waldorf and the media (ii)

(Continued from previous post. What I will talk about now is, in a way, more important, but due to their nature, these considerations will be much rarer than some of the reasons mentioned yesterday, especially wanting to move on or not being able to identify what was wrong. Most of those dissatisfied with waldorf education will never get to the point where the things mentioned today will start to be relevant to their decision.)

A major concern which may play a part in stopping people from pursuing the matter further, in particular in public, is how the movement sometimes treats people who are leaving or who express criticism. Melanie already mentioned this in her comment.  I wrote a post not long ago, and have written about these problems many times before. This problem has many levels, it ranges from general unpleasantness to actual risks, the latter naturally much rarer. I suppose that what I am about to say will seem unbelievable to waldorf proponents and anthroposophists who have never noticed this phenomenon or who have perhaps noticed something is slightly off but not realized it has any impact.

First, there is the general uneasiness that comes from no longer being treated as before — people, old ‘friends’, who turn their heads away when they see you, who show you are not worth listening to, and so forth. This sometimes happens even if someone doesn’t express criticism; announcing that you will be taking your children from the school might be enough to create an ominous or even hostile atmosphere. You have done the unthinkable — or unacceptable –, and they no longer want to acknowledge that you exist. Which, perhaps, might seem fair — after all, the defector has shown disrespect for what waldorf enthusiasts hold dear, what they idolize. It is a betrayal of sorts. A hole emerges in the supposedly perfect facade, when one person no longer wants to keep filling in the defects with rosy-coloured paint. I don’t know how big this problem is, but I know it exists. In addition, I think I mentioned this earlier, there might be attempts to blame or discredit the individual parents, sometimes subtly sometimes not so subtly. In the community around the school, gossip might start to spread about flaws and faults. The parents and children leaving no longer like ‘us’. There must be a reason why they failed — and the reason is them, not the school. If you think those who are the subjects of such unsavoury talk do not sense it — you are wrong. Of course they do. And a person (actually) does notice when old acquaintances find it beneath them even to greet him or her on the street. And there are children involved here; they perceive hostility just as easily as adults, and will be affected by it. This — and other ways of ostracizing a person or a family — is merely the beginning, however. Among those who do voice criticism — but not in the media, of course — this is probably, in most cases, how far the unpleasantness goes, and perhaps it seems insignificant. But nobody wants unpleasantness, nobody wants to feel hated for expressing viewpoints. It is easier just to move on.

Among the more serious consequences that might occur, if someone ha not already been put off pursuing the topic, it is worth looking at a few examples. For what it’s worth, they are not made up, and they are only examples. They are all things I have seen or read people report, some of these things occur again and again. You might get intimidating messages or threats (to life and limb, sanity and health; yes, even threats of violence occur); you might either get threatened with a lawsuit (and significant loss of money, some thug might claim — erroneously, but what does it matter? how do people know, unless they spend money on a lawyer?) or you are actually sued (it happens, as we all know) and the intention might not even be to win, but to scare other potential critics and to destroy your life; you might find yourself the subject of frivolous reports to police or social services; your property might be destroyed; your children might no longer be welcome to see their old friends; your employer might get phone calls or mail with accusations or insinuations about various things;  if the rest of your family is still involved in waldorf or with anthroposophy, you risk losing contact with them (example of an actual threat: if you complain to the media, your children won’t ever see their grandparents again); you will be called a wide variety of ugly names; then, of course, there is general smearing and defamation of character — in private and in public you will risk being dragged into the gutter: you are not only ignorant or hateful or bitter or vengeful or a darned materialist, which speak to your lowly character, perhaps you are also some kind of crazed sex maniac or you are debilitated or you are mentally disturbed or you are guilty of criminal acts or you suffer some other moral or mental decrepitude or derangement.

Basically, anything — invented, half-true or whatever, it doesn’t really matter — that can be used against you might be used against you, in any distorted shape or form; anything to preserve the movement and to rubbish you. It will not be about the validity or the substance of your experiences, claims or arguments — it will be about you. If you enter discussions online, and none of the above happens, you are still highly likely to be insulted (on the basis of someone’s deluded perception of you as a person, not your arguments), you will be pitied (poor you, having to be you, such a wretched, wasted life form), humiliated, degraded, told to seek psychiatric help, to disappear from the face of the earth because your existence is so futile, you will be told your life must be meaningless, that you are a small, insignificant, intolerant, dumb person and that you are worth nothing and you do not deserve to be heard or read by anybody. None of this is exactly funny, and although one small thing here and one small thing there may not seem so severe, it is something else to be on the receiving end.

I am not going to suggest that critics are always nice or fair. I do acknowledge that there are issues all around. But it is not fair to treat dissatisfied families as pariah or to treat critics who have done nothing wrong — other than criticize — the way they have sometimes been treated. Personally, I do not think I have deserved the ugly words, the threats, the insinuations, the attempts to rubbish my character (and so on and so forth) that I have sometimes been subjected to. I simply do not think I have deserved it. And I have been spared the most vicious kinds of attacks — I have been lucky. Others have not been so lucky. Perhaps it is because I have stayed away from the media; I do not know.

You have to know this — before you enter. And you have to be stupid enough to do it anyway. I do not want to exaggerate this; I do not want people to fear speaking out. Most likely, there will be no significant problems — small bruises, hurt feelings, worry. But I believe the unpleasant behaviour encountered by many of those who dare post even an anonymous online comment about this subject is enough to scare people off from pursuing it any further, as does the awareness that doing it can put you on the receiving end of some of the things you have seen happen to others. Yes, it does matter how you talk about people, how you describe them and how you treat them. It does matter when people’s claims are not rejected for their content but for who they are or — more accurately — who they appear to be, after anthropsophists are done with ‘reputation control’.

I suppose that from an anthroposophical viewpoint almost any criticism — in particular if delivered harshly — of the waldorf system or of anthroposophy will seem like a personal attack, as anthroposophy appears to be so ingrained in the personality of those who care deeply about it, and thus ‘similar’ countermeasures are thought of as appropriate. But this is a fatal misunderstanding. It must be permissible to criticize ideas and actions even if people feel strongly and in a very personal way about them. And criticizing ideas or actions is patently not the same as rubbishing someone as a person, especially not rubbishing someone falsely or for unrelated reasons. And — yes — I do get it: when people criticize anthroposophy, and when people say things you feel are unfair (from your viewpoint or interpretation), it is experienced as a very serious thing, even as a threat to or a war against you personally. Anthroposophy is in your heart and your soul (to put it tritely), it gives life meaning, it gives purpose and explanations, it is at the core of the universe, and I understand that; I can even respect that it is so. But this does not make it — anthroposophy — exempt from outside scrutiny. And criticism of a worldview is not the same as personal attacks, no matter how deeply hurtful it feels.

The risk of the severe and bad reactions occurring increase after you make your arguments in public. On the other hand, one might say that a more public profile might also actually protect you against some of it, if you are lucky. There are some kinds of nastiness I don’t receive anymore, presumably because I don’t put up with it, and I will let people know. People have reason to protect their anonymity, but unless the threat is really severe or believable (the waldorf movement’s public image is that of a benign, soft and kind, movement), the media would probably not even want to run any anonymous story on it. Mind you — I do not think that we should exaggerate the risks, but I do not think people can ignore them either. It is likely, if you openly criticize, that you will be subjected to some unpleasant reactions. Perhaps mild, perhaps severe. It differs. There are many ways of discrediting you or to make you feel uncomfortable voicing criticism. I personally have difficulty seeing many good reasons for people to compromise their own wellbeing and that of their children in order to appear in the media, under their own identities, to speak about the faults of an education system they have already left. As far as I can tell, they have more to lose than to gain. Maybe it will happen, also in Sweden, maybe one day some very angry and driven parent comes along, reads up on things, makes all the right arguments, based upon knowledge and experience, and demands media attention and requires real changes to be made — but this will take a special person to dare this, to persevere and to accomplish what he or she sets out to do, despite — most likely — ruthless and morally uninhibited opposition.

There is also another phenomenon which we can categorize as: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The waldorf movement tends to reject criticism as ignorant, people don’t ‘understand’, they say. It is so complicated, and people who criticize have simply misunderstood everything. (Obviously, this problem is inherent in the nature of esoteric belief systems. They are construed like this, as paths of initiation, where you are thought to acquire greater insights gradually. Being able to criticize the ideas is not a sign that you have acquired an understanding; quite the contrary. Adherents usually feel dismissive of outsiders, who never seem to understand the ideas in the ‘right’ way.) So let’s say you spend quite a lot of time attaining knowledge. You end up knowing a fair bit about waldorf and anthroposophy. Not only have you spent a lot of your time on this (some may say you have wasted time, but I would not say that), you are now open to a whole new set of accusations: the effort you have spent is clearly an indication of some spiritual deficiency, or in other words, mental defect. You must be obsessed, you must be subnormal somehow. And if, after spending all this time, you actually still have criticisms, perhaps modified, perhaps better argued and better informed — in other words, despite studying the topic, you are still refusing to see the light –, now, apparently, to some anthroposophists, this means you are clearly both evil and deranged; you are an incorrigible ‘hater’, you and your ‘crusades’ are purely destructive, your aims are solely evil, which points to a depraved mind. And you are treated accordingly. It does not matter much if objections to waldorf education are hasty and somewhat uninformed (perhaps because you are rightfully angry and have not had the time to investigate things in depth) or if they are the results of years of investigation — the fault and failure is on the side of the critic. (Now, I could add a few things about offering education to people whom are considered too ignorant or dense to understand what they are choosing — perhaps that approach is simply a bad idea from the start?)

In my opinion — after writing about this for a few years and despite encountering quite a few waldorf defenders and anthroposophists who are definitely not representative of or responsible for such attitudes as those described here in this post — this is still a movement which, on the whole, mistakenly appears to believe that it deserves to be exempt from scrutiny, that all criticism is an affront, that all the blame is on those ‘others’, and that there is nothing wrong in sacrificing individuals in order to save the collective ‘good’ or, I suppose, if you are inclined that way, to ‘rescue humanity’ (from whatever dreadful things humanity seems unwilling to ‘rescue’ itself from).


For those who read nordic languages, it’s worth mentioning Norway. I recommend Trond Kristoffersen’s and Kristin Sandberg’s (steinerkritikk) book on the Steiner school movement; in particular the chapter with testimonies from former parents and teachers, and the experiences they have of the schools and some of them also deals with problems when leaving the communities. The book also contains a little bit about how critics’ are dealt with more in general. Anyone who wants an illustration of what might happen to a woman who publicly criticizes the movement, should read Kristin Sandberg’s former pupil, Ida Jackson. The websites that were set up, by people associated with the Steiner movement, to smear Kristin and Trond were unbelievable — at least for a movement pretending such high spiritual ideals. In Norway, you’ll also find this blog, which has dealt with the treatment of defectors many times. And, in general, comparing Norway and Sweden,  you will also find more in Norwegian media.

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  1. Excellent post Alicia. Right on the mark! You’ve picked up on the subtleties of “shunning” in the Waldorf world.

  2. Thanks Pete! And, oh, that’s the word, ‘shunning’… I wish I had remembered it to use it in the post!

    I’d like to add that our own experiences (ie, my family’s) after waldorf were somewhat mixed. There was never any explicit criticism of the school, as far as I know, but obviously it was clear (from the mere fact that we were leaving) that there was dissatisfaction.

    A few people were so offended they could not bear greeting us on the street or where ever, and there was an unpleasant atmosphere in some regards. Some people, on the other hand, stood out for the opposite reason — they were perfectly wonderful about it, not treating it as a personal insult, instead behaving as they always had, decently. And then there was everything in between, I guess. Interestingly, committment to anthroposophy cannot necessarily, or at least not easily, be identified as a deciding factor.

  3. Truly excellent … hope to have more time to discuss later! Thanks for this, marvelous.

  4. thank you! I’d be very excited to hear your views!

  5. I will have to stop obsessing about a certain other topic, first.

  6. It’s important to write about this – thank you. And I’m glad too that the tremendously brave Norwegians get another mention – I urge anyone considering Steiner ed to take them seriously.

    I’ve talked to parents who I know do not want to sacrifice their anonymity, especially when small children are involved. No decent person would put pressure on them to do so, or to join a debate when they want to move on. As Alicia says, most people don’t want media attention.

    You can never tell though what impact you might have if you tell your story, even once and anonymously. This is why parent forums need to be safe places, and why Sune Nordwall’s behaviour on mumsnet (threatening to sue the forum – he told mumsnet on behalf of Waldorf organisations in Sweden AND the UK – unless posts he didn’t like were removed) is so predictable. I’m convinced the mumsnet threads have taken some of the shine off Steiner Waldorf ed, nevertheless.


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