Daisy Powell, whom most of you know from before, graduated as a Steiner teacher from the (now closed) course at Plymouth University earlier this year. (She was also seen in the recent BBC program.) Her dissertation was written about a topic that might interest waldorf enthusiasts and critics alike; its title: Can the Steiner Waldorf schools movement break out of its niche by engaging with its critics? I hope Daisy can still get a teaching job after asking such a question! Presupposing that waldorf is a niche phenomenon? Suggesting that critics of waldorf eduction might actually have something to say? That what critics say is not just unfair and hatred and bitterness and so on? Well, it is, I guess, brave.
Daisy’s dissertation was previously discussed in this thread, and some critics replied to all or some of her questions (for those interested, there were also a number of posts over at the critics list). In that post, her questions to critics were included at the end.
A while ago, I read the dissertation and was positively surprised. It exceeded my expectations. Earlier, when I saw the questionnaires that were supposed to be the basis for the dissertation I was hesitant about whether it would work very well, but on the whole it did, and this has to do with how Daisy chose to handle the whole topic and also the questionnaires themselves. I am obviously not too familiar with the academic requirements in the pedagogical field, but I can speak about it on another level: my impression of Daisy’s essay is that she reasons honestly and very clearly; she also writes very well, which is always a great asset. It is also an interesting essay to read. Unlike many waldorf proponents who want to deny claims made by critics but instead invent straw-men to reject, because that is easier, she manages to discuss some of the arguments that critics actually make. Daisy tries to discuss both various criticisms — having to do both with waldorf practice and the underlying ideas (anthroposophy) — and the waldorf movements’ reactions. Naturally, in the scope of an essay of 45 pages (excluding references and the appendix), it’s not possible to treat every (or any, really) kind of criticism at length, but on the whole, Daisy presents the points of criticisms pretty fairly and does not attempt to downplay their weight.
In part one, Daisy presents her project, and does so very well. In part two, she turns to what perhaps is the most interesting, she calls this part ‘Addressing the Criticism’ and begins with one important topic: ‘Anthroposophy in waldorf education’. One major criticism, which she discusses, is that schools are not open enough about the anthroposophical foundation of their pedagogy. I find the examples of criticism that Daisy have picked very representative for what critics actually say; they are taken from Plans’s website, the articles on David Colqohoun’s blog and also from this blog. She acknowledges, which is unusual, that what critics say is not that waldorf schools teach anthroposophy, which is what proponents often claim critics say. There are critics who say this, but they can explain what they mean by it, and it isn’t — as proponents imply — that the teachers lecture about anthroposophy overtly. Daisy herself agrees that schools are often not open enough in their communication, but doesn’t believe this is an intentional cover-up, as it were. (I’m less sure about that.) I wholeheartedly agree with these conclusions and recommendations, though:
I do think that some within the Waldorf movement have a conflicted relationship to anthroposophy, in the sense that they believe in its tenets, but prefer the outside world not to know this for fear of ridicule or persecution. But if schools are indeed working out of anthroposophy, they would do better to own it, communicate it and be proud of it, than to hide it and compromise their integrity and authenticity. Greater clarity and communication is called for; schools and individuals need to establish what their relationship to anthroposophy is, and find a way of explaining this – to parents especially – in a way that is authentic, but also accessible. For example, if teachers are influenced by Steiner’s ideas, then in what way do these come into play in the classroom? What is understood by ‘body, soul and spirit’ and what is their relevance to education? These kinds of questions could be discussed in teachers’ meetings and the findings communicated to parents.
The next section of part two deals with whether waldorf schools are religious or not. (We briefly return to the old, familiar ‘anthroposophy is not taught’ objection.) Proponents usually say it’s not, but Daisy has a few answers that suggest otherwise — although to these proponents, waldorf is spiritual, in one case, and, in the other, it is a ‘faith’ but not a religion (oh, how confused!). Daisy acknowledges that one can ‘use’ anthroposophy as a philosophical path, so to speak, but that the teaching also includes lots of doctrines and ideas that can be taken on faith — perhaps even must be taken on faith, as few, if any, of us are assumed to be able to achieve the level of clairvoyance that Steiner supposedly achieved. In the following discussion, Daisy concludes when and, more importantly, how Steiner’s ideas might be useful. She writes that ‘it would be beneficial if Waldorf teacher training courses offered students more opportunity to critically compare Steiner’s child development theories with those of other educationalists and modern pedagogical research. Whilst in my experience, many of Steiner’s insights as described above are valuable and accurate, the exclusive focus on “what Steiner said” about child development is limiting and would be better balanced alongside other views.’ I think so, too. If his insights are of any value at all, then certainly that must be the way to go. (Whether they are is another question.)
Naturally, the topic of racism in anthroposophy, so often discussed by critics, is mentioned in Daisy’s essay. Daisy’s conclusion, after reading the racist passages in their contexts, is that Steiner did believe ‘that humans evolved through a successive hierarchy of races’; a brave (but obvious) conclusion that is likely to upset some waldorf proponents. She also points out, and I agree with this, that how ‘fundamental this belief is to the anthroposophical worldview is a separate question.’ The waldorf proponents who responded to her questions seemed partially unaware of Steiner’s racist statements. Some appear to have been confused as to what these statements really contained. A frequent defence of waldorf proponents is that these racist quotes have been taken out of context, but Daisy points out (as critics have done many times) that this defence is not valid — she ‘cannot imagine a context that would absolve them of racism.’ At least one proponent replied that children of different races are taught together in waldorf schools, thus the discussion is irrelevant today. I’d like to add that educating these children together is not incompatible with the kind of racist beliefs that are found in anthroposophy anyway. For example, it’s worthwhile for anyone to improve spiritually, to incarnate ‘higher’ next time. There are no anthroposophical reasons why this would not benefit those individuals who are today incarnated in so-called lower races. Basically, the waldorf proponents dismissed this criticism — for the old, well-known reasons: misunderstanding, taking out of context, Steiner’s times, et c — and in Daisy’s opinion, they did so too easily, without knowing enough about the topic themselves. But she doesn’t think racism in anthroposophy is necessarily relevant to the discussion about waldorf education. (I sort of agree. Sort of, only. It certainly isn’t, in my opinion, as relevant as it has come to seem.)
To summarize and comment on a few other topics and criticisms raised: There’s bullying, and, more specifically, non-intervention. Daisy discusses the potential karmic reasons behind failure to intervene, and notes there are many excuses for someone who doesn’t want to bother doing something about a bad situation, karma being one such potential excuse. Waldorf proponents responding to the question seemed to be (or pretended to be, I note, cynically) unaware that this was an issue, except one teacher who admitted that, yes, it does happen, but only when — and this is not the first time I hear this, of course — karma is used in the wrong way, a simplified way. Perhaps it’s just too difficult for teachers to use a concept such as karma in the ‘right’ way, in a good way. In another chapter, Daisy discusses a possible anti-intellectual bias in waldorf education (she refers to criticisms made by Roger Rawlings — former waldorf student –, Geoffrey Ahern and myself). Even better — she manages to connect this with anthroposophical beliefs about the luficeric and the ahrimanic. Maybe, she suggests, it’s gone too far — the fear of intellectualism, of cold materialism, has become too dominant. She also discusses imitation and creativity, and I wish I could delve further into this. I’m not sure — though I am undecided — whether the replacement of creativity with imitation (especially in early years) is one of the ‘milder’ criticisms, as Daisy thinks. I feel that the creativity which is allowed is so limited — it’s not limited just to imitation, it’s limited to what you can do at all. Writing, for example, would be seen as too intellectual, thus not appropriate. And you have these moral judgements about what is good and what is bad. Failing at imitation is bad enough, but not possessing the talent for or the interest in the prescribed arts and the methods for their execution is even worse. You see, in my opinion, there’s nothing gentle about the waldorf approach to education and child development. It’s as rigid and proscriptive as any path — the premises are only different. This problem, of course, is not exclusive to the context of creativity and waldorf limitations on it.
Daisy also discusses whether waldorf education is for everyone or not. Most people who responded seem to have said no, which happens to be what I believe too. However, in other contexts, waldorf proponents, waldorf teachers and schools are less likely to state that it isn’t for everyone; try find a waldorf teacher who explains which types of kids waldorf is not suited for — or even better a waldorf website that makes these things clear. And unlike one respondent, I don’t believe that it makes any difference whether we talk about waldorf schools — as they are — or waldorf education on some higher, theoretical level; that is, in the sense that the practice may not suit everyone, but the underlying principles do. I don’t even think it’s any more ‘nuanced’ to believe this; I think the only nuanced answer is to say that, no, neither the actual practice or the theory (even in its most ideal form) suits everyone. I would almost say that, per definition, any claim — whether about the practice or the theory — that it suits everyone is lacking nuance. I can understand why someone would think that this possibility of universal applicability exists — if the anthroposophical view of man is correct, then surely waldorf pedagogy (in its ideal form) would suit every human being. I, however, don’t think the anthroposophical theory is quite so magnificent or complete. I agree that this is a minor point of criticism, but it somewhat irks me to read — which I’ve done elsewhere numerous times too — waldorf proponents suggesting that it suits all children, but not all parents, or that it’s heaven for ‘imaginative, artistic children’ but even better for the children who are not imaginative and artistic because it gives them a possibility to develop what they’re lacking. And all I feel is that they don’t know what they put children through, and they don’t care if the child is hurt by it — it benefits anyway, according to some warped thinking. And I fear that, when you involve a lot of bonkers ideas, you lose the ability to see the individual child and its needs. And you keep waldorf on a pedestal, unable to notice that it isn’t suited for everyone, and that it can’t even be, because it’s neither perfect in theory nor in practice. I shall not delve on this longer (though, as you can tell, I could!).
Part three of the essay is an attempt to put things into a wider perspective. It mildly enrages me to read about some of the responses by waldorf proponents, some of whom feel that critics are misunderstanding and are misinformed (not misunderstanding more or being more misinformed than proponents, I’d say) and that critics aren’t being constructive so it’s pointless to engage with what they say. Here’s a blunt message for those people: it’s not for us who have already been the victims of lies and crappy education to ‘fix’ your problems. It’s your responsibility — and your responsibility alone. Someone, who claims to be a ‘committed rationalist’ and critical of anthroposophy himself, says that he doesn’t like what critics do because they use ‘pejorative language’, and the example used is that anthroposophy is called a ‘cult’. One can discuss whether it is or not, but certainly any group that fits the definition of a cult is a cult and it’s not pejorative to say so — it’s a matter of fact, and if the cult runs schools, there’s certainly no reason to be extra polite, tolerant or indulgent to cultish behaviour. If the description fits, it fits. It’s no more pejorative than to call an elephant an ‘elephant’. The discussion about the future of waldorf education is interesting, and should be read by anyone who cares about it. I don’t know if I have an answer, from my viewpoint, and I’m not sure I’m the right person to try to summarize the thoughts and ideas that Daisy has collected on this topic — they were however interesting, and as for those ideas expressed by waldorf proponents (some of whom must have been teachers), I only wonder if these, overall positive, strands of thought can ever become more of a reality. I suspect there’s a possibility that those teachers, who are so liberal and thinking about things in new ways, will give up in the end, because their colleagues are not like that — just a hunch I have. I don’t know if these ideas can become more prominent within the movement, because they lack concretion (which may be explained by the fact that this was not the place for that, but, then again, the same has been seen elsewhere) and they’re supposed to be applied in a system seemingly resistant to change and particularly resistant to radical questioning of the foundations of waldorf education (they’re denied, when needed, but not really questioned).
In the concluding chapter, Daisy offers some thoughts on improvements (especially when it comes to making Steiner teacher training more professional) and describes what she likes about waldorf education. To me, none of those things seem particularly waldorf specific, and even though some things are prevalent in waldorf, other descriptions are buzzwords that I feel have too little to do with reality. I don’t think, for example, that waldorf is particularly apt at recognizing the child as an individual, unless you invoke an anthroposophical-mystical interpretation of the word ‘individual’. Which gets us right back to where many waldorf problems appear to begin.
I’ll end with a quote from the dissertation:
I believe that Steiner education is still in its infancy, and ideally, over time it will distance itself from esoteric, theosophical language and find a more rational basis for its practices that are communicable and understandable by the general public. The alternative is to cling to mystical beliefs and an ‘us vs. the world’ mentality, which may keep purists happy, but it will prevent Steiner education widening its sphere of influence and enriching educational practice as a whole – which I strongly believe it has the potential, even the obligation, to do, as there is much within it that is of value.
In short: Well written, well done. Good stuff. Worth reading.
A couple of small points, which I wanted to comment on but didn’t feel very important to the post above. They are however quite interesting in that the two waldorf proponents who have responded are well-known to anyone reading about these topics online. It’s surprising that they confuse things in the way they do. (In the first of the two cases, I’m quite certain the respondent is well aware that he’s making things up. In the second, I’m actually surprised that the confusion would arise, because Sagarin knows better.)
Daniel Hindes, in correspondence with Daisy, laments that the internet makes it possible to publish without ‘fact-checking’. (Page 8.) He then goes on to claim — if I interpret him correctly — that the debate appears somehow unbalanced as there are less than 10 waldorf critics, who are active in the online debate, but the waldorf movement has 60000+ teachers and educates a million students. I very much doubt there are a million waldorf students worldwide. That would mean that waldorf schools average at least a 1000 students. I do not know of any waldorf school that has that many students. On the contrary — many schools are small, numbering less than a 100. Daisy points out that ‘numbers are not as important as the substance of the claims’, which is true. Still, Daniel Hindes, especially when talking about fact-checking, should not lie. One can also discuss the reasons there are so few — although, fact is, there are a lot more than ten — waldorf critics. Some are active only during shorter periods of time, then they move on (of course, what else? unlike waldorf proponents, being a critic is not a paid position, critics have nothing to gain, and not endless time to spend). More importantly though — waldorf proponents (who operate under many different aliases as to seem to be a lot more people than they are) actively try to dissuade critics — through intimidation, threats and even law-suits. In addition, lots of those who have negative experiences never go on to find out why, they move on instead. It takes time to find out what lies behind this kind of education. Some blame themselves and move on. Some do find out a few things, but don’t want to compromise the safety and the sanity of their families, and keep it to themselves. Some people contact critics privately, but don’t want their experience to become publicly known. Of course, there are not a million of us. But neither are there a million happy waldorf students. Because, first, there are not a million students and, second, even if there were, a 100% of them would be unlikely to be content. It might be worth adding, too, that it’s not the fault of waldorf critics (no matter how few or how many) that the waldorf movement sends out the nut jobs to provide the counter-arguments to criticism while the more reasonable voices — if they exist in any significant numbers– remain silent.
On page 17, another waldorf proponent, Steve Sagarin, is trying to muddle the waters, it seems to me, when he neglects to make a distinction between ‘Geisteswissenschaft’ and ‘Geheimwissenschaft’, or perhaps he just confuses the two things. There are two relevant words in this context in German ‘Geisteswissenschaft’ and ‘Geheimwissenschaft’. The first is used for the humanities, and would possibly fit Steiner’s philosophical works. But the other word, also used by Steiner himself, means ‘occult science’, the ‘science’ of what is hidden for our usual senses, that is, in Steiner’s case his version of theosophy, and not the same as humanities in the academic world. Some of the stuff Steiner engaged in — after his turn to theosophy — is clearly more Geheimwissenschaft, while his early works were philosophical, that is, Geisteswissenschaft. For the latter, there are numerous ways of using the word ‘spiritual’, and sometimes it becomes confusing. But to return to the former: One of these books, Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss, is called Occult science in English. Certainly of a different nature than Steiner’s earlier philosophical works! One possible problem is that in English, the word ‘spiritual science’ (another word for anthroposophy) might have been used in a confusing ways by anthroposophists — it’s used for both types of works. Sagarin focuses on only one type of work — not acknowledging the difference between Geisteswissenschaft and Geheimwissenschaft — and not the occult science part. By equating Steiner’s work with ‘Geisteswissenschaft’ only, he wants to indicate that what Steiner was into was equal to academic humanities. As far as concerns his work from his introduction to theosophy and onwards, this is misleading. For this work (remember that pedagogy was a development of anthroposophy which took place fairly late in Steiner’s career), the German term Geheimwissenschaft is for the most part more appropriate. Most importantly: it does not fly to pretend that what Steiner worked on as an esotericist is ‘humanities’ in the academic sense. When Sagarin claims that Steiner’s ‘spiritual science’ is what is called ‘humanities’ in German universities (he actually says this), he’s either ignorant about Steiner’s work or about German universities or both. The angelic hierarchies, karma, reincarnation, the akasha chronicle or supersensible beings are not studied as facts or factual possibilities at universities in Germany. Rightly, Daisy is sceptical of Sagarin’s explanation of ‘spiritual science’.