Reproduced by permission: Spring 1999, Pages 34-39
A catalog that sold organic cotton children's clothes, books about nursing and natural birth, homeopathy kits, and ecologically-correct natural wooden toys was where I first came upon the concept of Waldorf education. The pretty angel mobile on page 69 was described as having been designed by "Anne, the Waldorf teacher" and being "beautifully attuned to the very young child." At the time, I browsed past the page, musing about how decorative nursery items seemed to be more for entertaining parents than babies.
A few months later, after having read much about Anthroposophy, the spiritual movement that informs Waldorf education, the angel mobile didn't seem so innocuous.
Anthroposophists believe that children's souls gradually "incarnate" into their bodies and that infants do indeed see angels and sense otherworldly presences until about the age of seven. Waldorf education, I'd discovered, was an offshoot of Anthroposophy and the fastest growing system of private schools in the world. Why were these schools so popular and what exactly were they teaching? I knew of a few Jewish parents who were considering sending their children to Waldorf schools in the U.S. What sorts of conflicts might they encounter within the Waldorf pedagogy? As a Jewish parent myself of a preschool child, I felt compelled to research for answers.
The name Waldorf comes from the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuggart, Germany where the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, established a school in 1919 for the children of the factory's employees. Today there are over 600 Waldorf schools in the world. Of these, 125 operate in North America, and there are at least two state-funded Waldorf programs in public schools in Wisconsin and Michigan. Public funding of Waldorf education is a current controversy (critics argue that such funding violates the separation of church and state)--but only one among many controversies regarding Waldorf schools.
The most serious charges against Waldorf education involve its connection with neo-Nazism and racism. Another accusation is that shoddy science is being taught, and the mildest charges are that the curriculum is too artsy, "hippified," and neglectful of true academics.
Yet remarkably, despite these controversies, many parents--Jews among them--swear by Waldorf education as a unique alternative that encourages "creativity and free thinking" and offers, as the school brochures claim, "nurturing environments" that protect their children "from the harmful influences of broader society." And Waldorf education has its defenders in notable educators, including child psychologist David Elkind (The Hurried Child) and famous midwife Rahima Baldwin (You Are Your Child's First Teacher).
THE RACISM CHARGE
Racism? Neo-Nazism? Most Jewish parents would run screaming in the opposite direction of any school tainted by the merest suggestion of such things. Historically, Waldorf education's associations with the original Nazis are remote but fascinating.
Hitler himself attacked the schools as "a Jewish method to destroy the normal spiritual state of the people," although Rudolf Steiner, the founder of all things Anthroposophical and Waldorfian, was in no sense Jewish and, in fact, in his writings, he identified the life of J---s as the central event in human history. Waldorf schools were harassed during the Nazi era, although Rudolf Hess favored Anthroposophy and intervened twice to keep schools open. Steiner himself briefly served as a personal tutor to Nietzsche's rabidly racist sister--but criticized her fascist leanings. Steiner openly defended Alfred Dreyfuss, the Jewish officer subjected to anti-semitic injustices, and was never, to the best of my investigations, directly aligned with the Nazis in persecution of Jews or any other peoples. He preached that all the world's races were spiritually linked and obligated to help one another.
Nonetheless, Rudolf Steiner's writings and lectures do reveal true racism.
Anthroposophy teaches that Negroes [sic] are at a baby stage of development, Asians are at an adolescent stage, and only whites are adults; it also teaches that while an individual's potential may be limited by his race, an individual's soul will reincarnate many times throughout the races. Steiner lectured in Germany, 1922: "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." Steiner may have meant to challenge his listeners out of their own type of racism and into his own, but it is unlikely that many understood what he was talking about.
Waldorf proponents like to say that such ideas of Steiner are not taught in Waldorf schools, that it is only his teaching methods and ideas about child development that are employed in Waldorf education. But in 1995, the mother of a student in a Dutch Waldorf school was outraged to find in her daughter's notebook various racial stereotypes ("Negroes have a sense of rhythm" and "Asian smiles hide emotions") dictated to her by her Waldorf teacher. To the mother's surprise, "racial ethnography" was being taught as a subject to eighth graders. The Waldorf Schools Association responded that ethnography was being taught "with the intention to teach interest and warmth for the diversity of nations."
In 1997, a Colorado Waldorf school was ignited with scandal when the son of its founder (a German Anthroposophist who was educated at the original school in Stuggart) killed a Denver policeman and then killed himself. The young man, Matthaus Jaehnig, was identified as belonging to a neo-Nazi skinhead group. Jaehnig had been educated for eight grades in a Waldorf school but had made his skinhead friends in public high school. He was severely learning disabled, and there was much speculation in the press about the Waldorf school's inability to recognize and attend to the boy's disabilities in his early years. In the light of this scandal, much of Steiner's racist writings surfaced, and the Waldorf school's enrollment diminished in the wake.
Today Waldorf education proponents are, understandably, distancing themselves from Steiner's racism. Ray McDermott, a professor of Education at Stanford who was advocating Waldorf programs in public schools, wrote of Steiner: "In 400 volumes of his thought, there are a handful of pages that to our modern ear sound terribly stupid and racist. This is a better percentage than can be found in American icons such as Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson."
ANTHROPOSOPHY: The Best-Kept Secret of Waldorf Education?
Although Anthroposophy does not claim to be a religion, most of Steiner's writings expound on mystical realms, "supersensible beings," karma, reincarnation, Atlantis, astrology, numerology, phrenology, and various occult topics. There are thousands of followers of Anthroposophy worldwide, some of whom claim to practice "Anthroposophic medicine" or research "Anthroposophic science" while maintaining that they are not in any way following "Anthroposophic religion."
Anthroposophic educators within the Waldorf schools describe Anthroposophy as a "highly complex esoteric philosophy" that is not taught to Waldorf students. Waldorf teachers, however, in order to be certified as such, are required to read a great many of Steiner's books [see sidebar]. It is fair to say that Waldorf education, like Catholic education, may not teach theology to elementary or secondary school children, but is nonetheless directed by its particular world view. Steiner himself wrote, "We do not educate the child for the age of childhood, we educate him for his whole earthly existence, and even...for the time beyond" (The Roots of Education).
"Survivor groups" of ex-Waldorf parents who did not know of the belief system of Anthroposophy before they enrolled their children in the schools are springing up in the U.S. and U.K. "Anthroposophy is the best-kept secret about Waldorf education," one parent told me. These parents thought they were enrolling their children in progressive schools with an emphasis on art, music, and planting gardens. Indeed, favorable write-ups about Waldorf education and its emphasis on the "natural child" have appeared in such notable publications as The Utne Reader and Teacher Magazine with little or no mention of Anthroposophy's spiritual beliefs.
Some parents hit their respective ceilings upon finding out that their children are being asked to perform odd tasks consistent with these beliefs -- such as the lighting of daily candles to an angel in the classroom (the angel figurine represents Chri-- in his role as a "sun god") -- or when they find out that their children are being taught that there are twelve senses, corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac.
But some parents (and certainly many children) live through full terms of Waldorf preschool, primary, and secondary education without noticing anything too strange. Or if they do, they attribute this strangeness to a school philosophy that doesn't interest them; many parents believe Anthroposophy really has very little to do with the actual positive learning experiences of children in the classrooms.
Other parents become fans of Anthroposophy. One Jewish parent of two children enrolled in a Waldorf school told me he found many aspects of Steiner's work appealing. "Within Judaism," he said, "[Chassidut] certainly has some beliefs that are as weird upon first examination as anything Steiner ever came up with... Based an Lurianic Kabbalah, it certainly has angels, reincarnation, and posits a very complex spiritual realm." He sees some real difficulties for a Jewish parent with the Christian mysticism of Steiner but believes that the classroom experiences his children have within Waldorf are worth some dissonance.
WHY DOES WALDORF APPEAL TO THE NATURAL-MINDED PARENT?
The angel mobile I saw in the Natural Baby Catalog was only one of its many references to Waldorf. A large natural wood playhouse sold in the catalog was described as "the backbone of a Waldorf kindergarten." Small cotton and wool dolls available in various ethnic types were described as follows: "To allow the child to imagine -- in the expression, the facial features are made in the simple Waldorf style." A pastoral photo shoot of an American Waldorf school featured young children in charming sunbonnets and all-cotton play clothes. One might get the idea that Waldorf is some sort of children's play resort.
Actually, the strongest impression a visitor to any Waldorf school would have is that there is great emphasis on ploy and imagination. In a era of computers in the classrooms, Head-Start, "Teach Your Baby To Read" Programs, infant stimulation cassettes, and various academic acceleration programs for very young children, an educational program like Waldorf may be refreshing; it does not even allow books or any reading materials before the age of seven and stresses imaginative interaction with toys made out of non-synthetic, all-natural materials. There are no loudly colored plastic toys and garish bulletin boards in Waldorf classrooms. The walls are pointed in soothing pastels.
Parents who choose Waldorf education are typically middle-class people who eschew middle-class values, avoid TV and shopping malls, buy organic, recycle and compost, and appear to want their children to strive for things other than those just-right PSAT scores in school. A survey of Waldorf parents' religious beliefs found that they are sympathetic to "new age" beliefs but largely uneducated or unaware of Anthroposophy. They are no doubt happy to know that graduates of Waldorf high schools score comparably with students from other private schools and that these graduates find acceptance into the best colleges. Nonetheless, these parents may believe that college should not be the singular goal of a Waldorf education; they are enchanted with a curriculum that appeals to the "whole student" and teaches every child to play the recorder, weave a potholder, dance a few ethnic dances, and compose his or her own fairy tales.
Asked what they liked most about Waldorf education, some parents in New Hampshire gave the following responses: "Children are greeted every morning with a handshake." "They absorb wonderful stories they repeat in their own words." "They teach us things we never learned in school."
WHAT DOES WALDORF TEACH BESIDES THE RECORDER?
Debra Snell, a former Waldorf parent, says the curriculum is not quite as rich in teaching creativity as one might believe. Children are taught Anthroposophy's peculiar aesthetics. Children do not use pencils before the 6th grade, cannot color in black, are made to copy pictures and writing from the board, Snell asks, "How creative is the insistence that every child paint or draw the exact same picture?"
Waldorf's approach to art itself is not as controversial as its emphasis on art perhaps at the expense of other subjects. Critics argue that while knitting and wood-carving may be worthwhile subjects in themselves, other school subjects -- particularly science -- are taught badly in Waldorf schools. Any dissatisfied ex-Waldorf parent will promptly tell you of this or that instance where their child was taught that limbs are moved by the "will" of muscles, that the heart does not pump blood, or that the "elements" are earth, air, fire, and water. One Waldorf parent found out about these sorts of things only when his son came home and complained: "They're teaching us baby science!"
What the schools were teaching, despite their claims to the contrary, was Anthroposophy.
WEIRD IDEAS, PRACTICAL ONES
Rudolf Steiner was born in Austria and educated in the sciences at the Institute of Technology of Vienna in the late 19th century. His system of Anthroposophy has its roots in the writings of the German poet Goethe (with whom Steiner was obsessed), Madame Blavatsky's club of clairvoyants called the Theosophical Society (with whom Steiner was associated until they proclaimed a young boy from India to be the reincarnation of Chri--, and Steiner split from the group to form the Anthroposophists), and Steiner's own bottomless imagination -- he claimed to have been clairvoyant since childhood and to have perceived an entire hierarchy of supernatural spirits as real as anything in the material, more easily discernable world.
Waldorf schools, according to many of their teachers and some of their adherents, serve to guide the souls of children towards a time when these supernatural beings will be made manifest and incarnate in the 20th century.
It sounds like the stuff cults are made of. Yet, maybe we should not be surprised that the goings-on at most Waldorf schools are quite normal-seeming. Independent of occult ideas, the pedagogy of Waldorf appears quite practical and simple to educate the "head, heart, and hands." In other words, to pay respect to a child's emotions and his need for physical activity as well as his intellect.
As the debate over how and when to teach reading rages on, Waldorf schools are both criticized and lauded for postponing the learning of reading until the age of seven. Most serious educators, however, agree with Waldorf's methods in that formal academics should not be the sole emphasis of any educational program. Popular child psychologist David Elkind sees Waldorf schools as respecting the individual stages of child development. He (like Steiner, who wrote that too much reading too soon could cause schlerosis) believes that children exposed to reading and math materials at tender ages are put at risk for emotional as well as physical problems.
Rahima Baldwin, the midwife and childbirth educator known for compassionate common sense regarding children as delicately developing beings, echoes Elkind's views in her book You Are Your Child's First Teacher. As a breastfeeding advocate myself who is quite accustomed to unflagging support from midwives for the breastfeeding of children past two years of age, I was surprised to find that Baldwin, a devotee of Steiner, supported the Anthroposophical view that babies are best weaned by nine months.
THE WALDORF OLYMPICS
What follows is but one example of Waldorf education in action. To learn about ancient Greece, Waldorf fifth graders do not merely read books and answer the questions at the end of the chapters; local area Waldorf schools hold their own Olympics! Students arrive at a host school site and may be divided into city-states according to school affiliation or "temperament" (Waldorf teachers assign one of the four "temperaments" -- choleric, melancholic, sanguine, or phlegmatic -- to each of their pupils). City-states, each wearing their own appropriate-colored t-shirt (Steiner believed cholerics should wear red often) compete against one another in running, discus-throwing, javelin-throwing, and broad jumping. Before the games, the fifth-graders read poems of their own composition to Zeus. "Priest-judges" award medals to winners and also to those pupils deemed worthy of "grace and beauty" awards. Video cameras are prohibited (it should be clear by now that Waldorf schools disdain much technology), and parents are discouraged from taking photos. The ceremonies close with prayers offered to Zeus and the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.
One Jewish Waldorf parent assured me that the prayers to Zeus were quite innocent and not an attempt to produce little pagans -- rather, an attempt to get children into the mindset of ancient Greeks by "play-acting."
Still, I can't help but think of the Jewish fifth-graders I know in my own community --ten- and eleven- year-olds who sometimes come to me to begin Hebrew lessons towards bar/bat mitzvah. I'm certain they would find all the Olympic play-acting described above to be enormous fun. Haftarah chanting might seem tedious in comparison. I wonder about Jewish children in Waldorf schools; if the methods are right, and children do indeed learn by "doing," how much learning of other cultures is done at the expense of what these children could be learning about their own rich Jewish heritage? At a time when many Jewish communities (such as mine in Southern Louisiana) are exposed to many influences, both secular and religious, that threaten to tear children away from Judaism, what would be the lure of Waldorf's "new age" culture to our young people?
THE JEWISH CHALLENGE
Waldorf, if simply for its Christian influences and pictures of Madonna and child in many classrooms (Steiner believed in the "deep artistic meaning" of the image), is not remotely an option for the education of this writer's Jewish child. But maybe the challenge of Waldorf to Jewish educators and parents is for them to find ways to make learning about Judaism every bit as visceral and real and exciting as the Waldorf Olympic games.
At the time I am writing this article, there is a Jewish educational conference in Berkeley, California, that features a presentation on how to incorporate Waldorf ideas into Jewish learning. The presenter is a founder of a Waldorf school in Israel. While, at first, notice of that presentation sent shudders up my spine, I now have come to believe that there is much to be learned from Waldorf education. Take away a lot of Steiner, (many of the fairy tales the children here in elementary grades, the bad science, and the rigid approach to art, and I like most of what is left in Waldorf education. Certainly a pedagogy that respects a child's growing body, sensitive emotions, and need for a spiritual life would make sense for Jews --only with Torah, not Anthroposophy, as the principal guide.
Deborah Salazar is a part-time writer and full-time mother who lives in Louisiana with her husband, Gregg Lubritz, and their one-year-old son, Asher Raphael.