Schooling the Imagination

Waldorf schools, which began in the esoteric mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, have forged a unique blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods that seem to achieve impressive results -- intellectual, social, even moral.

EACH morning when Waldorf students in the elementary grades first get to class, they find their teacher standing in the doorway, waiting to look them in the eye and shake their hands. "You can tell so much by how they shake hands, who's a little off," Lynda Smith, at the time a San Francisco teacher, told me. Moments later, after the students have taken their seats, they rise for another Waldorf tradition: recitation of the morning verse.

This is a short poem, written by Steiner, that aims to inspire students about nature and good work. (The verse for the first through fourth grades, for example, says in part, "I revere, Oh God, the strength of humankind, which Thou so graciously has planted in my soul, that I with all my might, may love to work and learn.") When possible, classes may go for a walk to recite these verses on a riverbank in Sacramento, say, or in New York's Central Park. Cloying as this ritual may seem, many graduates remember the verses fondly. One admits that he still says his morning verse while shaving.

The solemnity of the verses sets the tone for the morning "main lesson," an intense two-hour class. (Coincidentally, carving out large blocks of study time like this has become a popular reform today.) Teachers are supposed to avoid reading from books when presenting their lesson material, and to prepare original oral presentations virtually every day. The emphasis placed on these presentations occasionally fills class time with more droning lectures than engaging student projects -- a borrowing from traditional education's more oppressive side. But there are other features that can make classes lively. Teachers are taught to present lessons as topics for open discussion, and to create a dramatic atmosphere in which the moral principles involved in a given subject can be not only pondered but felt. First-graders, for example, will pretend that they are gnomes in a fairy tale that poses concepts of good and evil. Fourth-graders may act out Nordic myths, fiercely stomping their way through a poem's iambic and dactylic rhythms. The poems also talk about Norse gods who symbolize pride, loss of innocence, and the power of the intellect -- issues that Waldorf teachers believe are just beginning to dawn on fourth-graders.

Waldorf's assorted lessons in goodness (the schools also ask students to do regular community service) seem to have their effect. "A lot of optimists come out of here," says Damon Saykally, a recent Sacramento Waldorf senior who entered the program as a sophomore and describes himself as a nihilist. "When I first came here, I was shocked at how much they think they can help the world. I think it's great."

Waldorf's philosophy of teaching through living out stories may be unusual, but it comes out of a long tradition, from the folkways of ancient cultures to the modern-day theories of child psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim and Robert Coles. In his well-known books on the development of a moral and spiritual intelligence in children, Coles stresses an immersion in moral stories. Waldorf teachers go even further. They believe that when students go through school without such stories, their ability to develop a sense of empathy is inhibited, and that limits their capacity to find meaning in life. Pointing to the psychologist Jean Piaget's famous theories about a youngster's gradual stages of development, Waldorf teachers argue that traditional schools aggravate this problem by imposing intellectual demands on students before they're ready for them. This only discourages youngsters, they say, leaving them prone to become unfeeling but clever cynics or, worse, simply apathetic.

One big plank in Waldorf's platform that is a bit difficult to get a grip on is the exhaustive references to the "soul." The word comes up, Saykally told me, "all the time." ("Soul" occurs no fewer than four times in the nineteen lines of the upper-school morning verse.) I was perplexed by the ubiquity of this term and by the apparent lack of discussion of its meaning, so I began asking students what it meant to them. "Regardless of what you do, it's who you are," a San Francisco eighth-grader said. "What you believe and think," one of her classmates said. "How you act with that in the world," another said. Pretty good answers, I thought. An hour or so later David Weber, the head teacher of their school, abruptly pulled me aside. "Don't interview them about that!" he said. "They're not at that level yet. It's too analytical. That's for the eleventh grade. Now they're just feeling it. It's just an experience. That's where it should stay." Later, when he had cooled down, Weber explained his concern more fully: questions from a reporter might encourage eighth-graders' tendency to be judgmental, a trait that Waldorf teachers try hard to temper. "How healthy is it for children to make judgments at this age?" he asked me. Eighth-graders want to see everything as "black and white," he said. "It's cool or it sucks. Some never get beyond that. We're trying not to dignify this kind of self-absorbed judgment."

Though aspects of Weber's goal sound laudable in theory, they can prove elusive in practice. During my visits I saw many seventh- and eighth-graders roll their eyes at various exercises meant to feed the soul (a puppet show of a fairy tale in a school assembly; the relentless morning verses; and, once, a seventh-grade science lesson wrapped in a fable, in which a king ordered an alchemist to get the dirt out of his salt). When I asked students about these exercises, I got mixed but mostly respectful reactions. Some outsiders, however, are considerably more distrustful, having sensed a huge piece of Waldorf philosophy that teachers keep largely hidden from their students.

Covert Spirituality

IN early 1998 Dan Dugan, a disenchanted Waldorf parent in San Francisco, sued the Sacramento school district and another nearby for introducing the Waldorf philosophy in two public schools in the mid-1990s. Dugan argued that the movement has a secret agenda that violates the Constitution's First and Fourteenth Amendments: the indoctrination of children into Waldorf's "religious doctrines of anthroposophy." Anthroposophy is the name Rudolf Steiner gave to his theories about the evolution of human consciousness, drawn from a multiplicity of disciplines -- anthropology, philosophy, psychology, science, and various religions, particularly Christianity. As Steiner wove these disciplines together with his own research, he created his own brand of spirituality, some of which complements the New Age movement. A number of Steiner's beliefs are now somewhat accepted -- for example, the notion that virtually all fields of study, from the humanities to the sciences, share a foundation of explanation. Yet many of his theories remain suspect -- in large part, no doubt, because of the dreamy way in which Steiner expressed them. In a typical essay, "The Roots of Education," he argued, "If you observe man's development with the means of inner vision of which I have already spoken -- with the eyes and ears of the soul -- then you will see that man does not consist only of a physical body . . . but that he also has supersensible members of his being."

These notions make Dugan, who is a sound engineer, smile and shake his head. "I'm opposed to magical thinking; I'm a secular humanist," he told me as we chatted recently in an office stuffed with electronic equipment on one side and dozens of anthroposophy books on the other, all of which he claims to have read. In Dugan's view, Steiner's theories are simply "cult pseudo-science." After Waldorf began spreading into public school classrooms, Dugan formed a group called PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) to declare what he calmly calls "epistemological warfare." His goal, he says, is to sort out two questions: "What is reliable knowledge? How is it obtained?"

Waldorf teachers counter that they don't formally teach anthroposophy. This is true; in fact, their own rules prohibit them from doing so. They do study it, however -- most intensively at the Steiner College, where virtually every class text was written by Steiner or another anthroposophist. (The Steiner College does expect student teachers to come to it with standard bachelor's degrees.) Waldorf teachers say they hide anthroposophy not because they see anything evil or dangerous in it but because they don't want to push their philosophy onto the students. The purpose of the teachers' anthroposophical studies is to enliven their own sensibility and deepen their understanding of evolution. Only then, according to Waldorf theory, can they inspire students with the wonder and curiosity that make for profound learning. Steiner himself encouraged this distinction. "If I had my way," he wrote,

I would give anthroposophy a new name every day to prevent people from hanging on to its literal meaning.... We must never be tempted to implement sectarian ideas.. . . We must not chain children's minds to finished concepts, but give them concepts capable of further growth and expansion.

Steinerian pronouncements of this sort have excited legions of Waldorf teachers. Ruth Mikkelsen, of the Mathews School, noticed this when she first observed Waldorf classes. "Why do they think these kids are so special?" she remembers wondering. "Thousands of times I've sat with teachers and heard them say, 'I want to kill Johnny,' or 'I can't wait till I get home and can have a glass of wine.' At Waldorf they say, 'How can we help little Ronnie, who's, you know, killing puppies now?'" That attitude may be precisely the point. Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, says, "In most of the curriculum changes schools make, if there's any benevolent effect on students, it's because the teacher is now motivated and passionate. And kids benefit from that, not from the curriculum."


But anthroposophy still "leaks into the curriculum," as Dan Dugan puts it. "They try to hide it, but they can't," Rebecca Bolnick, a recent graduate of the Sacramento Waldorf School, told me. Take, for example, Steiner's belief that each child's temperament matches one of the four medieval types: choleric (bold), phlegmatic (deliberate), melancholic (brooding), or sanguine (lighthearted). Steiner also believed that physical and spiritual development fall into distinct seven-year periods, the first beginning with the arrival of a child's permanent teeth.

Suspect as these ideas may seem, the outside experts I spoke to consider them relatively innocent. ("When you think of what the learning-disability people cook up, this is very mild," a prominent expert on early education told me.) Harmless or not, zealotry in the practice of Steiner's theories usually has a much simpler cause: bad teachers. Although this problem afflicts every school, Waldorf wrestles with an extra challenge by being one of the last refuges for the countercultural values of the 1960s. "A lot of people think Waldorf schools are the place for the kids of ex-hippies," says Eugene Schwartz, the director of teacher training at Sunbridge College, in Spring Valley, New York. That image often attracts teachers who are "dropping out from the world of competition or power," Schwartz says. They can find great comfort in Steiner's spirituality, and become more devoted followers than even Steiner himself might have wished. The result is that students sometimes learn more about Steiner's scientific theories than about Isaac Newton's. "People often think Waldorf offers an easy way to teach the sciences," Schwartz says. "In fact it's just the opposite."

As public school officials collaborate with Waldorf leaders (who come to public schools by invitation only), they are working out some interesting armistices in response to their critics' epistemological warfare. There is no uniform system as yet, and given the diverse interests of the nation's school districts, there may never be one. Some schools follow Waldorf's practice of using the Old Testament in the early grades, in world-literature studies and for inspiration on student projects; others avoid it. Most adopt Waldorf's accelerated approach to basic arithmetic and some form of its relatively slow, layered approach to reading. The initiatives show intriguing signs of success, particularly with underachieving minorities. For instance, although reading scores are often low in the early years, they generally rise dramatically by eighth grade. But the partnerships have also presented challenges. The Waldorf pedagogy and class readings are heavily Eurocentric; public school teachers must modify this orientation to accommodate American literature and, increasingly, multicultural points of view. (In California, for example, white students may be inspired by gardening, but Hispanics generally aren't.) And dramatic change in schools never proceeds smoothly. When teachers are asked to try, as adults, learning to sing, play music, and paint, many suddenly find their old ways quite attractive. As for any broad troubles with religious indoctrination, the classes in public Waldorf schools have been pretty well stripped of explorations of the spiritual.

The Second Mother

ONE of the unusual aspects of Waldorf education is a system called looping, whereby a homeroom teacher stays with a class for more than a year -- in Waldorf's case, from first through eighth grade. The practice has an intriguing combination of pros and cons, and is attracting growing attention in other education circles both private and public.

Although Waldorf students work with other teachers each day in subjects such as music, foreign languages, and physical education, the main lessons are taught for eight years by the same teacher. The purpose of this is to build solid, long-term relationships and to teach students how to do that themselves. "If you get in an argument with someone, you have to work it out," says Karen Rivers, a Waldorf educator and consultant in California. (This is a fair point of pride -- by all accounts Waldorf teachers do spend considerable amounts of time talking with students and their parents.) For students, looping offers a base of support. "I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have a second mom," Ivi Esguerra, a recent graduate, told the audience at the Steiner School open house. "The caring went beyond the academics."

The downside of looping, however, is substantial. Although the task of preparing new lessons each day keeps material fresh for the teachers and students, it also restricts the teacher's ability to perfect given lessons with repetition. And conflict between teachers and students isn't always overcome; even when it is, tension can remain. "Our teacher was great," Ben Klocek, the recent Sacramento senior, told me. "But it was way too much. By the eighth grade you're completely sick of each other." Perhaps most important, the holes in a given instructor's teaching aren't always readily filled later. Scott Embrey-Stine, a Waldorf high school teacher in Sacramento, has spent most of his career in public schools, and has been impressed by the rare skills that Waldorf develops in students. Still, after two years at Waldorf, he says, he could identify the strengths and weaknesses in the lower-school teachers by the distinct character of each class. "You see the imprint of the class teacher," he says.

A Different Citizen

IN the end the measure of a school lies in the graduates it produces. The Waldorf record seems pretty impressive. Consider students' scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Despite Waldorf students' unfamiliarity with standardized tests, their SAT scores have generally come in well above the national average, particularly on verbal measures. "The concepts, they've got," Kathleen O'Connor, who is the college counselor at the Washington Waldorf School, told me. "When they get direction on how to take multiple-choice tests, their scores soar." More important, considering the limited extent to which SATs measure ability, Waldorf students seem to do well in college admissions. Graduates from the New York and Washington schools are enrolled at many of the country's top private colleges, including Amherst, Stanford, Princeton, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and Yale.

Waldorf graduates have never been carefully tracked in this country; the only longitudinal study is a German survey, published in 1981, in which three independent researchers looked at 1,460 Waldorf graduates. They found that 22 percent had passed a rigorous German achievement test -- triple the rate for state-school students. Evidence here in the United States is anecdotal but encouraging. College professors who have had Waldorf graduates as students have been impressed with their humble confidence, passion for learning, and intellectual resourcefulness. And alumni rosters are replete with professional acclaim in fields as varied as industry and the arts, medicine and the military.

Still, a persistent fear about Waldorf schools is that their noncompetitive approach doesn't prepare students to fit in and succeed in a dog-eat-dog world -- a criticism that some Waldorf leaders acknowledge is sometimes justified. Indeed, many students choose demanding schools after leaving Waldorf precisely because they, or their parents, want more pressure and rigor in their lives. Karen Rivers, who talks frequently to worried parents in her role as a Waldorf consultant, thinks many miss the point. "We're not trying to teach them to fit in," she told me. "They already know how to fit in. We're trying to educate them to create a better world." But what about those who don't change the world -- who, like most people, don't even rise to the top? At a Steiner School alumni gathering in New York, Deborah Grace Winer, now a freelance writer, recalled that her mother always told her, "Life is not a horse race." Because someone will always beat you? I asked. "Yes," she answered. "And when someone does finally beat you, you have nothing."

Winer's comment reminded me of my visit to the Mathews School for juvenile offenders, where students begin each day already behind, with little of the foundation that Winer now has. A feel for music is but one example. "Our kids have no sense of rhythm," Evelyn Arcuri told me. As the students master a musical instrument, teachers say, their sense of rhythm grows. This seems to provide an anchor that strengthens their confidence in other work. "The recorders are just excellent," Thomas, the outgoing seventeen-year-old, told me. "It calms you down, helps you think better." Thomas was kicked out of his previous school for getting in fights. Now his grandmother says, "He's different when he's in that school. He doesn't come home as frustrated as he did." As I watched several students practice playing their recorders one morning, I understood what Thomas's grandmother meant. When the students hit a difficult section, some gave up, and a few stomped out of the room. Most soon returned. "I screwed up too," the teacher told them, "but I don't let that stop me. Just play through. Persevere. That's what this is about." They tried again and then again, did better, smiled.

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