The Spirit of Waldorf Education

By David Ruenzel — June 20, 2001 24 min read
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For a small but growing number of critics, the allure of public Waldorf schools is profoundly deceptive.

The K-8 Yuba River Charter School here is, like many Waldorf schools, a place of astonishing beauty. Located in the heart of gold-rush country in the foothills of the Sierras, the wood-paneled school and pristine grounds, shaded by pine and fir trees, are more reminiscent of a Zen retreat than a public school. Inside classrooms painted in the soft pastels of sky and clouds are luxuriant student paintings of flowers exploding with stamens; in the corridors are more student displays, including one of exacting hexagons and pentagons. Below a hexagon, a caption reads: “Just as in the earth’s heart lies the flower are sources that bind in form.” Below, a pentagon reads: “Since ancient times, the 5-pointed star has been a true picture of the human being.”

Outside in the grassy quad, boys and girls twirl arm in arm in a medieval folk dance; a classmate plays the violin. When it’s time to return to the classroom, a teacher jingles a bell.

For the parents who send their children to Yuba River, one of about 10 public schools in California—and roughly 20 nationwide—that take the Waldorf approach, their school is a sanctuary of art, music, and protected childhood. “This school protects the innocence,” says Barry Peake, a college professor with two children in the 250-student charter school in Grass Valley. “And the children learn to do everything well, from playing a musical instrument to painting.”

Fifty miles up the road at John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School in Sacramento, a K-8 school of about 210 students, parent Kathy Lazzarone concurs. “My child was in kindergarten at another public school, getting worksheets and the alphabet pounded into him before he was ready,” she says. “Here, the children are given the gift of childhood, beautiful artwork and fairy tales instead of junk.”

Indeed, Waldorf education has received glowing national attention in recent years—a 1999 Atlantic Monthly feature story, for instance, described it as a unique blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods. Other newspapers and magazines have also written largely positive reviews of the Waldorf approach. (“A School With Balance,” Oct. 18, 1995.)

But, for a small but growing number of critics, the allure of public Waldorf schools like Yuba River and John Morse is profoundly deceptive. The schools, they say, may be tantalizingly beautiful, but they are in fact abusing the freedom granted to magnets and charters by promoting anthroposophy—which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a philosophy based on the premise that the human intellect has the ability to contact spiritual worlds.” The critics see anthroposophy as a New Age, cult-like religion.

Debra Snell, a former Waldorf parent who also served as one of the founding board members of Yuba River in 1994, likens Waldorf education to the tale of Hansel and Gretel. “Your critical thinking is suspended because the window dressings are so beautiful, but once you get inside, well, anthroposophy informs every second of every day,” she says.

A loosely organized group of critics of Waldorf schools, including Snell, filed a lawsuit claiming the Yuba River and John Morse schools were introducing religion into classrooms, but a federal judge last month rejected the lawsuit because the group didn’t have legal standing. The ruling is being appealed.

Created by the Austrian-born scholar, spiritualist, and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the early 20th century, anthroposophy is, to the outsider at least, an intimidating admixture of paganism, Christianity, nature worship, and Zoroastrianism, the latter an ancient religion featuring astrology and magic. Dipping into Steiner, one reads of the soul qualities of animals, the healing qualities of color, and the absorption of the astral body into children.

Waldorf educators insist that anthroposophy is never presented in Waldorf public schools. Critics argue that it’s implicit in the curriculum.

In 1919, Steiner founded a school at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, for the children of workers, giving birth to an educational movement that has grown to about 750 schools worldwide and nearly 200 in the United States. Only about 20 Waldorf schools are public—no organization is able to provide a precise number— though Waldorf advocates suggest that number may grow as more parents turn to this model of learning because they are turned off by the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in regular public schools. As it is, an increasing number of parents and school districts have become interested in Waldorf education since the first public Waldorf school was founded in Milwaukee in 1991. And, several years ago, Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif., began training Waldorf public school teachers.

Waldorf educators insist that anthroposophy is never presented in Waldorf public schools. But critics such as Snell argue that Steiner’s anthroposophy is implicit in the curriculum and educational philosophy.

“One night, as we were about to say grace,” Snell recalls, “my son said to me, ‘Why do we pray to the same God each night? I want to pray to Hermes,’ ” referring to the god from Greek mythology who served as a messenger to other gods.

“The mythology he was learning at the Waldorf school was treated as fact,” Snell maintains.

In 1997, Snell joined forces with a longtime Waldorf opponent, Dan Dugan, and several others to form an organization called People for Legal and Nonsectarian education, or PLANS. Rallying support through a Web site that soon included a by-subscription-only “Waldorf Survivors Support Group,” PLANS has charged that Yuba River Charter School and the John Morse magnet school espouse anthroposophy and hence are in violation of the First Amendment clause forbidding a government establishment of religion. In May 1998, PLANS launched a lawsuit against their sponsoring school districts, Twin Ridges Elementary and Sacramento Unified, respectively.

But last month, a federal court in Sacramento dismissed the lawsuit, citing as precedent a recently dismissed Massachusetts case in which Roman Catholic parents had sued a public school district that they believed was engaging in New Age religious practices. The federal judge in Massachusetts rejected the case, in part, because the plaintiffs’ children no longer attended the schools.

In a statement released by the defendants from both districts in the California case, George Hoffecker, who oversees charter services for the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which includes 12 charter schools scattered around the state and three regular public schools, said he hoped that the recent ruling had sent a “clear signal” that there was “no basis whatsoever for a lawsuit against these award-winning educational programs.”

Still, the arguments about whether Waldorf public schools are overstepping their bounds are unlikely to go away soon. PLANS is now appealing the dismissal of the California case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. It could take years to resolve the dispute. “If this ruling stands, a school district could open a ‘Catholic-inspired’ charter school staffed by priests and nuns, and no one would have the standing to challenge it,” Scott Kendall, a lawyer representing PLANS, argued in a statement released to the press.

Some experts who are watching the case from a national vantage point say the legal situation is highly unusual. “I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like this: school districts being sued for allowing schools to follow a philosophy that is not overtly religious,” says Edwin Darden, the senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Indisputably, Dugan is the brainchild behind both the lawsuit and the Waldorf backlash. An erudite and soft-spoken San Francisco sound engineer and inventor, who lives in a Spartan loft above a studio lined with computer cables, Dugan sent his 6th grade son to a private Waldorf school in 1987.

‘Like most parents, I was impressed with the beautiful environment, the dedicated teachers, the integration of art into everything. But over time, I came across a number of disturbing things.’

Dan Dugan,
Former Waldorf parent
Co-Founder of PLANS

That might seem like an unusual choice for a self-proclaimed “secular humanist,” but back then, Dugan says, he knew nothing about how Waldorf education is rooted in anthroposophy. “Like most parents, I was impressed with the beautiful environment, the dedicated teachers, the integration of art into everything. But over time, I came across a number of disturbing things.”

Among other causes of concern was the teaching of what his son called “baby science.” He came home one day complaining that a 6th grade teacher, in the course of a chemistry unit, had said that the four elements were earth, air, fire, and water. That was followed, Dugan says, by other excursions into pseudo-science: The planets influence the growth of plants, light is “pure spirit,” the heart doesn’t pump blood.

“The school had told me that they were teaching using a conventional science curriculum, using Steiner’s teaching methods,” Dugan recalls. “But this was all in fact Steiner content—anthroposophical doctrine.”

The school, Dugan says, gave him an ultimatum: Stop asking difficult questions or leave. He pulled his son out of the school after the 7th grade and embarked upon what became a decade-long study of Steiner, anthroposophy, and Waldorf education, collecting rafts of books and periodicals that constitute a small library at the back of his studio. He concluded that it was easier to split the atom than separate anthroposophy from Waldorf education.

The prolific Steiner wrote 58, mostly esoteric books and gave more than 6,000 lectures on a stupefying number of topics—he set out positions on everything from medicine and agriculture to politics and history—and so it is risky to summarize any one position. However, his thoughts regarding Waldorf education and its relationship to anthroposophy are perhaps most clearly spelled out in the 1924 book The Kingdom of Childhood, a staple of Waldorf teacher training consisting of seven talks Steiner gave to teachers in England in the process of starting a Waldorf school. The book’s introduction, written by Christopher Bamford, the current editorial director of the Anthroposophic Press in Herndon, Va., asserts that “there is no other form of education which affirms the eternal being of the child in the spiritual world before birth, which regards childhood as a gradual process of incarnation, and sees all physical processes as the result of spiritual powers.”

Throughout The Kingdom of Childhood, Steiner explains how those themes are to be embedded in Waldorf schools. Central is his insistence that the child, “accustomed to the spiritual substance from which it drew life,” must only very gradually be exposed to the concerns of the adult world. In particular, children before the age of 7, when the loss of teeth begins to occur—a crucial event in anthroposophy—must not deal with abstract ideas, as learning “directly through the head” will make people “thought-tired” in later life.

Children at Waldorf schools are given no direct reading instruction in the early grades. Instead, instruction is oral, consisting primarily of a steady diet of fairy tales, legends, and myths.

Hence, children at Waldorf schools today are given no direct reading instruction in the early grades, as Steiner doctrine suggests that premature reading can impair the soul. Instead, instruction is oral, consisting primarily of a steady diet of fairy tales, legends, and myths that endow everything with feeling and nourish the “instinctive soul qualities of the imagination.” Children often transcribe the tales into a main lesson book; they also fill the books with beautiful artwork tied to a given theme or subject.

The idea behind that approach, as Steiner put it, is that “it is quite wrong to teach reading before writing,” and that writing is best developed from drawing and painting in which “the whole being” is active.

Steiner also wrote that before the age of 12, children should not hear about causes and effects; therefore, the study of “lifeless sciences” such as physics should be postponed. Intellectual teaching given too early can cause the child “to suffer effects in the blood vessels and circulation.”

Emphatically, Steiner stated that “one who seeks knowledge of the human being must find it in anthroposophy.” He also criticized his supporters who “propagate an education without letting it be known that anthroposophy is behind it.”

Of course, there is no necessary relationship between what Steiner said in 1924 and what occurs in Waldorf schools today. Nevertheless, a number of teachers say they left their Waldorf public schools because of the training they received at Rudolf Steiner College or the troubling experiences they had at their schools.

Several of those teachers, who were contacted by Education Week, asked not to be identified, as they still teach in the sponsoring school districts.

One former teacher, who taught at John Morse, the magnet school in Sacramento, in the mid-1990s (the school was then called Oak Ridge), says that she was drawn to the Waldorf program because of its emphasis on art and music, but that she had found some of the kindergarten training objectionable. “A lot of the training was very nature-driven, even animistic,” she recalls. “Once, for instance, we participated in a ceremony in which we were told to ‘thank’ a tree, the presumption being that there’s a spirit in the tree. When I objected, they told me that I wouldn’t be successful.”

She also objected to a ceremony in which birthdays were celebrated by having the child dress in white clothing and sit upon a throne. “We were to walk around the child as many times as he was old, while the supervising teacher talked about the child as a ‘spirit come down to earth,’ ” she says. “I said that I didn’t believe in reincarnation, and I was again told I wouldn’t do well.”

Barbara Roemer, who taught 5th grade at Yuba River, the Grass Valley charter school, in 1995-96 before resigning, but still works as an occasional grant writer for the school, says that she was troubled by some of the math and science instruction.

“Math was almost all calculation, with little time for exploring topics like spatial concepts, or the construction of algorithms,” she says. “And anthroposophy underpins much of the science instruction. All the texts I had in my training were Steinerian. There was also too much emphasis on demonstration, when I felt students needed engagement with scientific ideas.”

One former teacher objected to a ceremony in which birthdays were celebrated by having the child dress in white clothing and sit upon a throne.

Even so, Roemer emphasizes that there is much she admires about Waldorf education that she wishes could be a part of all public schools: the art and the music, the downplaying of standardized testing, the reverence for nature. But she concedes that reverence for nature, so powerful for young children, has its limitations for older ones. “It limits what’s done in the upper grades, when students are ready for instruction in critical thinking—critical thinking that in a Waldorf school is delayed until the 8th grade.”

The school, she believes, has curtailed some of its more questionable practices, such as the celebration of Christian festivals. At one festival during the 1995-96 school year, for instance, she remembers the students were given lumps of magnetite “to imbue them with the power of St. Michael.”

But it’s not altogether clear that such practices have completely stopped. In a December 2000 memo secured by PLANS, the Yuba River school invites parents to a “Winter Solstice Candle Spiral Ceremony.” The description reads in part: “The room will be dark and filled with a mood of wonder and quiet anticipation. ... As the group sings, each child in turn, holding a red apple with a small unlit candle inserted into it, slowly walks along the spiral path and lights the candle from the center light.”

PLANS hired a private detective to videotape the Dec. 21 festival, and Dugan plays the tape on a VCR in his San Francisco home. It’s dark and grainy tape, of the old home-movie variety, but it’s easy to see the children walking along a spiral path and lighting the candle.

After viewing the tape for about 10 minutes, Dugan simply says: “You can’t do this. It’s a public school.”

Most Waldorf public school educators contest the notion that their schools propagate anthroposophy. “There’s just nothing to it,” says Betty Staley, the director of teacher training at Rudolf Steiner College. “Our training for public school teachers is very conservative with regard to the First Amendment. We’ll present Steiner’s ideas on child development, but that is all. Our public school teachers don’t get courses on anthroposophy and the spiritual life unless they take them on their own.”

The Waldorf teachers at John Morse, all of whom have had extensive Waldorf training at the college, support Staley’s assertions. “We all know of anthroposophy, of course, but it never comes into the training,” says Chris Whetstone, an 8th grade teacher.

What’s more, he says, he was “thinking about leaving teaching before this Waldorf program—it’s rejuvenated me. I’m emboldened to do new things, like teaching history from my own acquired knowledge instead of from a textbook.”

This is essentially the message of all the teachers at John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School: Their Waldorf training not only provided them with a new picture of child development and innovative teaching methods, but also re-energized their teaching careers. When asked if they would teach somewhere else if they could no longer teach in a Waldorf school, a roomful of teachers responds with an emphatic “no.”

As an example of how Waldorf teachers approach early writing and teaching differently from most other teachers, 1st grade teacher Beth Lee explains how, in a typical public school, a teacher might have students learn the consonant “m” by having the students write out the word “mountain” and then sound out the beginning consonant. Instead, Lee, always working from the whole to the part, started with a Swedish story in which the central image involved a door in the heart of a mountain. After talking about the story, the students then drew a mountain out of the shape of the letter “m.” “Only at the very end of the lesson,” Lee says, “would I have students sound out ‘m’ and write it in their lesson books.”

When asked if anthroposophy could possibly creep into the teaching at the school, kindergarten teacher Katherine Lehman exclaims, “Good God, no!” After rolling her eyes in exasperation, she adds, “that’s just lunacy. Steiner was not writing about public schools in the 21st century. Yes, we have to know Steiner’s point of view to teach in a Waldorf school, but that doesn’t mean we follow everything he said. And we play it very safe in terms of bringing in anything that could be considered religious.”

Over at Yuba River Charter School, George Hoffecker, the director of charter services for the Twin Ridges Elementary district, takes the teachers’ arguments a step further. He not only insists that anthroposophy is not practiced in his district’s schools, but disputes the contention that it is a religion.

“Anthroposophy a religion? Well, that’s a red herring,” says Hoffecker, sitting in the sun-dazzled school library. “Anthroposophy doesn’t have a priesthood or dogma. And Steiner himself said over and over again, ‘Don’t take what I say as truth.’ He was a modern-day renaissance man who dabbled in everything. People would come to him and say, ‘What do you think about agriculture?’ He’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what I think, take it or leave it.’”

Hoffecker, who once studied with the famous child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim before becoming a private Waldorf teacher and then a school administrator, acknowledges that some Waldorf educators can be dogmatic, but he attributes that not to Steiner or anthroposophy, but to flawed human nature. “We look for a leader, guru, divine prophet,” Hoffecker says. “But Steiner himself was not prescriptive—people are prescriptive.”

As an example of how someone can be a Waldorf educator without being an anthroposophist, Hoffecker points to himself: “I embrace Waldorf pedagogy, but I don’t embrace everything Steiner said. I’m not going to be labeled, boxed in. Look, I use Jungian psychology, too, but I don’t espouse Jung, the man, who was often racist. But that doesn’t mean we should throw out all of Jung.”

Hoffecker, who has met with Dan Dugan of PLANS, says Dugan doesn’t understand how adaptive a Waldorf education can be. And he believes the private Waldorf school Dugan’s son attended could have done a better job addressing Dugan’s concerns.

During a tour through the Yuba River school and some of its classrooms, Hoffecker, a middle-aged man with an acute intellect, strikes up pithy conversations with everyone he encounters and uses the language of cognitive psychology to speak of Waldorf education. Noting, for example, how all the students play the recorder, knit, draw, and participate in movement exercises, Hoffecker cites Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences; everyone at Yuba River, he says, is learning in visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic ways.

At one point during the tour, Hoffecker and his visitor come across a class of 8th graders gathered outside, on a veranda, where they are watching their teacher conduct a sequence of chemistry experiments. In one, the teacher is about to pour sulfuric acid into a beaker containing water. “Sulfuric acid is ‘water friendly,’ that is, attracted to water,” he explains. “And so, the sulfuric acid will take the water away.”

After twice reminding his students to observe everything that happens, paying particular attention to color changes, the teacher pours the sulfuric acid into the beaker. This creates a small explosion during which a dramatic transformation occurs: The water vanishes, leaving behind only a chunk of steaming carbon. The students are clearly impressed; several “ooh” and “ah” as they examine the carbon and jot their observations into their notebooks.

‘[A]t a Waldorf school, experience is always first, abstraction last.’

George Hoffecker,
Director of Charter Services,
Twin Ridges Elementary District

Hoffecker sees the science experiment as a kind of object lesson in Waldorf education. “At most schools, teachers will provide the scientific law first, but here we provide it last,” he says. “Instead, we have students minutely observe each step of the experiment, and only at the very end will they acquire an understanding of the law. So at a Waldorf school, experience is always first, abstraction last.”

That emphasis upon observation is vintage Steiner, who writes in The Kingdom of Childhood “that thinking must never, never be separated from visual experience, from what the children can see, for otherwise intellectualism and abstractions are brought to the children in early life and thereby ruin their whole being.”

But Hoffecker says that does not mean that such an experiment is anthroposophist or even “Steinerian.” Making meticulous observation a first principle is a legitimate pedagogical approach and, Waldorf educators would say, an approach that can easily be divorced from anthroposophy.

Indeed, the issue of determining what practices at the public Waldorf schools may have their roots in anthroposophy is extremely difficult. Much is in the eyes of the beholder.

At Sacramento’s John Morse, for instance, there is a table in each classroom that has upon it objects such as seashells, branches, pine cones, and flowers. Waldorf teachers refer to such tables as “nature tables,” inducing in children “a feeling for nature.” Dugan and other members of PLANS, on the other hand, refer to the tables as “nature altars,” saying they are reflective of the pantheism—or a belief that God and the universe are one and the same—that they argue is inherent in anthroposophy.

Some teaching practices at John Morse can perhaps be interpreted as being more rooted in anthroposophy than others. Earlier this school year, for instance, 4th graders had just completed a standard Waldorf unit called “Human Beings and Animals.” In their lesson books, the students had transcribed, along with pastoral lyricisms such as “Now the gentle cows are standing knee deep in dewy grass,” this statement: “The limbs of animals are very specialized. Some are perfect tools for digging and grasping.” That notion of animals was contrasted with this conception of people: “Human hands and feet are the least specialized. But human hands can make tools that do whatever animals do.”

Steiner, as part of anthroposophy, spoke similarly, maintaining that “the whole animal kingdom is a giant human being, not brought together in a synthesis but analyzed out into single examples.” Children must come to learn that human beings have a little bit of each animal being within them, he believed; the proper goal of each person is “to have the proper dose of lion- ness, sheep-ness, tiger-ness, donkey-ness, and so on.”

In another classroom, there was a poem in a workbook about how a rainbow—almost an icon in anthroposophy—could beat back an evil dragon.

At the same time, students had also written about such common concerns as drunk drivers and family problems, none of which appeared to have the slightest connection to anthroposophy.

Dan Dugan and PLANS have an accidental ally of sorts in a prominent Waldorf educator and author named Eugene Schwartz, who stirred up a hornets’ nest when he invited Dugan to a 1999 conference at Sunbridge College, a Waldorf institution in Spring Valley, N.Y. Schwartz says he did so because Dugan was feared as a demagogue within the Waldorf community when, in reality, Schwartz argues, the Waldorf critic was pointing out genuine inconsistencies within the movement. “I’ve discovered that many Waldorf teachers actually agree with much of what Dugan has to say, but are afraid of speaking out on account of the leadership,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz himself says he’s well aware of the dangers of speaking out. Shortly after the Dugan invitation, he was fired from his position as the director of teacher training at Sunbridge College following his criticism of the way in which Waldorf educators, in his view, were denying the movement’s religious essence in order to move into public education.

‘Anthroposophy, true enough, is not sectarian, but we’re lying if we say we’re not bringing religious experiences to children.’

Eugene Schwartz,
Waldorf educator and advocate

“Anthroposophy, true enough, is not sectarian, but we’re lying if we say we’re not bringing religious experiences to children,” Schwartz says. “The way a Waldorf education speaks to children evokes religious experiences in them that are similar or identical to those they would have in a religious setting. Anthroposophy wants to make everything sacramental, and this can’t help impacting the way we teach almost everything.”

As an example, Schwartz mentions the “three-fold human,” which in anthroposophy represents the three essential “soul forces” of willing, feeling, and thinking. Waldorf teachers, he explains, try to arrange each lesson so that all three soul forces are brought into play.

As for the argument that you can be a Waldorf educator without being an anthroposophist, Schwartz argues that the leaders of the Waldorf movement are serious anthroposophists, and that anthroposophy cannot be excised from Waldorf education in any case.

“Instead of being honest, we talk about Waldorf as if were talking about Dewey and Piaget,” Schwartz adds, referring to John Dewey and Jean Piaget, two of the most influential educational thinkers of the past century. “But we can’t get rid of the underpinnings of anthroposophy, and I believe that if we’re honest about that, people will appreciate that.”

Schwartz, who also trained teachers for a spell at Rudolf Steiner College, says that public school teachers should be told that they’re getting a watered-down version of the authentic Waldorf. “We’re not telling the truth, namely that we’re giving them the wine without the alcohol,” he says. “The truth of the matter is that we jumped the gun into public schools—we should have deliberated more.”

Dugan, of course, agrees with Schwartz about the haste with which Waldorf has moved into the public sector.

But unlike Schwartz—and the defendants in the California lawsuit—Dugan does not consider Waldorf an innovative form of education. “Waldorf educators like to say that we’re getting in the way of innovation, but I don’t think of Waldorf as innovative at all,” he says. “Actually, it’s retrograde—it goes back to the 19th-century romantic idea of children. I think it was innovative in Steiner’s time, as it put boys and girls together and eliminated separate tracks, but the movement hasn’t changed, or learned from experience.

“But whether it’s innovative or not is really beside the point,” Dugan says. “Waldorf is bringing religion into the public schools, and that can’t be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Spirit of Waldorf Education


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