Spiritual Foundations

Anthroposophy's role in Waldorf education

Both historically and philosophically, Waldorf education grows out of anthroposophy's view of child development. Some Waldorf schools mention both Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy in their web sites but the extent of information schools provide to prospective parents about these particular topics varies widely.

AWSNA, the accrediting organization for all Waldorf Schools in North America, states on their web page:

A Waldorf school is not just an alternative to public schools or another independent school; its curriculum and philosophy proceed from the world view and the insights into the nature of the child that Rudolf Steiner has given us in Anthroposophy. If there is not a core community surrounding the school initiative that is thoroughly familiar with and committed to that philosophy and pedagogy, then it is unlikely that the initiative will prosper.

The anthroposophical work in a community is very important because Waldorf Education arises out of the soil of Anthroposophy. It is into this soil that the roots of the school will grow and derive nourishment.

The school itself needs to have a healthy fertile relationship with Anthroposophy if it is to grow and thrive as a Waldorf school. For more information about the study of Anthroposophy or to learn of anthroposophical study groups in your area, you may contact the Anthroposophical Society in America.

AWSNA also stresses that although Anthroposophy is a central influence, and study of its inner path and teachings are encouraged for the educational community of teachers, parents, and supporters of the schools, they are never compulsory, stating, "There can be nothing compulsory about the study of Anthroposophy, for it must live in the realm of inner freedom."

Anthroposophy is not taught to pupils as a subject: "The Waldorf School, or any other school which might spring from the anthroposophical movement, would never wish to teach its pupils anthroposophy in the form in which it exists today. This I should consider the very worst thing one could do." Nevertheless, it stands as the basis for Waldorf education's theory of child development, methodology of teaching and curriculum.

There is one occasional exception to the exclusion of anthroposophical content; some schools have seen the need to give their graduating twelfth-graders a clear picture of the basis for their education through a course on Child Development. Above and beyond presenting the anthroposophic view of child development, such a course may include a description of some other anthroposophic ideas, introduced to help the students understand the origin and nature of the school's educational approach: the human being as composed of body, soul and spirit; the value of integrating multiple points of view; reincarnation; etc. The purpose is to ensure that pupils understand the background of their educational experience and there is open discussion of the viability of these ideas.

Anthroposophical principles, including the principle that every human being includes a body, soul and immortal spirit; reincarnation and karma; the conviction that everything material has a spiritual nature; esoteric Christianity; and the belief that individual spiritual development will allow perception of spiritual realities are at the heart of the pedagogical understanding of the teachers and are the foundation of the curriculum itself. Steiner emphasized this connection in his public lectures about Waldorf education. For some people, these principles are interpreted as religious, and this reasoning has brought questions about whether public charter schools should receive taxpayer funding. The San Francisco based anti-Waldorf lobby group PLANS has been extremely vocal on this issue.

Religious orientation of some schools

Independent Waldorf schools tend to celebrate festivals and otherwise incorporate content that draws on their community's cultural background. In clearly Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu cultures, the religious traditions of the surrounding culture are often woven into the school's life, and this is generally one of the most appreciated aspects of school life. Challenges may arise in multicultural settings.

In traditionally Christian countries - Europe, the United States, and Australia - there is mixed anecdotal evidence, some individuals complaining that their children's Waldorf schools emphasized Christian festivals, values and/or theology; others emphasizing that they have not found such an emphasis in their school. Two factors seem to be at work here: the schools' tendency to embrace local religious traditions whatever their setting, which can be problematic for those not of the majority religion, and the schools' foundation in Anthroposophy, which, despite its conscious inclusion of all religions, has a strong esoteric Christian thread. Different schools clearly handle these tensions differently, and an engaged parent body or community input can awaken schools to the issue, as has happened on a large scale in various countries.