How Steiner Schools Justify their Occult Pedagogy.

Rudolf Steiner was very clear to his teachers. Young children were incapable of abstract reasoning until they were 14 and their “astral body” had incarnated. Learning to read was bad for a child’s development until adult teeth had appeared and the “etheric body” had incarnated. Early years teaching was more about helping children to remember their existence in previous lives than teaching them anything. What they actually do, such as art using restricted colours and media, and dance, had occult meanings to help children on their spiritual pathway. Technology is to be shunned as evil spirits, such as Ahriman, and bad karmic influences are contained within.

Steiner recognised that if parents knew about these aims, the school’s neck would be ‘broken’. He then was very clear to his teachers to hide the spiritual and religious agenda,

We should be quiet about how we handle things in the school, that is, we should maintain a kind of school confidentiality. We should not speak to people outside the school, except for the parents who come to us with questions, and in that case, only about their children, so that gossip has no opportunity to arise.

But most people have some idea that Steiner schools delay reading and encourage ‘eurythmy’ dance. How do the schools justify these actions without revealing their occult intentions?

One way is to claim that all these things are to do with latest child psychology research.

The Hereford Steiner Academy, the first state funded school set up under the last Labour government has a contract that parents must sign. It warns parents to keep children away from technology,

Protecting my/our child from unsuitable and unwarranted access to some of the concerns and worries of the adult world and from unmonitored exposure and un-mediated access to media such as television and DVD, computer games, internet chat-rooms and so on. Medical research shows that screen-based activity such as TV, videos, films and computer games can have a negative effect on children (brain activity, concentration, heart-beat, emotional balance and well-being). The younger the child, the greater the effect. For the well-being of your child and their ability to access the education and programme of teaching and learning, please allow no regular screen-based activity/watching for under 8s, no more than 3 hours a week for 9 to 14s and moderate and selective use for young people aged 15 and over. Please try to make sure TVs and computers are not kept in your child’s room so that his/her bedroom is free to be a place of rest and comfort. (Further reading ‘Remote Controlled’ by Dr Aric Sigman & ‘Toxic Childhood’ by Sue Palmer, amongst others)

Today on the BBC technology website, we see a news item inspired by Dr Aric Sigman’s research into early exposure to technology. The article (Warning to cut TV for young children) states that Sigman believes that screens “may produce an increased level of dopamine in children’s brains”.

This is not the first time in recent months that Sigman has hit the headlines. He had published an article in the Archives of Disease in Childhood that called for a “Time for a view on screen time”. This paper created headlines in the Guardian that suggested children’s health was at risk from watching television. The BBC, Daily Mail and the Telegraph also ran with the story.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University,  suggested that the research was not impartial and was speculative,

Sigman’s paper is not “an impartial expert review of evidence for effects on health and child development”. “Aric Sigman does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic,” she said. “His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.”

Why would Sigman want to write about such things?

A look around the web shows that Sigman has been commissioned by the Ruskin Mill Trust to write a paper called Does not Compute: Screen Technology in Early Years Education.  The Ruskin Mill Trust is a charitable trust that says its aims are:

To advance the education of young people with learning difficulties and/or behavioural problems or special educational needs through training in the areas of arts, crafts, agriculture and environmental sciences, with particular reference being given to the indications and insights of Rudolf Steiner in these areas.

To promote research into the practice and development of those areas of education provided that all research findings will be widely disseminated.

Ruskin Mill is an anthroposophical organisation set up to further anthroposophical occult aims. It is funded by the anthroposophical bank Triodos, and produces research that anthroposophical schools, such as Hereford Academy, use to justify their occult pedagogy.

Peter Etchels on the nature.com blogs reviewed Sigman’s work. He calls his work on screen time ‘cherry picking’ and says,

At the very least, fuelling scaremongering headlines in the media off the back of a single review article doesn’t seem like a particularly objective or impartial way to progress science or promote public health, and we should be more sceptical of those who engage in such behaviour.

Etchels is not the first. Ben Goldacre wrote, “How Aric Sigman distorts the scientific evidence to mislead you.

I have no idea if Sigman is an anthroposophist or even favourable to their views. It is quite clear though that the anthroposophists are favourable to Sigmans views. What is interesting is no-one is really asking who would benefit from such views being given uncritical headlines in the main newspapers.

The Anthroposophical movement suspect they will – the people who have commissioned similar work. New Steiner Schools are  being planned around the country under Gove’s Free School plan. It helps if the occult nature of the schools is hidden and that their methods are given a veneer of scientific respectability. In that sense, they are being very successful.

Steiner told his teachers,

You need to make the children aware that they are receiving the objective truth, and if this occasionally appears anthroposophical, it is not anthroposophy that is at fault. Things are that way because anthroposophy has something to say about objective truth. It is the material that causes what is said to be anthroposophical. We certainly may not go to the other extreme, where people say that anthroposophy may not be brought into the school. Anthroposophy will be in the school when it is objectively justified, that is, when it is called for by the material itself.

Steiner saw anthroposophy as an objective absolute truth gained through clairvoyance into the higher spiritual realm. If those visions told him that children should not read or engage with technology then that is an absolute truth. The science will support anthroposophy  And if it does not, then they should no doubt keep looking for some science that will support anthroposophy.

17 comments for “How Steiner Schools Justify their Occult Pedagogy.

  1. David Clark
    November 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Hello Andy,

    My reading suggests that this blog contains a variety of themes. With agreement from my adult learning colleagues, I intend to start working on pedagogical aspects from next week. As you may appreciate, I will approach these aspects of pedagogy from an andragogical perspective. Privileging critical thinking and open enquiry, I reckon this approach is respectful.

    Thanks for this opportunity to comment,

    David

    • Jo D. Baker
      November 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      Sorry, are you talking about an evaluation of Steinerism from an andragogical perspective? If so doesn’t this miss the point , what is the value of evaluating woo? I mean you might as well evaluate the so called applied scholastics of L Ron Hubbard; it is all so much horseshit that it’s not worth the effort.

      • David Clark
        November 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

        Hi Jo,

        You wrote:

        “…what is the value of evaluating woo?”

        ” … it’s not worth the effort …”

        I suggest that you may be missing something here.

        Thanks for connecting,

        David

  2. November 28, 2012 at 3:14 am

    Great article Andy! Here’s a bit about Eurythmy… nothing Anthroposophical to see here… move along now…

    “I speak in all humility when I say that within the Anthroposophical Movement there is a firm conviction that a spiritual impulse of this kind must now, at the present time, enter once more into human evolution. And this spiritual impulse must perforce, among its other means of expression, embody itself in a new form of art. It will increasingly be realised that this particular form of art has been given to the world in Eurythmy.

    It is the task of Anthroposophy to bring a greater depth, a wider vision and a more living spirit into the other forms of art. But the art of Eurythmy could only grow up out of the soul of Anthroposophy; could only receive its inspiration through a purely Anthroposophical conception.”

    From Rudolf Steiner’s “Lecture on Eurythmy” August 26, 1923
    http://wn.rsarchive.org/Eurhythmy/19230826p01.html

    The entire lecture is worth reading…

  3. November 28, 2012 at 9:16 am

    I find it interesting that throughout most texts refering to steiner Schools and their philosophy (including this post), one can replace the term ‘anthroposophy’ with the term ‘bullshit’ without negatively effecting the readability or inherent message. Thanks for another good review of the underhanded methods used to further this brand of woo.

    • David Clark
      November 28, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Hello James,

      Many thanks for responding with such clear and focused comments. In the circumstances, I reckon it may be most helpful to reply from the perspectives of both my study and personal experience.

      Without a specialised background in philosophy, my readings as an amateur suggest that it is important to avoid the serious isks inherent in self-reference. From a methodological viewpoint, i would suggest that one way of approaching this dilemma may be to both refine the meaning of evidence and then to apply this in further investigations.

      I hope these thoughts help.

      David

      • David Clark
        November 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

        Hello James,

        Apologies. I hope that you will appreciate that I was referring to “risks” in this context.

        David

  4. Diana
    November 28, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    It’s great that you researched this and caught this business about Sigman and the fact that the Ruskin Mill Trust is anthroposophical. I looked up the article in Archives of the Diseases of Childhood to see if the author declared any competing interests. He did not. Of course, he may not have had any formal affiliation with the Ruskin Trust at the time he wrote the article that was published in Arch Dis Child. Competing interests aren’t always financial; they can also be ideological. It could be that the journal’s policy doesn’t explicitly require disclosure of ideological or other interests (only financial). (I think when I get a moment I will check.) It’s also possible for authors to follow the letter but not the spirit of these policies. I’m not saying that’s what happened here, but it is an interesting trail of evidence to follow.

    This is at best a wee bit slippery. Well done sniffing this one out.

    • Andy Lewis
      November 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks. After researching Steiner for a while, I think I am beginning to master the skill of smelling anthros.

  5. November 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Andy, you write, “Rudolf Steiner was very clear to his teachers. Young children were incapable of abstract reasoning until they were 14 and their “astral body” had incarnated.”

    He was? “incapable”? And “Steiner saw anthroposophy as an objective absolute truth gained through clairvoyance into the higher spiritual realm. If those visions told him that children should not read or engage with technology then that is an absolute truth”

    I’m sorry to have to say it, Andy, and I apologize for it. But you do write some nonsense. Of course children with varying and increasing success can develop abstract reasoning, and do, also at Waldorf schools before 14. The pedagogical question is: what consequences does it have for the future of the child if he or she is drilled in and taught to focus intensely on abstract reasoning before it comes naturally, they do it well and actually understand what they are doing more than just superficially?

    And “Early years teaching was more about helping children to remember their existence in previous lives” sounds like a quote from something maybe Diana has written. They aren’t taught to remember anything from a previous lives. The curriculum in general follows the historical development of humanity, that to some degree is reflected also in our individual lives in a way that can be used as a basis for the curriculum. The same basic curriculum wrt history was followed in the public school I went to, starting in the 1950′s. it was done because it worked well and appealed to our developing understanding and inner situation at the different ages.

    Waldorf education only follows this principle more consciously.

    A Jack Petrach – Waldorf teacher of the class where a well known Swedish author/journalist, Göran Rosebnerg, left at http://www.augustpriset.se/ who just got one of the most valued literary prizes in Sweden for a book he had written about his father; “A stop on the way from Auschwitz” had a child when he worked as reporter in for Swedish NPR in the US – has written one of the best description of this: “Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out”. Try Amazon.

    http://waldorfanswers.org/Waldorf.htm

    And he repeatedly stressed that a spiritual researcher can make mistakes like everybody else and that nothing he said, neither as a result of spiritual research, nor as result of any normal reading and thinking, should be taken as any sort of absolute truth, but reflected on and tried.

    Also what write as “Technology is to be shunned as evil spirits” is quite some overstatement. You really make it difficult to address what you write and formulate as dogmas that you ascribe to anthroposophy. If you calm down and don’t force your thoughts into forms as quickly and strongly as you do, what you write will be more reflected and true.

    But that’s just my reflection. I can’t force you to be different than you are, But if you don’t hurry so much but think the thoughts you want to formulate maybe at least three or four times over some days and maybe a week in between, and reflect on them, and maybe even let them rest for some weeks in between, they’ll become better and more true.

    Just a reflection.

  6. JimR.
    November 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    The promotion of magical thinking can result in a lot of gullible thinking. It seems to me that Steiner acolytes cannot promote critical thinking for then the charade might be seen. What a clever idea, crank out a ready made consumer base for all things magical to which a second thought is never given. Much easier than teaching facts and the difficult art of reasoning. The brain consumes around 20% of a person’s energy intake, so in support of the Green movement to use less energy we should not have people think so much. That must make this blog anti-Green, don’t you think?

    • S
      November 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      JimR, you may well be onto something there, it’s worth looking at the links between Anthroposophy and the Green movement –

      “Anthroposophists played an important role in the formation of the German Greens, and Germany’s former Interior Minister, Otto Schily, one of the most prominent founders of the Greens, is an anthroposophist”

      http://www.social-ecology.org/2009/01/anthroposophy-and-ecofascism-2/

  7. Diana
    November 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    The competing interests policy of the Archives of the Diseases of Childhood can be found here:

    http://group.bmj.com/products/journals/instructions-for-authors/editorial-policies#competing

    Authors are only required to disclose competing financial interests. Sigman’s conflict-of-interest statement reads:

    “The author declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous
    3 years.”

    Therefore, the author was, we must presume, in compliance with the policy. Assuming that he was already connected to anthroposophy in an affiliative or ideological sense when he wrote the piece (which I don’t know for certain, not having researched his entire career), his competing interest was ideological, not financial (meaning no anthroposophical institution actually gave him money to support the writing of this particular paper).

    It is so devilishly difficult to sniff out all these tangled connections, when anthroposophists typically have no interest in full disclosure unless a legality or a technicality forces their hand. Witness the actions of Sune Nordwall right in this thread – his own ties to institutional Waldorf in Sweden will rarely be mentioned directly by him. Of course, it’s usually only 5 minutes till a critic shows up and discloses it for him, but self-disclosure would be far more admirable.

    A policy of proactive honesty and full disclosure is still not comfortable for anthroposophy, at this point in time, because of the emphasis on secrecy in esoteric religions. Criticism on the internet is slowly forcing their hand, but it is slow and painful.

  8. shafiq
    December 8, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Dying to see some reviews of this, looks really interesting, never seen anything quite like it!
    medicine

  9. Steve
    March 23, 2013 at 3:09 am

    One has to wonder about the educational systems that produces individuals who can react with arguments like “Steiner is woo” or “bull—” without someone even venturing to investigate. Well-reasoned and articulated arguments and posts are simply dismissed, without any type of critical thinking. (Critical thinking is not the same as saying, “Steiner is woo”.) Likewise, the art of reasoning is not making spurious remarks about Greens and energy intake. What are the aims of the pedagogical system used in the UK. Has anybody considered that – honestly – before they read this? Frankly, breaking free of the impoverished education system of my childhood has been a monumental task. These childish criticisms are symptomatic of the whole Creationism vs Evolutionism debacle. That Creationists have a crude literal-minded view of the world is more than evident, but why, when they uncover clear problems within evolutionary theory, are people not wise enough to say, hang on, yes, there are some issues there that remain unsolved. Are the individuals who post aware how well-read and informed Steiner was in science? Maybe with this knowledge they can move away from naive two-camp thinking.

  10. March 23, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    ” when they uncover clear problems within evolutionary theory, are people not wise enough to say, hang on, yes, there are some issues there that remain unsolved.”

    Hang on… there are “clear problems” in evolutionary theory? Maybe you could point those out to us… and while you’re at it, provide Steiner’s clarity on the subject.

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