A recent publication by waldorf journal RoSE (a newly established journal publishing — see the acronym! — ‘Research on Steiner Education’), is an article [pdf] by Johannes Kiersch, entitled ‘“Painted from a palette entirely different” A new hermeneutic approach to Steiner’s esoteric courses for teachers’. It’s about Steiner’s lectures for teachers which, he writes, ‘have traditionally been regarded as centrally important contributions to a pedagogical understanding of the human being.’
Kiersch has written several books about anthroposophy and waldorf education, among them a history of the first class of the esoteric school for spiritual science.
After the first passage about the central importance of Steiner’s Stuttgart lectures, Kiersch notes that outside the world of waldorf pedagogy itself, Steiner’s teachings have been ignored, and sometimes regarded as ‘fantastical nonsense’. Kiersch then recounts the history of the first teachers course to take place in Stuttgart:
Apart from a few guests, the participants – the future teachers – were all more or less convinced anthroposophists. Some of them were personal pupils of Steiner’s, undergoing esoteric training with him. All were familiar with the basic concepts of anthroposophy and with the meditation exercises initiated by him. They were twelve in number. Steiner began his first lecture in a tone of ceremonial solemnity that can only be described as religious. After a few introductory sentences he asked the stenographer to stop writing. Then, as is known from notes made later by some of the participants, he spoke of how the work of the future college of teachers would be directly affected by the spiritual beings of the third hierarchy: the angels, archangels and archai.
It’s highly interesting. Not until 1992, according to Kiersch,
did it become clear that Steiner’s first lecture course for teachers had not been academic, but esoteric in character. The same goes for the subsequent courses held between 1920 and 1923 …
The esoteric elements of waldorf education and of its history would serve to make it suspect in many people’s minds, and thus, to solve this conflict, it has been suggested by some that the waldorf school movement ought to leave its anthroposophical past behind, to ‘[part] company with their “guru” and [carry] on with their proven methodology without the trappings of the outdated anthroposophical worldview’, as Kiersch puts it. But, as Kiersch also notes, such ideas have been met with skepticism too. (Probably with some right. Though in my view, it’s rather simple: if you removed everything anthroposophical, everything tied to anthroposophy or derived from anthroposophy, the schools would be waldorf schools only to the name. Which, in turn, would be a bit silly and pointless. You could just shut down the waldorf business right away then.)
The next section of the article deals with methods of research in relation to waldorf education and anthroposophy; and the one following states that anthroposophy uses heuristic concepts and that
“Anthroposophy” does not deal in such fixed and clearly defined “facts”. It restricts itself to descriptions of methods, suggesting ways of approaching your own observations, to evidence which is (at least initially) thoroughly subjective, to the weighing up of possibilities. As a Waldorf practitioner, therefore, you accept the fact that you are working with artistic imagination, with rituals, images and myths, with devotion and reverence, with hopes and inklings, intuition and presence of mind. These are an array of motifs, habits, attitudes by which action might be guided. And while even the empiricist who sees objectivity, clear planning and proof of efficacy as the main aims of teaching would not be able to dismiss their pedagogical value out of hand, it would scarcely be possible for him to account for them in rational terms using current research methods.
I would like to bring attention in particular to another part of Kiersch’s article, however, namely the final one, because it’s about esoteric exercise and pedagogy, about meditative practice and seeking the experience of the spiritual world. Of the meditation motifs, devised by Steiner and aimed at assisting the teacher in his or her observation of the child, it is said:
Steiner describes their function in one of the most beautiful formulations we have from him: “The mind imbued with living knowledge of the human being apprehends the child’s being as the eye does colour” (Steiner, 1961, p. 289). The “esoterically” formulated content of the courses for teachers does not determine, but facilitates pedagogical action.
Beautiful it may be, but what’s in it for the child? Are the children any better off because their teacher are able to apprehend their beings — whatever those are — as the eye does apprehend colour? How do we ascertain that the teachers have really attained this level of clairvoyant ability? (And what are the side-effects?)
Kiersch believes that because the nature Steiner’s courses for teachers was misunderstood
a false picture of Steiner’s educational teachings took shape. They came to be viewed as an eternally valid corpus of scientifically anchored truths, which have increasingly, and quite rightly, been felt to be dogmatic.
Indeed. But perhaps it was more or less inevitable. Not only teachers have been dogmatic about Steiner’s beliefs and his teachings, but anthroposophists in general. Being dogmatic is the path of least resistance. Seeing truths instead of questions yields a comfortable feeling of existential certainty.
Edit: see also the other articles in the same issue of the journal, table of contents here.