Waldorf schools: ‘nonreligious’?

Indiana law says charter schools must be “nonsectarian and nonreligious.” Do Waldorf schools meet the test? It’s a serious question, one the folks at Ball State University should weigh as they decide whether to approve a charter for Green Meadows School, a proposed Waldorf school in Bloomington.

As Emily Chertoff reports in the Atlantic, Waldorf education was developed nearly 100 years ago by Rudolf Steiner, a German proponent of the esoteric belief system called theosophy. Steiner eventually founded his own offshoot, anthroposophy, to explore ways the living could enter the “spirit world.”

“Many of the methods used at Waldorf today (for instance the movement exercises and the use of music) are rooted in Steiner’s belief that schools need to cultivate spirit — the medium for contact between the living and the dead,” Chertoff writes in a bemused and mostly uncritical article.

Green Meadows, in its charter proposal, makes numerous references to Steiner and his ideas, promising a “spiritual” approach to schooling that teaches “reverence” for nature, people, plants and animals and feeds the “divine spark” in every person.

Not surprisingly there are Waldorf critics who say this is religion and doesn’t belong in public schools. One of the most vocal groups is California-based People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, which stops short of calling Waldorf “a cult” but says that “Waldorf teachers often behave in cult-like ways.”

Waldorf supporters will argue the schools’ practices are spiritual, not religious. But as Indiana University religious studies professor Candy Gunther Brown explains in her recent book “The Healing Gods,” that’s a questionable distinction reflecting a narrow, Protestant bias that being religious can only mean going to church, accepting doctrines and following rules for behavior.

In fact it’s telling that the FAQ on the website of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America includes the question, “Are Waldorf schools religious,” and doesn’t answer no. “Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational … Waldorf schools are not part of any church,” it says. “They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life.” It seems obvious that an institution can be religious without being part of any church or espousing a particular doctrine.

Here’s one way to frame the question: Many of us would object if an Indiana public school taught children that Jesus is their personal savior or that there is no god but Allah. Might not some Christians, Muslims and even secularists similarly object to a public school teaching New Age-sounding reverence for the natural world and belief in “the spiritual dimension”?

Of course, Indiana muddied the waters of church-state separation when the legislature approved an expansive school voucher program in 2011. We now give taxpayer dollars to hundreds of religious schools, nearly all of them Christian. But charter schools are supposed to be different. Their supporters insist they are “public schools.” They are open to all students, not just those who qualify for vouchers by virtue of family income or place of residence. The law, again, says they must be “nonreligious.”

Green Meadows School’s emphasis on the “whole child – head, hands and heart” and on social justice and environmental sustainability may appeal to progressive parents. The Waldorf approach may be the best approach for some children. The question is whether Steiner’s spiritualist ideas belong in a public school.

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11 thoughts on “Waldorf schools: ‘nonreligious’?

  1. Whoa! Interesting post, Steve! For those of you who are reading this, remember that Ball State is looking for feedback from the community here in Bloomington about whether or not to bring another charter to our area! Contact Dr. Robert Marra in the Office of Charter Schools at ramarra@bsu.edu My personal worry is the amount of money that will leave our public schools (and the harm that could cause to our programming and class sizes) if 200 kids leave MCCSC. The estimate is over a million dollars! That could mean the end of our librarians, perhaps even music, art and gym teachers.. Cuts would have to occur somewhere! I hope people will write.

    Thanks always, Steve, for giving us things to think about.

  2. There was a court case about this in California. No evidence was presented that the schools were “teaching New Age-sounding reverence for the natural world and belief in “the spiritual dimension”. The case was thrown out and more Waldorf-methods schools opened.

    • “No evidence was presented” because the judge would not allow the publications of Steiner’s cult to be entered in evidence! A travesty of justice. The 9th Circuit court of appeals made it clear that the way was open for a new case on the same grounds.

  3. Any decline in student enrollment at the local public schools WILL further cut dollars and program offerings to those schools and their students. Libraries, music, art, foreign languages, advanced placement classes, guidance counselors, school nurses, summer school, smaller class-sizes and more all suffer as funds are diverted to charter schools which never provide as many choices as the public school does. Spreading dollars thinner among public, charter, and voucher schools makes sure none of them can do the job well and narrows rather than expands choices for students.

    • Response to Steve Hinnefeld’s Blog Post 9/23/13; Waldorf schools; non-religious?

      Thank you for giving us a forum as well as an opportunity to further explain our educational model. First, we believe it is critical to let you and your readers know that we have developed an educational model that meets children where they are on the learning spectrum and has the potential to transform education. People have engaged in similar schools all over the world with great success. We view our platform, with its reverent and respectful approach, as a step forward. Charter schools are a pathway for setting an example of what education can be. They are an opportunity. We want to harness this opportunity and the potential that can be unleashed for 21st century education.
      Second, it is important to point out that Green Meadows Charter School is not a Waldorf School. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), schools who are not members of AWSNA can only use the term “Waldorf” in text to make factual statements about their methodology or their teachers, which is exactly what GMCS has done. Public charter schools who use methods inspired by Waldorf education cannot become members of AWSNA for the very reason that they are not Waldorf schools. We are indeed creating a school that is inspired by Waldorf Education, but also one that is infused with the teachings of social justice and environmental sustainability, as well as current educational best practices, such as Readers and Writers Workshop. We believe this model will create a diverse pedagogical approach, one that we hope will meet the needs of all learners. .
      Green Meadows Charter School is not the only public charter school in the United States that promotes this type of curriculum and pedagogy. Currently, 37 charter schools inspired by Waldorf Education are in operation in the following states; California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The number of schools is expected to reach 45 by the end of 2014. The very first public school inspired by Waldorf education began in an urban area in Milwaukee, WI and was started by the city’s superintendent as a possible way to help heal the injustices suffered by the underserved population of the city.
      The organization called PLANS did indeed claim that schools using a curriculum and methodology inspired by Waldorf education were unconstitutional. This California-based group lost their lawsuit, appealed and lost again. There was no evidence to suggest that Waldorf education is a religious education. It is a method of learning.

      In the specific case of Green Meadows Charter School, we would like to clarify the meaning of “spiritual,” “spirit,” “reverence,” and “divine” since they are descriptors of our proposal that have been called into question. In the blog post, they are used to point to the potential for religious doctrine, however this is not the intent, the purpose, nor the definition of these descriptors in our proposal. Since these words have multiple definitions, it is easy for them to be taken out of context, so we have provided multiple interpretations of the words here, allowing the obvious difference in contextual meaning to be seen. The definitions applied to our (Green Meadows’) use of the words in question are in italics. All definitions are excerpted from online sources such as the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and Dictionary.com and from Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary.
      spiritual, adj.
      1. of or relating to a person’s spirit
      2. of or relating to religion or religious beliefs

      spirit, n.
      1. the inner quality or nature of a person
      2. the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character
      3. the force within a person that is believed to give the body life, energy, and power

      reverence, n.
      1. a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.
      2. the outward manifestation of this feeling: to pay reverence.

      divine,
      1. adj. Supremely good.
      2. adj. of or pertaining to a deity
      3. godlike; heavenly; excellent in the highest degree, extraordinary.

      Many well-known, mainstream educators have written and researched the concept of spirituality in education. Noted authors such as Angela Arrien, William Ayers, James Comer, Daniel Goleman, , bell hooks, Eric Jensen, Rachel Kessler, Paul Loeb Richard Louv, Ron Miller, Nel Noddings, Parker Palmer, David Purpel, Steven Wolk and Bruce Urmacher write with passion about teaching to more than just the intellect of the child. They urge us to think of our classrooms as “…vibrant spaces that awaken consciousness to the world, open minds to the problems of our human condition, inspire wonder, and help people to lead personally fulfilling lives” (Wolk, 2007, p. 658). These phenomena require us to strive for a different kind of education and culture that will nurture the child’s “seat of emotions and character” and to teach our children to cultivate a “feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe”, as referred to in the above definitions.
      This nurturing of the inner life of a child is foundational for healthy growth and development. Thus, when we speak to fostering “reverence”, we are referring to the development of a profound “sense of respect” for the natural world and people (for our core beliefs are not only about revering the natural world, but also our fellow human beings). One might relate this idea to the concept of deep ecology, defined as a belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected in order to live and flourish, and that humanity’s relationship to the natural world should honor and value the inherent worth of all living beings. We hope that most of our community members would agree that a “deep sense of respect” is not only reserved as a religious right. We hold that reverence is not “new age,” but a quality of humanity that has been all but forgotten in our high stakes, competitive culture. As for the “divine” spark referred to on your blog, we would enthusiastically agree that “divinity,” or a quality of being “supremely good,” can be found in each and every child.

      Wolk, S. (2007). Why go to school? Phi Delta Kappan. 88 (9): 648-658.

      • Thanks for responding, Mary. Here are some thoughts.

        First, you seem to be arguing that Green Meadows will be not a Waldorf School but a Waldorf school, lower-case. That seems like a distinction without a difference. The charter application and school website include numerous references to Rudolf Steiner and make clear that the school intends to follow Steiner’s philosophy. What part or parts of Waldorf education does Green Meadows reject?

        Second, the main argument in my post is that the distinction many of us make between religion and spirituality is deeply questionable. Religion can exist without doctrine; it does in much of the world and has through much of the world’s history. Certainly there’s a continuum of meaning for terms such as spirit, reverence, divine, etc. But the sense of those words expressed by the Green Meadows charter application and website don’t seem to me to be that different from the religious or spiritual attitudes of many people.

        If Green Meadows qualifies to be a public school, where, exactly, do we draw the line on what is and isn’t “religious” according to the state charter-school law? How do we argue that a Steiner-inspired school is “public,” but not a school inspired by the teachings of Jesus or Muhammad? How do we explain to Christians, Muslims, Jews and others that our conception of what’s spiritual merits taxpayer support but theirs does not?

        Finally, I understand that charter schools are supposed to set an example of what education can be. I’ve seen evidence that some charter schools — e.g., successful “no excuses” schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods — may be doing that. But in a place like Bloomington, charter schools look an awful lot like a way for parents to segregate themselves and their children by tribe, if not by class. If parents want to turn their back on the public in public education, that’s their business. The question is whether the public should pay for it.

      • This is another example of the evasive, vague and disingenuous answers that proponents of Green Meadows give to a very simple proposition: That what Steiner meant by “spirit” and “divinity” was not colloquial, and refers specifically to an immaterial, supernatural and yes, religious concept, and it is that sense in which Green Meadows intends to use in its curriculum, based on no more than what the charter proposal itself says. The rhetoric is very slippery, and amounts to “it’s not religion because we say it’s not.” Most of the dictionary definitions you’ve given, Mary, are referring to religious concepts. If what you refer to as “spirit” is supernatural, immaterial, extracorporeal (Steiner was a believer in an “Astral Body”), then it is the realm of religion, and has no place in public schools. You should seek to make Green Meadows a private School.

        As far as the California case, it was won on a narrow technicality. PLANS certainly made mistakes, to be sure. But court cases are not necessarily proof that the side who won is right. How many in our community think the Supreme Court was “right” in Citizens United? Do you?

  4. “There was no evidence to suggest that Waldorf education is a religious education.” is false. Over a hundred items of evidence showing just that were rejected by the judge on a purely technical issue of the federal rules of evidence. There are whole books about the spirituality of Waldorf. For example, The Esoteric Background of Waldorf Education: The Cosmic Christ Impulse by René Querido. He was one of the founders of Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, CA. Querido says (p. 36) “If approximately between the ages of seven and fourteen the child is not introduced in a living way to the Christ, along the lines of the Waldorf curriculum, in later life the youngster is more likely either to deny the Christ or to hold onto a traditional faith by means of which he or she cannot truly experience the Resurrected One. It may be worthwhile to reflect upon this in our faculty meetings.”

      • Mr. Nagy is referring to immigration cases in which Camphill communities (another activity of Anthroposophy) claimed that their European aides were entitled to a special exemption because they were religious workers. Anthroposophy claims to be religious when it’s advantageous, and not when it’s not.

  5. Pingback: Charter schools and segregation | School Matters

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