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.