Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Times leaves out the 'Waldorf' in Waldorf School portrayal

Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, has a front-page story about a school in Silicon Valley, popular among tech execs, that keeps computers out of the elementary school classroom.  That's interesting as far as it goes -- if my children were elementary school age, I would be open to putting them in  a computer-free classroom. Yet the article is quite odd, in that Richtel seems to have very little idea of what kind of school he is affording a 1500-word front-page article.  The school is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, California -- that is, per its name, a Waldorf School, i.e. a school based on the educational theory that the Anthroposophist sect founder Rudolph Steiner derived from his own idiosyncratic fusion theology, which combines elements of eastern mysticism (reincarnation, karma) with Christianity (overlaid by what C.S. Lewis called a "reassuring Germanic dullness") .  That means that students' education is shaped by a set of religious beliefs quite as specific and literal-minded as those at an evangelical Christian school.

My wife and I worked as dorm parents in a Steiner School for special needs children in Scotland for the 1981-82 school year. On the plus side, I can vouch that the curriculum overview on the Waldorf School of the Peninsula is likely quite accurate as far as it goes:
Waldorf education is a path of self-development. It is also training for responsible and enthusiastic participation in the world. The Waldorf curriculum supports the child’s developmental stages, and children experience this curriculum through repetition and rhythm. Beauty and a mood of reverence flow through the lessons and the environment. A variety of academic and arts-integrated experiences develops movement and sensory motor skills—skills in perceiving self and the outside world. This cultivates trust, social skills and consciousness, and spiritual awareness. The social climate and students’ behavior are equal in importance to the students’ academic progress. The individual child is an integral part of the wider school community where adults and children of all ages work together, with the older children acting as role models for the younger ones. 
The rub is that the Waldorf understanding of those "developmental stages" is shaped by the occult thinking of Rudolph Steiner and underpinned by Steiner's pseudo-scientific mystical formulas.  These include a psychological typology that pegs children between the poles of "hysteria" and "epilepsy" -- a duality with racist overtones, biased toward the light-skinned, outgoing, nervous "hysterical" and against the dark, interior earth-bound "epileptic" (the hysteric suffers from a lack of boundaries between self and the outside world; the epileptic, from a lack of connection).*  See here for an application of this classification system to a particular classroom problem.  

In  a second psychological typology, as summarized by Wikipedia, "Waldorf teachers use the concept of the four temperaments to help interpret, understand and relate to the behaviour and personalities of children under their tutelage. The temperaments, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine, are thought to express four basic personality types, each possessing its own fundamental way of regarding and interacting with the world." That's typical Steinerism: Treat a set of mystical formulations reworked from medieval and/or far eastern doctrines as definite facts, the physiological phenomena aligned with spiritual counterparts.

Other Steinerite nostrums: a) That human physical activity is more or less spiritual depending on how close to the head it originates. Hence soccer is bad, because it's centered on foot action; similarly, most human dance as we know it needs a revamping, provided by Steiner's "eurythmy," which emphasizes arm and upper body movement. b) In drawing and painting, hard lines defining shapes are verboten until a certain age/level of spiritual development -- hence the Steinerite classroom art products that are all pale pastel shadings reminiscent of the drawings of William Blake, whom Steiner admired. c) In woodworking, children are not allowed to hammer nails until a specific age -- I think about 10 or 12 -- until, again, their spirits enter a defined new stage.**  An account of how these strictures can play out when a child doesn't fit the Anthroposophist mold is here.

At the Scottish school, many of our fellow volunteers were Germans who had been educated in the system. One of them told me that in her teens she was surprised to learn that the Greek gods were not historical figures, so thoroughly did the curriculum meld myth and history.  Another Waldorf school vet (American) told me that Waldorf schools generally included study of the phone system in their science curriculum -- because Steiner had a great enthusiasm for it. The hot new technology of the late nineteenth century was reified for another century because it caught the founder's fancy.

The Scottish school, part of the Steinerite Camp Hill organization, did create an aesthetically attractive and culturally coherent environment, a warm and rich cocoon that screened out the surrounding junk culture. For mentally retarded children in particular, it was a nurturing and stimulating environment, full of song, short and accessible prayer, spiritually accented appreciations of nature, and arts & crafts produced to Steinerite specs. It was also quite pleasant for the emotionally disturbed kids of normal mental ability.  The children, considering their emotional disturbances, were quite kind to each other -- a notable accomplishment I appreciated afterward, working in the far crueler environment of an American special needs school  -- though it's impossible to say how much of the difference was due to a milder degree of emotional disturbance in Camp Hill school.

As indicated in Richtel's article, Waldorf schools allow a good deal of free play and self expression, albeit through the subtly coercive anthroposophist modes. Today, to varying degrees, in different countries and communities, they do equip graduates to deal with the modern world (though the Scottish school where my wife and I worked did not do so for children of normal mental ability or higher). Certainly, affluent American parents in places like Silicon Valley demand no less.

But Waldorf education also exerts a form of mind control, an inculcation of religious belief as fact, as is done in fundamentalist schools of all stripes. Waldorf schools are not obviously "fundamentalist," because the truly controlling scriptures are the writings of Steiner, through which the Christian Bible is filtered. But those writings have served as the basis for a cult, abiding by a set of spiritual dictates straining credibility less than Mormonism only insofar as Rudolph Steiner confined his storymaking to the spiritual history of the universe at large and did not make up whoppers about himself.  Still...however subtle and in some ways humane the indoctrination at Steiner schools, it's still indoctrination.

* My allegation of racism is based on my own experience at a Camp Hill Waldorf school in Scotland, derived from staff discussions of anthroposophist readings, at least one of which extrapolated the hysteric/epileptic polarity to different races, and in which there was, as I say, a clear bias toward the hysteric, which extended to long-term staff's reactions to particular children whose physiognomy allegedly conformed to type.  Steiner's explicit racism is heavily documented in this essay.

** Update: from a site devoted to exposing core Steinerite doctrine underpinning Waldorf ed, a summary of the alleged spiritual stages that determine curriculum, down to specific e tasks like hammering nails and drawing outlines as well as more fundamental approaches:
The pedagogy of Waldorf schools is informed by Steiner’s esoteric scheme of karma and reincarnation. The child ‘incarnates’ in 7 year cycles: the ‘etheric’ body is born at 7, the astral body at 14 and the ‘ego’ or the individuality that returns from past lives, at 21. Abstract reasoning is discouraged too early (before 14) because it interferes with the anthroposophical – spiritual – vision of human development

1 comment:

  1. Waldorf schools today do indeed teach Steiner's racist philosophy as science. I have documented my own child's "physiology" lesson extensively. His teacher, at Highland Hall Waldorf school in California, presented the lesson that "the blood of people from Europe is more evolved than the blood of people from Africa and Asia". When I questioned this lesson with the school, it was required that I had several meetings with teachers and administrators from Highland Hall - and they DEFENDED the lesson. They continue to claim no racism is being taught at Highland Hall rather than revise their curriculum. When people don't recognize racism in the first place, they are hardly in a position to suggest racism doesn't exist in their school.

    BTW, my ex worked at Camphill in Scotland... as an exchange student from the U.S.A. I've heard a few stories about the treatment of the children there.