Steiner education has established itself in the Victorian education system, but information provided school administrations, current and prospective parents and the general public about Steiner and his educational doctrine is at the very least incomplete or, more disturbingly, misleading.
We urge anyone thinking about becoming involved with Steiner education to consider these facts on their merits.
Six Facts You Need to Know About Steiner Education
A Guide for Prospective Students and Their Parents
Steiner or Waldorf Education has established itself in the Victorian education system, both in the form of independent Steiner Schools, such as the one at Warranwood in Melbourne’s east, and in so-called ‘Steiner annexes’ operating within some state primary schools, such as that at Footscray City PS in the west. However the information given to the public and to the educational authorities by practitioners about the nature of Steiner Education leaves out or distorts some essential facts about the Steiner system, facts that bear significantly on any decision to enrol a student in Steiner Education or start a Steiner annex. In presenting the facts about Steiner Education below we have attempted to be as objective as possible and not to make value judgements about these facts. We leave it to prospective students, parents and school administrators to consider these facts on their merits when making decision about their involvement with Steiner and his educational doctrine.
Steiner Fact 1: Steiner’s esoteric belief system, which determines the nature of Steiner Education, is a religion.
Steiner’s set of esoteric beliefs, which he called Anthroposophy (to distinguish it from Theosophy, of which it is an off-shoot) clearly constitutes a religion. The legal definition of a religion in Australia was given by the High Court in 1983 in the Scientology case:
… for the purposes of the law, the criteria of religion are twofold: first, belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and second, the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief, …
Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic) 1983 154 Clr 120  HCA 40; (1983) 154 CLR 120 (27 October 1983) at p 137.
Steiner and the Anthroposophists believe in a range of supernatural beings, including the Christian Trinity:
… the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit … is a reality deeply bound up with the whole evolution of the cosmos;
Rudolf Steiner: ‘The Mystery of Golgotha’, Oxford, 27 October, 1922
the four Archangels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel); two evil spirits, Lucifer and Ahriman:
These two figures — Lucifer and Ahriman — must be clearly distinguished from each other. For Lucifer is a Being who detached himself from the spiritual hosts of heaven after the separation of the sun, whereas Ahriman had already broken away before the separation of the sun and is an embodiment of quite different powers.
Rudolf Steiner: An Outline of Occult Science
and many other spirit beings.
Moreover, the practices of Steiner’s followers in education, agriculture, medicine and art are undoubtedly intended to give effect to those beliefs.
At the initial stages of contact with Steiner education, its practitioners will tell prospective participants that it is not a religion, but a ‘philosophy’. All religions have or imply philosophical positions on a number of issues, especially in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. However, the fact there are philosophic positions associated with for example Christianity or Islam or Hinduism does not make them any less religions. By the same token, the fact that there may be philosophical positions associated with Anthroposophy does not make Anthroposophy a ‘philosophy’ rather than a ‘religion’.
The question can be raised as to whether Anthroposophy is in any meaningful sense a ‘philosophy’ at all. Neither Steiner nor Anthroposophy are covered in Ted Honderich (ed), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford, 1995), which claims to be ‘most comprehensive’ and to cover ‘the whole history of philosophy, worldwide’. (‘Islamic Philosophy’ and ‘Buddhist Philosophy’, inter alia, do have substantial entries.) Similarly, there are no entries under either Anthroposophy or Steiner in J O Urmson and Jonathan Ree (eds), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, (London, 1989). Steiner’s views however are discussed at length in Mircea Eliade’s The Encyclopedia of Religion, in J D Douglas’s New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, and in Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (London, 1991). The only extended discussions of Steiner education in the recent Australian broadcast media have been on the ABC’s religious programs, Compass and The Religion Report.
Anthroposophy is a religion both colloquially under the commonly accepted understanding of what a religion is, and legally because it fits the High Court definition of religion. Steiner education is a set of practices that gives effect to Steiner’s supernatural beliefs, so these practices are also religious in nature.
Steiner Fact 2: The Steiner movement has some of the characteristics of a cult
Newcomers to Steiner are generally not told about the cult-like group of chosen initiates at the heart of the Anthroposophy movement, or if they are it is only in very general terms. The group is called the School of Spiritual Science or ‘First Class’ as it is often called. The Australian website describes it as follows:
After two years or more [of involvement in Anthroposophy] you can apply to join the School of Spiritual Science. … [B]y joining the School of Spiritual Science a member now commits to represent Anthroposophy in the world at large. … [This] involves working with certain meditations and mantra, which were given by Rudolf Steiner. [http://anthroposophy.org.au/membership.htm]
What they don’t say is that the activities of the School of Spiritual Science/First Class are secret and known only to initiates. The only independent but relatively sympathetic book-length study of the Steiner system describes it as follows:
… the door of the First Class is by no means opened to all who knock. Somewhere between 10 to 30 per cent of General Society members probably also belong to this inner society, which, to outsiders, appears mysterious. At least two years’ affiliation to the General Society is a pre-condition for joining. Also, ‘inner responsibility’ for Anthroposophy has to be accepted. Rudolf Steiner, who was distressed at the state of Anthroposophy, founded the First Class in 1923 as a regenerating organ.
The First Class adapts Steiner’s meditative path for individuals; the latter is generally available in publications such as Occult Science and Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. However, only the place and times of meetings of local branches of the School of Spiritual Science are published, together with the number of the ‘lesson’ concerned (there are 34 in all). Members of this elite are pledged to secrecy, a vow which is strictly observed. I had no success when I asked for information about the mantrams of the First Class: I was told that they ‘belong to the School’. I found that when, as an outsider, I asked questions about them (or the commentaries on them), this was one of the few acts that would, almost predictably, incur annoyance.
(Geoffrey Ahern: Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and the Western Esoteric Tradition. 1984, pp 31-32)
Many Steiner teachers are either members of this secretive ‘School’ or else working towards membership. Ahern points out:
An organizational advantage of this lack of individualistic democracy is the tendency for the School to be the authoritative and cohesive force of the Rudolf Steiner movement. Based on the sacred Goetheanum, it seems to be the main focus of direction-making and decision-taking within Anthroposophy. (p 33)
Before prospective parent consign their children to the Steiner system, they should be made aware that it is controlled by a cult-like inner sanctum.
The second cult-like aspect of the Steiner movement is its failure to forefront the more extreme views of its guiding light. Like many cults it first gets people interested and involved with non-controversial ‘motherhood’ statements about education. For example, the website of the Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School at Warranwood states:
The teachers of the Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School strive to engender an attitude of wonder for other people, for living creatures and for the structure of the physical world around us.
We wish the children to feel that they are free in essence, that they love the world, and that they are eager to assume responsibilities in the community of adults.
Our work lies in helping the children develop their thought life, deepen and broaden their feelings and harness their energy for the good of the world.
Who could possibly quarrel with any of this? There are similarly vague statements about each level, but you won’t learn much more about Steiner’s theories from anywhere on the school website. It certainly doesn’t tell you that Rudolph Steiner believed he could directly perceive a ‘super-sensible reality’ behind the objects of the everyday world which gave him ‘the knowledge which he, as a ‘so-to-speak divine being’, acquires concerning the objects – that is the secrets of their activities and their existence which unveil themselves to him’ (Rudolph Steiner: Occult Science: An Outline, p 13).
After observing this ‘super-sensible reality’ Steiner believed he ascended through the ‘etheric’ and ‘astral’ levels of consciousness to the ‘karmic’ level. This enabled him to see a vast spiritual panorama in which are recorded all the past events of the world’s spiritual history. These ‘Akashic Records’ give him access not only to the known history of the earth, but much more besides.
Before entrusting their children to Steiner Education, parents should be made aware that it is the brainchild of a person who believed with utter certainty that Man’s evolution began to take form on the made-up continent of Lemuria, which was allegedly where the Indian Ocean now lies, and that its development there was guided by ‘spirit beings’ and retarded by evil or ‘Luciferic’ ones; that when Lemuria was destroyed in a volcanic cataclysm the most developed humans moved on to the equally mythical continent of Atlantis, which was supposed to be where the Atlantic Ocean now is and where they developed an intuitive understanding of the environment and the power of speech; that they came up against the malevolent spirit Ahriman who attempted to draw them away from the spiritual world into the material; that Atlantis was in its turn overwhelmed, by storm and flood, and the survivors made their way to the modern continents where they evolved through a number of epochs (Egyptian, Persian, Greek, etc) culminating in the Germanic epoch, because the Germanic people were the descendants of the Atlanteans, and had retained some of their spiritual beliefs, despite the best efforts of Lucifer and Ahriman.
Certainly the principles of adequate product disclosure would indicate that this information should be up front and visible. But Steiner’s views, in the words of the leading British psychiatrist Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus are ‘so eccentric, so unsupported by evidence, so manifestly bizarre’ that no-one could possibly accept them unless they had already been seduced into the Steiner fold, so they are discretely pushed to the background in all Steiner Education publicity. If you dig deep into the various Anthroposophy websites, or start to read his basic texts such as The Philosophy of Freedom, Occult Science: An Outline, or Knowledge of the Higher Worlds – How is it Achieved? you will eventually find those embarrassing Lemurians and Atlanteans and much more besides, but most new arrivals to Steiner are diverted to other more superficially palatable ideas.
Steiner Fact 3: Steiner’s Religion Dictates his Educational Doctrines
Steiner education claims it is not ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. While it may be true that religion or spirituality are not overtly proselytised in Steiner annexes (although we can’t be sure of this because there is little monitoring or evaluation), it is also true that the whole basis of Steiner education comes from Steiner’s theories of ‘spiritual science’.
‘The subjects you teach will not be treated in the way they have been dealt with hitherto. You will … have to use them as a means with which to develop the soul and bodily forces of the individual in the right way.’
Steiner: Practical Advice to Teachers, p. 9
As befits the mystical origins of his ideas, according to Steiner everything seems to come in threes. There are three main stages of child development – approximately 0 to 7 years, 7 to 14 and 14 to 21 – each stage governed by one of the three parts of the body – head, chest and limbs – and influenced by one of the three kingdoms – animal, vegetable and mineral (truly!) – and one of the three principles – thinking, feeling and willing. There are three aspects of the human being – body, soul and spirit – and each of these has three divisions (e.g. astral body, etheric body, physical body).
Steiner believed that the development of the individual follows similar stages to that of the human race – a descent from a spiritual being into a physical one, and a struggle to regain the spiritual. Each year of primary education must therefore be based on a particular one of the epochs mentioned above in turn, and children must be exposed to the myths and legends of that particular civilisation, and that civilisation only.
When the children study Indian mythology one year and Hebrew another and so on, they are not innocently studying ‘comparative religion’, they are recapitulating the spiritual development of man as Steiner believed it occurred, from the mythical civilisations of ‘Lemuria’ and ‘Atlantis’, through the Egyptian, Indian, and Hebrew civilisations to its culmination in modern (i.e. early 20th century) ‘Aryan’ (i.e. German) civilisation. This is not an educational practice, but a religious one, because Steiner teachers are here giving effect to their supernatural beliefs.
When Steiner teachers divide the development of the child into seven-year cycles, the Steiner teachers’ fixation with the mystical number ‘seven’ is a way of giving effect to their supernatural beliefs, so it is not an educational practice, it is a religious one.
When Steiner teachers prefer white and blue to black and brown, this comes from their belief in an eternal battle for men’s souls between good white ‘angels’ and the evil dark spirit Ahriman, who was and is trying to stop man’s spiritual development. The Steiner teachers here are giving effect to their supernatural beliefs, so this is not an educational practice, it is a religious one.
When Steiner teachers make children at a certain age paint on damp paper, which makes everything go fuzzy, this is because Steiner believed children’s souls are not yet developed enough to cope with sharp distinctions. The Steiner teachers here are giving effect to their supernatural beliefs, so this is not an educational practice, it is a religious one.
One could go on. Steiner education may not look ‘religious’ on the surface, but it is in fact a bundle of religious ideas dressed up as educational ones.
Steiner himself certainly thought his education system was an extension of his religious beliefs. In 1919 he told the teachers in his first school that ‘by employing our methods we will harmonise the higher human being (the human spirit and soul) with the physical body (our lower being)’ (Practical Advice to Teachers, Anthroposophic Press, 2000, p 1). Five years later he told them: ‘Every word and gesture in my teaching as a whole will be permeated with religious fervour’ and later talks about having ‘educated children very naturally in a priestly way – what is really a religious devotion …’ (The Essentials of Education, Anthroposophic Press, 1997, pp 65, 69).
This position has not changed since Steiner’s death. A Steiner education website states: ‘Anthroposophy holds that the human being is fundamentally a spiritual being and that all human beings deserve respect as the embodiment of their spiritual nature. This view is carried into Waldorf [Steiner] education …’ and another states: ‘Rudolf Steiner’s educational philosophy must be set within the context of his main endeavour – to address the latent possibilities in human beings of advancing beyond the present-day accepted limits of cognition to an awakening, by self-discipline and exercise, to a knowledge of the spiritual worlds underlying outer existence – higher worlds.’
Some of Steiner’s ideas on education have worthwhile lessons for us – making the arts more central, dealing with the whole person, being concerned with initiation into the culture and not just training in skills – but these good things are vitiated by the stubbornness with which Steiner schools and teachers try to shoehorn children into the pattern pre-determined for them by Steiner’s cogitations. While its propaganda claims a central concern for individual differences, in fact what Steiner education does is to try to slot all children into the developmental pigeon-hole designed for them by Rudolf Steiner, within which there is only a small amount of room to move.
[A]ccount must constantly be taken of the proper age at which to develop specific forces so that their cultivation may enable the individual to take his place in life in the right way. Steiner: Practical Advice to Teachers, p.20
Human destiny is seen as moving along pre-ordained paths and the Steiner teacher’s role is to keep children on the fairly straight and relatively narrow as defined by Steiner. Life is not for self-fulfillment, but for fulfilling your Steiner-defined spiritual destiny. There are unfortunate hints of German fascism in this (see below).
Of course there is no doubt the children in the Steiner schools do learn things, but the question is, is their learning the result of Steiner’s intervention in their lives, or despite it? Children of all ages, and especially primary school children, are remarkably resilient and many of them manage to learn important things in even the most disadvantageous situations. But not all of them, and this is the point.
Educational administrators should ask themselves, if Steiner ‘Education’ is so educationally effective why don’t we adopt it for the whole system. We should have a Steiner state, not just a Steiner annex. But if it is not effective, should we support it in any way?
Steiner Fact 4: Steiner Education is not Evidence Based
Steiner Education was not based originally on extensive practice in schools but came out of Steiner’s head. When he set up the first Waldorf School in 1919 his only experience in education was tutoring an autistic boy for a few years, which he did with great success. But for the most part the ideas for the school were driven by his spiritual or religious theories.
Although Steiner Education has been going now for ninety years there has been virtually no rigorous research on its effectiveness. A perusal of the comprehensive world-wide educational data base, Education Resources Information Centre [ERIC] reveals only a handful of articles about Steiner, most of them anecdotal. The one or two actual research studies published conclude that Steiner school students are ‘more creative’ or ‘more imaginative’ that students in mainstream schools, hardly a surprising result, given the centrality of Steiner’s idiosyncratic theories of art in his education system. There is no hard information on Steiner students’ achievements in reading and mathematics, on what goes on in Steiner classrooms or on the long-term effects of Steiner Education on children’s development.
In eschewing such empirical studies, Steiner’s supporters are really only following the guru himself. Steiner was highly dismissive of the ‘trend of human evolution … to validate judgements through visual observations’ and believed a better guide to life was the ‘reality of the human being’s inner activity’, by which, of course, he meant his ‘inner activity’, which he believed came from a universal source that he had tapped into.
When governmental bodies do ask for hard information on student achievement, Steiner schools tend to avoid the issue. Under the Australian Government’s current Guidelines for Schools, all schools are required to ensure that school performance information, including the number of students meeting year 3, 5, 7 and 9 national reading, writing, spelling and numeracy benchmarks, is made publicly available. According to the Melbourne Rudolph Steiner School website, ‘As 98% of parents chose to remove their children from participation in these tests, it did not allow for a large enough sample to be indicative of the School’s Performance. Therefore results are not available.’ (http://www.mrss.com.au/)
Prospective students and their parents must draw their own conclusions from this.
Steiner Fact 5: Steiner Education is not Friendly to Parents
Control of Steiner Schools and classes is firmly in the hands of the teachers. Parents do not get any formal say. Everything is run by the College of Teachers. Parents are used to raise money and help run the school/class but they have no control over what happens. The only input from parents that is accepted is input that reinforces the Steiner bias.
Non-Steiner parents are not permitted to be involved in the teaching in any way. Steiner ‘Education’ is so special that it must be left to the specialists, the Steiner-trained teachers. Parents are in fact seen as a handicap to children’s development by Steiner:
You will have to take over children for their education and instruction – children who will have received already the education, or mis-education given them by their parents … But when we receive the children into the school we will be able to make up for many things that have been done wrongly, or left undone, in the first years of the child’s life.Steiner: Study of Man, p.16
Steiner Fact 6: There are Racist Undertones in Steiner’s Writings
By promulgating the view that the highest point of human development was represented by the Aryan or Germanic people, Steiner opened himself up to accusations of racism:[T]he representative people for the development of the consciousness soul, hence for what matters particularly in our age, is the Anglo-Saxon nation. The Anglo-Saxon people are those who through their whole organization are predisposed to develop the consciousness soul to a special degree. The prominent position occupied by the Anglo-Saxon nation in our time is indeed due to the fact that this nation is especially suited for the development of the consciousness soul. (Steiner, Rudolf. Materialism and the Task of Anthroposophy. (1921) Trans. Maria St. Goar. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1987. p. 195)
German attitudes will always have to remain more universal than those of other peoples. These things relate to profound realities in the spiritual world. (Steiner, Rudolf. The Destinies of Individuals and of Nations. (1914-15) Trans. Anna R. Meuss. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1987. p. 76)
You see, when we really study science and history, we must conclude that if people become increasingly strong, they will also become increasingly stupid. If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense if men do not arrive at a form of intelligence that is independent of blondness. Blond hair actually bestows intelligence. … It is indeed true that the more the fair individuals die out the more will the instinctive wisdom of humans vanish. (Steiner, Rudolf. Health and Illness: Volume I. (1922) Trans. Maria St. Goar. Spring Valley: Anthroposophic Press, 1981, p. 86)
No doubt about it, the soul becomes corrupted through using the French language…It is also possible at the present time that the French will even ruin their own blood, the very element which has kept their language going as a corpse. That is a terrible thing the French people are doing to other people, the frightful cultural brutality of transplanting black people to Europe. It affects France itself worst of all. This has an incredibly strong effect on the blood, the race. This will substantially add to French decadence. The French nation will be weakened as a race. (Steiner, Rudolf. Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart 1922 to 1923: Volume Three: Being the end of the Fourth Year. (1923) Trans. Pauline Wehrle. Forest Row, U.K.: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1988. pp. 87-88)
These views fitted in very nicely with the Aryan supremacy theories of the rising Nationalist Socialist movement in Germany in the 1920s. There was even some talk early on of Steiner schools being a suitable vehicle for educating the new German race, but it soon became clear that Steiner’s concept of Aryan supremacy was a spiritual and not a material one. Steiner schools were closed down by the Nazis and a number of Anthroposophists had to decamp to Switzerland.
However the racist undertones of Steiner’s theories did strike a chord with the Nazis and the idea of Germans as the superior survivors of the destruction of Atlantis was taken seriously by some of them, including by Heinrich Himmler. Whether he got his notions directly from Steiner or by a more circuitous route we do not know.
Further examples of Steiner’s assessment of other races include the following:
Very few inventions have been made in Asia. They can assemble things, but as for inventions themselves, that is, that which arises from experience with the external world, the Asians cannot do this. (Steiner, ‘Color and the Races of Humankind’ Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde p. 59.)
This sort of independent thinking which Europeans develop in dealing with their surroundings, the Asians do not have this. The Japanese will therefore follow all the European inventions, but they will never think up something on their own. (Steiner, ‘Color and the Races of Humankind’ Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde p. 59.)
Thus it is really very interesting: on the one hand there is the black race, which is the most earthly. When this race goes toward the West, it dies out. Then there is the yellow race, in the middle between the earth and the cosmos. When this race goes toward the East, it turns brown, it attaches itself too much to the cosmos and dies out. The white race is the race of the future, the spiritually creative race. (Steiner, ‘Color and the Races of Humankind’ Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde p. 67.)
Steiner’s theories of colour reinforced the negative European evaluation of black, contrasted with the positive evaluation of white, which informed European racism and did nothing for the self-esteem of the darker-skinned people
When you see black, when we use black somewhere, it can most easily be used to represent the spiritual image of the lifeless, just as we feel ourselves killed, lamed, when our spirit has to find its place on awakening in black darkness. So one can feel black as the spiritual image of the lifeless.
Colour, Part Three: The Creative World of Colour; Lecture III, ‘Colours as Revelations of the Psychic in the World’
Although Steiner as a person was compassionate to all regardless of race or any other characteristics, and Steiner’s ideas on race were based his notion of the spiritual journey of man, they did establish a superior role for his own (Germanic) people and were clearly biased and probably dangerous in the hands of less spiritual individuals. There are unconfirmed allegations of discrimination against children with darker skins in Steiner Schools or annexes in both NSW and Victoria.
Prepared by Ian Robinson,
President, Rationalist Society of Australia and
formerly Leader, Curriculum Project Team (Primary)
Ministry of Education