Education is Nonsectarian
By Norman Davidson
From the Fall/Winter
1994 issue of Renewal, A Journal for Waldorf Education
The fact that Waldorf schools work out of a spiritual understanding of the human being and the world, does not make them "religious" schools or church schools. They have no connection with a church. Anthroposophy, on which Waldorf education is based, is a spiritual science which is independent of any religious doctrine or system. It freely investigates the merits or otherwise of various doctrines, be they Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, Hindu, material scientific, humanist, or whatever. If Anthroposophy finds wisdom in any teaching (as it does in all of the above), this does not make it an adherent of this teaching or a part of any group which promulgates it.
Despite this, there are occasionally people who claim that Waldorf schools are church schools, religious schools, and sectarian. This is a charge which arises either out of misunderstanding or antagonism, not from a free, objective inquiry or an in-depth experience of spiritual science. The latest to put the charge forward are Dan Dugan and Judy Daar in their article "Are Rudolf Steiner Schools Nonsectarian?" in the Spring 1994 issue of Free Inquiry.
Free Inquiry is a journal published quarterly in Buffalo by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. Dan Dugan is an audio engineer whose son attended the San Francisco Waldorf School in sixth and seventh grades in the late 1980's. Judy Daar is a secular humanist and a board member of the East Bay Skeptics Society.
The Spring 1994 issue of Free inquiry carries a front-cover statement which reads:
American democracy draws its special vitality from the First Amendment, which incorporates the principle of the separation of church and state. In essence, the United States is a secular republic; this means that the government cannot establish a religion. It cannot favor religion over non-religion. The unique character of the American experiment is the existence of a wide diversity of creeds, sects, and voluntary organizations, each free to flourish on its own terms without any special encouragement by the state, with tolerance for a wide range of beliefs and values.The statement then continues in a defensive mood:
We therefore deplore the growing hostility toward secularism that has emerged across the political spectrum. Leaders from the center and left, including President Bill Clinton, have recently joined the familiar voices on the right in scapegoating secular ideals. It is naive to indict secularism for the alleged decline of society...This is the context within which the anti-Waldorf article by Dugan and Daar appears. It states that because Waldorf schools are "openly sectarian" and operated by a "cult-like religious sect," Waldorf schools should not receive public funding, as they do in "Milwaukee and Detroit." Dugan and Daar go on to say:
The establishment of publicly-funded Waldorf schools should be cause for alarm for anyone who is concerned with preserving the separation of church and state, because these schools are the missionary arm of a religious sect hiding behind a facade of propaganda and dissimulation.Real cause for alarm for an open-minded person would be:
...furthering respect for human rights, freedom, and the dignity of the individual; tolerance of various viewpoints and willingness to compromise; commitment to social justice; a universalistic perspective that transcends national, ethnic, religious, sexual, and racial barriers...;and these tenets are admirable.
There follow some of Dugan and Daar's specific statements (in italics) with my comments:
The group's [the Anthroposophical Society's] activities include... a church, the Christian Community. The Christian community is not part of the Anthroposophical Society. Rudolf Steiner did not found the Christian Community. It was founded and headed by a former Lutheran pastor who became involved with Anthroposophy and asked Rudolf Steiner for spiritual advice for this separate initiative.
Steiner's mystical world view is deeply pessimistic. Despite the article's mention in this context of the "reincarnation of the dark god Ahriman," this charge of pessimism reveals the poverty of the authors' knowledge of, or understanding of, Steiner's work. His world view has as its basis a picture of human life and consciousness evolving to higher levels.
Steiner states emphatically, in the manner of all religious dogmatists, that HIS revelation is the only truth, and that all other traditions and ways of knowledge are erroneous. This is completely contradicted by Steiner's continuous appreciation of, and positive insight into, a wide variety of philosophies, religions, and work of individuals. Dogmatism was the very thing which Steiner fought.
The [Waldorf] teachers are as dedicated as Catholic nuns. Waldorf teachers are not Catholic nuns, but they are dedicated. So are members of Congress. This does not mean that Congress is a religious institution.
Besides their seductive beauty, these schools use deliberate deception about their purpose and organization to attract the children of outsiders. From the beginning, Steiner planned to attract the general public by systematically concealing the objectives of the schools and the contents of their curriculum. If this is true, then where did the authors get their information for the article? As the article states, "Steiner's world view can be found in books from Anthroposophical presses on sale at Waldorf schools." Also, Steiner opened the first school specifically for non-Anthroposophical parents.
The authors then quote Steiner on the question of establishing an independent school movement in the State of Württemberg. Steiner had earlier mentioned the need for a "certain mental reservation" in negotiating with the authorities of the Weimar Republic (which succumbed to Nazi dictatorship within little more than a decade). Steiner then added, in the context of mental reservation, that the authorities would inwardly be made fools of. The intention was not inwardly to make fools of the authorities. That, though, would be an objective consequence of the need for inward reservation. Dugan and Daar, however, pull Steiner's words (spoken at a private meeting and taken from shorthand notes in German) out of context for their own purposes.
Any knowledge that conflicts with Steiner's eccentric doctrines is simply omitted [from the science curriculum].... Waldorf graduates are unlikely to have a clear notion of the electromagnetic spectrum, despite having taken physics in both grammar and high schools. Any Waldorf school worthy of its name will teach the theories of conventional science along with an imaginative approach which penetrates the subject with lively human experience. Countless Waldorf graduates take up college studies successfully.
The use of the word "God" in Waldorf class prayers was already, in the 1920's, a conscious accommodation to public sensitivities [sic]. Anthroposophical writings usually refer to "the gods" rather than "God." These changes were consistent with Steiner's policy of camouflage. Anthroposophical writings do indeed refer to "God" when appropriate, as here. This was no accommodation to the public. Also, the morning verse is not a "prayer," as Steiner explains in another quotation cited by the authors.
Waldorf painting classes have nothing to do with creativity or self-expression. Their secret intention is to work on the student's subconscious by meditation on pure color and symbolic images. Nonsense. This statement is more fantastic than anything the authors are accusing Anthroposophy of. Waldorf painting classes introduce the student to the laws of color and form through creative artistic activity, as any good art class should.
Waldorf schools ... have their own methods, which they have received from their master. Since Steiner is dead, there can be no modification or development. Untrue. Steiner was against any two teachers teaching the same thing in the same way. Waldorf teachers are continually researching their subjects and developing the curriculum. I have a research paper from a Waldorf teacher on my desk right now. The training institute for which I work graduates, every year, students taking an official New York State Master's Degree which requires free and independent research projects on Waldorf Education.
Waldorf primary school students never touch a computer. The public explanation for this is that a child shouldn't use anything before he can understand how it works. The private reason is that computers are believed to be an incarnation of the evil spirit Ahriman. This is a good example of how concealed doctrine has a deleterious effect on the curriculum. Not so. The computer, as all of modern science, justifiably has its main focus in the upper rather than the lower grades of school. This has nothing to do with keeping Ahriman, or anyone else, out! Waldorf educators consider, along with many non-Waldorf educators (such as Dr. Jane Healey, author of Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Can't Think and What We Can Do About It, and Professor Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT) that work with computers is not appropriate for younger children and even may adversely affect their intellectual development.
Thus the article continues, and I do not have the space to cover it all. Nevertheless, I would like to salvage something positive. First, there is the question of whether a full-fledged Waldorf school can exist within a governmental school system. The fundamental characteristic of Waldorf education is that it must operate in cultural freedom, independent of state control concerning its curriculum, methods and organization. Also, the faculty of such a school must have trained or genuine, Waldorf-committed teachers who freely handle the curriculum and the affairs of the school in mutual responsibility. Even given the teachers' freedom, where will they come from? Already we do not have enough trained teachers to go round the growing number of Waldorf schools which are independent of the state.
Secondly, I think that Dugan and Daar make a valid point when they ultimately say:
It might be possible to establish schools that take many of the good Waldorf school ideas into a secular environment, but this could only be done by people not indoctrinated by Anthroposophical training.This is a fair comment, with the exception of the word "indoctrinated." The authors also suggest that "school boards are looking for creative alternative solutions to educational problems."
Countless inquiries asking for help from Waldorf methods have come to my training institute over the past few years. I think that an important way in which public schools can benefit from Waldorf education is for certain external techniques regarding, for example, the curriculum, classroom methods, and faculty co-working to be integrated into the public school system. This could be done in response to the stated needs of the public school teachers. Steiner himself lectured to public school teachers and already courses and counseling for public schools are taking place through Waldorf training centers in the United States. This could be developed further.
Before arriving at their final and important point about non-Waldorf schools taking up "many of the good Waldorf school ideas," Dugan and Daar seek to discourage public funding for Waldorf with an attack against the very spiritual science which inspired the good ideas. They assert that Anthroposophy is a "cult-like religious sect" and Waldorf schools are "sectarian." If this were true I would not have spent the last twenty years or so working within these schools and within the Anthroposophical movement, and doing the work I am doing now. I am simply not the type, and neither are my colleagues.
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