Question: Who Was Rudolf Steiner? Answer: Who Is Asking?

By Steve Walden

December 21, 2001

Who was Rudolf Steiner? By all accounts he was a very decent person with a myriad of interests. There is little doubt that his was a very full and fruitful life. We know that he was born in Austria in 1861 and died in 1925. During his interesting life he wrote many books and lectured extensively. Among his many accomplishments was the founding of the Waldorf School movement. The first school began in 1919 for the workers of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette-factory at Stuttgart.

These schools, without a doubt, are rooted in the ideology of Rudolf Steiner. But what was Steiner’s ideology, who exactly was he and how does this relate to Waldorf Education?

The answer to the question, it seems, depends entirely on who is doing the asking. The fundamental ideology of Waldorf Education is that of Rudolf Steiner. It is called Anthroposophy. Regardless of what one might think of Anthroposophy (religion or philosophy or . . .) this belief system stems from concepts (among others) of reincarnation and karma. How does Anthroposophy find it’s way into the Waldorf school environment? It does not . . . or so we are told. For years, like many parents, I believed what I was told.

During the years my children attended a Waldorf school I was constantly curious about the ways things happened there. Eventually, I found that my questions might be answered more clearly if I learned more about the foundation of the pedagogy. So began many long nights studying Waldorf Education and Steiner via the Internet. At any Waldorf school anywhere in the world Rudolf Steiner is held in high esteem � in a pedagogy where authority is very important, no words are more important than those of the founder of this movement. In a Waldorf school when someone mentions, “Steiner says . . . ” it means stop, listen and learn. The term is frequently used to illustrate a lesson for parents.

During the course of my research I noticed a disturbing pattern emerging at my children’s Waldorf School. Problems arise . . . parents ask questions . . . parents become upset . . . parents take children out of the school. I wondered why. The Internet enables us to connect with hundreds of other Waldorf parents from different schools around the globe. To my astonishment I discovered similar disturbing patterns with many parents from other schools. Was this a coincidence or was there a logical explanation? Why are parents so often frustrated with events at Waldorf schools? Why do they feel their questions and concerns are not dealt with? Why do parents feel that these schools are not “nonsectarian schools” as is promised in Waldorf outreach material and handbooks? After joining a Waldorf school parents have many questions . . . what is all this we hear about karma and reincarnation? What do you mean by “soul work?” Why are prayers recited daily but called verses? What are these Anthroposophy study groups for parents? I thought Anthroposophy was not in the school? And . . .who was Steiner and what was his reason for founding the Waldorf movement?

Root of the Controversy

The Internet is a marvelous tool. Many years ago while surfing the Net for information on Waldorf something bothered me. The wealth of information available was staggering and one could easily spend a lifetime studying. Always, however, as I made my way down the Internet alleyways of Steiner and Waldorf, acutely aware of the problems and miscommunication between parents and schools (our own school included), something was itching the back of my mind. During my many months of research families continued to leave our school and I saw the same pattern continue with families leaving other Waldorf schools. Why? Why would parents enroll their children in a school, full of excitement and good will, spend so much time and money for the school – only to leave upset? Many families . . . many schools. More research.

I began to understand that Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophical followers are on a mission. This mission involves karma and reincarnation and is the foundation of Waldorf Education. The occult nature of Anthroposophy is clearly entwined in teacher training and the Waldorf curriculum. Anthroposophy and Waldorf are inexorably linked – they are one in the same.

During my research – for many reasons and like many other parents – we felt we had to pull our children from their Waldorf School. My research became more intense. I knew there must be an answer to the communication problem Waldorf schools experience. How can parents not see the Waldorf Anthroposophy/Occult connection before they begin their Waldorf experience? In the back corners of my mind was the missing piece to the puzzle. Many in the Waldorf movement refer to Waldorf “communities.” I suspected the problem had something to do with communication the lifeblood of any real “community.”

I decided to look at Waldorf School web sites. I had previously looked at a few sites (at one point we had considered moving to another Waldorf School). This time, however, my goal was to simply see what the schools themselves said about Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the movement. I imagined myself as a prospective new Waldorf parent looking at each school’s site and what I might glean from information therein. Parents would want to know about the founder of the movement and could find this information here. Many Waldorf schools have web sites. If these schools are like our local Waldorf school their web sites are similar to their pamphlets and other promotional material. By perusing various school sites I should have an accurate picture of Steiner, his pedagogy and his connection to those schools. I looked at school web sites in the USA to find each school’s description of Rudolf Steiner. I started with schools beginning with “A” and thought I might go until the “P’s” before I found a pattern. I was wrong. I stopped at “D.” Eleven Waldorf schools. The pattern was crystal clear.

While many schools use slightly different words to describe the pedagogy the message is always similar. According to the school web sites Waldorf is basically an arts based, nonsectarian education attempting to nurture the child in a gentle atmosphere. And who, according to these Waldorf schools, was Rudolf Steiner?

Incredibly, at each school web site there was no mention of Rudolf Steiner’s connection or belief in Occultism, reincarnation, karma or soul work. In short virtually everything Steiner believed in and worked from and towards with regards to Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education – the essence of the man – is missing from these sites. Instead, from the sum of eleven Waldorf School web sites, we are told that Rudolf Steiner was a – teacher (mentioned 1 time), an architect (1), thinker (1), scholar (1), educator (5), artist (6) and a scientist (7).

This misrepresentation of Rudolf Steiner and his work seems to be at the root of the Waldorf communication problem. We find a much more accurate portrait of Rudolf Steiner at other sites on the Internet. Only a few Anthroposophy sites are needed to find a completely different description of the same man.

From the Anthroposophical Society of America…

“Rudolf Steiner was born in Austria, and grew up with the clairvoyant certainty of a spiritual world . . . Rudolf Steiner shared the results of his spiritual research in 40 books, and in 6,000 lectures (approx.) now available in 300 volumes. He is increasingly recognized as a seminal thinker of the 20th century and one of humanity’s great spiritual teachers.”

From the Rudolf Steiner Archives…

“Foremost amongst his discoveries was his direct experience of the reality of the Christ, which soon took a central place in his whole teaching.”

From the Rudolf Steiner College…

“Fundamental to all of his work is the view that the human being is composed of body, soul and spirit, and that the Christ event is key to the unfolding of human history and the achievement of human freedom.”

From the Anthroposophical Society, Dornach, Switzerland…

“Born in Austria, Steiner was the leading esoteric researcher of the twentieth century, ground-breaking in the realms of the nature of the human being, karma research, spiritual cosmology, and the occult research into Christianity and European cultural history.”

From the Anthroposophical Society in Florida…

“Steiner (to the first Waldorf teachers) we shall only be able to achieve our task if we see it as not only to do with the intellect and feeling-life, but with the sphere of the moral and spiritual in the highest sense.’ The task was the following: to help the soul-and-spirit being of the child, which has at birth descended to earth from a pre-earthly existence, to find its place in the physical world and to make it competent for life . . . . Rudolf Steiner shows how the developing human being on the long and arduous path into the physical world passes through a series of clearly defined stages, which make definite inner and outer demands. Both the curriculum and the methods of teaching of the new school, as he now described them, were designed to meet these demands as well as possible through the right pedagogical measures . . . This was Waldorf pedagogy. The campaign for a new social order had been especially well received in the big Waldorf Astoria cigarette-factory at Stuttgart.”

Prospective new Waldorf parents usually know very little about Rudolf Steiner, his religion (Anthroposophy) or his “new social order.” They are told Steiner is an educator and a scientist and a philosopher when, according to those who follow his teaching, Rudolf Steiner is known as a turn of the century occultist. Far from the nonsectarian arts based education we read about in Waldorf public relations material – this is a spiritual movement. It is about karma, reincarnation and soul work. Countless innocent families and the Waldorf movement itself would be better served if those promoting Waldorf Education would simply tell it like it is. As part of my research I inquired with AWSNA (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America) for statistical data on enrolment/retention at Waldorf schools. How many parents enroll their children in Waldorf schools, how many leave their children there and for how long? I asked for the numbers. I was told these numbers are not available.

There are those within the Anthroposophy/Waldorf movement who believe their own public relations are less than forthright. There are some who feel as frustrated at the deceptive marketing and misleading information as the parents do who make the gut wrenching decision to pull children from their school. This is not a decision parents take without much thought, sadness and trepidation. In most cases, however, the decision simply must be made. Something is wrong. The education the parents were sold was simply not the education their children received. Beautiful, gentle, arts based, natural type of education has very little in common with a spiritual movement based on the religious/occult theories of one man and his followers. Why, for example, in a so-called non-sectarian, arts based school would a teacher (during training) be required to read books like:

  • Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment
  • Rudolf Steiner, Occult Science
  • Rudolf Steiner, The Spiritual Hierarchies
  • Rudolf Steiner, Manifestations of Karma
  • Rudolf Steiner, Reincarnation and Karma
  • Rudolf Steiner, Karmic Relationships, Volumes 1-8

Unfortunately, the facade of Waldorf Education is very appealing to parents and until recently very few people have demanded accountability.

How can Rudolf Steiner be described as an educator, a philosopher, an artist and a scientist by the Waldorf movement when the truth is he was clearly a turn of the century occultist? Anthroposophists know all about Steiner while new Waldorf parents had better do more than believe the public relations. At this point in time it is a case of buyer beware.

Who was Rudolf Steiner? For those who market Waldorf, Anthroposophy and the spiritual mission – it seems the answer really is . . . who is asking?