Waldorf Charter School Controversy
by John W. Morehead
A group of concerned parents carried signs of protest as they picketed
Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento, California. Their critics described
them as misguided and in opposition to an "acclaimed curriculum" ("Waldorf
Hysteria," Sacramento News and Review, June 12, 1997, p. 13). The parents,
and representatives from the secular group, People for Legal and Non-Sectarian
Schools (PLANS), claimed the school's use of the controversial Waldorf
curriculum brought religion into the public school classroom.
The disagreement intensified in July of this year, when the Sacramento
City schools chief recommended that the Waldorf program remain at the school,
and school board trustees voted unanimously to endorse the methodology
("Schools Chief Favors Waldorf," The Sacramento Bee, July 2, 1997,
B1). This caused PLANS to begin preparation for a lawsuit against the school
district. (TruthQuest Institute is finalizing a Brief of Amici Curiae (Friend
of the Court) to accompany the lawsuit.)
Sacramento is not the only battleground over Waldorf curriculum: San
Diego, Milwaukee, Birmingham, Anchorage and other cities have had similar
struggles. An estimated 40,000 children in Europe and America attend Waldorf
schools (many times supported with public tax dollars). There are over
200 Waldorf schools in Germany alone, and related Rudolf Steiner Colleges
in the U.S. and Canada. So why the controversy over an educational curriculum
that is used by thousands of people from one of the fastest growing groups
of independent private schools in the world?
The root of this conflict centers on Waldorf's connection to Anthroposophy,
a religion founded by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner early in the
20th century. Influenced by Theosophy,
an occult religion
from the same time period, Anthroposophy is a spiritual movement based
upon the notion that there is an occult (hidden) spiritual world accessible
via higher faculties of occult knowledge. Critics claim Anthroposophy is
found in the controversial Waldorf curriculum.
Steiner & Anthroposophy
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in Austria, and even at an early age he
was inclined towards the mystical, the psychic
and the occult, including contact with the dead (necromancy). An intelligent
and well-educated man, he was attracted to the ideas of German poet, novelist
and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His interest in the occult, coupled
with the influence of Goethe, and Spinoza's pantheism
(all is divine), helped prepare him for a leadership position in the Theosophical
Society in 1902. In 1913 Steiner withdrew to form his own group, the Anthroposophical
Society (from anthropos, "mankind," plus sophia, "wisdom," meaning "the
wisdom of man").
Anthroposophy is an eclectic blend of esoteric philosophy and mysticism
forming a complex religious system which Steiner often referred to as "spiritual
science." (An interesting side note: Transcendental
Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi found greater success in the
promotion of his Hindu
the West after changing the name to The Science of Creative Intelligence).
Steiner taught that humanity was created by a host of spiritual beings.
Because of a loss of the knowledge of our true identity and the spiritual
worlds, humanity experienced a "fall." Overcoming the result of the "fall"
by gaining awareness of, and even access to, the spiritual worlds is possible
through meditation. In fact, according to Anthroposophical teaching, one
only becomes fully human through the use of Anthroposophical meditation
techniques over a succession of many lifetimes (reincarnation). These techniques
are supposed to enable the individual to experience the "supersensible"
perception of spiritual worlds, or occult realities (Steiner, Knowledge
of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, 1904, pp. 5-6).
Steiner's Anthroposophy taught that a capacity for conscious spiritual
perception of these occult realities lies dormant within every human being,
and can be awakened through exercises in concentration and meditation.
The first step of this awakening is to intensify thinking, through disciplined
inner intuitive and meditative processes (Ibid., p. 35; Anthony Storr,
Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus, pp. 75-76).
This teaching, coupled with Anthroposophy's acceptance of reincarnation,
are important in light of Steiner's educational theories, wherein children
advance through various spiritual stages. According to Steiner, the reincarnated
spirit inhabiting the body of the child requires unique educational methods
to properly prepare for the coming of the astral body through the child's
spiritual evolution (Steiner, The Universal Human: Four Lectures Given
between 1909 & 1916 in Munich and Berlin, 1990, p. 45).
Consistent with his Anthroposophical system, Steiner designed an educational
method which its advocates claim is "responsive to the developmental phases
in childhood and [the] nurturing of children's imaginations" ("Frequently
Asked Questions About Waldorf Education"). Waldorf advocates have the
noble goal of "impart[ing] meaning to [children's] lives" while educating
the whole child, "head, heart and hands" (Ibid.). Serious problems are
nonetheless evident. Non-traditional features of Waldorf education include
a de-emphasis upon traditional academics. Reading is not taught until the
second or third grade. There are no textbooks in the first through fifth
grades. There is a mystical use of art and dance (called "eurythmy"), and
a celebration of seasonal festivals to "connect humanity with the rhythms
of nature and the cosmos" (Ibid.). In addition to these questionable elements
two important considerations need to be addressed: the role of Waldorf
teachers in promoting Waldorf education, and, whether Anthroposophy is
promoted in public school curriculum.
Many advocates of Waldorf education and schools claim that Anthroposophy
is not taught in Waldorf schools or in Waldorf-based curriculum. Technically
this is correct, but only with qualification. Anthroposophy is not taught
explicitly as a total system of religion, but it does serve as a foundation
for Waldorf educational theory and practice, and its teachings are implicit
within Waldorf curriculum.
According to Steiner, Anthroposophy is an essential foundation of the
Waldorf educational philosophy, in which the teacher fosters a particular
teacher-student relationship considered essential to the learning process.
"The science of spirit teaches me how I stimulate a particular part of
the soul that brings about a certain relationship between the educator
and the child, which allows something to flow from the teacher directly
to the innermost feeling-life of the child's soul" (Steiner, Education
As an Art, 1970, p. 28). The understanding and development of this relationship
is thus based in Anthroposophical "science of spirit" teaching.
It should be obvious, then, that application of the Waldorf
program requires teachers who believe in the Anthroposophical philosophy
upon which it is based. Steiner understood this well: "The Waldorf teacher
holds the conviction that what he meets in the child from week to week,
from year to year is the expression of a divine spiritual being that descends
from purely spirit-soul existence [reincarnation] and evolves here in the
physical-bodily existence between birth and death, uniting the line of
heredity which gives it its physical-etheric nature from parents and ancestors"
(Ibid., p. 23).
This distinctly non-Christian
but religious worldview thus becomes a qualifying factor for teachers in
schools with Waldorf based curricula. In Sacramento's Oak Ridge Elementary
School controversy, several teachers who could not accept the Anthroposophical
doctrines in the Waldorf teacher training materials felt pressured to either
quit or transfer to other schools (Sacramento Bee, May 16, 1997).
When religious beliefs become hiring qualifications in schools funded by
taxpayer dollars, serious constitutional and civil rights issues are raised.
Proponents of the Waldorf system may acknowledge that it requires teacher
acceptance of certain Anthroposophical principles, but argue that does
not mean the teacher will necessarily inculcate those beliefs in students
any more than a Christian teacher would necessarily teach students to be
Christians. This is an unfair and deceptive comparison. Considering the
role of the Waldorf teacher in instructing children with the Waldorf curriculum,
Anthroposophical writer Gilbert Childs notes:
"Waldorf teachers must be Anthroposophists first and teachers second.
it must never be forgotten - and one must be emphatic about this - that
the whole of teaching matter and method in Steiner schools is aimed at
developing within each child the [occult] consciousness that spirit permeates
everything in the world" (Steiner Education in Theory and Practice,
1991, p. 166; emphasis mine).
The whole purpose of all teaching in the Steiner/Waldorf schools is
thus stated to be explicitly spiritual, i.e. religious. Contrary to the
claims of Waldorf supporters, the role of the Waldorf teacher does promote
Anthroposophy. Even if not taught or named explicitly, Anthroposophy undergirds
and shapes all other teaching, even the manner of teaching, in the Waldorf
program. If it did not, it simply would not be a Waldorf school: "The aim
at the Waldorf School is to teach and educate according to the findings
of the science of spirit" (Steiner, Education. p. 21; emphasis mine),
i.e., Steiner's occult Anthroposophy.
No one can ignore the clear statements of the program's founder, quoted
above, and claim to have made a thorough and unbiased examination of the
Waldorf system, the Waldorf teachers' role in integrating Anthroposophical
teaching into the life of the child through the teaching experience, or
the issue of religion being taught at taxpayer expense in public schools
having Waldorf curricula.
The Anthroposophical foundation and teacher orientation of the Waldorf
program led former Waldorf teacher M. C. Richards to state: "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...But
in Steiner schools the dimensions of these subjects are threefold: they
are artistic, cognitive and religious. Religion is not an affair for Sunday
alone or for theologians and priests. It is a dimension applicable to all
our experience" (Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America,
1980, p. 164).
It should cause one to wonder how many parents of children in Waldorf
schools, or in schools with Waldorf curriculum, are aware of this "hidden
agenda." Is it any wonder then that Dr. Geoffrey Ahern observed that "Anthroposophical
'Waldorf' education...can only really be understood if integrated with
Steiner's [occult] cosmology" (Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement
and the Western Esoteric Tradition, 1984, p. 62). Waldorf educators
cannot help but promote Anthroposophy at least implicitly, since Anthroposophy
is foundational to Waldorf educational method and curriculum, and thoroughly
permeates both its theory and practice.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Many parents and educators recognize there are problems in public education.
Waldorf educational advocates have been motivated to respond to these problems
by attempting to be positive agents of change to address this situation
in the promotion of Waldorf education. We must also acknowledge the many
positive testimonials of parents, educators and children regarding the
Waldorf education methodology. As we have seen, however, serious concerns
have been identified.
If Christian prayer is excluded by the courts from the public school
as an unconstitutional intrusion of religion in the public school, surely
occult based curriculum such as Waldorf education should be as well. Christian
parents, at times with the cooperation of their secular counterparts, are
encouraged to begin with the steps below in responding to Waldorf education.
Recognize and assert your rights as parents over the education of your
Educate teachers, principals and school board members about this problem
program in a positive manner with well-researched documentation from organizations
like Watchman Fellowship, TruthQuest Institute or PLANS.
Document the religious nature of Waldorf education, bringing it into conflict
with the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Draw attention to the lack of educational studies supporting Waldorf education.
The positive testimonials of Waldorf students and parents have little merit.
Ask for scientific studies supporting Waldorf theory and practice. Precious
public tax dollars should not be squandered on programs with little or
no scientific credibility.
In the face of resistance, organize and hold informational meetings among
Consider taking your concerns to the local or state school board.
Consider appropriate legal action with legal counsel through organizations
like The Rutherford Institute or the Christian Legal Society.