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Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

We can accomplish our work only if we do not see it as simply a matter of intellect or feeling, but, in the highest sense, as a moral spiritual task. Therefore, you will understand why, as we begin this work today, we first reflect on the connection we wish to create from the very beginning between our activity and the spiritual worlds....Thus, we wish to begin our preparation by first reflecting upon how we connect with the spiritual powers in whose service and in whose name each one of us must work. --Rudolf Steiner addressing Waldorf teachers

Waldorf schools reflect Steiner's education theories, which hold that children advance through three stages....during the first stage, birth to age 7, the spirit inhabiting the body of the child is still adjusting to its surroundings, hence lower grades in Waldorf school offer minimal academic content. Reading is not introduced until second or third grade. During the second stage, ages seven to 14, children are said to be driven primarily by imagination and fantasy, so students are introduced to mythology. After age 14, the third stage, an astral body is believed to be drawn into the physical body, creating the onset of puberty. (Boston)

The vowel is born out of man's inmost being; it is the channel through which this inner content of the soul streams outwards.... If we utter the sound A, (as in mate) and take this out-going stream of the breath as the prototype for the Eurythmic movement, we find that this breath stream reveals itself to our imagination as flowing in two crossed currents. This is how the Eurythmic movement for A is derived....Curative Eurythmy can be of extreme value in the treatment of illness, and can be applied in those cases where one knows the way in which a certain movement will react upon a certain organ with beneficial results. --Rudolph Steiner

The Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was the head of the German Theosophical Society from 1902 until 1912, at which time he broke away and formed his Anthroposophical Society. He may have abandoned the divine wisdom for human wisdom, but one of his main motives for leaving the theosophists was that they did not treat Jesus or Christianity as special. Steiner had no problem, however, in accepting such Hindu notions as karma and reincarnation. By 1922 Steiner had established what he called the Christian Community, with its own liturgy and rituals for Anthroposophists. Both the Anthroposophical Society and the Christian Community still exist, though they are separate entities.

It wasn't until Steiner was nearly forty and the 19th century was about to end that he became deeply interested in the occult. Steiner was a true polymath, with interests in agriculture, architecture, art, drama, literature, math, medicine, philosophy, science, and religion, among other subjects. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Rostock was on Fichte's theory of knowledge. He was the author of many books and lectures with titles like The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1894), Occult Science: An Outline (1913), Investigations in Occultism (1920), How to Know Higher Worlds (1904), and "The Ahrimanic Deception" (1919). The latter lecture describes his "clairvoyant vision" of the infusion of various spirits into human history and reads like the memoir of Daniel Paul Schreber. He was also much attracted to Goethe's mystical ideas and worked as an editor of Goethe's works for several years. His philosophy included speculations about the evolving spirit separate from the soul and the involvement of spirits in history:

Steiner taught that Michael, formerly known as Michael the Archangel, now an archai, one angelic level higher than archangel, is one of seven time spirits which take turns of approximately 350 years guiding humanity. Each one has a special agenda. Michael’s task is to help us to develop cosmic consciousness. His previous term was at the time of the Greek philosophers, when people first developed intellectual, analytical consciousness. Before this the highest form of consciousness was feelings. The Greek philosophers used thinking exclusively to understand the spiritual world. A review of their works will substantiate this. Not until Aristotle was thinking used to understand the physical world.

Michael's turn ended at the time of Aristotle. After Aristotle, until Michael’s next turn, consciousness would be limited to the physical world....Humanity had a hard time disassociating from the spiritual world but it was imperative that they do so in order to develop individual egos....Once individuality was established the next step would be to unite the bits and pieces of the physical world, which is really a return to the oneness of the spiritual world.

Michael returned as ruling Time Spirit in 1879 according to Steiner. Without his help humanity was too firmly entrenched in materialism to raise thinking up to the level of the spiritual world. Before this time neither the philosophers or others could understand the spiritual world. They could believe it existed, they could feel its presence, they could have mystical experiences which would be remembered as dreams are – but understand it, no! Two decades after Michael’s present reign began Rudolf Steiner published his book Philosophy of Freedom. The bridge into the spiritual world had been crossed in full consciousness. Steiner recognized Hegel as a vital participant in the struggle to raise thinking up to the spiritual level. He did not have Michael’s help, at least not to the extent it would be available after 1879, so he was unable to take the concept of higher thought any higher than that of the government.*

If the reader has any knowledge of the history of Western philosophy, the preceding passage should serve as a broad hint as to why you will not find Steiner mentioned in standard encylopedias or histories of philosophy.

Steiner's interests were wide and many but by the turn of the century his main interests were esoteric, mystical, and occult. Steiner was especially attracted to two theosophical notions: (1) There is a special spiritual consciousness that provides direct access to higher spiritual truths; (2) Spiritual evolution is hindered by being mired in the material world.

Steiner may have broken away from the Theosophical Society, but he did not abandon the eclectic mysticism of the theosophists. Steiner thought of his Anthroposophy as a "spiritual science." Convinced that reality is essentially spiritual, he wanted to train people to overcome the material world and learn to comprehend the spiritual world by the higher, spiritual self. He taught that there is a kind of spiritual perception that works independently of the body and the bodily senses. Apparently, it was this special spiritual sense that provided him with information about the occult.

According to Steiner, people existed on Earth since the creation of the planet. Humans, he taught, began as spirit forms and progressed through various stages to reach today's form. Humanity, Steiner said, is currently living in the Post-Atlantis Period, which began with the gradual sinking of Atlantis in 7227 BC ... The Post-Atlantis Period is divided into seven epochs, the current one being the European-American Epoch, which will last until the year 3573. After that, humans will regain the clairvoyant powers they allegedly possessed prior to the time of the ancient Greeks (Boston).

Steiner's most lasting and significant influence, however, has been in the field of education. In 1913 at Dornach, near Basel, Switzerland, Steiner built his Goetheanum, a "school of spiritual science." This would be a forerunner of the Steiner or Waldorf schools. The term "Waldorf" comes from the school Steiner was asked to open for the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. The owner of the factory had invited Steiner to give a series of lectures to his factory workers and apparently was so impressed he asked Steiner to set up the school. The first U.S. Waldorf school opened in New York City in 1928. Today, the Steinerians claim that there are more than 600 Waldorf schools in over 32 countries with approximately 120,000 students. About 125 Waldorf schools are said to be currently operating in North America. There is even a non-accredited Rudolf Steiner College offering B.A. degrees in Anthroposophical Studies and Waldorf Education and an M.A. in Waldorf Education.

Steiner designed the curriculum of his schools around notions that he apparently got by special spiritual insight into the nature of Nature and the nature of children. He believed we are each composed of body, spirit, and soul. He believed that children pass through three seven-year stages and that education should be appropriate to the spirit for each stage. Birth to age 7, he claimed, is a period for the spirit to adjust to being in the material world. At this stage, children best learn through imitation. Academic content is held to a minimum during these years. Children are told fairy tales, but do no reading until about the second grade. They learn about the alphabet and writing in first grade.

According to Steiner, the second stage of growth is characterized by imagination and fantasy. Children learn best from ages 7 to 14 by acceptance and emulation of authority. The children have a single teacher during this period and the school becomes a "family" with the teacher as the authoritative "parent".

The third stage, from 14 to 21, is when the astral body is drawn into the physical body, causing puberty. These anthroposophical ideas are not necessarily taught as part of the standard Waldorf school curriculum to the students themselves, but apparently are believed by those in charge of the curriculum. Waldorf schools leave religious training to parents, but the schools tend to be spiritually oriented and are based on a generally Christian perspective.

Even so, because they are not taught fundamentalist Christianity from the Bible, Waldorf schools are often attacked for encouraging paganism or even Satanism. This may be because they emphasize the relation of human beings to Nature and natural rhythms, including an emphasis on festivals, myths, ancient cultures, and various non-Christian celebrations. (The Sacramento Unified School District abandoned its plan to turn Oak Ridge Elementary into a Waldorf magnet school after many of the parents complained about it and at least one teacher complained of Satanism. The school district put the Waldorf program in a new location and is being sued in federal court for violation of separation of church and state by PLANS, Inc., a group of Waldorf School Critics.)

Some of the ideas of the Waldorf School are not Steiner's but are in tune with his spiritual beliefs. For example, television viewing is discouraged because of its typical content and because it discourages the growth of the imagination. This idea is undoubtedly attractive to some parents, since it is very difficult to find anything of positive value for young children on television. I agree that when children are very young they should be socializing, speaking, listening, and interacting with nature and people, not sitting in a catatonic trance before the boob tube. I don't know what the Waldorf teachers think of video games, but I would be very surprised if they didn't discourage them for their dehumanizing depictions of violent behavior as well as for their stifling of the imagination.

Waldorf schools also discourage computer use by young children. I agree that the benefits of computer use by children has yet to be demonstrated, though it seems to be widely believed and accepted by educators who spend billions each year on the latest computer equipment for students who often can barely read or think critically, and who have minimal social and oral skills. Waldorf schools, on the other hand, may be as daffy over the arts as public schools are over technology. What the public school consider frills, Waldorf schools consider essential, e.g., weaving, knitting, playing a musical instrument, woodcarving, and painting.

One of the more unusual parts of the curriculum involves something Steiner called "eurythmy," an art of movement that tries to make visible what he believed were the inner forms and gestures of language and music, brought about by the spiritual world penetrating the soul. According to the Waldorf FAQ, "it often puzzles parents new to Waldorf education, [but] children respond to its simple rhythms and exercises which help them strengthen and harmonize their body and their life forces; later, the older students work out elaborate eurythmic representations of poetry, drama and music, thereby gaining a deeper perception of the compositions and writings. Eurythmy enhances coordination and strengthens the ability to listen. When children experience themselves like an orchestra and have to keep a clear relationship in space with each other, a social strengthening also results."

Here is one former student's account of life in a Waldorf school:

Our school days were pleasant—mellow and tranquil. There was scarcely any unruliness or rude behavior at Waldorf. Pranks and mild rebelliousness were not completely unknown, but they were rare. (Incorrigible troublemakers were weeded out during the application process or they were expelled.) Arriving at the school each day was like entering a refuge from worldly turmoil. The morning began with a prayer, although no one called it that. In the lower grades, we would then have classes about myths or Bible stories (Steiner believed that many myths and legends contained at least kernels of literal truth, as well as serving as markers along the route of mankind’s spiritual development). Interspersed with these supernatural lessons we had classes in math and geography and history: regular subjects. We had no textbooks—we copied lessons written on the blackboards for us by our teachers. Reading was not emphasized in the lower grades. We had no “Weekly Reader,” no “Dick and Jane.” We laid our heads on our desks and listened as our teachers recited or read to us—often tales of the magical or mystical.

At other times of the day, we knitted, and crocheted, and played simple woodwind instruments en masse. Sometimes we merely gazed about us while our teachers spoke. The teachers urged us to imaginatively identify with whatever we studied or saw—to feel the life-force coursing through a tree, or absorb an eagle’s noble spirit, or experience the meaning of a boulder. In art classes, we were taught to produce misty watercolor paintings with no straight lines or clear definitions. There was something otherworldly about the images we created, bearing no resemblance to ordinary physical reality, yet completely unlike the stick-figure cartoons kids often produce. The teachers didn’t say so, but our paintings were in effect talismanic representations of the spirit realm.

In dance classes, we performed “eurythmy,” a form of bodily movement that looks a bit like slow-motion modern dance, but that was actually intended to teach us the proper stances to manifest spiritual states of being—calling upon influences from our past lives and preparing the basis for our future lives. We did eurythmy while manipulating therapeutic copper rods and holding our pelvises strictly still. We were made to feel that eurythmy had an especially strong spiritual component. Our teachers didn’t need to articulate their beliefs about such matters; their tone of voice and facial expressions conveyed the seriousness of the tasks they set us. The eurythmy instructors made a particularly powerful impression in this regard—an impression they underscored when they arranged student performances for school assemblies. These performances were almost invariably solemn, and often they were freighted with spiritual significance. In my class’s first public eurythmic display (coming in about the third or fourth grade), we enacted the creation of the world—the emergence of light, the separation of light from darkness, the separation of dry land from the waters, and so on. We portrayed angels and archangels and the fulfillment of God’s [sic] commands. I played the role of God Almighty [sic]....

No one could have mistaken Waldorf for a hotbed of intellectual excellence. Our teachers had different, overriding concerns. (Rawlings 2006)

Perhaps the most interesting consequence of Steiner's spiritual views was his attempt to instruct the mentally and physically handicapped. Steiner believed that it is the spirit that comprehends knowledge and the spirit is the same in all of us, regardless of our mental or physical differences.

Most critics of Steiner find him to have been a decent and admirable man, even if prone to beliefs in his own clairvoyance and in things like astrology. Unlike many other "spiritual" gurus, Steiner seems to have been a truly moral man who didn't try to seduce his followers and who remained faithful to his wife. But his moral stature has been challenged by charges of racism. These charges have been met with a lengthy report in Steiner's defense. The fact is that Steiner believed in reincarnation and that souls pass through stages, including racial stages, with African races being lower than Asian races and European races being the highest form.* Defenders of Steiner refer to such writings as his Philosophy of Freedom, where one finds vague and seemingly contradictory passages like the following:

A racial group is a totality and all the people belonging to it bear the characteristic features that are inherent in the nature of the group. How the single member is constituted, and how he will behave, are determined by the character of the racial group. Therefore the physiognomy and conduct of the individual have something generic about them. If we ask why some particular thing about a man is like this or like that, we are referred back from the individual to the genus. The genus explains why something in the individual appears in the form we observe.

Man, however, makes himself free from what is generic. For the generic features of the human race, when rightly understood, do not restrict man's freedom, and should not artificially be made to do so. A man develops qualities and activities of his own, and the basis for these we can seek only in the man himself. What is generic in him serves only as a medium in which to express his own individual being. He uses as a foundation the characteristics that nature has given him, and to these he gives a form appropriate to his own being. If we seek in the generic laws the reasons for an expression of this being, we seek in vain.*

There is no question that Steiner made contributions in many fields. In some cases, e.g., agriculture, his work is pseudoscientific. His spiritual ideas seem less than credible and are certainly not scientific. His belief in his own clairvoyance should be disturbing to those who think he is one of the great minds of all time.

Some of his ideas on education such as educating the handicapped in the mainstream are worth considering, although his overall plan for developing the spirit and the soul rather than the intellect cannot be admired. He was correct to note that there is a grave danger in developing the imagination and understanding of young people if schools are dependent on the government. State-funded education will likely lead to emphasis on a curriculum that serves the State, i.e., one mainly driven by economic and social policies. Fortunately, however, our current state needs knowledgeable and literate people; hence, we provide a strong education in science despite the spiritual propensities of government leaders. (But, "if schools follow Steiner's views on science, education will suffer," as Eugenie Scott notes.*) True, education is driven not by the needs of children, but by the economic needs of society. For the most part, however, children are better served by our public schools than by private religious or spiritual schools. (The exception in the United States is where public schools fail to teach evolution because of religious concerns, whereas some private schools, even some religious schools, provide a solid science education.) The competition that drives most of public education benefits society, even if that is not its main goal. Our young people might benefit if there were more emphasis on cooperation but not at the expense of their intellectual development. An education where cooperation and love, rather than competition and resentment, mark the essential relationship among students might be more beneficial to the students' intellectual, moral, and creative well-being.

Steiner might also seem to have been ahead of his time in understanding sexism.

The social position of women is for the most part such an unworthy one because in so many respects it is determined not as it should be by the particular characteristics of the individual woman, but by the general picture one has of woman's natural tasks and needs. A man's activity in life is governed by his individual capacities and inclinations, whereas a woman's is supposed to be determined solely by the mere fact that she is a woman. She is supposed to be a slave to what is generic, to womanhood in general. As long as men continue to debate whether a woman is suited to this or that profession "according to her natural disposition," the so-called woman's question cannot advance beyond its most elementary stage. What a woman, within her natural limitations, wants to become had better be left to the woman herself to decide.*

On the other hand, it is likely that some of anthroposophy's weirder notions about astral bodies, Atlantis, Aryans, Lemurians, evolution, etc., will get passed on in a Waldorf education, even if Steiner's philosophical theories are not part of the curriculum for children. Is it that hard to defend love and cooperation without having to ground them in some cosmic mist? Why does one have to leap into the realm of murky mysticism in order to defend criticizing the harm done to the individual by a life spent in pursuit of material possessions with little concern for what is being done to other human beings or to the planet? Why does one have to blame lack of spirituality for the evil around us? One might as well blame too much spirituality for our problems: The spiritual people think so little of this material world that they don't do enough to make it a better place. On the other hand, why can't people tell stories, dance and sing, play music, create works of art, and study chemistry, biology, and physics? Finally, why can't we study the natural world without the process being seen either as a means to job security and material wealth or as harmonizing one's soul with cosmic spirituality?

Children should not be burdened with either spirituality or materialism. They should be loved and be taught to love. They should be allowed to grow in an atmosphere of cooperation. They shouldn't be typecast according to an ancient theory of temperaments. We should develop their emotions as well as their intellects. They should be introduced to the best we have to offer in nature, art, and science in such a way that they do not have to connect everything either to their souls or to their future jobs. They may not find this in most public schools but they almost certainly won't find it in a Waldorf school.

See also anthroposophic medicine and theosophy.

reader comments

further reading

Anthroposophical Medicine William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Waldorf Schools Teach Odd Science, Odd Evolution by Eugenie C. Scott

PLANS: People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools -educating the public about Waldorf Education

Anthroposophy: Rudolf Steiner's 'Spiritual Science' by Rob Boston

Is Anthroposophy Science? by Sven Ove Hansson

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

Henry Barnes About Waldorf Education

Waldorf Homeschoolers

Rudolf Steiner: A Biographical Introduction for Farmers by Hilmar Moore

Waldorf Watch by Roger Rawlings (who attended a Waldorf school from second grade through high school)

Sympathetic Vibratory Physics

New Myths About Rudolf Steiner by Peter Normann Waage

The Janus Face of Anthroposophy Peter Zegers and Peter Staudenmaier Reply to Peter Normann Waage, New Myths About Rudolf Steiner

Anthroposophy and Ecofascism by Peter Staudenmaier

Lawsuit against Waldorf revived by Bill Lindelof (Sacramento Bee/March 31, 2003)

Unenlightened: The Inside Story of an Occult Education by Roger Rawlings 2006

Fairies at the Bottom of the Schoolyard


The most dangerous school in Los Altos "...both Los Altos city and Santa Clara county have extremely low immunization rates. The right level of immunization is 100%, and rates of 90% or 94% are very dangerous indeed. But 23% is positively evil....at Waldorf School Of The Peninsula, 72.73 % of kindergartners weren’t fully immunized in the 2010-11 school year due to their parents’ personal beliefs.” The data comes from the California Department of Health.

Judge tosses out suit over Waldorf method in 2 Sacramento schools "People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, or PLANS Inc., sued the district in 1998, claiming the [Waldorf teaching] method is inextricably linked to anthroposophy – the philosophy of Waldorf method founder Rudolf Steiner.

"... John Morse Waldorf Methods School, established in 1996 with grades K-8, was the original target of the lawsuit. The district opened a small Waldorf high school – George Washington Carver School of Arts and Sciences – three years ago.

"In Waldorf education, the arts are integrated into all subjects, including math and science. Students begin each school day with a two-hour main lesson, learning subjects in intensive three-to-four-week blocks. Storytelling, reading of myths and legends, and learning handcrafts, cooking, gardening, painting, music and movement are part of the method.

"...The suit contended anthroposophy is a religion and that its use in public schools violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which precludes mixing religion with government institutions."

Federal judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ruled that plaintiff failed to "establish that anthroposophy is a system of belief and worship of a 'superhuman controlling power' involving a code of ethics and philosophy requiring obedience thereto."

Anthroposophy is a set of metaphysical beliefs, many of them directed at the world of "spirits," but it involves no reference to a supreme being, has no worship services, and does not employ any symbols to indicate the nature of its superstitions. The argument of PLANS is based on the claim that the public school is supporting an establishment of religion. The group plans to appeal, but I doubt if they'll be successful because anthroposophy is not a religion.

PLANS raises the question, though, about using tax money to support a school that promotes a particular philosophy, especially a philosophy that is based on numerous superstitions (about spirits, farming, medicine, exercise, astrology, psychic powers, and a host of other subjects)? Of course, then PLANS would have to prove that the Waldorf school promotes all the weird and anti-scientific aspects of anthroposophy. Good luck to them. I think they'll find that Waldorfians who teach at Waldorf schools are like Catholics, Muslims, Platonists, and Thomists: they select which beliefs to accept from their "hero" and disregard the rest. Also, the fact that the teachers are anthroposophists doesn't mean that they inculcate Steiner's nonsense into their pupils any more than it follows that Christian or atheist teachers in public schools inculcate theism or atheism in their pupils.

Personally, I think the parents who have promoted and continue to support the John Morse Waldorf Methods School and the George Washington Carver School have conned the people into paying for their kid's tuition at a private school. My guess is that these parents would be paying at least $15,000 a year per kid at a private Waldorf high school and just a bit less for grade school tuition.

John Renish thinks that "the proper question is: are the schools educating the children responsibly? That is, can they do math and English, do they know anything about history and government, and most important, can they demonstrate critical thinking?" I agree.

Last updated 12/09/10

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