Last year, Jeremy Smith of the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship, SWSF, made a pretty failed attempt to ‘rebut’ waldorf critics. Now the SWSF itself is in trouble — notes UK Anthroposophy. They’re trying to negotiate between conflicting needs: the need to rebut Steiner in order to secure state funding for waldorf school on the one hand and the need to remain on good terms with anthroposophist teachers (and — I would assume — parents) on the other.
A meeting — recorded and submitted to UK Anthroposophy by an anonymous informer — in November last year dealt with topics such as bad publicity, parents who speak openly about negative experiences in waldorf schools, Steiner’s doctrines and the pressing need to rebut not only the critics but Steiner himself. The context is the possibility of future state funding of waldorf schools (in addition to the one Steiner Academy already in operation) and political considerations surrounding such a decision. Reading this document, you get the impression they’re being drawn further into a muddy swamp, unable to climb out. It’s an impossible situation. They know critics — former parents mainly — have legitimate concerns. They know that Steiner’s teachings, were they more widely known, could potentially put obstacles in the way, as far as public funding is concerned. Parents pointing out Steiner pedagogy’s bad track record — when it comes to topics such as academic achievement and diversity among students — can’t be favourable for the funding issue either. They are no doubt aware of being in the wrong when they claim that ‘the negative criticisms aimed at the schools are not justified’.
Well, to the meeting. Sam Freedman, the conservatives’ education adviser, attended. Excerpt from the transcript:
Sam Freedman then answered more technical questions about the Conservative party policy. Questions asked concerned the level of funding that the schools could expect to receive; how a Conservative government would facilitate the schools acquiring better premises; what “basic levels of achievement” would be expected; would a Conservative government interfere with the management of the schools; what was Conservative policy on teacher training; how long will the policy take to implement; would the Conservative government continue to allow Steiner schools to opt out of the National Curriculum; how does the Conservative government expect to afford the migration of 4000 Steiner pupils to state funding.
The responses to these questions were generally pleasing and reassuring to the trustees and administrators. The only point that the Sam Freedman (and Rachel Wolf [of the New Schools Network]) were particularly sure to press home was that of “basic levels of achievement”. They felt that the schools had to be accountable for ensuring that children were meeting basic standards of reading, writing and numeracy at all levels. This, it was acknowledged, may cause some conflict with the Steiner method of teaching.
The fact that SWSF administrators and trustees found the replies pleasing and reassuring is a cause for concern. I have no doubt that ‘basic standards of reading, writing and numeracy’ will be problematic for waldorf schools to uphold. Sam Freedman then said, when asked whether he saw any obstacles to funding based on the concerns raised,
“Not in terms of the way we want to legislate, but, I mean I’m sure this is something that you all know about anyway, there’s a big PR issue, and if a lot of Steiner schools open quite quickly in the state sector, I mean I’ve been, erm, I’ve had all sorts of people writing to me just because they found out that I was coming to this meeting. Attacking. Attacking the Steiner Schools… Anonymously. Through social networking. People find out who you are, find out your account number and bombard you with articles, negative articles… This was pointing out all the things they think are wrong with Steiner movement, link after link after link. And that’s just from me coming to this meeting, so you have to be aware, well I know you’ll all be aware anyway, but this will be on a much, much bigger scale.”
The discussion continued and
… went on to identify two problem PR areas: 1) Accounts from parents who are or have been unhappy with the Steiner schooling system and those that have had negative experiences associated with the schools, and 2) the writings of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy.
It was identified that the latter issue was going to be a greater problem.
Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner are bigger problems than dissatisfied or angry parents and students. Well, that’s interesting, because the implication of this is that you can’t correct the troublesome aspects by improving the schools or by improving people’s experiences of the education. Unless, of course, you want to take Steiner out of Steiner education. And this can’t be done through the simple removal of the word Steiner from the name of the schools and of the fellowship.
Sam Freedman stated that it was important for the Schools to “explain to people quite strongly that they are not teaching what he [Rudolf Steiner] said”. He likened the situation to the fact that not all Christians believe every word of the Bible.
Why is a politician giving advice like this? Either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or he’s already been convinced by the waldorf PR he has indubitably been fed.
One of the trustees noted that the very name “Steiner”, is potentially limiting. He noted that in other countries schools have called themselves “Waldorf” schools so as to distance themselves from the Steiner writings.
No, that’s not the reason for the name Waldorf. Really it isn’t. Steiner himself didn’t want the schools to be called Steiner schools. He stated this quite clearly. (This happens to be one of few instances where anthroposophists haven’t taken him literally. At least not UK anthroposophists and those of a few other nations (including Norway). In Sweden there are mostly waldorf schools and a few Steiner schools.) So — what about the possible political repercussions of the PR problems inherent in the waldorf system?
An observer asked Sam Freedman whether or not a Conservative government would consider intervening with Steiner teacher training to ensure that the racist aspects of Steiner’s writings would not be included. Sam Freedman replied by stating that if the issue becomes a big PR problem for Steiner schools, and the state is funding those schools, it will become a big PR problem for the state. He went on to say that in light of this, Steiner schools should seek to nip any potential problems with their teacher training in the bud, because if ministers feel under pressure from negative PR, this is likely to be problematic for the schools. Sam Freedman stated that the Schools should ensure that they can explain their position very clearly, so that they can counter the negative criticisms immediately.
At the close of the morning session, Rachel Wolf stated that she would be happy to offer the Steiner schools Fellowship free media training to prepare them for tackling the PR problems.
Acting in the same vein as Jeremy Smith last year,
it was acknowledged that the Steiner schools Fellowship would need to initiate and fund a proper campaign to counter the “poison” on the internet. A representative from one Steiner school felt that the politicians were very aware of the problem and that they would “run a mile in the opposite direction if they have a lot of people coming at them saying you’re funding a weird cult that brain washes children.”
It is a disaster that the SWSF don’t take people seriously. It’s outrageous that they rebrand legitimate concerns and actual negative experiences within their education system as ‘poison’.
It was suggested that an “antidote” website be set up to explain the criticisms that are levelled against the Steiner schools.
There are such websites. The bad thing is that these websites are making matters worse. The waldorf movement is relying on the wrong people to be the ‘voices of waldorf’ in public sphere. Why not, for a change, listen to the criticism?
It was also suggested the Steiner schools Fellowship take up the offer of free media training offered by the New Schools Network, although it was acknowledged that the Fellowship would require more than this, indeed they would need full-time “professional help”.
Oh, so that’s how bad it is. Oh my. They need full-time professional PR help — perhaps they need to get their act together before applying for state funding?
A PR officer would be required to place positive stories in the media, and also to counter the stream of negative ones.
They had Jeremy Smith, the information officer.
It was considered important to get a PR strategy sorted out soon, especially if a large number of Steiner schools opt-in for state funding at an early stage. It was felt that the Steiner schools Fellowship should start cultivating good media relations as soon as possible.
It was felt that a central plank of the PR strategy should be to bring media into the schools to show exactly what goes on there …
but going into the schools and being shown ‘what goes on’ does not actually show what is really going on. That’s the problem. What the SWSF is hoping for is naïve media. (And I suppose that’s not out of the question, unfortunately.)
… and that another thing to consider would be a re-branding exercise. It is the association with Steiner’s writings that is perceived to be the main problem.
Yeah, yeah, Steiner is the problem. It shouldn’t be, but it is. For those who don’t want to acknowledge that he is in fact there and that his writings provide the foundation of waldorf education. The ‘main problem’ arises when representatives of waldorf no longer want to be associated with Steiner. When they begin pretending he’s nothing to bother about.
It was also stated that it would be important for the Steiner schools Fellowship to make sure that they have a clear PR message to convey to the politicians themselves. This would reassure the politicians that the negative criticisms aimed at the schools are not justified, and if there were a public outcry about the schools, the politicians would themselves be in a position to refute the claims. Indeed, there would be a government PR machine available to help refute the claims.
SWSF’s moral failing lies in its desire to ‘reassure’ the politicians of something that basically isn’t true. And in addition, it hopes to rely on politicians to assist in convincing the public of what isn’t true. Wouldn’t it be much better — and, in the long run, a recipe for (potential at least) success — to admit that the negative criticisms aren’t entirely unjustified? To actually decide to do something about the core problems that provided the fuel for the ‘negative criticisms’? The SWSF seems prepared to unabashedly embark on a massive operation aiming at concealment of its own failings and of the true nature of waldorf education.
Re-branding was considered in more detail. This would be a way of isolating the educational philosophy of Steiner without being associated with the controversial aspects of Anthroposophy. In any event, the importance of making it clear that the schools did not teach the racist aspects of Anthroposophy was stressed.
But nobody says these schools teach racist aspects of anthroposophy (if it happens at all, it must truly be exceptional). Neither does anybody say that waldorf schools teach anthroposophy.
An observer was asked which Steiner quotes he/she had seen online and elsewhere. The oberver gave the example of the spiritual hierarchy of the races. It was acknowledged that the Steiner schools Fellowship should give a clear and categorical rebuttal of these aspects of Steiner’s work. Clear statements should be made stating “We do not believe that human beings evolve through the races. We do not believe that blond hair bestows intelligence, etc…”.
Well, this is going to be entertaining. I’m very eager to see this list of statements. But this takes the buiscuit:
It was felt that there may be some difficulty in making a blanket rebuttal of all Anthroposophy because many people throughout the Steiner schools system, especially teachers, strongly support many aspects of that belief system. If teachers were asked to make a blanket rebuttal of Anthroposophy, many of them may not do this.
No wonder!! They are trained waldorf teachers! They are trained in anthroposophy! Their chosen education and profession, by its very nature, requires engaging with anthroposophy. Many of them are anthroposophists — almost all of them are sympathetic towards anthroposophy. And there comes the SWSF and suggests that the whole foundation of their careers — and often of their lives! — could be, and possibly should be, rebutted. The entire notion — that anthroposophists and teachers perhaps ought to rebut anthroposophy — is patently ridiculous. If I may say so, I believe some people, who are obsessed with the public face of waldorf education, have a pathological relationship to Steiner and to anthroposophy. Even I think it is disrespectful — he did found waldorf education. His thinking on education — inseparable from his esoteric religion, anthroposophy — is and has always been the basis of waldorf pedagogy.
In any event it was agreed that a message along the line of “The Steiner School is committed to equal opportunities and is opposed to racism and all forms of discrimination” should be placed on all Steiner school websites and promotional material.
Well, that will help. These days, are there any remaining schools not ‘committed to equal opportunities’ and not ‘opposed to racism and all forms of discrimination’…?
There was some concern that the PR campaign attempting to rebut the racial aspects of anthroposophy could back fire because it would bring the subject to the attention of people who were not aware of the problem. Any PR campaign of this nature may necessarily have to be a reaction to, but not a pre-emption of, negative press arising from Anthroposophy.
Sure, it may definitely back-fire. Given the PR strategies and the clumsy behaviour of waldorf information officers and other activists so far, I’d say the project is doomed. The whole thing will back-fire, big time.
The example of how an American group known as “Plans” (People for Legal and Non-sectarian Schools) were attempting to take Steiner schools to court in America was raised. This group opposed Steiner schools on the basis that Anthroposophy constitutes a religion, and as such these schools were forbidden from being publicly funded by the American constitution. It was felt by the trustees and administrators that unless a PR strategy was deployed soon, similar groups opposed to the state funding of Steiner schools would arise in the UK.
This will happen anyway. A PR strategy really can’t help fix the basic problems integral to Steiner’s educational approach. A PR strategy can’t remove Steiner from Steiner education. Dishonesty will only get you so far in getting rid of anthroposophy. I conclude that waldorf officials are continuing the dishonourable quest to shoving Steiner and anthroposophy outside the scope of criticism by pretending they aren’t there. I suppose there’s some thwarted — but deplorable — logic to renouncing Steiner and anthroposophy because then, magically, criticism against Steiner and anthroposophy can also be denounced on formal grounds. As the Norwegian Steiner Association representative said in an interview recently — the Steiner movement can’t take responsibility for what Steiner taught. Sometimes it seems these modern reps of waldorf education can’t even be expected to know what he said, much less pronounce any kind of evaluation of it or make public which parts of it present-day waldorf pedagogy agrees with.
March 18: thanks to ThetisMercurio for directing my attention to Unity’s post on the same topic at Liberal Conspiracy. Unity correctly concludes that ‘[t]he real issue that Steiner schools need to address here is, consequently, not that of getting out the right kind of PR and engaging in media charm offensives’ — but that the problems inherent in waldorf/steiner education lie elsewhere.