books are not natural

Yesterday, I tried to reply to a point someone calling herself ‘Waldorfmommy’ was making on Steve Sagarin’s blog. She explained to MarkH why there were no books in waldorf kindergarten (there aren’t books in school either — at least not during the early years). He had asked, in school, and got the usual evasive answers. Waldorfmommy’s answer to MarkH is no less evasive — like the rest of the discussion, which focuses on what an ideal short explanation of waldorf would be, the readiness to provide an answer that honestly reflects the anthroposophical background is rather limited. Reading is bad for spiritual development. That said, I thought it still might be worthwhile to look closer on Waldorfmommy’s reply to MarkH. I wrote two comments that I posted here on this blog (and on Steve’s but they haven’t showed up there yet) yesterday, and I want to lift them as posts. I’ve also made a number of additions, so read this post too, if you have time.

Waldorfmommy: One of the most joyful and least expensive ways to get a child on this path is to appeal to their natural desire to hear and tell stories and act out their ideas through open-ended play.

What about the child who has an equally natural desire for printed books and for learning to read? Don’t you realize that this is just as natural? And, thus, appealing to that desire for reading and for books ought to also be regarded as natural. Needless to say, children with such desires will find waldorf dull — waldorf provides them with (some of) the things Waldorfmommy mentions — ‘listen to complex stories, move their bodies in rhyming games, recite verses and songs’ — but that just won’t be enough. And I know it won’t be; it wasn’t enough for me.

But we also need discuss to this stuff about what’s ‘natural’, which is apparently something of a buzzword, like ‘holistic’. It is assumed, then, that waldorf education is ‘natural’; mainstream education, in contrast, would have to be less ‘natural’ (or else: why use ‘natural’ as a specific selling point for waldorf?). I believe waldorf teachers need to hear a few words from someone who, as a child, clearly failed to meet waldorf standards for what’s natural and normal. They probably rather not, because actually hearing it would mean doing some damage to their own self-image. There are beliefs so deeply ingrained in the waldorf personality. They’ll brush it away, saying ‘waldorf is not for everyone’, but that’s just an after-the-fact excuse. If waldorf is the natural way, then it is for everyone. If it is natural not to read before this or that age, then the non-reading is the thing to promote. For everyone. Provided that what’s natural is also good — another assumption waldorf folks seem unwilling to examine. Of course, many waldorf children read — or have a desire to learn it — prematurely according to anthroposophical standards. But waldorf teachers ignore this and raise the slow-learners to ‘natural’ standard. They have to. This strategy helps support their dogma. Some, few children aren’t eager to learn, don’t want to be engaged intellectually, let’s make them the blueprint for everyone.

This leads me to the next important point: I think it’s time that waldorf teachers show some evidence for what’s natural and not, because if you don’t, you have no reason whatsoever to deem a certain behaviour or preference ‘natural’ and, effectively, to deem everything else — everyone else who doesn’t follow this template of waldorf normality — ‘unnatural’. And you also need to prove that what you’ve shown to be natural is also good, beneficial, in other words, something we ought to promote because it has the effects we desire to achieve. So far none of this has been shown. Ever. All we get is emotionally based arguments about what’s natural… and fluffy nice and cute and seemingly comfortable. At least for adults who believe in a certain type of paradise for children and who like to close their eyes to the not so paradisiacal aspects of their preferred paradise.

Whether you believe it or not, those children who have ‘unnatural’ desires can sense what you feel about them, they can sense that, in your eyes, they are wrong, they do wrong. They, their personalities, their individualities, don’t fit into your worldview; their way of being and of expressing themselves is undesirable to you. Thus, they’re bound to feel deficient, defect — they’re failing in the eyes of the adults they often look up to: their teachers (and parents). There is a standard they try to meet, but constantly fail. They have to try to become someone they are not. And, in this instance, they will have to dumb themselves down to try to meet this standard, they will have to become stupid — to reject their intellectual desires — to be a good waldorf child in the eyes of the adults who care for them. All of this, I believe, is a very bad thing for self-confidence.

So, at least, if you’re talking about what’s natural (or, for that matter, good), offer some proof that it really is. Until you can do that, I think it would be much preferable if you treated reading as just as natural an activity for children as listening, clapping, whatever. Because chances are it is! And you will have intellectual children in your classes and as long as you assume there’s something unnatural about their desires, you’re not able to treat them with the respect they deserve — as human beings who have their own inclinations and their own reasons and their own capacity for making choices. Even at a young age. If they want books, they should be allowed to enjoy books and, most of all, they should not be met with the attitude that books are unnatural.

When I read explications of waldorf that include words like ‘natural’, I think that this is not really about ‘natural’, it’s about ‘judgmental’.

It’s about passing judgment over people (children) who do not live up to your own particular spiritual standards. Them being individuals in their own right doesn’t seem to be much of a concern, sadly.

reading and writing in waldorf

People will object that the children then learn to read and write too late. This is said only because it is not known today how harmful it is when the children learn to read and write too soon. It is a very bad thing to be able to write early. Reading and writing as we have them today are really not suited to the human being till a later age—the eleventh or twelfth year—and the more a child is blessed with not being able to read and write well before this age, the better it is for the later years of life. A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen (I can speak out of my own experience because I could not do it at that age) is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years, can already read and write perfectly. These are things that the teacher must notice. — Steiner, The Kingdom of Childhood, pp 26-27. (Available for free online via Steinerbooks.)

There’s a discussion on the critics list. If you only read one post on this topic, let it be this one, by Diana in reply to Frank; I quote a couple of passages (but you should really read the entire post!):

No. I am not “confusing” early Waldorf with later Waldorf. I assert that the anti-literacy bias, which children first encounter in the kindergartens and early grades, continues throughout a Waldorf education, though most of the damage is done in the very early years. Of course children do read in the later grades and upper school in Waldorf; a Waldorf high school may or may not be much different from any high school in this regard. The striking difference is in the early years education.

What parents need to know is that when Waldorf says they don’t believe in “early” reading, they are defining “early” differently from the mainstream. Many people will agree that pushing children to read “too early” can be damaging. But by “early,” they tend to mean 3, 4, 5 years old. They don’t want their children doing worksheets in preschool.

However, when a Waldorf teacher tells you they don’t push children to read “too early,” they mean 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years of age. Steiner said that ideally adolescence was better spiritually for reading and writing. Waldorf schools know they can’t delay it THAT long, but they get as late a start as possible, and keep tamping the brakes for a long, long time. And they know they can’t explain this pedagogy in so many words to parents, since very, very few parents who are concerned about education are in favor of their child’s literacy being permanently hampered.

But to approach this from the beginning, Frank said it’s bullshit (and nonsense) that waldorf schools want to prevent children from reading and writing and from learning to read and write early, giving lots of more or less irrelevant arguments, among them how bad it is to pressure children. That may be. But what Diana had written was not bullshit. I wrote:

In my own experience, and in the experience of lots of other people I’ve heard the same thing from, it’s certainly not bullshit. A child who knows to read and write before 1st grade begins — like I did — will definitely be discouraged from pursuing these interests in many waldorf schools.

Diana replied to this, and also replied to Roger’s comment. The picture they paint is very familiar. The picture Frank tries to paint is strangely unfamiliar, which leads me to think that either his waldorf school(s) is (are) unique, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s making shit up. Lots of irrelevant arguments from Frank, since they don’t really address the fact that waldorf teachers actively discourage or prevent children from reading, and why they do this, to which I replied:

No, Frank, I wasn’t talking about kindergarten (or early grades, which I take it refers to education for 7-year olds and younger children), even though I learnt to read while I was still in kindergarten. I’m talking about first grade. In Sweden, first grade starts the year the child is seven. This is later than in most other countries. I was 6 1/2 because my birthday is in december. I already knew how to read and write. I was EXPLICITLY told I should not write words even if I knew how to. I was clearly mature enough to read and write, because I knew it without anybody teaching me. I wasn’t pressured. I WANTED to read and write. Yet I was told not to do it. What do you think the message is? That it’s bad. Shut up and play the flute. There was a very popular tv show for children, it aired when I was in 1st grade — it taught reading, writing and simple maths. Talking about this tv show in school — or bringing to school the booklets that were published and were supposed to accompany the programs — was prohibited. Why on earth? Every other educational institution would have been thrilled to see children enthusiastic about such a tv series. Not waldorf.

And:

… lots and lots of children learn to read and write despite waldorf education. I know this. Some of the children who weren’t allowed to read and write at home were very eager to learn anyway … These kids were striving to learn — despite the fact that the school tried to delay it. I’m sure they learnt — because they hungered for it. School is by no means necessary for driven children to learn these things. They do it anyway. I think this is one reason waldorfs schools don’t manage to fuck up children’s lives to a greater extent than they do.

Judith chipped in. She also raised another issue, namely that of waldorf parents usually being educated themselves — these children don’t grow up in homes without books. And many parents provide their children with reading material — despite the school’s policy and wishes. They’re even helping the children learn, so as to make sure they don’t fall behind. Diana asks for the statistics we really need in order to know it the approach to delay and/or prevent reading writing is successful. Walden points to hypocrisy. Frank suggested that if the waldorf schools Diana, Roger and I experienced were like this, we must have lived in a parallel universe. We didn’t, of course. Well, waldorf itself is a parallel universe, but it’s surprisingly uniform from country to country, continent to continent. To which I replied:

This self-delusion is what prohibits waldorf staff from honestly saying to parents: ‘Your child has needs we can’t meet, needs we aren’t prepared to meet, because they aren’t part of our educational philosophy. Your child wants and needs intellectual stimulation, and there are other schools which are prepared to offer this. We are not.’

Waldorf schools would prevent a lot of anger and disappointment if they actually had insights into and were honest about what it is they’re offering and how it differs from mainstream education. And if they had the insights into children’s individual needs — insights which they claim to possess but don’t.

When waldorf proponents argue for late reading, like Frank did in one post, they like to mask their arguments, as Diana pointed out in the post I quoted initially. They ‘make statements about child development that use mainstream terminology and hence aim to deceive by coming across as actual educators, when they’re nothing of the sort, and the spiritual mission is masked’, she writes. This we need to be wary of.

Not all waldorf teachers will be equally fanatical about reading and writing; I suspect my teacher was not very fanatical, she wasn’t judgmental about it, she followed the school’s rules on what kids could bring to school, and when it came to writing, what mattered was, I think, the concern that other children, who didn’t yet know how to write, would be prematurely exposed to writing if another child wrote entire words. And this some convinced anthroposophists — among parents and teachers — would be opposed to. (Some waldorf schools I’ve read about even have policies on clothes with print on — no text! I’m not sure such a policy was in place in the waldorf school I attended, and at least it wasn’t strictly adhered to.) Not all anthroposophists are fanatical about this either; some probably allow for the child’s own interests and desires to guide the learning; some probably aren’t anti-books at all — thinking that the child’s reading will happen when it happens — and don’t fuss too much, or at all, about ‘premature’, albeit voluntary, reading. But that there is a negative and discouraging attitude towards early reading — even woth regard children who have taught themselves to read — is certainly not bullshit, as Frank claimed. He should know better, much better.

comment

Via @thetismercurio I found this blog post. I think it brings up several important criticisms of waldorf education, including one of my pet topics, the delay in teaching literacy and the discouragement of reading and writing. I think this is one seriously harmful aspect of waldorf pedagogy. Waldorf proponents either don’t acknowledge that it happens at all (at most admitting that waldorf students learn at a ‘different pace’ or something similar) or they claim that no harm comes from it anyway. The harm to me is obvious: the child is not allowed to learn to read and write, and this, in turn, restricts the child’s experience of the world. It’s actually a confinement of the mind. Because waldorf schools don’t stop at refraining from ‘pushing’ (as they often call it) literacy; they intentionally delay it, and actively discourage children’s interest in reading and writing, if these interests are appearing prematurely according to anthroposophic dogma. Continue reading “comment”