Can There Be ‘Good’ Steiner Schools?

I’m looking forward to attending Andy Lewis’ talk “What Every Parent Needs to Know About Steiner Schools” tomorrow night, even though I’m not a parent and I think I probably know quite a lot about Steiner schools already. I attended a Steiner School for 7 years, and enjoyed my time there and I was taught by some great teachers. But while I was irritated at the time by some of the more weird accoutrements of the Steiner curriculum, I’m troubled more deeply now, looking back, by aspects of the underlying philosophy of Steiner which, despite a natural interest, I have only discovered years later. So although I felt that the particular school I attended was, on balance, a good school, I know find myself wondering whether any school that calls itself Steiner (and which is therefore required to be informed by ‘anthroposophy’ in its educational activity) is somewhere I’d want to send my kids (if I had any). Here I’m going to try and figure out my current thinking, and see if anything in Lewis’ talk changes my mind…

The Problem: Anthroposophy

First of all, if you don’t know about Steiner schools, you’re probably wondering “What the hell is anthroposophy?”. To be honest, I still wonder that myself. It’s rather hard to explain, and anthroposophists try to claim it is not a ‘belief system’ or faith – but will describe it as a ‘spiritual philosophy’. Steiner believed he was psychic. Rather than being tested against empirical evidence, his theories derive from the mystical ‘akashic’ records (on some sort of psychic plane).

Andy Lewis has written about how this absurd nonsense is not merely ludicrous but “inherently racist and abhorrent” and takes issue with the honesty of their self-descriptions:

You will struggle to find any mention of anthroposophical beliefs and its goals on school web sites.

He quotes Steiner in encouraging spin in School marketing:

[W]e have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf [Steiner] School with its Anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with Anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck.

In other words, if you explained to parents the beliefs that Steiner teachers are required to study, most of them would run a mile.

The Reality: Nobody’s Perfect?

One of the points that anthroposophists stress about Steiner education (which is borne out in my experience) is that anthroposophy itself is not taught in the schools. So not only is it hidden in the marketing, but many pupils and parents go right through the school without knowing much of the underpinning beliefs. They may think some of the teachers and their fellow parents are hippies with peculiar beliefs, but that’s not something exclusive to Steiner schools! So does it matter?

My friend Rachel attended Andy Lewis’ talk when he was in Lewes and wrote about it. She makes the distinction between the schools which may be good, and Steiner’s pernicious philosophies. I made a comment in response essentially wondering if a Steiner School is a good school (as I felt the one I attended was) that was almost certainly despite it being a Steiner school rather than because it was a Steiner school.

But if there may have been good things about the people and the experience, how much was that due to the Steiner movement? If those good people had come together the run a school that had nothing to do with Steiner, and made some of the same curriculum choices based on merit rather than dogma, wouldn’t that have been far better? In other words, I can’t help feeling that what good there may be in some Steiner schools is in spite of rather than because of the Steiner philosophy…

It’s possible that educationalists dissatisfied with the state schools (and there’s a lot to be dissatisfied with – but that’s another post) can spurred to look for alternatives, and the well establish Steiner movement may be good at catalysing that creative dissatisfaction into establishing new schools. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to suppose that alternatives might emerge as readily within the state system, or independent of it but without an established movement such as this one.

I honestly can’t see any way in which anthroposophy (either as a philosophy or faith) adds to a school. But perhaps we just have to accept it as a peculiar idiosyncrasy, if there are other good qualities in a particular school?

I do have concerns about anthroposophy, even ‘behind the scenes’.

I am disturbed by some of the prevailing ideas that it took me a while to examine critically after I left school. I do think also there were major deficits in aspects of my education that are due to the Steiner philosophy…because Anthroposphy informs the curriculum there is a real barrier to the Steiner curriculum evolving and developing (for example, consider how much education has changed to embrace the opportunities new technology has to offer, while Steiner curricula have not really altered since the 1920s). This is where I am not really convinced there is anything substantive that differentiates Steiner the man (then) and the movement (today). It’s a movement in which I see little progress, and an unwillingness to take a critical approach in which outdated and/or offensive tenets are properly rejected and discarded.

This is where the real problem with anthroposophy and the Steiner movement lies. Whatever interesting facets there may be in the Steiner curriculum (such as the deeply integrated cross-disciplinary curriculum design, early teaching of modern foreign languages, and a relatively lightweight formal assessment regime) are not there because they have been critically evaluated. Similarly there is a deep resistance to letting children play football, watch television or use computers at an early age because anthrosophists set their faces against empirical evidence. Steiner schools are simply unable to develop.

Can There Be ‘Good’ Steiner Schools?

In my response to Rachel’s post I wrote:

So yes, there are good people involved in Steiner schools but they are ‘outsiders’. Increasingly I am moving away from feeling that Anthroposophy is an essentially harmless but barmy by-product to fearing it is the rotten core that at best is preventing these schools from being more progressive and which may possibly be far more pernicious than that.

Almost eight years before that I wrote a post in which I expressed a hope that aspects of the Steiner curriculum might fruitfully form the basis for better research leading to the development of new, well-founded curricula that took those parts that were effective in learning and development and rejected those that weren’t. They wouldn’t be Steiner schools as the anthroposophists saw them, but they’d be better schools. I now think this was rather naïve.

As for whether a Steiner school can be a best school available – if you know its true nature, its weaknesses as well as its strengths – and there’s nothing better in your neighbourhood… I’m still not sure. I rather doubt it, but I can’t rule it out.

So now to hear what Andy Lewis has to say…

Update: Having ruminated overnight, since this is a personal perspective, I think my conclusion needs to reflect that I wouldn’t change my own education. In part, I think that is because I had an exceptionally good ‘class’ teacher (the main teacher stays with their class, teaching them for 2+ hours per day, until the students are aged 14). All the same, for me (and though I can’t speak for them, I suspect for many classmates) the benefits of studying at one particular Steiner school outweighed all the drawbacks. So, even if it is the exception, I think there are instances where, if parents are aware of the semi-covert mysticism and the pedagogical stagnation of the movement itself, weighing strengths and weaknesses might still make a Steiner school the best choice…

Perhaps the question is, how often is this the case?

Update 2: My post after hearing Andy Lewis speak.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more…

5 thoughts on “Can There Be ‘Good’ Steiner Schools?

  1. Great post, hope you enjoy tonight!

    Having chatted with some more ex-Steiner friends last week it occurred to me that THE big benefit of my Steiner education, which was entirely absent from the state primaries and secondaries I attended, was the feeling of being really ‘known’ or ‘seen’ as an individual. Anthroposophists would give their own explanation for this but I suppose it’s really down to a) small class sizes and b) committed, consistent, ‘holistic’ teaching through the class teacher system. If anything in Steiner education is inherently good and worth copying, I’d say it was this.

    1. Thanks Rachel. I had a very helpful and enlightening conversation with another school friend this week too, which helped me remember the positives!

      But I don’t think being a small school or having small classes is something that is inherently a Steiner thing. It’s certainly not exclusive to Waldorf schools, and while educational (or even ‘spiritual’) philosophy may have been a reason for this, resourcing must be a far bigger factor.

  2. The problem with this school is that it has very specific standards for how a child shall develop, but such imposed standards will not be natural for all children. State schools also has such standards that are also unnatural, though.

  3. The Steiner-schools impose a certain schedule upon the development and learning path of children according to the philosophy behind, which may pose restrictions and impairments upon the natural development path of individual children. For children to whom this particular learning path happens to be natural, these schools can be good, for others not. Steiner-schools also have a certain upper-class profile which means that children not belonging to the right social class are not so well taken care of.

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