anti-intellectual

I called waldorf education anti-intellectual. Then Steve Sagarin made a list of the later careers of his fellow waldorf students. That’s all good and well, but I don’t think it tells us anything. Well, at least nothing that negates my assessment. I didn’t claim that waldorf students, as adults, don’t go on to intellectual pursuits. Some undoubtedly do. I wasn’t talking about adults. I was talking about the waldorf pedagogical approach to intellectual activities during childhood, in particular early childhood. It is largely negative, as has been discussed here and in previous threads on Steve’s blog (in one of which I called waldorf anti-intellectual). I replied to Steve on his blog, of course, but I’ll post my comment here too, slightly extended.

Steve, for what it’s worth, that was not what I meant at all when I called waldorf anti-intellectual. I was referring to a school that discourages intellectual activity among children. You know, removing books or not even allowing books. Viewing early reading as a detriment rather than as an asset. Not satisfying children’s desire for knowledge and information (responding to them in a lallalala manner instead of engaging with their questions, especially if they are about facts). Delaying reading and writing for as long as possible (without getting into trouble with official regulations). And so forth.

I know that waldorf students go on to university. Remember — I was a waldorf student. I went to law school later and have a degree. Magic, huh? (No, I didn’t learn to read in waldorf. I taught myself.) Yet, I call waldorf anti-intellectual — because it does not appreciate children who want and prefer intellectual activities. It doesn’t encourage them. It can barely accept them. It frowns upon them. (They’re prematurely intellectual, sclerotic. Not good stuff.) It’s a fact that some of them do go on to uni. I wonder how many do it thanks to waldorf rather than despite of waldorf? I wonder how many do it because they grew up in academic homes, around books and all those things waldorf try to avoid? Considering how many waldorf kids in my school had at least one — often two — university educated parents, I would expect many of these kids to go on to uni. I don’t think that all that many of them did. (I frankly don’t know. I think someone got pregnant and someone worked in a supermarket and someone worked in a bar. But that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge.) Of course, very few stayed all through kindergarten to 12th grade… and those few who did, are probably the most interesting ones to investigate. If somebody would bother.

Any school where you can’t have books and reading early is anti-intellectual in my eyes. Any school that denies children books is anti-intellectual. And waldorf schools distinguish themselves on this account.

61 thoughts on “anti-intellectual

  1. Not to mention that the whole ghastly Anthposophical schema is an attack on rationality in which the only defining ideas that matter are those based on Steiners revalatory pronouncements; mysticism, however carefully invented is, by its very nature, anti-intellectual.

  2. I find it sad that you view your experience with Waldorf so negatively. The reality is that by delaying intellectual pursuits you are providing the nervous system with a bottom up approach to development, which is inline with how the brain actually develops. Right now we see a great increase in the amount of attention deficit disorder. This fits with the heavy academic focus of education. The first systems to develop in the brain are the somatosensorimotor system, and the limbic systems. Developing these systems provides the foundation for later intellectual development which require the prefrontal cortex. The PFC shows a significant growth spurt after puberty into the early 20s. When we strain the PFC in early years we fail to provide the foundation, the areas with which the FL is intimately connected. Your keen insight may well be a direct result of your Waldorf education. Lucky you.

  3. Abigail, I find ‘Lucky You’, to be a rather insensitive comment from someone who gives the impression that she does not know precisely what Alicia suffered in Kristofferskolan. (If you did I can’t believe you would make such a comment)

    The neurological development you describe may well be correct, but has anybody really scientifically tested whether, ‘When we strain the PFC in early years we fail to provide the foundation,…..’? The only way one could do this would be by putting a strain on children and then seeing whether it impairs their later intellectual development. Where I live such an experiment would be regarded as deeply unethical. I wonder where you live?

    I agree Alicia does have keen insight. She is also a creative photographer with a wonderful sensitivity to light and colour.

    Alicia has read Steiner in depth(in the original German). She writes lucidly expressing an opposing point of view to anthroposophy from a position of knowledge of what she is talking about. (Unlike some waldorf critics)

    I believe serious anthroposophists and Waldorf teachers would be wise to pay attention to what she says as she frequently holds up a very challenging reflection of how we may be experienced and seen by people with differing points of view. Her own bitter experience of an unsympathetic and dogmatic waldorf school demonstrates how formulaic thinking (one size fits all) can be present in waldorf settings just as much as other educational settings.

  4. Bullshit was at Abigail, the ‘neuroeducator’. I’ll reply more later. Although bullshit is a good summary as far as some things are concerned. Most of what Abigail wrote, I’m afraid.

  5. @Abigail ‘Right now we see a great increase in the amount of attention deficit disorder.’

    ‘When we strain the PFC in early years we fail to provide the foundation, the areas with which the FL is intimately connected.’

    evidence for these statements would be useful, with an indication as to how this relates to the pedagogical strategies of Steiner Waldorf education, at which point it may be useful to share your insights with Professor Dorothy Bishop.
    http://oscci.psy.ox.ac.uk/people/dorothy-bishop/

    Falk – any education system predicated on the idea of karma and reincarnation is going to have its zealots. Fine to have lots of play until 6, lovely to have trees to climb, sandpits, singing, baking, planting and so on (not unique to Waldorf of course). Remove the batty esoteric new-religion of anthroposophy (which most critics know far more about than many Steiner parents) and a great many problems would simply evaporate. As you indicate, a lack of dogma would mean that a child who wants to look at or read a book in peace even at 5 would be allowed to do so.

    The little state primary school my daughter goes to is great – there’s very little pressure. But I’m very glad they favour the intellectual – in the sense of celebrating and encouraging the intellectual, encouraging the children to speak for themselves and listening to what they have to say. I don’t feel hostility to the individuals in the Steiner school my sons went to – but it wasn’t as good. There’s no denying how much more healthy, wiser, kinder and saner the primary school has been.

    But I agree – Alicia’s brilliant analysis is needed. She’s been widely read, deservedly so, though she writes on her own terms and for her own reasons.

    Nick Nakorn is well worth reading too, I recommend.

  6. Both Falk and Melanie have made good points.

    What I see on on Abigail’s website is neuro-woo — which is becoming increasingly popular. It seems to be a bit like quantum physics; people pick and choose among scientific results they don’t understand. And then they apply it to their personal life philosophy, their worldview. And they apply the neuroscientific results (provided they even understand them correctly, which usually is where it starts to fail) to reality without knowing a shit about whether these results are applicable or not — whether it’s even reasonable to speculate about the applications. I’d also like, as Melanie asked, to see the evidence — and the evidence that these results relate in any way to the waldorf method.

    Abigail also wrote:

    ‘Right now we see a great increase in the amount of attention deficit disorder. This fits with the heavy academic focus of education.’

    This is the perfect opportunity to remain skeptical. Is there an actual increase or is it an increase in diagnoses? What is the cause? There is no proven link between academic focus of education and ADHD. There may be a genetic cause. There may be environment factors. (ADHD is common in prison populations. Is it reasonable to believe that these kids, who end up in prison, suffer from too early academic exposure? I would say, given their social environments, that it’s less likely. Do you see more ADHD in families with a heavy academic focus at home? Heck — are there even less ADHD kids in waldorf than in mainstream schools? If there are, I can think of several factors that explains it: environment at home, genetic heritage, et c. I can tell you, though, that some kids in waldorf were so frustrated by boredom that you might have concluded they all had ADHD.) Plainly: there is no evidence for a causal link between academic focus and ADHD.

    Falk: ‘The neurological development you describe may well be correct, but has anybody really scientifically tested whether, ‘When we strain the PFC in early years we fail to provide the foundation,…..’? The only way one could do this would be by putting a strain on children and then seeing whether it impairs their later intellectual development. Where I live such an experiment would be regarded as deeply unethical.’

    Exactly. And given there were evidence of this, does it tell us anything about how education ought to be approached in reality? Neuroscience is one thing — pedagogical practice another. And although the former should inspire us to rethink educational methods — I wonder if the results can be directly transferred from neuroscience to education. And, in this case, you’d have to relate any results specifically to waldorf education.

    Moreover, nobody is suggesting that children should be put under a strain academically. My point, at least, is that children should be allowed to familiarize themselves with academic activities early — and that they should not be stopped from doing so because the school refuses to provide intellectual stimulation. It’s not about forcing a five-year old to spend hours struggling with a book. Why would it be? I personally would consider that a completely failed method — anything that causes resentment to a particular activity should be avoided if possible. Putting a strain — there’s always a strain on children, a strain to conform, a strain to be liked, et c, it’s unavoidable, but that’s not what I’m talking about here — is likely to cause resentment. That would be stupid. Do we really need neuroscience here? No.

    Abigail is not using neuroscience — or her picture of it, more likely — to prove that putting a strain on small children is bad; she’s using it to justify keeping intellectual stimulation away from children who need it and want it. I’m quite sure that whatever the original research said, you can’t draw these conclusions.

    ‘Your keen insight may well be a direct result of your Waldorf education. Lucky you.’

    Your lack of keen insight, I take it, then, reflects your non-waldorf education.

    Or perhaps, you know, children are strong enough to get out with their sense of reason intact even against the odds. In general, the lack of intellectual stimulation is probably not as detrimental to children who get what they need at home. Children who have no books at home (let’s say children from environments connected to an increase in the likelyhood they will end up with behavioural provlems or even in prison…), who are not taught things at home, who aren’t brought to museums and told stories and given knowledge… they will risk a lot more from the waldorf approach. Luckily, their parents rarely send their kids to waldorf. As waldorfmommy said on Steve’s thread — it doesn’t matter to her that there are no books in waldorf classrooms, her kids have books at home! So do Steve’s kids, so did I, so did Melanie’s children. They will be mostly ok, because they won’t suffer from the deprivation as it’s compensated at home.

  7. I must say I much prefer Steiner’s developmental model as an idea to this pseudoscientific neuro-claptrap. Because, in an odd way, if it’s not taken dogmatically (or even if it is, but it will be more dangerous then), it’s a way of explaning, it’s a way of illustrating a viewpoint. It’s based on a belief, of course, that the child is incarnating. But bullshitting people with ‘science’ earns you no respect in my eyes. It’s a pity that neuro has become the new quantum; a very sad development for real neuroscience and its potentially useful applications.

  8. Neuro-woo … good word for it.
    The neuro-woo I like the best is when people insist that if a particular area of your brain “lights up” on scanning, when stimulated a certain way, that proves … something.

  9. Melanie says, ‘any education system predicated on the idea of karma and reincarnation is going to have its zealots.’
    I would say, ‘Any education system is going to have its zealots’.
    And there is a fairly straightforward explanation for this, which is that ALL education systems are based on value judgements about, for example, what is good for a growing child, what is good for society, and what are appropriate, ethical means for achieving these goods.

  10. Diana: indeed… and in reality all it proves is that you’re not brain-dead.

    Falk: well, yes. But when these value judgments come with an entire worldview where all parts support each other… and when there’s a kind of social ‘community’ that joins to support, verify, justify this worldview in every activity, in all aspects of life… and when basing what you do rationally doesn’t happen much (or when questions for rational explanations are disregarded or not even put in the first place)… then there is, surely, an increased risk. As far as I can tell, waldorf provides a fertile environment for zealots. Lots of people who hold on to certain ideas fanatically and at any cost, seemingly without very good reasons.

  11. Falk: I would say, ‘Any education system is going to have its zealots’.

    That hasn’t been my experience. From pre-K through 12th grade, my son attended one Waldorf school, two public schools, and two Quaker schools. We really didn’t run into zealots anywhere except the Waldorf school. Good teachers and not so good – yes. Teachers my son got on with, and teachers he didn’t – yes. Teachers with ideas his parents didn’t agree with sometimes – yes. Zealots were unique to the Waldorf school.

    There is no particular reason for an educational system to attract zealots, though of course it’s possible. But an educational system run by a religious sect that is small, unpopular, and holds eccentric beliefs compared to the mainstream is where zealots are going to be attracted.

    It is not specific to religion, either. Both the Quaker schools had teachers who professed Quaker beliefs very passionately. None of them were zealots, or acted like disturbed people who shouldn’t be around children.

  12. falk: “ALL education systems are based on value judgements…”

    True enough. On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that Waldorf education is pretty unusual in having a survivors support group.

    Abigail, if you can provide some references, particularly on the link between ADHD and early academics, that would be welcome. I’m not dismissing what you say, but this stuff is interesting and important enough that it would be good to move beyond anecdote and assertion.

    Ideally, you could point to some peer reviewed journal articles. However, there is a nasty problem here which is that the full text of many articles will be behind a very expensive paywall, effectively denying access to the general public outside of academia. Abstracts are usually readable by anyone though. Neuroscience isn’t my field, but I know enough statistics and general biology that if the abstracts aren’t enough, I could help summarise any articles you point us to? (Assuming my institution has a subscription to that journal and I can do so within fair use, i.e. without breaking copyright law).

  13. I don’t doubt that damage can be done to the self-esteem of certain children if they can’t compete at a young age – this is serious – but it doesn’t add up to Waldorf, which has a pedagogy based on the occult. And is not honest about this.

    A few hours ago Hitchens died, so I care very little about the Steineristas and their lies or their justifications. ‘The defence of science and reason is the great imperative of our time’. That’s why we bothered to draw our swords in this irrelevant backwater.

  14. …Alicia’s blog however is not irrelevant. In fact Alicia’s blog is the most interesting manifestation of Steiner’s fantastic science-fiction. Esotericists should all be very grateful, although perhaps the exposure cancels that designation.

  15. NO?! Have been off the internet all day. Fell really ill late last night — sudden fever, nausea… And then I go online on the phone now and click on the latest comment. Diana’s. How utterly sad.

  16. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news … I’m having trouble getting started today, just want to read or listen to classic Hitchens …
    Hope you feel better, sounds awful.

  17. You could do a Hitchens post here :) Not that you need ideas – you keep it coming here in an amazing way. I tried to think of something particularly a propos to say on the critics list about Hitchens, but I don’t have time to write something up. Aside from the obvious (his general anti-religion stance), I particularly cotton to the many things he has said about the connection between suffering and religious belief. Hello anthroposophists: theories like karma are on the wrong side of humane, in this regard.

    And of course, his work on Mother Theresa: hello again anthroposophists: people who appear to be kindly and selfless, sometimes ain’t.

  18. Yes, I saw you posted a link to a youtube video on critics. I also saw some people had posted links on facebook to some docu about mother Theresa; I might watch it this evening if I don’t just fall asleep again. (The post I’m posting this evening was basically done already, which I’m thankful for; otherwise there wouldn’t have been one. My head is a horror.)

  19. sorry you’re ill, Alicia. I wondered where you were.

    I suspect Hitchens would have enjoyed Diana’s tenacity.

    I love him for not seeking to give a ‘balanced view’ – a weasel phrase I’ve come to loathe in the last couple of years. He stated his case and let others state theirs. Perhaps he inspired us to be more courageous than we would have been without him – and to keep our cool.

    It’s curious, because one of his favourite writers was Saul Bellow, who of course flirted with anthroposophy. I can’t believe CH didn’t know what anthroposophy is, although I’ve never seen him mention it.

    This recent discussion between Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is worth reading in full, neither say exactly what you might expect. These are extracts:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/dawkins-hitchens-catholic
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/christopher-hitchens-evening

  20. It’s much better now; I think the fever has gone down (thanks to nice meds). Amazing how one can feel blessed to have ‘just’ a bad headache and a slight fever.

    Yes, he liked Bellow and it’s not difficult to see why Bellow’s anthroposophy might not be disturbing — Bellow is irreverent towards anthroposophy. Bellow was not a high-strung Sergei Prokofieff. Or… you know.

    I’ll read it tomorrow. Must try to sleep now, despite having slept most of the day. (Bad idea. But couldn’t think of anything better to do. Called my mum this morning; she picked mr Dog up and he accompanied my father to work. His presence may have had some important canineosophical impact on Swedish society. At least, so he tells me.)

  21. I imagine Mr Dog made a great many people happier than they might have been, in the circumstances. One day we may know in what way…

    This article by Ian McEwan is very moving. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/16/christopher-hitchens-appreciation-by-ian-mcewan?CMP=twt_gu&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Hitchens the ‘brilliant friend’ is the theme of the last couple of days. He appeared wonderfully generous and humane – and to understand what it is to be ‘fully human’ – to steal an anthro trope for our own devices, less the cumbersome supernatural.

    I hope you’re feeling better today.

  22. Feeling better, but it’s all very relative. At least I manage to drag myself around the block…

    And, reading about Hitchens, I can’t help but feeling I ought to be braver, LOL!

    Wonderful article by McEwan.

  23. “The search for nirvana, like the search for utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle.” – Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, 2004

    “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” – The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, 2007

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/16/christopher-hitchens-quotes-bons-mots

  24. Yes, he puts us all to shame, he seems to have continued writing erudite treatises up until hours before he died. You can find articles he wrote in publications dated 2012.

    I care way less for Ian McEwan (drastically overrated as a novelist IMO) but his tribute to Hitchens was very nice.

  25. I have not actually read God Is Not Great, but perhaps I’ll go and get it today. (A Christmas gift to myself …) I do have the Portable Atheist and I tried to read his memoir, but must confess I didn’t get all the way through it … I don’t really get all the way through hardly anything I read anymore.

  26. Yes — read God is not great. It’s good stuff. I have the Portable Atheist and have read it selectively, but haven’t read his memoir. There’s a new selection of his articles & essays out; that one seems quite tempting.

  27. Actually a little Hitchens will be a much-needed, bracing tonic in this season of oversaturated religious fervor. I had to attend a program of Christmas music last night and from the talk around my house, it sounds like tonight’s gonna be more of the same. I can’t even persuade my husband to turn off the radio, which is all christmas all the time … how many more weeks of this do we have to endure LOL.

  28. ‘reading about Hitchens, I can’t help but feeling I ought to be braver,’

    Could apply to all of us. It’s much easier to say the expected things, to seek to be liked.

    Diana – you need an ipod plugged in under your hat so you can secretly listen to podcasts during the festivities. They’ll put the smile on your face down to beatitude and mild seasonal intoxication.

  29. I hope the New Statesman will publish the entire interview online — it’s not a paper that seems to be available in Sweden (or I’m too dumb to find it). Oddly, because you can find the most bizarre magazines. Seems like an interview worth reading.

    Luckily, not having children, I don’t have to take part in anything christmassy. Mr Dog does not insist on listening to christmas songs. He prefers fire truck sirens.

  30. .. and what you have to do to arrange THOSE is no mean feat.

    I expect the interview will turn up on the RD site. Meanwhile, here is RD’s tribute:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/richard-dawkins-illness-made-hitchens-a-symbol-of-the-honesty-and-dignity-of-atheism-6278298.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    ‘Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants including God.’

  31. Yes, on his site! I didn’t think of that — but hopefully it will!

    Mr Dog is soaked after a walk in the first rain with snow in it. Bad situation on the ground for dog w long hair… So he’s not howling happily right now. Says he lacks inspiration, even if it’s christmas. No fire trucks around.

  32. I’m reprimanded for approving Hitchens, because he endorsed the Iraq war. I don’t think I was aware of him at that time (I started reading him later, on the platform with other non-theists). I don’t think he was right, although it’s interesting that James Warren in The Atlantic comments:

    ‘Long after I had returned to Chicago, my friends at C-Span called in a few IOUs by asking me to debate Christopher for an hour on the war in Iraq, which he famously supported. They couldn’t find anybody in Washington willing to go on air with him.’
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/farewell-to-a-singular-soul-christopher-hitchens/250108/

    Just at the moment I don’t think it’s the most interesting thing about Hitchens. There is so much mediocre journalism, occasionally some example of it when supposedly intelligent professionals are incapable of writing as well as Alicia does here every day about Waldorf schools. There is a hymn sheet, and they are reading from it.

  33. I knew about it but it doesn’t matter one bit to me. As far as I can remember, a number of intelligent people saw arguments for the war — and against it. In retrospect… well…

    And, aside from and unrelated to that, how interesting would Hitchens be if he only spoke views that appealed to a certain political segment (to the left somewhere, I presume, judging by certain critical comments)? He’d have been boring. In fact, instead he was consistently brilliant — speaking for freedom, against oppression.

    (Thank you.)

  34. the lamest critical comment today began: “I’ve never read any of his books, but…”

    Freedom, and free speech.

    ‘how interesting would Hitchens be if he only spoke views that appealed to a certain political segment ..?’ Those labels – right, left – are no longer so useful, as he and Dawkins agreed in that last interview.

    The annoyance felt by those who did not like him, or felt he didn’t deserve all this attention, has been fed by the fact that many obits have been written by other writers who were his friends and who loved him, so they are heartfelt, moving as well as beautifully written. This is a private loss, really, and we’re spectators.

    None of that means criticism has to wait, he wouldn’t have waited. But for now commentators would do better not to be niggardly unless their abilities match his – meanness is just not interesting.

  35. ‘The annoyance felt by those who did not like him, or felt he didn’t deserve all this attention, has been fed by the fact that many obits have been written by other writers who were his friends and who loved him, so they are heartfelt, moving as well as beautifully written.’

    that’s quite normal for obituaries, isn’t it? Very rarely, if ever, are they written by people who disliked the guy who’s died.

    ‘None of that means criticism has to wait, he wouldn’t have waited. But for now commentators would do better not to be niggardly unless their abilities match his – meanness is just not interesting.’

    Well. But in any case, they can criticize anything they like at any time. Nobody is saying they can’t. But they can’t demand admiration. Nobody can. Except mr Dog.

  36. Hitchens’ obits are unusually literary. The BBC on the other hand announced his death by saying he was an alcoholic, but it is a public service broadcaster and may have been offering seasonal health advice.

    It is impossible not to admire Mr Dog, except perhaps just BEFORE a bath.

  37. ‘But they can’t demand admiration. Nobody can. Except mr Dog.’

    You realise that according to Hitch, Mr. Dog behaves like a cat!
    Hitch said that when we feed, love and give shelter to dogs they assume that WE are Gods, whereas those who feed, love and shelter cats, notice that the cats assume that THEY are Gods.

  38. Amen, Falk, for once we agree on something :) Cats are gods.

    Another way of putting it, dogs have masters or owners; cats have staff.

  39. GGAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!! Hickups! Hitchens was wrong! He must be criticized sharply!! Growl growl growl! It’s no coincidence that god spellt correctly is dog and not cat.

    ‘the cats assume that THEY are Gods.’ — the cat delusion. Should not be taken seriously.

    But, you see, terriers are terriers. They’re the kings of dogs. The rest of the dogs aren’t as cool as terriers. Terriers are the race of the future. The leaders.

  40. I’m thinking of a Seinfeld line: “Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other one’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge.”

  41. Cats of course have far more dignity than to desire any other life form to “carry their poop.” They just take care of these matters discreetly. (Of course we have to clean the box, but that’s none of their concern.)

  42. I see this has descended to toilet humour AGAIN. Honestly, anyone would think it was some sort of holiday.

  43. Ok, so I’m going to not find the right thread to post in but choose this one. I know that we’ve discussed — perhaps even in connection to the discussions of Steve’s posts, I can’t remember — the claim that although waldorf schools are behind in the early years, the children catch up. Well, so today I read an inspection report from a waldorf school in Stockholm. Turns out that the students aren’t that far behind in fifth grade — but they’re spectacularly behind in 9th grade. They perform below the local and national average. Almost half the students lack qualifications in at least one subject.

    For people who read Swedish, the report is here: bit.ly/s8c4Gd

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