Last night I went to Andy Lewis’s talk on “What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner Schools”. I’d blogged my current thoughts about Steiner education the day before, just out of curiosity to see how my opinions might change. Briefly: I enjoyed my education (at a Steiner school) but I am worried about the connection between the ‘spiritual philosophy’ of anthroposophy and the actual practice in Steiner schools, as it is the former is somewhat odd and not entirely wholesome.
First of all, Andy (@LeCanardNoir) is a great communicator and an entertaining speaker. I hadn’t heard him talk before, and if you get a chance to hear him speak about this or anything else, you should take it. He spoke for around an hour and worked hard to cram in a very broad ranging look the history, philosophy and influence (both global and local) of Steiner. He started out talking about broader theosophy movement of which Steiner was a part – I could happily have listened to a talk on that for the whole hour, as it sounds like fascinating slice of social history. The talk brought things right up to date with the involvement of Steiner schools in Michael Gove’s free school scheme which has already seen the establishment of a second state Steiner school in the UK.
I discovered how far anthroposophy reaches – not only are there anthroposophical schools and anthroposophical cosmetics (Weleda) which I knew about, there’s even a bank (Tridos) and a software company (Software AG). There was a point where, as he acknowledged himself, Andy sounded a bit like a conspiracy theorist. If these companies want to fund educational initiatives, why does it matter if they chant in the mornings? I don’t have to be religious to recognise the good work that churches are doing with the poor and needy. But where there is a problem it is where their philosophy/morality influences the work being done – the Catholic church and its position on birth control influencing its work in Africa, for example.
I was surprised how sad I felt hearing the audience laugh as Andy described some of Steiner’s more surprising beliefs. Not because they’re not funny – more because they’re jokes I’d heard before, and I was thinking about the way in which, as an esoteric philosophy, many creative and talented people are involved in the schools who perhaps don’t know, and certainly don’t fully subscribe to all the wacky nonsense. Chatting to Andy it was clear that from all the discussions he’s had with ex-pupils, parents and teachers he’s well aware of this. I’m not sure everyone in the audience picked up on all this subtle yet significant point, since several other skeptics wanted to know of me, when I said I’d been Steiner educated, whether I believed in Atlantis or reincarnation or whether I had been taught of the superiority of the Aryan race. A couple of questions boiled down to: Why would anyone see any attraction in a Steiner school in the first place? Ah well, I think that’s inevitable when there is so much novel and surprising (and entertaining) yet not widely known, in anthroposophy, and only an hour in which to try and cover it.
The argument Andy kept returning to was the problem of secretiveness. He emphasised the point that it’s very hard to know to what extent anthroposophy as described in the works of Steiner is bought into wholesale within the schools or whether they have reformed views, because (and this was the nub of his argument) they are very secretive about how deeply these mystical beliefs are actually informing educational practice in today’s schools. It’s a problem with a solution, though: talking about it – and that’s what we did last night (he had a list of questions for parents to ask of Steiner schools which, unfortunately, I cannot find online to link to). He made the contrast with (other) faith schools which have a religious agenda (which skeptics as atheists may well find unsympathetic) but at least it’s clear what it is.
For me, though (already knowing quite a bit about anthroposophy) the issue is the way in which the spiritual may have a direct influence on educational practice. In most faith schools, the actual content of the curriculum lies for the most part outside the religious domain (and it’s where knowledge and faith sometimes clash – such as with evolution – that the real problems arise). But if it is a requirement that anthroposophy inform all educational activity in a Steiner school, then that is a barrier to progress, preventing teachers from moving away from out-dated practices like meticulously copying passages from the blackboard (for example) or from embracing the use of technology in learning.
When it came to asking a question, I fished hopefully for something positive that might be gleaned from the numerous (34 in the UK) Steiner schools as a collective whole where, albeit as a result of spiritual beliefs rather than pedagogical research, some interesting educational practices occur. I wanted to know if Andy thought that, should Steiner schools be willing to share it, there could be useful data from the more practical educational differences (such as learning modern foreign languages at an earlier age, or learning to read at a later age) or whether he thought that the practice was too inextricably bound up in the alternative philosophy to make this possible. As Andy picked up, I had in mind the original purpose of the 2005 DFES report (which he’d already effectively debunked, pointing out that one of the authors is a Priestess of Shekinah and of Divine Mother Sophia, in the Order of Lord Melchizadek and The Violet Robe) but also a recent by post by Edzard Ernst in which he argued that the failings of conventional medicine which drive people to seek alternatives are often basic things which can and should be addressed by putting improvements into place. I suppose it was quite a complex and loaded question to ask, but in his response Andy mentioned the Europa school which is a free school in which children are taught two languages from entry (and which has an emphasis on science). My take away from this was: once a question is raised we can look for the best available data with which to answer it. In Steiner schools (just as anywhere else) we may find interesting questions, but they probably won’t be the best place to find the answers.