Waldorf Schools Teach Odd Science, Odd Evolution

© 1994 Eugenie C. Scott
National Center for Science Education
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According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal magazine, “Wisconsin,” the Waldorf program is “the largest and fastest growing non-sectarian school movement in the world.” (1/12/92, p. 16) The vast majority are private schools, but Milwaukee, WI, has instituted a public Waldorf school as one of a series of experiments to try to improve student performance. Other school districts are exploring the idea, and NCSE members should be familiar with what may be in store for science education in this setting.

Waldorf Schools are based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner, the 19th century founder of “anthroposophy.” Anthroposophy is an outgrowth of the theosophical movement popular in the early 20th century, a “spiritual” approach to philosophy. The Waldorf approach is infused with “spirituality”, which in some treatments becomes a hazy version of religion. Religious people consider it objectionable because it undermines religion by not going far enough: in effect substituting a mushy sense of the supernatural for religion. Nonreligious people are offended because Waldorf quasi-religious “spirituality” is so clearly religious!

The Waldorf approach includes some ideas that many educators would consider attractive. It is a “developmental” approach to education, in which the individual student’s emotional and intellectual development is considered in the development of curricula. One teacher stays with a group of students for several years. The approach integrates art and music into the everyday curriculum, rather than treating them as “specialties” taught irregularly. There is much manual manipulation; a typical Waldorf activity, for example, is knitting, for both boys and girls. Students learn a foreign language in elementary school. Creativity is given emphasis over rote learning.

But if schools follow Steiner’s views on science, education will suffer. Steiner believed that materialism was insufficient for the understanding of nature. He believed that science needs to “go beyond” the empirical and consider vitalistic, unobservable forces, a perspective also common in 20th century New Age healing approaches. Anthroposophical medicine, similar to homeopathy but even less scientific, claims that disease is caused only secondarily by malfunctions of chemistry and biology, and primarily by a disturbance of the “vital essence.” Anatomy and physiology a la Steiner are unrecognizable by modern scientists: the heart does not pump blood; there are 12 senses (“touch, life, movement, equilibrium, warmth, smell,” etc.) corresponding to signs of the zodiac; there is a “rhythmic” system that mediates between the “nerve-sense” and “metabolic-muscular” systems. Physics and chemistry are just as bad: the “elements” are earth, air, fire, and water. The four “kingdoms of nature” are mineral, plant, animal and man. Color is said to be the result of the conflict of light and darkness. Typical geological stages are Post-Atlantis, Atlantis, Mid-Lemuria, and Lemuria.

Waldorf teachers are supposed to teach Steinerian evolution. In this view, species were specially created, rather than evolving from one another, and “spiritual beings were the creators.” “Let us start from the point that the gods, or the divine spiritual beings, decided to create the world and man. For this we have a good authority in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.” (all quotes from a teachers’ training manual by Roy Wilkinson, Man and Animal, The Robinswood Press, Stourbridge, England, 1990, p. 2-3, provided courtesy of NCSE member Dan Dugan.)

The Waldorf version of evolution is especially concerned with the relationship of humans to animals, but this relationship is quite different from that of mainline evolutionists. “It becomes apparent that man is a compendium of the animal kingdom; alternatively expressed, that the animal kingdom is the human being spread out.” The human “essence” passed through a number of “spiritual states” on the way to becoming human, which was a relatively recent event. “Dr. Steiner considers animals to be the by-products of human development. Man has been involved from the beginning but not in a physical form. Man existed spiritually and the animal forms represent physically incarnated soul forces which the human being had to dispense with in order to mature sufficiently to receive the ego. … As in life … we are trying to overcome the lower passions to evolve to something higher, so throughout evolution, the passions were separated out from man and these were incorporated as animals.”

“We see then that man is not the result of animal evolution but that he is at the beginning of it and is central to it. Indeed he is the cause of it. The animal world represents soul qualities which the human being has discarded although he still retains remnants of them.”

Steiner’s teachings on race are also unscientific. Books authored by Steiner that are still being sold at Waldorf schools make claims such that “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.” (written in 1922.) Waldorf schools tend to have a touchy-feely atmosphere that we don’t usually associate with White Aryan Resistance doctrine, so it is not likely that racist propaganda of this sort is being taught, but it is not at all clear that proponents of Steiner’s philosophy have publicly repudiated such views. Something upon which aficionados of Steiner’s philosophy should reflect is that if he was so dead wrong about genetics and racial variation in general, couldn’t he also be in error regarding other supposedly “scientific” teachings?

NCSE would be interested in hearing from our members about the expansion of the Waldorf movement in the US. To what degree is Steiner’s philosophy taught, as opposed to his methods, some of which may be useful? One NCSE member, Dan Dugan, investigated the Waldorf school his son attended and found that although teachers claimed that only Steinerian methods were used, the pseudoscientific content of Steiner’s views also crept into the curriculum.

Surely there is value in an educational system that promotes spontaneity, creativity, expressive arts, and enthusiasm in children, but such an approach should not denigrate a more materialistic, scientific way of knowing, which has proven its usefulness. Both are necessary for good education.

(reproduced by permission)