Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Cult of Waldorf Critics

Press coverage following the release by the DfE of departmental briefing material dated from 2010 brought about by a tribunal decision upholding an appeal by the British Humanist Association has been heavily weighted against the educational philosophy of Steiner Waldorf schools (BBC News (Should Steiner Schools Receive Public Money, 01/07/2014 & Bullying and racism claims as secret Steiner dossier exposed, TES 31/07/2013). When “news” based upon on a document setting out representations received by a government department is spread in this way, an organisation such as the Steiner Waldorf Schools’ Fellowship is at a distinct disadvantage. We have to respond to claims most of them based on insinuation, uncorroborated accusation or repeated copy-&-paste. As a result, any explanation or denial gains the appearance of defensiveness & the taint of no smoke without fire. One of the reasons Steiner Waldorf schools have tended not to react to attacks of this type is an awareness of the amplifying effect this can have. In fact, sources for the views received by the DfE mirror those who have used the opportunity of the BHA case to post views that once again smear the schools: it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

My intention here is to offer a perspective based on evidence & an informed knowledge of the background & contemporary situation of Steiner Waldorf education. Admittedly this comes from an insider, who works on behalf of these educational settings. As such the view must be partial. Whether that partiality avoids being partisan is for the reader to judge. I can, however, say that the SWSF is committed to working to help schools provide the best all-round education for pupils. Waldorf principles are a means to that end, but not a sole or exclusive means. Indeed, Steiner himself placed action research by the practitioner at the heart of the way the Waldorf School was organised. The SWSF takes serious criticism seriously & the duty to seek “continuous improvement” is fundamental to its remit through ongoing accreditation of its members & its advisory service. While, as a membership organisation for settings that are themselves independently governed, the SWSF would have a the conflict of interest if were it to be involved directly in mediation or handling complaints about its members, it does intervene indirectly with schools themselves & settings should recognise that, as part of a “fellowship” of schools each member has a responsibility to uphold the highest values in all matters. It could be that a small number of genuine problems have been allowed to escalate leading to overly-defensive attitudes that aid those who have a dogmatic, anti-Waldorf/anti-Steiner, agenda whether for professional or more personal reasons. The formal, legal registration & regulation of schools via the DfE, along with regular statutory inspection is rightly the means by which serious failings, including any substantial complaints, can be dealt with.

Inevitably, but unfortunately, SWSF schools & teachers do not always succeed. Any failure is extremely disappointing, especially where children are involved. The reasons are often complicated, as any breakdown in relationship tends to be. Steiner Waldorf schools tend to attract large numbers of families who have had previous disputes, &/or bad experience, with other types of school, & have sometimes unrealistic expectations. We are well aware, that, in attempting to work as practical idealists in the contentious field of education, disappointment is felt all the more keenly when things go wrong. However, the highly distilled picture of SWSF members in England set out in the DfE briefing documents goes far beyond a portrait, “warts & all” to one that is all wart. But what it appears, superficially, to depict is a catalogue of dysfunction that, were it true, would be just as disturbing to this author as to any reasonable person. The document appears to indicate a high proportion of SWSF member schools in 2010 subject to serious complaint. The reality is less straight-forward. The “complaints” quoted in the briefing come from fewer individuals than the eight schools referred to. The incidents are reported by individuals wanting to prevent more Steiner Waldorf schools becoming Academies & to our knowledge the DfE, which is responsible for decisions about ordering short notice inspections when they judge a complaint to warrant it, did so for only two schools during academic years from 2009-11. In both cases, the inspection failed to uphold the validity of the complaints. Similarly, the negative forecast for the inspection of the Steiner Academy Hereford, & based on incomplete information, proved wrong.         

Any complaint denied is likely to be a complaint unresolved in the mind of the complainant. Those with reason for disappointment, or who simply wish to continue their dispute in another way, tend to join ranks. They soon discover a number of internet blogs, many written by semi-professional Steiner critics, including those quoting from upon the writings of a self-styled “anarchist-historian”, a lecturer at the private, Jesuit, Marquette University in Milwaukee, Peter Staudenmaier. I mention Staudenmaier here personally because he has made a career through accusing Seiner & (by association) Waldorf schools of fascism, racism & anti-Semitism, & continues to do so even when this involves tendentious argument, malicious editing, or fictitious quotation. Accusations of that sort can provide a greater cause in which many more personal ones shelter. The work of the former, towards whose work this essay is principally directed, amount to an anti-Waldorf cult whose religion is trolling of & ad homonym attack of anyone attempting to defend the schools. 

Steiner did not use “politically-correct” language. He died in 1925 & a very small number of his statements have been identified as racist in modern terms. The SWSF has made perfectly clear that it entirely rejects these & such statements are not pertinent to Steiner education. The tiny number of those comments gives the lie to any assertion that Steiner intended to promote a racist doctrine. Moreover, contrary to what “critics” assert the substance of the accusations dissolve in the light of Steiner’s vision of the development of humanity as a whole. He saw this as leading towards a situation in which racial & other such distinctions (he was a supporter & associate of the early Austrian German feminists, Rosa Mayreder & Marie Lang) would cease to have any meaning & saw that as positive. Journalists such as the BBC’s Christopher Cook have repeatedly illustrated their counter-argument with a diagram taken from the German edition of one volume of Steiner over six thousand lectures. The illustration appears to show a diagram with an abominable, Nazi-style, version of human “progress”, apparently from “negro” to “white Aryan”. What such commentators fail to note, sometimes because they lack sufficient knowledge of the often difficult form of German Steiner used (the lectures are all based on stenographic transcript, uncorrected by Steiner himself), is that he was not speaking of present-day ethnic groups, but of a situation he viewed as taking place in a very distant, prehistoric, past. It is perfectly possible to dispute the validity of what Steiner describes, but incorrect to refer to it as racist.

Critics also fail to mention that, at the time, Steiner was working within the Theosophical Society & his occasional use terms such as “Aryan root race” were common in that context at the time, but that Steiner modified them by insisting that the historical should not be extrapolated into the present or future. In fact the situation described by Steiner seems closer to the view emerging from genetics suggesting that homo sapiens were only one of the variety of “human” species that, living side-by-side must have interbred (“Neanderthals” for example). Words like “Aryan” have, of course, acquired a malignant significance since World War II of which people of the late nineteenth & earlier twentieth centuries were as yet innocent. Furthermore, Steiner made clear that “progress” involves loss of some capacities that will need to be regained in a new form at a later time & which are necessary if humanity as a whole is to evolve in a healthy direction. Steiner’s thought takes more than one perspective & is often complex, far more so than the linear version of evolution his critics ascribe to him. There is no question of his regarding “the white race” as a zenith of contemporary perfection. Similarly, Cook’s offending diagram does not show the alleged doctrine of a present-day “incarnation through the races” insinuated by Steiner’s detractors. The description clearly has no discriminatory intent & absolutely no encouragement to harm on racial or any other grounds.

A report commissioned in 1995 by the government of the Netherlands, where Steiner (“free”) schools are publicly-funded, uncovered sixteen statements scattered through 8900 pages of his collected works, which it was judged, could be considered racist if written at the time of the report. Significantly the same enquiry found the schools themselves, with the exception of a single “unrepresentative incident”, to be innocent of any form of racism. Furthermore, an independent survey of German schools conducted by Christian Pfieffer, Professor of Criminology at the Research Institute of Criminology in Lower Saxony, found “right-wing” extremist views to be three times less prevalent among Waldorf Secondary students than those in the Gymnasiums (equivalent of Grammar schools) who were found to harbour fewer “xenophobic” or extreme right-wing attitudes than their contemporaries in the Secondary Modern equivalent “Hauptsch├╝len”

A full discussion of the question of Steiner’s thinking (which he called, “Anthroposophy” – the wisdom of & within humanity) & the racist accusation, with all relevant citations by Dr Robert Rose can be found in his e-book, Transforming Criticisms of Anthroposophy & Waldorf Education (freely available online at http://www.anthroweb.info/fileadmin/pdfs/RR_Transforming_Criticisms.pdf). Suffice it to say, however, Steiner as a person who lived the greater part of his life during the nineteenth century, occasionally used language in a way that is, as it should be, anathema today. So too did a number of prominent & still influential writers & thinkers of the period (the views of Charles Darwin, H.G.Wells, Joseph Conrad, G.B.Shaw & Bertrand Russell on questions of race & eugenics spring to mind). Nonetheless, Steiner’s concern for the freedom, free will & the development of individual potential in its highest sense, which is what Waldorf education tries to serve, was profound. One must wonder whether, given the endemic & deeply ingrained remnants of racism in all European culture (& often within other cultures, especially those influenced colonial occupation), those who criticise Steiner in this way may in fact gloss this deeper issue of residual racist attitudes, which are linked to strongly rooted, usually unconscious, bias towards others like ourselves (something that surfaces in continuing concern that top jobs are predominantly held by a narrow set on individuals with similar schooling &c). 

For Steiner educators, the essential issue is what really happens in the schools. Unfortunately, myths & untruths told by some critics of Waldorf education make it harder to establish where genuine problems exist. From the experience of this author, having previously worked in &/or visited a large number & variety of Waldorf settings, including all those in the UK & Ireland, it is hard to credit many of the stories put about. The claim, however, that in some way, Steiner education is underpinned by a racist ideology or one that condones bullying, is an entirely false construct.

The illusory logic of the issue for professional critics of Waldorf education, whether explicit or implicit follows like this: Steiner was “an occultist”, therefore his conclusions cannot be tested & the premise for them is unreliable; since Waldorf schools were founded by Steiner & Waldorf teachers “follow” him, the education amounts to that of a religious organisation & any fault, inappropriate action or, for that matter, anything the critic disapproves of, can be explained by this unholy calculus. The result of that logic is to present as a fact nothing more than conspiracy theory as flimsy as those based on alien abduction or messages from crop circles. Steiner certainly used the term “occultist”; he was a deeply intuitive thinker & saw his experiences in this regard as expressions of an objective spiritual world. Frequently he depicted the things he set out to explain in imaginative terms. He can be seen as following a line of thought that includes figures both religious & secular such as: Goethe, William Blake, German idealist & American Transcendental thinkers, Simone Weil...Essentially, he sought to develop & help others to develop a participative mode of thinking, a thinking that could enter & act from within the processes that animate all existence: for those interested in Steiner’s ideas, whether in education or otherwise, this constitutes the continuing relevance of his writings & remains the rationale for studying them. That endeavour may be despised by scientific reductionists, but his view was no more based on assumption than those who prefer to regard the universe as a mere material product driven by blind & finally meaningless forces. One major aspect of Steiner’s philosophical work was to propose a form of phenomenological monism, an attempt to dissolve the dichotomy of vitalism & naturalism: in short, he was an early "holistic thinker".  

Steiner had a scientific education & saw scientific method as the key to modernity, but Waldorf schools have been criticised as “anti-science. A variety of accusations of this are thrown towards the schools, many without, or in the face of clear evidence to contrary. One such allegation is that of opposition to vaccination in spite of a clear statement by the European council for Steiner Waldorf Education that member associations do not see this as something educators can, or should, determine. The educational point has been examined by the Austrian office of the PISA, international educational attainment study project, for example, found students in Austrian Waldorf schools both better informed & more able to employ scientific thinking than their peers in all other types of Austrian school (2006 by the Austrian Bundesinstitut for Educational Research Innovation and Development), which recommended Steiner Waldorf schools as models for teaching in the sciences. According to this study, Austrian Steiner Waldorf schools are better at teaching the sciences than schools in OECD countries and Austrian schools in general. I quote:
The results of pupils at Waldorf schools in the sciences are better than the average for pupils in OECD countries with 524 points and 500 points respectively and are also higher than the average for Austrian schools. In comparison, the average results in this area lie between the two higher school types (AHS, BHS) and the occupational middle schools. The difference in results is smallest in the sciences in relation to the AHS with 50 test points and to the BHS with 30 test points in comparison to the two other areas of competence (reading and mathematics)....
Recommendations for educational policies based on the PISA results can be made especially for the teaching of natural science. Based on the relatively high competence of Waldorf pupils in natural science, combined with exceptionally high indicators of motivation and reflective cognition in these subjects as well as the different pedagogical principles, it is reasonable to conclude that public education can learn from the Steiner Waldorf schools, in particular with regard to being able to concretely apply knowledge in natural science. 
Critics of Waldorf education often suggest that Waldorf teachers & teacher trainers are in some way controlled by Steiner’s thought. It would be hard to envisage how that could be managed. To support their case, some refer to the Goetheanum, a Steiner-designed building that houses the Anthroposophical Society near Dornach in Switzerland, as a “headquarters”. In other cases, an unspecified location “in Germany” is quoted the head office for all the schools. The independence of Waldorf settings, however, is one of the things that mark them out: & which leads to criticism. The mildly anarchistic diversity of people working in the Waldorf movement is strength as it is also a weakness in the way the schools work. Why it is that the existence of legal associations for the advancement of Steiner’s work arouses suspicion in a way that does not for any number of similar publicly-registered organisations says more about the critics than the Anthroposophical Societies in question. But this results in a lazy interpretation Steiner’s Anthroposophy as a “cult”. The use of this to smear the schools & everything else arising from Steiner’s ideas is distortion. As this writer understands the word, “cult” involves some means, psychological & otherwise, by which members are controlled usually within a rigid hierarchy. However, given that membership of their respective Anthroposophical societies applies to only minority people working in Waldorf education not to mention the individualistic nature of those who do, the idea that there might be control mechanisms of the sort could not be farther from the truth.

The keys to Waldorf education as a “movement” are, on the one hand, the curriculum &, on the other, a methodology interlinked with principles inherent within that curriculum. But the curriculum is a supple, developing framework intended to guide the way teachers work with their classes. The Waldorf curriculum has its foundations in that of the first school (for children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, in Stuttgart, 1919) but cannot be located there. Until Steiner's death in 1925, he was responding to questions raised by active teachers as they together modified & added to it. The principles that inform this curriculum framework are what continue to inspire teachers to become Waldorf practitioners, principles such as: teaching to the growing point of a child’s development (not dissimilar to Vygotsky’s famous “zone of proximal development”); teaching from the “whole to the parts” (i.e. apprehend the subject/phenomena in general then analyse its components); teaching with the aid of imagination (i.e. creating a “picture”, a affective-linguistic model to enable children to connect & engage deeply with a topic or discipline); providing ideas that can grow with the child (not rigid concepts, but ideas that can adapt as the young person matures); teaching through “art” (i.e. using a variety of routes to learning, via movement, drawing & painting, music, group engagement &c); working with sleep (drawing on the lesson of the previous day so that the pupil have time to find their own questions & individual “take” on it); “working from life” (experiential learning, from activity to reflection). The published curriculum for schools in the UK is synopsis of the general current guidelines, but cannot fully describe the way teachers individualise this for themselves & for their particular classes. Respect for the developing individuality & potential of the child, a desire not to over-reach the individual child, is central to all this.

Alongside the work teachers do with their classes, action research is the essence of the collegial structure of Steiner Waldorf schools. This is brought together through a collegiate process. Individual teachers share responsibility for the school as a whole as well as a profound responsibility for their classes. When schools are working well, there is always study of lessons & individual children in order to improve the educational programme & practice. Steiner’s suggestions for meditation are a way to assist individuals to centre themselves & so be able to serve the children better, but teachers vary considerably in how they choose to apply this to their own needs & circumstances. The concept of a “reflective practitioner”, novel in Steiner’s conception is vital to Waldorf methodology. Many teachers, for example, will regularly form a vivid inner picture of a child, or children, about whom there is some question, or difficulty, allowing this picture to stand objectively in the mind before letting it go into sleep & then calling it back to mind before class the next day when completing the lesson plan. This “calling on the wisdom of the night” can be a practical experience of what for this author is a spiritual hypothesis put forward by Steiner in his descriptions of the way what is spiritual works into the rhythms of daily life. Many of Steiner’s other ideas can be of use, but whether they are or not depends upon the person concerned. Those who report Steiner’s concepts of “reincarnation & karma” being trotted out to explain or justify bullying point to something, which if true, is entirely inappropriate. Similarly ascribing fixed & immutable qualities to any individual is simply wrong in Steinerian terms. Descriptions in Waldorf education of human qualities such as temperament carry the intention that these aid positive understanding & assist in supporting the individual concerned. This is in contrast to the models given by theorists such as, Han Eysenk on temperament, or the Briggs-Meyer schema. Such typologies tend to seen as determinative, where Steiner’s where intended as descriptive & transformative. Anyone using “Steiner said” to pigeon-hole other people, does so at their peril & is at odds with Waldorf principles. 

A SWSF version of Waldorf principles, which are at the centre of an evolving curriculum (see The Tasks & Content of the Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum or Towards Creative Teaching published by Floris Books), can be found in the pre-amble to its Code of Practice for members (available via www.steinerwaldorf.org):
·        Respect for the integrity (“unique essence”) of each individual & of the living things & the world in general
·        Interest in and Positive approach towards the potential for development in young people in particular & in all human beings 
·        Recognition of the central importance of lifelong learning  
·        Commitment to the core task of educating children in the light of the above in order to encourage, enable & value the
·        Contribution of individuals, groups and communities to the improvement of our common human heritage 

Where schools fall short of those ideals, they are duty bound to attempt to put things right. Waldorf is education “informed by spirituality”, which simply means education in the light of our highest potential as expressed through the entire range of human culture. Human capacity is nowhere located absolutely; it is always contingent & multifarious. For some the idea of spirit may include a religious dimension, for others, not. Steiner Waldorf schools represent an international educational philosophy. There are schools in every continent (except Antarctica!) including a huge range of major religious, secular & multi-cultural communities. In the UK & Ireland the SWSF includes independent & publicly-funded schools each working with their specific possibilities & resources to educate young people to become competent, creative & fully-rounded personalities able to give purpose & direction to their lives. We do not see the passing of exams as the be-all-&-end-all of schooling, although, during the writing of this one member school has announced its end-of-school results: 32% A or A* grades with 86% between the A-C bands & 100% at A2 level. Such results are well worth celebrating, but are not that unusual. 

Perhaps of greater significance are the number of children who join our schools who in their own way feel themselves to have become victims of national educational systems dominated by targets driven by generalising statistics & characterised by frequent unstable political interference, children who have suffered from extreme forms of bullying, or who have been half-drowned with the weight of adult anxiety & expectation. In spite of what Waldorf schools try to do, they are not immune to the latter. Nonetheless, our schools in many ways succeed in offering the nearest thing our hurried & frequently dysfunctional & destructive society has as sanctuaries in which young people can grow into resilient & resourceful adults. Our schools are certainly concerned about enabling young people to the best “outcome” for them, for their education, but it is in healthy, well-adjusted adults & lifelong learners that Waldorf schools see their successes.   

August 2014

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