Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist's God does nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance . (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)
The Religious Basis of Waldorf Education
by Viola Larson
The Waldorf School method founded by Rudolf Stiener was, several years ago, (1996), accepted as an alternative method for teaching in the public school system. In Sacramento, California, The Oak Ridge Elementary School used the Waldorf system. Administrators and teachers had hoped Waldorf Education would meet the needs of their culturally diverse school.1 Indeed, the Waldorf emphasis on folk tales, nature, music and art appeals to the romantic and cultural part of our humanity. However, while it is important that parents and educators search for and use superior teaching methods for public schools, there is a fundamental problem connected to the use of the Waldorf method. The most basic issue is Waldorf's foundation in the Occult. Occultic systems generally include supposed knowledge about the universe that is obtained by spiritual and/or esoteric means. Occultism further implies the use of esoteric methods to gain power or control over physical and/or spiritual forces. It is rather like spiritual technology. A foundation in the Occult means that the Waldorf Schools are essentially religious.2
Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861, was a brilliant thinker, who founded the Anthroposophical Society as well as the Waldorf Schools. Before founding the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner was involved with Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society. Both of these societies share a foundation in occult speculation, including such ideas as humans possessing etheric and astral bodies as well as physical bodies. Both societies teach that humans are evolving through successive lives or incarnations into beings that are capable of communicating with super natural entities or powers. Steiner, unlike Blavatsky, brought to his society a unique concept about Jesus Christ. He writes of the Christ impulse that allows humans to evolve into a higher "personality" that is able to "ascend . . . into the divine-spiritual world."3
Steiner's teaching method is also based on his occultic perception of humanity and its, supposedly, evolving consciousness. Steiner, in fact, claims that the "proper point of view for education will . . . spontaneously result" from a correct description of "the nature of the growing and evolving human being."4 His view of the correct description of human development is stated in one of his booklets, The Education of The Child. Steiner believed his understanding of human development was gained from occult methodology, and he refers to that process in his education booklet. He states:
But the higher organs whereby man can penetrate into higher worlds, are present in embryo in every human being. Everyone can develop them who has the patience, endurance, and energy to apply in his own case the methods described in the volume, Knowledge of Higher Worlds and Its Attainment.5
Steiner believed that when a person is born they possess , in a protecting envelope, an etheric body and astral body. The etheric body, according to Steiner, is not released from its protecting envelope until the time the child loses its baby teeth and gains her adult teeth. The astral body is not released until the time of puberty.6 This particular perception of the developing person is what guides most of the teaching methods of the Waldorf Schools. For instance, reminding the reader that the embryo's eyes are present but protected from light in the mother's womb, Steiner suggests that in the same way the etheric body's particular properties must be protected. He writes:
In exactly the same sense, external education must not endeavour to effect a training, or influence the moulding, of the memory before the change of teeth. If, however, we simply give it nourishment and do not try as yet to develop it by external measures, we shall see how the memory unfolds in this period, freely and of its own accord.7
In fact, Steiner concludes that, "ideas, habits, memory," must all develop of their own accord; just as "the eyes and ears develop within the mother-body without the influence of external light."8 After the supposed birth of the etheric body the child is encouraged to memorize, but the "grasping" of "intellectual concepts" is delayed until puberty when the supposed astral body is born.9 While teaching methodology is based on diverse philosophies and there are conflicts among educators about what is more effective, the issues surrounding Waldorf education should be understood in a correct context. The Waldorf method of working "more with oral language development and fine motor development" before reading and writing is taught is basically guided by a religious viewpoint. Most of the Waldorf Educational System is overlaid with the same religious directive.
For instance, between the time of the change of teeth and puberty, children are to be taught a symbolic understanding of the laws of nature. This is because Steiner believed children at this stage of development had not yet birthed the intellect which he considered a "soul-force".10 The intellect was still protected by the envelope surrounding the astral body. This kind of symbolic understanding is also to emphasis the spiritual aspects of the forces that under gird life. Steiner writes:
It is essential that the secrets of Nature, the laws of life, be taught to the boy or girl, not in dry intellectual concepts, but as far as possible in symbols. Parables of the spiritual connections of things should be brought before the soul of the child in such a manner that behind the parables he divines and feels, rather than grasps intellectually, the underlying law in all existence.11
Steiner gives as an example of this symbolic method a parable for teaching the child about the immortality of the soul. He suggests using the "comparison of the butterfly coming forth from the chrysalis."12 This is of course a wonderful way of teaching creative writing, literature and idealism.13 It is also a method for teaching religious faith. However, when used as a method for teaching science it may easily develop into dogma. This is particularly true when Steiner insists that the teacher must believe the parable in order to truly teach the student. Steiner writes that the teacher must "believe in one's parables as in absolute realities," and this can only be done when "one's thought is alive with spiritual knowledge," that is, the teaching of Anthroposophy.14 Deriding other educational practices not taught by such spiritual knowledge as "dry and dead," Steiner explodes with praise for his own system:
The spiritual knowledge of Anthroposophy has for all the secrets of the world appropriate parables-pictures taken from the very being of things, pictures not first made by man, but laid by the forces of the world within the things themselves in the very act of their creation.Therefore this spiritual knowledge must form the living basis for the whole art of education.15
Some have suggested that it is only Steiner's philosophy that shaped the Waldorf Schools. However the philosophy that Steiner combined with his occultism is generally considered religious in nature by most philosophers. Some religious and philosophical thinkers in the nineteenth century, mainly German idealist, combined the ideas of physical evolution with the idea of a spiritual progressing absolute. The absolute was equated with reality, consciousness, the world and/or God. Because of this understanding German Idealist such as Fichte and Hegel believed one knows and understands the world and God intuitively as well as with the intellect. In fact, for Hegel humanity's thoughts are the thoughts of the Absolute.16 German Idealism combined with Spiritualism are two of the influences of Steiner's world view.
This combination of influences can create differing types of religious output at the Waldorf School. One paper, occult in nature, circulated to teachers at Oak Ridge Elementary School is titled, "The Planets and Their Influence on Daily Life."17The paper lists, under the names of the planets, such things as days of the week, types of metal, activity and organs of the body. Both the producers of the paper as well as the teachers who use it are probably unaware that for some this paper is silly while for others it is an affront to their religious beliefs since they view astrology as sinful. Another paper, in a more idealistic and romantic mode, filled with blessings and verses, has something for everyone. A theist probably wouldn't mind saying "I pray to the eternal weaver," but would cringe at "Dear Sun, dear earth,/By you we live./Our loving thanks we give."18
One argument, pro Waldorf education in public schools, made by the Principal of Oak Ridge Elementary School, refers to the State Department of Education's 1991 framework, Moral and Civil Education and Teaching About Religion. She writes:
The state standards logically outline that a 4th grade teacher can not adequately instruct students about the spread of the missions in California without giving some explanation of Father Sera and his Catholic faith; nor could a world history teacher discuss China without a mention of Buddhism or India without Hinduism.19
That argument is unsound for two reasons. First, it admits that there is a religious bias in the Waldorf method which had earlier been denied by the same person. If it is religious that should be addressed. Secondly, and this is the whole crux of the problem with Waldorf Education, the teaching is not about the history of Occultism, e.g., what its beliefs are, what groups accept such beliefs, how it has affected different nations or eras, etc., rather it is methodology based on occultism. And, it is dangerous, not because teachers are performing magic rites or being introduced to astrology, but because both teachers and students are being forced, willingly or unwillingly, unknowingly in most cases, to ascribe to one particular religious system as the best teaching and learning method for a diverse and public school system.
One further argument put forward by the Principal is akin to the tired American standard for truth; if it works its good, if its good its true. She writes, "America has a long history of looking pragmatically at the effectiveness of an idea, regardless of the personal beliefs of its inventor or founder." Historically many ideas that were effective were also demoralizing, even evil. That is beside the question, however, Waldorf Education is not an invention. It is a religious and philosophical system. We are a nation which grants freedom of religion. As a Christian I believe imposing a system of religion, however subtly, on a public school system is to endanger a small part of all of our religious freedom.
1. Mareva Brown, "Kids get Taste of Waldorf Education," The Sacramento Bee, 20 )October 1996, 4(B) and 5(b)
2. Steiner refers to "occult training" when writing about the transformation of the astral body into the "spirit-self or"manas." see Rudolf Steiner, The Education of The Child, trans. George and Mary Adams, 4th impression of 2nd ed. (London: Rudolf Steiner Press; New York: Anthroposophic Press Inc., 1981) 17, 18.
3. Rudolf Steiner, The Concepts of Original Sin and Grace, trans. by D.S. Osmond, 2nd., (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1973) 23-28.
4. Steiner, Education, 8.
5. Ibid., 11.
6. Ibid., n.1, 20.
7. Ibid., n.1, 21.
8. Ibid., 25.
9. Ibid., 38,39.
11. Ibid., 33.
13. Steiner was influenced by the Romantic Movement, another stream that watered the fertile ground of Spiritualism and Occult Movements in the Nineteenth century. His writings reflect the Romantic notion of a spirit force in nature.
14. Steiner, Education, 34.
15. Ibid., 35.
16. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy; Ficte to Hegel, vol. VII, part 1, (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday & Co., inc. 1965).
17. "The Planets and Their Influences On Daily Life," compiled by Maggie Mahie, 89, reprinted 91 by Paulette Wadsworth. Paper given out in school Oct. 96.
18. Letter written to editor on Dec 1, 1996 by the principal of Oak Ridge Elementary School.Original unedited and unsigned letter, on file).