Categorizing Students Hurtfully

“The important thing for us

to remember is the

diversity of children ...

Such diversity can be traced

to four fundamental types,

and the most important task

of the educator and teacher

is to know and recognize these

four types we call

the temperaments."

— Rudolf Steiner

Waldorf schools often reject modern science and medicine.

Their interest in an ancient theory of temperament

is one predominant example.

According to the ancient Greek physician Galen,

there are four primary bodily fluids or "humours":

blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.

Depending on which fluid is predominant

in a person's body, s/he has

one of four "temperaments":

sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, or choleric.

Science rejected Galen's teachings long ago;

Waldorf schools still cling to them.

Let’s look at a lecture by Anthroposophist Hermann von Baravalle, who was a follower and acquaintance of Rudolf Steiner. He gave the lecture to Waldorf teachers in the USA. Titled "The Four Temperaments", the lecture is included in von Baravalle’s book WALDORF EDUCATION FOR AMERICA. [1] The concepts it outlines have profound importance because they may be applied by Waldorf teachers in every class and every subject area. And, I might add, the lecture is as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does.

Von Baravalle begins with the sensible argument that parents should not autocratically set preconceived goals for their children: A minister, for instance, should not insist that his son become a minister. Parents and teachers must, instead, be sensitive to each child’s inner nature and treat her/him accordingly.

Up to this point, much of what von Baravalle says is reasonable.

But then von Baravalle begins to give “practical” guidance to the Waldorf teachers in his audience. He says that students can respond to their teachers in two ways: They can have immediate reactions, and they can form lasting impressions. He then divides students into four categories: 1. those who are susceptible to both kinds of reaction, 2. those who are more susceptible to immediate reactions, 3. those who are more likely to form lasting impressions, and 4. those who are resistant to either type of reaction. [2] It’s a neat little schema, and at first blush it seems logical. Two ways to react; four possible combinations; the math is undeniable (“There are mathematically only four combinations that could occur with these two criteria” [3]); so it must be true.

But look where von Baravalle goes next. Having established an apparently reasonable system for categorizing students, von Baravalle labels the students:

1. students who have a choleric temperament

— they have both kinds of reactions

2. those with a sanguine temperament

— they lean towards immediate reactions

3. kids with a melancholic temperament

— they are prone to lasting impressions

4. kids possessing a phlegmatic temperament

— they resist both kinds of reactions [4]

Von Baravalle does not inform his audience that these four “temperaments” are adaptations of a discredited ancient Greek medical theory. [5] Likewise, Von Baravalle avoids mentioning Anthroposophy (although he does refer to Anthroposophy’s main man, Rudolf Steiner), and he does not try to explicitly integrate the concept of temperaments into a larger Anthroposophical framework. He does not explain that, according to Steiner’s doctrines on karma and reincarnation, our situations in this life result from our actions in past lives. A mournful melancholic child, for instance, may be atoning for errors committed during past lives, in which case s/he should be allowed to remain sad in order that s/he may work out her/his karmic needs. Von Baravalle simply says that there is no point, for instance, in trying to cheer up a deeply melancholic student. If a teacher tries to gladden a melancholic, the child would recoil; the child's reaction would be “How could the teacher be so superficial with this talk of joy or fun? I can’t stand it anymore.” [6] Children have their temperaments for a reason, and Waldorf teachers should respect the inborn characteristics of each student.

Von Baravalle’s (i.e., Steiner’s) approach is to accept the melancholic child’s destiny. So, there will be no joy or fun for that kid. Here we begin to see the dangers in Steiner’s/von Baravalle’s simplistic categorization of students. While von Baravalle speaks of treating each child as an individual, simplistic categorization undercuts that fine ideal. “You have four distinct challenges from your class” — the four types of students. [7] In other words, if there are, let’s say, twenty kids in a Waldorf class, von Baravalle does not urge the teacher to treat them as twenty different individuals: He urges the teacher to treat them as members of just four groupings. Granted, there are shadings within each grouping, and both Steiner and von Baravalle gave lip service to individualism, but the underlying tenet is that a child is characterized by her/his temperament; s/he belongs in a particular group because of his/her ingrained characteristics; and therefore s/he is quite different from members of any of the other three groupings. Under this system, students are treated as members of various batches, not primarily as individuals.

The essential "tool" Waldorf teachers attempt to use for making decisions about students is clairvoyance. Believe it or not. Clairvoyance, a faculty that does not really exist. [See "Clairvoyance" and "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness".] Relying on such a phantom tool guarantees that Waldorf teachers very often make the wrong decisions, failing to truly comprehend their students' personalities and needs. [8] Even if the idea of temperament as employed in Waldorf schools made sense, the Waldorf system would be a mess. But, in fact, the idea of temperament as employed in Waldorf schools is fundamentally erroneous. The theory of four humours producing four temperaments is an example of discarded science, an idea that once seemed credible but that has long since been supplanted by more accurate concepts. That is, it has been supplanted almost everywhere except in Waldorf schools, where ancient errors are often mistaken for up-to-date wisdom. [See, e.g., "The Ancients".]

Von Baravalle inadvertently reveals the impersonal and prejudicial nature of the four-temperament approach when he lists not only the psychological characteristics of each category of students, but also their physical traits, the dangers to which each category is prone, and the best educational approach to take with each category. I’ll summarize briefly:

1. Cholerics are very attentive and critical. Most cholerics are boys. They may have high shoulders; they often seem bony. They may turn into bullies or become prey to tantrums. According to von Baravalle: “To handle cholerics, give them challenges ... Choleric people show themselves best in emergencies.”

2. Sanguines are appreciative and “want to be with you.” They are “harmoniously built;” they do not find their bodies to be encumbrances. They are in danger of drifting through life unconstructively. “They can be handled well with the books that they make in the Waldorf schools, reflecting what is learned in diagrams."

3. Melancholics are not quick; they yearn for depth; from this depth, they may derive “an ethical impulse.” “They do not like being called to the [chalk]board.” One typical group of melancholics consists of “junior high school girls who suddenly grow thin and tall with slumping shoulders.” Melancholics may be moody, given to headaches, unfriendly, and worried about their health. “For these melancholic children biographies are a wonderful thing ... They see that they are not the only people in the world who have suffered.”

4. Phlegmatics are extremely sensitive to the atmosphere in the classroom. Confusion makes them tense. They often have rosy cheeks and may be overweight because they do not expend much energy. They may be in danger of “becoming dull and uninterested in the world.” “For the phlegmatic children there is one thing that suits them well: the arts, painting, music, eurythmy.” [9]

Pause a moment to let some of the foregoing sink in. Choleric kids should be given challenges; but other students should not? Sanguines can be “handled” by having them focus on their class books; but other students should not? Melancholics should be offered the cold comfort of knowing that their suffering is not unique; but their suffering should not be alleviated? Phlegmatic children should be herded in a single direction, toward the fine arts (not the humanities or physical sciences or social sciences or sports or math or...).

One of Anthroposophy’s worst characteristics is its insistence on categorizing people. This evil is most evident in the racial hierarchies Steiner repeatedly described. [10] The same pernicious tendency can be found in the distinctions Steiner drew between true humans and “people who are not human beings.” [11] We see the same evil again here, in the separation of innocent children into preconceived, unreal categories. This is another form of unwarranted discrimination, as harmful as any other. And bear in mind that physical appearance is deemed a significant indicator. Cholerics are bony, sanguines are well-proportioned, phlegmatics may be overweight, and so on. This is stereotyping of the most primitive, and potentially damaging, sort.

Consider one final quotation, this one taken from a different von Baravalle lecture (bearing the unintentionally ironic title, “How to Treat Children as Individuals”):

“If...the teacher has cholerics in front of him, in the first row, something like a short circuit could easily occur...the course of instruction would be flowing exclusively between the teacher and them. In making the seating order, therefore, it is better to have the cholerics sit on one side ... [T]he melancholics may be seated on the opposite side ... [T]he sanguines...feel at ease in the front rows ... The phlegmatics like to have some distance [so they sit in the back]....” [12]

Here we see the literal, physical segregation of students based on a spurious ancient system of categorization infused with occultism. It is deplorable. Deciding that Aryans should sit in front and non-Aryans in back would be worse, but it would arise from a similar enthusiasm for senseless discrimination. (Yes, Steiner used the term "Aryan" to describe a human race — see "Atlantis and the Aryans". And, indeed, Steiner taught that Atlantis really existed. This, in and of itself, indicates the quality of the "knowledge" on which the Waldorf approach is based.)

Most importantly, consider the effects of the "humours/temperaments" system on the children. Imagine being slotted as a melancholic — thereafter, your teachers never seem to care whether you (unlike other kids in the room) are enjoying yourself. Or imagine being adjudged a phlegmatic and pressured into eurythmy, when your actual talents may be for math and physics. Time and again, under the Waldorf system, children will be misjudged, and they will be treated in ways that wholly overlook their actual, individual attributes.

Von Baravalle’s advice is tantamount to child abuse, pressing students into abstract groupings and forcing them in predetermined directions without any valid reason for doing so.

Here is a colored rendering of a sketch Steiner made,

showing the body types of the four temperaments.

Reading left to right:

“The melancholic children are as a rule tall and slender;

the sanguine are the most normal;

those with more protruding shoulders are the phlegmatic children;

and those with a short stout build so that the head

almost sinks down into the body are choleric.”


(Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 34.

[R.R. copy, 2010.]

Waldorf teachers may try to peer clairvoyantly into their students' souls, but this delusional approach produces nothing except the teachers' own esoteric imaginings. In any event, Waldorf teachers often base many of their assessments on more superficial factors, such as body type.

Dividing children into four fallacious categories may seem merely silly, not a cause for great concern. But even in cases where the teachers refrain from bandying terms like "phlegmatic" and "sanguine" in the presence of the students and their parents — even then, real harm may be inflicted. "Choleric" children will eventually come to realize, consciously or not, that they are given license to express anger, whereas most of their classmates are discouraged from it.* So the "choleric" kids will increasing behave as "cholerics" are expected to behave — they will be molded by the unspoken stereotype imposed on them by their teachers. Members of the other three groups of students will likewise be affected, gravitating toward the behaviors and self-images that their teachers think are appropriate for them. Thus, eventually, all the children in the class may be shaped — and misshaped — by an ancient set of falsehoods, employed without rational justification by a self-deceiving faculty.

In Waldorf schools, delusions of one sort or another (or, often, delusions of many sorts) shape the reality. The harm to children can be deep and long-lasting.

* Waldorf teachers seek to help choleric kids, like all others, to overcome the deficits cause by their temperaments. But generally they do not try to change a child's temperament, which is deemed to be a reflection of karma and/or divine will. So, just as melancholic kids are indulged in their mournfulness (they are not urged to cheer up), choleric kids are indulged in their anger (they are not urged to be jolly), etc.



Perhaps we should hear more from The Man. Did von Baravalle really understand Steiner on the subject of “temperaments”? Here are comments Rudolf Steiner made to the teachers at the first Waldorf School [13]:

◊ Addressing a Waldorf teacher about her students, Steiner said: “[Y]ou have few choleric or strongly melancholic temperaments [among your students]. Those children are mostly phlegmatic or sanguine ... You can get the phlegmatic children moving only if you try to work with the more difficult consonants. For sanguine children, work with the easier consonants.” [14] The grade level here is not specified, but these were apparently young children, learning consonants. Steiner prescribes different activities for children having different temperaments.

◊ A teacher asked Steiner: “I believe I have perceived a relationship between the phlegmatic children and a deep voice, the sanguine children and a middle tone, and a higher voice with the cholerics. Is that correct?” Steiner answered: “In general, it is true that phlegmatics have lower voices...." [15] Thus, according to Steiner, temperament is manifested in the physical body — in this case, the vocal cords.

◊ A teacher: “How can we have such differing opinions about the temperament of a child?” Different teachers made different assessments of the students in the school. Steiner replied: “We cannot solve that problem mathematically ... In judging cases that lie near a boundary, it is possible that one person has one view and another, another view ... The situation is such that when we see and understand a child in one way or another, we already intend to treat it in a particular way. In the end, the manner of treating something arises from an interaction. Don’t think you should discuss it.” [16] This is a particularly unhelpful answer. Steiner leaves the puzzle for each teacher to solve, without discussion. Evidently without realizing it, Steiner comes close to invalidating the entire concept of four temperaments by saying that each teacher can make up his/her own mind, at least in cases that lie near a boundary (and perhaps in other cases as well: “when we see and understand a child in one way or another....”). In practice, this would mean that some kids would be put in one category by some teachers, and in other categories by other teachers. This is chaotic and senseless.

◊ Steiner: “In cholerics, you will generally find an abnormally developed sense of balance (Libra) ... In sanguines (Virgo), in connection with the sense of balance and sense of movement, the sense of movement predominates. In the same way, in melancholics (Leo) the sense of life predominates and in phlegmatics (Cancer) the sense of touch predominates physiologically because the touch bodies are embedded in small fat pads.” [17] Alarm bells should be loudly ringing by this point. Steiner associates temperaments with the signs of the Zodiac. Indeed, astrology is often just below the surface in Waldorf schools. [See "Astrology", "Star Power", and "Waldorf Astrology".] When Waldorf teachers mix temperaments with astrology, they are compounding the irrationality of their approach, adding one type of fallacy to another. No decision made about any child following this approach can have any merit.

◊ Steiner: “We should always correct left-handedness. However, in this connection [i.e., learning to play the piano], we should also take the child’s temperament into account so that melancholics give the right hand preference. You can easily find a tendency with them to play with the left hand. We should emphasize the left hand with the cholerics. With the phlegmatics you should see to it that they use both hands in balance, and the same is true for sanguines." [18] Fallacies are piling up. Temperament, body type, astrology, handedness... The clamor of the alarm bells is almost deafening.

◊ Finally, reflect on this statement by Steiner: “In my lecture today [‘Deeper Insights into Education’], I mentioned that we need to find our way past the temperaments. The goal of my lecture was to show how to come to an inner understanding that lies beyond people’s temperaments.” [19] What is going on here? Is Steiner suddenly reversing course, disavowing his previous statements about temperament? Not quite. He recognized that dividing kids into four clearly differentiated categories is difficult, as we have seen. But his larger point is that temperament lies near the surface, and there are deeper springs that determine human nature. To really understand a child, Steiner says, a teacher must look deep — past temperament to such things as karma, incarnation, the condition of soul and spirit... Temperament remains a key in Waldorf pedagogy [20], but true Anthroposophical "insight" seeks to delve to more profound layers. [To review the Anthroposophical conception of human nature, see, e.g., "What We're Made Of" and "Our Parts". To consider how this conception affects Waldorf education in general, see "Holistic Education".]

Did von Baravalle understand Steiner's views on temperament? Evidently. But bear in mind that when Waldorf teachers try to understand their students, they work from a broad set of mystical concepts, with temperament providing just one element in the overall picture. When Steiner presided at the opening of the first Waldorf school, he delivered a series of lectures describing his occult vision of humanity. These lectures are generally recognized as the basis of Waldorf education. They have been published under such titles as STUDY OF MAN and THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE. In them, you will find such statements as

"...[T]he Consciousness Soul, the Comprehension Soul and the Sentient Soul ... These are the actual components of the human soul. Today, if we wish to speak about the human soul and how it lives in the body, we must speak about these three aspects. If we wish to speak about the human body, we must speak of the sentient body (the least perceptible body, which we also call the astral body), the etheric body and the coarse physical body, which we can see with our eyes and which conventional science dissects. Thus, we have before us the complete human being." [21] [To go into such matters, see "Oh Humanity".]

Steiner understood, at least sometimes, that the four-temperament paradigm is superficial. He urged his followers to go deeper. Yet Waldorf teachers today continue to divide students into the four temperamental groupings. The publications and lectures of Anthroposophists continue to make reference to the four temperaments. Here, for instance, is a passage from a book by a Waldorf teacher, a book focused specifically on Waldorf education in the 21st century. The author calls on Steiner, as Anthroposophists almost always do: Steiner remains their ultimate source of wisdom:

"The ‘four temperaments,’ first described by the classical Greek physician Galen...may be understood as the solution to the challenge of integrating the etheric body with its physical counterpart [the etheric body is one of three invisible bodies that incarnate during childhood, according to Steiner; the others are the "I" and the astral body] ... Rudolf Steiner [said] 'Where the bearer of the I predominates, a choleric temperament results. Where the astral body predominates, we find a sanguine temperament. Where the etheric or life body predominates, we speak of a phlegmatic temperament. And where the physical body predominates, we have to deal with the melancholic temperament.’” — Eugene Schwartz, MILLENNIAL CHILD: Transforming Education in the Twenty-first Century (Anthroposophic Press, 1999), pp. 185-186.

Once a fallacy gets embedded in the Waldorf system, it becomes virtually irremovable. It remains, and its harmful effects perpetuate themselves. Such is the case with the four temperaments. Belief in these temperaments attaches itself to the other fallacies that constitute the Waldorf worldview, ranging from astrology to the three invisible human bodies. A sprawling structure of falsehoods and wild imaginings results, and it forms the basis of Waldorf education. [For more about the temperaments as conceived in Waldorf schools, see "Temperaments".]

Belief in the four temperaments is just one of the errors that distort Waldorf education. At some Waldorf schools, temperament may be downplayed; at others, it may be given great importance. In either case, belief in the four temperaments is both insidious and damaging. And it continues to work its mischief in Waldorf schools today.

— Roger Rawlings