I first became interested in the progress of Steiner (or “Waldorf”) schools while doing research for my talk at the World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, on the topic ofpseudoscience in education, earlier this year. My reading included not only articles written for the Skeptical Inquirer (“Weird Science at Steiner School,” Fall 1991), but also André Sebastiani’s extensive investigation on anthroposophy, “Versteinerte Erziehung” for the German Skeptiker Magazine, edition 4/2011, (which recommends another 2007 German work, Anthroposophie in Deutschland, by Zander).
In May of this year, a public letter of protest was circulated, signed by the likes of Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter; David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London and the science writer Simon Singh – it specifically criticized Maharishi and Steiner schools as being “grave threats to science education.”
In an effort to learn more, I have interviewed Andy Lewis of Quackometer, for Episode #137 of the Token Skeptic podcast, after reading his Steiner-focused series of blogposts: “The Insidious Pervasiveness of the Cult of Rudolf Steiner,” “The Bank that likes to say ‘Quack’: Triodos,” “Frome Steiner Academy: Absurd Educational Quackery,” and “Is Biodynamic Farming Vegan?”
Andy Lewis has developed the web site Quackometer.net in order to explore the pseudo-medical claims of alternative medicine web sites and their impact on society, and was previously interviewed on the CSICOP website on the topic of Stanislaw Burzynski.
Kylie Sturgess: Who was Steiner and why should we be concerned about anthroposophy?
Andy Lewis: Rudolph Steiner lived about 100 years or so ago; he was an Austrian who called himself a philosopher. He was a mystic, really. He set about trying to combine his views of science with his views of spiritualism, if you like. He believed you could extend science by directly experiencing the spiritual world. And he came up with something called spiritual science, which evolved into what we now know as anthroposophy.
Why should we be worried about him? That's a good question. Until quite recently, I wasn't worried at all. But then, I realized that people who follow his beliefs and teachings seemed to be cropping up everywhere. And it wasn't clear to me how you could really recognize where his influence was going. When I investigated them a bit, it turned out it's a very esoteric tradition in that the Steinerists really keep their beliefs to themselves—the way they present themselves to the world is quite different from what they believe themselves.
I think they believe—like a lot of these organizations do—that you can't really fully understand the beliefs until you've gone through a journey. That's why their beliefs are not revealed to you immediately. So, when you want to talk about things like Steiner or Waldorf schools, parents aren't really told what they're getting themselves in to.
That alarmed me quite a lot, because I was coming across parents on the web who thought Steiner and Waldorf schools were progressive and child-centered and all those good sounding things. But then, they dug a little bit deeper—because things were a little bit odd—and they felt like they were dealing with a cult.
I think what's worrying about Steiner, and different from some of these other more progressive teaching methods, is the esoteric nature. But it's not really revealed to the teachers and I don’t think they really understand it. But it’s not revealed to the parents, importantly, when they enroll their children.
So, yes, you might liken it to Scientology, I suppose, in that that's another esoteric tradition where, as you pay more money you find out more about it. I think that there are some interesting comparisons there.
Kylie: Now, we're both citizens—we could just not send our children to a Waldorf school. I could choose not to teach at one. Why not live and let live? Why not just say, “OK, that's them. That's how it is”?
Andy: I think I could agree with you on that. And there have been Steiner schools in the U.K.; we call them Steiner schools here, and in think Waldorf schools in America. In Australia, they're the same. There have been a dozen or more Steiner schools in the U.K., and people that don't know much about them, know they're a bit, they're thought of a bit like Montessori schools, a bit quirky and full of hippies and so on.
But recently, near me, about ten miles away, a group of people applied to set up a new Steiner school under a government initiative that basically is willing to give lots of money to anyone who wants to set up a school and can hand in the appropriate paperwork.
In the U.K. it's called the “free school initiative”—so it's essentially removing control of schools from local authorities and into the hands of whoever wants it, really.
Kylie: Oh wow.
Andy: Yes, exactly! So, all well and good—but who is getting this money? So, this looks like it's basically a nationalization of a private Steiner school where privately educated kids are now getting taxpayers' money. And maybe some children are going to get lured in there, but if you go to their website you'll never really understand what they're all about. You won't understand that the education is based on essentially a view of reincarnation, which is quite bizarre and quite racist, really. Steiner believed we have spirits within us that reincarnate into new bodies when we die. And the role of the teacher is not really to teach, but more to serve as a spiritual midwife to incarnate these spirits into the children.
So, you might have heard, for example, how Waldorf Schools delay reading. They think it's better for kids not to read. Well, the reason for that is that Steiner believed that children learning things and actually reading interfered with the incarnation of their spirits and that they shouldn't start to learn things and learn to read in particular until adult teeth had appeared, which was a sort of spiritual milestone in a child's development.
So, what's alarming is that parents are not told this. They're told it's a progressive way of learning, and so on. What the teachers are actually doing is actually stopping children learning until these arbitrary milestones are reached. So, that's one worrying thing, we're not told the true reasons why Steiner schools do these things.
Another big thing is the charge of racism that's been leveled against Steiner's beliefs. Because he believed that the highest spiritual that the spirit could take on was to be found in the body of a Germanic or a Nordic white European. They were seen as the most spiritually advanced people. And that Indians, black people, and Jews were less advanced, and the role of teachers there was then to sort of prepare them for the next incarnation, so that they might be luckier next time around—which is abhorrent, and an abhorrent belief.
Yet another thing that Steiner schools do is that they ascribe temperaments to children. You're given a temperament like “sanguine” or something like that—and they treat you differently according to that. Teachers come up with these labels for children by looking at physical characteristics like the size of their heads and the color of their skin. And they don't believe it's racist because they do this to all children, but from the outside this is pretty bizarre and abhorrent.
Kylie: Is there evidence of such segregation when students are being enrolled? I mean, have parents complained, come into the education department and said, “How come my child can't go to this private school? We've got the money, it looks great, and his friends are going there…” Have people complained?
Andy: Yes, we see parents on the web that are members of Waldorf survivor groups on the web who complain about these kinds of things. And really, it's one of the few places where you can get any insight about what goes on, because they are such an esoteric tradition, and so closed about what they do. It is very difficult to get hard information about what happens.
The worrying fact is that these ideas are not denounced openly and that there isn't a sort of new form of anthroposophy or an evolved form of Steiner's that you can go and see how the ideas have changed over the last 100 years. As far as it's possible to tell, this is a religion (or a cryptoreligion if you like) and Steiner had these revelations through his clairvoyant visions and his believers followed him. And I see no evidence whatsoever that there's any progressiveness away from these early 1920s Austrian racist ideas.
Kylie: Why do you think people aren't speaking out formally? I mean, the students when they graduate, are they doing well on their league tables? Are they getting into good universities?
Andy: Well, that's a very good question. Up till now in the U.K. these have been private schools, so people going to them have been quite wealthy middle class people, maybe with a few hippie‑ish ideas or whatever. So, of course you will come across anecdotes about children who've done very well and gone to Oxford or Cambridge or something like that. You know, they even studied science, we are told, of course.
But that doesn't mean, of course, that if my child goes there or my neighbor's child, that that will be good for them. The data doesn't seem to be there. I'd be very surprised if an education system based on beliefs in astrology or clairvoyance was just so happened going to be better than sort of a mainstream education. It would be incredible, really. So, it's difficult to know what the impact will be. I think our government's sitting on time bomb, essentially.
You'll get early adherents rushing in because they've heard a wonderful thing about Steiner educations. But in a few years, the stories will start creeping out about children not being able to read, being delayed, not progressing with respect to their peers in the same towns and so on, and questions will be asked. I think the government is going to find itself in a lot of trouble in maybe three, four, five years’ time when children start going through difficulties.
For me, I think the biggest worry is that parents are getting involved in the schools and not knowing what they are getting involved in. This is all about informed consent, and especially when the schools instill in them—their views of medicine are just as bonkers, they have homeopathic doctors in the schools, because Steiner was very fond of homeopathy.
In addition, Steiner schools are hotbeds of unvaccinated children; in the U.K., measles outbreaks are occurring around Steiner schools, so much so that last year, when the Steiner schools held their annual interschool Olympics, it had to be cancelled because the schools had a measles outbreak. To me this is incredible, and yet it's very predictable; these ideas of undermining science and undermining medicine and putting lives at risk with some of those views, I think that that's where I think parents ought to know what they're getting themselves in to before they get involved.
Kylie: Are there some suggested actions that we should be taking, in your opinion? I mean, should we be asking our governments about them, should we go down and look at our local Steiner schools?
Andy: That's a good question. What can be done? Raising awareness is the biggest thing, because people are not aware of what Steiner's philosophy is all about and what his approach is. You go to a school's website and you'll just see all cuddly words like, we're children‑centric, and we’re progressive. And all these things that people go, “Oh, that's lovely, you know. We're not fixated on exam league tables or whatever it might be; they're going to treat my child as an individual.”
And yes, of course they treat children as individuals. But they teach them according to their system. We need to raise awareness, ask questions, and bring it out into the open. And it would be surprising if we didn't find lots and lots of problems—because what is a Steiner school unless it's teaching according to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner?