Thursday, August 02, 2007

Steiner: the good, the bad and the silly

don't cross it

Steiner or Waldorf schools and the Steiner method have been receiving some publicity lately. Radio National's The Religion Report has produced two programs devoted to the creeping inclusion of Steiner methodology in state secular schools in recent years. Rudolf Steiner, something of a guru to odradek intellectuals of the early twentieth century, was the founder of a 'spiritual system' called anthroposophy, which teaches how to develop the power of the soul, how to get in touch with the spiritual world and so forth. Reincarnation was central to his 'thinking'.
Interestingly enough, Steiner wrote books on Goethe, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche before his anthroposophical enlightenment, and he was certainly one of the most educated and cultivated of spiritualists. He was interested in renovating or modernising religion [essentially Christianity], and he sought to apply his holistic spiritual approach to farming, medicine and the arts. He wrote soulful plays and developed a spiritual dance technique called eurythmy, and he was also a noted architect, designing 17 buildings in all, some of them quite significant. He wanted to put spiritualism on a scientific footing, but obviously didn't get too far in that direction. In any case, the man was no slouch.
Clearly, though, for all Steiner's scientific yearnings, his assumptions about the relationship of colour to spiritual growth, never mind his assumptions about the soul and the afterlife, were never backed up by evidence. However, he seems to have been a genuinely humane type, in spite of dabbling with the eugenic ideas of his time. His influence upon certain strands within the education system mirrors, in a minuscule way, the influence of a much more formidable polymath, Aristotle, on medieval scholarship in toto. Both were indefatigable contributors to a range of theoretical and applied knowledge fields, but something in their approach seems to have led their epigones to congeal their explorations into a quasi-religious dogma. Which isn't to say that eurythmy and drawing aren't great stuff for kids.
The problem is that Steiner-based education has at its centre a belief in supernatural entities, and so has no place in the state secular curriculum, even as an optional extra. We shouldn't be funding this stuff with our tax dollars. Having said that, a lot of government money is going to other, non-state schools, where all sorts of religious effluvia is exuded, much of it far more toxic than Steinerism. I can't see the rot being stopped in the near future.

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At 7:19 pm , Anonymous susoz said...

I'm not sure you can say that belief in the supernatural is at the centre of Steiner education. And I doubt it's Steiner spiritualism which is being taken up by state schools - (I don't know what is as I haven't heard about it in any schools near me.) I've had some contact with Steiner and although I'm critical of some of their educational practices, I like other aspects eg the emphasis on play and low-tech creativity.

At 12:00 am , Blogger Stewart said...

I think the worries about creeping Steinerism are exaggerated, and I've heard that some of his approaches to creativity work wonders for some kids, but the complaints made in the program I heard seemed to involve sticking too rigidly to his more discredited theories, such as his colour theory, which disvalued dark tones. Steiner himself apparently wrote some silly things about dark-skinned people having less life-force than light-skinned people, and apparently a dark-skinned kid doing a Steiner stream in a Victorian school recently was encouraged not to draw people in brown!
These aren't quite supernatural theories, but they're not too well grounded. What's important, as you suggest, is separating the wheat from the chaff - and in looking at what works, figuring out why it does. And if these means doing damage to Steiner's holistic approach, so be it.


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