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Steiner 'cult' is an ethos that fosters humanity

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 11 December, 2009 | By: Catherine Paver

Last week the very first state-funded Steiner school in England appeared in the national league table for 11-year-olds’ test results - at the very bottom.

But the school is not ashamed, nor should it be. The parents of pupils at the Hereford Steiner Academy had wanted their children to have a Steiner education, and that means no uniforms, no hierachy among the teaching staff - and no tests. So the parents simply withdrew their children from the Sats.

Many myths are circulated on the internet about Steiner schools, which can make them sound like part of a sinister global cult. But while some of the philosophy behind them can seem hippy-ish, the myths are usually unfounded. I know, because I taught in a Steiner school in South Africa for three years.

There was no head and all the teachers were paid the same salary. Equality was a tangible thing: pupils, teachers, cleaners and parents all chatted at the staffroom kettle. Pupils at the school generally liked what they did. But they did not do whatever they liked, and lessons were compulsory. Each child has the same class teacher for seven years, so the teachers gain authority from knowing the pupils so well.

Being taught formally from the age of seven, rather than earlier, did not lose the pupils anything at all. I was delighted to see Steiner schools in England gain an exemption recently from the Early Years Foundation Stage requirement to teach literacy before the age of seven. Certainly at the school where I taught in South Africa, the pupils’ handwriting was clear and fluent.

The academic curriculum also suited the development of the child in ways that I found sensible, not flaky. In history, for example, the pupils studied revolutions at the age of 14, when they themselves are in the grip of violent hormonal conflicts. They related to the topic at an emotional level, which helped motivation.

So why, then, did Plymouth University axe its undergraduate course in Steiner teaching earlier this term? It gave a “lack of interest” as its reason for dropping the only course of its kind in Britain.

I can’t help wondering if it was the weirdness of anthroposophy, the Steiner form of spirituality, that may have put applicants off. As one mother wrote online: “I’d sell my granny to send my kids there if it wasn’t for anthroposophy!”

So what is anthroposophy? First, it is never taught to pupils. Meaning “wisdom of man”, it is Rudolf Steiner’s description of human development, seen in spiritual terms such as the “astral and etheric bodies”. Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and reformer, who founded his first school in 1919 for the children of workers in the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. An inspired thinker and reformer, he was still a man of his time: the era of European transcendentalism.

His philosophy ensures that children are treated as rounded individuals rather than measured as units of production. Meanwhile, since freedom is crucial to the Steiner philosophy, they - and the teachers - are free to think his spiritual views are bonkers.

I was once told that a baby should not be taken on an aeroplane because its spiritual and physical bodies have not yet combined. Well, I suppose you would cry too if you had left your soul on the runway. While such claims may be odd, the latent spirituality behind them gives these schools a valuable breadth of sympathy. It’s what Steiner called “receiving a child with reverence” and “solving its riddle, from hour to hour”. It taught me the value of lateral thinking and keeping calm in conflict resolution.

Take Peter’s story. “Right now, his soul is black,” said his teacher. Weird - but it was said with compassion, and freed up discussion on how to help him. In time, we found that angry Peter loved making puppets, which improved his behaviour. Would discussion of mark schemes have done the same?

Not all Steiner teachers are anthroposophists. How many teachers share the spiritual beliefs of their school’s founder? I never have. And most beliefs look odd from a distance. I have worked in a Catholic school, whose kind, sensible teachers wore miniature instruments of torture (crucifixes) and pretended to drink blood (Mass). It didn’t bother me because they were nice people.

Steiner schools are not a “cult”, because a cult wants to be a religion when it grows up. Steiner’s ideas simply serve the good of the child.

Nik Voigt, a filmmaker and photographer, attended a Steiner school and then a mainstream school as a pupil. He attributes his chosen career to his very first lesson at the Steiner school. “The teacher said, ‘Everything is made up of lines and curves.’ It may sound simple but it opened my eyes.” In a state school, he felt he lost contact with his creativity. “In art lessons we were told, ‘This is how you draw a jam jar.’ What can you do with that?”

What Steiner schools cultivate is something that underpins creativity and imagination: humanity. Steiner wrote that “the new generation should not just be made to be what present society wants it to become”. A valuable statement today, when sometimes it feels as if that is all we are doing.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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Comment (10)

  • Parents considering Steiner schools for their children should inform themselves of the beliefs of anthroposophy, and decide whether they are comfortable with some of the tenets Paver describes, such as the soul not fully “incarnating” into the body until the child is seven, as Steiner taught, or an angry child being described as having a “black soul.” Parents wondering about the latter, quite curious remark might research Steiner’s racial beliefs, as well.

    The “myths” circulated on the Internet that Paver refers to aren’t usually that Steiner schools are “hippyish,” or that the children “do whatever they like.” Anthroposophists aren’t gentle hippies; anthroposophy is a somewhat unforgiving esoteric scheme of karma and reincarnation, and an elaborate cosmology including the lost continent of Atlantis and future lives for humans on other planets. The Steiner curriculum is strictly based on the “four members” of the human in Steiner’s occult scheme, incarnating in 7-year cycles: the child’s “etheric body” is born at age 7, the “astral body” at age 14, and the “Ego,” or the individuality that returns from past lives, at 21 years. Intellectual activity is said to correspond to the “astral body” and is discouraged in the early years. Delayed academics, a feature of the elementary Steiner curriculum, can perhaps work for some artistically inclined children, though even in art lessons the Steiner curriculum can be surprisingly rigid (required to correspond to anthroposophic “indications”); but some may conclude the esoteric belief system is prized over reading and writing and math. (Paver notes, “Being taught formally from the age of seven, rather than earlier, did not lose the pupils anything at all.” Then why did their parents opt out of the testing at age 11?)

    Paver’s comment about “European transcendentalism” is incomprehensible; she should look up the terms.

    Diana Winters

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    15 December, 2009


  • Catherine Paver’s piece, above, gives the impression that those who oppose the Steiner system of education have been erroneously misled by ‘myths’ on the internet. But as Diana Winters rightly points out, Steiner’s pseudo-scientific, quasi-religious and deeply fascistic system of thought, Anthroposophy, is indeed an intellectually unacceptable and politically dangerous system of belief.

    It is shameful that Plymouth University even contemplated hosting and endorsing a course on Steiner Education in the light of the increasing popularity of extreme right-wing political factions such as the BNP. Steiner’s take on race and the concept of ‘soul’ is simply disgusting:

    “On the one hand there is the black race, which is the most earthly. When this race goes toward the West, it dies out. Then there is the yellow race, in the middle between the earth and the cosmos. When this race goes toward the East, it turns brown, it attaches itself too much to the cosmos and dies out. The white race is the race of the future, the spiritually creative race.”

    From: Steiner's 1923 lecture “Colour and the Races of Humankind”

    The Steiner machine does indeed rely on the outwardly attractive idea that it is rooted in the ‘peace and love’ tradition of hippy-consciousness and, through the affection that many of us have for the peace and love aesthetic (as opposed to a genuine commitment to peace and love through rational political activism), Steiner organisations have grown from strength to strength. But don’t be fooled; behind their publically accessible soft rhetoric there is a hard-as-nails political movement designed to draw the unwary into a strict hierarchical system of religious constriction that has mobilised a huge number of ‘New-Age’ adherents into supporting Steiner organisations such as The Christian Community, Camphill Communities, Biodynamic Agriculture and, worryingly, the Triodos Bank. By making Anthroposophy seem respectable and by treating such a vile system of thought as equally valid as any other, Plymouth University undermines all rational debate and reasonable discourse and, thus, education and the democratic process. If the university has now cancelled the course, one hopes that it is not just because the course proved to be unpopular.

    That some mainstream politicians and educators are ‘coming out’ as supporters of Anthroposophy, as if to bravely challenge scientific materialism, is frightening: as we observe to our huge cost, peace has not been attained through religious factionalism; ecological disasters have not been averted by ignoring science and inclusion is never served by racism. With Climate Change threatening our very existence and war ever threatening around the world, we can do without movements that champion scientific illiteracy; yet the Steiner brand of ‘spiritual’ awareness can be made to be extremely attractive to scientifically illiterate populations as Hitler so clearly demonstrated within living memory. Let’s not go there again.

    Nick Nakorn

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    15 December, 2009


  • Anthroposophy is not an optional add-on, it IS Steiner Waldorf education, Parents need to know this. Some of the surprising things that happen in Steiner schools can be explained by this fact.

    like Catherine Paver, I spent 3 years extremely involved with a Steiner school and managed not to take Anthroposophy seriously, imagining only the 'anthropops' did. I also very much liked my child's teacher, who was not entirely disabled by the Steiner pedagogy (though she would have been a vastly more effective teacher without it). I was naive to think that 'Anthroposophy is not taught to the children' (and it is not) meant 'Anthroposophy is a harmless esoteric philosophy incidental to what takes place in the kindergarten/classroom'. In this I was absolutely wrong.


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    15 December, 2009


  • We were drawn to the Steiner system ,less pressure,gentle teachers etc.We did not research Anthroposophy as in the prospectus it stated that it wasn't taught to the children.Only when my mixed race daughter suffered racism from a teacher and pupils and the school didn't seem to take it seriously did we investigate Anthroposophy (by accident in fact ,I Googled Steiner racism awareness to check on other school's policies.)
    During teacher training at Plymouth Uni students are taught how humans reincarnate through the races.If they are not horrified and leave the course then it shows me there are some teachers out there who believe this stuff.If it was me I would have left.My husband is Black ,I think if prospective parents were given a true overview of Anthroposophy (not that its the study of humankind,which is meaningless but sounds harmless ) then there would be no non-white families attending these schools.Many white families would also choose another option I imagine.
    I guess people are voting with their feet which is why the Plymouth course has closed due to' lack of interest'.
    There are posters on Stormfront ,a White Supremacy site who recommend these schools and Steiner's work.
    We have asked that our ex Steiner school puts this information in the school prospectus and also explains that the teacher's are there to help the children's soul incarnate,that Anthroposophy is about karma and reincarnation,that in fact the schools are not 'broadly Christian'.
    I would want Tory or Labour ministers to be able to stand up and say they know what the education is about and that they wholeheartedly believe in it,I think at the moment they don't have a clue,which is not their faults as they are presented with the same information as we were on the open day,limited and misleading information.
    I would agree with Diana that these places are far from creative.On many occasions my daughter was told that her painting was 'wrong' she thought she was doing a simple watercolour,in fact she was 'veiling',a technique used to help the child's soul.She has only just recently started drawing freely again,and at her new school she never hears the word nigger.

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    16 December, 2009


  • The superficial and distorted descriptions of anthroposophy and Steiner Waldorf education above much illustrate what Catherine Paver writes about the ideologically based myths and defamation cultivated and published by individual and small groups of secular humanist crusaders on the net since some years.

    For a more reliable description of anthroposophy, Steiner Waldorf education and of Rudolf Steiner as the founder of both and the relation between them, see the Wikipedia articles on the subjects, based on reliable published sources.

    The first, American, commentator describes Paver's comment on European transcendentalists as incomprehensible. It isn't.

    While Steiner did not live during the time of Transcendentalism in a narrow sense, anthroposophy grew out of and connects to the idealist European tradition of the 19th century. He considered the period to constitute the zenith in European history, indicating that he considered European culture during his own time, the beginning of the 20th century, with its racist focus, developing anti-Semitism, and argumentation for "Aryan supremacy" to be a culture on the decline in relation to its zenith, 60-100 years earlier.

    In 1917 he comment on this:

    "... someone who nowadays speaks of the ideal of races and nations and belonging to a clan, speaks of decaying impulses of humanity. And if he believes that these so-called ideals constitute progressive ideals, when speaking of them, he is saying something that is untrue. Because through nothing will humanity bring itself more into decay, than if the ideals of races, nations and blood were to continue. Nothing will be a greater hindrance for the further development of mankind than the conservation of the ideals held by earlier centuries, preserved [...] in declarations about the ideals based on nations. The true ideals for the future must be, not what is based on 'blood', but what we find solely in the spiritual world."

    In his works, the term race in the main appears in three different senses. Only one of them refers to its common use during the 20th century. The other two refer to humanity in the sense of "the human race" during the stages of our development, and the increasingly human forms that emerged during Cenozoic time, the time of the developing primates.

    The out of context "quote" by Nick Akorn from a morning, coffee-break lecture to construction workers does not refer to the present time, but to Cenozoic time, when the "human races" as normally referred to were formed, and the transition to post-glacial times, as a simplified summary of the following development, so far much dominated by the indoeuropean cultures.

    For the present time, and the future, Steiner considered "blond and blue-eyed people" to be a "weak and perishing race", not the "race of the future".

    What were his views on the relation between what we are as individuals and what we may have as one or other external quality?

    "... as regards ... what is independent of our bodily makeup we are all individually made; each one of us is his or her own self, an individual. With the exception of the far less important differences that show up as racial or national differences ... but which are (if you have a sense for this you cannot help noticing it) mere trifles by comparison with differences in individual gifts and skills: with the exception of these we are all equal as human beings ... as regards our external, physical humanity.

    We are equal as human beings, here in the physical world, specifically in that we all have the same human form and all manifest a human countenance. The fact that we all bear a human countenance and encounter one another as external, physical human beings... this makes us equal on this footing. We differ from one another in our individual gifts which, however, belong to our inner nature."
    (Education as a Force for Social Change, 1919)

    And how is what we are as individuals related to in Steiner Waldorf education? Most Steiner Waldorf teachers probably closely follow Steiner's suggestion on this, not because he expressed it, but because it is important in all education, the respect for the pupils as developing free human beings:

    "The teacher is called upon to carry into his lessons the utmost respect for soul and spirit. Without it, he will succeed as little as if he were lacking an even fundamental artistic and scientific background. Therefore the first prerequisite of a Waldorf teacher is to have reverence for the soul and spiritual potential which each child brings with it into the world.

    When confronted with the child, the teacher must be imbued with the awareness that he is dealing with an innately free human being. With this attitude he will be able to work out educational principles and methods which will safeguard the child's inborn freedom so that in later life, when a pupil looks back upon his school days, he will not find any infringement upon his personal freedom, not even in the aftereffects of his education."
    (Soul Economy in Waldorf Education, 1921-22)

    Does Steiner Waldorf education foster racist pupils, as typically insinuated in extremist secular humanist crusades against it? This is contradicted by empirical research done (in addition to the general anti-racist, multi-cultural orientation of it).

    According to a study some years ago by an independent criminological research institute in Germany (with appr. 200 Steiner Waldorf schools) at the request of the German parliament, to find out among other things how wide spread racism is among German school pupils, the proportion of xenophobic pupils, hostile to foreigners, was by far the lowest among Waldorf pupils, 2.8%, compared to “Gymnasien” (High schools) 8.3%, “Gesamtschulen” 16.5 %, “Realschulen” 17.4 % and “Hauptschulen” (main schools) 24.7 %.

    So, what is left of the defamatory anti-Steiner crusades by secular humanists against Steiner Waldorf schools and education, that have fostered the present Norwegian Prime Minister, children of the present Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the present Swedish Minister for the Environment, the son of Helmut Kohl, former German Chancellor, and of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former German minister of foreign affairs, Kenneth Chenault, African-American Chairman and CEO of American Express, and Evelyn Galinski, also former Waldorf pupil and daughter of Heinz Galinski, Auschwitz survivor and for a number of years Chairman of the Central Jewish Council in Germany?

    Little beyond purely ideological propaganda in these strange times of ideological extremists.

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    24 December, 2009


  • It's good TheWaldorfBee is at least admitting that Steiner schools are religious. They may not be religious in the same way as say, C of E schools, perhaps infinitely superior in the truly spiritual sense the Vicar can only guess at but they must nevertheless be religious, since it is secular humanism (the belief that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God) that he says per se opposes them.

    This is a positive step.

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    29 December, 2009


  • It's hard to know whether the author is trying to demystify anthroposophy and Steiner schools, because reading this as someone who might vaguely think these schools were arty and "free", would make me run for the hills. As it is, I've had children at Steiner school, have read Steiner, and perhaps more importantly, the teacher training reading list. What is compelling is the reticence of the movement to be open about karma, creationism, reincarnation etc, and how these beliefs affect what happens in the classroom.
    Paver's comment about the curriculum "suiting the development of the child" has a very different meaning when one takes into account what Steiner meant by "development", which is an entirely different pedagogy from the usual.
    Steiner supposedly meant the curriculum to reflect the spiritual stages in man's development, his anthroposophical theory of cosmic evolution, and man's connection with "higher beings". In effect it is imo feeding notions to the children, just as the teacher training is feeding anthroposophical notions to students, and "study groups" feed them to parents.
    This article skims the surface of a very deep and imo dangerous belief system at the heart of these schools; of course there are good people involved, and some of the curriculum is attractive. But to talk about the lack of uniforms in the same breath as a child having a "black soul" is frankly bizarre, and I shudder at the discussion of how to "help him" which followed. If one reads what Steiner meant as a "black soul" it is insupportable, even when said "with compassion".

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    30 December, 2009


  • Nick Nakorn's response must be the moste paranoid, conspirational thing I have ever read on Steiner!

    I thought the article was quite honest and upfront, not misleading at all. Racism in anthroposophy? No way, and certainly not in the sense of racial supremacy, which is implied here. Race, in Steiner's view, has no more bearing than does gender or age. Thinking of a particular gender or age as inherently "better" is,of course, futile and backward. The same goes for race. Differences are to be acknowledged, respected and honored. We all have them but they do not define us. That is the impetus in Steiner psychology and pedagogy.

    Q Is this brand of humanist philosophy very different from mainstream?
    A You bet. Otherwise, why bother with it!
    Q Is it countercultural?
    A No.
    Q Is it for everyone?
    A Not necessarily.
    Q Is it more suited for one race than for another?
    A Absolutely not!
    Q Does it belive a poetic mind can be a cognitive mind?
    A Yes.

    Father A

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    27 January, 2010


  • Why does this person have to imply that Catholics are odd as they wear "instruments of torture"?The crucifix is a comfort to christians, it is
    to make them feel protected and inspired . I had a steiner woman come up and say to me "Don't the other religions get offended by the cross outside your school?" This was a tiny cross on a book, next to a a huge statue of an owl.
    Yet these steiner people treat Steiner like a God. His writings are very racist, claiming that black people are less highly evolved! That the brain can only cope with reading when the adult teeth come through! And if you do like to read as a child, it is discouraged in that school ; the books there are all about gnomes and rhythms.
    I went to the mother and toddler group briefly. I was made to feel that I was wicked for letting my daughter watch two hours of TV a day; we're talking Thomas the tank, Balamory and numberjacks! A boy we knew that was made to stay at steiner gave us all his mr men books (not allowed ....Roger Hargreaves is my childhood hero!), and he had all his thomas tank engines locked away in the attic.
    I am so glad I saw the light and got out of there when i did. All the drawings look the same there, a kind of shapeless watery smudge of colours. No felt-tipped pens allowed.

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    16 June, 2012


  • I explained various aspects of Steiner education to my 8 year old daughter today after she had had a debate at school about school uniforms and I mentioned the fact that more often than not they do not tell the scientific truth in these schools. She said ' What us is it to be in your own clothes with a leaf in your hand ( playing with natural materials) if you are being lied to!'. Too true, it is no use at all. I did my teacher training in the Netherlands and Steiner schools there are quite common- I even contemplated doing my placement there but perhaps that was also influenced by the fact the school was 100 yards from my front door....

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    2 June, 2014


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