This post is complicated to write, I must admit. In short, Daisy, a BA student on the now terminated Steiner waldorf teacher training program at the University of Plymouth contacted me and asked if I were willing to answer some questions related to waldorf criticism. I said I’d do that, if I could do it on the blog. Subsequently, I received the ‘final’ set of questions. (I have posted all of them in full at the end of this post.) I will attempt to discuss a few of them, not all. I will first try to express my concerns about this project in particular and the Steiner program at Plymouth university in general.
These concerns are important. I agreed to discuss the questions because I thought they could lead to interesting discussions. However, I recognize that there is a problematic side to this: one part of the problem is the previously expressed attitudes of students and staff at the Plymouth Steiner program. This background story should certainly not go unmentioned. One staff member and tutor, Alan Swindell, who is also working for the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship (SWSF), has written about waldorf critics in a way that is pretty damning — for him and the SWSF. (A recent SWSF document — pertaining to an intriguing SWSF teachers’ conference in april 2012 at the Rudolf Steiner House, London — confirms that Swindell works at the SWSF and is still tutoring the Plymouth Steiner course.)
I’m not sure one can have confidence in those who teach the Steiner program at Plymouth University or in their students. My bet is, probably not. This, for me, is virtually a non-issue. I’ve written about the questions that have been raised before, and I can’t stop anyone from picking from what I have already written, should they want to include my views in whatever texts they’re writing. I suppose past behaviour displayed by people connected to the Plymouth course gives legitimate cause for concern, but there always is such cause for concern. Therefore I’m going to say, wise from previous mistakes, that I don’t endorse anything. I don’t vouch for anything. I cannot be the judge of what is ok and what is not — you have to work that out for yourself.
I can only discuss those matters and questions I find interesting; that is as far as my own involvement goes. Whoever decides to participate needs to make their own decisions. But before you answer any personal questions, be ware that your answers might very well end up in the hands of the waldorf organisation. There are people who can gain from misusing and abusing any personal information they can find about former parents, especially those who are anonymous. Please do read Swindell’s text and my blog post and the discussion thread about it.
I also want to include here what Daisy herself wrote to me about her project:
… I’m doing this because I think the Waldorf movement generally has not been sufficiently open to criticism and scepticism in the past, and that particularly in light of state funding, more effort needs to be made to engage with critics. […] although I’m studying Steiner ed I don’t have a personal agenda for or against it, and thus am stepping back and looking at the debate as objectively as I can.
I very much agree with the first part of the quote; and in that context, one must appreciate efforts taking another course. As of yet, I don’t know that there is no agenda, though. And I don’t know the level of objectivity. Most of all, it’s impossible to know what this project (or any data gathered in the process) can be used for once it’s finished; and that, I’m afraid, may be outside Daisy’s control, and certainly outside our control. She also writes that
…I won’t mention names in my work if they don’t want me to, and I don’t have an agenda to portray critics in a negative light, so they can respond in confidence.
I would say though that even if Daisy’s intentions are ‘clean’, there are people involved in Steiner teacher training at Plymouth University that I wouldn’t trust with access to personal information or even my identity (were I anonymous). That has to do with their ties to the waldorf movement and to the SWSF and also with the fact that so much is at stake — money, prestige, PR — for this movement that people might be prepared to use personal information in unethical ways. I wish I could tell you something differently, but this movement has a lot to prove in this department.
steiner, waldorf and anthroposophy at plymouth university
Another cause for concern is that any collaboration or any attention could potentially serve to legitimize waldorf teacher training at universities (but let’s not overestimate the importance of critics). In my opinion, waldorf teacher training has a very long way to go before it should even be considered appropriate for a university program at a public, state-funded university. I don’t think it will happen any time soon — if ever.
Despite having terminated the waldorf teacher training program, there’s still a ‘Steiner-Waldorf/Hereford Academy research project‘ based at the University of Plymouth. The credentials of some of the researchers seemingly amount to long-time involvement in the waldorf movement, for example work within the SWSF. The project claims to include mainstream researchers too, but I would not take their word for it (none of the listed researchers appears to belong to that category). It would be interesting to know what this group of researchers has actually achieved (for example in terms of peer-reviewed articles in mainstream educational journals), but I have no time to investigate it further. Plymouth University ought perhaps investigate this project further, though, as the university affiliation helps boost its academic credibility. As if this was not enough, Plymouth University lends academic credibility to a master’s program in eurythmy. This program is offered by Rudolf Steiner college in Järna, Sweden, together with the university (sorry, no intake 2012!).
I suspect that one of the movement’s major goals right now ought to be to get back into a UK university with their teacher training programs. This background might be worth keeping in mind when pondering Daisy’s questions and perhaps also the reason for them. Given Plymouth University’s involvement in other Steiner activities (mentioned above) perhaps Plymouth is the horse to bet on, despite the fact that the present teacher training was closed down. (Aberdeen would be another interesting possibility.) Plymouth University tells us:
Please note: the University of Plymouth has ceased recruitment to its undergraduate Steiner Waldorf degree courses. However the courses have not closed and students who started in September 2009 will be fully supported throughout their studies. The University of Plymouth remains strongly committed to Steiner Waldorf Education and continues to offer postgraduate and research opportunities in this subject area. It is also actively engaged in discussions with the international Steiner Waldorf community concerning ambitious plans for a range of academic and professional practitioner offers.
One important reason why waldorf teacher training courses (or even waldorf research projects, for that matter) don’t belong in public universities is anthroposophy, the foundation of waldorf education. There is no waldorf teacher training that isn’t anthroposophical. If there were, it would be a failure from all points of view. Even at Plymouth University, the Steiner program reading lists are heavily Steiner-based. Unsurprisingly so, because otherwise these students would not (and should not) be able to thread the professional path they have chosen. It is not, however, the appropriate course material for a university program, which, supposedly, is to have a more scientifically sound basis. Anthroposophy potentially serves well as a personal belief system or spiritual worldview that students can entertain in their spare-time, but it can’t be the very basis for academic studies in the way that it is in waldorf teacher training.
state-funded steiner waldorf schools
Yet another problematic aspect is the current striving to attain state funding for waldorf steiner schools in the UK. One reason for Alan Swindell’s screed last year and his thinly veiled threats against critics was that more people had begun voicing their opposition to the government’s plans to fund these schools. There was already the Hereford Academy, which had been receiving criticism. There was the dubious Woods report, which aimed at paving the way for the funding (more on the Woods). Swindell rightly suspected that were the free school applications to go ahead, and even succeed, the criticism would become more frequent and harsher. For some reason, he did not seem to understand or want to acknowledge that the criticism was legitimate and critics had valid points.
The main potential threat against waldorf teacher training and other anthroposophical courses at public universities and against state-funded Steiner schools is people becoming aware of what these educational ideas consist of or what anthroposophy is, in general, and what impact it has on the practical anthroposophical applications, among them schools. When people know, they will start to ask whether funding is such a splendid idea or whether perhaps there are better things to allocate public resources to. When people begin to realize there is a need to question the merits of anthroposophy in education and other areas, the image that anthroposophical institutions, waldorf organisations and schools and their PR people want to convey of their own work will no longer remain unchallenged.
the background and the context of the project
Some of the background has already been mentioned above. The reason Plymouth Steiner teacher students found their way to this blog was, presumably, Alan Swindell and the post that commented on Swindell’s text in the SWSF newsletter. I can but recommend that you read at least some of the comments on that post, because they form part of the background to Daisy’s project. Of course, it wasn’t originally about this blog; Alan Swindell was, I assume, inspired to write his article when reading the posts at DC’s Improbable Science blog and other online sources that are more influential on the debate in the UK.
At some point, criticism of waldorf education — and possibly Swindell’s efforts to ‘understand’ it — seems have been brought up and discussed in the courses at Plymouth. Suddenly, several (although let’s not again delve into the question of how many they really were) teacher students appeared on this blog. (Daisy was first, so you might decide to begin reading here.) I wasn’t highly impressed by their argumentation. I was very unimpressed by some of the tactics (for example, one of them decided to pretend to be a regular teacher in order to make the arguments superficially more credible). One might suspect the tone of these discussions at the university wasn’t exactly benevolent.
Anyone involved in any way in Daisy’s dissertation work should be explicitly aware of this context in which the project arouse. In a sense, one might actually say that the behaviour of at least one of the Plymouth tutors, Swindell, and the behaviour of the movement at large has made a project such as this one much more complicated than perhaps it ought to be, for the simple reason that neither critics nor anyone else can be expected to have any confidence in the integrity of the project or of the people involved.
personal questions in the questionnaire
Of course, with or without questionnaires you’re able to find out why waldorf critics have criticized waldorf education. The internet is full arguments, opinions and viewpoints; for example, you can find out my views through browsing the posts and comments on this blog, you can read the archives of the waldorf critics list, you can look at websites and blogs and articles all over the internet. Many of those who comment here have already explained their viewpoints on a number of topics both here and elsewhere. So you can certainly write about criticism without relying on a questionnaire. In some ways that would probably be preferable, considering a situation where confidence may be virtually absent.
Most of all, there’s little use posing personal questions, since few people on ‘our’ side of things would be willing to answer them, knowing the background. (To give the Steiner community the benefit of doubt, perhaps their movement doesn’t fully realize how intimidating its tactics and its proponents can be.) Basically, if such questions are going to be of any value at all they must be handled only by people who have shown ethical integrity. Realistically, I can only see that happening with objective researchers who are independent from the movement. People working in or for the movement are not in that position and a student dissertation is still only a student dissertation (and the integrity of Daisy’s supervisors might be more important than Daisy’s own).
Some of the questions Daisy poses are decidedly personal. I’ve said it already, but there’s no guarantee for how the information gained this way can be used. The SWSF should never be allowed to get access to answers to questions like this one: ‘Describe your experience in as much detail as possible, including any problems you had during this time.’ So you need to remember that the people who run the Steiner teacher training have tight connections to the SWSF. In some instances, they are the same people who work for the SWSF. Private and personal question such as these should have been discouraged by the supervisors of this project. I don’t think the Steiner education staff will feel bound by the ethical guidelines of the university once they’re out of there (and perhaps not even as long as they are still in). Anyone who decides to formally respond to the questionnaire should ask to see the research protocol. This protocol should include indications about the context and origins of this research project, among other things.
I personally wonder if the theoretical grounds for criticizing or rejecting waldorf education aren’t more interesting than details about people’s personal lives and experiences. The objection I have here is that if we’re going to deal with the principal, theoretical, philosophical, ideological objections to waldorf education in a meaningful way, a customer survey among satisfied and dissatisfied customers is simply not enough. And the personal questions are more of a customer survey-nature.
In this context — Steiner training at a university, even if it’s only about a student essay — I’d much rather stick to discussing waldorf education, certain elements of it and its foundation and background than to expound on my own experiences and background. Not that such things are secret or can’t be discovered on this very blog, but in my opinion they are not proper subjects for Daisy’s dissertation.
I don’t want to give unnecessary room to the notion (sadly so prevalent among waldorf defenders) that waldorf criticism is due to the (often interpreted as bad and nasty) characteristics of the critic and doesn’t reflect on the movement; it’s all about the critic, not about waldorf education or its actual downsides and failures. Only read Alan Swindell’s text, and you’ll see. There’s a lot like it, and worse, out there. The personal always seems to give waldorf fans a reason to reject criticism. But, naturally, many of those who start to investigate waldorf education, its content and background initially have a personal reason for doing this. Not many others would care or understand the need for it.
My own experiences are decades old, were made in a waldorf school in another country and are completely irrelevant to any dissertation project at a university in the UK. Moreover, they spanned over a nine year period; it’s not something you describe in detail unless you were to write an autobiography.
‘Do you think Waldorf education can exist without anthroposophy? Would it be better off without it?’
This is one of the questions Daisy has included in her questionnaire. I have discussed this question many times before, directly and indirectly. The answer is no (and to the second question: the notion is silly). Waldorf education that does not have anthroposophy as its foundation is waldorf education only to the name, that is, it isn’t waldorf education. What is unique to waldorf education is anthroposophy and ideas, methods, traditions that are derived from anthroposophy. Waldorf education has its basis in the anthroposophical conception of what the human being is, how she’s constituted and how she develops. Waldorf education is anthroposophy applied to the educational context.
For formal reasons, too, waldorf education can’t exist without anthroposophy. Waldorf education is ultimately controlled, not by the PR division at the SWSF, but by anthroposophy itself, that is, by anthroposophical organisations above the local waldorf schools and associations, and they unequivocally say that anthroposophy is its foundation. I recommend this post on the Hague circle: ‘The basis of Waldorf education is a study of human being and developmental psychology presented by Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) in his volume of lectures entitled “A General Knowledge of the Human Being” or “Study of Man”.’ That is the truth. The ECSWE is also clear on the importance of anthroposophy.
Some waldorf school claim something different. That is stupid, and they make claims they shouldn’t be making. But in the aforementioned post you’ll learn, among other important things, that the SWSF also acknowledges that ‘[a]n Anthroposophical impulse lies at the heart of planning for the school, including the Waldorf curriculum’ — well, of course! Why would it be different? Anything else would be ridiculous. Anything else would make waldorf education entirely superfluous, no matter what we critics might think of an education founded upon an esoteric belief system. Basically, waldorf schools without an anthroposophical foundation is way more ridiculous than anthroposophical waldorf schools. Simply because they would have lost the point and the reason for being (whatever we might think about their ‘being’).
Without anthroposophy, there’s certainly no point to having waldorf education at all. There’s nothing left — it’s an ordinary school, with extra painting, extra flute-play and extra knitting. But without a foundation. Everything that has to do with what you teach, how you teach, when you teach the stuff you teach comes from anthroposophy. Very basic ideas that govern waldorf education would go out the window. It would be an empty shell — ideologically, philosophically, in every way. A body without a spine. An amusement park without the attractions. It would be of no importance, meaningful to no-one. Not to critics, not to anthroposophists. The manner in which the teacher interacts with the students, the way the teacher observes the students and draws conclusions about them, the means she has to help them — anthroposophy. The colours of the wall. The building design. Virtually nothing would be what it is in a waldorf school without anthroposophy. So what would you even keep that had no anthroposophy in it and still was valuable enough?
If waldorf education is to be of any value — not as a shell but as an institution doing something at least some people can appreciate — it has to remain true to its core. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to go more anthroposophical — openly, honestly, of course. In any case, that is more reasonable than removing anthroposophy. Making the most of what it has that is unique. If there is to be waldorf at all. Naturally, improving the schools in every way possible is paramount. But removing anthroposophy would just make them schools, plain schools. And there are lots of good schools competing for the attention of non-anthroposophist parents. What’s unique to waldorf is that they are anthroposophical, not that they’re particularly good (or academically successful). Anthroposophist parents, of which there still are a few, want a school with an anthroposophical foundation. Any changes to waldorf education, although not impossible, would have to be compatible with anthroposophical ideas. Or, I say it once more, waldorf education is only a name, not an education system built around a specific spiritual and educational philosophy or body of ideas.
the rest of the dissertation questions
I don’t want to delay posting this anymore, and am intending to use the comments section for discussion of other questions. This is the complete set of questions Daisy sent to me. Feel free to discuss any of them in the comment thread. If you want to discuss them or anything else with Daisy but don’t want to do it in the thread, I’m happy to get you in touch with her.
“Can the Steiner Waldorf schools movement break out of its niche by engaging with its critics?”
Questions for critics
What are/were the nature & extent of your involvement with the Waldorf world? (e.g. ex-parent/ex-pupil) Describe your experience in as much detail as possible, including any problems you had during this time.
What key criticisms do you have of the school(s) you were involved with? Do these criticisms apply, in your opinion, to the Waldorf movement as a whole?
Is your negative view of Waldorf informed to a greater extent by direct experience, or by what you have read from other people or of Rudolf Steiner’s writings? Or have both factors had an equal influence on your views?
What is your attitude towards anthroposophy and/or Rudolf Steiner?
What are your motives for airing your critical views of Waldorf on the internet? For example, is it a cathartic way of healing from a negative experience, or do you hope to influence parents who are considering this type of education for their child, or campaign against state funding for Steiner schools, etc.?
Have you ever engaged directly with Waldorf proponents who have challenged your views? What was the outcome of this? How well (or not) do you think criticism and scepticism is handled by the movement?
Can you identify anything positive about Steiner education, whether from your own experience of that of others?
Do you think Waldorf education can exist without anthroposophy? Would it be better off without it?
Do you believe Waldorf education has a future? If so, how would you like to see it change? Or would you prefer it ceased to exist?
What is your view of state schools? How do you think state education could be improved, if at all?
Do you think a fusion of the Steiner methods with other educational methods is possible/desirable?