Waldorf classrooms can seem an attractive alternative to the traditional classroom. Children spend lots of time out of doors. Technology isn’t a thing. And there’s a focus on the arts.
Waldorf is different than Montessori and democratic classrooms, where students learn at their own pace with the teacher as a guide. In the Waldorf education system, students don’t begin to learn things like reading, writing, and math until they are seven. The teacher serves as an authority, staying with the same classroom for up to 8 years. The students create lesson books documenting their learning progress.
Delayed Academics is an important feature of the Waldorf education system, which is the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner felt that early formal learning kept children from the natural development of the spirit, mind, and body. Steiner’s philosophy of human development is called Anthroposophy.
Some parents are enthusiastic about the Waldorf education system. Others, initially enthusiastic, have had bad experiences with the schools. Some parents dislike the hands-off manner with which some Waldorf teachers handle bullying. Some take issue with the way Waldorf parts way with basic scientific beliefs. Still more parents have uncovered some strange teaching ideas about race that hearken back to Steiner’s early 20th century philosophy.
The issues that parents have experienced in the Waldorf education system are, to a degree, shrouded in mystery. The schools seem to have attempted to create a distance between the education system and some of Steiner’s more outlandish theories. But some parents believe the separation between Steiner’s ideas and today’s Waldorf classroom is artificial. They feel that the Waldorf education system is based on a hidden religious agenda that is odd, outmoded, and perhaps even dangerous.
Dan Dugan is an audio-engineer by profession, and a co-founder of PLANS (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools), an organization formed in 1997 to educate parents about the Waldorf education system. PLANS serves as a clearinghouse for information on both Steiner and the education system he developed. As editor of Smarter Parenting, I spoke with Dan Dugan to find out more about PLANS and the Waldorf education system:
Varda Epstein: Can you tell us about your personal experience with the Waldorf school system?
Dan Dugan: I enrolled my son in the San Francisco Waldorf School halfway through 6th grade. He was there through the seventh grade.
Varda Epstein: What attracts parents to the Waldorf classroom?
Dan Dugan: Waldorf appeals strongly to romantic notions of the sanctity of childhood, truth, beauty, and goodness. I was seduced by the integration of art into all subjects, teaching arithmetic through physical activities like marching and tossing beanbags, Greek mythology.
Why Doesn’t Waldorf Teach Early Reading Skills?
Varda Epstein: Generally, readiness for first grade entails knowing letter sounds, how to read and recite the alphabet, the ability to recognize and write one’s own name in print, and even to read simple books. Waldorf doesn’t teach children to read and write until much later. Why?
Dan Dugan: Steiner taught that human life is divided into seven-year periods. The physical body is born at birth. Before their seventh year children are developing their etheric body, the “life body” that humans share with plants. They can be harmed by intellectual activity. From seven to fourteen they are developing their astral body, the body of sensations. From fourteen to 21 they develop the “I”, the individual spirit.
Steiner said it would really be best to teach reading after age fourteen, but parents and the government would never tolerate that. His compromise was to teach reading in grade three, and by teaching writing first. They claim that telling stories, singing songs, etc., is really early reading training.
Varda Epstein: Does the delay in developing reading and writing skills impact the child’s learning in any measurable way?
Dan Dugan: Most children catch up, but it may be too late for children with reading disabilities. Because of the extremely variable quality of Waldorf teachers, Waldorf outcomes vary wildly.
Waldorf Dismissed Jewish Teachers During WWII
Varda Epstein: During WWII, Hitler was against Waldorf schools and his policy was to close them down. Rudolf Hess, on the other hand, was big into Anthroposophy and sought to keep the schools open. What would be attractive to a Nazi about Anthroposophy? Why did Hitler seek to shut down Waldorf schools within the German Reich?
Dan Dugan: Hitler didn’t like Steiner because Steiner had his own following and attempted to influence politics between the wars. When the Nazis took over, the Waldorf schools dismissed their Jewish teachers and wrote to authorities that their program was perfect for the new regime. The Nazis didn’t buy it and the controversy continued for about six years. Local authorities made it difficult for Waldorf schools but there was no national policy. When Hess fled to England, Hitler cracked down on all forms of occultism, Anthroposophy was outlawed, and the schools closed.
Steiner’s Views On Race
Varda Epstein: Can you describe Rudolf Steiner’s views on race?
Dan Dugan: Steiner adopted Theosophy’s cyclical racial plan of history. Here is a chart of the grand plan:
Humans reincarnate in successively higher races, dark-skinned people being the childhood of humanity, and the mythical Aryan race currently being the highest. People who fail to achieve growth in consciousness may reincarnate where they are or even fall back.
Varda Epstein: Are all Waldorf teachers believers in Anthroposophy? Is it possible for teachers to separate their personal Anthroposophical beliefs from what they teach to their students?
Dan Dugan: Because the movement is growing, there aren’t enough fully trained and committed teachers. At a school some will be Anthroposophists and some will be in on-the-job training. The Anthroposophists constitute the College of Teachers, the governing body of the school that makes all decisions to do with pedagogy.
Varda Epstein: Can you describe the mystical component of Anthroposophy as it impacts the school day? What’s the deal with gnomes and spirits? How are they treated in the typical Waldorf classroom?
Dan Dugan: Students say prayers several times a day. Art work illustrates lessons which always teach the Anthroposophical attitude toward the subjects. Young children are told that gnomes and angels are real. Anthroposophical rituals mark the seasons of the year.
Is Waldorf Anti-Science?
Varda Epstein: Waldorf teaches some odd notions about science, from what I understand. For instance, the heart is not a pump, and there are 12 senses corresponding to the zodiac signs. Could a child who comes out of the Waldorf system conceivably be ready to prepare for med school, or become a chemist or a physicist?
Dan Dugan: I’m sure some manage to overcome the basically anti-science position of Anthroposophy. “Goethean Science” teaches by observation only, carefully avoiding theory. They teach the “what” but not the “how,” always leaving an opening for mystical explanations of the world.
Varda Epstein: What made you decide to fight against Waldorf by founding the organization PLANS? Wouldn’t it have been enough for you to pull your son out of the school? Shouldn’t all parents be free to educate their children as they see fit?
Dan Dugan: When I started objecting to 1) bad science, 2) racism in Steiner books sold at the school, and 3) the school promoting quack medicine, my son was expelled. Not willing to disappear silently, I intended to write articles about these topics and distribute them to the parents. When I did research I discovered the deep and complex world of Anthroposophy. I decided to write the first book about Waldorf as seen from outside the Steiner cult. Some years later that project converted to activism when Waldorf schools started to get public funding as charter schools and magnet schools. I joined with Debra Snell and eight others who had experience with or interest in Waldorf to incorporate PLANS. We began a federal lawsuit against two California school districts with publicly-funded Waldorf schools, based on the First Amendment which forbids the government from supporting a religion.
Of course parents should be free to choose, but tax money is not given freely. Waldorf schools have fine-tuned their misrepresentation of what they are: religious schools, with over 100 years of practice. Most Waldorf parents don’t know what Anthroposophy is, and don’t care.
“You will have to take over children for their education and instruction—children who will have received already (as you must remember) the education, or mis-education given them by their parents. Indeed our intentions will only be fully accomplished when we, as humanity, will have reached the stage where parents, too, will understand that special tasks are set for mankind today.” Steiner, Rudolf. Study of Man: General Education Course: Fourteen Lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart 21st August—5th September 1919. (1919, GA 293) Trans. Daphne Harwood and Helen Fox. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1960, p. 16.
“Let us bear in mind that when we do one task or another we are actually carrying out the intentions of the Gods; that we are, as it were, the vehicles for the realisation that the spirit that needs to be realised in the world [sic]; that we must not for a moment fail to feel the whole earnestness and dignity of this work.” Steiner, Rudolf. Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart 1919 to 1920: Volume One: The First and Second Years of the Waldorf School, Stuttgart. (1920) Forest Row, U.K.: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1986, p. 64.
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