Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On Waldorf

On another blog (unnamed, as the comment was deleted), Richard Rawlings recently ranted on his issues with Waldorf education, claiming it was religious and racist and rapidly reaching into the arena of public education.

Curious, I read Rawling's "expose┬┤", the websites of the American Waldorf Schools, several individual school websites, and a forum generally critical of Waldorf education. Waldorf schools appear to be oriented towards producing very artists and humanitarians, with a lot of focus on drawing, crafts, and kinesthetics. I would have to guess they are somewhat weaker on science and mathematics, though not uniformly so: its graduates do include scientists and physicians as well as actors and artists.

Most of Rawlings' claims appear to be based on his personal experience as a student and the writings of the founder of Waldorf schooling.

Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the founder of Waldorf education. He died in 1925, and promptly stopped writing books about education. Some of his writings do seem pretty flaky -- they reference esp, unseen forces, and the like. To the extent this survives in the Waldorf educational system, it would be in the field of anthroposophy, a sort of spiritual/mystical belief system with some rationalistic properties. Rawlings claims it's a "religion", but it seems to lack a lot of the features of a true religion and would more appropriately be called a "quasi-mystic philosophy". Steiner had tried, and failed, to have it accepted as a science, but it has been applied in fields such as medicine, architecture, and agriculture.

Rawlings has difficulty actually citing the religious bent in the schooling itself, as anthroposophy is not an official subject of the curriculum. He notes that there were no scriptures studied or learned dogma, but notes that a "strange aura" hung over the school. He suggests the students' "otherworldly" water-color paintings suggest the link to "talismanic representations of the spirit realm". Other than that, he notes that glimpses of the spiritualist nature were "hidden". Some of the evidence for the spiritual nature of the curriculum was in the literature studied: the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.

Rawlings also mentions Steiner's alleged racism in his diatribe. While arguably Steiner's writings contained evidence of racism, and some Waldorf schools may have some racist teachers, he admits he does not know the current state of Waldorf schools, which may have changed from when he attended. Viewing some of the websites shows a relatively broad racial mix of students and teachers. Which brings us to when he attended -- he graduated more than 40 years ago, in 1964. I thus find it difficult to treat his experience with any relevance.

This is not how an educational system should be judged. One does not do research on a system as it was 40 to 50 years ago, or on the founder's ideas almost a century ago, to determine how well it works today. One does not do research in the form of one person's testimony (or even the several who post on the Waldorf critic forum). A system must be judged on what it produces. It should be measured, either in test scores or through some other measure. It can then be compared and judgments rendered.

My guess is that Waldorf education is guilty mostly of being "famously fruitcake" (in the words of one commentator). Looking over the curriculum of its' schools reveals they all have "eurythmy", a sort of dance and body awareness, a lot of comparative religious study focusing mainly on Hebraic religions and then Greek and Norse mythology, a focus on crafts and music, and a resistance to teaching reading before second grade. German and French are learned from a relatively early age, and I would imagine most students achieve at least a usable proficiency. Much of the education appears to be very "hands-on", similar in some respects to Montessori schooling. Artistic endeavors are prominent among its graduates, and many appear to be attending college late in life. The colleges they attend range from mediocre to competitive. The teachers appear to have suitable degrees in the fields they teach from well-known institutions.

Rawlings has utterly failed to convince me. Suggestively, the lawsuit Rawlings' references against a charter and a magnet school in California was dismissed for lack of evidence. I'm not inclined towards education that leans towards a "spirit realm", and vigorously argue against any sort of compulsion in religion, even to the point where I disagree with the two well-known words in the Pledge of Allegiance and the four words on currency referencing a deity. I would not likely choose a Waldorf education for my children. Where school choice exists, however, I feel it's important to have as many forms of education as possible. In a free market of education, I think Waldorf would represent one viable alternative.



Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, it doesn't thrill me when people use the comments section to promote something instead of participating in the discussion. But since I know what it's like to try to promote something, I let it sit for a day before I deleted it. Thanks for checking this out for us.

3:38 PM  

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