“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





Categorizing Students Hurtfully

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] 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.