What's Waldorf?

The alternative school's holistic, arts-based philosophy seemed like a perfect fit for my kids. Then I started learning about the eccentric mystical beliefs of its founder.

By Meagan Francis

Published May 27, 2004 2:31AM (EDT)

When Ted and Joan Shores* began researching schools near their Seattle home for their 4-year-old daughter, Clair, they settled fairly easily on the local Waldorf school. "We wanted a school that encouraged learning through play, instead of pushing formal academics," says Joan, who says that she was drawn to the school because of Waldorf's stance on electronic media (a no-no -- most Waldorf schools discourage the use of television and computers by young children) and nature play (encouraged -- Waldorf schools provide children with wooden blocks, simple cloth dolls, twigs, stones and other nature items rather than plastic toys). They were also excited to join the ready-made community of school families who pitched in with fundraising efforts, coordinated school events, and celebrated festivals together -- conventional holidays, like Christmas and Easter, plus celebrations centering on less-mainstream events, like the harvest, solstice, and May Day.

But the seemingly idyllic mix of a holistic education for their daughter and a supportive community for their family quickly soured: Clair began to be bullied by an older, bigger boy at school, and none of the staff seemed to notice. Though Clair was coming home in tears and no longer wanted to attend school, teachers dismissed Joan's concerns, she says -- even when she'd witnessed the bullying herself. "Our lead teacher kept asking what Clair's bedtime was, while insisting she never saw bullying at school," Joan says. "She would never address the behavior of the other child." (When called for comment, a representative from Clair's school said that no one had time to answer questions.) Instead, the teacher suggested to a frustrated Ted that he "read his Steiner."

Clair's teacher was referring to Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian-born philosopher, self-proclaimed clairvoyant and occult scientist who, in his heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, produced dozens of books and essays, lectured widely, and founded Anthroposophy, a philosophy resembling a mystical twist on Christianity that incorporates belief in, among many other things, reincarnation, karma and gnomes. He also pioneered Waldorf education -- a holistic, media-minimal and arts-based alternative to traditional schooling that's said to foster creativity, independent thinking and mind-body-spirit wholeness in its students.

But a growing group of parents, teachers and students who've left the Waldorf system are troubled by the way the schools interpret Steiner's philosophies. Waldorf "survivors," as they very seriously call themselves, accuse Waldorf schools of encouraging a cultlike loyalty to Steiner's philosophy, which was founded on racist and anti-Semitic beliefs and which incorporates a host of unconventional educational methods -- like delaying reading and writing until children are 7. But the critical parents object not so much to the philosophies, they say, as to the administrators and teachers' lack of frankness about just what is in the curriculum, and why -- whether Anthroposophy serves merely as an inspiration or as a day-to-day practical guide for what happens in the classroom. (Waldorf teachers are required to study Anthroposophy for a year of their two-year training program, but there is some contention regarding its implementation.)

"Anthroposophy is never woven into the curriculum at all," says Scott Albert, the admissions coordinator at the Princeton Waldorf School in Princeton, N.J. "It is simply giving the teacher a backdrop from which to work ... Most families have recognition of a spiritual energy, but it doesn't play itself out [in the classroom]." Albert says that the Princeton Waldorf School attracts families of all religious backgrounds.

When my children first began entertaining themselves long enough for me to plot out their educational future via the Internet, I sought out alternatives to the local public school -- as I assumed good, progressive parents are expected to do. I had a hard time with the idea of compulsory schooling at all: The institutionalization of my children's education went against something deep in my gut -- some rebellious tendency, perhaps, or just the wish that I'd been allowed to do more dreaming as a young child. I wanted more for my children: more art, more imagination, more fantasy, more drama and music. I also wanted less: less rote learning, less commercialism and peer pressure, fewer worksheets, less time spent sitting listlessly at a desk watching slide shows.

The more I read online about Waldorf schooling, clicking from virtual tour to virtual tour of beautiful classrooms and beautiful toys, all surrounded by beautiful pink-cheeked children, the more enthusiastic I got. What institutional-education-fearing rebel wouldn't be attracted to a school system that incorporates reverence for nature into its curriculum and bedecks its classrooms with smooth wooden toys and brightly colored bits of wool and silk? To me, it was the perfect alternative to Coke-sponsored public schools. I imagined my children in such an environment, creating colorful works of art, singing, dancing with silk fairy wings on their backs, and stacking untreated wooden blocks while listening to a teacher read aloud from a book of classic fairy tales, bright smiles on their fresh, freckly faces. In my mind's eye, the Waldorf method transformed them somehow. They'd be imaginative, inquisitive -- not like the snarky, sophisticated sitcom kids I feared they were otherwise doomed to become. The wooden and natural-fiber toys were said to inspire creativity; the careful attention to festivals and seasons would provide the children with a sense of rhythm.

After I'd done my fill of research on Waldorf, I contemplated Sudbury schools, a program that allows children the freedom to design their own educational pursuits and that is run democratically by students, staff and parents. I considered Montessori schools, based on a philosophy that provides structure but still encourages independent thinking as well. But from the outside, Waldorf did the best job of fulfilling my educational fantasies.

Apparently, that fantasy hooks a lot of people. Judging from the accounts of the more than 20 people I spoke to about their experiences with Waldorf education and the hundreds of accounts I read online, most parents who choose Waldorf are drawn to it for the same reasons: the arts-based education, the avoidance of commercial and media influences, and the idea that the school would nurture their child's body, mind and spirit.

Waldorf education has been around for 75 years, and its popularity shows no signs of abating; there are over 800 schools in 40 countries and at least 157 Waldorf schools in North America, with a number of public schools incorporating Waldorf-inspired aspects into their curriculum. And for the most part, parents I've spoken to whose children are currently enrolled in Waldorf schools tend to be deeply satisfied with their children's education; they agree with the Waldorf philosophy and enjoy the ready-made community. "Our school is a very harmonious and peaceful place," says Stacy Aaron, whose son Nicky is a kindergartener at the Portland Waldorf School in Portland, Ore. "The curriculum and teaching style work for my kid, and he is treated with respect and kindness by his teachers and the other staff."

Waldorf is as much a lifestyle as it is an education, with the school's philosophies lapping into home life: Parents are often asked to enforce rules about television watching and to keep a "media free" environment for children in lower grades (no TV or computers, period). Parents also receive guidelines for packing school lunches (an Olympia, Wash.-area Waldorf school's handbook states that lunches must be packed in a basket, not a lunch box, with two cloth napkins and a ceramic cup). Mary Hammond*, a Santa Rosa, Calif., mother of two, says the Waldorf school application she filled out asked questions about how long she'd breastfed her children and how much television she and her husband watched. In many ways, says Hammond, who eventually decided that Waldorf's mandates were too strict for her children, "I felt like I was on trial to see if we'd 'fit in' with the community before we even started there!"

Former Waldorf parents criticize their schools for not fully explaining these practices -- or how deeply they connect to Steiner's spiritual worldview. "Anthroposophy is the foundation of everything that happens in a Waldorf school, but it's veiled," says Dan Dugan, secretary of the Waldorf watchdog group People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS). "It isn't taught directly to the children, but to the knowing eye it is everywhere."

John Holland -- a creative marketing consultant and former Waldorf parent in Berkeley, Calif., who has created OpenWaldorf.com, a resource site for parents, educators and others interested in Waldorf, Steiner and Anthroposophy -- agrees. "The key to understanding Waldorf is Anthroposophy," says Holland, who tried to research Waldorf education on the Internet during his children's tenure there, but found a dearth of information. "I felt that I was missing a piece of the puzzle -- something important that I did not understand," he says.

Holland began to research Steiner's many lectures, books and essays to find out for himself what Anthroposophy was all about and what role it plays in Waldorf education. What he found by studying the primary texts is that Waldorf's theory about, say, delaying reading until age 7 or academics until age 14 is based wholly on Steiner's spiritual principles, not science. "I liken it to the abstinence movement," Holland says. "People would come into schools and tell kids all the practical reasons why they shouldn't have sex, but later we find out it was actually part of a Christian movement. Underneath the practical issue there was a moral issue; chastity was the core value."

Holland argues that the religious basis of a movement is not the problem, but the lack of disclosure about its religious roots is. And since Waldorf's whole philosophy is based on a set of religious values, Holland says, there is no real way to separate Anthroposophy from the Waldorf curriculum. "It's a closed system," he says. "The timing of when certain things are taught, the subject matter itself, all is dictated by Anthroposophy ... I tell people that Anthroposophy is the DNA of Waldorf education."

If, as Holland says, Anthroposophy is the DNA of Waldorf education, then how do schools contend with the philosophy's basis in racial and religious discrimination? Steiner's remarks on religion and race have caused an outcry among Waldorf critics, who say that Waldorf schooling cannot escape Steiner's bigoted roots. "Jewry as such has long since outlived its time; it has no more justification within the modern life of peoples, and the fact that it continues to exist is a mistake of world history whose consequences are unavoidable," said Steiner in an 1888 article in the German Weekly. Steiner's theory of reincarnation states that souls travel an upward path of consciousness, beginning with the "sub-races" (Africans) and ending with Aryans -- the most "enlightened" race. Said Steiner, "If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense ... Blond hair actually bestows intelligence."

Holland thinks these issues could be resolved if Waldorf educators and administrators would simply be honest about the inherent racism and anti-Semitism of some of Steiner's philosophies. A simple acknowledgment of Steiner's less-than-politically-correct viewpoints, along with a unified statement denouncing those viewpoints, is all Holland believes it would take for Waldorf schools, teachers and supporters to rise above accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

He also points out that the ultimate goal of Anthroposophy is to lead children through the stages of reincarnation, which blurs the line between education and religion to an even greater extent. Nancy Frost*, a former Waldorf instructor, concurs: "I heard in a faculty meeting that there were many important souls waiting to reincarnate in this century and that they would only be able to do so if there were enough Waldorf schools," she says. "By the end of the year I taught there I was completely convinced that Waldorf constituted a cultlike religious movement which concealed its true nature from prospective parents."

Albert, the Princeton Waldorf School admissions coordinator, dismisses accusations that Waldorf is cultlike. "It doesn't make much sense to me at all," he says. "When you have a whole bunch of different teachers, their different interpretations of the schooling can vary. So within any institution there are varieties of opinion about what the education means and how to implement it."

"[Waldorf education] is 80 years old," Albert adds. "The fact that it has lasted so long speaks to the fact that it works."

Happy Waldorf parents are also skeptical of the criticisms. "A lot of people think that the curriculum is designed around some kind of brainwashing or stealth manipulation to indoctrinate the kids," says Stacy Aaron, of Portland. "That's just not true. I haven't seen that at all. I've seen many well-rounded kids enjoying their school environment and learning all kinds of things that kids don't get to experience at other schools."

"Any good school will be very upfront about the anthroposophical basis of Waldorf education," says Trish, a parent in Minneapolis who feels that her school's staff was honest about the spiritual aspects of Waldorf education. "There must be bad schools out there, just like there are in every different philosophy or style, but my experience has been really wonderful and enriching."

"I don't think that Waldorf schools work for everybody," says Albert, "and some of that is based on the consistency of values between home and school."

As for me, the pink-cheeked, wholesome-child fantasy was almost enough to sway me, and I considered trying to get over my issues with Anthroposophy, as I presume many parents do. But, as Albert says, Waldorf probably won't work for families who don't uphold its values at home -- and the idea of trying to uphold a value system I don't believe in unnerved me. There's a certain relief in the low expectations of me as a public-school parent: I'm not expected to believe in much of anything besides overpriced fundraiser merchandise. My family could come home and sit in front of the television for five straight hours, cramming Chee-tos into our sallow faces and breathing in the offgassing of plastic toys without my children's school's knowledge. (We don't. But we could.)

When my children began to attend the local public school, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they didn't start obsessively coloring within lines or raising their hands to speak at the dinner table. They may not be playing with wooden toys every day, but they're learning, they're happy, and they're still relatively innocent -- and that's good enough.

This story has been corrected and clarified since it was originally published.

Meagan Francis

Meagan Francis is a freelance writer living in Michigan.

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