as a being and enters modern culture and civilisation as a kind of being.” 1

This is a remarkable statement by Steiner and not at all easy to understand. Aonghus Gordon asked: Is he referring to the soul of the world and if so, how does this soul enter human consciousness and action? An example of this is the Statue of Khafre from Ancient Egypt, which depicts a Being, in the form of Horus, entering and embracing the pharaoh.

Rosicrucian thought from the 17thcentury can also offer a clue: the meta-soul in brotherhood draws itself down into individual practice. Rosicrucians feel connected to a meta-community but work as individuals. The Being they wish to express slowly enters and internalises.

Aonghus then observed the timeline of anthroposophy from 1913 to the present day, which he characterised as having four distinct phases:

1. 1913 to Rudolf Steiner’s death in 1925

This period is associated with the Sentient Soul connection and transformative relationships through Rudolf Steiner. There is a transfer of insight and knowledge and Steiner’s influence radiates through many individual biographies. This is a time when there is significant financial and personal giving for anthroposophical enterprises.

2. 1924 – 1990s

This period is associated with the Intellectual Soul and a certainty about how things are and what we need to do. During these years, anthroposophy consolidates and codifies itself. There is a rise in the number of anthroposophical institutions, which also receive individual, foundational and governmental support. Strong individuals hold a method and regard quality assurance as implicit.

3. 1990s – 2000+

During this period the Consciousness Soul starts to come to the fore, and there is an emphasis on the individual as researcher and the concept of collaborative action research begins to emerge. A ‘Gap’ begins to show up between the core and the periphery. Individual research generates new methods, and a sense develops that Rudolf Steiner does not belong only to anthroposophists. There is a rise in external criticism of anthroposophical organisations and a number of institutions, including the Goetheanum, begin to face financial challenges.

4. 2020 onwards

There is a worldwide expansion of the Consciousness Soul and collaborative action research supports the discovery of the Being. Aonghus suggested that, as anthroposophists, we need to avoid ‘doing things’ to the world, an attitude which he sees as more befitting to the Intellectual Soul. What do we want to do to the world?  is an often- heard statement in anthroposophic circles. Collaboration is limited. We may be left to undertake the project on our own.  Fundraising is exceptionally hard work in this context. However, if we were to reverse the question to How do we want our world to be? we elicit interest. It builds an outside-in perspective. The Consciousness Soul is activated. How do we want our world to be? draws in financial and human capital. The Being becomes present.

Anthroposophists in the era of Rudolf Steiner himself formed a fraternity of devotion, a Sentient Soul relationship. People poured in their resources at every level, both spiritual and financial towards supporting anthroposophy.  However, after his death, a crisis emerged which may be regarded as the awakening of the Intellectual Soul in the Being.  (There is a very good explanation of the terms Sentient Soul, Intellectual Soul and Consciousness Soul here.)

The Intellectual Soul awakened in great activity after the Second World War. The Being in Anthroposophy was accepted on the basis of the authority and insights of Steiner’s successors. External qualifications were not demanded and recognised individuals themselves generated the mandate and quality assurance. It became codified. There was an expansion in institutional development right across Europe and North America.  The Goetheanum Sections further mandated the individuals. Financial support grew both privately and governmentally. 

But during the 1990s, a new era emerged, as the Consciousness Soul became more evident. An increasing requirement for the ‘how’, the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ was demanded and significant new challenges and what Aonghus Gordon calls ‘The Gap’ emerged. Organisations who declined to subject their content to outside scrutiny and to receive external qualifications/ accreditation/ endorsements/ standards began to lose recognition and traction. Many places started to show the first signs of financial decline, particularly after the Millennium. It may be argued that a new tension emerged between the inside and the outside of the institution. To a significant extent, the Goetheanum has also found itself in this predicament.  The emergence of the Consciousness Soul within the Being and its impact on spiritual science, required a particular approach to maintain a connection between internal and external.  In the Anglo-Saxon arena, action research became a valid method in a number of UK/US universities and institutions.  Action research can be argued to be the Consciousness Soul method of choice for spiritual scientific practice.  From an internal perspective, we may perceive that the Being awakens as an inside out emerging necessity.

What does Aonghus mean by ‘action research’? He quotes Peter Reason: “Action research is an approach to the generation of knowing which aims to bring knowledge and action together, to produce practical knowing.” Following this line of thinking Aonghus and his colleague Simon Reakes have suggested that Goethean science research is an approach to the generation of knowing which aims to bring knower and known together, in empathic knowing. Action research, informed by Goethean science, can be seen as a form of participatory spiritual practice. It aims to realise the spiritual as hālig (Old English, “whole”). The whole here, however, is in the process of becoming. It becomes through participatory action research in a community of practice, and through Goethean science, encounters the being/s of the world. 

In other words, it is no longer good enough for anthroposophists simply to quote Rudolf Steiner; the world is demanding more of us than the assertion of what we believe to be true. Instead, in this age of the Consciousness Soul, it is necessary for us to own our truth, and to be able to back up our assertions with evidence. Research and enhanced practice must take place to challenge spiritual scientific assumptions and opinions and to ensure a new personal ownership within spiritual science. This is the challenge for Steiner schools and other anthroposophical educational organisations today. Unless we can rise to it, we will not be able to realise Steiner’s original intention for our schools to be really good, acknowledged as such and able “to take their place in the educational life of the day”.

Which brings us back to Michael Hall. The school has appointed a head teacher to help in dealing with the issues highlighted by Ofsted back in March 2019.  The school has also been working with the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and the Crossfields Institute to ensure that it can meet regulatory standards going forward. The teachers and staff were expecting to impress Ofsted with their newly embedded processes when the Covid-19 pandemic closed the school down and the inspection was postponed.

Michael Hall School, Forest Row, East Sussex.

Who would have thought that Steiner teachers could in these circumstances turn to remote learning and to make up lesson and activity packs for the younger year groups while also providing online lessons for the pre-teens and teenagers? And yet they have done all of this and much more, including a 3-5 year strategy for the school with a key focus on improving teaching practice and standards.  The postponed Ofsted inspection is now anticipated for early in 2021, when the school is hopeful of a return to a ‘Good’ rating. 

The School Council is in the process of updating the school’s purpose, aims, objectives and vision and at the same time focusing on student retention, marketing strategy, staff capability and capacity, and site development. To summarise, the school is embracing the age of the Consciousness Soul so as to deliver the best possible Steiner education with the child at the centre of the school, while demonstrating to Ofsted and the world at large just how it is going about this.

From an address to theologians in 1921 by Rudolf Steiner, found on p.310 in Volume 4 of Who was Ita Wegman (J.E. Zeylmans van Emmichoven) 


Filed under Aonghus Gordon, Michael Hall School, Ruskin Mill Trust, Steiner Waldorf schools

Why some atheists like anthroposophy

“The common man is a mystic. Mysticism is only a transcendent form of common sense. Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are like appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.” (G K Chesterton)

Chesterton, writing in the early 20th century, clearly felt that most people have a kind of natural sense that the spiritual world exists, even though many of us have no means of rationalising why we feel that way.

Others, such as Rudolf Steiner (although some people believe he had an atheistical period in his younger days), came to characterise atheism as a kind of disability or disease.  Lecturing in 1919, Steiner said : “Only those human beings…are atheists in whose organism something is organically disturbed. To be sure, this may lie in very delicate structural conditions, but it is a fact that atheism is in reality a disease…For, if our organism is completely healthy, the harmonious functioning of its various members will bring it about that we ourselves sense our origin from the Divine – ex deo nascimur (from God we are born).”

So there you are, Richard Dawkins et al – instead of having reached your view of a godless universe through the power of your intellect, you are actually just suffering from the effects of a disturbed physical organism. 🙂

Today, in the age of the consciousness soul, there are many people who have lost their natural connection with the divine. In Steiner’s view, humanity is going through a period which started in the 15th century and won’t conclude until the 35th, in which we have gradually lost an atavistic form of clairvoyance. This is a necessary but very dangerous step in the evolution of humankind. It is necessary because as humans we have the unique privilege of developing freewill, which could only happen by entering an age in which our connection with the divine-spiritual beings and their will for our future appeared to be severed. And it is dangerous because this apparent severance from spirit existence has given the oppositional powers the opportunity they didn’t have before, which is to convince human beings through our science and technology that physical, material reality is the only reality and thus to thwart our true destiny as spiritual beings. For all of the shortcomings and difficulties caused us by this present stage, Steiner tells us that materialism remains the vehicle for the initial development of human freedom. It was the task of materialistic science to lead us away from the overwhelming dominance of theology and theocracy in human affairs, and from the unfreedom that had for so long been associated with them. And, as Steiner repeatedly asserts, it is in our relationship as spiritual beings to the physical world that the possibility for human freedom first manifests itself. Put differently, materialism for all its faults and limitations had a very important task to perform, and it needed time to complete it – and it’s still got another 250 years or so to run its course.

In the meantime, we have to find ways of coping with the difficulties of our present age. In Owen Barfield’s words, “Living in the consciousness soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in the spiritual world, above all, uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within.”

I rather like these concepts and find they bring a savour and a spice to life – human reality is much more exciting and inspiring than anything in science fiction! Many other people, of course, think this is all nonsense and take up the position of agnosticism or atheism. ‘Skeptics’ (as they call themselves) can be very dismissive about anthroposophical endeavours, which are of course based upon the presumption of the reality of the spiritual world. If these skeptics are also parents in Steiner schools who feel that they have had a bad experience, or if they believe that the school has not been open with them about anthroposophy, then their anger and contempt can be awesome to behold – and in this online world, they make sure as many other people as possible get to hear about it. I’m sure schools do get things wrong from time to time and I’m certainly not trying to belittle those parents who have had less than satisfactory experiences. When you have invested such hope (and hard cash) in a school for your children, it is shattering if it then all seems to go wrong. Steiner Waldorf schools, which have such high aspirations, can cause huge anger if they turn out to have feet of clay. I shall be writing in a later posting more about this unfortunate phenomenon and some possible reasons for it.

There are other sorts of skeptic parents, for example those who regard anthroposophy as a bit of a joke but still value the education Steiner schools provide for their children. I came across a good example of this latter type on an Australian blog, Good Reason. In a post entitled: “A Rational Look at Steiner Schools”, Daniel Midgley comments on an article he has read in the magazine, Australian Rationalist. After going through the various criticisms made of Steiner schools in the article, Daniel concludes:

“If there is a saving grace for Waldorf education, it’s that, in my experience, very few of the rank and file parents believe the hype. You do get a core of Steiner believers, including the teachers, but almost no one else takes Anthroposophy seriously. Many parents roll their eyes at Eurythmy and such. The kids are usually pretty down to earth about it, too. At a recent Winter Festival, some parents were trying to foster a reverent attitude during the bonfire, but the kids were chanting “More kerosene! More kerosene!” They keep it real.

I also think that the teaching of religion is handled well, as I’ve mentioned before. Many world religions are represented, and I think this has an inoculating influence on kids. They’re more likely to fall for religion in adulthood if it hasn’t been presented to them before, and the Christian myth is presented at school along with all the other myths.

If you’re a rationalist, and you’re considering Steiner education, or if (like me) you’re already in and you’re only just becoming more of a critical thinker, it’s not impossible for it to work. My kids enjoy their school, and it’s been pretty positive. …The greatest danger from Steiner schooling is to the rationalist parent, not the child; you may go insane from exposure to crackpottery, or you may eventually bite through your tongue.”

In the Steiner school I know best, I certainly came across atheist parents who nevertheless valued the education, even if they thought some aspects of it were screwy – so I’m sure Daniel is on to something in his article.

But although it is quite easy for atheists to be dismissive of Steiner schools (even if some of them like the results), it’s not quite so easy to dismiss something as nonsense when the evidence of your own senses is telling you the exact opposite. It’s indeed an irony, given many anthropops’ ambivalent attitudes to alcohol, that biodynamically produced wine is leading the way in changing attitudes to biodynamic agriculture. Take for example this post by Cory Cartwright: “An Atheist’s Defence of Biodynamics”:

“…I do believe some biodynamic vignerons are amongst the very best in the world. I’ve drank hundreds of these wines, from wines that tout a Demeter certification on their label to wines that I didn’t know were biodynamic for years. In fact many of the producers consider marketing the wine as “bio” to be just that, marketing, so they let the wine do the talking. Despite my skepticism around some of the principal tenets and practices of Steiner’s agricultural followers, I simply don’t care if they are being used.

The resurgence in biodynamics, like modern organics, the Slow Food movement, fukuoka farming, locavores, and natural winemaking was a conscious rejection of the big industrial food supply chain that twisted our view of food, wrecked economies, and wrecked our health. The tenets of modernization, control, simplification, mass production, “big solutions.” When people saw what we had done to one of our most basic of needs they were aghast, and set out to find alternatives that would stop the pollution of both of the soil and of our bodies.

The scientific based winemaking at UC Davis and elsewhere is one that sees a straightforward path between the beginning and the end of winemaking, and deviation is dealt with as harshly as possible. Shouldn’t plant vines there? Irrigation will fix that. Weeds? Monsanto has you covered (which heavily funds UC Davis. Go Aggies!). Vines not doing so well? Chemical fertilizers. Mildew? Bring on the helicopters. Of course this is all very scientific so skepticism about the ultimate problems should be shelved for now while we continue spraying. Aren’t these the questions we should be asking when it comes to winemaking? What price are we paying for this wine when everything is tallied?

I am beginning to work with a young couple in the south of France who have 14 acres of vineyards and olives that are all farmed biodynamically. We toured their vineyards, and they showed us several planting techniques they were experimenting with, from planting density to different cover crops and mixed use vineyards. As we walked through we were struck by the difference between their vineyards and others. They had some bio-culture in their vineyards, the vines looked good, their old growth was healthy. The nearby neighbors had created a moonscape vineyard, dead, except for the vines, and even then the old growth was mostly gone despite being planted at the same time.

When we asked them about the biodynamic treatments they treated us to skeptical laughs. They said it was working, with a wave of a hand towards the vines, and even if the treatments were doing nothing, so what? Practicing biodynamics was getting them out and into the vineyards, with the plants and rocks, getting their hands dirty and teaching them to recognize things that they would never get if they were in a tractor all day, or if they simply killed off all the life.”

The whole article is well worth reading and the photos contrasting the biodynamic vineyard with the conventionally-farmed vineyard are very telling.

The anthropopper can live with being ridiculed by skeptics, as long as others are beginning to see that in applied anthroposophy there really is something rather special that works, and which holds hope for the future – and in such a mad, bad and dangerous world, we all need to believe that humanity can find ways to pull through its present crises. Anyway, as human evolution continues, and once we’re all through the age of the consciousness soul (unfortunately there’s about another 1500 years to go), I like to think that we will be discovering new and much more objective clairvoyant abilities in ourselves; and the reality of the spiritual world will be glaringly obvious to all of us, skeptics, anthropops and the common man and woman alike.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheists & Atheism, Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools