Looking Into It
Teachers as Priests
Charter For Indoctrination?
After 25 years as a stay-home mom, Lillian Cooper decided to start teaching school again.
When Lilian Cooper learned that a charter school in San Diego was looking for teachers, she eagerly started working on reestablishing her professional credentials.
Officials at Harriet Tubman Village School were happy to have Cooper among a group of aspiring faculty members and signed her up for an extensive program of teacher training ... Her experience left her confused, angry and convinced that Tubman Village School is operating in violation of the law.
...Cooper says Tubman, which is a Waldorf school, promotes an offbeat "New Age" religion known as Anthroposophy. Teachers, she said, were told that Anthroposophy is ingrained in the curriculum of the school and that they would be responsible for the spiritual development of their pupils.
"The red flag went up when I was told that I would be responsible for developing the soul consciousness of the children," Cooper says. "They started talking more and more about it ... To be a good Waldorf teacher, we had to develop our inner lives in a certain way. What I realized after quitting was that this inner path is the path according to [Waldorf schools founder] Rudolf Steiner."
During one session, Cooper recalls, instructors posted a diagram labeled "Teacher as Priest." Says Cooper, "I thought, 'I can't do this; I have public school credentials.' I just got real scared at that point...."
Cooper's experience became the basis for a formal complaint she filed with the San Diego Board of Education and the Office of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Last July, the district's general counsel's office issued a 12-page memo warning that Anthroposophy is a religion and that continued funding of Tubman Village School presents church-state problems....
The controversy over tax support for Waldorf education is not limited to San Diego. As the charter school concept takes hold, disputes over what constitutes a "public" school are erupting around the nation.
Not all of the disputes focus on Waldorf schools seeking admission to charter programs. In Michigan, the Holy Trinity Church of God in Christ is running TriValley Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Muskegon....
Shortly after charter schools were legalized in Michigan, one of the "schools" that participated in the program was a computerized network that provides support to fundamentalist Christians teaching their children at home. The network was slated to receive $7 million in state money in 1995....
Controversy over funding Waldorf schools accounts for the lion's share of charter controversies, however. In some states, Waldorf schools have converted to charter schools with little fanfare. Elsewhere they have been denied funding.
Waldorf schools are already receiving tax support in Milwaukee (under a non-charter program), and they participate in charter programs in Detroit, Flagstaff, Ariz. and Twin Ridges, Calif. (Other California communities are considering them as well.) However, education officials in Anchorage, Alaska, and St. Cloud, Minn., have refused to allow Waldorf schools into charter programs, holding they are too sectarian.
...[T]here is no way of determining how many Waldorf schools or other religiously affiliated institutions are participating in charter programs.
...In Anchorage [Alaska], parent Kathi Gillespie led the 1994 charge to stop a Waldorf school from entering a citywide program that encourages "alternative education programs" ... Gillespie says she became concerned when other parents approached her with information about the odd teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy ... "At first I found it hard to believe," she told Church & State, "but then I looked him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica and went, 'Whoa!'"
"[The Waldorf] people are very deceptive," she says. "They came in and were not honest with the school board or the parents on what the school's relationship was to Anthroposophy ... When you send your kid to an Episcopal or Catholic school, you know they will do catechism. It's never up front in the Waldorf schools, but they will do Anthroposophy."
Gillespie, who was head of the local PTA when the controversy surfaced, said parents at first opposed the school over curriculum concerns — many Waldorf schools teach no reading before third grade, don't offer instruction about biological evolution and have been accused of teaching Greek, Roman and Norse mythology as fact — but when church-state questions came up, the school's fate was sealed.
Supt. [i.e., Superintendent] Bob Christal issued a memo to the school board advising against permitting the Waldorf school into the program, and the board agreed. In the memo, Christal cited research indicating that Anthroposophy is a religion. "The Anchorage School District," he wrote, "is not interested in establishing any program which espouses a particular religious, spiritual view."
... [Gillespie said,] "I think people on the school boards need to be checking up on this. We need to be informed, especially with these charter laws. This is an open invitation. There are groups out there who do not have the best interests of children at heart and will use this to promote their political or religious beliefs."
... [In San Diego] Tubman [Village School] officials insist that Anthroposophy is not taught to children at the school. But critics counter that Anthroposophy, while it may not be taught directly, permeates the Waldorf curriculum.
Waldorf writings seem to back this up. In one book, STEINER EDUCATION IN THEORY AND PRACTICE, author Gilbert Childs writes, "Waldorf teachers must be anthroposophists first and teachers second....[I]t must never be forgotten — and one must be emphatic about this — that the whole of teaching matter and method in Steiner schools is aimed at developing within each child the consciousness that spirit permeates everything in the world."
In “Frequently Asked Questions About Waldorf Education” Waldorf supporter David Schlesinger responds to the question, "Are Waldorf schools religious?" by writing, "In the sense of subscribing to the beliefs of a particular religious denomination or sect, no. Waldorf schools, however, tend to be spiritually oriented and are based out of a generally Christian perspective. The historic festivals of Christianity, and of other major religions as well, are observed in the classrooms and in school assemblies...."
(It should be noted that Anthroposophists define "Christianity" with distinctly New Age trappings. Steiner publications speak of the "Cosmic Christ" and the "Christ impulse" and assert that Eastern occultism manifested itself through Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries.)
Another Waldorf writer, Mary C. Richards, asserts in TOWARD WHOLENESS: RUDOLF STEINER EDUCATION IN AMERICA, "One could say that Waldorf education has a hidden agenda. Its curriculum is described in terms common to public schools in general; arithmetic, writing, reading, geography, botany, handicrafts, history, and so on. But in Steiner schools the dimensions of these subjects are threefold: they are artistic, cognitive, and religious ... Religion is not an affair for Sunday alone or for theologians and priests. It is a dimension applicable to all our experience...."
...[Lilian] Cooper and other critics charge that Waldorf jargon is dense and often dissembling. In the end, Cooper says, she decided that Tubman officials' claims that the school does not teach religion were unconvincing. "We heard a lecture saying that Anthroposophy could not be separated from Waldorf education," she said. "They said it was too intermingled. That's when I started thinking, 'I'm out of here.' Anything that talks about the spirit and soul, to me that is religion. We asked if Anthroposophy was a religion and they said no. But they can say whatever they want. It's what holds up in a court of law that is the proof in the pudding."
Waldorf critic Dan Dugan, an inventor who lives in San Francisco ... notes that Waldorf publications define Anthroposophy as "an association of people who would foster the life of the soul, both in the individual and in human society, on the basis of a true knowledge of the spiritual world."
Says Dugan, "It sounds like religion to me." He is convinced that Waldorf educators deceive the public, saying, "There's a top layer, which says, 'We're nonsectarian.' Then there is a bottom layer, which says, 'We're Christian," which is designed to appeal to the mainstream ... And then there is the third level; it's actually occultism...."
...The National Center for Science Education, an El Cerrito, Calif.-based organization that promotes the teaching of evolution in public schools, says Waldorf schools don't teach good science. Noted NCSE director Eugenie Scott in a recent critique, "Waldorf teachers are supposed to teach Steinerian evolution. In this view, species were specially created, rather than evolving from one another, and 'spiritual being were the creators.'" Scott goes on to say, "Steiner's teachings on race are also unscientific."
...As the controversy over public funding of Waldorf education plays out, church-state separationists are speaking up. Last August, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a letter to Ron Ottinger, president of the San Diego Unified School District, advising him that publicly funded schools may not indoctrinate in religion.
Lynn urged Ottinger to cut off Tubman Village School's access to public money. "Failure to do so," observed Lynn, "could make the board vulnerable to a lawsuit on the grounds that it has knowingly violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the relevant portions of the California Constitution."
...In San Diego, Lilian Cooper, who is now working as a substitute teacher in San Diego public schools, [say] "What people need to do is go to a public library and check out the main books that the Waldorf teaching colleges produce," she says. "There are five main texts they publish, and if people read those books, I think it will open their eyes as to what is behind these teachings. They need to check into the qualifications of the teachers and look into the teacher training, because it definitely is spiritual training."
— Rob Boston