‘a different class’ (on steiner education in the guardian)

There’s a new article about Steiner education in The Guardian and I’m sure everybody has read it and is talking about it already. On the upside, some negative sides of waldorf schools are mentioned. On the downside, the article is pretty lame, as though the guardian of the newspaper threshold had been preventing a decent job on this topic. The comment section is only for the brave, those of you who can stand a certain amount of stupidity. Apparently, the waldorf drones have been brought out in daylight, to submit positive comments that reek of advertisement brochures. (Tell me, how can a parent who investigated Steiner education 20 years ago, and then decided not to go there, still regurgitate all the right buzzwords?)

Jeevan Vasagar starts out the article by presenting to the readers a picturesque portrait of the Hereford Steiner academy. Trevor Mepham, the academy’s principal, talks about common sense, curiously enough, and about vitality and twinkling eyes. As for mind-blowing wisdom, he proposes that the human being needs a ‘relationship with the natural world’. It’s difficult to understand why this would have to be obtained within the framework of Steiner education though. Or why people would be willing to compromise a good education to obtain, for their children, a relationship with the natural world — as if you couldn’t have both. Of course, Trevor Mepham thinks waldorf education offers both. Critics would say he’s wrong — perhaps even that it offers neither a meaningful contact with the natural world nor a good education.

Among the good things about the article is the space given to waldorf school science teaching and the findings of Mark Hayes, who has read a book on the Steiner science curriculum. One that, moreover, was recommended to him by the movement itself.

Darwinism, the book notes, is “rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics”, while homeopathy is given as an example of “an effect that cannot be explained”. A typical passage on biology reads: “A reductionist biology which states or implies that the human body is a machine … is not one which nourishes the adolescent’s deepest concerns. The current theories are just that – theories. They have not been in existence long and though presented as ‘truth’ they will inevitably change.”

Mark is right to point out that anthroposophy is the basis of the education. This, of course, should have been the focus of Trevor Mepham’s lyrical exposition, but waldorf proponents frequently leave that side of it out. Better, they think, to talk generally about sufficiently nice but rather unspecified things, and let the parents make their own interpretations to suit their own minds, than to spell it out: anthroposophy. Jeevan Vasagar also makes his own interpretation, one which suggests that maybe he’s not too familiar with how, when and why anthroposophy influences Steiner education:

There’s little evidence of this philosophical backdrop [ie, anthroposophy /a] in the Herefordshire school’s everyday life, however.

Perhaps, I conclude, he just doesn’t know what to look for. (Perhaps he didn’t really get access to all aspects of the school’s everyday life, either.) He continues:

It’s clear from talking to the pupils that they don’t regard Steiner as a religious movement.

This, of course, comes as no surprise whatsoever. Their parents and teachers don’t regard the school as a religious/spiritual movement — at least not in public, even if they are anthroposophists. So why would the children do that, and especially children who may not even have heard much about anthroposophy? You see, that’s just not how it works. Steiner schools don’t ‘preach’ anthroposophy (if they did, I’m sure people would be less deluded and more capable of making decisions not regretted later). They work with anthroposophy as their foundation and immerse children in an anthroposophically ‘appropriate’ environment. That’s the point of it. What you get from talking to the children is a consequence of this approach. That they don’t recognize Steiner education, or even anthroposophy, as a religious/spiritual movement is all par for the course — it’s supposed to be that way.

Another highlight is, of course, the presence of Melanie Byng (woof!).

She feels embarrassed to admit that the aesthetic was part of the appeal. “An ordinary nursery seems messy, crowded, full of plastic. In a Steiner kindergarten, they use natural materials – wood, wool, everything very neatly and pleasingly arranged.”

But the academic part of the experience showed itself to be quite a disappointment, she says. I think not a few parents have discovered the same. And it isn’t embarrassing to fall for the aesthetic part. Even I could do that, and I should know better. Ironically, going back to the beginning of the article and looking at what Vasagar writes, one gets the impression he’s falling, at least a little, for the same things.

Vasagar’s lack of real insight shows most spectacularly, however, when he writes that ‘eurhythmy‘ is ‘a Steiner exercise involving stretching and hopping to music.’ Stretching and hopping to music, well, that’s a description that could work for comical purposes (perhaps), but as information it’s simply pathetic and entirely inadequate. He ends the article by saying:

But it’s not just a matter of attractive wooden furnishings and organic food – Steiner schools offer a radically different take on the world.

They do indeed ‘offer a radically different take on the world.’ What a pity that The Guardian fails to tell us much at all about that take on the world. Because an account of what that ‘take on the world’ entails would have been truly interesting and informative.


Read also the BHA’s comment on the article.

19 thoughts on “‘a different class’ (on steiner education in the guardian)

  1. hopefully the ‘radically different take on the world’ will be the next story. It is after all a very interesting one (a far more interesting one than spinning for Teflon Trev) and however many times we tell it, it still surprises someone.

  2. I left a comment which I hope you won’t mind me leaving here too, where it might be more easily be found!

    I’d like to add, for the sake of completeness, that the quotes on the science curriculum in this article are from the book “The Educational Tasks And Content Of The Steiner Waldorf Curriculum” by Martyn Rawson and Tobias Richter. There is also a useful section on “Anthroposophy as the basis of Steiner Waldorf education”.

    I’d encourage prospective Steiner parents, or anybody else with an interest in science education, to take a look for themselves. Don’t rely solely on the information provided by the schools. Do your own research.

  3. Of course I don’t mind, it’s an excellent comment (and your contribution to the article was as well)! (Unfortunately, the Guardian thread is so huge (and parts of it pointless) that things drown in it. I drowned in it. Actually, by page three I was desperately gasping for air.)

    I linked to some other science stuff not long ago:
    There was a link to a science curriculum book that some parents might do well looking at…

  4. Good to see you Sune… I’m glad all the recent negative publicity for Waldorf hasn’t affected your health too much… Tell me… How are we critics doing? Do you love us yet?

  5. Pete, I’ll shorten your link, it runs all over the page (for some reason, sometimes they don’t line-break properly…).

    He’s been using that word (or something similar) before. I think it’s his way of informing us he’s returned to twitter ;-)

    It’s obviously a mildly derogative expression in swedish, but the most important thing is it makes very little sense.

    (‘Gnäll’, by the way, is ‘whine’ but ‘prat’ is simply ‘talk’.)

    I don’t mind talking. In fact, it would be better if Sune himself talked a bit more. As in talked, not just stormed in, posted a link or some repeated old nonsense and vanished.

  6. I think it’s him calling himself a talking (or even whining) aunt. Which is odd, since he’s been so silent lately.

    No, really, I suppose it’s me. But as long as he doesn’t expound on what he means, I’ll suit myself to any interpretation…

  7. Ah, windbag! Now I see.

    It’s interesting to see that Sune is often less than clear even in Swedish, inventing terms to which he assigns his own eccentric personal meanings, mixing up usages, distorting syntax and generally torturing the language.

  8. It’s even more interesting he manages to do it using just ONE word. It does take some skill.

    Well, Sune, you could just explain what you meant, if you even know it yourself ;-)

  9. Thanks for fixing the link… I was embarrassed when I saw what it did to the page… :o
    Windbag… hmmm… another word for “long-winded” – or someone who talks too much… a pontificator perhaps (see I can make up words too)? I think he must have been announcing that he’s here. It’s sad, in a way. I suspect the critics have cut out his tongue lately.

  10. No problem, Pete. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen with long links. Sometimes it does, and I’ve never figured out why…

    Pontificator sounds like someone who says something meaningful. Sune is saying, I think, that I talk a lot of nonsense. I think nonsense is essential to what he’s trying to say.

    I’m not sure who’s cut out his tongue lately — perhaps we can ask him! Oh, wait, he never replies…

  11. well, I’m not sure where to put this. It’s not so important or interesting. But once you’ve had state-funded steiner schools for a couple of years, you realize what happens then? There’ll be demands for state-funded waldorf teacher training. There was a demonstration today in Stockholm:

    They demand that the government and the state takes financial responsibility for waldorf teacher training, despite the fact that the teacher training, antroposophical training, does not lead to any formal teacher qualifications. It’s enough to teach in waldorf schools, but waldorf schools are exempted from the requirement to hire only trained teachers.

    These demands are arising even though it should be well-known what made Stockholm uni toss out the waldorf teacher training after they took over that rather unfortuante experiment from the Teachers’ college.

    You get what the argument will be: now that the state funds steiner schools, it is also the state’s *responsibility* to ascertain that these schools have access to a supply of teachers trained specifically for these schools. And that there should be quality requirements before funding is given will be seen as completely out of the question — in fact, it will be seen as unfair. ‘Other schools get their teachers from state-funded academic institutions!’ True — but they’re also scrutinized and have to live up to certain requirements. Oh, don’t talk about that, that’s UNFAIR!

    Call me clairvoyant. There was one anthroposophical training insitution — also training teachers I think — in the UK that was in a dire financial situation not long ago. I guess they didn’t ask for state-funding. But in the future, they might. And they might get away with it because too many people have dispensed with knowledge and critical thinking and believe that anything can be true if we like it to be true and that alternative ‘pedagogy’ and pedagogy are just equally good ideas, whatever you fancy, your wish shall be fulfilled (preferably by others)… ok, I’m stopping now.

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