kiersch on steiner’s esoteric courses for teachers

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behind, to ‘[part] company with their “guru” and [carry] on with their proven methodology without the trappings of the outdated anthroposophical worldview’, as Kiersch puts it.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.

Read!

Edit: see also the other articles in the same issue of the journal, table of contents here.

14 thoughts on “kiersch on steiner’s esoteric courses for teachers

  1. I think Steiner schools would be a really viable option if they combined the best of Steiner practices (minus the spiritual science) with really sound and modern pedagogy.

    The teaching profession, Steiner or public, still really struggles with child-centred pedagogy. It is going to take a long while to permeate through the system.

  2. I don’t know exactly what the best Steiner practices are, but I know that it’s the ‘spiritual science’ or anthroposophy which makes steiner / waldorf education different from other types of education. With ‘sound and modern pedagogy’ they wouldn’t really be Steiner schools anymore — and it would be misleading to attach the name Steiner to them. I mean, why put Steiner’s name on a school which doesn’t lay Steiner’s work as the foundation of its practices, a school which doesn’t use Steiner’s methods and ideas (derived from his spiritual science)? I don’t get that. To me its dishonest to not stay true to what waldorf pedagogy was about. Waldorf may not be a truly viable option as an education — but if schools are called waldorf (or Steiner) schools, they should be waldorf schools. Or drop the name and the association to anything waldorf, anthroposophy or Steiner. (Of course, then these schools would be entirely uninteresting to people interested in waldorf, anthroposophy or Steiner! ;-)) I realize you probably didn’t mean to say anything about names or descriptions or categorization — but my point is, if we’re talking about having waldorf methods without Steiner’s anthroposophy, then we’re not talking waldorf education anymore.

    If you refer to things like art and music and nature — well, none of these elements were ever unique to waldorf education. And, in my opinion, waldorf education didn’t do a particularly good job in these areas either.

    I have never understood why waldorf schools claim to be child-centered. They’re only child centered for those children who behave and develop as anthroposophy says they ought to behave and develop. The children are required to become waldorf centered, rather than the other way around. The child has to strive to change him-/herself to fit the school.

  3. oh yes, i agree.

    it’s just that i am starting to observe how the arty, crafty, back to a simpler life, less screen time for kids, and more in tune with nature, aspects of Steinerism really appeals to people. that’s what attracted me in the first place. i’ve been trawling the blogging sites for all things Steiner and Waldorf, and what i have noticed is that there are a lot of families incorporating Steiner inspired activities into their lives, without any mention of the spiritual science. they attribute what they are doing to Waldorf/Steiner, but they use them to be more child-centred. a number of them homeschool their kids, but with others there is no mention of their kids attending a Waldorf/Steiner school. i honestly think that a lot of people are not aware of, or choose to ignore Steiner’s writings, and pick out the bits that work for them.

    that’s what i’m going to do. i have decided not to study the Steiner teaching course. i know that there is nothing like direct experience, and that reading 100 books on the subject would not be a substitute for experience, but i just cannot bear to study the Steiner philosophy. your blog has helped me to make this decision, so thank you. the money that i would have spent on the course, i will use to get some chooks, grow some herbs, do some crafts, and buy some exorbitently priced but colourful crayons.

    and when i finish my teaching degree, i will do some Steiner inspired activities with the students, but as part of a balanced, sound, and modern curriculum. i like being eclectic.

  4. Zooey,

    Remember that it’s YOU who are caught in the double bind, not the Anthro-Waldis. And as for Waldorf without Steiner, they’ve got that covered since Steiner himself said that Waldorf is a METHOD, and as a method it can be applied anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. He meant Waldorf to metamorphose and leave him behind and that’s what’s happening now. So schools today pick and choose — they leave the bad stuff behind and like Hakea says, they go with the good stuff.

    Meanwhile, you are back cataloguing and obsessing on the antiquated bad stuff like Kiersch and his crew brew up in the Vatican/Goetheanum cauldron. Meanwhile the real Waldorf movement has already left Kiersch behind.

  5. Tom — ‘it’s YOU who are caught in the double bind’

    I am?

    ‘they’ve got that covered since Steiner himself said that Waldorf is a METHOD, and as a method it can be applied anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances’

    … and anyhow. Which, if this were true (I mean true in the real world), would make waldorf impossible to define. Which in turn would make it irresponsible for state authorities to accept waldorf schools since nobody could possibly offer a description of what they are and what they do. If it’s a ‘method’ what are they doing with a curriculum describing contents?

    ‘Meanwhile, you are back cataloguing and obsessing on the antiquated bad stuff like Kiersch and his crew brew up in the Vatican/Goetheanum cauldron. Meanwhile the real Waldorf movement has already left Kiersch behind.’

    I actually like Kiersch a lot more than the PR crap churned out by waldorf schools in real life. Maybe the Vatican/Goetheanum is actually more right than those waldorf PR folks who think about how to best rebut anthroposophy as to attract (the wrong) people.

    Plus, the waldorf movement at large seems to agree that some things are essential — and waldorf schools who don’t live up to these things, aren’t waldorf school. Including Study of Man which many would count as ‘bad stuff’ better left behind.

    hakea — ‘it’s just that i am starting to observe how the arty, crafty, back to a simpler life, less screen time for kids, and more in tune with nature, aspects of Steinerism really appeals to people. that’s what attracted me in the first place.’

    Oh yes. Understandably. But waldorf wasn’t first with any of these things, neither can they monopolize them.

    ‘families incorporating Steiner inspired activities into their lives, without any mention of the spiritual science’

    Yes, but on the other hand, even when spiritual science is a huge influence, it’s often not mentioned. Even waldorf schools like to talk about the superficial aspects, which are known to be attractive to people, while very consciously leave out any talk about spiritual science.

    Plus there’s the whole idea of esoteric religion — of secret wisdom, of insights not talked about. That’s a sort of spiritual culture in itself. You don’t talk about higher knowledge with uninitiates.

    (I’m not doubting that there are lots of people who just pick the parts they like and who genuinely aren’t into spiritual science. It’s just that some people who are, don’t explicitly talk about it, if you know what I mean.)

    ‘i have decided not to study the Steiner teaching course’

    That’s a pity — but mostly because I would have loved to read what you had to say about it ;-)

    ‘your blog has helped me to make this decision, so thank you.’

    Thank you very much for saying this and for your insightful comments!

    ‘and when i finish my teaching degree, i will do some Steiner inspired activities with the students, but as part of a balanced, sound, and modern curriculum.’

    Sounds great! And there’s nothing wrong with reading some Steiner (or other anthroposophical authors) as inspiration or as a means of getting ideas about something. It’s just a different thing than buying the entire foundation.

  6. but I’m glad you saved hakea the money she would have spent on the course!

    Hakea – I don’t see art & craft or gardening or cooking or any of those activities as Steiner inspired – they do all those things at the nursery and primary schools my youngest attended/attends. Most primary schools do these things. But on the other hand they also teach children to read – for which, after Steiner, I’m very grateful.

    Tom – song for contrarians: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXP1oLtPyDA

  7. “And there’s nothing wrong with reading some Steiner (or other anthroposophical authors) as inspiration or as a means of getting ideas about something. It’s just a different thing than buying the entire foundation.”

    Exactly! Waldorf kindergarten lore is quite rich, there are a lot of great stories, songs, verses, etc. that can well be used in other classrooms.

    The difficulty comes in Waldorf classrooms when these materials are treated as sacred texts that cannot be altered, edited, selectively eliminated if inappropriate for certain children or certain classes, or supplemented by other (non-Waldorf) materials. To the true believers this is all anathema, because every song, verse, etc., contains an “occult truth” or a symbolic anthroposophical meaning which the children should be absorbing.

    For instance, you should sing about butterflies a lot because the butterfly is a symbol of reincarnation. If you find your class doesn’t really seem to care about butterflies, or they tire of the butterflies, and you decide to sing about koala bears instead, ‘cus the kids are into them … in a Steiner school you’ll find the superzealot anthro senior faculty telling you that koala bears are totally unacceptable, and eventually firing your ass if you insist on doing things your own way rather than taking “guidance” of this sort.

    If OTOH you are free to function as a professional, and you can dispense with all that and just pick songs or stories that you like or that you think the children will like, all is well.

  8. Exactly, Diana.

    (Koala bears probably inspire materialism and in any case they’re not indigenous to Europe! Oh these backwards animals…)

  9. Aww, thank you for making me feel included, and talking about koalas. As an Aussie, i feel it is my duty however to inform everyone that they are not of the bear family. They are marsupials of the Phascolarctidae family. A mouthful isn’t it?

    Steiner didn’t create all of the arty, crafty, nature stuff. But Steiner/Waldorf is the hook and the package for a lot of people. It’s not the moon, but it is a finger pointing to the moon (another reference to Buddhism).

    The early childhood Steiner/Waldorf activities are really great, and I use a number of them in the playgroup I facilitate.

    Here is a Waldorf blog from a school in the US http://thiswaldorflife.wordpress.com/tag/drama/. Sounds like all peace, love, and mung beans over there?

    I think that teachers don’t use art and drama enough. My children attend a public school (government). I asked my eldest if he does any drama, and he said he hadn’t done any for years. But they do a lot of handwriting practice, from a workbook, which they despise. If the teachers were a little bit creative, they could get the students to do their handwriting practice by creating scripts for a play, or displays of their work. But the teacher has a rest when all of the students are head down doing handwriting practice for 40 minutes.

    Have a good day.

  10. I had no idea about the koalas! They sure look like small bears. They’re unbelievably cute, of course.

    It’s true that school is often too boring. Like the handwriting practice you mention. Lots of things could be more creative. Though are or drama or music won’t suit all children, some or all of these acitivities will fail to engage some students… it’s inevitable. And they will be bored even if their peers aren’t. Some kids need more intellectual activities to thrive, and will be unhappy being stuck with art and drama. The problem waldorf has is that it’s rigid. Even art is rigid. Copying what the teacher draws, paints or writes. And for the child who’d rather read books, there’s nothing to keep the boredom at bay.

    That blog is… well, it almost makes me a bit angry. Take the first post, under that tag, for example: http://thiswaldorflife.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/the-future-is-global-and-education-needs-to-catch-up/ — it’s a lot of BS, frankly! It’s commonplace waldorf promotional junk.

  11. for some reason your comment was filtered out, and I only discovered it now, hope it hadn’t been lying around for long!

    There were articles in the Australian skeptics’ magazine too. In New Zeeland, a couple of parents have opened websites critical of Steiner education as well.

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