“Partial Vision” in Alternative Education

Author’s Note

The following article was published in Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1998). It originally appeared in SKOLE: The Journal of Alternative Education, Vol XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1997. The author would like to make it clear that by permitting it to be included on the PLANS website, he is seeking to support a better (if still critical) understanding of Waldorf education and does not share the view that the Waldorf method is a religious cult which should be barred from public schools. He writes that “We should be much more concerned about the dehumanization that is taking place in public schools across the country as a result of the corporate agenda of rigid standards, relentless testing, and tight control than about some unconventional practices that are at least attempting to educate whole human beings.” He also points out that the Waldorf journal’s willingness to print this article is evidence against simply labeling the movement a “cult.”

“Partial Vision” in Alternative Education
by Ron Miller, http://www.great-ideas.org

Our oldest son, Justin, just started Waldorf school this fall. It is a lively school, with a wonderful sense of community among the families, and when Justin first visited the class he’ll be joining he quickly felt welcomed by the warm, gentle teacher and friendly, supportive children. He seems to really like it and will probably thrive there. However, I happen to be unusually fussy when it comes to education, and I have some philosophical reservations about several aspects of Waldorf education. How do I reconcile these with my own son’s positive experiences?

For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in alternative education as a Montessori teacher, as a doctoral student in the history and philosophy of education, as the founding editor of the journal Holistic Education Review and the book review publication Great Ideas in Education, and as author or editor of four books. Throughout this time I’ve maintained contacts with alternative educators of every stripe–Montessori and Waldorf educators, freeschoolers, homeschoolers, progressives, anarchists, ecologists, constructivists, reconstructionists, deconstructionists, and many others. From this uncommonly broad exposure I have concluded that there is no one best model or method of education. No single approach is ideal for all young people, all families, all communities, all social and historical conditions. In my view, good education–what I have been calling “holistic” education–is not a single definable technique or method but an attitude of openness, responsiveness, and caring that adapts to the complex needs of a given time and place.

I do not believe that any one perspective can encompass all possibilities of human growth or cultural renewal, because human existence is an unfolding adventure involving many layers of reality and meaning (biological, ecological, psychological, social, historical, mythological, spiritual…). Any educational vision that claims to be a complete, perfected, or final answer to the mysteries of human existence is neglecting, if not actively repressing, legitimate avenues of development. Australian education theorist Bernie Neville expressed this point poetically through the metaphors of Greek mythology, describing the various archetypal energies (such as the authoritarian Senex, the orderly Apollo, the freedom-loving Eros) that make up the psyche. He warned that honoring any one of these forces to the exclusion of others results in a “partial vision” that is blind “to much that is significant in human living” and that conceives education “in a way that impoverishes children rather than enriches them” (1989, p. 132).

In my view, the Waldorf approach is such a “partial vision” because it is based religiously on the teachings of one man–Rudolf Steiner–who, despite being a gifted mystic and a brilliant thinker, was clearly influenced and limited by his cultural and historical context–as he himself seemed to recognize at times. In its pervasive emphasis on Spirit and Beauty and Form and similar archetypes, Waldorf education faithfully expresses the worldview of nineteenth century German idealism and neglects other energies of the psyche that find more room for expression in other worldviews. Surely Waldorf does not “impoverish” children, because its spirituality is deeply nourishing in many ways. But its idealism does close off other avenues of human development. As the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, a deeply spiritual man himself, told the Transcendentalist educator Bronson Alcott, “the strong passion of the young for the outward is an indication of Nature to be respected. Spirituality may be too exclusive for its own good” (quoted in Tyler, 1944, p. 248). My primary complaint about the Waldorf movement is that it offers itself as the universal ideal of education and lacks the self-criticism and openness to other perspectives that would permit flexibility and responsiveness to diverse human situations.

Before I go further with this critique, I want to make it clear that I have been drawn to Rudolf Steiner’s thinking ever since I first encountered it. His spiritual idealism is such a vital and powerful antidote to the life-denying materialism of modern western culture that in my historical study of alternative education (Miller, 1990), I proposed that Waldorf education “is probably the most radically holistic approach ever attempted.” If I am now, on further reflection, calling it a “partial vision,” I still acknowledge that it supplies a tremendously important part that is missing, not only from mainstream public schooling, but from many alternative approaches as well. Holistic education is not whole without a spiritual foundation.

In addition, Steiner’s notion of the “threefold” society, in which the cultural sphere (including education) is protected from the demands of economic and political forces, is a brilliant analysis of modern society and particularly public schooling. There could be no alternatives without educational freedom, and Waldorf educators have stated this case more coherently than anyone. I agree with educational researcher Mary E. Henry, who also appreciates Steiner’s work from a critical scholarly perspective, that Waldorf education represents a concrete effort to build an entirely new culture rooted in a deeply spiritual, ecological, and organic understanding of life (Henry, 1993). We desperately need this perspective, which is often absent–or at least obscurely implicit–in alternative school movements that speak only of democracy or children’s freedom (see Miller, 1995). Libertarian ideology is a partial vision, too.

As parents, this is what attracts us most to the Waldorf school; even though the public school in our small Vermont town is extremely good by conventional standards and seems highly responsive to parents and students, we know that in most ways public education represents and reinforces the culture of consumerism, competition, and materialism. At a Waldorf school, our children will not be treated as future job seekers or savvy consumers or high tech warriors in the battle against foreign competition, but as evolving spiritual beings who seek lives of meaning and beauty and inspiration. The activities that fill children’s days at a Waldorf school–storytelling, art, music, creative movement, and much stimulation of the imagination–are rich and nourishing.

Still, my background in other alternative education movements informs me that the Waldorf methodology is not the only or necessarily the best expression of educational and social renewal. Alternative educational visions all reject the dominant modern conception of schooling which seeks to harness human energies to the mechanical requirements of the economic system and the state. All alternative visions are grounded in a genuine desire to support children’s natural ways of learning and growth; the differences between these visions reflect their different perspectives on the complex mystery of human development. For example, Maria Montessori was, like Steiner, sensitively attuned to the different cognitive and emotional stages of children’s growth, and like Steiner, she perceived that spiritual forces, not to be tampered with by modern ideologies, were at work in the unfolding of these stages. Yet her educational system reflected her cultural milieu and the circumstances of the children she worked with, and a Montessori classroom is consequently a very different environment.

Dee Joy Coulter, an educational psychologist who has worked closely with both Montessori and Waldorf educators in Boulder, Colorado, once wrote a brief but important essay comparing the two approaches (1991). Emphasizing that Montessori and Steiner had indeed developed their methods in response to specific cultural needs, she asserted that their pedagogies are not so much in opposition but complementary, expressing symmetrical dimensions of human life. Coulter suggested that educators today should attend to the “seed qualities” within these visions rather than simply mimic the historically and culturally conditioned forms they took. In other words, we can appreciate an educational method as an insightful response to a particular facet of human experience, without venerating it as complete, perfect, universal or final.

Probably the most obvious and irreconcilable difference between alternative education visions is in their conflicting attitudes toward freedom and structure. Educators such as Francisco Ferrer, Caroline Pratt, John Holt, A. S. Neill, and George Dennison, and psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow have argued that if we truly trust human nature, we will allow it to find expression in a free and supportive atmosphere. Whatever the source of human dreams, desires, and impulses (these theorists have tended not to invoke transcendent, spiritual sources), children can demonstrate genuine responsibility, initiative, compassion, and even wisdom when their personal selfhood is allowed to emerge and proclaim itself; according to this point of view, educational techniques are artificial, and are usually barriers to meaningful growth. Thousands of homeschoolers and the “democratic” schools such as Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts have proven that there is value in this libertarian vision.

Waldorf educators, however, insist that this sort of freedom is premature and actually hinders the development of genuine personal autonomy. In a Waldorf classroom, the teacher is solidly in command of students’ attention moment after moment after moment; children have little opportunity to engage in independent activities or conversations; younger children, in particular, are not encouraged to question the teacher but to imitate what he or she models. Steiner insisted that he did not advocate such discipline for the sheer sake of adult authority but because he truly believed, on the basis of his intuitive perception, that the natural development of the child’s spiritual being requires strong adult guidance. As John F. Gardner has explained this perspective (1995), the “organism” (the material, animal aspect of human life) needs to be “cancelled” through the strengthening of “universal reason”; the spiritual realm of Mind transcends the individual ego and the task of education is to cultivate the infusion of true spiritual knowledge into the child’s receptive soul.

Obviously, this is the voice of German idealism. I do not say that it is incorrect: Steiner certainly was tapping into some profound layer of reality, and the fact is that most graduates of Waldorf schools do appear to be highly creative, self-confident, autonomous and happy people. Something in their souls has most definitely been nurtured. However, given my experience with other forms of alternative education and my understanding of the social and political challenges of our culture at this time, the lockstep classroom is the aspect of Waldorf education that I find most difficult to accept. If Steiner’s intuition were universally valid, then all graduates of free schools, progressive schools, and even Montessori schools would end up as rather dysfunctional individuals, and yet this is most certainly not the case (Gardner claims that it is, but he provides no evidence). These children’s souls have also been nurtured, although in less explicit and perhaps less deeply “spiritual” ways. As I said above, Steiner’s insights into the inherent spirituality of the unfolding human being are as rare as they are valuable, but I still cannot believe that the Waldorf pedagogy so uniquely transcends all cultural/historical influence that it is the only possible way of nourishing genuinely spiritual experience.

Holistic educators such as Rachael Kessler, John P. Miller and Parker Palmer have written about the central importance of the relationship between teachers and students; it is not the method, not the degree of freedom or structure provided, but the qualities of openness, respect, integrity and caring that make education real and meaningful. A former Waldorf educator, Diana Cohn, expressed this view precisely in a conversation with Montessorians that I facilitated several years ago. She observed that students in alternative schools “have very loving adults working with them. The methods are very different, but the bottom line is that you have these very interested adults working with the children, and they feel that. They feel enlivened by the fact that there are these caring adults in their lives” (Cohn, et. al. 1990).

So I don’t think it is a mistake to send my son to a Waldorf school, where he will be taught by caring adults who are fully dedicated to nourishing his unfolding personality. But I wonder whether they could nourish him even more fully by not choreographing his every move and expecting quite so much imitation and recitation; I think they would nourish even more facets of his archetypal energies by allowing some initiative, some freedom of expression, some exploration of his own peculiar ideas and interests. If a Waldorf approach could incorporate these “seed qualities” from other alternatives without sacrificing its own, it would be even more radically holistic than I already find it to be. Most Waldorf educators, I am sure, would view the result as merely a watered-down and greatly diminished version of their pedagogy–just as libertarian educators would scoff at the idea of introducing guided activities for cultivating imagination. It is just this conflict of partial visions that holistic education seeks to reconcile.


Cohn, Diana, Ruth Gans, Bob Miller, Ruth Selman, and Ron Miller (1990). “Parallel Paths: A Conversation Among Montessori and Waldorf Educators” Holistic Education Review Vol. 3 no. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 40-50.

Coulter, Dee Joy (1991). “Montessori and Steiner: A Pattern of Reverse Symmetries” Holistic Education Review Vol. 4 No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 30-32.

Gardner, John Fentress (1995). Education in Search of the Spirit: Essays on American Education. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. (Originally published in 1975 as The Experience of Knowledge)

Henry, Mary E. (1993). School Cultures: Universes of Meaning in Private Schools. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Miller, Ron (1990). What Are Schools For? Holistic Education in American Culture. Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.

Miller, Ron (1995). “A Holistic Philosophy of Educational Freedom” in Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society, pp. 258-276. Brandon, VT: Resource Center for Redesigning Education.

Neville, Bernie (1989). Educating Psyche: Emotion, Imagination, and the Unconscious in Learning. Blackburn (Australia): Collins Dove.

Tyler, Alice Felt (1944/1962). Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row.

Ron Miller is President of the Foundation for Educational Renewal, which publishes the magazine Paths of Learning: Options for Families and Communities (P.O. Box 328, Brandon, VT 05733-0328; ph. (800) 639-4122; http://www.great-ideas.org). Previously he was founding editor of the journal Holistic Education Review. He is writing a book on the free school movement of the 1960s and teaches part time at Goddard College.