Tag Archives: Waldorf critics

The surpassing strangeness of Rudolf Steiner

What a hornets’ nest one brings about one’s ears when trying to write honestly and rationally about Rudolf Steiner and some of the more difficult issues of interpretation concerning his speeches and writings.

When in my last posting on this blog I suggested that Steiner was not seen at his best in the comments he made on French language and culture during his meetings with the teachers at the first Waldorf school, this provoked reactions all round among both pro- and anti-Steiner factions. Some of the pro-Steiner people adopted a tone of regret that I had been so naïve as to go into such troubled territory. One commenter said: “He (Steiner) gives his usual thorough attention to the concern of switching from French to Russian.  The remark in question, concerning the transplanting of the black race into Europe, is being misunderstood.  Unfortunately, it is Jeremy that is instigating it as an indication of Steiner’s racial prejudice”.

Of the anti-Steiner people, Tom Mellett was gleeful to see that there were one or two anthroposophists who were prepared to acknowledge that Rudolf Steiner was a fallible human being as well as a high initiate, while struggling to conceal his relish that there was dissension in the Steiner camp. The real attitude of the antis, however, was displayed by their intellectual guru, Peter Staudenmaier, who commented: “When the denizens of the more clueless corners of the English-speaking anthroposophical world profess themselves shocked, shocked! at discovering some rebarbative passage by Steiner, they have no idea how much else they are missing. Until they learn more about what their founder actually taught, it will be hard for them to make basic sense of their own ideological inheritance”.

Well, mote and beam, Staudi, mote and beam. Though I have in the past expressed gratitude to him for his genuinely useful work in bringing little-known (to me, at least) information about the history of anthroposophy and anthroposophists, Staudi’s weakness is that he does not seem able to move beyond his antipathy towards Steiner so as to see the man as a rounded whole, in his greatness, his strangeness and his humanness.

Add to this Staudi’s unfortunate habit of treating anthroposophists with contempt and scorn when they do not know or agree with everything he knows or thinks he knows, and we end up with very little chance of a reasonable dialogue – which is quite a missed opportunity.

I wonder why it is so difficult for people to take on board the fact that Steiner was not only a remarkable phenomenon, a truly great man with a huge range of achievements but also a human being, which by definition implies fallibility? Human beings are dualities, as Steiner himself taught; that is to say, each one of us has a light side and a dark side. Why is there such a need, among both pro- and anti-factions, for Steiner to have been a perfect human being, incapable of error? Is it an impossible paradox that someone, whose formative years were in the latter part of the 19th century in Central Europe and whose main work was in the early years of the 20th century, should be at one and the same time not only a high initiate with access to extraordinary knowledge and wisdom but also a man of his time, with some of the attitudes of his age and nation?

steiner-marie-rudolf

Marie and Rudolf Steiner

I don’t agree with those anthroposophists who engage in all sorts of casuistry to demonstrate that Steiner didn’t have any racism in his outlook. I do agree with Dr Adrian Anderson, who in his paper Opponents and Critics: Criticism of Steiner and Anthroposophy, says the following:

“… Anyone who can discern the spiritual integrity of Steiner, as evidenced in his teachings on ethics and spirituality, is aware that he was certainly not a person who harbours dislike, and encourages hostility of, people based on their racial characteristics. Those who study Steiner carefully, encounter ideas which have a profoundly spiritual nature. But this argument is of little weight with those who cannot, or do not want to, see the integrity of Steiner.

For example Steiner mentioned, in what amounts to a direct and total breach of modern anti-racism criteria, that the colour of the skin itself is an expression of various etheric and astral energies, and that these give a specific tone to the way the human mind manifests. It is true that when he was talking about this, he emphasised that the worthiness of the human being itself, of any racial origin, is not the theme, and is not being assessed in his lecture. But despite these words, any person today in assessing Steiner’s works against the modern definition of racism, has no option other than to conclude that they are to be defined today as racist; for logically viewed, this is simply the fact of the matter. And students of Steiner need to note this fact well”.

As I said in the previous posting, readers today need to come to their own conclusions about which Steiner they are meeting when they read any of the forty volumes of his writings or the thousands of lecture transcripts. Are they reading Steiner the initiate, or Steiner the man of his time, or Steiner the fallible human being? For myself, there are many times when I feel exalted, inspired and humbled by what Steiner has written or spoken and those passages are the ones that I take to have come from Steiner the high initiate. There are other times, but only a few, when I find passages by Steiner to be simply bizarre, plain wrong or even offensive. On occasion, when one looks more deeply into the matter, it’s possible to see that Steiner is unfolding some really interesting and difficult ideas that challenge our present-day attitudes and opinions; and sometimes one thinks he is just way off-beam and the sheer strangeness of his thought seems very remote from our life and times. But my overriding impression is of Steiner’s great love for all humanity, his vision of our future, his genius and his wisdom.

There are some people, of course, who for whatever reason, can never begin to approach the surpassing strangeness and visionary genius of Rudolf Steiner with anything other than antipathy or hatred. Marie Steiner wrote about this after his death:

“… On 30th March, 1925 Rudolf Steiner passed away.

His life, consecrated wholly to the sacrificial service of humanity, was requited with unspeakable hostility; his way of knowledge was transformed into a path of thorns. But he walked the whole way, and mastered it for all humanity. He broke through the limits of knowledge; they are no longer there. Before us lies this road of knowledge in the crystal clarity of thoughts …. He raised human understanding up to the spirit; permeated this understanding and united it with the spiritual being of the cosmos. In this he achieved the greatest human deed. The greatest deed of the Gods he taught us to understand; the greatest human deed he achieved. How could he escape being hated with all the demonic power of which Hell is capable?

But he repaid with love the misunderstanding brought against him”.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Marie Steiner, Rudolf Steiner, Staudenmaier

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

At a time of life when most people might expect to have retired and be putting their feet up, the anthropopper (who doesn’t think that retirement is good for people), counts himself fortunate to have not one, but two part-time jobs. Despite a colleague’s cynical observation that there is no such thing as a part-time job, only part-time wages, I love both these jobs and after a long and sometimes frustrating working life, I’m delighted to have work where I feel I’m making a worthwhile contribution, in organisations that are offering hope and practical solutions for some of the world’s problems.

The first of these jobs is at Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. While I was there the other day, I found myself having a sudden flashback to an emotion I recognised – it was how I had sometimes felt when I was a small boy at primary school in the 1950s. It came and went in seconds but I was intrigued as to why I had had this sudden recall of something from my early schooldays, now well over half a century ago. What had made me remember this feeling from so long ago, seemingly out of the blue? Trying to analyse my state of mind at that moment, I realised that I had a feeling of wellbeing, knowing I was in the right place for me and glad to be working on a community-owned farm in which the land, plants and animals are cared-for and where the people are friendly, supportive and look out for one another. I was, in fact, in a situation that I suspect is hardly ever experienced in most workplaces these days. This then led me to the further realisation that, if how I was feeling that day was reminiscent of how I had felt during my early schooldays, then there must have been something warm and secure and nurturing about my primary school and the way in which the teachers and pupils treated one another back then. This was not a Steiner school, it was an ordinary state primary school in the 1950s, long before the days of Ofsted, SATS, league tables etc. Somehow I grew up with the notion that the world was on the whole a safe and welcoming place, that adults and policemen were mainly benign, there was joy and beauty in nature – and I also had a sense of how to behave and how not to behave. This gave me something to rebel against when I was a teenager in the 60s. My generation was lucky to have had these positive experiences, as recent alarming reports indicate that many schoolchildren today have quite a different experience of school.

An international study by the Children’s Society in 2015 found that English children are among the unhappiest in the world. Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared to other countries, and it is truly shocking that thousands of children are being physically and emotionally bullied, damaging their happiness. School should be a safe haven, not a battleground.”

And now in a report dated 9th March 2016, the online Spectator magazine’s Health section has said that: “There has been a large increase in the number of British children prescribed anti-depressants, according to research published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology. The research, led by Dr Christian Bachmann of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, found that prescription rates increased by 54 per cent between 2005 and 2012. In Denmark the figure is higher still, at 60 per cent.”

What on earth is going on? Clearly, something very disturbing is happening with our young people. Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture given in Berlin in 1919, said:

“What the individual human being experiences consciously when he (sic) strives to attain clairvoyance in the spiritual world, namely, the crossing of the threshold, must be experienced unconsciously by the whole of mankind, during our fifth post-Atlantean epoch. Humanity has no choice in regard to this; it must experience this unconsciously — not the individual human being, but HUMANITY, and the individual human being together with humanity.”

So are our young people starting to experience this crossing of the threshold between the physical and spiritual worlds, but unconsciously, without preparation? And if so, what part of the spiritual world are they accessing?

My second part-time job is with Emerson College in Forest Row, East Sussex, where I organise a programme of public talks and workshops by leading thinkers. On 9th March 2016, we were privileged to hear a talk by Lisa Romero, an adult educator, complementary health practitioner and teacher of meditation from Australia.

Lisa’s theme was: Developing the Self – Meditations and Exercise for our Inner Growth. During the course of her talk, she had some interesting things to say about the difficulties and challenges that teenagers are experiencing today. She suggested that teenagers are crossing the threshold into the elemental part of the spiritual world. Lisa enlarged on this in her book, The Inner Work Path:

“Humanity has begun to break through this threshold, the boundary between the physical and elemental world. If those who cross over are unprepared, we will see more mental disorders in our community. As fascination with the occult, psychic powers, and the supernatural continue to grow, all sorts of false paths of ‘inner development’ will become more and more popular. Consciousness-altering substances that exploit a form of gate-crashing to enter the other dimensions will increase. Using these substances to enter different states of consciousness will be seen as an acceptable and inevitable path for our young people.”

Some schools are now teaching their pupils meditation and calling it “mindfulness” so as to avoid any association with the spiritual; but Lisa thinks that this “will lead ultimately to a weakened relationship to the spiritual world, and thereby leave them open to all sorts of potentially harmful influences by stepping backward, not forward, in their incarnating process. All those who truly know the path of inner development know that a healthy relationship to the spiritual world is acquired by completing all the necessary developmental stages of childhood first. These various occurrences that we already see are signs that humanity is crossing the threshold unprepared. Rudolf Steiner describes this unprepared entry into the elemental world, likening it to putting your head into an ant’s nest.”

Where is anthroposophy, and where are anthroposophists, in all of this? One of the things which teenagers need to know at this time is that not all spiritual beings are divine beings. Some of these beings are working to divert humanity from the path of evolution, by encouraging us in our materialism, reinforcing our egotism and selfishness, magnifying our false self and deepening our lower ego – while at the same time supporting our premature access into the spiritual world. Anthroposophists ought to be helping young people to understand that the right path for humanity and each one of us is to align freely with the beings of progression, the beings of the divine spiritual world – but for that to be possible, we must find the progressive being, the divine being within ourselves. Are we, should we be, finding ways of telling that to young people? Are we making sufficient efforts to communicate with teenagers in ways that they can access? I don’t think so. In the meantime, anthroposophy as we have known it is dying. Lisa told me that there are now only 130 society members in the whole of New York City.

The situation appears to be no better in the UK. As Marjatta van Boeschoten, general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, says in the Spring 2016 Newsletter of the society: “This question (of how anthroposophy can best fulfil its given task) occupied me greatly during the Holy Nights, especially when a range of initiatives in the ‘daughter’ movements in Great Britain are either closing, struggling, in conflict or in financial crisis.” To add to Marjatta’s worries, the ASinGB has revealed that 55% of members pay nothing at all towards their annual membership. What is the future of the society if more than half of its members, out of their own free choice, are making no financial contribution whatsoever?

Surely these symptoms are telling us that the present form of anthroposophy is in serious decline. What are anthroposophists doing about this crisis? My own sense is that another form of anthroposophy is seeking to be born, but it is having an extended labour and a difficult birth. It won’t come from trying to persuade people to read difficult lectures or books, it won’t come from attending the same old meetings with a rapidly diminishing number of elderly anthroposophists (not that I have anything against elderly anthroposophists – far from it – I hope to be one myself before too long) and it certainly won’t come from spending too much time online arguing with the critics.

On the other hand, it may emerge from people who become inspired by one or more of the practical applications of anthroposophy, such as biodynamics or education. I’m struck, for example, by the number of young people who are coming to work at Tablehurst Farm, which now employs nearly 30 people, some of whom are starting families there – this in marked contrast to what is happening on conventional farms, where the average age of a British farmworker is 59 years and where a farm of 300 hectares will be run by one or two men with machines and lots of chemicals. It may emerge if we can find practical, clear and sensible ways of speaking about the spiritual realities behind what is happening in the world, as Lisa Romero is doing. Lisa is part of the Goetheanum Meditation Initiative, which is involving young people from many countries. (Incidentally, Lisa Romero will be returning to Emerson in June for a talk and weekend workshop.)

The times are serious and demand people and organisations of initiative. Places like Tablehurst Farm and Emerson College are seeking to play their parts.  Finding ways in which to meet the very real human needs of today’s young people can offer hope and practical solutions not only to them but to anthroposophy as well. Christopher Fry expressed our opportunity in his play, A Sleep of Prisoners:

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to meet us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride man ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise

Is Exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Emerson College UK, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

No, Mr Dugan, Steiner Waldorf schools are not cult schools.

Following the anthropopper’s last post, my attention was drawn to comments on the Waldorf Critics’ forum alleging cult-like behaviour in Steiner Waldorf schools. Such criticisms have been around for some time, of course. Several long-standing allegations of cult-like behaviour have come from Dan Dugan of the organisation PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) in the USA. Dan listed nine “cult-like characteristics of anthroposophy” on the Waldorf Critics’ website on February 9th 1999.

Just a year or so before that, my wife and I decided that we wanted to send our daughter to a Steiner Waldorf school. Our daughter had had a happy first year of school in the Reception class of our local state primary school. I remember her skipping down the road on her journey to school, eager to get there to meet her friends and enjoy the day. This changed, unfortunately, when she moved into Year 1 and the National Curriculum kicked in. We began to notice some distinct and disturbing changes in our daughter. She started to become clumsy and was often falling and bruising herself. This happy, outgoing child started to become pale and withdrawn. Most alarming of all, the spontaneous dancing and painting and drawing she had previously done just stopped.

At this point we decided we had to act. We went to visit various Steiner schools with our daughter where she met the teachers and the pupils in her age group and took part in sample lessons. Eventually she decided that she wanted to go to the Kings Langley school. Things moved fast from that point; our house went on the market in July and sold within one week for our asking price; we went on a frantic house search process and eventually found a house we liked and could just about afford. We moved in at the beginning of September 1998 and our daughter started at the Kings Langley school three days later.

Why did we want to send our daughter to a Steiner school, even though any rational assessment would show that we couldn’t afford the fees and that we faced the prospect of years of scrimping and saving and few, if any, holidays? There are so many reasons but here are just a few:

  • A truly child-centred curriculum that allows children to develop at their own pace and to have a proper childhood
  • A method that uses art and creativity to teach every subject
  • The main lesson system which allows subjects to be studied with both depth and breadth
  • A noticeable quality of warmth in the schools and friendly relations between staff and pupils but also mutual respect

I would like a school with such qualities to be available for every child who might benefit from it, especially for those whose parents can’t afford the fees of the independent schools. That is why I am so pleased for those parents who live within the catchment areas of the new publicly-funded Bristol, Exeter, Frome and Hereford Steiner Academy schools. I wish there were many more, throughout the country, to supplement the good work of the independent schools.

Dan Dugan’s own history with Waldorf schools is interesting and has been set out in some detail here. Dan describes himself as a “secular humanist” but his humanist values do not seem to prevent him from engaging in campaigns of misinformation, defamation and myth-making. In the USA, of course, with the separation of church and state, schools have a delicate balancing act to perform, which PLANS has sought to exploit by bringing legal cases against Waldorf schools – which PLANS have subsequently lost. In seeking to make his case that Steiner Waldorf schools are religious schools, Dan has listed what he calls their cult-like characteristics.

These alleged cult-like characteristics, as identified by Dan, are shown below in bold while my comments on these are shown in italics.

Cult-like characteristics of Anthroposophy include:

1. It clings to rejected knowledge. 
(The heart is not a pump, etc.)

Here’s an extract from an article on the AnthroMed Library website which deals with this question:

 “To any doctor trained in today’s medical schools, the idea that the heart may not be a pump would, at first sight, appear to be about as logical as suggesting that the sun rises in the West or that water flows uphill. So strongly is the pump concept ingrained in the collective psyche that even trying to think otherwise is more than most people can manage. Yet Rudolf Steiner, a man not given to unscientific or slipshod thinking, was quite clear on the matter and reiterated time and again that the heart is not a pump. “The blood drives the heart, not the heart the blood.”

This topic requires more space than is available here, but anyone wishing to find out more might wish to start with this article from the Journal of Anthroposophical Medicine. There is also a useful description of what is taught about the heart in Steiner Waldorf schools here.

A further interesting fact, which medical science is unable to explain, is that in embryological development, the blood starts circulating in the embryo before the heart organ has been created. In other words, blood circulation in the embryo pre-dates the heart.

2. It requires teachers to commit to the world-view for advancement in status. 
(college of teachers).

Many Steiner Waldorf schools do not have a head teacher or principal but are instead organised by a body of staff (mainly teachers but often including administrators) called the College of Teachers. The criteria for becoming a College member usually include a commitment to working meditatively on oneself, thus seeking an active connection between oneself and the spiritual worlds; on being on a continuous path of personal and professional development; and on taking an active part in the running of the school beyond one’s normal teaching or administrative duties. Becoming a member of College does not lead to any increase in status, nor to any increase in pay. What it does lead to is a deeper commitment to the work of the school and a fuller realisation of the seriousness and responsibility of the task of the educator.

3. Its core doctrines are not published. 
(First Class).

It is true that what are called the class lessons of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science have not been published – although these can now be found online, published without support from the society. During the refounding of the Anthroposophical Society at Christmas 1923/24 as the General Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner also introduced the School of Spiritual Science, which was intended to have three classes, leading from one to the next. Owing to Steiner’s death in 1925, he was only able to provide lessons for the First Class. His intention was that there should not be any published texts of these lessons released for personal reading but that the content of the lessons should be passed on by word of mouth. It was also his intention that anyone who wished to belong to the school should be “a worthy representative of anthroposophy before the world.” The reason for this is that the lessons are steeped in esoteric knowledge and require much background preparation from the student. They are not to be read or talked about like stories from a newspaper, or thought about with our everyday kind of thinking. “One can accomplish nothing whatever in esoteric life if one does not know that in esoteric life truth – absolute truth – must prevail, and that we cannot merely speak of truth and still persist in taking these things in the way one would in the profane, external life.” So these texts are not for intellectual or casual reading, but require a certain cast of mind, as well as preparation and commitment, before engaging with them.

4. It is exclusive. 
(Only Anthroposophical knowledge of man leads to right education.)

It’s not obvious what Dan has in mind here – Steiner Waldorf schools of course teach all kinds of knowledge from many different sources, as does any school. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, is not taught to the children, nor is it necessary to be an anthroposophist before teaching in a Steiner Waldorf school. Clearly, the schools hope that anyone who comes to teach in a Waldorf setting will have an interest in anthroposophy and will want to find out more; but it is not a requirement and teachers do not have to sign up to any particular set of beliefs.

5. It guards revelation of “difficult” knowledge. 
(Prospective parents won’t be told about the role of Lucifer.)

When Dan Dugan wrote this list of cult-like characteristics in the late 1990s, it was probably a fair criticism to say that prospective parents were not told much about anthroposophy in many school prospectuses. I don’t believe this was for any sinister reason, but simply because it would be difficult to know where to begin with such a complex and extensive body of knowledge. However, in the light of criticisms from organisations like PLANS, school websites and prospectuses are nowadays much more likely to be more forthcoming about anthroposophy, and this is very much to be welcomed. Parents should of course do their own online research and reading about educational systems, as well as pay visits to the school and talk to other parents before committing their child to any particular school.

6. It is a closed system. 
(Almost all publications referenced are from Anthroposophical presses and periodicals, all writers refer to Steiner.)

Inasmuch as it applies to anthroposophy, this is probably a fair criticism. I think such a criticism might also apply to other specialist areas originated by a towering figure, eg Jungian psychology, in which new territory was being opened up by the founder. The passage of time will change this, as is already being seen within anthroposophy, where the contributions of people such Bernard Lievegoed, Otto Scharmer, Arthur Zajonc and other highly respected thinkers are building on Steiner’s foundations.

Inasmuch as it applies to Steiner Waldorf schools, the same situation applies, with Steiner’s educational ideas gradually being added to by other experienced educationalists. Steiner Waldorf schools have been to a certain extent insular in their relations with the wider educational world. There are reasons for this, of course, in that the Waldorf system deplores much of what it regards as the excessive pressures and unreasonable demands put upon children and schools by modern politicians; and does not see many of its own ideas understood or referred to in mainstream educational publications. Clearly, however, it is not ideal for the schools to be isolated from the educational culture of their countries and Steiner would undoubtedly have wished there to have been much more interaction between Waldorf and other school systems. I have written more about this here. In those countries (now including England) where Steiner Waldorf schools are able to receive public funding, there is much more of a sense that the schools are part of a pluralistic educational culture.

7. It uses Jargon that redefines common terms. 
(Child development)

When Steiner Waldorf schools talk about child development and age-appropriate education, they have in mind the importance of not bringing any form of knowledge to a child before he or she is developmentally ready to receive and benefit from it. Rudolf Steiner has given the schools a model of child development which has been tried and tested now for over 90 years, and on the whole it works very well, because it accords completely with the actual nature of most children.

8. It maintains separation from the world by generating fear and loathing. 
(Denigrating public schools, “us vs them” attitude, paranoia)

I’ve not heard any reports of this from schools in the UK but there are certainly allegations of this nature made in the USA. If this has ever happened in any Steiner Waldorf school, it would certainly be deplorable and would be completely contrary to the intentions of Rudolf Steiner.

9. It suppresses critical dialogue, resulting in elaboration but no development of theory. 
(Consensus government, “like it or leave,” Shunning)

It is, of course, very difficult in any school if a parent or group of parents starts to create serious unrest in the parent body with vociferous complaints. In such cases, if the parents do not respond to offers of dialogue and discussion but continue to spread disharmony, then they may be asked to leave. The challenge for schools is to be as open as possible about anthroposophy before parents enrol their children; and then to provide plenty of opportunities through parents’ evenings, study groups and orientation days for any issues to be discussed before they become contentious and divisive. If the school attended by Dan’s son had been more open all those years ago, perhaps Dan would have realised in advance that it was not somewhere he would choose for his son’s education.

Conclusion

I am not an uncritical defender of Steiner Waldorf schools and I do recognise that on occasion, things can go wrong. Some schools seem to have an unfortunate knack for upsetting parents and then failing to deal properly with the consequences. The reasons for this can be many and complex and in my post on leadership & management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools, I’ve listed some of these. Improved teacher training, school management and customer care are required before these problems will start to disappear. But I also think that when Steiner Waldorf education works well, as it does for many thousands of children (including my own daughter), it’s one of the best, and most human, systems of education you can find.

I hope it is clear from what has been written above, and in my previous post on anthroposophy, that Steiner Waldorf schools cannot legitimately be described as being part of a cult, or cult-like. But it is also clear that Steiner Waldorf schools need to be as open and transparent as possible with parents about anthroposophy and the part it plays in the approach that teachers take to their teaching. I believe that most Steiner Waldorf schools today are more aware of these issues and that school brochures and websites are far less reticent about anthroposophy than used to be the case. It is not in the best interests of any school to have parents who do not support the Waldorf system or who feel that somehow the school has been less than straightforward with them about what lies behind the education. Well-informed and supportive parents, who understand what the teachers are trying to achieve and who are prepared to work with the school for the best outcomes for their children, are the bedrock of any school system, Steiner Waldorf or mainstream.

Further reading

There are several posts on this blog about Steiner Waldorf education, or which touch on aspects of it. For ease of reference, here are the links:

September 4th 2014 – Rudolf Steiner visits Margaret McMillan

September 11th 2014 – The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

September 16th 2014 – Karma and the Steiner Waldorf teacher

September 27th 2014 – Why some atheists like anthroposophy

October 2nd 2014 – The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools

October 4th 2014 – Different strokes for different folks

October 9th 2014 – A few thoughts on leadership and management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools

February 15th 2015 – “Every school could use these methods…”

December 1st 2015 – “A right good evening, the best of cheer…”

December 13th 2015 – Guest Post: Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf schools

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Dan Dugan/PLANS, Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

No, anthroposophy is not a cult – and here’s why.

People who are critical of anthroposophy sometimes accuse it of being a cult, or a cult-like religious sect. To determine whether there is any validity in this accusation, we need first of all to understand what these critics are likely to mean by the word “cult.”

According to Wikipedia, the word “cult” was originally used, not to describe a group of religionists, but the act of worship or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, borrowed via the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship).

Today, however – at least in English – the word “cult” is understood as a derogatory term. Wikipedia goes on to say that: “In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.”

In such a context, to accuse anthroposophy of being a cult is to make a serious and potentially damaging allegation. So what is the reality – is anthroposophy “a cult-like religious sect following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)”, as alleged by Dan Dugan (founder of PLANS and the Waldorf Critics’ website)? Or is it neither a cult nor a religion but a path of knowledge to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe, as described by its founder, Rudolf Steiner?

Let us see if we can find a further definition of what constitutes a cult. There is a very useful organisation called the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), which provides information on cults, cultic groups, psychological manipulation, etc, and practical suggestions for those affected by or interested in these subjects. I presume that Dan Dugan approves of the work of ICSA, because he has published an article about anthroposophy on its website.

The ICSA says that cults usually display some or all of fifteen typical characteristics. These fifteen characteristics identified by the ICSA are shown below in bold while my comments on how anthroposophy compares with these are in italics.

 1. “The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. “

 Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, was undoubtedly a charismatic leader and his teachings, as set out in his lectures and books, are usually taken with great seriousness and respect by anthroposophists; but Steiner himself always insisted that no-one should take his statements as true unless they had first checked within themselves as to how they feel about such statements, eg our innate and “infallible feeling for truth must be the active principle in the verification of knowledge.” Anthroposophists who are given to quoting Steiner on all subjects rather than speaking from their own experience and knowledge are not doing what Steiner asked of them – and such behaviour does not make anthroposophy a cult, even if a few anthroposophists sometimes can give that impression.

There is an additional difficulty for anthroposophy, however, and this has been well described by Ha Vinh Tho: “On one hand everybody emphasises that it is NOT a religion but a spiritual science, but on the other hand most of the contents of anthroposophy are completely beyond any ones cognitive grasp and have to be accepted in good faith. The method presented by Steiner is indeed accessible to all, but the contents he researched are mostly far beyond anyone’s grasp who is not an initiate or a fully realised being. And there seems to be a confusion between advocating a scientific methodology of contemplative research and inquiry that includes the spiritual dimension of the human being and of the world; and upholding contents that can only be perceived by non-anthroposophists as a revelation given by an enlightened master. I have no problem with the latter, but there is no way one can present these revelations as scientific results that everyone can acknowledge.”

This is surely true. Anthroposophists (like me, for example), regard Steiner as an initiate who was able to access knowledge not available to most of us. We are willing to live with some very advanced concepts that we can’t prove, because of our sense of Steiner’s total integrity and extraordinary insight. Nevertheless, by their fruits shall ye know them; and the results of what I call “applied anthroposophy” continue to demonstrate the potential for practical solutions to current world problems that arise from the work of Steiner and many other anthroposophists in the fields of agriculture, banking, health, education and in many other areas.

2. “Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.”

Question, doubt and dissent have always been part of anthroposophy since its foundation. But since there is no set of beliefs or doctrines that members are required to adhere to, there is no possibility for any member to transgress. There are of course areas of controversy and disagreement but people are in no way prevented or discouraged from discussing their views or adopting particular positions. The word “must” does not exist in the anthroposophical vocabulary, since freedom is at the core of anthroposophy.

3. “Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).”

Meditation and the meditative path are certainly encouraged in anthroposophy, but are seen as private, individual initiatives and have nothing to do with the society. None of the other practices listed has ever had any place in anthroposophy.

4. “The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth.“

There is absolutely no dictation to members on what to wear, how to think, feel or act, who to marry etc. The concept of freedom is central to anthroposophy.

5. “The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity.”

As mentioned under (1) above, anthroposophists often regard Steiner as an initiate and anthroposophy certainly sees itself as having much to contribute towards current world problems – but there is no sense in which anthroposophists regard themselves as an elite separate from the rest of society. On the contrary, Steiner frequently made it clear how important it is for anthroposophists to be involved in the wider world, eg “Our anthroposophical movement should not be a vaguely mystical, nebulous theory-movement sought by people wishing to withdraw from life, but must be a movement by which a man {sic} introduces the spiritual with practical effect into life’s every sphere.”

6. “The group has a polarised us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.”

Anthroposophists are encouraged to ‘do’ anthroposophy, ie to be engaged and active within the world – there is no sense of us versus them.

7. “The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).”

Since Steiner’s death in 1925, there has been no ‘leader’ of anthroposophy. Each national society has a general secretary and Council who are accountable to their members and chosen by election.

8. “The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).”

Steiner was known as a man of unimpeachable moral integrity – not even his most vehement critics have ever accused him of any dishonourable behaviour. Steiner himself said that to take one step in spiritual development required three steps in moral development. To call oneself an anthroposophist while engaging in reprehensible or unethical behaviour would be simply to fail to understand anthroposophy, let alone live it. That is not to deny that some anthroposophists have failed to understand it and have fallen grievously short of what one would expect from them – one thinks for example of some individuals who were close to the Nazis in Germany or the fascists in Italy in the 1930s and 40s – but these people were notable exceptions.

 9. “The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.”

This does not happen in anthroposophy – there is no peer pressure to conform and no forms of persuasion, subtle or otherwise.

 10. “Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.”

None of these things is required or expected of anthroposophists, nor is there any kind of leader to whom one could be subservient.

11. “The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.”

 This is certainly not the case with anthroposophy.

12. “The group is preoccupied with making money. “

This is even less the case with anthroposophy, as the difficult financial state of many anthroposophical organisations can bear witness.

13. “Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.”

There are absolutely no requirements or expectations of this kind for anthroposophists.

14. “Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members.”

This is absolutely not the case in anthroposophy.

15. “The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.”

People who are devoted anthroposophists naturally value their membership of the society and are loyal to it – but no anthroposophist has ever feared reprisals from other members and people are entirely free to leave membership, without any fear of reprisals, whenever they wish.

I think it is clear from the ICSA list above that anthroposophy displays none of the characteristics of a typical cult. To be fair to Dan Dugan, he has himself admitted, in an exchange with Tarjei Straume, that “I agree that as cults go, Anthroposphy is a sissy; in almost all aspects not dangerous, just a huge waste of time.” That’s about as good as we’re going to get from a Waldorf critic – and if Dan Dugan goes on record to say that anthroposophy is not much of a cult, then I think the rest of us can probably agree that it is not a cult at all.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Cult, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf critics

Staudi: or The Curate’s Egg

The anthropopper notes with interest that in his recent posts on this blog, he seems to have inadvertently adopted a Threefold Posting Order. The first three posts were on the topic of Angels and then the next two were about Demons. Well, here is one last post about Peter Staudenmaier to complete the threefolding aspect; after which I hope to be able to concentrate on more wholesome topics.

Bishop:

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; The curate replies, desperate not to offend his eminent host and ultimate employer: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”

Gerald du Maurier’s celebrated cartoon, which appeared in Punch in November 1895, gave rise to the phrase ‘a curate’s egg’, meaning something that is mostly or partly bad, but partly good. A modern-day version of this cartoon might have the caption:

Staudenmaier: “I’m afraid I’m a bad egg, Mr Mellett.” Mellett wipes a brown substance off his nose and replies, desperate not to offend his lord and master: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of you are excellent!”

According to Wikipedia, “in its original context, the term ‘a curate’s egg’refers to something that is obviously and essentially bad, but is euphemistically described as nonetheless having good features credited with undue redeeming power. Its modern usage varies. Some authorities define it as something that is an indeterminate mix of good and bad and others say it implies a preponderance of bad qualities.”

Isn’t that last sentence a perfect description of Peter Staudenmaier, self-appointed scourge of Steiner and anthroposophy and intellectual guru to the Waldorf Critics’ Yahoo group?

Staudenmaier, for those who have not yet made his online acquaintance, is the professor of modern German history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. His research explores the work of Rudolf Steiner; his dissertation was “Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945.”

Like a polecat, which despite its stink and habit of biting all and sundry indiscriminately, can nevertheless occasionally be useful for chasing rabbits out of their burrows, the egregious Staudi sometimes has a use; and even the anthropopper has expressed gratitude to him for revealing a slice of history about which the Society has, rather disgracefully in my view, kept quiet. Here, for example, is a link to a review by Staudi of a book by Ansgar Martins. This shadow side of anthroposophy really should be known by all anthroposophists. As “Wooffles” commented on my last but one post, “In the last decade or so, anthroposophists, or at least some anthroposophists, have gotten much better at engaging with historical context, and it is doubtful that this would have taken place without the persistence of not-particularly-sympathetic scholars like Staudenmaier and Zander.”  That’s quite a fair point, although the phrase “not particularly sympathetic scholar” when applied to Staudi’s attitude to Steiner must qualify as understatement of the year.

But, to return to my original metaphor, a bad egg is hard to like and Staudi’s overweening arrogance and contempt for others does nothing to endear him to any readers other than the fawning sycophants and melletts on the WC Yahoo list. It’s an interesting question why, unlike say with Martins or Zander, Staudi arouses such animosity in so many people. Is it for the reason Staudi himself gives?

“Any outside scholar who studies anthroposophy encounters strong opposition from parts of the anthroposophist movement. A large part of the reason why I continued researching anthroposophy’s history had to do with this sort of opposition; I initially thought the article I was asked to write back in 1999 would be a one-time piece, and then I’d return to other topics. But the article provoked such an indignant response among anthroposophists that I went back to the sources to see if I had missed something, and the further I dug into this history the more I found. Anthroposophists routinely claim that scholars who examine their movement have distorted Steiner’s ideas and misrepresented his teachings and falsified his true message and so forth; this is a common reaction among esoteric groups, who often believe they have special access to higher forms of knowledge and react strongly against scholarly standards of critical inquiry. The same sort of opposition I face is even more intense in the case of my German colleague Helmut Zander, the foremost historian of anthroposophy. Many of Steiner’s followers simply don’t like seeing their movement and worldview subjected to external scrutiny.”

Well, that sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? The picture he conjures up is not implausible: anthroposophists, who may be well-meaning but unaware of some significant episodes in the history of their movement,  react angrily to information which doesn’t correspond to how they feel about anthroposophy.

But unfortunately for the good professor’s chances of constructive dialogue with such anthroposophists, he doesn’t leave matters there and cannot resist being condescending, dismissive and supercilious with anyone who questions him.

Staudi was brought irresistibly to mind when I read the following passage in John Stewart Collis’ wonderful account of farming life during the 1940s, The Worm Forgives the Plough:

“There is an interesting remark which I have often heard here and elsewhere, not uncommon anywhere when some boss or foreman is mentioned. ‘The trouble is,’ they say, ‘ ‘e’s so ignorant.’ By this they do not mean that he lacks knowledge. They mean that he lacks manners. It is a significant remark. For what is manners? Manners is psychology. It is the understanding of the simple psychological needs of other people. It is homage to the strikingly simple fact that people like you to address them amiably; to show appreciation, and to say thank you at intervals. If a man does not know this and act upon it he is called ignorant by labourers under him. That is their philosophy of education.”

By this definition, Staudi is remarkably ignorant. One wouldn’t really have expected this in someone who has been an active participant in the anarchist, green and cooperative movements in the United States and Germany for many years. One would have thought that a person of those sympathies might have acquired some emotional intelligence during that time. Not so, it seems.

But Staudi is not only ignorant in the sense of being unable to resist insulting and abusing people who in other circumstances would be perfectly willing to have a civilised exchange of views with him; he is actually ignorant in an even more fundamental sense, and this is in his complete lack of understanding of Rudolf Steiner. To understand Rudolf Steiner it is not enough to have a good brain; you need to have a good heart, too, and to be able to apply the intelligence of the heart to initiatic language that is often difficult to comprehend with our everyday understanding. Where Steiner is concerned, poor Staudi has a tin ear; he is to the elucidation of Rudolf Steiner what Florence Foster Jenkins was to operatic recitals.

Someone whose scholarly work in the same subject area demonstrates understanding on every page (in shining contrast to Staudi’s effusions) is Dr Adrian Anderson of Melbourne, Australia. I thoroughly recommend Anderson’s e-booklet, Opponents and Critics: Criticisms of Steiner and anthroposophy, to anthroposophists and critics alike. It will take you about half an hour to read but it is well worth the time and effort. Dr Anderson addresses Staudi’s criticisms of Steiner and does not shrink away from the darker episodes of anthroposophical history. Some of what he writes will no doubt be difficult reading for anthroposophists, as well as for members of the Christian Community; but unlike Staudi’s tone-deaf tin ear, Dr Anderson has perfect pitch when evaluating Steiner’s use of language, and the problems that Steiner’s language can pose for anthroposophy and modern readers today.

Staudi is having none of this, of course, and gets his rebuttal in first, alerted by one of his toadies on the WC Yahoo group:

“Thanks to Eric for pointing this out… The new booklet is a standard anthroposophist apologia for Steiner’s racial teachings. It features the usual elements, including some entertaining misunderstandings of Steiner’s texts. One of the more striking examples is the booklet’s defense of Steiner’s 1923 complaint against the presence of black people in Europe, in particular his denunciation of the stationing of French colonial troops on German soil in the aftermath of World War One. Anderson thinks Steiner was actually referring to the African slave trade! It is hard to imagine a more thoroughgoing incomprehension of the passage in question.

The sections on Nazism are a good deal worse. Anderson believes that historians have recently “discovered” that “some German anthroposophists from the early 20th century were involved in Nazism” (golly, imagine that). The notion that this is some sort of discovery — or even especially remarkable — speaks volumes about the level of naivete and historical ignorance among all too many anthroposophists today.”

This is such an inadequate, not to say shameless, response to what is a substantial and considered piece of work that it almost beggars belief that Staudi can write in such misleading terms. Here we have all the standard Staudi tactics of scattering mud and abuse, misrepresentation of arguments, condescension and contemptful dismissal, which he employs to avoid engaging with the actual substance of the text written by Dr Anderson. Anderson demonstrates real understanding and insight in his essay and yet Staudi can’t bring himself to address any of it.

Why is this? Why is it that Staudi is so full of unremitting malevolence towards Steiner? And here I’ve recently come across an intriguing possibility: could it be that Staudi has never forgiven Steiner for criticising another Staudenmaier?

On 22nd September 1923, Steiner gave a lecture in Dornach on “The Logic and Illogic of Dreams” (GA225) and in it he referred at some length to a book called Magic as an Experimental Science by one Ludwig Staudenmaier, in which the author recounts his experiences of mediumship through channeled writing, his denial of the spirit as the source of his writing and his belief that the unconscious was responsible for it but was always lying to him. Steiner is quite amusing about what he considers to be the errors in Staudenmaier’s understanding of his experiences and the cumulative effect of these comments must have been somewhat devastating for Ludwig.

Can this have affected our present day Staudi’s attitude to Steiner? Was Ludwig related to Peter? Perhaps Turncoat Tom Mellett, Staudi’s devoted gofer, could ask on our behalf when he’s next kneeling before the Apprentice Demon.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Staudenmaier, Waldorf critics

The History Man – a polemical story

The anthropopper was taken aback, not to say disappointed, that the good Herr Doktor Professor Peter Staudenmaier thinks that I cannot tell the difference between his polemical and his scholarly writings:

“And a whole lot of Steiner fans, alas, have no idea how to make basic sense of different kinds of texts. Like a lot of other anthroposophists, Smith is simply confused about how academics work, indeed about what sort of article he thought he was reading in the first place. This sort of confusion is widespread among Steiner’s followers. That is a big part of how they manage to mistake an essay like “Anthroposophy and Ecofascism” for an academic treatise.”

Although some might be tempted to say that in Staudi’s case there is no essential difference between the two – because if he’s writing, he’s lying – that would be unfair and I reject such an outrageous slur on a respected academic.

Wikipedia tells us that: “Polemics are usually addressed to important issues in religion, philosophy, politics, or science… typically motivated by strong emotions, such as hatred…”

Well, Staudi certainly brings hatred to his polemics – he clearly hates Steiner, anthroposophy, Waldorf schools and biodynamics. Would it be unreasonable to assume that he brings the same feelings to his academic writings, although taking a certain amount of care to appear more even-handed?

But the anthropopper is always keen to learn, and so has given himself a little exercise in polemics by writing the opening of a story that draws upon the techniques of the master. It is called:

 

The History Man

Staudenmaier was feeling trapped. Here he was, in his 50s and desperate to leave his mundane teaching job in an undistinguished university (ranked only 157th in the Forbes listings). What was worse, he was stuck in an ugly rustbelt town with a declining population right in the middle of what one of his students had called “bumfuck nowhere”. Everything about the place, the job and the students was beginning to get to him. Only the other day, a student had published the following about Marquette on a “Rate My Uni” website:

“You can get the same education at a state school for a much lower price… The campus area leaves a lot to be desired. The air literally stinks much of the time. Milwaukee’s weather is windy, damp, overcast, and cold. Drinking and basketball are the two primary sources of entertainment. There are a lot of nouveau rich (sic) kids who think they are the shit. There are many other students who went to Marquette b/c they thought they were too good for State U, but possess average intellects and often below average social skills. In retrospect, I wish I had gone elsewhere.”

Another student had written: “Marquette is a brand-name, that is all. Our facilities aren’t particularly nice with exception to some of the specific programs like law, dental or engineering or the like. Our gym is old, the cafeteria food is limited, and especially in comparison to the nearby state school, student resources are pitiful. Anyone not affiliated with Marquette will be treated as such. Basketball players are known to get preferential treatment (especially when it comes to work load, and financial disbursement). Marquette University shows little to no mercy when it comes to school payments resulting in many students (even good students) removing themselves based on the inability to pay semesters upfront.”

Even worse, another student had written: “This area is so filthy and disgusting, with Negroes always panhandling and demanding money from you, if they dont (sic) rob you at gunpoint which I was, other students were beaten and robbed or raped, and we have police reports and news articles to show. FU Jesuits!!! The area is full of crime and is unsafe, which the university wants to cover up. Go look it up yourself.”

And one particular student comment had come dangerously close to himself: “From top to bottom, I simply think Marquette University is a bit of a joke, from faculty, to public safety, to office of residence life, and to students. In terms of academics here at Marquette, I’m not very impressed. It’s sad when I’ve taken a total of 16 classes and have only had two teachers that I can say were solid teachers. I even took a history course this summer at a local community college and am willing to admit that he was better than any PHD professor that Marquette has to offer.”

And now the local newspaper had picked up on a recent scandal:

‘ “Be the difference” is the motto of Marquette University, the generally not-very-newsworthy Jesuit university in Milwaukee.  Marquette is in the news now for reasons that it cannot be very happy about.”

“First a teaching assistant at the Catholic institution, Cheryl Abbate, a doctoral student in philosophy, was caught on tape earlier this year giving a very un-Catholic answer to a student who wanted to write about his objections to same-sex marriage in a course titled, “Theory of Ethics.”  The student complained to an associate dean and to the chairman of the Philosophy Department, neither of whom saw a cause for concern. The student then played the recording to a Marquette professor of political science, John McAdams, who after listening to the recording, blogged on November 9 about the incident, making some pointed criticisms of Abbate’s refusal to countenance the expression of opinions counter to her own.  The story began to attract significant public attention, including an article on Inside Higher Ed, November 20, which reprised the story and gave links to accounts supporting McAdams’s views and others attacking him.”

This was all too embarrassing and Staudenmaier knew he had to get out before the last of his options closed down around him. He was pretty sure his supervisor had noted the following typical comment from a student on the “Rate My Professor” website:

“In Staudenmaier’s class all you do is READ. READ READ READ. The books he chooses are SOOO dry and completely uninteresting that it is almost impossible to pick them up. He was very animated but VERY REPETITIVE. Personally, if you want an easy history requirement class, don’t take him.”

How could he get out from this hellhole and find a job in one of the Big Ten universities before it was too late? Staudenmaier‘s private assessment of himself was that by rights he should be widely known for his groundbreaking research and radical views, and like the celebrated economist Paul Krugman, be invited to contribute polemical op-ed pieces to the New York Times. But he was also clear that this was never going to happen while he was stuck here in this run-down mid-west town known only for beer and motorcycles. He had to find a way to establish some sort of high profile academic reputation (and hence a potential escape route) by choosing a niche area for research where his supervisors were unlikely to know the territory and thus wouldn’t pull him up for any liberties he might take with sources and selective quotations. And then it came to him in a flash – anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner! Yes, that was it… (to be continued)

 

The anthropopper should add that all the italicised quotations in this story are genuine, although his use of them and the context in which they are placed may bear only a tangential relationship to the truth – which by a strange coincidence is how he experiences Staudi’s own polemical writings.

Greetings to all, as Staudi might say.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf critics

Different strokes for different folks

Following my recent post on “The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools”, there was a minor flurry of comments from some of those who are critical of Steiner Waldorf schools. I will mention here just two of them:

Mark Hayes of the Steiner’s Mirror blog said:

“I think that the common lack of effective leadership stems from the collegiate management structure which originated with Steiner himself and the first Waldorf school, of course. I also suggest that the movement’s rigidity in this respect stems from the kind of unquestioning adulation for Steiner many share, as in your final paragraph.

Having said that, I have the impression that the mandate system used in many Steiner schools was an attempt to evolve from the fully collegiate approach, though I’ve seen little evidence that it has made much difference.

Does the SWSF still have an oversight role in the UK? Can grievances not satisfactorily resolved at school level still be taken there? If not, what role does it now have?”

Well, Mark, what I would say is that all sorts of variations have been tried in order to make the college of teachers system more responsive and effective, including the mandate system – I will be saying more about this in another posting soon, which will look in some detail at leadership and management issues.

I can’t speak for others but please do not assume that I have “unquestioning adulation” for Steiner – if I did, I would have failed as someone who seeks to work with anthroposophy. My appreciation of Steiner’s greatness has arisen over years of study, not just of anthroposophy but also of other spiritually-oriented philosophies. I have found that if you try to live and work with a new idea over a period of time, you will soon discover whether it has truth for you, because something within you will resonate with it. And if it sounds fantastical and cannot be verified, either within your own being or by some other means, then you can simply dismiss it, or say: interesting, if true. I understand that not everyone will share my assessment of Steiner, nor am I asking that they should.

Re SWSF, if I recall correctly, they no longer have a “final court of appeal “ role, which in the complaints procedures of most schools is reserved for the school’s Council of Trustees. What SWSF does do is to provide a Code of Practice, which spells out both Basic and Best Practice procedures; and in recent times, it has also introduced a Quality mark, which is awarded only to those schools which have undergone a rigorous outside assessment.

Melanie Byng has tweeted to say:

“your essential problem is that very few people agree Steiner was ‘a great initiate & one of the most remarkable human beings’ etc & most of these people don’t think it’s a good idea to base an education system on the ideas of ‘a great initiate’ or clairvoyant.”

I’m sure you’re right, Melanie, that not everyone will want such a system, but then as the marketing people say: “It’s different strokes for different folks.” Some people will want Montessori, some will want Froebel, some will want their local comprehensive, and there may even be a few who will want Steiner. What’s wrong with that?

Most parents will do their due diligence in researching the school they want for their child and there is plenty about Steiner schools on the internet, both pro- and anti-. Steiner schools are also much better these days in making statements about anthroposophy on their websites and in their prospectuses, so there should be fewer and fewer parents who are unaware of it.

If I might be excused a personal example, my wife and I were very happy to choose a Steiner school for our daughter, because we had done our due diligence and we did know fairly exactly what to expect; and it has worked very well for our daughter, both socially (like most Steiner pupils you meet, she is well-rounded, engaged with life, well-socialised, articulate and independent-minded) and academically (3 A*s at A level, a first class degree, and is now doing her MA at the Courtauld Institute). There are many others like her, both academic and non-academic types, who are able to find their way into adult life as free-thinking, creative and positive members of society. I saw it every year when I was working in a Steiner school and we said goodbye at the end of Summer term to the students leaving after their A-levels. These are fine young people that give one faith in the future of humanity – and any education system that can produce such results is doing quite a lot right.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

It is ironical that the internet, which is connecting people throughout the world, is also isolating us from real human interactions. An additional irony is that the isolating technology of the internet has the ability to bring together so many new groups of people online , who then tend to polarise into factions. We have Darwinists versus creationists, secular humanists versus religious believers, neo-con right versus liberal left and so on.

The internet has turned us all into self-publishing writers and that factor, combined with the near-ubiquity of Twitter, has put many of us into broadcast rather than receive mode. We are no longer good at listening to one another and prefer instead to promote our views, or the prejudices of our favoured factions, to anyone we can persuade to click on the link. Even at our most solipsistic, however, some traditional media practices remain useful, such as targeting suitable individuals or organisations for hate campaigns and going after them without mercy. Inventing heretics and then sending in the attack dogs is great sport for everyone – we can all agree on that.

Steiner Waldorf schools have certainly come in for more than their fair share of online abuse and attack. The people working in these schools, however, have tended to stand aside from such polarised online arguments, despite the critics’ best efforts to get them to rise to the bait with some truly ferocious onslaughts. Perhaps that’s because the schools’ traditional response to criticism has always been to ignore it, keep their heads down and get on with their work. I recall one critic who was amazed and frustrated that whatever she said about the schools, however extreme or libelous, never resulted in any public response.

Nonetheless, if you’re an anthroposophist and you spend any time online, you can’t help but be disturbed by some of the vehemently anti-Steiner critics out there, only too happy to pour buckets of bile and scorn over our heads.

I used to work for a Steiner school and my younger self tended to get quite upset by the sheer malice and ill will that the online critics manifested towards the education. I would dearly love to offer these critics and their readers a more balanced view, one which is based on my own, mainly positive, experience of Steiner schools. However, despite my wish for interaction and dialogue, I’ve reluctantly concluded that there is little to be gained by joining discussion with the critics. After several bruising online encounters, it became clear that many of them are really not interested in reasoned discussion. No, what they want is to destroy Steiner Waldorf education. I wish I had read the following advice from Steiner before getting involved:

“Observe the opponents, indeed in our anthroposophical circles it would be most advisable to study our opponents carefully. They renounce attacking the truths, and lay chief stress on personal attacks, personal insinuations, personal insults, personal calumnies. They think that truth cannot be touched, yet it is to be driven out of the world, and they believe that this can be done by personal defamation. The nature of such an opposition shows how well the leading opponents know how to proceed in order to gain the victory, at least for the time being.

But this is something which anthroposophists above all should know; for there are still many anthroposophists who think that something may be reached by direct discussion with the opponent…people do not hate us because we say something that is not true, but because we say the truth. And the more we succeed in proving that we say the truth, the more they will hate us.
Of course this cannot prevent us from stating the truth. But it can prevent us from being so naïve as to think that it is possible to progress by discussion.” 1

Steiner here was clearly referring to opponents who went about their business by way of ad hominem attacks, distortions and lies – the kind of behaviour, in fact, which the internet with its anonymity and distancing effect seems to encourage. Taking his advice, I won’t be getting into any more online exchanges with critics who behave in the ways he described. I might, however, respond to what seem to be genuine questions or genuine concerns, because I am interested in real discussion and dialogue – and also because I think that in the long run the critics are doing Steiner schools a favour by shining their critical spotlight on the education.

A point I have often made in talks with teachers is that our best, perhaps our only defence is to be excellent at what we do. If we are consistently providing an excellent all-round education for our pupils, then the critics will have very few arguments left. However, the weakness of the leadership and management arrangements in some of the independent Steiner schools has meant that achieving necessary change can be very difficult. I shall have more to say about this subject in a future posting but for now I will simply observe that, to the extent we are able to rise successfully to this challenge, the critics will have helped Steiner schools into becoming an accepted and valued part of the educational culture of this country – and this might even come to be reflected in what is said about us on the internet.

1 From “Knowledge Pervaded with the Experience of Love”, GA 221, Dornach, 18th February 1923

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