Rudolph Steiner, a Hungarian, developed his own philosophical system,‘Anthroposophy’ based on spirituality. It is, in fact, a mish-mash of Eastern thought, neo-Platonism, Christianity and Hegel. There is much talk of ‘inner experience’ and its amplification through the ‘secret society’ but its philosophical ideas are based on three realms, the physical, soul and spiritual. From this rather unlikely theoretical basis, Steiner schools have grown to be one of the biggest not-for-profit school systems in the world, headquartered in Switzerland. Founded in 1919 in Germany they grew, initially after being funded by a cigarette tycoon, and have flourished for nearly 100 years. Note that Steiner schools often go under the name of Waldorf schools.
Education as development
Education, for Steiner, is not so much teaching, or even learning, as a process of spiritual development defined within Steiner’s ‘Anthroposophy’. The system assumes ‘three births of men’, in three, seven-year periods. Up to 7, 7-14 then 14-21. These stages are based on obscure and esoteric ‘astral’ and ‘ethereal’ principles. There is a curious neo-Platonic idea of the soul, where the mind needs to recover the soul’s memory through a gentle, empathetic education. There is also a curious throwback, where teachers use ‘choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine’ to judge the temperaments of their pupils, a sort of Medieval learning styles.
Children start school at seven and are encouraged to play, as well develop their creative and imaginative abilities. Early competition is avoided in favour of collaboration and students are allowed to develop at their own pace. The curriculum from 7 onwards covers common academic subjects but, compared to mainstream schooling, has more emphasis on the arts, with the addition of a subject unique to Steiner schools, ‘eurythmics’, a form of slow-motion dance.
Whatever the occult origins of the Steiner philosophy, it has some radical approaches to learning that have some appeal to progressive learning theorists. Children start schooling later (7) with reading is held off until that age, there is no marking or grading and the developmental process studiously avoids placing pressure and stress on children. They are taught in groups, often by the same teacher, for up to seven years, to foster the idea of the school as a family and the teacher a parent. They are non-selective, co-educational, teachers are given a great deal of autonomy and parents encouraged to be part of the school community. Long regarded by parents as an alternative to the pressurised environment of state schooling, it seems to satisfy a need for parents who see schools, whether they be state or private, as too rigid, uncaring, non-spiritual and obsessed with assessment.
Steiner’s philosophy is derivative and scarcely credible, clairvoyance, the astral and ethereal being just a few of his mystical ideas. He has also been criticised for racism, believing that reincarnation proceeds through three races, African, Asian and European, in that order. People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS) is a group of former Steiner students, parents, teachers and administrators who want to expose the hidden missionary and religious agenda in the movement. Does it work? There is no definitive evidence as little real comparative research has been done. However, in several countries, independent reports are favourable towards Steiner (Waldorf) schools in terms of English, literacy and the arts.
Esoteric claims about the soul, spirituality and process aside, Steiner schools do practice some methods that many regard as positive and progressive. They have a counter-cultural appeal that avoids the commonly held view that education is a grind, designed to filter and fail, rather than develop children into autonomous adults. It is not unusual, in the history of educational theory to come across outliers, that have survived despite their sometimes naïve, even bizarre, underlying theory. They survive because they develop strong brands, financial models that work, their own teacher training and an appeal to a clearly defined need or group.
Steiner R. (1973)Theosophy Rudolph Steiner Press.
Wilkinson R. (1993)Rudolf Steiner on Education: A compendium. Hawthorn.