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Steiner Education for Skeptics

tl;dr – Steiner was not the Messiah but he wasn't a very naughty boy either


As a skeptic if you have heard about Steiner-Waldorf Education you have probably come across it as “Mystical Barmpottery” on David Colquhoun's “Improbable Science” blog, “Absurd Educational Quackery” on Andy Lewis' Quackometer or “Quacks Everywhere” on P Z Myers' “Pharyngula”. From these sources you could be forgiven for thinking that Steiner schools are run by a secretive, devious cult of brutal white supremacists inculcating the children of gullible parents with belief in gnomes.

Most people who have actually encountered Steiner schools and pupils would utterly fail to recognise the picture Colquhoun, Lewis et al paint.

So what's going on? Am I claiming that Colquhoun and Lewis (and other well-known and respected skeptics whose remarks suggest they share these ideas) are wrong and that I – someone you've probably never heard of, who has practically no track record in the skeptics movement – am right?

Frankly, yes.

To the best of my knowledge neither Colquhoun, Lewis nor any of the other skeptic critics has set foot inside a Steiner school: their information about Steiner-Waldorf education seems to come from a [handful of disaffected former Steiner parents and pupils] who have made it their mission to rubbish Steiner education to anyone who will listen. Whereas I have been around Steiner education for over 15 years via my two kids at our local Steiner school and know dozens of other present and former pupils, parents and teachers: I have listened to the criticisms levelled at Steiner schooling and checked them against my own experience and that of my contacts (taking care not to introduce bias with leading questions etc) to understand whether the detractors' allegations are justified – and I find that mostly they are not.

Church of England School Angels, Demons and Talking Snakes  on the curriculum

Mystical Barmpottery at Taxpayers' Expense

Colquhoun's blog articles about Steiner education employ the term 'mystical barmpottery'. I don't entirely disagree with him: early in my association with Steiner education I came across Steiner's esoteric “Anthroposphical” ideas and decided they were wacky nonsense. (He also had ludicrous ideas about medicine, agriculture and much else, and believed in Atlantis; all of which is entirely worthy of Pointing And Laughing At.) But whereas Steiner has angels, demons and – allegedly – [gnomes], your friendly local C of E school has angels, demons and talking snakes; as skeptics and humanists we'd rather they kept that superstitious nonsense outside school but we accept that it doesn't invalidate the rest of the education they provide, and we're prepared to assess that on its merits. So why the double standard with respect to Steiner education?

It's not even as if Steiner education were simply mainstream education with some mystical barmpottery thrown in, as in mainstream "faith" schools. For a start it is a principle of Steiner education that the mystical stuff – Anthroposophy – should not be taught to the children themselves, unlike mainstream religious schools which promote their religions to the children to a greater or lesser extent. Just as in CofE schools some teachers may be fervent Christians and others may be agnostic, so in Steiner schools teachers vary between those who share Steiner's esoteric mystical beliefs and others who are drawn more to the pedagogical practice.


Spiritual nonsense aside, there are practical, down-to-earth aspects of Steiner teaching practice and curriculum which are radically different from mainstream education. Unlike Steiner's mystical ideas, Steiner-Waldorf pedagogy has much that is plausible and stands rational scrutiny, and some for which there is evidence to support its approach. For example:

We, as skeptics, should be thinking critically and rationally about Steiner-Waldorf education, not dismissing it out of hand because of some of the ideas of its long-dead originator. We know that intelligent people are capable of believing stupid things and we have no difficulty accepting Isaac Newton's scientific genius despite his dabblings in alchemy, chronology and Biblical interpretation. Whilst only the most craven Steiner apologist would rank him with Newton, nevertheless we should judge the ideas of each on their merits, not on their other ideas.


BARMPOTTERY EVERYWHERE

Racism

Apart from making much of Anthroposophy in the staffroom whilst ignoring the pedagogy in the classroom, opponents of Steiner-Waldorf Education make a big issue of Rudolf Steiner's racist ideas. Quite reasonably, in principle: Steiner is on record as saying, for example, that people of African descent are like children compared to the White races! Rudolf Steiner died in 1925 and his attitudes were by no means exceptional for their time ([as Richard Dawkins observes] "In the early part of the twentieth century, almost everybody ... would be judged racist by today's standards") and he sems to have been more patronising, in a "white man's burden" sort of way, than hateful. However he was by no means progressive and several of his contemporaries had more enlightened views of ethnicity, more in keeping with our present sensibilities. Steiner's century-old beliefs would certainly be a problem if today's Steiner teachers share them, but do they? Steiner opponents claim (or sometimes merely assume) that they do and that this is manifested in racist incidents in Steiner schools, but fail to offer anything but a handful of anecdotes as evidence. Following the Colquhoun blog I counted up all reports, however sketchy, of [racist incidents in Steiner schools] worldwide, ever, and could not reach double digits. By comparison a recent Freedom Of Information request revealed reported racist incidents in mainstream schools running at over 20,000 a year in the UK alone! Even allowing for the relatively small [proportion of UK schoolchildren in Steiner education] that suggests that there is less racism in Steiner than [in mainstream schools].

An informed and erudite discussion of racism in Steiner-Waldorf education is provided by Ray McDermott and Ida Oberman. In 1994 McDermott, Oberman and others studied the Urban Waldorf School in inner-city Milwaukee, publishing a report on their findings regarding the school itself. During the course of the study the researchers heard visiting representatives of the international Waldorf community expressing "Steiner's racist speculations about Africans as [being] close to the body and new to the rational and spiritual heights achieved by whites". McDermott and Oberman subsequently published a note: "[Racism in Waldorf Education]" in which they discuss Steiner's expressed views on race, the differing ways his views can be interpreted by his followers, and responses by Steiner followers on both sides of the Atlantic to the challenges posed by his teachings. McDermott and Oberman make clear that this is a crucial issue for Waldorf teachers to confront, although they are equally insistent that racism is not a universal problem in Waldorf schools which can be not only non-racist but effective in actively confronting racism, as exemplified in Milwaukee and South Africa.

Bullying

Opponents quote Steiner apparently justifying bullying (as restitution of karma from previous lives) and claim that Steiner schools therefore systematically permit or even encourage bullying. As with the racism issue there doesn't seem to be evidence that this generally happens, although (as pointed out by McDermott and Oberman in the case of racism) it is a possibility if teachers interpret Steiner's words literally and rigidly, and an issue the Steiner movement should address. But in the cases of both racism and bullying it is no more reasonable to suppose – in the absence of good evidence – that Steiner teachers take a fundamentalist dogmatic approach to Steiner's words than to assume teachers at CofE schools to be misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, in favour of slavery, genocide, human sacrifice and the death penalty for adulterers and anyone having a haircut, because that's what it says in the Bible. In practice we find that most people (including Steiner and CofE school teachers) seem to have an innate humanity that overrides the mystical texts they claim to follow for guidance.

Secrecy

The anti-Steiner lobby also alleges that Steiner schools are secretive about Anthroposophy, that schools do actually covertly indoctrinate children with Anthroposphical ideas, that the Steiner movement is a cult and that Steiner people tell lies in public to cover up the 'true' nature of Steiner education. This is particularly risible to anyone who has had dealings with a Steiner school: frankly one would barely trust the Steiner movement to organise a piss-up in a brewery, far less a seamless international conspiracy! But of course that rather disorganised impression could just be a front for a world-wide cover-up of hermetic efficiency that even the Scientologists would envy.

And climate scientists could be part of a global Warmist conspiracy, and the US government could have perpetrated 9/11 as a false flag operation, and the Moon landings could have been faked in a film studio, and ...

One can, no doubt, find things that Steiner people, climate scientists, the US government and NASA have been inaccurate, misleading or downright dishonest about; it's wise to be sceptical about what anybody – including Skeptics – tells us. However assuming the existence of a conspiracy becomes an hermetic belief: any evidence contradicting or even questioning the conspiracy theory is taken as further proof of the breadth and depth of the conspiracy itself, reinforcing belief in the theory rather than causing its believers to question and re-evaluate it. Some Steiner opponents claim that Steiner [advised Waldorf teachers to lie about Anthroposophy in Waldorf schools], therefore all Steiner teachers may be lying about anything and nothing anyone connected with Anthroposophy says can be trusted and so it's not worth even speaking or listening to them.

The reader will have to make up their own mind about such claims.

Alternative medicine

There is a casual relationship between Steiner schools and anti-vaxxers, homeopaths and suchlike: probably a greater proportion of Steiner teachers and parents embrace alt.med than in the general population, but by no means all do, and Steiner schools do not officially oppose [vaccinations] or real medicine. Schools have a relationship with an Anthroposophical doctor; this probably varies between schools: in my experience it was limited to assessing (in collaboration with the child's kindergarten teacher and prospective class teacher) the readiness of a child for the transition from kindergarten to school. Herbal or homeopathic "remedies" (such as Arnica for bruises) may be offered by schools to pupils of consenting parents but (again in my experience of my children's school) normal medical practices regarding e.g. allergies, existing medications, emergency hospital admission and treatment (including, if necessary, emergency tetanus injections) are covered in the permission forms parents sign when a child enrols in the school. (As I understand it Anthroposophical Medicine does not reject conventional medicine – and Anthroposophical doctors are conventionally trained – but seeks to "extend" it in line with Steiner's spiritual ideas.)

Why the fuss?

Reading the attacks on Steiner education whilst knowing what (some, at least) Steiner education is really like, I'm astonished how detractors believe some of the things they say (although I also find the beliefs of religious zealots and homeopaths baffling). The most bitter and vociferous opponents seem mostly to be those with personal involvement: disaffected former Steiner pupils and parents, and parents in conflict with ex-partners over their children's schooling. I can understand that when, for example, someone has committed money, time and emotional energy to their child's schooling and subsequently finds themself – and their child – let down by a poor teacher or school, it's natural to switch from seeing only the good things – through rose-tinted glasses – to seeing everything as bad, through rage-tinted lenses (much in the way we see only faults in a former sweetheart when we fall out of love with them). And if we've had that unhappy experience as a parent or pupil in a niche schooling such as Steiner it's easy to generalise our disaffection into a belief that all Steiner education suffers the faults we encountered, whereas with mainstream education people typically seem to generalise their experiences into a belief that their particular school is entirely bad. And when an unhappy former parent or pupil raises their voice about their complaints they are more likely to hear from others with similar complaints and to pay attention to those whose views confirm their own and to dismiss those who present dissenting views.

Of course some schools, and even some whole education systems, can be generally defective. But even the best school or system will look defective if one only looks at evidence from those whom it has failed, disregarding evidence of its successes.

That disaffected former Steiner parents or pupils with personal emotional involvement could spend years campaigning against all such schools is just about understandable; that respected skeptics and advocates of reason and critical thinking should uncritically tag along with them is disappointing. Guardian education editor Jeevan Vasagar's 2012 article about Steiner schools was refreshingly critical (especially compared to the rather gushing accolades generally found in media reports) – for example raising concerns regarding the range of examinations on offer and possible problems with Science teaching in Steiner Upper Schools – but (with no disrespect to Mr Vasagar and The Guardian) I would have hoped the skeptics movement, with more time and space to devote to the subject, would have produced better informed and thought-out analyses than a mainstream newspaper could devote to the subject, rather than the Aunt Sallies currently doing the rounds of the skeptics movement.

What's wrong with Waldorf?

There are certainly areas of reasonable criticism and concern about Steiner education.

McDermott and Oberman have highlighted concerns over Steiner's attitudes to race and, as noted above, possible issues with respect to bullying should also be examined. I think this is part of a general issue that the Steiner movement needs to tackle, of whether Steiner's words should be regarded as revealed truth to be interpreted rigorously or whether his ideas should be examined critically and interpreted, modified or even discarded as necessary in the light of modern thinking.

As Vasagar has noted Science teaching in Steiner schools is a potentially problematic area. The initial approach – experimenting with sound and light, heat etc., observing what happens and developing children's curiosity about these phenomenon – seems more likely to foster an inquisitive enjoyment of science than the rote teaching of scientific facts (to children several years younger) found elsewhere. There is however a vein of psuedo-science within the Steiner movement (exemplified by a Steiner science teaching guide quoted in the Guardian article which seems to diminish Darwinism and support Homeopathy) which one may reasonably suspect might conflict with the essential scientific principle of placing evidence before cherished notions. In a privately-funded school this may arguably be a matter between parents and school but when schools receive state funding it becomes a legitimate area for public analysis and criticism: if Steiner (or any publicly-funded) schools are fudging science, such as the realities of evolution and medicine, we should call them out on it. (To be fair it would seem to be rare for students in any sector of schooling to receive an effective education in the philosophy of, rather than just the findings of, Science, and we should be challenging that too.)

The Steiner system of a teacher staying with a class for its first 8 years has its pros and cons: whilst it offers stability and continuity to the children and allows the teacher to develop a deeper understanding of the children, it also requires teachers to be able and willing to effectively work through difficulties in their relationships with their charges in order to treat all their pupils fairly; and to be able to do so as the children grow from infants to young teenagers. The teacher also gives most of their class' lessons, exposing the children to the teacher's particular strengths and weaknesses, particularly in areas of the curriculum such as class building projects and the introduction of science.

There can of course be teachers who are outright incompetent, in Steiner as in other sorts of school (and UK Steiner schools' practice of not requiring teachers to have general, mainstream-equivalent teacher training qualifications probably doesn't help in this respect). This can be a particular problem in Steiner schools since parents are encouraged not to be anxious about the later start to formal learning (compared to other UK schools), the seemingly slower pace of the curriculum and the absence of SATS and suchlike objective tests, so that the failings of a truly poor class teacher may go unnoticed for several years by which time their pupils are badly lagging in their education, possibly unmotivated and maybe developing behavioural problems. And the governance of Steiner schools can result in them being particularly ineffectual at dealing with failing teachers (at least until parents start voting with their feet and withdrawing their children from the school). Steiner schools ostensibly have a collegiate, non-heirarchical governance but in practice a strong-willed teacher may dominate, assuming power without responsibility: this can lead to a culture of cronyism in which poor teachers (including the dominant individual) are not tackled, and more able teachers may be driven away.

What should be the most damning indictment against Steiner education is that it is based on a system formulated by a man whose other ideas in the fields of, for example, medicine and agriculture, are demonstrably pseudo-scientific nonsense; a system which – though it has no doubt evolved over the last century – has never been subject to systematic scientific examination and refinement. Sadly this is not a trait unique to Steiner-Waldorf Education, as I discuss below.

Lastly there's the issue of low vaccination rates in Steiner school populations. Whilst not a pedagogical matter it is an ethical issue regarding Steiner communities which Steiner schools – who make much of ethics and their communities – cannot evade simply by saying it is up to the conscience of individual parents. Although Rudolf Steiner seems not to have opposed [vaccination] outright, some Anthroposophists appear to subscribe to the school of thought (not confined to the Steiner community) that diseases such as measles are actually good for children. Between such Anthroposophists and various other alt.med types found disproportionately amongst Steiner communities, Steiner schools tend to have lower rates of vaccination than mainstream schools. This is a factor for consideration by Steiner parents who do not subscribe to anti-vax views (and friends and neighbours of Steiner schools and families) because babies below vaccination age and children (and others) with compromised immune systems will not be as well protected by community (or "herd") immunity as elsewhere.

It is an issue that Steiner schools should reconsider. It is not just a matter for individual parent's consciences: it should be a matter for schools' collective consciences too. Whilst unvaccinated individuals in a generally well-immunised population are fairly well protected by community immunity, the lower vaccination rates in many Steiner communities does not confer this protection. We have already seen that this can result in outbreaks of measles and chickenpox, and it can only be a matter of time before these result in fatalities. (There may even be latent cases of the horrific SSPE measles complication amongst children who caught the disease as babies.) Steiner schools commonly require parents to restrict children's access to TV, cinema, computer games etc., encourage them to feed their children a healthy diet and ensure they get sufficient sleep: they could equally well insist that pupils be vaccinated, for their own protection and that of other pupils and members of the school's community. At the very least they should educate parents on the dangers of diseases such as measles and the especial risks that low vaccination rates within a community pose to its members and the concomitant responsibility parents have to the safety of their community. In other words to point out bluntly to parents that if they don't vaccinate they are putting not only their own children but also their classmates and other members of the school community, including babies too young to be protected, at risk of sickness, disability and death.

EDUCATIONAL QUACKERY ABSURD

In medicine the scientific method is well-established. Randomised Controlled Trials are the basic standard for testing what medicines or procedures work and how well they perform compared to placebo or to existing practice. Systematic review, where the quality of trial methodology is expertly assessed and the results of multiple high-quality trials combined, gives an even higher standard of evidence. Whilst day-to-day medicine does not always acheive the standards to which it aspires, practices and products that do not even aspire to – or even outright reject – such standards are rightly regarded as quackery.

Sadly in the field of education evidence-based approaches are the exception rather than the norm. We are perhaps at the stage that medicine was before even Rudolf Steiner's lifetime, where practice is often driven by either tradition and inertia or political and popular whims and fads, unfettered by the least rigorous tests of whether they actually work. Mark Henderson in The Geek Manifesto documents some of the missed opportunities for testing changes to educational practice, and Eamonn Noonan of the Campbell Collaboration – the social sciences' equivalent of the Cochrane Collection – was moved to echo Gandhi's jibe at Western Civilisation, bemoaning that evidence-based pedagogy "would be a good idea"!

Given the present far-from-evidence-based state of education generally, labelling 'alternative' systems such as Steiner as 'quackery' without applying the same term to much of mainstream education is simply pejorative.

The reason we even have 'alternative' medicine today is that for the last century and more the dedicated application of science, reason and critical thinking to health has yielded the phenomenally effective – if still imperfect – body of medicine we presently benefit from. Without the science- and evidence-based approach, herbalism, homeopathy, chiropractic, blood-letting and any other system would be equally valid. And the reason scientific medicine has acheived the dominance it has is not that it has sought to suppress 'alternatives' (whatever the proponents of those systems may claim) but that the rational approach has proved vastly superior and has out-competed its 'alternative' rivals in efficacy. And far from shunning alternative practices, scientific medicine has unashamedly and open-mindedly investigated and borrowed what works from those disciplines (a classic example being salicylic acid – asprin – the active ingredient of the traditional herbal remedy willow-bark).

I suggest that the reason alternative medicine persists and even thrives as it does today is that our education system – even at elite public schools – fails to effectively teach the basics of scientific literacy, which many of us only gain later from, for example, popular science books by medical researchers and journalists.

I think we need to apply the same powerful, rational, evidence-based approach to pedagogy that has worked so well for medicine and other disciplines. That includes open-mindedly investigating, evaluating and, where appropriate, unashamedly adopting what works from the ready-made ongoing experiments in teaching and learning found in Steiner and other educational systems such as Montessori, the Reggio Emilia and Te Whaariki approaches, the Finnish system, Democratic Schools (e.g. Summerhill), schools such as Ian Mikardo teaching difficult, deprived children, TM (Maharishi) Schools, play-based learning, adventure playgrounds such as Plas Madoc / The Land, unschooling, outdoor education, perceptual learning, Collaborative Reasoning approaches, homeschooling etc.

A scientific and evidence-based approach to, say, medicine or some other field improves knowledge and practice in that field, but applying the rational approach to education should improve not only education itself but all endeavours its alumni engage in. As skeptics and activists we can expend our energy on countering medical quackery by attempting to educate our fellow-citizens about the placebo effect, regression to the mean, confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, probability and statistics and so on; but every year hundreds of thousands more young people graduate from schools and universities still ignorant of such basics.

Railing against Steiner education seems to me to be particularly futile: with Steiner education accounting for less than 0.1% of UK schoolchildren, and Steiner parents either ideologically set on it or impressed enough with its outcomes to continue paying fees, the dilution of efforts to oppose it – and lack of effectiveness of those efforts – must approach levels more usually enjoyed by homeopathy!

By comparison mainstream education is probably fertile ground for skeptical activism. I suspect many teachers and schools would welcome being able to systematically and effectively improve their practice on the basis of trials and evidence, rather than having grand ideas or pseudoscientific nonsense imposed on them from above. As outsiders we can campaign for evidence-based education in ways that educationalists themselves, being supposed to be non-political and having tenuous career ladders to cling onto, may not be able to.

What should we do about Steiner schools?

What rights do we have to interfere with them? If a Steiner (or any other school) is entirely privately funded by parents then in our society it seems generally accepted that society's rights to interfere with the school are confined to ensuring the welfare of pupils and minimum standards of education, whereas when a school receives funding from the public purse we have more right to say how that money is used. Whether or not a school is state funded we can, of course, offer our criticisms of it. Although if we make claims of institutional racism, systematic abuse and gross dishonesty without robust evidence to support our allegations we should expect to be dismissed with deserved contempt.

We – skeptics and humanists – would all agree that we dislike the irrational baggage of Anthroposophy that goes with Steiner education. David Colquhoun and Andy Lewis have expressed their opposition to state funding (through the Free Schools programme) of Steiner schools for this reason. Out of consistency we should similarly be standing against state funding of faith schools too.

I gather that David, at least, is opposed to the Free Schools programme itself. (Personally I'm ambivalent: I can see pros and cons.)

Unlike Andy and David I think the qualities of Steiner teaching could justify public funding and I see it as an opportunity (for society in general, and skeptics in particular) to engage with Steiner schools and the Steiner community. Taking an open-minded rational position regarding the possible merits of Steiner education and challenging Steiner educators to demonstrate the benefits they claim for their pedagogy (and the money they receive from the public purse) could help bring to state-funded Steiner schools an engagement with proper evidence rather than the warm-fuzzy feel-the-naturalness appeal often offered. Steiner parents range from those who are themselves Anthroposophists, or strongly spiritual, who would choose such a school for their children regardless, through a spectrum to those who are simply drawn to the education it offers and for whom the quality of the teaching and their children's environment is paramount. I don't know how many Steiner schools are oversubscribed and can afford to pick and choose their pupils (and parents). I think many struggle to attract sufficient pupils and need to engage with more 'secular', skeptical parents – and prospective parents – to be viable: we could engage with these parents encouraging them to ask for evidence, and engage with schools in how to provide such evidence for the quality of their teaching in objective measures, regardless of what they think they're achieving in Anthroposophical terms.

Steiner schools are always going to have Anthroposophy somewhere in the background, but from talking to teachers and others I gather that teachers – and schools – vary in how they approach it, and in how much weight they place on the words of Rudolf Steiner. Some are more dogmatic and seek to find justification in Steiner's speeches and writings for their everyday teaching practices and lives; others are relatively pragmatic and consider Steiner pedagogy to be "more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules". Whilst Steiner schools exist, and especially where they receive state funding, we ought to be influencing them in favour of the pragmatists rather than the dogmatists; just as we expect our CofE teachers to take – and teach – the Bible metaphorically and humanistically rather than literally and fundamentalistically.

I think we should also have a bigger and bolder aim: for the education all our children receive to be based on objective evidence that it actually works, in the same way we expect their (and our) health care to be based on that principle. This is a challenge to all forms of education. Steiner-Waldorf currently enjoys much of its popularity due to the perceived quality of the education it provides. I suggest to those who oppose Steiner education that if they really want to bring about its demise they recruit the power of Natural Selection to their cause and direct their efforts to getting mainstream education to adopt evidence-based approaches that work, so as to out-compete Steiner education rendering it less popular and thereby – ultimately – driving it to extinction! (Such a strategy would also present a challenge to Steiner education: whether to embrace the evidence-based approach and evolve ever-improving practice or to retreat into cherry-picked pseudo-evidence, "it worked for me" testimonials and the buzzword-soup pseudoscience that quack medicine today employs.)


FOOTNOTES

Disaffected former parents and pupils

I don't wish to dismiss the experiences or grievances of people who have had — or whose children have had — bad experiences in Steiner Education. I know it happens sometimes, I know some it has happened to, and I am not condoning, excusing or apologising for it. But there can hardly be a school anywhere that some pupil at some time has not been harmed by, and there are some forms of education for which there is evidence of systematic harm to pupils (e.g. [1] [2] [3]). However there is a small but very vocal group of people who turn up to internet discussions on Steiner-Waldorf Education and insist that their experiences and complaints are universal to all Steiner education everywhere — a claim which there simply is no evidence for — and even resort to personal abuse against those who suggest otherwise.


Gnomes

Rudolf Steiner seems to have believed in gnomes, amongst other supernatural nonsense. (Of course his contemporary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the uber-rational Sherlock Holmes, believed in similar fantasies and was taken in by the notorious Cottingley Fairies hoax.) It is a popular meme amongst some anti-Steiner types that present-day Steiner followers also 'believe in' gnomes. Doubtless one can find some who do: it's not particularly hard to find people who believe in irrational nonsense in many walks of life, not just the Steiner movement (in C of E schools you can probably find teachers who believe in talking snakes) but for most in the Steiner community the attraction of gnomes is just that they're cute (if you like that sort of thing) soft toys, like the once-popular gonks.


New Zealand study

"School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)", Dr Sebastian Suggate; Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand (abstract) (press release)


Richard Dawkins on racism

"The God Delusion" pp265-266

c.f. John Stuart Mill's "backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage*" - from "On Liberty"
* nonage: period of immaturity or youth


Racist Incidents

From Colquhoun's blog article, which was making the racism allegations, and from subsequent discussion in the comments, we have:

  1. 'racist overtones' in an Australian school where a parent “who is from Sri Lanka" said "his concerns about Steiner’s racist beliefs were realised when his children were not allowed to use black or brown crayons because they were “not pure”".
  2. In an English Steiner school "a German teacher" "read out the word ‘nigger’ from a book of poems, a standard text in Steiner schools"
  3. PeteK (a seasoned Steiner critic) reports that he has had "ongoing issues with Highland Hall Waldorf school in Northridge, California. They taught my child that white people are \more evolved\ than blacks and Asians. When I questioned this with teachers at the school, they defended the idea – one claiming it was \out of Africa\ theory. The class was Physiology".
  4. The mother of the child in the 'nigger' poem incident reports "A boy told my daughter that ‘All Black people are niggers’ he had no punishment at all.Another child was given 100 lines for throwing a piece of cake.It shows what the teacher’s think is offensive and the boy of course was then given the message that racist insults were ok so of course he carried on. Another boy screamed “Nigger!” in the playground.No punishment."
  5. The mother also (along with a description of the 'nigger' verse incident) reports that she "also know[s] of a family where there was physical violence against a Black child who was racially insulted at the same time by the child’s teacher".
    The mother's account seems also to be here (by 'M.Kwaten' about halfway down the page.)
  6. Author lovelyhorse reports: "I wish I could tell you what I have been told directly from a mother who witnessed racism in our local Steiner school, she did try and speak out at the time, sadly this resulted in her family being hounded out of the school and community and she is now too frightened to discuss it."
  7. and: "a case of racial discrimination regarding a teacher in New York Steiner Waldorf School in 2002 http://www.waldorfcritics.org/active/articles/charmainecomp.pdf I understand the teacher got a settlement and a gagging order".
  8. From a discussion on Mumsnet: "a friend withdrew her dd from a UK steiner school for reasons associated with the bullying and non-intervention by staff in children's disputes. The child concerned is mixed race and the comments she was getting were racially based".
  9. Principal author ThetisMercurio, in response to a request for a list of racist incidents in Steiner schools, offered: "If there were a list of this kind it wouldn’t be possible to give it out, for legal and personal reasons. ... There’s a Waldorf Survivors’ list, which is not public."

From the information presented regarding the Australian crayons case it is hard to see where the 'racist overtones' lie: presumably the father inferred that the teacher's reported attitude to black and brown crayons was intended as a metaphor for a racist attitude to people with black and brown skin colour. And in the New York case we don't know whether the court upheld the allegations of racism in the teacher's suit. But even giving the benefit of the doubt in these cases we have 8 incidents described, with the suggestion that there are an unknown number more unreported. And this is worldwide, over an un-bounded time period. Reprehensible as any racism in any school is and serious as some of these cases sound, it hardly seems to constitute compelling evidence for the hypothesis that Steiner education is racist.


Racism in Mainstream Schools

Greta Christina's characteristically thoughtful, observant account of the casual, ingrained racism she encountered in what she describes as a fairly liberal, racially mixed school in a liberal and racially-mixed neighbourhood, in "The Brown Crayon: A Lesson In Racism, Literally Taught By a Teacher at School", suggests the extent to which racism pervades education generally. (And it would be naive to think that Steiner Education were somehow immune.)


Proportion of UK children in Steiner education

In the UK in 2009-10 there were 8,563,810 children in state primary (4,855,667 pupils) and secondary (3,708,143) schools. In 2012 there were 5,236 children in Steiner schools. Ignoring the difference in years (i.e. assuming the number of children in each sector was much the same between 2009 and 2012) there are 1635 children in state schools to each Steiner pupil. At this ratio racist incidents should be running at over 12 per year in UK Steiner schools if racism is neither better nor worse than in state schools.


Racism in Waldorf Education report

This report is hosted both on the pro-Steiner Online Waldorf Library website and on the PLANS Waldorf Critics site.


Secrecy about Anthroposophy?

Roger Rawlings gives several examples of Steiner's supposed encouragement to teachers to mislead the public, parents and students.

One often-repeated quote comes from a discussion on February 5, 1924 ("Faculty Meetings with Rudolf Steiner") where (on p705) Steiner says:

"We are working toward threefolding, but we have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf School with its objectively anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people could break the Waldorf School’s neck."

However Rawlings has changed Steiner's words to read:

"We have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf School with its anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck."

Rawlings and his followers present his version as evidence that Steiner wanted to hide his school's relationship with Anthroposophy. However in Steiner's actual words it seems that it's the more wide-ranging aims of "threefolding" (with its social, political and somewhat Marxist-leaning economic agenda) that, for whatever reasons, he did not want his school to publicly associate itself with.


Steiner and Vaccination

Rudolf Steiner is sometimes represented as opposing vaccination but this does not seem to be accurate: in his 1910 lecture "Karma of the Higher Beings" he discourses at some length on karma, hygiene, charity and vaccination (against smallpox: the only vaccination available at the time) and concludes that "vaccination will not be harmful if, subsequent to vaccination, the person receives a spiritual education". (I am quoting his opinion here, not endorsing it!)


FURTHER READING

This article describes well how reading is taught in Steiner-Waldorf schools.

A student on Plymouth University's Steiner Teacher Training course, Daisy Powell, contacted both supporters and opponents of Steiner Education soliciting their views on Steiner Education and its relation to its critics and detractors for her dissertation: "Can the Steiner Waldorf schools movement break out of its niche by engaging with its critics?". In this document she presents and discusses many of the charges levelled against Steiner-Waldorf education and responses of Steiner people to them.



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On 2nd July 2013 a Steiner Teacher from Australia wrote:

Thanks for the great article, I found myself nodding my head to each point you dissected.

I was originally (for 30 odd years) a mainstream teacher and discovered the Steiner school I now teach in quite accidentally. I share your bemusement over their anthroposophical nuttery of a philosophy but see it have scarce little to do with either the running of my school or direct teaching in classrooms. I am well known to be a skeptic in my school yet they are happy for me to hold important positions in the governance of the school. I think all this means I have not been obnoxious about the things I think are silly and I think they are a bit radical as far as Steiner schools go.

I have to say though, that over the few years I’ve taught with this them (I’m a high school specialist teacher), I have become more and more at home with their teaching practices. I initially thought that requiring students to all do exactly the same curriculum through to the last moment, meant that kids with specific talents could not hone these with specialist studies. Now however, I think the brain of a 17-18 year old is so very far from mature that to permit them to voluntarily restrict their experience of education does them such a disservice.

The late adoption of reading also seemed to me to be a dangerous quirk but my recent reading of things neuroscience has me wondering whether it is actually a smart thing after all. I now posit that because reading and text are such fantastic and powerful mind technologies, the process of neuroplasticity actively and aggressively inhibits and then subsumes neural territory in favor of reading and writing. I wonder if putting off exposure to text is one of the things which preserves until a later age (perhaps for ever), the complex and likely very vulnerable neural nets in which imagination is caught? How that kind of thing could be put to a scientific test, I have no idea.

Just recently, I had a critical discussion with a colleague over computer screens projecting light rather than just reflecting it. I thought it quite arcane for Steiner adherents to believe that the light from a TV or computer screen was damaging to the soul of the user. I just saw a report yesterday of research which indicates that when kids use light emitting devices into the evening it disrupts their sleep cycle and that this can have considerable ongoing problems with concentration, emotional stability. Needless to say the mainstream report made no comment on karmic influence. So, there’s another one to the Steinerites! Hope eating one’s words doesn’t cause weight gain.

And this is the thing which is a bit uncanny about the application of Steiner philosophy, although he was thinking it all out in the 1910-20 timezone, he had some kind of deep intuitions about the way a child’s education should proceed. The mechanisms he proposed are, to be generous, laughable and I’m thinking of milk teeth rather than gnomes. It was my understanding that the whole maths gnome thing was a 70’s invention anyway.

Here’s another one which got to me. I was responsible for introducing computers to the high school and in the process of creating a “policy” on computer use, I chatted to a guy who was a deep adherent to the words of Rudolf. I had previously had acute standoffs on things like the fact that the planets orbit the sun in ellipses governed by Newtonian mechanics. He explained to me that Steiner had written of a technology yet to be devised by man which was neither plant nor mineral but which would come to spread its influence across the planet and challenge humans for intellectual supremacy. Now, I haven’t the time or motivation to hunt down those writings but if they exist I would apply the equation Steiner = FREAK! None the less, they can stick astrology “where the sun don’t shine”.

Thanks by the way for the information on the vexed issue of immunisation. I have warned the college of teachers that I’m on the warpath over the drastically low immunisation rates in our primary school so it’s handy to know that Steiner was not directly against it.

Thanks again for a great article.


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