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."
A Steiner biographer notes that "it's not unusual for many parents sending their children to Steiner schools to be unaware of his occult philosophy." Some of the school's more unusual practices turn potential families away -- for instance, the fact that children aren't taught to read until second or third grade. Day to day, though, the esoteric influence at Waldorf schools is practically invisible. The curriculum stresses practical knowledge and creativity. In 1999, The Atlantic ran an enthusiastic article on Waldorf methods. The author visited the original U.S. Waldorf school on Manhattan's Upper East Side:
The class was finishing a year-long project: making mallets for wood-carving out of stubborn pieces of hardwood, which they were patiently filing and sanding by hand. One boy, who had finished his mallet, was making a knife out of teak, and regularly paused to feel its smoothness on his cheek. Waldorf students work on some kind of art project virtually every day. Recalling her early years, Eliana Raviv, a ten-year-old, told me, "We never had green or purple. We make it out of vermilion, red, yellow, and blue, two kinds of blue."
When the author asked why modern students needed to learn outdated skills like woodcarving, the teacher replied, "You almost need it as a balance for the high-tech world."