I’m generally not one for talking up the qualities of Tory Shadow Ministers, as you might easily guess, but I have to admit that for a while I’ve considered the Shadow Education Minister, Michael Gove, to be one of the more quietly impressive figures in what is otherwise a pretty nondescript bunch of obvious mediocrities – or rather I was inclined to view him in that light until I read this article from the Evening Standard and quickly realised that he’s completely taken leave of his senses…
Under the Tory proposals, new schools entering the state system would be free from the constraints of the statutory national curriculum.
Mr Gove believes many parents think the particular teaching styles “and atmosphere of the environment” at Montessori and Steiner schools would suit them and their children.
“They are educational movements that explicitly want to do things differently,” he said. “They engage the passions of teachers and parents. They tend to have the results in the end, both in character and ability, that parents would want to see in their children.
“If we are about enabling choice and diversity it is only right to allow both movements to become essentially state-funded schools.”
More choice, greater diversity in educational provision and, particularly, widespread access to alternative pedagogies sounds pretty good to me, particularly if this means providing state funding for the excellent Montessori network but, for fuck’s sake, not Steiner schools as well.
What kind of complete fucking idiot would provide state funding to a network of schools operated by a bunch of woo-peddling occultist fucknuts?
If you’ve never looked into the real background to Steiner (aka Steiner-Waldorf, or just plain Waldorf) schools, then you’re probably thinking ‘WTF? Aren’t they those hippy liberal schools in which young kids spend their formative years dancing, drawing pretty picture with natural beeswax crayons and communing with nature at a time when conventional education insists on force-feeding kids the three R’s?’
Well, if that’s you, then you obviously haven’t put any time at all into understanding the history of these schools or their founder, Rudolf Steiner.
Unlike Maria Montessori, a bona fide Doctor of Medicine (and a feminist) who went on to study psychology and philosophy, found and promote the Montessori method and its associated international schools network, hold a chair in hygiene and Rome’s Women’s college and a professorship in anthropology at the University of Rome and, eventually, get nominated (unsuccessfully) for the Nobel Peace Prize on three separate occasions, Rudolf Steiner started out as writer and philosopher who authored or collaborated on published works on Goethe (and Goethean ‘Science’), Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
However, Steiner is best known (in life) for his involvement in the occult Theosophical Society, the German chapter of which he lead from 1902 to 1913, until philosophical conflicts with the Society’s leader, Annie Beasant, over the spiritual significance of Christ and Beasant’s acknowledgement of the-then youthful Jiddu Jiddu Khrishnamurti, who Beasant believed to be the reincarnation of Christ, prompted to Steiner to split with the Theosophists and found his own occult organisation, the Anthroposophical Society, taking the majority of the Theosophical Society’s German and Austria chapter with him in the process.
Now if you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit too ‘Da Vinci Code’ for comfort then you’re closer to the truth that the might, at first realise, as during his time as a leading figure in the Theosophical Society, Steiner was also heavily involved in both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, all of which should give you the idea that there’s rather to Steiner schools than their heavily sanitised public relations screed might seem to suggest.
The Anthroposophical Society, which sits behind the Steiner schools network provides it with its ‘philosophical’ foundations is a full-blown occult sect, one that, like other notable late-Victorian and Edwardian occult society, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, through which AE Waite, Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley came to prominence, was, and is still, even today, animated by what amounts to loose ragbag collection of beliefs cribbed from a variety of dodgy strands of Christian mysticism and assorted bits of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, all of which is harnessed to hefty dose of pseudoscience and associated assorted bullshit, voodoo and woo, including things like astrology, fairies (yes, the kind that allegedly live at the bottom of the garden), gnomes, clairvoyance, telepathy, homoeopathy, and, given the marked Edwardian penchant for Orientalism, a firm in karma and reincarnation.
Steiner taught his followers that all human beings have three bodies (as if one’s not enough to cope with) a physical body, the nature of which is common to the inorganic world, a ‘life body’, which all living creatures possess, and an ‘astral body’, which is the seat of sentience, consciousness and self awareness…
…and if you think that’s a bit odd then you ain’t seen nothing yet, because Steiner also believed (and taught) that all human existence is poised between two opposing but generally evil spiritual forces, Lucifer, the spirit of light who –allegedly -plays on human pride to deceive us into a false belief in our own divinity, and Ahriman (or Angra Mainyu, as this mythical entity is more correctly named within genuine Zoroastrianism) an allegedly dark spirit, an opponent of Lucifer, who tempts humans to deny their divinity and live solely on the material plane. And with all that firmly in mind, your mission, as a human being – should you accept it – is to find personal freedom by balancing these two opposing mystical ‘forces’ with from the ‘representative of humanity’ – Jesus Christ…
…that’s as long as, of course, your brain isn’t going to self-destruct in five seconds when you realise that Steiner’s followers genuinely believe all that crap, even today.
Its from their belief in this kind of errant bullshit that Steiner schools derive what is, perhaps, their most widely known feature/practice, that of not teaching children to read until they reach the age of 7-8 years old, a practice that you might previously have imagined to be based on some kind of psychological theory/perspective on childhood development – and, of course, you’d be completely wrong because this particular facet of Steiner ‘education’ has nothing whatsoever to with psychology, and less still with anything quite so prosaic as, say, research or evidence. Rather it’s based on the belief that childhood development is governed by the sequential opening of a child’s chakras, not that Steiner’s ideas on this particular subject bear much of a relationship to the original Hindu system he cribbed his ideas from, beyond the use of the term ‘chakra’ itself.
And if you think all that’s weird, then wait until you see what’s coming next, because its too give you the full tour of Steiner’s Anthroposophical Twilight Zone.
If you credulously swallow the carefully sanitised marketing hype put out by the Steiner movement, as Michael Gove appears to have done, then you may be left with the impression that, for younger children in particular, a typical school day at a Steiner school must be something akin to an extended episode of ‘In the Night Garden’ but, as some ex-Steiner pupils, and parents, have been more than happy to testify, this can be anything but the case.
One of the more persistent complaints levelled at Steiner schools by disenchanted former pupils/parent is not only that bullying is common, if not rife, but, more disturbingly, that these schools do almost nothing to deal with this particular problem when it arises. Now, in itself, that’s not that uncommon an allegation in mainstream state education but what you certainly won’t come across in the state sector, but will frequently encounter when reading criticism of Steiner schools put forward by former pupils/parent, id the allegation that these schools, and teachers treat bullying as form of karmic ‘payback’ for misdemeanours committed in a previous incarnation, a practice that elevates blaming the victim to heights unimaginable even in the more vicious element of the sin-obsessed Catholic Church.
Bizarre as that particular idea may seem, it pales into insignificance when set against prevailing Anthroposophical beliefs about race and ethnicity, beliefs that, like the alleged approach to bullying, are firmly rooted in this Society’s belief in karma and reincarnation.
I’d guess that most people are pretty familiar with the idea that the conventional Hindu/Buddhism conception of reincarnation incorporates the belief that people’s soul/spirit somehow has to work its way up through a notional hierarchy of life in animal kingdom in order to reach ‘human’, if not from a genuine familiarity with Buddhism or Hinduism then from having watched a few episodes of the Simpson’s in which Apu is the featured character. What most people may not realise, however, is that Steiner took that whole idea of hierarchical reincarnation a stage further by suggesting that, within humans, a strict hierarchy of racial through which people also move by means of reincarnation on their way to enlightenment and the full realisation of their ‘spiritual’ potential – and I’m offering no prizes whatsoever for guesses as to kind of racial running order that Steiner had in mind when he cooked up this particularly nasty bit of nonsense.
Where this takes us is to, perhaps, the most bizarre and perversely inventive version of ‘I’m not racist but’ you’re ever likely to encounter, one in which – again it’s alleged by critics, including ex-pupils/ parents – that while Steiner schools will taken children from racial and ethnic groups that Steiner identified as being ‘backward’ and ‘inferior’, they do so in the belief that they may be able to help these poor unfortunates to a future incarnation somewhere a bit higher up the human racial pecking order, not that this has prevented ex-Steiner pupils complaining not only that racism was, like bullying, a problem that the school they attended signally failed to adequately recognise and address but that some of what they were taught in school was, in their view, explicitly racist.
Once you start doing the background research, it very quickly becomes apparent that Steiner schools – to their critics – are anything but the kind of benignly hippy-ish exercise in freewheeling, liberal, pedagogical eccentricity that the movement’s supporters (and its marketing department) would like to think they are as one former pupil of a US Steiner school relates here…
My personal experience with [Steiner-] Waldorf was very confusing. Instead of the progressive and liberal alternative school I was led to expect by the school’s promotional materials and staff, I discovered a rigid, authoritarian environment that seemed to be rooted in a medieval dogma that I did not understand. When, in an effort to make sense of things, I asked questions about this, I found Waldorf teachers to be strangely defensive…
I began to ask questions. What is Anthroposophy? Why don’t teachers allow students in the preschool through the early elementary grades to use black crayons in their drawings..?
Why is mythology taught as history..?
In a school system that promotes itself as “education toward freedom,” why do students copy everything from the blackboard…?
What answers I received were not forthright, and the teachers made it clear that my questions were not welcome. They told me, “If you understood Anthroposophy, you wouldn’t be asking that question.” Yet before we enrolled, I was told that the school was non-sectarian and that Anthroposophy was not “in the classroom!” I was eventually invited to leave.
That particular account of life in Steiner School can be found here alongside a wide range of other critical articles, news stories and commentaries, which range from the bizarre to the genuinely disturbing. For example, there’s this short musing on the role of gnomes in Steiner education…
Few parents fail to be charmed by the Waldorf gnomes, and they are great PR for Waldorf, selling well at craft fairs. Who could object to small children hearing fairy stories or dancing around pretending to see elves and gnomes? Some parents do not realize, however, that the teachers believe gnomes actually exist. It’s easy to see the gnomes as something charming and quaintly old-fashioned about Waldorf. But a little bit of gnomes is all the parents get compared to the children. Parents will be encouraged to try their hand sewing a gnome at a parent evening, for instance, and this encourages them to romanticize the Waldorf gnomes. Only a real cynic would not fall in love with the Waldorf gnomes.
It’s another thing to live and breathe gnome-culture day in-day out. The average parent has no sense of how the gnomes are served up to the children daily. The gnomes are blamed for things that people do that people should take responsibility for (teachers as well as children). The gnomes can be used to displace emotions and reactions. The gnomes are used to blow off children’s questions about how the world around them works and mystify children asking about difficult topics like sex or violence or illness. The gnomes stop rational discussion before it gets started and send common sense out the window. The gnomes can even be threatening. The children who don’t see gnomes are confused.
The gnomes, frankly, get very tiresome after awhile. Waldorf children themselves sometimes get cynical about the gnomes.
It’s hard to argue “against” the gnomes and sound like anything other than a sourpuss. But it’s about image versus reality. Parents find it so much nicer to hear children chattering about the gnomes in the grass than talking about Power Rangers and Pokemon, and it’s very easy to look no further, to feel that a “lost world of childhood” has now been restored, here it was in Waldorf all along. But in that lost world that Waldorf evokes, children were not always treated very nicely at all. The gnomes do some rotten things.
Then there’s Dan Dugan’s experience of his child’s first encounters with ‘science’ education in Steiner schools…
Trouble began when Dugan picked up one of Steiner’s books, on sale at the school. Steiner lectured (Germany, 1922): “If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense if men do not arrive at a form of intelligence that is independent of blondness.” How could apparently intelligent and sensitive people be publishing this stuff in the 1980’s? They would have to be wearing the blinders of cult indoctrination.
Then his son complained “they’re teaching us baby science.” A specialist science teacher had told the sixth grade “the elements are earth, air, fire, and water.” Dugan looked at several science lesson books, and found more bad news. “Planetary influences” were said to affect the growth of plants. In physiology, the body was said to be made up of “the nerve-sense system, the metabolic-muscular system, and the rhythmic system.”
Worse than the occasional items of cult pseudoscience was what was left out. The science curriculum was based entirely on observation, and the theories which form the backbone of scientific knowledge were almost completely omitted. The children were not to be “prejudiced” by “materialistic dogma,” but were to make up their own minds about how the world worked from direct observation.
Dugan proposed a parents committee to reform the science teaching. No other parents were interested.
He requested a hearing with the “college of teachers” which runs the school. He was refused, and a delegation of teachers informed him that the family would be expelled unless he stopped making trouble.
And in case you’re thinking that this all amounts to nothing more than a bit of backbiting by a bunch of pissed-off ex-pupils and their parents, then take a good close look at what the highly respected scientist, academic and educator Eugenie C Scott of the US National Centre for Science Education, had to say on the subject Steiner’s ‘scientific’ views…
But if schools follow Steiner’s views on science, education will suffer. Steiner believed that materialism was insufficient for the understanding of nature. He believed that science needs to “go beyond” the empirical and consider vitalistic, unobservable forces, a perspective also common in 20th century New Age healing approaches. Anthroposophical medicine, similar to homeopathy but even less scientific, claims that disease is caused only secondarily by malfunctions of chemistry and biology, and primarily by a disturbance of the “vital essence.” Anatomy and physiology a la Steiner are unrecognizable by modern scientists: the heart does not pump blood; there are 12 senses (“touch, life, movement, equilibrium, warmth, smell,” etc.) corresponding to signs of the zodiac; there is a “rhythmic” system that mediates between the “nerve-sense” and “metabolic-muscular” systems. Physics and chemistry are just as bad: the “elements” are earth, air, fire, and water. The four “kingdoms of nature” are mineral, plant, animal and man. Color is said to be the result of the conflict of light and darkness. Typical geological stages are Post-Atlantis, Atlantis, Mid-Lemuria, and Lemuria.
Waldorf teachers are supposed to teach Steinerian evolution. In this view, species were specially created, rather than evolving from one another, and “spiritual beings were the creators.” “Let us start from the point that the gods, or the divine spiritual beings, decided to create the world and man. For this we have a good authority in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.” (all quotes from a teachers’ training manual by Roy Wilkinson, Man and Animal, The Robinswood Press, Stourbridge, England, 1990, p. 2-3, provided courtesy of NCSE member Dan Dugan.)
The Waldorf version of evolution is especially concerned with the relationship of humans to animals, but this relationship is quite different from that of mainline evolutionists. “It becomes apparent that man is a compendium of the animal kingdom; alternatively expressed, that the animal kingdom is the human being spread out.” The human “essence” passed through a number of “spiritual states” on the way to becoming human, which was a relatively recent event. “Dr. Steiner considers animals to be the by-products of human development. Man has been involved from the beginning but not in a physical form. Man existed spiritually and the animal forms represent physically incarnated soul forces which the human being had to dispense with in order to mature sufficiently to receive the ego. … As in life … we are trying to overcome the lower passions to evolve to something higher, so throughout evolution, the passions were separated out from man and these were incorporated as animals.”
“We see then that man is not the result of animal evolution but that he is at the beginning of it and is central to it. Indeed he is the cause of it. The animal world represents soul qualities which the human being has discarded although he still retains remnants of them.”
And in case you think that this might be no more than an ‘only in America’ scenario then you might like to take careful note of the fact that the quotes given by Scott are taken from a Teacher Training manual written and published in the UK.
Once you’ve seen what passes for ‘science’ in Steiner education, you cannot be surprised, in the slightest, to find that only last year, Stockholm University chose to discontinue its teacher training course in Steiner education after concluding that the Steiner movement’s science literature contained ‘too much myth and too little fact’, although you may still be surprised, and a little disturbed, to find a British University, The University of Plymouth, offering a BA in Steiner Education.
(It’s also worth pointing out, at this juncture, that the entry requirement for the BA in Steiner Education is a paltry 2 E’s at A level on top of ‘C’ grade GCSE’s in Maths and English, while entry to a standard BEd in Primary Education, specialising in, say, English, requires ‘C’ grade GCSE’s in Maths, English and Science and a minimum 2 ‘C’s’ or a ‘C’ and 2 ‘D’s’ at A level, plus a clean CRB check and shed load of bureaucratic hoop-jumping that the DCFS requires, as standard, of all trainee teachers.)
If Gove is seriously planning to provide state funding to Steiner Schools on the strength, it appears, on the basis of an ideological commitment to funding independent schools, a bit sucking up to a bunch of gullible parent and a single visit to a Steiner school , which no doubt put on a good show for a visiting Shadow Minister in much the same way that NHS Hospital always put on a good show for visiting royals, even at the expense of leaving the Queen with the impression that all hospitals smell of fresh paint and contain very few actual sick people, then he’s either well on the way to completely losing the plot or he is seriously misinformed about the realities of Steiner education.
One hopes, fervently, that it’s the latter, because if it isn’t at the Conservative Party is seriously going to turnover large sums of taxpayer’s money to a network of schools operated by a bunch of occultists then it won’t be too long before we find things like the Tom Cruise Scientology College, The Baron Samedi Academy (specialising in Animal Husbandry, but only goats, rams and chickens) and St Beelzebub’s non-denominational Foundation School amongst the choices on offer to parents seeking an education for their child.
That said, while researching this article, I discovered that while Gove may be well on the road to losing the plot, the DCFS actually succumb to the lure of total wibble some twelve months ago and pumped £16 million of taxpayer’s money into the creation of a state-funded Steiner Academy, and all against the wishes of both the residents of the area in which this new academy is located and in the face of unequivocal opposition of that area’s cash-strapped LEA and Local Authority.
Now, before you click that last link, take a guess at where this state-funded Steiner Academy is actually located…
… I’m betting that you probably expect it to have been set up somewhere in London or, at the very least, somewhere well within easy driving distance of the bruschetta-munching Islington set. After all, the government’s Academy School programme is premised, and promoted, on the idea that Academies are intended to replace failing state schools, of which London has its fair share.
And you’d be completely wrong because this particular Academy is actually situated in the village of Much Dewchurch in rural Herefordshire (pop. 250) and, before it managed to screw a shed load of cash out of the DCFS, it used to be a normal, if slightly smaller, fee-paying Steiner School. £16 million, it seems, buys just 30 additional school places over and above the capacity of the previous fee-paying school, some brand new two storey school buildings and a huge car park, all slapped on top of 4.5 hectares of open countryside, right next to Grade 1 listed church, all of which has come about on the back of the alleged use of strong-arm tactics by the DCFS, which had been looking for a site for Steiner Academy for a number of years before dumping it on the unwilling residents of small rural village.
And if that fishy enough, I should also point out that the school was permitted to become a state-funded Academy without first undergoing an Ofsted inspection, has been handed a blanket exemption from the SATS tests that all other state schools have to put kids through at the age of seven – for obvious reasons, given that Steiner School don’t start to teach kids to read until they hit the age of seven – and that this has all been supported by a DCFS commissioned report on Steiner Education produced by a pair of academics from the University of Gloucestershire, Phillip and Glenys Woods, the latter of which also has an interesting sideline as an ‘Angelic Reiki Healer’, according to her publishers’ biography.
(In terms of process and probity, asking a part-time Angelic Reiki healer to write a report on Steiner education puts this whole exercise in advanced fucknuttery apologetics somewhere on a par with inviting the Pope to chair an inquiry into the prevalence of choirboy buggery in the Catholic Church.)
As far as the content of this report goes, while is does concede that Steiner’s theories of race and racial hierarchies were just plain wrong, it disingenuously defines and describes anthroposophy in the following terms…
The principles of anthroposophy are based on a particular understanding of child development, and are the foundation of other concepts integral to Steiner schools’ pedagogy such as willing/feeling/thinking, the role of the teacher, the emphasis on valuing childhood, and the collegial running of the school.
You won’t be surprised to find that there’s no mention of astrology, clairvoyance or even gnomes in the report, however it does attempt to blow off concerns about Steiner’s belief in Goethean science in a particularly mealy mouthed fashion…
A more fundamental challenge for Steiner education is also posed by Jelinek and Sun, who identify as problematic Goethe’s scientific world view. They suggest that, whilst Steiner schools’ science education in many ways is shown to be better than that in mainstream schools, [Steiner education] “should disregard Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy as the source of accurate scientific concepts”. They also draw attention to what they see as the unwillingness of some Steiner educators to countenance correction of the curriculum in the light of advances in scientific knowledge, or clarification of basic errors.
However, it is important to note that Steiner educators would emphasise that much of the science teaching in Steiner schools is based on training the pupils to observe and come to their own conclusions rather than proving someone else’s theory. To the extent that they are successful in this, pupils brought up on Steiner principles would be encouraged to critically question all theories, including those of Rudolf Steiner himself.
In other words, the authors assume that a grounding in Goethean science will lead students to question Steiner’s ideas but they’ve no actual evidence that this is actually what happens let alone that its actively encouraged, nor do they even attempt to address the unwillingness of some Steiner educators to countenance corrections to the curriculum when science proves Steiner to have been completely wrong. Indeed, the report also notes that
The approach to chemistry is different again. During the primary years, the emphasis is on the wholeness of living things and a reductionist view of matter associated with orthodox chemistry is generally avoided.
That’s not a different ‘approach’ to chemistry, that’s just not teaching chemistry at all.
As I said at the outset, I’m all for a bit more pedagogical diversity in state education and delighted to see the Montessori network receiving the recognition (and funding) it fully deserves, but there are limits and turning over taxpayers’ money to a bunch of occultists who genuinely think that ‘Lemurian’ is bona fide geological age and that Newtonian optics is wrong, is way beyond any kind of limits that I or anyone with two functional brain cells to rub together could possibly countenance, so you can well imagine that Michael Gove’s suggestion that more Steiner Schools should be state-funded gives me the screaming ab-dabs…
… and I really don’t give a fuck whether some parents think that Steiner schools would suit them and their children because anyone who thinks that this kind of woo-infested bullshit constitutes an education is absolutely no position whatsoever to judge what might, or might not, ‘suit’ their child.
Having noted that part of the justification being advance by politician for pumping state funds in occult fucknuttery rests in the suggest that this will increase choice and diversity in the state education system, its worth reflecting on the fact that there remains in Britain today, one particular educational choice that the state will not deign to allow:
A headteacher who tried to reduce the influence of religion inside the classroom by creating the country’s first secular state school had his plans blocked by senior government officials who called it a ‘political impossibility’.
Dr Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton High School in Tyneside – the first to join the government’s flagship ‘trust school’ scheme – wanted to challenge the legal requirement in all state schools for pupils to take part in a daily act of worship of a broadly Christian nature. There are only a handful of exceptions at faith schools where the daily worship can be based on a different religion.
He also wanted to change the way that religious education was taught, introducing tuition about a number of world views, some that involved faith and some that did not. He intended to follow a ‘third way’ that neither banished religion from the classroom completely nor had children attending daily worship…
… One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans. Religion, they added, was ‘technically embedded’ in many aspects of education.