Several discussions over the last few days* about an old familiar issue: why would it matter that (or if) waldorf teachers are anthroposophists, isn’t it their personal prerogative to believe in what they want to believe in, and to adhere to whatever spiritual teachings they prefer, and should we even be asking questions about this? Who would ask, for example, a christian teacher to declare his or her beliefs? Who would even consider these beliefs at all?
Well, first of all, it’s not so much a matter of asking an individual teacher to declare his or her beliefs. As far as someone’s belief system will be an influence on the teaching or the relationship with the children, that’s another matter; there might be particular questions that would be relevant to ask. But other than this, it’s a matter of personal belief, and remains a matter of personal belief. Likewise, if an anthroposophist teaches in a regular school according to mainstream pedagogical ideas, there’s hardly any point in raising any questions about this teacher’s personal spiritual outlook. It’s simply not relevant, or at least not relevant enough to warrant an interest in it, lest there be very particular reasons (for example, this outlook significantly affecting what actually goes on in the classroom in an individual case).
With waldorf schools, things are, in fact, a bit different. In waldorf schools, the matter is more complicated than this, the ‘problem’ (if you see it like that) is built into the pedagogy. Anthroposophy is not solely a matter of individual choices of the teachers; it is not just a matter of personal spirituality. Anthroposophy is the foundation and the source of the pedagogy itself, and this is not a matter of small dignity — it basically makes waldorf education what it is. Anthroposophy is what sets it apart from other pedagogical approaches. The outer differences are superficial — and you need anthroposophy to explain them, too. In short, anthroposophy matters. And it should.
A further complicating factor — at least in discussions and when it comes to correct information — is that waldorf proponents and anthroposophists tend to perceive anthroposophical knowledge as though it were almost some kind of ‘neutral’ (in want of a better word) knowledge. Steiner’s developmental model is simply conceived of as ‘psychology’. When waldorf teachers study the pedagogical foundations of waldorf, for example in Study of Man, one gets the impression that this knowledge passes as ‘pedagogy’ rather than being identified as ‘anthroposophy'; anthroposophy seems to be so self-evident that it isn’t questioned as such, its truth is, more or less at least, taken for granted, without its name even being used. When talking with ‘outsiders’ this causes much confusion — what is to the anthroposophist neutral knowledge, pedagogy in this case, is from an outsider’s viewpoint pure anthroposophy. This, obviously, is a rather ‘extreme’ example, most instances were this phenomenon acts as a confounding factor are probably more subtle. What are anthroposophical ideas have simply become — in anthroposophical eyes — knowledge about the world and man. They are thus misidentified; they’re not recognized as anthroposophical, but perceived of as part of the ‘natural’ way to view things. Perhaps there is too little discussion — clear and explicit discussion — about these things in waldorf teacher training courses. Steiner is read too uncritically and too little effort is made to put him into a perspective and to read and to compare him with other pedagogical thinkers (who were usually actually pondering pedagogy rather than using pedagogy as another outlet for their conception of the spiritual fate of the universe and of man) — and most importantly to discuss how the foundational worldview behind waldorf distinguishes it from other paths.
In any case, whether anthroposophy happens to be an individual teacher’s personal spiritual worldview or not, it must be possible to discuss how and when and why anthroposophy has a role to play in waldorf education — because the role it is playing is undeniable and huge. Without anthroposophy, there would be no waldorf in the first place. So while you can’t require from the individual teacher that he or she makes a confession of belief — although I do think questions about it are absolutely valid as far as these beliefs influence the teacher’s pedagogical practice and attitudes — there should certainly be a requirement made on these schools and other organisations to be honest about and to discuss the belief system which underlies the pedagogy, the method, and which influences — sometimes dictates — how the school is run. This is no longer a matter of a teacher’s individual belief. In contrast to other schools which are openly confessional but use mainstream pedagogical methods (and hire conventionally trained teachers), the waldorf school has anthroposophy deeply ingrained in its way of working, its way of educating, its beliefs about the child and its traditions and the teachers are trained to apply anthroposophy in practice. And this is so, even if they don’t identify it as ‘anthroposophy’ and even when they believe it’s enough that ‘anthroposophy is not taught to the children’. (The latter is largely beside the point.)
The complication that arises with waldorf education is that a teacher’s personal worldview — when the teacher is an anthroposophist or positively inclined towards anthroposophy (which I would say is at least to be expected, for why else choose this job?) — overlaps with the spiritual ideas that guide the school and inform the pedagogical method itself. Anthroposophy is not merely a personal spirituality or even conviction, it is also, at the same time, a part of the professional path; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. And no matter how much (or little) weight an individual teacher accords various anthroposophical tenets, the fact is that the waldorf school itself is run based upon anthroposophy, its pedagogical methods are anthroposophical, the way child development is perceived has been derived from anthroposophy and all waldorf trained teachers have studied anthroposophy as a (very significant) part of their training, which is very different from ordinary teacher training.
This is all we need to know in order to understand that anthroposophy as the basis of waldorf education can’t be ignored. It’s all we need to know in order to understand that anthroposophy can’t be regarded as a personal matter only, because in the waldorf school it plainly isn’t. For the individual teacher, it might be a personal matter, too, in addition to being a professional one. But that recognition — that anthroposophy can also be the teacher’s spiritual belief system and thus part of his or her personal sphere too — should not deter inquiry into waldorf education as such and should not invalidate questions about how this — personal and (often, within the waldorf community) shared — spiritual or religious worldview influences the schools and their methods and traditions.
This is not to say that any teacher can work or any school can operate without values and ideas and whatnot. (In many cases it is probably sound to examine these ideas consciously.) It is just to say that in waldorf schools, there’s a specific set of ideas in place and they belong to one particular worldview which has pervasive influence on the pedagogy. These ideas are extremely strong and important, and should not be ignored because it is more comfortable for the schools to ignore them. Most importantly, these ideas, even if identified as, for example, ideas about ‘child development’ are ideas directly derived from anthroposophy — and they’re not somehow psychological or pedagogical ideas in general, they don’t (I’m sorry to say) stand on equal footing with mainstream psychological or pedagogical theories. Their validity is restricted to the context from which they derive — anthroposophy. Not that they aren’t interesting, they certainly are, at least for those of us who entertain ourselves with peculiar hobbies, but you have a lot of work to do in order to prove that these ideas have something to offer to the world outside of their anthroposophical context.
* The discussions inspiring this post were this one (in English, read Joe Evans in the comments, January 21; he represents the new Steiner free school hoping to open in Bristol and although he now speaks of anthroposophy, he seems thoroughly embarrassed by it — anthroposophy is not just esoteric it seems, it’s embarrassing…) and a discussion on facebook (in Swedish).
Addendum: After I wrote this post, some new things occurred, and maybe I’d like to say something more about it, but for now this suffices. And this: can anyone understand why parents would not want to know or need to know about the worldview the pedagogy they choose contains, why they would not want to know what the worldview means for the method, what it means for the conception of child development used in the school, what it means for the daily life of the child at school and the teacher’s approach to the child? Why would a parent not want knowledge about this? Why would a parent feel burdened by this? Why would it be better not to be told enough and told thing correctly so that one, at least, can investigate it further, if one wants, before deciding? Why would it be an excuse to not offer information lest parents feel unnecessarily burdened by it? Why would it be an excuse to say — we don’t want to push this on parents? (Who would feel pushed by getting correct information?) Can there be any good reason for avoiding the topic of anthroposophy than merely the schools’ and teachers’ convenience and the potential and short-term financial gains? What I don’t get is why it isn’t much better to attract those parents who actually do want waldorf, after making an informed decision, rather than attracting lots of parents who really don’t want it, once they know that the teacher see their children as reincarnating souls? Isn’t it better — in the long run — to repel that second group, those who don’t really enjoy these ideas? And to concentrate on those who are more likely to be happy with their choice, even when knowing what it entails? (Diana sums it up so well here.) Or is it too much to do with karma– I know that Diana is fond of this angle, and I am too — and not wanting to ‘interfere’ with the child’s karma by scaring the less spiritually or anthroposophically inclined parents away?