Turning Kids Into Disciples
A Waldorf or Steiner school can be an uneasy mix of radicalism and conservatism.
The more closely such a school clings to Steiner’s occult doctrines, the more radical it is likely to be. Steiner’s teachings are extreme: They are far outside both the secular and the religious mainstream. This radicalism often goes unremarked because so few people are acquainted with the tenets of Anthroposophy, the offbeat Waldorf religion. But many average citizens have heard of Theosophy, the mystical belief system from which Steiner drew most of his ideas. [See "Basics".] If a parent were to approach a school only to learn that it is closely linked to Theosophy, s/he might well decide to look for a less far-out academy; but learning that a school is tied, in some vague fashion, to Anthroposophy, the same parent might not immediately become alarmed.
The conservative element in Waldorf schools derives in part — odd as this may sound — from Steiner’s radicalism. Steiner was head of the German Theosophical movement before he left to set up his own cult. Both Theosophy and Anthroposophy are amalgams of religious teachings from around the world. These teachings are disparate and even, in many cases, mutually exclusive. (We live one life on Earth, then we go to our eternal reward or punishment; no, we live many, many lives on Earth, through the process of reincarnation. There is one and only one God — monotheism; no, the universe teems with vast numbers of gods — polytheism. And so on.) Some of these beliefs, alien to adherents of some faiths, must seem radical from those individuals' perspective; and the process of attempting to amalgamate such disparate beliefs, shoehorning them all into a single staggering spiritual system, is itself radical. On the other hand, looking into the past, consulting the beliefs of ancient peoples, and affirming the continued relevance of such ancient beliefs — this project enacts an essentially conservative impulse. (Steiner claimed that his occult “wisdom” arose from his own clairvoyant powers: He claimed to have clairvoyantly witnessed and confirmed the truth of every doctrine he presented to his followers. This is a radical claim. And it is hollow. ClairvoyanceI is a crock. [See "Clairvoyance".] In reality, Steiner — a bookish intellectual — pored over arcane texts, striving to revitalize their age-old, reverential contents. This was a conservative endeavor.)
Other factors pushing Waldorf schools toward a more or less conservative stance include the need to gain acceptance in their communities; the need to attract students, preferably from well-off families who can afford the schools’ tuition; and the need to placate the local powers-that-be. Furthermore, as the headmaster of the Waldorf school I attended said, Waldorf schools are generally private institutions, made possible by a free-market system. The schools naturally support such a system — they want to preserve it. They are, in this sense, conservative.
One minor but nevertheless interesting reflection of Waldorfs’ conservatism is the stance many take vis-à-vis youth culture and bohemianism, in whatever forms these take. I attended a Waldorf school from 1951 until 1964.  The “avant-garde” in those years was embodied by the Beat Generation — the generation before mine, whose cultural center was Greenwich Village, in New York City. Their music was jazz and folk; their poetry (generally) consisted of unrhymed declamations on the hollowness and corruption of modern American society; they hit the road; they cruised and grooved; they sought freedom and meaning and transcendence. Berets, Vandykes, bongos, free love, booze, weed. "Cool," "crazy, "don't bug me, man," "square." Beatniks.
Although Anthroposophists generally agree that American society is hollow and corrupt, they rarely embrace radical countercultural movements. My teachers disparaged the Beats, warning us through the Beats' example not to stray from our warm Waldorf nest. The Beats, they said, were lost youth, young people who beaten, unfocused, forlorn. There was a trace of truth in this. “Beatniks” did think of themselves as being “beaten” by mainstream society. But (contrary to what my teachers said) most Beats also considered their own, cool culture to be vibrant and alive, an antidote to inauthenticity. Beat: as in the beat of the drum, the beat of the heart. Beat, as in Be-At: be present, be alive, BE! Chillin' on Charlie Parker, diggin' Miles and Ginsberg and Kerouac, wowin’ on Picasso and Pollock...
My teachers used their negative portrayal of the Beats as one of the many techniques they employed to alienate us from the outside world. For me and many of my schoolmates, it worked. Under Waldorf's tutelage, I came to feel an aversion to virtually anything modern. I thought modern orchestral music was cacophonous, unbearable, and modern painting was jagged, unaesthetic, chaotic. I deplored modern architecture, and I thought modern literature (what little I had seen of it) was obscene (my teachers assured me it was, anyway). I was sure that modern technology was soulless (we were required to read a book titled THE FAILURE OF TECHNOLOGY), and I knew that modern science was a false idol (we were encouraged to read a book titled SCIENCE IS A SACRED COW). As for jazz, and rock'n'-roll, and consumer culture, and television... We were taught that it was all awful, and we generally agreed, happy to be so superior to everything outside Waldorf's walls. (Although rock'n'roll somehow sneaked into our off-hours.)
All in all, Waldorf tried to alienate us from the contemporary, real world as much as possible. If they could have, our teachers would have kept us at the school 24/7, I'm sure. But because our Waldorf was a day school, complete immersion in soft-soap Anthroposophy was impossible, so our brainwashing was (in most cases) incomplete. But I can attest that for me and others, it took many years after graduation to find our footing in the real world. And I can attest that for some graduates, Waldorf’s anti-real-world effects are lifelong.
We students were the ones who took a beating, as it were.
Statements made by my old headmaster, John Fentress Gardner, in his book THE EXPERIENCE OF KNOWLEDGE, help explain why he and his colleagues detested the freedom-loving, free-living Beats (and, later, hippies, and later...). Gardner was a strong advocate of discipline — even when it verged on, or actually became, a form of mental/spiritual bullying. He taught that teachers should be unquestioned authority figures, and that students should be their “disciples.”
The following three quotations are drawn from the chapter "Authority, Discipline, and Freedom."
◊ "The educator...does not apologize for his authority ... [H]e can induce his small charges to welcome strong guidance ... The strict disciplinary approach...finds individuality in something above and beyond the organism ... Anyone, however, who supposes that organisms themselves are capable of thinking, does not really believe in objective truth; and he will shrink from discipline...." 
◊ "Authority calls for discipline, for discipleship from those under authority; but he alone is worthy to have disciples under personal guidance who is himself a disciple of an impersonal ideal." 
◊ "A youth whose childhood has been touched by the blight of 'critical thinking' will come to the moment of independent insight badly crippled ... Because skepticism has long since robbed him of part of his heart, he will now feel unable to embrace enthusiastically what he has come to understand." 
These statements are consistent with Rudolf Steiner’s teachings. Steiner, too, asserted that Waldorf teachers must be unquestioned authorities. I deal with this in other essays on this site. [See, e.g., "Spirit", "Basement", and "Slaps".] For now, though, let’s stick with Gardner. What, then, can we draw from the above statements?
◊ Real Waldorf teachers are disciples (of Anthroposophy, i.e., Steiner).
◊ Waldorf students are supposed to freely accept the authority of their (Anthroposophical) teachers, to the end that they themselves become disciples.
◊ Waldorf students are to be shielded from critical thought — they are taught to "think" with their hearts (and imaginations) rather than with their rational brains.
I suggest we linger over that last point. The most astonishing part of the quotations, above, is the following: “Anyone, however, who supposes that organisms themselves are capable of thinking, does not really believe in objective truth.” This is straight Anthroposophy, which Steiner taught is the path to objective truth.  Steiner also taught that real thinking does not occur in the brain — it is not produces by the organism of the physical body or that physical organ, the brain.  Real knowledge, in Anthroposophical belief, comes through clairvoyance and is a gift of the gods.
Gardner’s style is an interesting echo of Steiner’s — but consider: Organisms cannot think. So say Gardner and Steiner. Humans, of course, are organisms. So, we cannot think? The only nearly sensible inference to be drawn is that Steiner and Gardner were saying that we shouldn’t think or, at a minimum, we should doubt out own thoughts because the arise from the faulty organ, the brain.  Both of these men were profoundly adverse to rational thought, logic, and science — the "blight of 'critical thinking.'".  They asserted that true wisdom comes through imagination, intuition, or (to be blunt) clairvoyance.  They also advocated authoritarianism.  Wisdom is handed down from on high, from those who are more spiritually advanced: the great chain of greater beings. Above the students, of course, are teachers. Above the teachers are headmasters, such as John Gardner. Above the headmasters are great spiritual masters, such as Rudolf Steiner. And above the human spiritual master are the many gods, arrayed in their ascending ranks. 
Let’s turn the argument around and consider the matter again, from a slightly different angle. Gardner, like other Anthroposophists, often wrote in code. But we can clearly see that Gardner was advocating what I have called brainwashing: Students, as disciples, absorb a set of beliefs that they uncritically accept as true (beliefs that they "come to understand" before the onset of "independent insight"). Note that Gardner does not say "independent thought" — rather, he speaks of "independent insight." Insight, for an Anthroposophist, is an extension of the Anthroposophical tenets that an individual has internalized, which lead her/him (theoretically) to have insights akin to those of his/her masters. Waldorf students are deemed unable to think or even to have their own insights, at least until late in their schooling. Anthroposophists admit that eventually adolescents develop intellectual capacities, but consider how shaped and focused these capacities are likely to be after years of the brainwashing Gardner advocates. And ask yourself this: What is the good of intellectual capacities — are such capacities even conceivable? — if thinking does not occur in the brain, and if organisms are incapable of thought?
In the Waldorf system, students are indeed likely to take a beating. They may often emerge woefully unequipped to undertake productive lives in the real world.
Waldorf schools often use the motto "head, hearts, and hands" to describe their educational approach. It is catchy, and it sounds good. But what does it mean?
Waldorf schools actually de-emphasize the education of the head, since Steiner taught that real thinking does not occur in the brain.
"Within the brain nothing at all exists of the nature of thought." — Rudolf Steiner, WONDERS OF THE WORLD (Kessinger, facsimile of 1929 edition), p. 88.
As for educating the hands, Waldorf schools focus on this objective for occult reasons that most people would quite naturally dismiss as loony.
“Go into our needlework classes and handicraft classes at the Waldorf School, and you will find the boys knit and crochet as well as the girls ... This is not the result of any fad or whim ... [T]o drive the soul into the fingers means to promote all the forces that go to build up sound teeth.” — Rudolf Steiner, SPIRITUAL SCIENCE AND MEDICINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1948), lecture 17, GA 312.
This leaves the question of educating the heart. In a Waldorf context, educating the heart means teaching kids to feel about things the way Anthroposophists feel — that is, teaching kids to desire what Anthroposophists desire. This is a process of proselytizing, leading children to adopt the Anthroposophical worldview — to become disciples.
Waldorf schools are deeply committed to the desires of Anthroposophy, but this commitment often needs to be concealed.
“[W]e have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf School with its anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 705.
Don't let the concealment fool you.
— Roger Rawlings
Here are two drawings by a 1963 senior; they were used in the yearbook. Obviously the work of a talented artist, the pictures may not strike you as subversive — but a sort of shock ran through the school when they appeared. (The yearbook staff evidently gave the teachers no preview.) This is not Waldorf-style art, by any means. One might almost think that a ruler was used, for instance — and note that the seniors apparently left the school through a back door, leaving the door open! Man oh man...