THE RUDOLF STEINER THREAT TO VICTORIAN EDUCATION1
From: The Australian Rationalist, No 30, March 1992, pp 5-11
reproduced by permission of the author
Ian Robinson worked for more than twenty years as a senior curriculum officer, researcher and professional development officer with the Victorian Education Department and wrote their basic curriculum document, The Primary School Curriculum: A Guide for Victoria Schools (1979). Before that he was a Tutor in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne and then Lecturer in Education at Coburg Teachers’ College. He has a long list of educational publications. He currently teaches mythology, symbolism, writing and editing at Chisholm Institute, one of Melbourne’s leading TAFE colleges. He is President of the Rationalist Society of Australia.
During 1991 a proposal to establish a so-called 'Steiner Education' annex at Moorabbin Heights Primary School was seriously considered by the Victorian Department of School Education and The Federated Teachers' Union of Victoria.
The proposal was rejected in the end but only, it appears, on grounds relating to staffing agreements between the Government and the Union. It seemed to be assumed by both parties to the deliberations that there was nothing legally, educationally, logically or morally wrong with the proposition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The proposal even received support from the former Minister of Education, Mr. Ian Cathie, who wrote in 1988: "The Rudolf Steiner Education ... follows educational practices which are not incompatible with those in government schools." As it is unlikely that Mr. Cathie personally knew anything much about Steiner 'Education', we must assume that he was extremely badly advised by his public servants, who seem to have been guilty of gross negligence in giving him this advice.
There are three major grounds for opposing Steiner 'Education', any one of which would be sufficient to disqualify such a proposal, and which taken together constitute a totally persuasive case for summarily dismissing any such proposal now and for all time:
I should point out at the outset that none of what I say below should be taken as reflecting on the integrity of any individual Steiner teacher or follower. They are for the most part very dedicated and very sincere people. They are also very wrong about the relevance and applicability of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner to education, and for this reason should not be allowed to get a foothold in the state school system.
Many people when they first hear about Steiner 'Education' are very impressed, as I was myself. The rhetoric is quite compelling and the ideas superficially attractive. However as soon as one delves behind the rhetoric into the practice, and into the mishmash of ratbag ideas that give rise to the practice, one realises that Rudolf Steiner is really bad news for most kids, and that Steiner 'Education' must be rejected if we care about children.
I will now deal with each of the above three grounds for dismissing Steiner 'Education' in turn.
THE RELIGION PROBLEM
There is no doubt that Steiner's Anthroposophy in general, and in its educational aspect in particular, is a religion. It possesses all the characteristics we are familiar with in other religions:
'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.'
Practical Advice to Teachers, p. 9
As a religion, Steiner 'Education' has no part in a secular education system. In fact the proposal to set up a Steiner annex is probably contrary to the Education Act as it amounts to setting up a religious school within the system.
Of course there is nothing to stop Steiner supporters setting up their own schools, as have the Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Evangelical Christians, Jews, and many other religious groups, and in fact this is what many of them have done. Although Rationalists will oppose the expenditure of public monies on what amounts to the support of religion, there are a number of Steiner schools throughout Victoria, so no‑one who wants Steiner 'Education' for their children need miss out. And, although many may regret the decision of parents to indoctrinate their children from an early age by sending them to a religious school, this is seen as the appropriate way in our society for supporters of a religion to implement their ideas in an educational context.
However there can be no question of such groups setting up sub-institutions in the state system. Otherwise we could have Scientology annexes, Han Krishna annexes, White Witch annexes, Satanist annexes, springing up all over the place. This is not as far fetched as it sounds. If we permit a Steiner annex, there is nothing to stop, for example, members of a Satanist sect all sending their children to one small school, becoming the dominant group, electing their own members on to the school council, and presenting a proposal for a Satanist annex as a community supported proposal, which in these circumstances it actually would be. On what grounds could we refuse them, if we have already permitted another religious group to set up their annex?
So not only is the proposal misconceived in itself, it also sets up a very dangerous precedent. On these grounds alone the proposal must be rejected.
THE EDUCATIONAL PROBLEM
It seemed to be assumed during consideration of the proposal by the Union and the Government that Steiner 'Education' is quite acceptable in educational terms. This is not the case.
First, none of Steiner's ideas on education is the result of any empirical study of child development or education, nor indeed of even a cursory experience as a teacher or educator. Steiner the 'Occult Scientist' simply set down in a discursive way what he believed, on the basis of his 'psychic investigations', were the educational implications of his obscure and extremely esoteric ideas about life, the universe and everything. This is not an adequate basis for developing a theory and practice of education. Thus any resemblance between Steiner 'Education' and good educational practice is purely coincidental.
Second, Steiner's views on education were most fully set down in the three parallel sets of lectures he gave to staff of the newly founded Waldorf School in Germany in 1919 (see Further Reading). The post-war German education system that Steiner was reacting against was desperately in need of reform and very different from the state of affairs we find in Victorian schools today. Many of Steiner's ideas which were very radical seventy year ago have now been superseded by recent developments. For example, Steiner laid down a class size of 30. In the context of class sizes of 50+ this was a step in the right direction. Today in Victoria, with many classes around 25 or less, it is a retrograde step, but we still find Steiner teachers trying to justify it by spurious appeals to the mystical significance of groups of 30, because Steiner could not be wrong, and if he said 30 he meant 30.
Third, ideas formulated and virtually fixed in 1914 are without the benefit of the researches and findings of subsequent generations of significant educational thinkers - people such as Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Margaret Donaldson, Frank Smith, Ken and Yetta Goodman. But because of the 'revealed religion' nature of Steiner 'Education' most of this cannot be incorporated into the Steiner system especially as it often contradicts Steiner's 'authoritative' and 'incontrovertible' pronouncements.
Fourth, in so far as Steiner 'Education' does sometimes include good educational practice, such as might he found in many Victorian primary schools, this is always described by Steiner followers in such a way as to give the impression that it is a unique feature of Steiner 'Education', unheard of in any other educational context. The tone of many of the ten statements below exemplifies this superior attitude.
A recent issue of Federation News2, the Journal of the Federated Teachers' Union of Victoria, contained a plea from Rob Glare, the Vice President (Primary), for Union members to consider seriously the proposal to set up a Steiner 'Education' annex. He supported his argument with a list of ten alleged features of Steiner 'Education'. They were probably supplied to him by supporters of Steiner 'Education' and they provide a useful focus for a discussion of the true nature of Steiner's contribution to educational thought.
The class teacher stays with a particular class throughout their primary schooling.
This is true but there are good and bad aspects of it. Following the same group of children over two or more years and having the opportunity to witness and be involved in their growth over an extended period can be a very rewarding experience. But six or seven years with the same teacher can be very limiting for the children, and deprives them of the opportunity to experience close relationships with a number of different teachers. Moreover, different teachers bring the best out of different children, and a child can be stuck for six years with a teacher that doesn't suit them.
But Steiner teachers see themselves as fulfilling a spiritual vocation and thus suffer under the delusion that if they follow Steiner's precepts properly they can each be all things to all children, so they feel quite comfortable imposing themselves on a class of kids for their entire primary education.
However the notion of teachers moving up with a grade for two or three years at a time is one of the more acceptable adaptions of Steiner's ideas, and should perhaps be given more consideration in our schools.
Class teachers exhibit a sense of vocation which involves continuing personal development and a constant renewing, revision and reappraisal of aims and methods in relation to the pupils.
The sense of vocation which Steiner teachers exhibit is not 'a vocation to be a teacher' but 'a vocation to be a Steiner teacher', with the emphasis on the 'Steiner.' They have accepted Steiner's (crank) ideas and feel a vocation to pass them on to others, and in particular, to children, who are more malleable. Moreover the criteria for selecting Steiner teachers relate more to their adherence to Steiner and their 'sense of vocation' than to their abilities as teachers, and having a vocation does not guarantee the corresponding talent or skill. Steiner teachers have no monopoly on good teaching, and, as with any group of teachers, there is a range from very good to very bad. The danger with bad Steiner teachers is that their 'sense of vocation' may prevent them from seeing their own inadequacies, and their commitment to Steiner may prevent other Steiner followers from seeing them.
Also what is unstated here is the kind of personal development that Steiner teachers undertake. They don't go out and read the latest researches in child psychology or learning theory to update Steiner. (If they did they'd probably have to throw him out altogether.) They study Steiner's ideas again to make sure they're following him correctly. And if something is not working, it's not because Steiner was wrong, but because they must have misinterpreted him, or because there is something wrong with the child or his/her family. So the whole alleged process of renewal, revision and reappraisal is really a return to flawed origins.
The whole idea of the Steiner teacher's special 'sense of vocation' may also have a dangerous side effect. If your vocation is to teach, then you need pupils. It is very easy to slide from this into regarding the pupils as being there to meet your needs as a teacher, rather than the other way around. Not all Steiner teachers have resisted this temptation.
Perceptual techniques are developed so that the teacher views the pupil free from speculation and makes observations as to the pupil's experience and needs.
These perceptual techniques are techniques for spotting whether a child is developing consistently with Steiner's plan of how children should develop, and the needs that are deduced from these observations are what needs to be done to bring the child back on to the Steiner track if they have strayed.
Each individual pupil, with his/her particular capabilities and destiny, is approached with an attitude of love and respect.
Like the previous two claims, this statement gives the impression that Steiner 'Education' is concerned about individual differences. In fact what Steiner education does is to try to slot all children into the pigeon hole designed for them by Rudolf Steiner, within which there is only a small amount of room to move. Human destiny is seen as moving along pre-ordained paths and the 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.
Staff operate by consensus decision-making and team-work. Parent bodies may offer advice and expertise.
This statement obscures the fact that in Steiner Schools parents have no power. One of the strengths of the system of local educational decision-making that has evolved in Victoria is the balance of power that exists between the government, the teachers and the parents. If either group became the sole decision-maker the results would be an unbalanced system without any in-built accountability. Steiner teachers are only accountable to each other, form a closed shop, and close ranks against criticism, just as doctors and lawyers do. Abuses, such as striking children, or simply irresponsible or bad teaching, are usually hidden and hushed up.
Parent financial support and labour are welcomed, but parent questioning of the system is not acceptable, and parents who offer more than superficial criticism are ostracised, and sometimes driven from a school. Because parents have no power and may only 'offer advice' they are effectively excluded from the real decision making of the school.
In Steiner schools there is no principal but the teachers form a College of Teachers which performs a similar role to Administrative Committees.
In practice someone has to carry out the administrative functions, and most Steiner schools have elected someone who is a de facto principal, whatever he or she may be called. The main difference is that this person can be un-elected if they are not performing, and this suggestion may have some merit. However, as Rob Glare points out, this is the only one of the ten major features of the Steiner system he lists that is excluded by current Union-Government staffing agreements.
Subject matter is based on an observation of the reception of human's differing consciousness through world evolution in child development.
This sounds like a candidate for the 'When Words Fail' column in the Saturday Age, where it would probably score a Ô?Õ. But the long words actually obscure a fairly sinister aspect of Steiner 'EducationÕ. Steiner believed that in order to accommodate the incoming of the spirit to the life of the child on earth, the child should have a series of specific experiences at specific times in their life.
'[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.'
Practical Advice to Teachers, p.20
There is little room for individual differences in Steiner 'Education' and teachers in effect act as police directing the life of the child along the paths Steiner laid down.
Steiner has invented a new subject for the curriculum, called Eurythmy which is an attempt to link sound and bodily movement according to principles of association which are a kind of twentieth century version of primitive sympathetic magic.
In fact many of Steiner's ideas remind one strongly of witchcraft in the non-pejorative sense as practiced by aboriginal peoples around the world. Because the head is round, it is like the sun, and because the chest seen from the side is part of a circle, it is like the (pre-scientific) crescent moon (see Study of Man, Lecture X). Because the head is a circle it is complete, but the chest is only a partial circle so it is trying to become complete like the head. This kind of nonsense would be laughable, were it not for the fact that it is the basis of Steiner's views on education.
A range of specific, artistic, scientific, cultural and remedial methods and techniques are utilised by teachers.
Yes, but it is a very limited range, restricted almost entirely to those set out in Mr. Steiner's strange pronouncements. The range utilised by your average State School primary teacher is probably wider, more soundly based, and more effective educationally.
A good example is that children in one particular year do their art using watercolors on moistened paper, so that the work is always soft-edged and mystical. According to Steiner children at this age are not ready for precise hard edges. Steiner also sets out what stories and myths are to read to and by children each year of their schooling to fit in with his views on world history, and his claim that each person has to relive this in their individual life history. If you get interested in Greek myths the year you are supposed to be studying Celtic myths it is too bad.
The curriculum and the cultivation of attitudes which develop the whole child are the focus -- not just intellect but conscious development of skills of head, heart and hand in order to fit the pupil for the whole span of life.
Literature, art, music, human relations, even religion if parents wish it, are taught in all our schools, so what is new? What is new is a much greater amount of time spent on artistic pursuits, and an effort to teach intellectual knowledge through the arts. There may be something that other teachers can learn from this, but the approach is by no means completely successful and with many children is a disaster.
To some parents it has seemed as if the "skills ...to fit the pupil for the whole span of life" do not include reading or mathematics, but the real problem is that SteinerÕs methods of teaching these subjects are not very successful. Read about them and you will see why. Primary schools close to Steiner schools usually get an influx of ex-Steiner students around years five and six, children desperate to learn how to read and do mathematics. Many Steiner parents secretly teach their children reading and mathematics at home to make up the deficiency, but are afraid to reveal this to the school, as they would be seen to be interfering in the guru's sacred processes.
Steiner schools put great store on the art and music produced by their students, and some of it is excellent, but it can also have an amateurish quality, and it is no better than that produced by the better pupils in state schools.
A school program which involves the whole family in the school community and offers philosophic, child study and artistic courses to parents as extra curricular activities. Parents are able to participate in the various phases and activities of the school's life on the basis of a common appreciation of the school's aims.
And what do you think these courses on philosophy and child study are about? You guessed it. Steiner and his ideas, although the guru may not be mentioned by name. And did you notice the sting in the tail of the invitation to participate in the school's life? "(O)n the basis of a common appreciation of the school's aims" translated into English means "as long as you go along unquestioningly with the ideas of Rudolf Steiner".
One thing it doesn't mean for parents is being involved in the teaching in any way. Steiner 'Education' is so special that it must be left to the specialists, the Steiner teachers. Non-Steiner 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.
Study of Man, p.16
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.
If Steiner 'Education' is so educationally effective we should adopt it for the whole system. We should have a Steiner state, not just a Steiner annex. But if it is not effective, why should we support it at all?
The bottom line is that few if any of Steiner's theories and recommended practices have been put to any serious independent test or scientifically controlled research. Their educational effectiveness has not been established, and when you closely examine the ideas it seems unlikely that it could be. So let some teachers experiment with some of the more plausible of Steiner's ideas in ordinary classrooms if they and the children's parents wish, to test their effectiveness, but do not set up a whole annex devoted to such suspect educational notions.
Thus on educational grounds a Steiner annex cannot be supported.
(Perhaps the Steiner people will argue here that the approach can't be tried piecemeal, but needs to be accepted as a total way of life, so they need an annex. This would merely strengthen my previous argument that Steiner 'Education' is a religion.
Also there may be those involved in the annex proposal who disassociate themselves from all the negative aspects of Steiner 'Education' discussed above. If this is the case what they are espousing is not 'Steiner' Education. So why have a Steiner annex?)
THE STEINER PROBLEM
If Anthroposophy is hard to say, it is even harder to swallow. Followers of Steiner often get outsiders interested by expounding on some of the more acceptable aspects of Steiner's beliefs. But if anyone takes the trouble to read Steiner's books they must reach the conclusion that he was a crank. Anyone who critically reads, for example, Occult Science, or Study of Man, or indeed any of scores of Steiner's works, without reaching this conclusion is either stupid or intellectually dishonest.
At first we may baulk at this statement. How could so many seemingly intelligent people be taken in? But we must remember we live in the age when hundreds of thousands of seemingly intelligent people were taken in by such charlatans as the Guru Maharaji, the Bhagwan, Jimmy Bakker, the Reverend Moon, Uri Geller and L. Ron Hubbard, so we mustn't be too surprised if a sincere crank like Rudolf Steiner get a few sincere adherents. But this doesn't mean we have to go along with them. Sincerity is no guarantee against speaking nonsense.
The trouble is that most people do not get to read Steiner in any depth until they are already acolytes or disciples of the system, and have left their critical faculties behind. If, as soon as anybody showed interest in Steiner 'Education', they were given Occult Science to read, they would be instantly disenchanted, and it is unlikely they would want to know any more.
Rudolf Steiner was born in Austria in 1861. From an early age he became interested in Christian mysticism and esoteric knowledge. He was also greatly influenced by nineteenth century German romanticism, especially Goethe, and for a while flirted with Theosophy. He split with Theosophy because Theosophists believed that Jesus was one of many great religious teachers. To Steiner, what he called the Christ Event was the pivotal moment of history, so he set up his own religion, which he called Anthroposophy.
Steiner was a victim of what might be called the "solipsistic fallacy". He was unable to distinguish between the essence of his esoteric experiences and their unconscious interpretation by him in terms of his own previous knowledge. It is this unconscious psychological mediation of esoteric experience that ensures that when Catholics have visions of spiritual significance their brains interpret them in terms of Jesus, or the virgin Mary, while Hindus may interpret similar experience in terms of Krishna or Kali. The reverse never occurs.
Steiner believed he could directly perceive a 'super-sensible reality', but his experiences appeared to him, as one might expect, in the form of a strange amalgam of Christianity, Theosophy and nineteenth century German nature mysticism. The trouble was he was unaware of the relativity of these visions and took them to be absolutely true -- insights into the basic nature of the universe. Blithely unaware of the cultural filter through which his alleged insights were coming to him, he set them down as The Truth about everything. Although he was not unaware of the possibility that such knowledge was entirely personal, he assumed that anybody who investigated 'super-sensible reality' would come to the same conclusions as him (Occult Science, pp.32-3). Thus in his hubris he took his own idiosyncratic experiences to be universal and was thus guilty of the "solipsistic fallacy".
What were these amazing insights? Steiner believed he had 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. Man's evolution took place on the continent of Lemuria, which was where the Indian Ocean now lies. Here it was guided by 'spirit beings' and retarded by evil or 'Luciferic' ones. When Lemuria was destroyed in a volcanic cataclysm the most developed humans moved on to the continent of Atlantis, which was where the Atlantic Ocean now is. Here they developed an intuitive understanding of the environment and the power of speech. Here they also came up against the malevolent spirit Ahriman who attempted to draw them away from the spiritual world into the material. Atlantis was in its turn overwhelmed, this time by storm and flood, and the survivors made their way to the modern continents where they went through a number of epochs (Egyptian, Persian, Greek, etc) culminating, believe it or not, in the Germanic! This was 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. The next step is to get back to the Golden Age of man's spiritual development and regain the spiritual understanding possessed in former ages. At the time of writing, only Steiner himself appears to have achieved this, but it is believed that many of his followers are working on it.
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.
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).
I could go on but I hope you are beginning to get the picture.
Some of my best friends are cranks, even Steiner followers, but I wouldn't want my sister's children to be educated by one. And I strongly believe that while the ideas of cranks should not be censored in a free society, neither should they be given tacit approval by the state education system.
I have set out three major grounds for rejecting an proposal to set up a Steiner 'Education' annex within the State education system:
(1) Steiner 'Education' is an aspect of Steiner's invented religion, Anthroposophy, with its received texts, initiates, and a focus on understanding the master's words and putting them into practice. As a religion it has no place in a secular education system.
(2) Steiner 'Education', while not without some superficially acceptable features, is at its core seriously flawed, being based on esoteric fantasy rather than educational fact and being untested, unproven and pedagogically unsound. It should be rejected on educational grounds.
(3) Steiner himself was a (well-meaning) religious crank , whose ideas only have to be read to be dismissed as nonsense. They should not be given any suggestion of acceptance by the state.
It seems clear from this that any proposal to set up a Steiner 'Education' annex within the state education system should not even be entertained, let alone embraced. Steiner followers are enthusiastic and committed, but we should not confuse the enthusiasm and commitment of a system's proponents with the coherence and plausibility of that system. Steiner 'Education' is incoherent, implausible, misguided and educationally unsound. Rationalists, humanists, and others concerned with a secular and educationally well-founded education system must oppose it vigorously.
1 A condensed version of this paper appeared in Federation News Vol.3, No.4, February 18, 1992.
2 Federation News vol.2, No.30, December 5, 1991, p.5.
Steiner's views on education were set out in three parallel series of lectures given in 1919 to the teachers of the school he had been asked to set up for the workers at the Waldorf Cigarette Factory in Stuttgart, Germany. They are published in English by the Rudolf Steiner Press, London, in three volumes:
Study of Man (1966)
Practical Advice to Teachers (1976)
Discussions with Teachers (1976)
For Steiner's world view see
The Philosophy of Freedom. Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1964
Occult Science - An Outline. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969
There are many more books and pamphlets by Steiner setting out his theories on topics as diverse as religion, therapy, medicine, politics and agriculture!
For a sympathetic account of his life and ideas see:
A. P. Shepherd. Scientist of the Invisible: Spiritual Science - The life and work of Rudolf Steiner. New York: Inner Traditions International, 1983.
For a discussion of the effect of culture on the interpretation of religious and mystical experience see:
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. An Idealist View of Life, Ch. III, "Religious Experience and its Affirmations". London: George Allen and Unwin, 1929.
Of the educational thinkers mentioned in the section on Education, Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner are well-known and have published many books. For the others see:
Margaret Donaldson. Children's Minds. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1987
Ken Goodman. What's Whole in Whole Language? Ontario: Scholastic, 1986.
Frank Smith. Reading. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.
L. S. Vygotsky. Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press, 1962.
I especially recommend Margaret Donaldson's book as the best short introduction we have to the current state of our knowledge of how children learn.