Is This Grade School a 'Cult'? (And Do Parents Care?)

Waldorf schools are popular with progressives. But how do you feel about a dose of spiritualism with your child's reading and math?

A detail from one of Rudolph Steiner's sketches

Would you send your kid to a school where faceless dolls and pine-cones are the toys of choice? A school where kids don't read proficiently until age 9 or 10 -- and where time spared goes to knitting and playing the recorder? A school where students sing hymns to "spirit" every day?

Some of the country's hardest-charging professionals do. In locations like Manhattan, they sometimes fight over spots for their kids. The New York Times recently profiled a Waldorf school populated with the offspring of executives at Google and Apple. The school attracted notice for minimizing the use of technology in classrooms, a strategy common at Waldorf institutions. But the paper saw a paradox in tech workers favoring a school for their children that prohibits most technologies.

Waldorf's crunchy earth-child ethos is famous, but the schools' founder and philosophy are less widely known. Rudolf Steiner's first Waldorf school predates the hippie era by almost 50 years. Steiner started his career as a Goethe scholar in the late 19th century. But as he became less interested in science and more interested in spirituality, his writing began to take a mystical turn. By the turn of the 20th century, he had become a proponent of theosophy -- an esoteric belief system centered on ways of knowing God -- and founded a society dedicated to promoting his own brand of "anthroposophical" thinking.

Most occultists of the era believed that spirits of the dead regularly attempted to contact or enter the world of the living. Steiner was more interested in the opposite possibility. He believed the living could cultivate the ability to enter the spirit world. After World War I, the director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany --  an adherent of anthroposophy -- invited Steiner to create a school for the children of factory workers. This was Steiner's chance to train children who could initiate such spiritual contact.

The Waldorf school at Stuttgart, founded in 1919, grew rapidly, and five more schools opened across Germany in short order. In the 1930s, all were closed by the Nazis. By that point, however, there were thriving Waldorf schools in Holland and New York City, and Steiner's method survived the war. There are about 160 Waldorf schools in the U.S. today, with an unknown number that have adapted some Waldorf methods to their curriculum, and close to 1,000 Waldorf schools around the 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. (The concept of "spirit" is not well-defined -- a fact that makes the Waldorf pedagogy look a little mushy.)

At other times, spirit serves as a kind of internal clock that orders the way subjects are taught. As the the New York Times explained in 2000, "Steiner believed that people experience a type of reincarnation every seven years, beginning with the physical birth and ending at age 21, when the spirit of a human being is fully developed and continually reincarnated on earth." As a direct consequence, at traditional Waldorf schools, "certain subjects are taught at times that he thought best coincided with these changes." Students also remain with the same instructor for periods of about seven years, a technique known as "looping."

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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