Reading, Writing, and "Spiritual Science"?

The Religious Pedagogy of Waldorf Education

Copyright 1999, TruthQuest Institute. All rights reserved.

 By John W. Morehead

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In an article entitled "Waldorf Charter School Controversy: New Age Education Supported by Public Tax Dollars?," a previous issue of TruthQuest Journal (with an expanded and adapted version printed in Watchman Expositor, Vol. 14, No. 5, 1997), reported on the controversial Waldorf schools and educational curricula. In April 1998 the controversy heated up when People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS), filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Twin Ridges Elementary School District. "The lawsuit alleges the Waldorf methods school...violates laws against separation of church and state."[1]

This article will take a closer look at the educational theory (pedagogy) of Waldorf education, specifically noting that it is based upon and inseparable from Anthroposophy, a complex religious view of human nature and development.

Anthroposophy And Western Esotericism

As noted in our previous article, the controversy surrounding Waldorf education springs from its connection to Anthroposophy. Rudolf Steiner founded Anthroposophy after an affiliation with the Theosophical Society, as a form of "esoteric Christianity." Steiner believed psychic awareness lie dormant within every human being, and that through training, an individual could access this hidden (occultic) "knowledge of the higher worlds." Steiner said that "such training is called occult (esoteric) training, and the instruction received therefrom is called occult (esoteric) teaching, or spiritual science,"[2] Steiner's preferred term for his occultic religion. Carl Raschke, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, considers Steiner "the occult theologian par excellence, summing up and synthesizing after the fashion of a Gnostic Thomas Aquinas many disparate strands of hitherto secret tradition. Steiner stitched together the main fibers of hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and Eastern mysticism. He displayed the quintessence of the modern Gnostic attitude."[3]

Scholars of religion generally include Anthroposophy as a part of the Western esoteric tradition of religion.[4] Waldorf supporters often deny that Anthroposophy is religious, instead calling it Steiner's philosophy. Yet it cannot be legitimately denied that Anthroposophy is rightly classified as a religion. Roger Olson of Bethel College states that "Steiner considered himself a Christian and he considered Anthroposophy to be a Christian form of theosophy and Rosicrucianism … Anthroposphy certainly includes spiritual beliefs about nature, life, and after-life."[5] Because Anthroposohy meets scholarly definitions of religion, religion scholars and scholarly reference works on religion classify it as such. For example, J. Gordon Melton, a nationally recognized authority on religious movements and founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, includes the Anthroposophical Society in his Encyclopedia of American Religions.[6]

But Steiner's influence goes beyond the relatively small membership in the Anthroposophical Society. Olson argues that many "individuals have been touched by Steiner's esoteric Christianity so that it may now be recognized as a major influence on America's New Age Movement."[7] In addition to this influence on America's "new spirituality," scholars of religion, and one of the leading former Waldorf educators,[8] include Anthroposophy as a part of this growing New Age movement. Melton offers the following description of the religious ideology of the New Age:

"The central vision of the New Age is one of radical mystical transformation on an individual level. It involves an awakening to such new realities as a discovery of psychic abilities, the experience of physical or psychological healing, the emergence of new potentials within oneself…the acceptance of a new picture of the universe. The essence of the New Age is the imposition of that personal vision onto society and the world. Thus, the New Age is ultimately a vision of a world transformed, a heaven on earth, a society in which the problems of today are overcome and a new existence emerges."[9]

Waldorf supporters frequently acknowledge that Anthroposophy and Waldorf education have spiritual foundations, but they hesitate to say it is religious. This preference in using labels such as "spirituality" as opposed to "religion" finds a parallel in Western culture. Seekers prefer an individual, eclectic, non-creedal form of religious expression, which they call spirituality, as opposed to more traditional Western theistic faiths, such as orthodox Christianity, which carry the negative label of "religion." Yet calling Anthroposophy spiritual, while hesitating to call it religious, is to make a false distinction which does not mean Anthroposophy is not religious. Melton comments on the use of such labels within the broader context of the New Age as religion:

"While the New Age Movement is a social movement, it is also an inherently religious one, though many New Agers might prefer the label "spiritual," as the word religion carries negative connotations for some. In any case, the movement is centered upon the experience of a personal spiritual-psychological transformation that is identical to what is generally termed "a religious experience."[10]

Anthroposophy And Waldorf Education

Steiner considered Anthroposophy to be an all-encompassing system, with applications in numerous disciplines, including education. Any analysis of Waldorf education must look to the primary source material found in Steiner's writings that serve as the foundation for the Waldorf educational system.[11]

Steiner taught that "the characteristic mark of Waldorf education should be that all educational questions and problems are considered only from the pedagogical angle."[12] This pedagogy came from an understanding of human nature as revealed in Anthroposophy.[13] Steiner believed that children develop as a fourfold being with an external physical body, as well as an inner etheric body, an astral body, and an I-body. Each of these stages of the child's spiritual evolution develop over time. "The first period proceeds until six to eight years of age, the second until the age of fourteen or fifteen, and the following period includes the next seven to eight years."[14]

Steiner likened the evolution of these inner spiritual "members" of the child's nature to a fetus developing within a mother's womb. Just as the fetus is unable to receive direct input from the external world, and is sheathed by the mother's protective body, so the inner members of the child's nature must be allowed to develop and should not be intellectually stimulated until the proper body has developed. Indeed, Steiner felt it would be detrimental to the child to intellectually stimulate a spiritually immature inner member within the child before the appropriate time. The role of the Waldorf educator is to work on these four members of the human being at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, according to Anthroposophical teachings.

Because Waldorf pedagogy is concerned with protecting the developing inner "bodies" or "members" of the child from intellectual concepts as taught by traditional pedagogical methods, Waldorf education de-emphasizes traditional academics, such as reading and writing, in favor of an emphasis on imagery and art. Yet the method here is not simply innovative, based upon sound scientific research into early childhood development. Rather, it flows from Anthroposophy.

Steiner felt that Anthroposophy must not only provide the foundation for pedagogy, but also that it must permeate every subject. Concerning the religion lessons in Waldorf schools, Steiner said:

"…we have to treat the religion lessons just as we do the lessons in the other subjects. They must all work on the child's soul through the power of imagery; the child's soul life has to be stimulated. It is possible to introduce a religious element into every subject, even into math lessons. Anyone who has some knowledge of Waldorf teaching will know that this statement is true…This fundamental religious current flows through all of education."[15]

Steiner taught that this religious element was an integral part of the Waldorf pedagogical method in order to strengthen the will of the child. "It [religion] must permeate the teaching of every subject…No education can be conducted without a religious foundation; school is an illusion without religion."[16] Steiner further tied Anthroposophical religion to Waldorf pedagogy inseparably when he said:

 "Insofar as only pedagogical principles are being defended and pedagogical impulses scrutinized here, the necessity of religious teaching certainly follows from the pedagogical point of view…there is no student in the Waldorf school who does not have religious instruction."[17]

 Steiner then went on to boast, "I consider it a certain success for the Waldorf school to have brought religion to the children of religious dissidents."[18]

It is clear then that many statements by Steiner himself indicate that Waldorf pedagogy is intimately connected with Anthroposophy, and that this pedagogy is fundamentally spiritual or religious. The Association of Waldorf Schools in North America (AWSNA) agrees with this assessment. In a position statement from an AWSNA meeting in 1996, they stated:

"It should be understood by any school or institution seeking affiliation with AWSNA that Waldorf education is based on Anthroposophy…It is our belief that Waldorf methods can be applied in many different classroom settings. However, Waldorf education is only possible if its practitioners and administrators are free to work out a clear recognition of and commitment to the development of the spiritual nature of the human being."[19]

Waldorf advocates may acknowledge that Waldorf education contains religious elements in the private school setting, but argue that it has been modified and secularized for public schools. As the preceeding discussion documented, if a Waldorf educational program is in place in the public schools it is necessarily religious because Steiner taught that Waldorf education focused on a specific pedagogy that was based on an Anthroposophical understanding of a child's spiritual evolution. Yet many parents and educators say that they have never seen religion in Waldorf education in the public school setting. This may be explained in part by a lack of ability to recognize an esoteric religion by those who would be more familiar with Western theistic religions. But another problematic issue is the cloaking of Anthroposophy in educational jargon, and the lack of forthrightness of Waldorf educators in acknowledging that Waldorf education is indeed religious.

The San Diego Unified School Board asked WestEd, an educational research organization, to evaluate the Harriet Tubman Village Waldorf charter school in San Diego, CA. While WestEd "did not attempt to determine whether the school is teaching religion or violating other legal requirements," in the conclusions and recommendations of their technical report they noted that the Tubman Village charter school petition "does contain this assertion, 'The teaching methods of the Waldorf philosophy are very innovative and are specified in the section of the charter on curriculum…'; but the teaching methods are neither identified nor described anywhere in the petition." Likewise, WestEd states that the "petition also refers to a 'developmental model created by Rudolph [sic] Steiner…[which] asserts that children have very identifiable stages of development and that their education must be appropriate to the specific stages of development.' The petition does not, however, explain that model."[20]

Why didn't the authors of the Tubman Village charter school petition explain Steiner's pedagogical model as discussed above? Perhaps because Waldorf education has a religious agenda. Referring to the secretive nature of Waldorf education, M.C. Richards, a former Waldorf educator, stated that:

"One could say that Waldorf education has a hidden agenda. Its curriculum is described in terms common to public schools in general: arithmetic, writing, reading, geography, botany, biology, handcraft, history, and so on. But in Steiner schools the dimensions of these subjects are threefold: they are artistic, cognitive, and religious."[21]

Waldorf And The Courts

Even if the above case for Anthroposophy as a religion, serving as the foundation for Waldorf education should fail, the courts may still classify Waldorf education as religious. Various courts of law have increasingly adopted a broader definition of religion to encompass religious expression beyond traditional Western theistic religions.[22] And the present lawsuit against Waldorf education may find a parallel in the 1977 case of Malnak v. Yogi. In the Malnak case, Transcendental Meditation (TM) was offered as a secular meditation technique in New Jersey public schools. Yet the New Jersey Federal Court ruled that TM in the public schools "advanced the cause of a sect of the Hindu religion by making school children engage in a teacher-led religious activity,"[23] thus violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The Future Of Waldorf Education

We have yet to see what the courts will decide with regards to Waldorf education in public schools. As Steiner said:

"…Waldorf pedagogy could be implemented in every school. Whether this would be allowed to happen, whether the authorities that oversee education, the establishing of curricula, and so on would ever agree to such a step being taken, is an entirely different question. There is nothing stopping Waldorf pedagogy from being applied anywhere in the world, even tomorrow, but the real question is whether permission for this to happen would be granted.[24]


[1] Neighbors, Northeast Edition, April 30, 1998, 1.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment (New York: Anthroposophic Press, Inc., 1947), 1-2. See also Steiner, Theosophy (New York: Anthroposophic Press, Inc., 1971), xxii.

[3] Carl A. Raschke, The Interruption of Eternity. Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980), as quoted in Roger E. Olson, "Rudolf Steiner, Esoteric Christianity, and the New Age Movement," Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture 1:4 (1992): 343.

[4] J. Gordon Melton classifies Anthroposophy in the Ancient Wisdom Family of religions (Encyclopedia of American Religions, Fifth Edition [Detroit; Gale Research, Inc., 1996], 750-751), while Dr. Richard Kyle includes it under the Nineteenth-Century Occult & Metaphysical Movements classification (The Religious Fringe [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993], 109, 113). See also Geoffrey Ahern, Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and the Western Esoteric Tradition (Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press, 1984).

[5] Roger E. Olson, Ph.D., May 3, 1998, in an e-mail communication with the author through the nurel-l listserv.

[6] In addition to Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, for further reference works classifying Anthroposophy as religious see J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986), 73-73; J. Gordon Melton, Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986), 277-278; The New Age Dictionary edited by Alex Jack (Tokyo & New York: Japan Publishers, Inc.), s.v. Anthroposophical Society, 19, s.v. Steiner, Rudolf, 189; Encyclopedia of Religion, Mirceau Eliade editor in chief (New York: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1993, 320-321; and Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Second Edition, Vol. 1 A-G, Leslie Shepard editor (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1984), 49.

[7] Olson, Syzygy 1:4, 350.

[8] See the chapter "Waldorf Education and New Age Religious Consciousness" in M.C. Richards, Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 156.

[9] J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986) 113, as quoted in John Ankerberg and Craig Branch with John Weldon, Thieves of Innocence (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1993), 27.

[10] Melton, New Age Encyclopedia, xiv, as quoted in Thieves of Innocence, 24.

[11] "…to establish a coherent basis for Waldorf Education, Anthroposophic Press has decided to publish the complete series of Steiner lectures and writings on education in a uniform series. This series will thus constitute an authoritative foundation for work in educational renewal, for Waldorf teachers, parents and educators generally." Rudolf Steiner, The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education, Hudson: Anthroposophic Press, 1996), postscript.

[12] Steiner, The Child's Changing Consciousness as the Basis of Pedagogical Practice (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1996), 95.

[13] Steiner, The Education of the Child, 17. Steiner recognized that his religious pedagogy was at odds with traditional "materialistic" methods of education. He claimed, "The materialistic way of thought will never produce a truly practical art of education." Further, "[t]hose who cling to educational formulas will never find the right thing to do…But we seek spiritual development, since the answers to today's needs must come from the spiritual worlds," 33, 48.

[14] Steiner, The Education of the Child, 42.

[15] Steiner, The Child's Changing Consciousness, 94, emphasis mine.

[16] Steiner, The Education of the Child, 69.

[17] Steiner, The Child's Changing Consciousness, 96-97, emphasis mine.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, "Affiliation with the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America and use of the trademark name 'Waldorf' and 'Rudolf Steiner' Education," 28 June 1996,

[20] WestEd, "From Paper To Practice: Challenges Facing a California Charter School," Technical Report, May 16, 1996, 65-66. Executive Summary available online at

[21] Richards, Toward Wholeness, 164, emphasis mine.

[22] TM in Court: The complete text of the Federal Court's opinion in the case of Malnak v. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Berkeley: Spiritual Counterfeits Project, 1978).

[23] Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish, See the Gods Fall (Joplin: College Press, 1997), 295.

[24] Steiner, The Child's Changing Consciousness, 189.

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