ThetisMercurio has written an immensely important guest post on DC’s Improbable Science. This time, it’s about the issues related to the racial doctrines contained within anthroposophy and the history of the anthroposophical movement, which isn’t quite as pleasant as the majority of its adherents likes to imagine. To me, though, a far bigger problem than what Steiner said is how present day anthroposophists and waldorf proponents deal with it. But to discuss the latter, you need to know about the former. And most of the time, it seems, waldorf fans are blissfully ignorant about it — or, if they are more deeply involved in anthroposophy, they seem to be in denial about it, if nothing else for the sake of appearances. At least as far as outsiders are concerned, they act as if the racial doctrines weren’t even an issue. As Thetis points out, the answer depends on who’s asking the question.
The structure of an esoteric belief system, with gradually imparted ‘knowledge’: impenetrable texts, study groups, a tradition of communicating certain information orally (a great deal isn’t written down) and a distrust of critical thinking, means that Steiner teachers themselves can be confused about the nature or real life implications of Steiner’s dogma, as well as largely ignorant of the Waldorf movement’s history. But there is an undeclared hierarchy of anthroposophical knowledge and influence within a Steiner school’s college of teachers; decisions about individual children are often steered by collegiate anthroposophical impulse. Obfuscation is deliberate: when explaining Anthroposophy, as far as the movement is concerned the answer depends on who is asking.
The racial thinking inherent in anthroposophical notions of karma and reincarnation is explained in Thetis’s post. One issue anthroposophists tend to dismiss, however, is how we are supposed to know which anthroposophical tenets modern waldorf teachers take seriously — and which ones they don’t take seriously and don’t follow. It would, presumably, be ‘crazy’ to think anyone would apply anthroposophical race thinking in the classroom (although the proposition is not as crazy as it may seem at first glance). But reasoning from karma, reincarnation and temperaments definitely occurs — and it is, even without the racial aspects, some mind-blowing stuff. No prospective parent, at least not one who isn’t an anthroposophist, could reasonably be expected to know which parts of anthroposophy waldorf teachers accept and which parts they reject. Ask an anthroposophist or a waldorf teacher if they consider anything in Steiner’s philosophy to have been disproven or plainly unuseful. Most of them, I speculate (based upon at least some experience), will decline to say anything, even if they are served examples.
Anthroposophists, it seems, are unable to reject — at least not outright and openly — the results Steiner derived from his spiritual research — they cannot even reject ideas held by other anthroposophists. Not even when Steiner’s claims are internally contradictory or when the claims of other anthroposophists are patently absurd. They cannot judge what is true and what is not true, or, if they actually are able to do it, they fail in telling the world about their conclusions. So, as to what waldorf teachers really believe, the general public is kept in limbo. As are most waldorf parents and politicians. (And perhaps even many anthroposophists, come to think of it.)
Anthroposophy is not taught to the children: it informs the pedagogy. It is taught to the teachers. But since it is an esoteric religion, with hidden knowledge, that teaching is often opaque. In addition, Anthroposophy is not a tradition in which critical thinking is prized, indeed the intellectual is suspect; Steiner’s spiritual science has its own, privileged internal logic and route to acuity.
The first point is worth reiterating, because waldorf proponents regularly accuse critics of saying that anthroposophy is taught. It is not explicitly taught, and that’s the idea, a very deliberate approach (to indoctrination, one might say, on a critical note). It has been infused into waldorf education, which is an entirely different thing than holding lectures on anthroposophy or preaching the gospel of Steiner. (I personally think teaching it or preaching it would be preferable to the more insidious, and subtle, forms of inculcation.) Almost everything the children experience in waldorf school is informed by anthroposophical beliefs about the human being and the world. But it isn’t taught directly. What is important to stress is that the fact it isn’t taught won’t protect the children from anthroposophical beliefs and the consequences thereof. And as I mentioned above, it’s impossible (in particular for the non-anthroposophist) to know what anthroposophists and waldorf teachers really believe in. The only clues are in the literature — but when critics point to concrete ideas or doctrines, the defence usually is that every waldorf teacher picks and chooses whatever he or she pleases, to put it a bit crudely. And this picture of elective anthroposophy, appealing as it may seem, fails to represent how waldorf works in reality.
It ought not be sufficient, in the eyes of the rest of the world, that waldorf proponents say no waldorf teacher is required to accept every one of Steiner’s teaching as literal truth. You need to buy into the major anthroposophical beliefs, lest your presence in waldorf education is rendered meaningless (and potentially painful). The minimum requirement is: don’t question the status quo. Anthroposophists run waldorf schools. Anthroposophy is the raison d’être of waldorf education. These are the essential facts. Anthroposophy contains a number of beliefs lots of people wouldn’t agree with, if these beliefs were discussed in explicit terms. But, of course, they aren’t. Anthroposophists usually refrain from openly discussing their concrete beliefs, and rarely find reason to explain them to non-anthroposophists, whose views are irrelevant anyway.
Another related issue which rears its head again is that of waldorf folks’ occasional desire to rebut — mostly (or solely) for strategic purposes — both anthroposophy and/or Rudolf Steiner. (I’ve commented on that fateful meeting earlier.) Of course, they cannot rebut anthroposophy or Steiner. There would be no point. Waldorf teachers, anthroposophists and fans of waldorf education can reject particular anthroposophical ideas; not that they often — if ever — do, but it can be done, if they wanted to. However, they cannot make a ‘blanket rebuttal of all Anthroposophy’ and remain waldorf teachers, anthroposophists or waldorf fans. It’s simply not possible. A waldorf school without anthroposophy is not a waldorf school. It’s some other kind of school.
For people enamoured with waldorf education, this naturally constitutes a problem. It makes waldorf, their love and their hope, look bad. It makes anthroposophy appear in an unappealing light. Thus, over the past years, several waldorf organisations have offered disclaimers. They superficially reject Steiner’s racial doctrines, but do so by trivializing the entire subject. They say, basically, that Steiner said just a few things that appear unfortunate today but he really was a great guy and a humanitarian. They are apparently oblivious to the need of explaining and taking seriously what Steiner actually taught on this topic, however great he may have been in other respects. Thetis breaks down the arguments offered by these representatives of waldorf education, and shows that they aren’t compelling. In fact, their reactions — and their failure at reacting appropriately — are in many ways more disquieting than those old and dusty statements by Steiner himself. (He’s dead, buried and on his path to the next incarnation, after all; the SWSF and the ECSWE are not, though I suppose they sometimes wish they could reincarnate and ditch their heavy karmic baggage. (That’s not how it works, we remind them; their karma will inevitably continue to haunt them in subsequent incarnations.))
I’d like to conclude by quoting Peter Staudenmaier (a quote found in Thetis’s article):
Many forms of racist belief are not intentionally sinister, but are instead embedded in high-minded, benevolent, and compassionate orientations toward the world. It is this type of racist thought, whose historical heritage extends through the White Man’s Burden and many forms of paternalistic racial ideology, that may find a welcome home in some Waldorf schools and other anthroposophical contexts, where it can perpetuate its ideas about race under the banner of spiritual growth and wisdom. This kind of racist thinking spreads more readily precisely because it is not tied to consciously sinister intentions. Seeing through this kind of racism – which, furthermore, often has more widespread and more insidious effects on the real lives of real people than the intentionally sinister variety does – means paying attention to the background beliefs that animate a project like Waldorf, whether among its founding generation or today.