Should the state be funding schools which were founded by a racist mystic?

29 January 2011
The Local Schools Network
link to original

The news that there are 25 Steiner schools seeking to be funded as “free schools” and that there is already one which has state funds should be deeply troubling for most right-minded people. Steiner schools have the reputation in this country for being rather progressive, liberal schools with some quirky ideas, but basically perfect for children who aren’t happy with more “traditional” schools.

I wonder how many parents would want to send their children to these schools if they knew about their founder’s views on an array of issues. Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) was a mystic who denied scientific evolution, believed passionately in Jesus Christ, but also believed in “karma” and “re-incarnation”. He attempted to synthesize “spirituality” with “science”. Some of his ideas about children having an artistic, creative education tie in with other thinkers such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey, but, in many ways, his views are very divergent from theirs. For example, he had strange attitudes towards pupils with Special Needs, claiming that their disabilities were due to “bad karma”.

Most worryingly of all, he was deeply racist in his views. In particular for arcane reasons, he believed that Asian people were “decadent” and black people had the characteristics of “childhood”. Moreover, Native Americans were a “degenerated human race” and the Mongols were a “lower class of people”. Surprise, surprise white skinned people were classed by Steiner as being the best, with Jesus Christ at the top of the Steiner evolutionary tree. It’s very disturbing to learn that Steiner and his “true” followers see the purpose of education to enable children to “evolve” from their “bad karma” by carrying out the exercises that Steiner saw as crucial for his form of “evolution” to happen.

The powerful people running Waldorf-Steiner schools today claim that these views do not influence the education that happens there and only Steiner’s more “enlightened” ideas inform the pedagogical approach, but this is, quite frankly, ducking the issue. (BTW: they have been very diligent about monitoring the internet so that Steiner and his schools are presented positively: much information you find by Googling him will not be reliable as a result.) The fact is that these schools have moulded their whole educational philosophy around a very strange man who was a profound racist. It’s a bit like saying it’s fine to have “Adolf Hitler” schools because we’ve ignored his nasty ideas and cherry-picked the “nice” ideas he had! Reading the minutes of a meeting some Steiner followers had with government advisors Sam Freedman and Rachel Wolf, of the New Schools Network, it’s clear that the government has its doubts about Steiner schools. Freedman says at one point during the meeting: “I’ve had all sorts of people writing to me just because they found out that I was coming to this meeting. Attacking. Attacking the Steiner Schools… Anonymously. Through social networking. People find out who you are, find out your account number and bombard you with articles, negative articles… This was pointing out all the things they think are wrong with Steiner movement, link after link after link. And that’s just from me coming to this meeting, so you have to be aware, well I know you’ll all be aware anyway, but this will be on a much, much bigger scale.”

However, it’s clear despite these concerns that the government, desperate to boost the number of free schools, is determined to give these schools state funds. The LSN has seen correspondence between a concerned parent and the Department for Education in which the DfE claims that the schools are not racist in their attitudes. I am sure this is true, but it still doesn’t get away from the fact that many parents of non-white backgrounds might be very uneasy about sending their children to schools if they knew they were founded by a man who viewed non-white races as “lower on the evolutionary scale”. Furthermore, there are obviously some other Steiner beliefs that persist in today’s schools which, while they are not against the law, are very dubious. For example, there is a belief amongst some Steiner followers that Special Needs is caused by bad karma; in other words, Steiner believers could be viewing children with SEN as having “wicked” and “degenerate” past lives.

I have observed a Steiner school in action and was dismayed by what I saw: untrained teachers delivering lectures about the “holism” of knowledge that went far over the children’s heads. Their talk was peppered, as you might expect, with lots of mystical nonsense. Furthermore, I felt the system of having one teacher for many years was counter-productive for many children who could have benefited from a different approach.

While I have no problem with schools learning from successful artistic ideas in Steiner schools, it’s sending all the wrong messages for the taxpayer to fund schools with such a dodgy guru at their heart.

 Steiner schools have been very successful in gaining state funding in the US, Canada, Australia and are clearly seeking to gain a major foothold in this country. The LSN already has evidence that some great local state schools are very worried because Steiner schools are confident of becoming “free schools” in the near future in their vicinity, sucking away vital pupils and resources. These are schools which are just as “artistic” and “enlightened” as Steiner schools, but don’t pay homage to a deeply troubling philosophy.

 These are the schools are either seeking “free school” status or maybe in the future:

Beechtree Steiner initiative, Leeds

Brighton Steiner School

Cambridge Steiner School

Elmfield Steiner School

Exeter Steiner School

Frome Steiner School

Full Fledge Ecology Steiner School, Suffolk

Hebden Bridge Steiner School, Yorkshire

Iona Steiner School, Nottingham

Kings Langley Steiner School

Lancaster Steiner School

Leicester Steiner School

Lincoln Steiner Initiative

Meadow Steiner School, Bruton, Somerset

Michael House Steiner School, Derbyshire

Monkton Wyld Steiner School, Dorset

Mulberry Tree Steiner School, Gloucestershire

Norwich Steiner School

Oxfordshire Steiner Waldorf Initiative

South Devon Steiner School

St Michael Steiner School, London

St Pauls Steiner School, Islington

Waldorf School of South West London

York Steiner School

Zelda Steiner School, Gweek, Cornwall

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22 comments

  1. If we are to hold the Steiner schools to account for the views of their founder, should we not do the same for the founder of state schools?

    This is what was on Richard Kay-Shuttleworth’s mind

    ‘We confess that we cannot contemplate with unconcern the vast physical force which is now moved by men so ignorant and so unprincipled as the Chartist leaders’.

    ‘If they (the working classes) are to have knowledge, surely it is the part of a wise and virtuous government to do all in its power to secure them useful knowledge and to guard them against pernicious opinions.’

    ‘it is astonishing to us that the party calling themselves Conservative should not lead the van in promoting the diffusion of that knowledge among the working classes which tends beyond anything else to promote the security of property and the maintenance of the public order’.

  2. These are interesting thoughts and quotations.

    from francisgilbert
  3. Article says Steiner believed in Jesus but also believed in reincarnation… Don’t all Christians believe in reincarnation? If not, what’s Easter about?

    from Paul
  4. I moved My daughter from a state primary school to a steiner school for her last primary year because state school was failing her. Too much pressure is put on primary aged children they do far too many topics within their subjects to the point that they r not retaining any information because it moves to the next topic too quickly. Since the steiner school my daughter has learned more in her year there than her years in both a private school till aged 6 and state school to aged 10. She endured more racial comments and studies whilst in state education. The steiner school teaches acceptance and encourages them to use their own minds to play and learn rather than it being manipulated by teachers wanting to reach targets for ofsted. It was the best thing I did for my daughter .

    from babs
  5. For more on Steiner schools, I recommend David Colquhoun’s blog. http://www.dcscience.net/?s=Steiner+Waldorf+ I knew someone who used to work in a Steiner School and he was certainly a mystical barmpot – a very nice, kind barmpot, but daft just the same. I wouldn’t have let him loose on my child’s education.

  6. I have read your article with interest, especially when you write about Steiner school attitudes to children with special needs. I have a 10 year old son with Down Syndrome who is currently doing very well in mainstream primary. Due to the fact that secondary mainstream schools in our area often appear to be aggressive and hostile environments, and special schools seem to focus on lifeskills without much academic input, my husband and I have even considered moving in order to send our son to a Steiner school for his secondary education.

    So far, we have been to two mainstream Steiner schools and we were enthralled by them as soon as we walked through the door. The atmosphere in these schools was relaxed, students were rushing to class with big smiles, examples of students’ work showed exceptional artistic creativity and an obvious love of their subjects.

    However, at one Steiner school, we were told that despite the fact that our son has very good concentration, they did not feel that they could meet his needs. At the second school, as soon as the Senco realised that we were looking into a place for a child with Down Syndrome, she had no interest in finding out about our son’s level of achievement. Instead, she looked at us as if we were from another planet.

    From a positive perspective on Steiner and special needs, we do know of some very successful Steiner schools for children with SEN, such as the Sheiling School Ringwood. However, these Steiner schools operate exclusively for children with severe, not moderate, learning difficulties.

    Sadly, therefore, our experiences, albeit limited, possibly bear out what you have written about the way in which Steiner teachers interpret his philosophy on special needs being the result of bad karma, and therefore they do not seem to operate a policy of inclusion in mainstream. I would love it if the next Steiner school we look at proves that what I have written here to be incorrect in which case I shall be writing to you again!

    I would also like to add that although the reasons for attitude may be different, secondary mainstream schools do not seem to be welcoming to children with Down Syndrome, either. One secondary mainstream senco told us in no uncertain terms:
    ‘we do not differentiate.’

    from joanna prychard
  7. Zelda Steiner School is non-existent. Zelda School is not a Steiner school, but we have been inspired by some of his educational philosophies. We have taken good bits from a number of educationalist’s teaching programs and used them to create our own curriculum.

    from Zelda
  8. It’s easy to pick through the work of someone with a huge written output and find some dubious passages. Take this diary entry, for example:
    “”Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc.” So the founder of an educational movement was a big fan of Hitler’s work… Except that that entry is from Lord Baden Powell’s diary, not Rudolf Steiners. Baden Powell was a contemporary of Steiner and it’s interesting to compare the two. Both expressed themselves in ways that can grate on modern ears; both founded movements that continue to this day; and in both cases, those movements are based on aspects of their founders work, not on their entire body of thought, swallowed whole. We don’t damn the Scouts for being the creation of an imperialist Christian with a marked enthusiasm for witnessing public hangings, we judge them on their current ethos and activities.
    Contemporary Steiner schools are the result of a hundred years of evolution from the starting point of Steiner’s original Waldorf school. My children are at a Steiner school. It’s a happily multi-ethnic place, with white, black and Asian teachers and a lot of diversity in the children who attend. I would certainly not send my children to a school with any element of racism in its teaching or culture.

    from Joe Evans
  9. It’s pleasing to hear that you like the school and you feel it is not a racist place. How do you feel though about your child’s intellectual abilities being judged by his facial characteristics, a key tenet of the Steiner method?

    from francisgilbert
  10. As I understand it, judging a child’s abilities by facial characteristics was a part of Steiner’s own idiosyncratic belief system. However, Steiner schools now have had a hundred years of evolution from Steiner’s original way of working. The parts of his work that have been seen to have practical value have continued to be used – for example, the much-quoted principle of not giving small children black crayons or paint is actually a very useful teaching method, because it teaches children to see the world in blocks of colour rather than to draw cartoon-style outlines and colour them in. Steiner didn’t give that as a reason, but it works so people still go with it.
    Likewise with the face thing – just because Steiner wrote about it doesn’t mean that it is still a part of teaching now.
    I think it’s understandable that Steiner get criticised on the grounds of Steiner’s original writings, but there’s been a long evolutionary process since then. Lots of Steiner-ish people are defensive about criticism of Steiner, but that doesn’t mean that they follow his prescriptions uncritically. You could read the Bible and find graphic descriptions of genocidal slaughter, but they don’t teach kids at C of E schools to go and gather a thousand Philistine foreskins.

    from Joe Evans
  11. what a ludicrous diatribe, founded in ignorance….
    funny how you could waste energy denigrating schools that are doing such extraordinary work.
    i took my son out of french public school after years of being told in kindergarten that he was a bad pupil for going ” over the edges” on the endless pages of circles , squares and triangles that he was meant to fill in with felt tipped pens.
    that said it all.I couldn’t accept any schooling where three year olds should be kept symbolically within the printed lines of geometric drawings.
    i put up with a few more years of mindless teaching and watching a five year old who lived in a paradisiac country setting, an old french watermill with miles of forest and a river in the back garden, becoming addicted , like all his peers, to a gameboy and pokemon cards, and thought:
    ” this is surely not what i remember childhood being about!”
    i had heard about Steiner and finally took the plunge.
    we moved from paradise to a boring paris suburb to start him at the steiner school.
    after a week, i almost wept.
    he would come home, as happy as can be, holding some little bits of natural wool and fiddling with them. This may sound very unexciting to you, but as an old fashioned, nature- loving mum, it seemed a miracle to watch a bored 5-7 yr old suddenly rediscover that he was a child, curious about everything, fascinated by even a piece of colored wool, refinding the joys of play, of using the imagination, of creating a world from a grain of sand.
    I had a ‘child’ at last.
    no more technology. no more sweating red-faced addiction to the horrid gameboy ( entirely forgotten at the bottom of a drawer) , no more bringing home ugly disney print-outs colored in felt.
    no more moans of “what shall we do now ?” on playdates.
    just a real, lovely, simple curiosity filled childhood, just as i had imagined and lost through the public early childhood schools we went to.
    the schools don’t have anything to do with Steiners mystical teachings. Nothing of his philosophy is ever taught or passed on to the children or parents.
    only his educational beliefs on childhood and learning are expressed in the schools.
    athroposophy is something quite separate. I also believe that much of the writings now seem pretty kooky and far-fetched, but you have to be a little better informed on history and mysticism, and realize that all his theories were very much a part of his era, a time where all over the world gurus were teaching all sorts of similar ideas, delving into eastern philosophy and coming up with teachings that had some extraordinary and enlightening concepts, and also some stuff which now seems dubious and dated.
    but so what?
    none of that changes the fact that in this day and age, where children are being given less and less nourishing foods on every possible front, physical, intellectual and spiritual, i can only say THANKYOU rudolph, whatever your stranger theories may have been, to have made schools which continue today to give us a haven from the idiocies of the world which surround us,
    -where teachers teach with a passion and a desire to do something beautiful and out of the ordinary
    -where a child can still be drawn towards something higher in himself, not purely humdrum pushy brainstuffing.
    -where the fact that there IS a philosophy behind the schools, even if it is never taught, nor pushed upon parents or children, means that there is a special care and attention behind every little detail of the daily life in a Steiner school.
    -where we get brought home the most spectacular and useful things made by our kids at school, hand-carved salad servers, knitted wooly hats, amazing paintings and gorgeous hand-made books.
    at last we dont have to fake a ” oh lovely darling!” and shove the stuff into the back of a drawer!
    -where in this rushing consumerist society, our children are reminded of the seasons, festivals, lives of saints, ritual, song, celebration.
    – where the surroundings are beautiful, materials are natural, classrooms are festive and colourful, flowers abound.
    I could go on and on, i am such a fan.
    in fact i have now spent 7 yrs with 2 kids in Steiner.
    I love it so much that i have moved from France to the Usa and back
    always finding where i would live AROUND the Steiner schools that i could send them to.
    the styles have been different, in different countries, but what is certain is that there has never been the slightest trace of anything that you write about in ANY of the schooling, or the teachers or the philosophy today of the Steiner system.
    By the way, my children dont have any behavioral difficulties, nor educational problems.
    in fact they are both bilingual, fiendishly bright all-rounders, good at all subjects both intellectual and creative.
    so i have no reason to send them to Steiner other than finding absolute delight and satisfaction in the schools.
    of course, like everything original and delicate, the success of the Schools are very variable and depend entirely on the teachers you get and the general ambiance of the particular establishment you go to; but we have been lucky to enjoy the three we have been to, and i am full of nothing but gratitude that such places should even exist in this day and age.
    There is actually no point delving into any of RS’s weirder ideas, it brings absolutely nothing to one’s immediate day to day experience
    of being a “Steiner parent” , so frankly I wouldnt waste my time or energy on such pointless witch-hunting.
    I’m sure there are more productive things to research, problems in education that are really worth reading up on and addressing.
    this is not one of them.

    from irina brook
  12. I am glad you have found the schools a positive experience. I suppose other parents have concerns: a) health ones, the Steiner attitude to vaccinations is, as the Health Authorities say, irrresponsible and dangerous, with virtually no Steiner children being vaccinated. This harms other children as well if they get measles, rubella etc. b) the pseudo-science of judging a child’s intelligence and personality on facial characteristics (this still goes on) which is rooted in Steiner’s racist philosophy that judged people on their skin colour and outward bodily appearances.

    from francisgilbert
  13. Some of the die-hard ‘steiners’ are anti vaccinations, but certainly no one at the steiner school imposes their opinion on anyone else. If some people don’t want to stuff their kids with medicines, that should be their right.
    But there are very few of the “true” anthroposophical Steiners left in each class these days, i often wished there were more ! I’m not one myself, but I’m always drawn to the “real” Steiner families, they seem to be very grounded wonderful people. But the ethos is slowly thinning out to be become more and more mainstream, which is a shame really, as it will eventually lose all that is special about it.
    And there is no remote sign of anyone being judged at school by their features or color, not even an inkling of such a thing.
    However, I have been lucky to fall upon good schools and amazing teachers, but of course, as in any philosophical movement, there is always the possibility of falling upon teachers or parents who take the philosophy to an extreme that can be negative or badly interpreted, so of course some people may be unlucky and have a dreadful Steiner experience.
    the best thing is to really spend time looking very closely at the potential school you might go to, and take a very close look at the teacher who will be mainly teaching your child, and try to guess according to their facial characteristics whether they will be a good or bad teacher for your child ( just kidding…)
    no , seriously, if you spend time in the school and with the teachers and check out the parents and quietly observe everything and ask questions, you should get an instinctive feeling about whether it will be a positive place and experience for you and your family.
    So far, i have been very lucky and super grateful!

    from irina brook
  14. Why is it then that the UK Health Authority regard Steiner schools as being places where most children are not vaccinated? In Europe, fewer than 2% of children are vaccinated at Steiner schools. Are your children vaccinated? You say vaccinations are “stuffing kids with medicines”; I would beg to disagree. They are vital for children’s health and well-being; measles, rubella, diptheria, polio, scarlet fever, small pox are all potentially killers. It’s very irresponsible for parents not to have their children vaccinated because it can harm other children as well.

    from francisgilbert
  15. Spent years in a Steiner school (Kings Langley), then went to normal secondary school. I found that I had no concept pof studying or an understanding of how to organise and memorise information. My experience is that, rather than Steiner Schools representing a 100 year evolution of Steiner’s ‘beter’ ideas, they actually represnet a 100 years of evolution of Steiner teachers evolution- and they founded their ideas on Steiners ideas- why call them steiner schools otherwise. lets get this straight- reincarnation probably isnt real, and doesn’t have very much to do with education anyway, all children need to ‘evolve’ in their own right and be able to emerge from school into a busy, world with lots of conflicting demands and expectations. My experience of Steiner education is that it’s too wrapped up in Steiner (even if it’s the nicer bits of Steiner) and not very concerned with ecducation. Another thought- schools are great earners, and I would suggest any parents thinking of sending their children to a Steiner school to think about how they could invest their money in their children’s futures to the greatest effect? Steiner schools will give you lots of fluffy reassurance about looking after your childs childhood, it’s their adulthood you need to worry about.

    from Ben
  16. Fullfledge Ecology School, a proposed Free School in Suffolk, is not and will not be a Steiner school. Though drawing on some Steiner principles, including introducing formal literacy teaching later than in the mainstream curriculum, and a more creative and artistic approach to the delivery of lessons and learning, it will also take significant direction and inspiration from the work of Ken Robinson and Satish Kumar, as well as drawing on examples of best practice found in mainstream settings.

    from Bec
  17. As my husband says, the attitude in Rudolf Steiners time was that everyone was racist. Our daughter was depressed by age 5 in a state school, then very angry and withdrawn by age 6. At age 7 we decided to put her in a Steiner school and we got back our happy, beautiful little girl we had before she was put in state school and so much more. Todays state schools are breaking children with it’s inappropriate pressures placed on children to prove value for money and it needs to and must stop!!! It is outrageous what is going on and utterly despicable. I thank god for the alternative. We cannot afford it. Most families can’t but they value their child’s happiness above materialism.

    from Mrs Jayne Tamsett
  18. I would like to leave an erudite well thought out comment but I cant be bothered. Your article is a load of old, biased, uninformed crap. My kids have either been home educated or gone to a Steiner school. If keeping them out of the system enables them to look at writing like this from the outside and see it for the prejudiced propaganda that it is then they can stay there for the rest of their life as far as I am concerned. I have my disagreements with quite a few people at our school and within the Steiner system. I’d rather be there than where you are though.

    from Tim Woodley
  19. Are your children vaccinated against MMR?

    from francisgilbert
  20. Yes, my child is vaccinated against MMR and a Steiner pupil. Loving life in kindergarten.

    from Greta
  21. Dear Francis,
    many thinkers that have radical ideas that break from the norm are often considered by definition “eccentric” or “weird”. Isaac Newton famously mixed alchemy and rational science while discovering a date for the end of the world.Socrates spoke to an invisible spirit (daemon).Edison, Marconi and a host of Victorian era scientists evolved their theories from trying to capture psychic energy and forces.The list goes on.
    If Newton or Socrates had started a school would we have prohibited it as some of their ideas seemed “bonkers” to us? There just might be method in what your perceive as madness. (Interestingly the Independent newspaper carried an article on Steiner a few years ago baffled at how he had predicted the exact scientific likelihood of mad cow disease)

    I trust you don’t have an issue with Buddist or Hindu free schools which of course also believe in reincarnation and “bad karma”?
    To my knowledge Steiner did not equate disability or special needs just with what you call “bad karma”. He had an extremely compassionate view on Downs Syndrome, for example, and his whole outlook on special needs was way ahead of its time in terms of inclusiveness and finding meaning and purpose for their lives (See Camphill Movement).

    I do agree that some if his writings around race are controversial and can come across as racist. The anthroposophical society would be wise to confront the issue head on and try to shed some light on the subject. It is too big a subject to get into here but part of the confusion is that Steiner, like Hegel and Marx, believed in the evolution of consciousness. Steiner suggested that there was a “western” way of thinking that due to its particular traits (invention,economics, scientific thought, literature etc) would come to dominate indigenous cultures and that this was inevitable.(hard to argue with that part).It was through this modern way of thinking that man could eventually evolve in the “right” way by bringing that scientific thinking to spiritual matters. Now that may all sound bonkers but not necessarily racist to all ears although it does tread a very thin line. The theory is not about individuals per se but about how consciousness links to particular cultures eg this “western” way of thinking could include people of any colour.As I say, can come across as a bit nutty, but my point is that his comments on race can only be fully understood if taken in the context of his wider writings (and reliable translations from the German) and this takes time and effort. Much easier for people to google it and cherry pick the worst sounding sentences but this ends up merely adding to the “sound and fury” and not ultimately signifying very much.

    I don’t think the promoters of Steiner schools feel very “powerful”. They have been existing on the peripheray for decades in the UK without state funding with teachers paid around 18k – 21k a year.

    yours,
    Philip

    from Philip Ruhemann
  22. […] Click here for teacher/writer Francis Gilbert’s thoughts on schools founded by a “racist… […]

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