waldorf and the media (i)

In another thread, the question about media coverage came up. If people really are disappointed  by waldorf education and feel deceived about the role of anthroposophy, why are they not calling attention to this matter in the mass media? Why do we hear so little about it, if it is such a problem? I can only offer some tentative, potential explanations; what I will write is not in any way exhaustive. Please do offer additional thoughts, ideas, perspectives in the comments, if you like. (I’ll be writing this in english, but it is related to what goes on — or not! — in Sweden, as the claim was, as I understood it, that there is so little criticism of waldorf education in (swedish) media. But the subject as such is international. Commenting is ok in other languages, as usual. But I’m running out of time, and might not be able to respond quickly. This is hasty and rushed, forgive me.)

Naturally, reactions in the media do appear occasionally, but not too often. I would not agree, at all, that this means no or few problems exist or that, if they do, they are so small they don’t warrant attention. It only means that this isn’t spoken about in the media, nothing more and nothing less. It might still be a matter of importance, regardless of media coverage. And even if nobody at all complained — and this is patently not the case — there is reason enough to be very upfront about anthroposophy, which I already argued in the earlier thread. The number of complaints, especially in mass media, is irrelevant to that particular argument. The onus of honesty is on the movement, not on the few or many who are criticizing it. You don’t know if people would rather not send their children to an anthroposophical school, thus it’s only fair to give them the chance to decide this themselves, and to make an informed decision.

But there might still be a good reason to discuss why we see few people express concern about this, whether in mass media, online or elsewhere (providing the number is actually small, I don’t know — compared to what exactly?). First of all, as I’ve said, people do talk about these issues. Few do it as much as some of us more active critics do or have done. Most people simply say a few things on some web forum, send an email to someone about their experiences (sometimes me, but not very often, for good reason, too), post comments on some blog, or take some similar action that leaves few traces that make any significant difference (compared to what press articles achieve). Some people even write an article or something, and that may have a little more impact. Or they write letters — to other critics, to organisations, to public authorities perhaps, sometimes even to local or national media. And then they disappear. Since I began with this, I’ve seen numerous people simply disappear; if I look back on the blog, I find them everywhere, and I find more of them in discussion threads elsewhere and in private discussions I’ve had with people. They have things to tell, then they are gone. Left are a few, who seem to share some deeper interest in this, and it is way too easy to dismiss us as a few fanatics, a small group. Because we’re ‘unnaturally’ committed and, well, those who come and go, they are gone. People who have been very committed end up abandoning these topics, too — eventually. Other things come between. The rest of one’s life, usually. Work, children, dogs, disease, other interests.

There are articles in the media, but perhaps they are fewer than the topic merits. I would say this is the case. They occur occasionally, these stories, and I assume, too, that people sometimes contact the media with no results coming from it. The subject is obscure, it takes a lot of research, too, and maybe it’s thought to interest few readers or viewers. I don’t know. But I think the most important reason is that people don’t contact the media at all. I know there are long-time, open waldorf critics who don’t do it (me, for one). One has to assume we would be more likely, on average, to do it than the general, dissatisfied parent or student. And, to make a basic observation, lots of people actually have very little desire for media attention, even if they believe it might be fruitful for the debate. They simply don’t want it, for reasons unrelated to waldorf. Waldorf is a tiny phenomenon, waldorf criticism even tinier. The right people to do these things, and wanting to do them, are scarce.

So what (other) reasons are there that people don’t alert the media? Why isn’t it up there, being debated all the time, if what critics say matters in the real world? Why don’t people persevere, why don’t they keep doing this until things change? (As if they would.) Most of what I will say now applies only to parents. Children are, as Diana pointed out, without a voice. If they raise it at all, it will be years later. (Only to hear they can’t know anything, because they were merely children when they were in waldorf.)

I think the number one reason is that after exiting a waldorf school, people are too occupied with something more important than the recent past, namely the present and the imminent future. The children might be academically behind, they need lots of help, sometimes the social and psychological situation has been so detrimental that the children need extra support on that account. And so on and so forth. Everyone needs to adapt to a new situation, after leaving one that was, in some cases, truly detrimental. I don’t understand wherefrom people would get the time and energy to start investigating the background of waldorf education, no matter how disappointed they are. Or why they would invest their efforts in trying to convince anyone about anything — when what they want is to leave, and not to think about it anymore, but instead to build on something new, adapt to a new environment, know a new school, make new relationships, and so forth. It is a strain, in itself, without adding media attention. Years later, things might be different, they might want to return to it. (I did, obviously. The majority would have moved on and feel no inclination to return to the subject.) But I’ve seen this reason mentioned on many occasions, and I understand it: people just want to get away, not to have to think too much about what might still be painful, when there is so much else to take care of. It might be one thing to complain in private, but the added upheaval of going to the media at a time when what you most of all want is to forget it all?

Often, people have tried to effect changes. They have talked to teachers, talked to other parents. Perhaps some were mildly sympathetic but non-committal, brushing it all off, and nothing changed. Perhaps they were treated as ignoramuses, who could not possibly understand all the supposedly important things going on. Before they leave, it’s not unlikely they have been made to understand that their problems or complaints are unique, never happened before or to anyone else, perhaps it has been insinuated that it’s their fault or that they have not adapted, are not open enough or that they school doesn’t suit them, but everyone else is happy, thank you very much. And, true, that the school doesn’t fit them might be obvious from the circumstances. What they don’t know is that their experience is unlikely to be unique. They don’t know there is reason to be discontent, and they don’t know others have been before. The shared sentiment in a waldorf school is generally one of superiority and of being in the most perfect place. Or if it isn’t perfect — elsewhere is much worse! So it isn’t difficult for a parent or a child to get the impression that his or her unhappiness is unique or that bad incidents are merely isolated incidents. Nothing ever happened before, nobody complained… Either it is a question of collective deception or of collective amnesia. Or plain and simply: not wanting to see. For the individual parent it’s more difficult to expose this.

In short, the atmosphere prevents the occurrence of rightful and healthy misgivings. Parents attempt to remain enthusiastic, against the odds, strive to have hope, to believe in the promise for far long, for so long that more difficulties are added. Among them guilt and shame. People do feel ashamed for having been gullible, for having failed to do their homework. They feel guilty that they didn’t understand the needs of their own children. To stand up and reveal your weaknesses, to lay bare your faults and failings, in the media, and open yourself up for counter-accusations based upon shaming and guilt-tripping, maybe this is not such an appealing prospect. Worth mentioning is trust. People lose their sense of trust. I’ve seen this on many occasions — people who come out of these experiences don’t trust. No, they don’t necessarily trust the media, either.

As for the children, they come to accept the environment they’re used to as ‘normal’, something you just have to put up with, and in any case it’s much worse elsewhere. It never occurred to me, until much later, that those bad things that went on were far from acceptable — I had to actually experience what it was like outside waldorf to know this. I’ve heard others say the same thing: that at the time, it didn’t occur to them that they had a right not to be treated that way. And children don’t know they should be able to expect to be safe in school or to expect that their educational, creative and intellectual needs are met at least to a reasonable extent. They don’t know they have a right to be treated as individuals or with respect. They don’t know, and are depending on adults not to take advantage of their ignorance or inexperience or lack of authority over their own lives. If they will ever understand, years will have passed.

Thus we come to another reason related to the need of grasping more than the personal situation: if we’re talking about waldorf’s background in anthroposophy, people don’t know that what they are disappointed with might ultimately be connected to anthroposophy. Knowing what impact anthroposophy had, means having to study anthroposophy. Unless people do, they might not understand that their children’s intellectual and academic development has stalled because waldorf education is construed in alignment with anthroposophical ideas about the child’s development. They usually don’t know that bullying — or, rather, neglect to interfere with it or even see it as a problem — might have explanations beyond plain ignorance and laziness. They have little reason to suspect that teachers are lacking competence not because they’re  bad teachers, but because they were trained at waldorf teacher training centers where their studies, although earnest and anthroposophical, were inadequate to meet the needs they encounter in the classroom or with the children. One could go on.

I think people don’t actually understand this, because unless they’re anthroposophists themselves, they have never grasped how important anthroposophy is. (And if people are anthroposophists themselves, or have some other connection to it, and do know — criticizing might be even more complicated. But for other reasons which I can’t cover here.) They don’t know that what they have experienced is not ‘just’ a bad school, but that there might be specific reasons behind certain — many or just a few, who knows — failings or that these reasons are not the same as they are in other schools, where failures also occur from time to time. I’m not sure the thought even occurs to all, if even most, people to google these things. And, to be blunt, few people are willing to spend years tracing the influences of anthroposophy and what they might have meant; you need to be interested in it to do that. Then you might say, what people don’t know can’t ‘hurt’ them, and if they can’t be bothered to dig up the information and complain about it, anthroposophy wasn’t a problem in the first place, and we don’t have to care about it. That’s not right, and not fair. What people would not choose knowingly, they should not be lured into choosing unknowingly. (Give them the opportunity to know. If they reject the opportunity, fine.)To summarize this so far: people may have had a bad experience, they may be dissatisfied, but to seek information and to do something about this is to take it a step further, and I believe most people don’t have the time or energy to do this or it doesn’t occur to them that they can. They may assume it’s just them or that what they’ve been through is unique or extremely rare and not interesting to anyone. They and their children may have needs that are far more important than the pedagogy and philosophy and methods of a school they’ve left behind.

I will continue to discuss some further reasons and considerations in a second post.

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12 comments

  1. my experience is most parents just want to move on.

  2. well said.

  3. yes. It makes so much sense that this would be the most common reaction. For so many reasons, and apart from those I already mentioned, I don’t think one should forget it’s simply the most convenient thing to do. It is in ordinary but uncomfortable situations, and I suppose in more turbulent situations even more so.

  4. my comment was aimed at alicia’s post as I commented at the same time as John – but I’ve also had the same experience as John. So well said there too.

  5. And I wrote my reply to John while your comment was still in moderation (and perhaps just submitted, actually). Woof!

  6. I think the media is about to catch up on the real story here. It will be like the anti-technology stories… once one reports on the racism, bullying, or dishonesty the rest of the news outlets will duplicate (or those who still have investigators left may investigate) the story. If nobody’s writing this story, maybe I should write the story myself and submit it for publication… you know… just to get the ball rolling.

  7. I believe that most people (by far) who leave Waldorf disappointed do not ever realize (it does not even occur to them) that what happened had anything to do *systematically* with Waldorf or Rudolf Steiner. They believe they just happened to have a bad experience at a bad school. Fairly often, they assert that the problem was that the school wasn’t actually Waldorfy enough – the problems came from a teacher who wasn’t completely Waldorf trained or who wasn’t Waldorf-experienced enough or maybe she/he just wasn’t the best Waldorf teacher. They think they picked a dud Waldorf school, or drew straws and got the short stick in terms of teachers. They often remain convinced that there are many good Waldorf schools, and that they just had the bad luck to run into a bad one, or just to some bad teachers.

    It wouldn’t occur to most people to go to the media after their child has a bad experience in school. Most who come and go never suspect there are larger issues or patterns across schools, or that their story is anything more than a story of personal misfortune.

  8. [...] via waldorf and the media i « the ethereal kiosk. [...]

  9. Diana — yes, it didn’t work, bad luck, bad fit, it is what happens. Which at least on the surface is reasonable to think.

    Pete — you mention something important, investigative journalism. Even if it’s easy and cheap to report on scandals (or write simpleminded puff pieces based upon waldorf pr material…), a truly investigative journalistic effort would require a lot more. Which seems to become rarer (at least here, perhaps because of the bad situation for the printed press).

    I’ll be doing other things most of the day but I expect to rewrite/edit the second part tonight.

  10. I keep expecting to see something in the local media here; I am surprised that no-one has pitched an education piece to the Atlantic or some such magazine here in the states about Waldorf — I actually think it would be a fantastic subject — if I didn’t have a three year old to run after (and search for a new preschool I might add) I would contemplate writing it myself.

  11. Atlantic ran an article called ‘Schooling the imagination’ years ago. As far as I remember — I have not reread it — it was uncritical. People (among them someone who had worked at the institution hailed in the article) protested. Salon ran a criticl article some years ago. Well, there must be some from the states, but these are the ones I remember on the top of my head.

    You’d do a brilliant job!

  12. [...] from previous post. What I will talk about now is, in a way, more important, but due to their nature, these [...]

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