This post was first published a decade ago. It drew on government commissioned research to make the simple point that Steiner education = Anthroposophical education i.e. that Steiner education is informed by and operates in accordance with Anthroposophy, Steiner’s clairvoyantly derived belief system. The post was slightly tweaked in May 2019 to improve readability, refresh links and so on.
The different names UK Steiner schools adopt might lead you to expect a difference amongst such schools as to how they put into practice an Anthroposophical education. Not so. If you want a verified and standardised Anthroposophical education then look no further than to any school listed as being a member of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF).
Ten years ago, regarding Anthroposophy and its relation to schools, the SWSF website FAQ used to state:
“Anthroposophy is a philosophy based on the work of Dr Rudolf Steiner and this philosophy underpins the ethos of a Steiner school.”
The quote above is suggestive of Steiner education and Anthroposophical education being equivalent terms, something a government commissioned study confirms to be the case. Originally published as ‘Steiner schools in England’, the study as published is here referred to as the Woods Report after Professor Woods of University of the West of England, its lead author and researcher. This study paved the way for the state funding of Steiner schools which began shortly after publication of the Woods Report. SWSF and its schools participated in the study, SWSF and many of its schools’ websites point to the Woods Report as an endorsement of Steiner education, they don’t complain of it misrepresenting Steiner Waldorf education.
According to the study Rudolf Steiner was a clairvoyant, or as the Woods Report has it (page 97):
“…anthroposophy is based not only on empirical study and observation but also Rudolf Steiner’s ‘direct insight into… spiritual realities’ (Rawson and Richter 2000: 14) and involves concepts, such as karma, the Divine, re-incarnation and the soul which are associated with religious traditions”
On the same page, the Woods Report (page 97) also enlightens as to the usage of the somewhat ambiguous term ‘ethos’ in the former SWSF FAQ:
“Steiner education is grounded in the principles of anthroposophy and Steiner’s educational philosophy. From these roots come the importance attached to a particular understanding of child development, concepts integral to Steiner schools’ pedagogy, such as willing/feeling/thinking, the central role given to the artistry and authority of the teacher and the emphasis on valuing childhood, as well as the collegial running of Steiner schools and the collective study of the anthroposophical underpinnings of Steiner education.”
The importance Anthroposophy has for Steiner’s ‘particular understanding of child development’ is pointed to on page 84 of the Woods Report:
“(An) understanding of child development according to the principles of anthroposophy is at the core and heart of Steiner education…”
As the Woods Report makes clear, the ethos of Steiner schools is Anthroposophical to the extent that Steiner schools can be more accurately described as Anthroposophical schools. This is not to say that they teach Anthroposophy to children but that they operate and deliver education according to Anthroposophical belief. Similarly, a Montessori school delivers an education according to Montessori principles, it doesn’t ‘teach Montessori’.
So, as neither government nor SWSF have ever quibbled with the Woods study findings since the study appeared 10 years ago, it can be said Steiner schools = Anthroposophical schools. And that’s official.
Continuing on with page 84 of the Woods study, what an informative read it is:
“Steiner education…sees the role of the teacher as a sacred task in helping each child’s soul and spirit incarnate in the world. In practice, this means that Steiner teachers have a heightened commitment to each pupil…essential to the task of making the class teacher-pupil relationship work out is an understanding that pedagogy and curriculum must be in harmony with the different phases of development children are believed to go through.”
A sacred task, soul and spirit incarnations? Perhaps terming the SWSF schools Anthroposophical isn’t quite as accurate as it might be, surely they are faith schools?
Anyway, returning to the scene as it was 10 years ago and when this post was first published…back then Anthroposophists were not at all shy about touting Steiner’s ‘Spiritual Science‘, his own clairvoyant based technique for gaining ‘direct insight into spiritual realities’ as the Woods Report would have it. For example, the main body for the Anthroposophy movement here in UK would happily give it its own section on their website as one of the features of Anthroposophy and would explain ‘Spiritual Science’ as an extension to established scientific practice. Spiritual Science does still feature on their website but less prominently. Anthroposophical medicine too was presented within the movement as an addition and extension of real medicine and medical practice. Within the schools, although they didn’t often feature prominently, one could occasionally find both Spiritual Science and Anthro medicine mentioned in SWSF member school informational materials such as school handbooks. Also back then Steiner’s ‘particular understanding of child development’ was often likened to Piaget’s model of cognitive development, Piaget was quite the thing for a while.
Nowadays, thanks to many people voicing their concerns about Steiner/Anthroposophical schools and because of changing taste and fashions, the PR situation at SWSF member schools is changed. Spiritual Science is very much out of favour and Piaget appears to be old hat but still very occasionally mentioned. Anthroposophical medicine and doctors in SWSF schools are rarely mentioned even though the Anthroposophical doctor appraisal of the children is an aspect of Anthroposophical education noted by the Woods Report (eg page 71).
The SWSF FAQ has now been overhauled to address some of the concerns about Steiner belief and various statements have been made about Steiner racism. A section of the current SWSF FAQ titled ‘Who was Steiner and what is anthroposophy?’ says:
“Our approach to education is based on Steiner’s educational insights, specifically those that relate to child development. These form one aspect of what Steiner called ‘anthroposophy’, literally, ‘human wisdom’, or ‘knowledge of the human being…”
So far no real change and we know from the Woods Report that Steiner’s ‘insights’ were arrived at via clairvoyance. The next paragraph, though, is startlingly different:
“Anthroposophy is a developing body of research and not a belief system, indeed Steiner was at pains to make sure that people scrutinized his ideas and put them to the test; he did not want them simply to be adopted or ‘believed’, but he did invite people to engage with them. In his lectures on education he gave many indications for suitable subject matter and approaches to teaching for different ages but always stressed that teachers must be free to interpret these indications in their own way.”
Wow, ‘Anthroposophy is a developing body of research and not a belief system’. Well, this is a different pitch but unfortunately it’s complete and utter nonsense. There’s a simple succinct definition of belief system on Wiki:
“A belief system is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. The beliefs of any such system can be classified as religious, philosophical, political, ideological, or a combination of these.”
The 90,000 odd pages of published Steiner work contain his ideas, ‘insights’, and concepts yes, but the ideas don’t exist in isolation each to the other, they appear together within and across themed books and lecture courses. Together the themes, ideas and the concepts he deploys form an integrated cumulative whole – ideas and concepts in one Steiner work (e.g. karma and reincarnation, racial types and hierarchies) will reappear in other works or be referenced by them. Collectively, Steiner’s works on, in and from Anthroposophy represent a belief system, the belief system Steiner invented and termed Anthroposophy.
The concluding part of this section of the FAQ says:
“Steiner Waldorf educators study and research aspects of anthroposophy in order to inform and develop their work within the schools and places of learning. The philosophical and methodological approaches that underlie anthroposophy are regarded as tools for personal and professional development; they are not taught within the school, either as a subject or a belief.”
What is ofhere is in how the SWSF’s current PR materials present Anthroposophical education and educators. You’ll notice from the above and earlier sections of the FAQ that the SWSF these days would have it that its educators are drawing on and extending an ongoing research project called Anthroposophy which is not a belief system, it’s a miscellany of ideas. The SWSF would also have it that its educators study/research Anthroposophy too but this is for professional development and as a means of informing how they teach. It’s almost as if the SWSF want the public to see their schools as not having much at all to do with Anthroposophy.
Steiner belief and Anthroposophy in fact play as much a part in SWSF schools as they ever did. The Pedagogy Section at the global Anthroposophy movement’s HQ in Dornach, Switzerland is the ultimate controller of the Steiner/Waldorf school brand name, you cannot use those terms in a school name without Dornach approval and you won’t get approval unless your school fits with the required characteristics Dornach stipulates Steiner branded schools must have. Handily, an article in the Pedagogy Section’s Journal in 2016 summarises the characteristics of Steiner/Waldorf education. One such characteristic is mentioned on page 25:
“Each teacher is responsible for their lessons on the basis of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being”
Elsewhere the document indirectly refers to the Steiner’s model of child development as it incarnates through stages, saying teacher methodology should be applied
“in an age-appropriate way as understood by the anthroposophical view of the human being”
To become an Anthroposophical educator still requires in-depth study of Steiner’s ‘Study of Man’, a course of lectures Steiner gave to teachers at the first Waldorf School to open. Nowadays published as ‘Foundations of Human Experience’ (here for example) it is required reading on every Steiner teacher training course I have been able to obtain reading lists for. The lectures present Steiner’s ‘particular understanding of childhood development’ as the Woods Report calls it. Other Steiner texts have to be studied too of course but ‘Study of Man’ is the single most important text for educators. Teachers return to the book too, it is one of the most frequently read texts ‘for personal and professional development’ as the SWSF slants it – or as part of the ‘collective study of the anthroposophical underpinnings of Steiner education’ as the Woods team put it. Or, as Dornach puts it in its Journal:
Teachers and parents are jointly responsible for the Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner school. They organise and structure it in accordance with their common intentions…Managing the school means always having a clear awareness of the task and mission of the Waldorf school and to continue working on it. This is only possible through the joint study of the anthroposophical foundations of this system of education.
If you’re a fan of the understanding of Anthroposophy as a cult you can see how parents, unwittingly, can be drawn in to study of Steiner’s awful racist balderdash.
Any way you care to look at it, Anthroposophy pervades, structures, informs and finds expression in and through Steiner/Waldorf schools. For all that’s gone on since this post was first published one thing remains the same, Steiner education = Anthroposophical education. And that’s still official.