[For reasons that will become apparent as you read, the author of this essay prefers to withhold her name. But her essay rings true. Her experiences in the U.K. were much like those of mothers whose children have attended Steiner schools in the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.]
The intoxicating fragrance of beeswax and homemade bread. Small wicker baskets full of pebbles and shells. A biodynamic vegetable garden. Wooden blocks, silk play cloths, felt slippers, sheepskins, a fireplace, faceless dolls, wordless books, formless paintings...
The fetishizing of nature and the promise of an unhurried childhood can be very appealing to the educationally anxious parent looking to be green and good.1 I had previously read about Steiner Waldorf schools in a glowing article in a national newspaper.2 It described an holistic creative education based outdoors using "nature as teacher." Intrigued, I began by taking my son to a Steiner parent and toddler group. So enchanted was I at the time, I managed to persuade my family to move 40 miles away to be near a bigger Steiner school where our son would be able to attend long-term. I remember attending the summer fair and whilst I stood in the queue to request a prospectus3, a woman in front of me asked the administrator the following question: "How will the school meet the needs of my psychic daughter?" He smiled and replied "We are all psychic here." I thought he was joking. [See "Clairvoyance".]
Once we had moved and enrolled our son, the teacher started to mention the word “Anthroposophy” and the existence of a study group for new parents. I felt foolish that I had to ask what Anthroposophy was (I had previously looked for the word in my dictionary and had not found it) and was told it was the study of human wisdom. The teacher didn't tell me a core belief of Anthroposophy is the concept of reincarnation of the soul through racial hierarchies from Black to Aryan as a consequence of a person's karma; or the classification of a child's soul according to their physiognomy, nor was I told of the Anthroposophical movement's history. I didn't question further at that stage. As one parent recently observed "You don't expect a school to lie."
Many alarm bells rang during our time there. I remember the intense gaze of the teachers that would continue far longer than was comfortable. There was little laughter, everything was carried out in a very slow and purposeful way with a sing-song voice, the lighting of candles, the wearing of strange hats, their infatuation with wool — I recall a felting session where the teacher spoke of the special energy of the wool, declaring it had come from a biodynamic sheep. I recall the time the teacher took both my hands in hers and explaining my son had "chosen me as his mother," on a further occasion she stated he had "chosen the school" and that children "get what they need" – ostensibly an innocent cliché until one understands it's particular meaning within Anthroposophy. I also recall politely refusing a teacher's offer, made during a parent and toddler group session, to lend me a copy of THE INDIGO CHILDREN and compile an astrological chart based on my son's birth date. Another time, when a boy enacted a scene from a Spiderman cartoon, the teacher asked his mother why he was behaving in this way. The mother explained that her son had been playing with children who lived on the same street — children who watched television and went to the cinema — the teacher replied, "It’s best to play with children from the school community."
I noticed that some of the Steiner school parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends outside the Steiner movement and gradually surrounded themselves only with those who followed the Anthroposophical belief system. I remember being invited to various other self-development programmes including Landmark Education/Forum, Non-Violent Communication (also known as Compassionate Communication), the Amma movement, and Family Constellation workshops — programmes the school appeared to endorse with many of the Steiner teachers participating in them. I remember the school reception displaying numerous leaflets promoting homeopathy. Mention of vaccination was conspicuously absent. I remember asking many questions and being told I was “too in the head” and that I should “learn to think with my heart.” I recall parents asking the teacher's advice regarding well-meaning grandparents buying electronic and plastic toys, both of which are frowned upon in Steiner schools. The teacher directed them to a specialist Steiner Waldorf toy catalogue. I began to think this was more about control than care.
I remember looking around the school one Saturday and seeing a group of children performing a strange dance in long robes (eurythmy) which brought to mind certain unsought images from my degree-level studies involving mid-20th century European history. When the teacher noticed we were watching, she stopped the children and stared at us indicating we were not supposed to be witnessing the children's performance even though it was outside. I remember feeling quite unnerved at the time.
I recall going home and looking through the books I had bought on Steiner and being reassured by a statement in one of them that all Steiner Waldorf schools were closed during the Nazi era. I later learnt this assertion is incorrect and that the truth is far more complex, it is also worth noting that virtually all books on Rudolf Steiner and Steiner education are published by Anthroposophical publishers.
During one of the sessions we attended at the school, my son was violently pushed backwards off a play bridge. I understand this is not unusual, as it could happen in any nursery or school. However, as I sat there comforting my child, I noticed that the teacher who witnessed the incident didn't respond in any way or acknowledge what happened. Instead, she continued to sew in silence. I sat there in utter disbelief. The act of ignoring felt more violent than the original act itself. Seeing that I was somewhat baffled and distressed by the teacher's lack of concern, a parent later explained to me that the children were "working out their karma." [See "Karma".] I remember questioning her as I couldn't comprehend what she had just said. She explained that her sister was a Steiner Waldorf teacher in Germany and repeated that it was their karma — it was one child’s karma to push, and my child’s karma to be pushed. I later telephoned the school stating we didn't think the education was suitable for our son. They tried persuading us to stay, explaining that it can take up to a year for some of the children to settle.
That should have been the end of our association with Steiner Waldorf schools, but unfortunately we had bought a house near the Steiner school our son had attended and over the following four years many Steiner Waldorf families moved to the same location. Thus we unintentionally found ourselves living in a Steiner community. How my family dressed, the food we ate, how we spoke, how we moved, the type of toys our children played with, whether we watched television, whether we had our children vaccinated, what car we drove, even the fuel we put in the car — all came under intense scrutiny. I did try to discuss my concerns regarding Anthroposophy with some of the families, including my thoughts that some of the characteristics of the movement appeared to be cult-like. But I was told "that is what a novice would say" and that I didn't understand. I remember one day wearing a pink dress and one of the parents stating “You're wearing pink! You're becoming more spiritual!”
One time I had been invited by a new Steiner family to their housewarming party. The wife was Japanese and had asked that all the women dress up in her kimonos. I remember arriving late and some of the mothers selecting the only black kimono and wrapping it around me saying how much it suited me.
The behaviour of some of the children (and parents) became so worrying that it forced me to look further into Anthroposophy. It was the impression they gave of superiority, particularly the euphemistic new age language they used that produced disquieting echoes of my previous studies. I remember typing a search into google "Steiner and Nazism" and discovering the research of Peter Staudenmaier, and everything profoundly fell into place. [http://www.social-ecology.org/2009/01/Anthroposophy-and-ecofascism-2/] Dr. Staudenmaier has recently completed his Ph.D. at Cornell. The title of his thesis is "'Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900 – 1945." Any parent who is considering a Waldorf school should read Staudenmaier’s invaluable work.
We eventually moved away and I thought I had put the whole experience behind me until I was alarmed to read that Education Minister Michael Gove is keen to fund Steiner schools under his 'Free Schools' policy. I understand and share Mr. Gove's views that parents should indeed have choice, but what about the children's choice? Unless parents and inspectors are informed about the true nature of Anthroposophy, there is no real choice.
The existence of a leaked transcript detailing a meeting dated 17th November 2009 between Rachel Wolf, Sam Freedman (education advisor to Michael Gove) and the Steiner Waldorf Fellowship makes for alarming reading. The main subject was the possibility that Waldorf schools could receive state funding. Here's an excerpt:
"An observer asked Sam Freedman whether or not a Conservative government would consider intervening with Steiner teacher training to ensure that the racist aspects of Steiner’s writings would not be included. Sam Freedman replied by stating that if the issue becomes a big PR problem for Steiner schools, and the state is funding those schools, it will become a big PR problem for the state. He went on to say that in light of this, Steiner schools should seek to nip any potential problems with their teacher training in the bud, because if ministers feel under pressure from negative PR, this is likely to be problematic for the schools. Sam Freedman stated that the Schools should ensure that they can explain their position very clearly, so that they can counter the negative criticisms immediately.” [See "PR".] From my understanding Rachel Wolf and Sam Freedman didn't attend the afternoon session.
The public should know that little or no independent research supports Steiner pedagogy; praise for Steiner schools comes predominantly from within the Anthroposophical community. The notion that Steiner's emphasis on the delay in formal reading is in line with early years policy in many other European countries is misleading. Steiner's instructions for delaying reading were due to his stated belief that early intellectual development hampers the child's spiritual growth and that Waldorf teachers should await the birth of the child's etheric body, indicated by the cutting of the adult teeth.4
Steiner Waldorf schools state that Anthroposophy is not taught to the children, but this statement is disingenuous. Anthroposophy underpins every aspect of the pedagogy in Steiner schools. If I and others had known that the self-described "fastest growing education movement in the world" has given rise to a survivors group [http://www.waldorfcritics.org/active/survivors.html] and Waldorf critics across the world, we might have been able to make an informed decision before enrolling our children.
Making an informed decision is further obstructed by the Steiner Waldorf movement actively suppressing attempts by parents to make their concerns public. A recently discovered document from the Swedish Steiner Waldorf Federation states that they employ an individual to “monitor the debate” here in the UK. The individual has previously appeared on various forums including Mumsnet, the Times Educational Supplement forum, and the BBC education forum using a number of aliases including posing as a mother. He has previously used intimidating behaviour including threatening legal action unless problematic discussions of the schools were deleted. I am also told that he has published the names and locations of parents who have raised concerns, behaviour one would not normally expect from a school movement. It is a somewhat disturbing experience watching your words of support almost instantly disappear online due to the repeated misuse of litigation, especially the threat of litigation against any form of criticism. [http://zooey.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/supervising-the-attacks/]
As another former Steiner Waldorf parent has explained, “If Anthroposophy were only a church, our paths would never cross, but Anthroposophy does not restrict itself to its circle of True Believers. Instead it sets up schools where these disguised beliefs are foisted upon unsuspecting parents whose opinions can be disregarded because they don't ‘know the path.’ These parents are expected to follow unknowingly the requirements of a religion which denies to them that it even exists, and may be criticized in their ignorance for Anthroposophical incorrectness. No wonder so many parents initially feel bewildered and later angry for having been deceived.” [Foss, 2003, March, 16. Percedol; http://www.users.on.net/~tomandmarilyn/steiner/html/doublespeak.htm]
I strongly believe that those responsible at the highest level in education have a duty towards the children involved to undertake an urgent investigation into the Steiner Waldorf school movement.
1 Renowned scientist and author Richard Dawkins has coined the word "meme" for ideas and practices that pass into a culture as if by an evolutionary process. Waldorf schools have contributed to the burgeoning interest in organic agriculture and the rapid development of the green meme, and the schools have, in turn, benefitted from these trends. The Waldorf approach, however, is deeply occult. [See "Biodynamics".]
2 The word "Anthroposophy" was not mentioned in the article nor in the school prospectus.
3 Worth noting: Nearly every journalist who has written articles commending Steiner schools is either a parent of a Steiner school pupil or has worked for the Anthroposophical movement.
4 For more about Steiner's thoughts on the change of teeth, see http://wn.rsarchive.org/Articles/EduChild/EduChi_essay.html.