A state funded Steiner teacher speaks out on Anthroposophy

A guest post by MarkH

The current (Spring 2014) issue of New View magazine has an article by Paul White titled “Anthroposophy and Steiner schools – time for a reassessment?”. Mr White is an experienced Steiner practitioner and now a class teacher at the Steiner Academy Frome. New View is an Anthroposophical publication, available in print form only, which I expect has a fairly limited readership. As a place where representatives of the Steiner movement seem apparently able to write candidly, it deserves to be read more widely.

The article begins with a series of questions the author imagines being asked by those new to Steiner education: “So is it a religious school?”, “Do you teach the children anthroposophy?”, “What do you mean the teachers teach ‘out of’ anthroposophy?” All good questions, of course. And then there are the laments from those within the movement: “it used to be a Steiner school, but the anthroposophy has gone out of the place now” and “We must use language that people can understand… we don’t need to talk about stuff like reincarnation that will just put people off”. White suggests that the relationship between anthroposophy and Steiner education “has always been a living question”, which I take to mean that there is no widely held agreement on the answer. I agree with him that now is “a particularly pertinent time to revisit this question”, with the fourth UK state funded Steiner academy in Bristol opening this September.

Unfortunately, White brings us no closer to an answer when he admits that anthroposophy itself is undefinable and that any attempt to do so is tainted by a “reductionist/materialist perspective” that could never capture the whole picture. I’d counter that, nevertheless, I know anthroposophy when I see it and that this intuition, if you want to call it that, is something that anybody else can acquire too.

White goes on to opine, at length, the unfortunate rise of science to the point of it replacing religious dogma in supplying definitive answers to life’s questions. Not only definitive but destructive: “the rapidly deteriorating ecological situation of the planet… calls into question the effects of our abstract, intellectual thinking… A strong case could be made that our intellectual thinking… may ultimately lead to our own extinction.” Those damn scientists and their ivory tower intellectualism! Never mind the greed and short-sighted policies of the fossil fuel industry and political class, it’s all the scientist’s fault. This is in fact a surprisingly widely held view, at least among anthroposophists. These people cannot be trusted to teach your children how science really works.

Or maybe they can? Memorable, inspiring teachers can even be found in mainstream schools, after all, despite having to work within ‘the system’. White explains how Newton took a leap of imaginative insight to go from observing the fall of an apple to his theory of gravity. Indeed he did. As did Darwin, Einstein, Crick & Watson and Hawking in deriving their own theories. No practicing scientist would deny the importance of imagination and intuition. Unfortunately, Goethean science as practised in Steiner schools, with its approach of putting the direct observation and experience of nature centre stage, misses the point: which is that real science is full of careful statements of doubt, caveats and limits. Theories stand or fall based on their predictions about future observations, completing the circle of the scientific method.

Despite his earlier misgivings, White attempts to define anthroposophy as “a way of approaching the world… involving a very concrete appreciation of the working of spirit in matter.” By analogy with the way Newton ‘saw’ gravity at work in the fall of the apple, anthroposophists can ‘see’ the spiritual world at work in human experience. Indeed they might, but how do they know it is no more than a figment of their imagination? What predictive power does it have?

So is anthroposophy taught in a Steiner school? “On one level yes”, White admits. “Awe, wonder and reverence, the prerequisites of the spiritual scientific approach, are cultivated from the kindergarten upwards.” Yet, it would be ridiculous to think that Steiner education therefore has a monopoly on awe, wonder and reverence. White cites the Goethean approach to science education as an instance of anthroposophy in action, which indeed it is. “Also, it might be argued that in teaching the children of human development through the ancient civilisations, the Steiner school is enabling them to see their own place in the evolution of human consciousness”. This sense of giving the life of the individual context within the history of humankind is an appealing facet of anthroposophy. Unfortunately there is also the temptation for a misguided teacher to go much further, offering Steiner’s very alternative views of history as truth.

“On another level”, White goes on, “that of the concern of an imposed set of beliefs or alleged facts, children are not taught anthroposophy”. Steiner made many statements about the nature and history of the cosmos, the place of humans within it, the importance of the “Christ event” and of a hierarchy of supersensible beings: from the elementals to angels, archangels and archai. As White explains, Steiner “emphasized the importance for teachers of working with [these] spiritual entities”. Yet, Steiner’s extensive thinking on all these arcane and esoteric subjects does not constitute a body of beliefs so much as a “provocation to think, to investigate”. White highlights the importance for the teacher of meditating on these concepts, thus developing their own “inner life” in order to enhance their pedagogical practice. Anthroposophy is a self development course for adults, sometimes to the detriment of the children who are unwittingly caught up in it. So much for a child centred education.

White expresses concern at the “downplaying of the role of anthroposophy in some Steiner schools to make them more acceptable to a broader public” and goes on to say that “those of us involved in Steiner education should not be apologetic about anthroposophy, embarrassed perhaps by its esoteric origins. Indeed, it is disingenuous to suggest that anthroposophy is not central to the work of the school staff.” He concludes that “It is children that bring forces of renewal into the development of humanity. Schools working out of a true anthroposophical impulse will allow children to go on to do this, and it is precisely such forces of renewal that are urgently needed in our time.”

I believe that this call to arms for the cult of Steiner is dangerous and misguided, but White does at least bring a refreshing level of honesty to the debate.

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11 comments

  1. Helen

    Yes, dangerous and misguided is exactly right.
    As you say it is not often we hear Steiner teachers openly expressing their involvement in anthroposophy or “spiritual science”. I guess Mr White, as a teacher of 7 and 8 year olds, does not discuss these matters with parents wondering about Steiner education but is happy to do so in an anthroposophical publication.
    A very worrying statement for me is that “anthroposophy is still very much in its infancy” according to Mr White. Maybe he is thinking of the post Atlantean epochs still to come, but I have a horrible feeling he is also referring to the lack of awareness of it among the general population; the fact that they can now work on children in state-funded schools must be a comfort to him and other practitioners of spiritual science.

  2. Jim

    I’m not so sure about the “refreshing level of honesty”. Admitting to an element of truth in something already in the public domain is one of the oldest PR tricks in the book. It provides a smokescreen behind which you can continue to conceal and mislead whilst presenting yourself as open and honest. Ask Max Clifford.

    Mr White admits that in one sense anthroposophy is taught, by example rather than as an explicit subject, but perpetuates the same old myths about what that means in practice. That Steiner education is open and enables children to learn from their own observation rather than teaching “abstract theories”. I observe the same world as they do but see no evidence in it of a spirit world. Would such a conclusion be acceptable in a Steiner school? Of course not.

    • mah74

      I’m assuming that Mr White (and others writing for New View) really believe the things they write there, in the belief that it’s only for a small audience of fellow anthroposophists. This article is certainly worlds away from anything you’d find on the Frome Steiner Academy website!

      • Jim

        I imagine you’re right Mark though part of me still wants to think that they don’t literally believe it. I mean I’d like to think that they believe all this nonsense about gnomes and elementals and suchlike as symbolising some “deeper truth”. Then it would just be ordinary nonsense rather than infantile nonsense – a small improvement admittedly.

        But I’m probably wrong. Have you ever been able to engage a hard core anthro in conversation enough to tell?

  3. Helen

    “Look children can you see the spirits – the gnomes, the salamanders…no? Well it’s not because they aren’t there, it’s because you have not yet sufficient understanding of spiritual science. We know this, and we are your teachers whom you are trained to revere, so you must believe what we say.
    Don’t worry, the art techniques/ rituals we make you carry out, the verses we recite, the eurythmy, the way we disparage science by calling it reductionist and materialist, this will all help you to absorb Steiner doctrine and lead you down the spiritual path we have chosen for you.”

  4. Rain17

    “Ohh but we don’t teach anthroposophy to the children!!” they said, as the children were leaving the Eurythmy class.

    Liars.

    • Helen

      Look at the teachers’ faces during a eurythmy class and you know for them it is a fulfilment of Steiner’s instructions.
      Anthroposophy in action.

      • Rain17

        It seems like a form of false advertising/gaslighting to tell people “we don’t do this one thing” all while doing precisely the one thing in open view. I suppose psychological abuse in the form of gaslighting isn’t illegal, but bait-and-switch is the oldest trick in the hat, and is illegal in some locales.

  5. Helen

    “This sense of giving the life of the individual context within the history of humankind is an appealing facet of anthroposophy.”
    What do you mean, Mark?
    Are you saying it’s better than history lessons in a normal school?

    • mah74

      I’m referring to the idea that in a Steiner school you would learn about the ancient Greeks, for example, at a time when the individual child has developed more rational thought processes, having moved on from the study of earlier, more “spiritual” times when the child itself was, according to Steiner, closer to the spiritual world. It’s similar to the usual talk of a holistic education, educating “hands, head and heart”, in that it sounds good until you delve a little deeper and truly understand what is meant.

      If you don’t buy into the whole Steiner worldview, then there’s no other reason to think it’s better than history lessons in a normal school and it has the potential to be worse.

  6. mah74

    Jim: “I imagine you’re right Mark though part of me still wants to think that they don’t literally believe it. I mean I’d like to think that they believe all this nonsense about gnomes and elementals and suchlike as symbolising some “deeper truth”… Have you ever been able to engage a hard core anthro in conversation enough to tell?”

    I’ve not yet had that conversation with a real life, hard core anthro but my impression from reading articles from this very same magazine, New View, is that there are anthros who believe in the literal existence of elementals but that you have to be particularly gifted and have worked very devoutly on your spiritual state of mind to actually see them!

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