Having recently moved to Somerset, and as the parent of a couple of small children, potential future schools are obviously of interest.
One that I will not be considering is the new Steiner Academy in Frome. Following the current government’s plans to remove schools from local democratic control and place them in the hands of various private, religious and commercial interests, the Frome Steiner School has received agreement in principle from Michael Gove to open later this year.
A principal reason for my decision is that Steiner schools (sometimes called Waldorf Schools) are not open about the true nature of their origins, beliefs and methods. The new web page of the Frome Steiner Academy gives the impression that they follow a progressive approach to teaching that uniquely follows a child’s personal development. That all sounds wonderful. What they do not say is that this approach is based on occult thinking, astrology, clairvoyance and esoteric cult-like beliefs.
Even if their beliefs may have some positive effects for children, the apparent secrecy is a deep cause for concern.
[See my follow up post: What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner-Waldorf Schools]
But why I am I writing about this superstitious teaching approach on my blog about superstitious medicine? Steinerism, or Anthroposophy to give it its proper name, does not limit its mysticism to teaching. Rudolf Steiner, the founder, had clairvoyant revelations into many areas of life which have created Steinerist movements in agriculture, medicine, business and finance. There are good reasons to think that Anthroposophical medical beliefs present a direct threat to the wellbeing of children if they have any influence at all in Steiner Schools. We shall look at some evidence for this later.
In researching this article, a great difficulty has been getting beyond the facade. Steinerism exhibits classic esoteric traits. How the beliefs are presented to the world is very different from internal initiated beliefs. The real beliefs of Steiner education, which include reincarnation, spirits, gnomes and karma, are only revealed to those who progress into the organisation. We may see similarities with Scientology where people’s first experience is with a form of self-help psychology – it is only much later, after significant investments has been made, the weirder forms of beliefs are revealed. As such, I am often reliant on individuals who write about their experiences after removing themselves from close experiences with Steinerists. Steiner himself told teachers to be coy about the aims of the school for fear that “people would break the Waldorf [Steiner] School’s neck.”
To give you a flavour of the sort of beliefs held by Anthroposophists, let’s look at agriculture and medicine first.
You may well have already bought Steinerist food products. Biodynamics is the name most often associated with Steiner’s methods. Many wine producers appear to adopted these techniques and you may have bought such products thinking that Biodynamics is a strict variant of Organic agriculture. In some ways it is, but the strictness noticeably comes in adhering to Steiner’s beliefs in astrology and occultism.
For example, the use of artificial fertilisers is strictly forbidden. But it is not enough for manure to be used. No. It needs to be magically ‘activated’. Depending on what you are doing, you may need recipes such as,
- Filling a cow horn with crushed quartz and burying it in the field you wish to help
- Yarrow flowers are stuffed into the bladder of a Red Deer and then buried over-winter before digging up in Spring
- Oak bark is stuffed into the skull of a dead cat, or other domestic animal, and then also buried in peat
- Chamomile flowers are stuffed into cattle intestines and buried in Autumn
Teaspoon quantities of these concoctions can then be added to manure to create potent fertilisers. These recipes are clearly not based on any evidence or reason, but on the astrological and spiritual symbology of these entities.
Astrology plays a crucial role. If you have an infestation of field mice, catch a few, then kill and cremate them. Sprinkle the ashes around, but do this only when Venus is in Scorpio.
Biodynamic farming presents itself as a ‘sustainable approach to agriculture’ and ‘founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being’. Scrape away the rhetoric and we see a a philosophy based on the rejection of science and technology and an embrace of the occult, astrological and magical. This theme appears to be common to all strands of Steinerism.
Steiner’s approach to medicine is also based on various forms of superstitious thinking. Anthroposophical medicine makes claims to the public that it intends to extend scientific medicine to include spiritual aspects of human experience. That sounds nice. What this appears to mean in practice is no different from any other form of quackery in that it accepts unproven, disproven and nonsensical superstitious and pseudoscientific practices into its repertoire. Practicing superstition cannot extend medicine but only undermine it. Most commonly, Anthroposophists embrace the pre-scientific form of medicine known as homeopathy and then distort it with their own unique thinking. For example, a homeopath will say they will look at all aspects of your life in selecting a remedy; a Steinerist doctor will not just look at your current problems, but try to take into account your previous and future lives through their ideas about reincarnation.
The best known example of Steinerist medicine is its treatment for cancer. Rudolf Steiner was heavily influenced by homeopathic thinking. He saw mistletoe growing on trees and likened it to an arboreal cancer. Given the homeopathic dictum that “like cures like”, he thought mistletoe would be a cure for cancer. As such, the Anthroposophical company Weleda, best known for their cosmetics and skin care, manufacture mistletoe injections under the name of Iscador. Such injections appear to be popular in Germany, and some Steinerist doctors in the UK will also a offer them, such as at University College London’s RLHIM.
Finance and Commerce
The number of anthroposophical organisations appears to be very large. But the true extent of the influence of this occult organisation is quite hard to fathom. One good example is the financial services organisation Triodos Bank, who market themselves as an ethical investment bank based in the Netherlands and the UK. You will struggle to find any mention of Sterinerism on the bank’s website, but look in their articles of association [pdf] and you will find that the first paragraphs tell us, “Triodos Bank is – at its sole discretion – associated with anthroposophy, this being the humanities science initiated by Rudolf Steiner that accordingly forms an important basis for the work of Triodos Bank.”
Triodos is coy about disclosing its Steinerist origins and influences. However, they are still there. I understand that within the bank there are daily ritual chants. However, Triodos is very open about who it lends to. And whilst many loans may well be to admirable ventures, you can see from its website that the alternative medicine world relies heavily on investment from the bank. In the UK, the Homeopathic Supply Company, the Penny Brohn Alternative Cancer Therapy Clinic in Bristol, various chiropractors, osteopaths, natural health clinics all have benefited from their loans. I would argue that lending to pseudoscientific and superstitious therapists is not ethical but simply irresponsible.
So, what of Steiner’s educational philosophy? You may have heard of a few of the characteristics of such schools. You may hear that children learn to read years later than their peers. Steiner schools claim that they want children to develop at their own speed and to learn when they are developmentally ready.
But by now you will not be surprised to learn that this approach to reading is based on the psychology of child development but on Steinerist concepts of reincarnation and spirituality. Steiner said,
People will object that the children then learn to read and write too late. That is said only because it is not known today how harmful it is when the children learn to read and write too soon. It is a very bad thing to be able to write early. Reading and writing as we have them today are really not suited to the human being till a later age – the eleventh or twelfth year – and the more a child is blessed with not being able to read and write well before this age, the better it is for the later years of life. A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen (I can speak out of my own experience because I could not do it at that age) is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years can already read and write perfectly.
We can see that teaching reading late not an act of waiting for the child to be ready, but a deliberate attempt to supress these vital skills for as long as possible. To me, it is frightening that parents could be unwittingly sending their children to a school where some teachers actively attempt to suppress a child’s desire to learn to read.
The reasons for this deliberate delay lie in Steinerists’ belief that people are reincarnated and children’s spirits have to be helped to properly incarnate in their new bodies. Reading should not be taught until arbitrary incarnation milestones have been reached, such as the acquisition of permanent teeth .
Another open aspect of Steinerist education is its desire to limit children’s exposure to technology. Computer use is discouraged. Often this reluctance to expose children to computers is expressed in reasonable terms by suggesting the solitary computer screen discourages the child learning “cooperatively with peers [which] is particularly important at this stage in the child’s life.” By now you will not be surprised to learn that Steinerists have associated computers with a spiritual being called Ahriman. (Steiner’s model of Ahriman is shown at the start of this article.) In Steiner’s world. Ahriman is a spirit of darkness opposed to Christ. Technology is an incarnation of such evil and as such should be shunned.
There are of course many aspects of Steiner education that cannot be discussed in a blog post without making it far too long. I would like to discuss eurhythmy – the strange spiritual dance movement classes that pupils have to take. Again, these dances are designed to help the reincarnated spirits within a child develop properly within the body.
So what harm is there in this strange and occult approach to teaching children? Indeed, there will be people who claim a Steiner education is a positive experience that has created well rounded adults. This will indeed be true as each child will be uniquely affected by their own parents influence and by encountering particular teachers who encourage academic and creative success. Some children may well thrive in a more artistically focussed environment. But to conclude from these anecdotes that Steinerism provides a general learning environment that can benefit most children’s needs would be an error. Indeed, it would be incredible that a pedagogy based on the occult thinking of a mystic has hit upon a successful teaching formula at all. We must indeed be concerned about teaching that delays the learning of basic literacy skills, allows the acquisition of important learning by not much more than happenstance, and whose philosophy is directly contradicted by science. We live in times where future young adults will have to compete with technically literate, scientifically educated peers from around the world. To treat such knowledge as suspicious can only provide handicaps to success.
Beyond the direct educational issues, exposure to anthroposophical medicine has direct health risks. Being heavily influenced by the ineffective ideas of homeopathy, there appears to be a tendency to distrust vaccination. It only takes a relatively small number of parents to decline vaccines to create conditions within a school where disease can outbreak.
Indeed, a recent review entitled Anthroposophy: A Risk Factor for Noncompliance With Measles Immunization documents measles outbreaks in the UK after the virus was able to gain a foothold in anthroposophic communities. Steiner believed that measles was an important disease for children to have as it aided their “spiritual development”. It is a disease that will kill and injure some of the children it infects.
Steiner was also against the eradication of smallpox by vaccination as he believed that this would only delay the spirit’s karmic destiny in other lives. Belief in reincarnation is not harmless. Steiner appeared to accept the death of a child as an acceptable part of helping spirits through their incarnations. Your child is just an expendable vessel.
Unpleasant aspects of Steiner’s mysticism no doubt arise from its development in early 20th Century. Racist views of human development thread their way through his beliefs. He saw life being based on a hierarchy with Aryans being placed at the pinnacle. Disabled people and other races were seen within his beliefs in karma and reincarnation as being ‘degenerate’ or inferior. The blogger and ex-Steiner parent ThetisMercurio discusses the troubling response to criticism of racism by UK Steinerists here and gives us cause for concern that such beliefs are still influential.
You may argue that huge numbers of publicly funded schools in the UK are already in the control of spiritual organisations that may well too have troubling philosophies. The Church of England is one of the biggest providers of education in the UK. Indeed, there are aspects I would worry about. But let me repeat where I started off. Steiner schools appear to be less than forthcoming about their approaches and philosophy. There is evidence that many aspects of their teaching methods are deliberately concealed from parents. CoE schools also exist within the general framework of inspection and accountability. The new Steiner schools want to remove themselves from current external scrutiny. Indeed, when their goals are more to do with incarnating a child’s spirit and preparing the child for future lives, then being judged on their maths and language literacy levels are just not important.
Steiner schools have existed in small numbers as private institutions for many years. And in a free society, providing there is proper disclosure, you may argue they have a right to exist. But for the government to hand over tax money to organisations that appear to be deliberately obscure, absurd in their ideas and potentially dangerous to health with superstitious views of medicine, is reckless and an abdication of responsibility to our children. Michael Gove has denounced critics of his Free Schools plan as ‘Trots’. I cannot see how objecting to public funding of secretive occult schools can be anything other than absolutely necessary.
Right now, the coalition government is rightly being attacked for its misconceived approach to healthcare provision. I predict that the rise of such institutions as the Frome Steiner Academy will provide a new front of opposition to this government’s obsession with meaningless ‘choice’.
Just who does this Steiner School extend choice to? There would appear to be three classes of parents where such a choice might apply. 1) Those who do not care how their school is run or what is taught. 2) Those who have been misled by the Steiner school’s representation of themselves, and 3) Those who believe in the literal existence of gnomes (which Rudolf Steiner did). For parents like myself who may want to make a choice based on such mundane things as location, academic emphasis and support, the Frome Steiner Academy actually decreases my choice.
It is difficult to imagine a more clear cut example of the dangers and absurdity of Gove’s grand plan. It’s time to break the Steinerist School’s neck, and with it, this profoundly anti-educationalist schools policy.
The subject of anthroposophy and Steiner Schools is obviously huge and I could never do justice to it here. I suggest you read these three linked articles, which have been very helpful in informing this article, to help you learn more.
And my follow up post that sets out the problems in much more detail: What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner-Waldorf Schools