Waldorf schools exist all over the world, and they are especially popular in progressive communities in the United States, such as Green Meadow, New York; Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; and San Francisco, California. However, after accepting a faculty position at a Waldorf school, I very soon observed a disconnect between what parents understand is being offered by the school and what teachers are discussing inside the faculty meetings.
Parents are told about a “holistic approach to child development,” in which students do handwork, play string instruments, and study cultures from around the world. Many families are drawn to the focus on interpersonal relationships, on the arts, and the festival life. The average family enrolled at a Waldorf school probably doesn’t know much about the founder of the movement, Rudolf Steiner, his “anthroposophical” beliefs based on “spiritual science,” or his writings which range from philosophical ideas disputing contemporary psychology and physics, to travelogues detailing trips to other planets.
When I was hired, I knew nothing about Rudolf Steiner, his writings, his spiritual understandings, or the anthroposophical foundations of the pedagogy practiced at the school. I was attracted by the terms used in marketing the school to the public: “holistic,” “artistic,” and “healthful” came up repeatedly in my research on the school’s website, online forums, and the AWSNA (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America) website.
I had had enough experiences growing up in parochial schools to be wary of the connection between religion and education. Thus, I was transparent during the hiring process about my resistance to “spiritual” practices. During a conversation at my final interview, one of the faculty members asked if at least I would be okay with saying a “verse” to commence and conclude faculty meetings, to which I responded that I would not find that practice problematic. I thought that would be the extent of the compliance required of me.
However, I discovered that much more was required of me philosophically, morally, and spiritually; indeed, I felt increasingly during my nearly three-year tenure teaching at a Waldorf school that I must fall in line with the fundamental understanding, according to Steiner’s anthroposophy, of who humans are from pre-birth to beyond in order to survive in my workplace. Indeed, this was explicitly stated in one of this year’s faculty meetings. To the best of my recollection, the “Master Waldorf Teacher” who was presenting said, “if you are not on board with this kind of spiritual striving, then you should find somewhere else to work.”
What seemed to be valued was not years in the classroom, experience or expertise, evidence-based teaching practices, collaborative work, or practical professional development, but rather adherence to the philosophies of a White twentieth-century thinker’s spiritual ideology. Being able to speak in Steiner’s vocabulary of “astral bodies” and “Ahrimanic forces” was essential to inclusion in the good graces of the faculty body. When I proposed going to social-emotional learning conferences, I was encouraged to go to the courses offered by the Center for Anthroposophy instead. When I suggested that we bring the latest research on a topic like classroom management or child development into the conversation, I was told, “Rudolf Steiner was clairvoyant, and when you find the truth, there’s no improving on it.” There was no room for disagreement or alternate perspectives in a community founded on the value-judgment that Steiner’s ideas about education in 1919 were essentially infallible.
I remember sitting in an evening talk offered last year on the school campus during which Steiner’s seven-year stages of human development were being presented. This is a fundamental concept about reincarnation and the slow process through which the soul instantiates in the body, and it affects everything from when students learn to read in Waldorf schools (usually not until at least second or third grade) to what art blocks are taught in high school. After the presentation, one of the parents was visibly shocked, raised his hand, and said, “This is all news to me. I’m going to need to think about this.”
That’s how I felt, too, as slowly and increasingly the requirements for my adoption of anthroposophical values became part of the “other duties as assigned” in my contract. Reading Rudolf Steiner’s philosophical texts is not a requirement for being a member of the parent body, but it was a required part of my work as a teacher at the school.
In our required readings, I found hateful, illogical, and disgusting concepts about race, Euro-centrism, and vaccines, to name a few. I was told to take what I like and leave the rest. But these were not just ideological differences of opinion; these ideas have practical, logistical, and real effects in our culture.
I read about Steiner’s “folk souls” — his theories about the hierarchies of human evolution — in order to see in Steiner’s own words what he thinks about the “black and yellow races,” and let me tell you, it’s revolting. He writes that humans are on an evolutionary journey through reincarnation and that as souls are refined and purified, they move “up” from the African to the Asian and finally to the European races:
The spot in Africa corresponds to those forces of the earth which imprint upon man the characteristics of early childhood. The spot in Asia corresponds to those which give man the characteristics of youth, and the ripest characteristics are imprinted on man by the corresponding spot in Europe. This is simply a law. As all persons in their different incarnations pass through the various races, therefore, although it may be argued that the European has the advantage over the black and the yellow races, we should not be prejudiced thereby. Here the truth may, indeed be sometimes veiled, but you see that with the help of spiritual science we really do come upon remarkable truths. — Rudolf Steiner
I read about Steiner’s rejection of Eastern philosophies and his prioritizing of Western European knowledge, which explains why many students at Waldorf schools still read a high-German medieval romance in eleventh grade rather than Toni Morrison. No amount of organizing diversity conferences for Waldorf teachers will ever fix this fundamental problem in the foundation of the schools’ pedagogy.
Finally, during the time that I was a part of a Waldorf school, they were repeatedly in the news. Unfortunately, it was because they have been identified as the “worst” school in the state as far as vaccine compliance is concerned, a direct result of Steiner’s belief that childhood illness is part of each human’s “karma.” Thus, Waldorf schools are a magnet for anti-vaxxers, a particularly troubling correlation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
When the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing — between my work and my integrity — became increasingly difficult to tolerate, I reached out to my supervisors, one of whom is a Person of Color. We talked about how problematic I found what I was learning about the Waldorf school movement, about Rudolf Steiner, and about his spiritual program of anthroposophy. I was assured that there were a variety of interpretations, and that the good outweighed the bad.
But really we were all complicit in the white supremacist mission that is Waldorf education globally. Waldorf schools followed the same template of colonization and self-righteous saviorism as other European exports throughout history, and they can now be found on every continent except Antarctica. The Waldorf movement has the same arrogant evangelization mission as Christianity, the same Euro-centric hegemony as British Studies, but with just enough crunchy nature and hippy love to attract progressive folks into spending nearly $20,000 per child to attend.
The complicity was guaranteed by a few factors. The same kind of bullying and gaslighting and “us versus them” tactics as are used in other religious (ie. cultish) environments apply in this case, too.
As I had been warned, indeed there are verses chanted during faculty meetings. We all stood and listened as a passage was recited about heavenly archai sharing a drop of wisdom with us. Okay, I kept saying to myself, it’s just a pretty piece of literature, right? But. I. Stood. Up. During. Those. Prayers. For. Almost. Three. Years.
And every time I wondered if it would have been acceptable not to stand. How would that act of protest have been received in the culture of the faculty body? Could I have ever progressed in my career at that place while holding such “divergent” views? Must I believe that Steiner’s seven-year phases of human development are ontologically real? That our reincarnated bodies become fully separated from our mothers when we lose our “milk teeth”? That one’s “ego presence” doesn’t incarnate until precisely twenty-one years of age? That my students who had descended from Europeans were more spiritually and evolutionarily advanced than those with Asian, or African ancestors? Could I say no and be a part of the governing College of Teachers? How far outside of orthodoxy would be tolerated?
There would be a ceiling to my professional trajectory at the Waldorf school, one guarded by the question of whether or not I would comply with the mandatory training, internalize the Steiner-speak, and perform as, if not truly become, an acolyte, “working out of Steiner’s spiritual scientific understanding of human development.”
Whether or not I would attend the Waldorf teacher training, where I would presumably drink the kool-aid, became a point of contention. The proposed training was a three-year long program, undertaken at a few for-profit institutions around the country, during which Waldorf teachers-in-training experience the artistic relationship with the curriculum during five or six-week sessions each summer, at a cost of nearly $30,000 in tuition, room, and board all included. The best teachers at the school were understood to be the ones who had participated in the Waldorf training, which involves, I think, an anticipated conversion to anthroposophy as a spiritual practice, or at least a complete willingness to evangelize the Waldorf pedagogical principles. Attending the training became a point of faculty evaluation; it was part of my improvement plan for my work.
The Waldorf movement in the United States is experiencing a transition, as these teaching centers are not attracting the candidates that are needed to fill jobs in Waldorf schools. So, traditionally educated teachers have been filling these posts across the country, leading schools to greater and lesser degrees away from their anthroposophical roots. Some Waldorf schools are charter schools, and/or public schools, and their discussion of karma, of the students’ angels, and of spiritual stages of reincarnation during faculty meetings, I can only imagine, is subdued. But in some Waldorf schools, there is an effort underway to purify the “core values” of the community, to reassure the community that anthroposophy is at the center of the school, and to close ranks and go on the defensive about all things Steiner. I was told that there was a “sickness” in the school that could only be cured by my acquiescing to this indoctrination.
At the Waldorf school where I worked, it wasn’t enough to be a good teacher. You must become a “Waldorf teacher.” Waldorf becomes not the name of a school, but a group that you join, an identity that you become. Faculty children are flippantly referred to as “Waldorphans,” due to the commitment their faculty-parents show to the school, often times in conflict with a healthy home life.
I applied to teach at a Waldorf school because I intuitively understood that students should feel passionate about their learning, that they should be challenged intellectually, and that they should work with their hands to try for themselves. That’s what the brochures said. That’s why, I think, intellectuals and politicians, techies and crunchies alike have flocked to these schools. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped establish a charter Waldorf School in Sacramento. The New York Times just republished a very positive story about the Waldorf School model this year. Kanye West praised the Waldorf movement when he visited with Trump in the Oval Office.
But there is something insidious about the bait and switch tactic of a school that attracts the world’s progressive secular humanists into its folds, and swears as it is inculcating spiritual ideology (at least in the faculty body, if not indirectly in the student and parent body as well) that it is not. The legalese of offering a pedagogy based in Steiner’s spiritual anthroposophy, (his racist, colonialist project) but technically not calling it a religious school is difficult for me to reconcile. Indeed, People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools waged a suit against the Sacramento City Unified School District, on the grounds that Waldorf schools violate the separation of church and state, to no avail.
I recently visited my alma mater to speak on a panel about post-graduation jobs; I was there to discuss the joys of teaching high school at the Waldorf school. One of the graduate students raised her hand, and stated, rather than asked, “I thought it was a cult,” to which I replied, shamefully, “no comment,” before submitting my resignation.