How Do Waldorf Education and Anthroposophy Relate to Each Other?

Part 1 – Current Representations of Waldorf Education in the Public Media.

Waldorf schools, anthroposophy, and Rudolf Steiner are currently being subjected to a critical media campaign. This didn’t begin with the Corona pandemic but could be noticed, more subtly, earlier in 2019. The last sentences of an article in the September 19, 2019 issue of Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Newspaper), when Waldorf schools celebrated their 100-year anniversary in the Berlin Tempodrom, is one example: “Precisely because Waldorf schools are flourishing as never before, they need a fundamental distance. In this respect, the Waldorf school of the future should be a school without Steiner.” A few days later, there was a complete tear-down in “Kontraste” (Contrasts) on ARD, the joint organization of German public broadcasters. On September 29, 2019, an article appeared in the FAZ (Frankfurt General Newspaper) entitled “Green Karma”, discussing anthroposophy and its political influence in southern Germany.

Earlier, in May 2019, Helmut Zander published a book about anthroposophy. In it he refers to anthroposophy as an “esoteric superpower” and he unleashes an arsenal of arguments used in the flood of articles published from 2019 through today. It is a bitter paradox that, as far as the public discrediting of anthroposophy is concerned, a Catholic theologian and religious scholar, of all people, is far more effective and efficient than an open opponent of anthroposophy such as the blogger Oliver Rautenberg. Those people, like Zander, who, in numerous articles in leading daily newspapers and in books by well-known publishers, consistently and repeatedly presents anthroposophy as esoteric and unscientific, deny it any justification in society and institutions in public life. Whereas spirituality is tolerated in the traditional garb of religious denominations or as a private interest, in an anthroposophical context it instead becomes the target of merciless criticism.

There is a certain argument, among others, that Helmut Zander put into circulation with his book. It is diffuse but symptomatic and all the more effective. It runs as follows: there are Waldorf schools with students who can dance their names, biodynamic farms with Demeter tomatoes and strawberries, hospitals with mistletoe therapies, cosmetics from Weleda, etc.—a network that is friendly, artistic, green, and innocent. But all this is just a clever cover. What is essential is what is hidden “behind” this friendly façade, namely, anthroposophy, an “esoteric worldview” and an authoritarian knowledge for initiates. Anthroposophy is therefore hidden, opaque, elitist, and simply dangerous. This all gives the impression that there is something that is not immediately apparent but acts and controls from behind the scenes, in the dark, with hidden intentions on the one hand and with a lot of money mediated by rich foundations and banks on the other. This something that forms the “background” is anthroposophy.

This idea was also the basis of, for example, the German public broadcaster ZDF’s documentary “Anthroposophie: Gut oder gefährlich?” (”Anthroposophy: Good or Dangerous?”) by Jochen Breyer. Broadcast in the fall of 2022, it was advertised with the statement: “Everyone has probably seen Demeter products: sustainable organic farming, the epitome of goodness. Behind all this is an esoteric worldview: anthroposophy.” The ARD series by Frank Seibert from March of the same year follows the same line of argumentation. The film about Waldorf schools ends with this: “Anthroposophy is firmly anchored in Waldorf schools. To discover it, you only have to look close enough. But, anthroposophy is not only in Waldorf schools, it is also behind the organic label Demeter.”

Those in “Waldorf circles” only started to become aware of the criticism in the media during the Corona crisis. Impetus for the new critiques seemed mainly to stem from the critical attitudes towards Corona regulations by individuals who also work with Waldorf education or anthroposophy. It is true, problematic statements were made during the Corona period and anthroposophical ideas were used to refute these statements. But, when we recall the origin of the 2019 criticism (and earlier), we can interpret this more recent criticism differently, that is, not only in the immediate context of an anthroposophically inspired critique of the Corona regulations.

The question is: what is the inner attitude Waldorf schools can take in response to this criticism, and what can they learn from it? In this climate of criticism, the insecurity that exists today with regard to anthroposophy in many Waldorf school communities is not surprising. Some people are asking questions about the relationship between anthroposophy and Waldorf education or about a contemporary reception of anthroposophy. Here the complexity of the situation must be emphasized. On the one hand, we see a growing Waldorf school movement and a correspondingly wide acceptance in society that is not diminishing, and the accompanying aforementioned criticism in the media. And on the other hand, internally, within the schools, there is a noticeable increase in the differentiation and heterogeneity of viewpoints among Waldorf educators.

What is the Rationale for Waldorf Education without Anthroposophy?

Interweaving central anthroposophical themes with Waldorf education has been a controversial issue from the founding of the first Waldorf school up to the present day. Critics denounce the influence of anthroposophy on Waldorf education as occultism, mysticism, or, more recently, “esotericism.” Even though the term esotericism is not used in a clear and specific way, it works as a general disqualifier in educational discourse. Against this background, there are those who for years advocated for a so-called “esoteric-free Waldorf education” or for a “distancing” from spiritual and esoteric content in Waldorf education and its “overarching anthroposophical form.”

This goes even further: “It is striking, however, that especially in Steiner’s lectures on education, the broad themes and thought horizons of general anthroposophy do not appear at all.” These broad themes include for example, anthroposophical cosmology, angels or hierarchies, and the view of reincarnation and karma. “Steiner makes little or no attempt to apply any of this content to Waldorf education.” But, the assertion that Steiner ‘makes little or no attempt’ to apply the anthroposophical content mentioned to Waldorf education is in contradiction to his presentations to the Waldorf School college of teachers. Nearly all of these themes occur in these lectures, emphatically, and as essentially important.

The central position of Rudolf Steiner within Waldorf education is continuously questioned. Again, it was probably Helmut Zander who first called for the historicizing of Rudolf Steiner and who practiced such deconstructive historicizing in his own works, sometimes in a tasteless and flippant way. With the death of Maria Jenny-Schuster in 2008—the last human being who still knew Rudolf Steiner personally—Zander justified his demand: “Anthroposophy has become a community of interpreters in which no one has the additional weight of a personal relationship with Steiner—because no one can speak directly with Steiner.” But even the main journal of Waldorf education Erziehungskunst (The Art of Education) mentions a “devotional reception of Steiner” with skepticism. We find ourselves encountering the rationale of Waldorf education in a “post-Steiner era.”

Time for a Rebranding?

New voices are rising against the backdrop of the rapidly expanding and ever louder decolonization debate and the so-called ethics of globalization. We are currently witnessing discussions about a “paradigm shift” in the representation of Waldorf education and about a “rebranding” of Waldorf education away from the great cultural-historical and cosmological “narratives” of anthroposophy (M. Rawson).

The situation is complex. For many, the study of Steiner’s texts seems to be becoming increasingly difficult. This inevitably leads to ignorance. Is this perhaps contributing to current insecurities and expressions of distance? The very interesting question arises: Can anthroposophy exist without Steiner? In the past (and here and there today), Steiner and his work may have been handled far too monolithically, not contextualized enough, and not brought into dialogue with other contemporary spiritual greats. Anthroposophy is not to be equated with the presentations of Steiner, his “teachings” and “worldview,” or his complete works. Anthroposophy is not complete or finished. But can it exist without these fundamental presentations as methodological instruments for a living anthroposophy? And can there be Waldorf education without Steiner?

If we look at Rudolf Steiner from this point of view, we notice that he carefully took into account the different preconditions of the respective audiences he was addressing. For the general public, he opened up very general horizons of spiritual history and philosophy, the development of the child and the adolescent, the curriculum, and the corresponding methodological and didactic viewpoints of individual subjects. For Waldorf teachers themselves, who were the main audience in this context, he treated anthroposophy in its comprehensive, unrestricted form as a transformative experience and method for the training of pedagogical skills. The engagement with thoroughly anthroposophical themes continues to have comprehensive and transformative significance for those who wish to practice Waldorf education today. We will look at this in the second part of the series.

The second part of four in this series will appear in a subsequent issue.

Translation Joshua Kelberman
Image Drawing by Anouck, 5 years old, Kassel (DE)

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