Day and Night

Focus on Steiner schools

Ramon De Jonghe attended an Anthroposophical college, was a volunteer in the library of the Rudolf Steiner Academie, served as an educator at a Steiner school in Belgium, and served on the board of directors at that school. He sent three of his four children to Steiner schools. [1]

In 2009, he published a critical book, FOCUS OP DE STEINERSCHOOL – Onderwijs op maat van wie? (Unibook 2009), about Steiner schools. The book offers a glimpse behind the carefully constructed Steiner façade. Subsequently, De Jonghe published articles in Belgium’s most respected newspaper, DE STANDAARD, in the biggest independent news source of the Netherlands, HVV AMSTERDAM POST, and in the well-known German journalistic website Ruhrbarone.

The following is excerpted from "Steinerschools [sic] Should Acknowledge Their Lack of Knowledge". I have edited rather heavily, since the only English translation I have seen is quite rough. Consider the following a paraphrase more than a direct translation.

— Roger Rawlings

When one takes a close look at the accounts given by people who have had experiences in Steiner appears that the ideals of Steiner schools and the actual practices of the schools are as different as day and night. Those accounts show that Steiner schools are not what they claim to be — they aren’t free and open-minded places where superior education occurs. No, lots of people testify that they found themselves and their children embedded in some kind of rigid community of narrow-minded believers.

...Steiner schools all have the same curriculum, with small differences depending on where a school is located. No wonder one can notice similarities in what critics have to tell.

...Even the anthroposophical magazine Driegonaal has questioned the quality of Steiner schools. One of the editors, John Hogervorst, comes to the conclusion that the experiences of parents of children in Steiner schools substantiate criticisms made by school inspectors. Problems include

• Teachers running in late all the time

• Budgets which are supposed to go to students who need extra care, but which are used for other purposes

• Students who are removed from school because of a bad relationship between parents and teachers

• ’Corrected’ homework that contains errors because a teacher's own children instead of the teacher ‘corrected’ it

• Teachers who do not know how to handle children and therefore blame children as well as their parents (‘go see a shrink’)

• Violence on the playground; children...kicking and beating up each other

• Teachers who become principals because they cannot manage their own classes or because they need more income...

• Teachers who use ‘anthroposophical flummery’ to get rid of parents who utter their concerns about all kinds of problems in the classroom

Hogervorst claims that there are at least ten other cases behind each reported problem. Out of my own experience I can only agree with him. At the Steiner school teacher seminar where I studied, such problems were the talk of the day among students.

...In Belgium there are no more than 25 Steiner schools and only 5 high schools. Despite being a small network, they have to deal with the same problems as Steiner schools in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.A.

...Steiner spokesmen claim that by the end of their school career, Steiner students have learned at least as much as students in other schools ... But that’s not what we hear from parents. I remember that when my children were tested in order to change schools, they had gaps in their mastery of subject matter ranging from one year up to three years. Lack of subject mastery is something that comes up every time Steiner schools are discussed. Because regular Belgian schools have high standards, it is not easy for children to change from a Steiner school to a regular school. A lot of children wind up ‘trapped’ in the Steiner school system. No wonder some children exhibit strange behavior because they want more intellectual challenge, which is simply refused by most Steiner school teachers. Dr. Franz Monks has seen this in his practice.

Something I recognize in Monks’ account, and that I have in common with other Steiner parents, is the idea that parents ‘do not recognize their child anymore.’ My children developed in a way I could not have imagined. Now, two years later, the scars from their Steiner schooling are still visible. Other parents told me their children struggle with comparable problems.

...[I]n my children's former Steiner school, a lot of students quit during primary school. Some research showed that out of 163 primary students who started in 2003, 80 of them left the school by 2007. I examined the reasons why parents decided that their children had to change from the Steiner school. This I did by, or at least trying to, contacting the parents of the 80 children. Eventually I succeeded in talking with the parents of 61 children. In order of importance the stated reasons for removing the child from the school were as follows (bearing in mind that some parents quoted several reasons):

• Educational / instructional approach (cited 22 times)

• Care / structure (20)

• Social / emotional aspects (16)

• Preferred other education (12)

• Not enough intellectual challenge (11)

• Too difficult for the child (8)

• Other reasons (4)

Two remarks were often made by the interviewed parents:

• Teachers in the Steiner school are inadequately trained to teach.

• The Steiner school promises something it does not deliver. Most parents, including me, thought that Steiner schools would be at least as good as regular education. (According to what I read from Steiner authorities, Steiner schools should offer even more, but with a different method). In short, many people leave the Steiner school when they realize they aren't getting what they’d been promised.

...[T]he the main issue in all kind of problems in Steiner schools is the role of the teacher ... Most Steiner teachers consider anthroposophy more important than academics. I saw this in my own experience as a student at an anthroposophical college. So it’s not surprising that parents, experts, insiders, and critics always come to the same conclusion: Most teachers in Steiner schools just don’t know how to teach!

Another important issue is the lack of awareness in Steiner schools [i.e., many Steiner teachers don't fully understand what the school is up to] [2] ... I think some of them are really naïve and really doing the best they can for the children in their class ... [But] some whom I met gave the impression of being brainwashed. They were always staring at the horizon (I guess). But there are also teachers who damn well know that they are doing something that had better be kept secret. I have no idea whether this last category is a majority. As far as I can see here in Belgium, they’re not, because a lot of starting teachers at Belgian Steiner schools just repeat what they accept blindly from their ‘leaders’. Those leaders on the contrary are well aware of what they are doing ... Could we object if people call this brainwashing and conclude that Steiner schools are cults? I don’t think so.

Something else which I find amazing is the way a lot of former Steiner students speak of their education, as if they were all mouthing the same canned responses. Like, the school was nice and cosy, they had sweet and kind teachers, they had a good time, etc. These statements seem unfounded ... I met former Steiner students who testified that their teachers pulled them out of the class by their hair or ears. They thought this was normal until many years later when, as adults, they could form their own conclusions ... A lot of children in Steiner schools are floating on anthroposophical myths ... I think someone has to re-activate their inner lives, so that they can think and feel for themselves, instead of repeating what their former teachers want them to tell the world about the Steiner school.... [3]

I think the great danger in the anthroposophical movement is that a few people who know what anthroposophy stands for are trying to secretively foist their ideas onto uninformed people ... They exert control over the uninformed. And that’s abuse. ... [T]o use Steiner schools as a Trojan horse [sneaking Anthroposophy past people's guard] is not the right manner to reach a so-called spiritual goal. One cannot force ‘knowledge of higher worlds’ [4] into people who aren’t prepared for it. It’s time for the Steiner schools as well as the anthroposophical movement to come clean.

The question is whether they will have the courage to acknowledge their problems and resolve them, which means developing the honest intention to do so. It could make the difference between being a cult or being a movement.

Ramon De Jonghe, May 2009

[R.R., 2011]


by R. R.

[1] De Jonge has explained that, in Belgium, and educator is not the same as a teacher. An educator is more concerned with nurturing than with teaching, per se. A teacher has authority for the actual instruction offered in class.

[2] The text here is a bit scrambled. De Jonghe's point is that the leaders on a Steiner faculty are devout Anthroposophists who secretly know that the goal of Steiner schooling is to spread Anthroposophy — but many junior faculty members do not fully understand this agenda, so they just blindly follow their leaders.

Steiner schools usually prefer to hire only devoted Anthroposophists, but quite often — starting with the first Steiner school — they wind up hiring at least some outsiders when no committed Anthroposophists are available for particular positions. Also, parents are often pressed into service in various capacity, often as unpaid volunteers.

[3] Having argued that junior faculty in a Steiner school are brainwashed, De Jonghe now makes a similar argument about Steiner students.

[4] This is a reference to one of Steiner's central texts, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS. A key goal for practicing Anthroposophists is to develop such knowledge through disciplined use of clairvoyance.