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."

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."

In recent years, Waldorf has been attacked from two opposing sides of the same debate. Both Christians and secularists have criticized the schools, arguing that they educate children in a religious system. This would matter less if all Waldorf schools were private, but many are public. (In fact, the 1999 Atlantic article focused on a public Waldorf for delinquent students.)

In 1998, a group of Christians and secular humanists in Northern California, where the Waldorf method is popular, united to found an organization dedicated to opposing its use in public education. The group, People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS), unsuccessfully sued two school districts in California to get them to stop funding Waldorf Method public schools. PLANS still exists, and its website discusses whether Waldorf ought to be called a cult.

The case was still ongoing in 2000, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article exploring the controversy and some of its sources:

"Fundamental to [Steiner's] work is the view that the human being is composed of body, soul and spirit, and that the Christ event is key to the unfolding of human history and the achievement of human freedom," says the Web site of the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, which is the West Coast training center for Waldorf teachers. ...

Another area of disagreement involves the nature tables that are staples in most Waldorf kindergarten and primary classrooms. Public Waldorf supporters view the tables, covered with pinecones, rocks, and seashells, as a way to teach respect for the environment. Critics view them as altars that promote sun worship and pantheism.

"You don't see it unless you've read Steiner's work," said San Franciscan Dan Dugan of PLANS.

Supporters of Waldorf say the emphasis on nature is about building tactility. So who's right? Maybe it doesn't matter. When it comes to society-wide metrics, the 1999 Atlantic article notes that Waldorf graduates score "well above the national average" on their SATs. And the schools seem to work for children who don't come from privileged backgrounds: One Waldorf school profiled in the same article works specifically -- and impressively -- with juvenile offenders. For most parents, the roots of the method are a lot less interesting than its results.