Waldorf schools are bright, sunny places that base their good works on the bright, sunny philosophy called Anthroposophy.
This is the view often expressed, at least informally, by Waldorf faculties. More to the point, it is how many Waldorf teachers truly see matters, and families entering a Waldorf community are likely to see matters much the same way, initially if not permanently.
There is much truth in both halves of the Waldorf vision: The schools are bright and sunny, and so is the thinking behind the schools. But much is also omitted from this vision. Clouds sometimes pass across the Sun, dimming the light.
Let's consider both halves of the vision, looking at the schools and at the underlying philosophy. We will emphasize the positive as much as we can before glimpsing briefly into the shadows.
We'll begin with the foundation on which the schools stand, the "philosophy."
Rudolf Steiner's followers, like Steiner himself, generally characterize their worldview as wondrously affirmative. Anthroposophy describes a universe that centers on humanity; a universe in which all things, including apparent evils, cooperate harmoniously for our betterment; a universe in which we are evolving, as if by karmic inevitability, toward supreme spiritual heights.
Steiner did indeed speak in such terms, and his followers tend indeed to think in such terms. Not always, not exclusively. But let's accentuate the positive.
Anthroposophists generally affirm that the entire universe centers on us and exists for our benefit. [See "The Center"]. Above us, steering events in this universe, are legions of gods arrayed in celestial ranks. [See "Polytheism".] The gods love us and may even be said to worship us. [See "Reality and Fantasy".] Their divine intention is to assist us as we evolve to higher and higher levels of spiritually, with the objective that one day we ourselves will emerge as the highest of gods, constituting the loftiest hierarchy of all. [See "Tenth Hierarchy".]
This set of propositions is obviously extremely attractive; it greatly flatters us as human beings, creatures who sometimes are told that we are nothing more than slightly smarter apes, trapped in a world where God is dead and life has no meaning. Anthroposophy reassures us not only that our lives have great meaning and value, but that we can scarcely overstate our own importance. We are bathed in warm, glowing, celestial admiration and respect. Who would not want to receive such marvelous reassurances?
The Waldorf belief system is built around a joyously optimistic narrative, outlining the future stages of humanity's evolution. [See "Matters of Form".] If this narrative is "true" (a slippery concept in Anthroposophy [see "Steiner's Illogic"]), our apotheosis is assured. Steiner foresaw the future clairvoyantly. He did not predict what is to come, he knew what is to come. [See "Exactly".] Placing our reliance on his psychic powers, and working to develop similar powers according to his instructions [see "Knowing the Worlds"], we can face the future with the utmost confidence.
Not everyone will be redeemed, perhaps, but very nearly everyone will be. According to the most cheery reading of Anthroposophical doctrine, the spirits who evolve highest will, from time to time, reach back and pull forward the recalcitrant and deviant, leading them to the upward path. [See, e.g., "Sixth Epoch".] They will lift up the ones who have fallen behind. This is, in a sense, what the gods have been doing for us all along. The gods are beings much like ourselves; they were human once, but by now they have evolved to higher levels, just as we will do. [See, e.g., "Evolution, Anyone?"] From their higher position, they look down and back at us, and they lend us their divine aid.
The course of evolution has required flawed and faulty beings to branch off — they have been left behind while the more healthful souls proceeded upward. Most animals, for instance, are beings who once developed alongside us, but at various points they reached the limits of their capacities, so they branched off and were left behind. [See "Neutered Nature".] Likewise, some of our former companions sank from their place at our side, effectively lost their souls, and became subhuman "nature spirits." [See, e.g., "Secrets".] The Waldorf belief system emphasizes freedom, which means that individuals have the ability to choose the correct path leading upward, or they may choose an alternative, incorrect path that leads downward. [See "Freedom".] Whether the gods will reach back and redeem all the beings who chose wrong is moot; but an optimistic reading suggests that they may well do so in all but the most dire cases. [See, e.g., "Enemies".]
Anthroposophists often assert that there is no real evil in the universe. Everything, including the actions of apparently malevolent spirits, ultimately contributes to our well-being. This is a somewhat hazy area in Anthroposophical belief (the problem of evil is a difficult conceptual challenge in most theologies). Steiner taught, for instance, that Lucifer — whom he sometimes identified as the Devil — actually brings humanity important gifts. [See "Lucifer".] The obstacles placed in our path by other "evil" spirits may likewise be seen as necessary for our spiritual education, as it were. (On the other hand, Steiner taught of spirits who seem genuinely baleful and malicious, whose actions may contravene the intentions of the gods, and who may thus be considered literally evil. [See "Evil Ones".] But for the present, we are accentuating the positive.)
To outsiders, it may seem that Anthroposophists wear rose-colored glasses. Belief in clairvoyance may seem unjustifiable, and denying the actuality of evil may seem ingenuous. But the rosy perspective adopted by most of Steiner's followers may be, indeed, central to the charm of Anthroposophy. More sophisticated and nuanced perspectives are also present in Anthroposophy — Steiner's teachings are complex; doctrinal disputes are certainly not unknown among Anthroposophists. Still, a comforting glow of self-assured blessedness can be discerned in most Anthroposophical enterprises.
To wrap up this section, we should circle back to emphasize a key upbeat element of Anthroposophy. At one level, Anthroposophy essentially consists of Rudolf Steiner's occult teachings. [See "Occultism".] Certainly, Anthroposophists tend to accept Steiner's teachings as nearly unarguable, and they stoutly defend Steiner whenever he is criticized. Nonetheless, Anthroposophists generally believe that they are free agents, able to rely on their own sharpened intuitive powers to receive personal revelations. [See "Serving the Gods".] In this sense, Anthroposophy is a living faith (or, as Anthroposophists would put it, a living "spiritual science"), and each Anthroposophist is an independent spiritual explorer, able to attain independent knowledge of the spirit realm. Being human, and particularly being an Anthroposophist, is indeed magnificent. The central human intuition, according to Anthroposophy, is "I am" — the thrilling knowledge that one exists as an independent being, a part of the divine plan, an incarnation of divinity.
We'll begin with the foundation on which the schools stand, the "philosophy."
The optimism of Anthroposophy often suffuses Waldorf schools. The schools are often strikingly beautiful — filled with prismatic art, they radiate spiritual warmth. "Green" values abound — reverence for nature, emphasis on organic foods and materials, freedom from technological gadgetry and the complications of the hurried, harried outside world. The schools are frequently comforting retreats, sanctuaries in which children are allowed time and scope for unhurried learning, playtime is long and unstructured, imagination and sentiment are honored, and myths and sacred tales are given primacy over the dreary findings of materialistic science.
Many Waldorf teachers are Anthroposophists of one degree or another. Some have a deep, sophisticated knowledge of Rudolf Steiner's teachings; others are less fully informed. And some Waldorf teachers (who may not remain at the schools long) have no ties to Anthroposophy at all. Still, by and large, the schools seek to embody positive spiritual forces as found in Anthroposophy, and to fend off the more dire trends of contemporary life. [See, e.g., "Spiritual Agenda" and "Soul School".]
The Waldorf curriculum aims to address the "whole child" — head, heart, and hands. [See "Holistic Education".] The curriculum seeks to present each subject at the appropriate time in the students' development [see "Curriculum"], using methods that are sensitive and pliant [see "Methods"]. Art is given great emphasis [see "Magical Arts"], and intuitive/imaginative thought is nurtured as opposed to cold, damaging critical thought [see "Thinking Cap"]. Fundamentally, the schools recognize human spirituality, and they strive to foster spiritual growth far more than merely imparting academic instruction [see "Academics" and "Conclusion"].
Waldorf teachers are often extremely devoted and conscientious. They undergo a special form of teacher training meant to enable them to present all subjects beautifully [see "Teaching Training"], and they are encouraged to develop a special form of consciousness meant to yield deep wisdom [see "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness"].
If not all Waldorf teachers have warm, sunny personalities, most strive to embody the best in human potentiality. Steiner said that Waldorf teachers should endeavor to make themselves nearly flawless role models for their students, and most Waldorf teachers take such injunctions seriously. [See, e.g., "The Schools Themselves".] The teachers try to inspire not just admiration but love in their students. At the first Waldorf school, Steiner often asked the assembled students whether they loved their teachers, and the answer usually came back, in a happy chorus, "Yes!" [See, e.g., "Mistreating Kids Lovingly".]
If that were the whole story, there would nothing left to say. We would have to commend Anthroposophy and Waldorf, and wish to make ourselves worthy of them.
Most of the other pages here at Waldorf Watch are devoted to examining Anthroposophy and Waldorf in some depth; various problems, some quite serious, are identified. We needn't try to explore all those issues at this stage. Instead, let's simply summarize a few of the more prominent points that you may want to delve into.
◊ If Anthroposophy is generally sunny, it is not wholly so. There are contradictions, ambiguities, and complexities that sometimes alter the cheery picture I have outlined. [See, e.g., "Ahriman", "Hell", "Sin", and "Evil".]
◊ The reliability of the "knowledge" presented by Anthroposophy is highly suspect. [See, e.g., "Steiner's 'Science'" and "Steiner's Blunders".] There are strong reasons to suspect that, in affirming their occult "knowledge," Anthroposophists deceive themselves. [See, e.g., "Why? Oh Why?" and "Fooling (Ourselves)".]
◊ There appears to be no true foundation for Anthroposophy. Everything in Anthroposophy ultimately depends on clairvoyance. If clairvoyance does not exist, there is no basis for Anthroposophy. The evidence available to us indicates that clairvoyance does not exist. [See "Clairvoyance".]
◊ Waldorf education may share the defects of Anthroposophy. To the degree that a Waldorf school is devoted to Anthroposophy, it may inculcate its students with a wholly false view of reality. [See, e.g., "Indoctrination" and "Today Too".] Anthroposophy is a newly devised religion that, at least arguably, is severely disconnected from reality. [See "Is Anthroposophy a Religion?", "Steiner Static", "Why? Oh Why?", and "Fooling (Ourselves)".]
◊ Waldorf schools are often accused to deceiving families about their real purposes. [See, e.g., "Our Experience" and "He Went to Waldorf".] In part, this may be intentional [see "Secrets"]; in part, it may reflect the self-deception that characterizes Anthroposophy as a whole. The morality of the Waldorf movement is, at a minimum, open to question.
On this page, we have tried to accentuate at the positive. But here at the end we have stepped into the shadows. It is up to you to decide whether you want to pursue any of these questions further. If you do, you might begin by visiting the Waldorf Watch Table of Contents of the Waldorf Watch Index. Another option for beginning an investigation of Waldorf schooling is to visit Waldorf Straight Talk.
— Roger Rawlings
The beguiling face of Anthroposophy peers out from Anthroposophical art.
Such art is used on the covers of Anthroposophical publications,
and it can often be found hanging on the walls of Waldorf schools.
The art is typically mystical, dreamlike, and religious.