Gnomes and critics at Waldorf schools

National Post (Canada), Nov. 16, 2002
Carol Milstone

Waldorf schools claim to be North America’s fastest-growing chain of alternative independent schools. Parents praise them for encouraging pupils’ artistic expression and keeping pressure and competition to a minimum. But critics are troubled by the schools’ underlying philosophy. It rejects modern medicine and psychiatry and promotes belief in astrology and the existence of gnomes in the woods.

Last spring, Helen and Cam Dorion (not their real names) were thrilled with the alternative school they had just selected for their children.

“I’ve been looking into schools for about a year now, and the second I walked in the door I just knew,” said Helen, of the Ottawa Waldorf School. “In the three weeks that the two boys have been here, they have improved tremendously.”

Helen and Cam were so impressed they moved their family from Ottawa’s west end to the outlying suburb of Stittsville, Ont., to be closer to their newly chosen school.

“I go a lot on gut feelings,” reported Cam with great fervour. “The stuff they can do in the yard here is great — it’s the stuff I grew up with. I’m from the country, and so I like the teeter-totter in the yard made out of a stump,” he says. “And from what I understand, the school’s main goal is to raise a nice person. They will fulfill their own dreams, but they are not out to get someone else. It’s not dog-eat-dog [at Waldorf], and I think that’s important.”

The Dorions were not alone in their enthusiasm for Waldorf schools. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, Waldorf schools recently have become North America’s fastest-growing alternative independent schools. With their reputation for artistic expression and non-conformity, it is hardly surprising that pop psychologist David Elkind gives Waldorf schools full endorsement in his best-seller, The Hurried Child.

Started more than 80 years ago in Europe (where they are called Steiner Schools), there are more than 600 Waldorf schools in over 30 countries, with 20 in Canada. Named after a German cigarette factory where the first school opened, Waldorf schools were founded by Rudolf Steiner, a prominent New Age-style Austrian philosopher and self-styled clairvoyant who started a movement called Anthroposophy.

Waldorf schools have no computers or high-tech gadgetry, and all classroom supplies are made of natural fibre (cotton, wood, wool, etc.). To keep pressure and competition to a minimum, there are no clocks, drill cards, textbooks or tests. No mirrors of any kind are allowed in Waldorf schools (they promote too much self-focus), nor are black crayons in early grades (a harsh and undesirable colour).

To its supporters, Waldorf is a gentle antidote to today’s preoccupation with early achievement, inflated commercialism and undue pressure on children. Many parents are particularly happy that Waldorf teachers stay with the same students from preschool until Grade 8 — a process called looping. The teachers believe this practice promotes security and trust in the classroom.

As with any non-conventional school, Waldorf has its critics.

To its detractors, Waldorf’s apparent humility and security are only a veneer. They point to the philosophy (some call it a religion) called Anthroposophy, developed by Steiner, and forming the cornerstone of all Waldorf schools.

Although not officially part of the Waldorf curriculum, Anthroposophy is pushed in brochures, newsletters and pamphlets that are scattered throughout the schools. Waldorf teachers are trained and well versed in Anthroposophy, and local Anthroposophy study groups are established at the schools. Waldorf classrooms include prayer tables, where the children recite daily incantations about spirits and rhythms in nature.

The critics view Anthroposophy as a potentially dangerous religion that is New Age-like and mystical. They are troubled, for example, by how Anthroposophy rejects modern medicine and psychiatry and believes (among other things) in astrology, reincarnation and the existence of little gnomes in the woods. A contingent of Waldorf critics charges that some of Steiner’s Anthroposophical writings are racist, while others are simply bothered by the feeling of exclusion Waldorf schools create.

Anthroposophy is based on the prolific lectures and writings of Steiner. Described as a body of beliefs called “spiritual mysticism,” some key elements of Anthroposophy are reincarnation, destiny, biodynamics, eurythmy and Anthroposophical medicine.

According to an Anthroposophy brochure, biodynamics is a “scientific and spiritual approach” to organic farming and gardening, considering such things as “life rhythms of sun and moon,” and the “cosmic forces” of other planets. (“By learning how to strengthen and harmonize these influences,” says the brochure, “we can enhance the nutritional value of our food.”) Waldorf school gardens are managed according to biodynamics, and most parents could easily appreciate the schoolyard’s freedom from pesticides and chemicals.

Eurythmy is a system of rhythmic, dance-like movements that are taught to all Waldorf children and performed at school concerts. According to another Anthroposophy brochure, eurythmy is based on “the movement language of the soul,” and is seen by many Waldorf parents as a form of artistic expression that they are pleased to see their children acquire.

Others, however, say eurythmy is much more than artistic expression. “Eurythmy is taken from the magical lodge tradition of gestures and signs,” warns Sharon Lombard in a letter on the Internet to prospective Waldorf parents. “It has a secret language which Steiner lifted from the Cabbala (via the Rosicrucians), and the children in Waldorf are made to communicate to the spirit world.”

Lombard, a vocal critic of Waldorf education, happily sent her daughter to her local Waldorf school in Wisconsin until her daughter came home with what she felt were some disturbing aspects of the curriculum. Lombard decided to investigate.

She found the curriculum riddled with “alchemy, magic, astrology and all the bizarre and weird ideas of the occult.” Lombard, who is also a regular contributor to an online discussion group whose aim is to bring concerns about Waldorf out in the open, believes there are elements of a “secret society” in how the schools are run. “Most of the parents go along with the program without a clue. Waldorf schools are not the progressive, liberal, artistic image that they are very good at portraying.”

The “secret society” Lombard refers to takes the form of Anthroposophy study groups held by Waldorf staff for the true believers. There are many philosophical and esoteric issues that are discussed in these groups, including the topic of the gnomes.

Look on the floors, walls, shelves, window sills, prayer tables, snack tables, play areas or just about anywhere in a Waldorf classroom and you will see the gnomes. There are cotton-felt gnomes, hand-knit wool gnomes and gnomes drawn with pastels and water colours. Small, handcrafted gnomes are also the mainstay of most Waldorf school fundraisers. While many parents believe the gnomes simply provide flights of fancy for imaginative play, Anthroposophists believe gnomes are a true life form.

“As in little dwarf-like people who live in the interior of the Earth?” one concerned new Waldorf parent posted in a recent online Waldorf discussion group.

“Our lead kindergarten teacher is very upfront that she believes in gnomes,” responded another parent. “Before their weekly walk in the forest, the kindergartens ask the gnomes (who, after all, live there) for permission to enter.”

“But do they really believe in gnomes?” persisted the first parent.

“Trust me, they believe it,” Diane Winters asserted. She’s a former Waldorf classroom aide in Philadelphia and now a vocal critic of Waldorf education because of her growing concerns with the schools’ philosophy.

“Do you believe in gnomes?” I asked Waldorf parent Leah Spilchen at an Ottawa Waldorf school open house last spring. “Yes, I do,” answered Spilchen unequivocally. “But I don’t believe that they would look like what we think of as gnomes because they are spirits, and we can’t see them.”

I received similar responses from the half-dozen other Waldorf supporters whom I queried on the topic. Ernst Von Bezold, who represents Waldorf schools on the board of directors for the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, believes gnomes are “nature’s spirits” and says he is open to believing that some people have seen them. He claims he has seen angels.

“Steiner taught that if you didn’t make spiritual progression over successive lifetimes, you come back as a gnome,” explains Philadelphia’s Diana Winters.

Reincarnation, spiritual progression, and karma (destiny) are a big part of Anthroposophy’s spiritual mysticism and Steiner has written volumes on these topics.

“We must see this lawful and regular connection between an earlier existence and a later one as the ‘law of destiny’,” wrote Steiner. “We usually apply the term ‘karma’. “

Steiner explains that “each incarnating spirit brings its destiny along with it from previous incarnations, and this destiny determines its previous life.”

“Only a real cynic would not fall in love with the Waldorf gnomes [at first],” Winters elaborates. “But it’s another thing to live and breathe gnome culture day in and day out.”

References to gnomes in school literature are hard to find, but references to incarnation and destiny can be found in the online newsletter of the Toronto Waldorf School, which states, “Child development is regarded by the Waldorf educator as a process whereby an individual incarnates into earthly existence…. We see it as our task to facilitate the development of each individual on the path to their destiny”.

Waldorf’s approach to literacy is another controversial aspect of the school’s philosophy. Believing that too much early learning can hamper spiritual development, the schools have strict policies to curtail early literacy. These policies include the complete exclusion of books in the early grades, and postponing reading and writing until the child is around eight years old — depending on when the child’s permanent teeth emerge.

“It is a very bad thing to be able to write early,” Steiner said. “Reading and writing are really not suited to the human being until a later age — the eleventh or twelfth year.”

While Waldorf supporters see delayed reading as a positive step in a child’s development; others are not as impressed. Vancouver’s Wendy Van Reisen was a conventionally trained teacher when she sent her two sons to Vancouver Waldorf School at different times from 1989 to 1999. When Van Reisen’s younger son, Duncan, still couldn’t read in Grade 3 at the Waldorf school, Van Reisen became sufficiently alarmed to withdraw him from the school. “He had a slight learning disability,” reports Van Reisen, “but he certainly wasn’t intellectually slow, and he soon became a great reader once he left Waldorf and worked at home with me.”

Another aspect of the Waldorf approach is its rejection of traditional medicine in favour of the Anthroposophical herbal remedies that are often sold in the schools. An Anthroposophical medicine newsletter on display at the Ottawa Waldorf School contains articles on curing cancer with mistletoe, treating diabetes with herbs and homeopathy and “the spiritual psychology of chronic illness.” Waldorf children who are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, autism and other serious disorders are often taken off their medication and parents are urged to withdraw their children from any psychiatric or psychological services they may be receiving.

“As I said to one set of parents who came to us with a child diagnosed with serious behavioural disorders,” reports Ottawa Waldorf School teacher Mel Belanson, “you must bring your child here right away. This is a rescue operation. Take him off the meds and get him away from the therapists.”

On this point, Waldorf parents who believe today’s children are over-medicated for behaviour disorders are in good company, with many reputable physicians claiming that far too many of today’s children are given medication.

But Waldorf’s rejection of modern medicine is largely based on Anthroposophy, which according to Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in the United States, is not scientific. “Anthroposophical medicine claims that disease is caused primarily by a disturbance of the ‘vital essence,’ the heart does not pump blood, and there are twelve senses corresponding to signs of the zodiac,” she says.

Other Waldorf critics are more concerned with the seemingly racist contents of Rudolf Steiner’s writings, some of which have been found in teacher training material.

“In the truest sense,” wrote Steiner in 1904, “everyone receives his allotted task from his family, national or racial group soul.”

“The Ancestors of the Atlanteans lived in a religion which has disappeared,” elaborated Steiner. “In theosophical writings they are called the Lemurians…. From this part the Atlanteans were formed…. The greatest part of the Atlantean population declined, and from a small portion are descended the so-called Aryans who comprise present-day civilized humanity.”

In public lectures during the same year (1904), Steiner declared, “Ever since the Atlantean Race began slowly to disappear, the great Aryan Race has been the dominant one on Earth.”

“That is a terrible thing the French people are doing to other people,” Steiner wrote from Germany in 1923. “[From] the frightful cultural brutality of transplanting black people to Europe … the French nation will become weakened as a race.”

These passages from Steiner’s works are posted at the Web site of PLANS, People for Legal and Non-sectarian Schools, which was founded by former Waldorf parents and teachers in order to take the Sacramento, Calif., public school district to court for funding Waldorf schools — schools that PLANS alleges in the ongoing legal case are religious and therefore in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Closer to home, a group of former Waldorf parents from Montreal filed a complaint with the Quebec government that their local Waldorf school was not sufficiently upfront about Anthroposophy, prompting Montreal researcher Yves Casgrain to recently begin a book on the issue.

The American concerns go further. In the PLANS Web site, which draws about 30 posts a day, are extracts from pro-apartheid material written by South African Anthroposophists in the 1980s, and passages that PLANS claims are from recent Waldorf teacher training manuals in the United States, including: “When it was time for Zarathustra to leave the Earth, he climbed the mountain…. As he turned to look back at the Earth, he had a vision of things to happen in the future. He saw the Aryan peoples marching on victoriously towards the west.”

Charges against Waldorf have ebbed and flowed across Europe and North America over the past 60 years. But actual cases or formal complaints of racism have never surfaced in any Waldorf school.

“I’ve encountered a claim once that Steiner’s writings are troubling,” says Von Bezold. He has sent four of his children to the Toronto Waldorf School. “I examined it, and found the concern to be without merit.”

Von Bezold says he has never seen anything that resembles racism or anti-Semitism from his experience, and if he did he would become alarmed. “Steiner’s views are Steiner’s views. And a Waldorf teacher is free to accept or reject his views,” says Von Bezold, also pointing out there are no allegations of racism or anti-Semitism in Canadian Waldorf schools.

“From what I’ve seen,” he says, “I would not conclude that Steiner does anything but respect human rights. So to the critics, I would say, ‘I haven’t seen it. Show me.’ The critics just don’t understand Steiner,” Von Bezold contends. “He is actually an intellectual giant.”

Von Bezold bases his defence of Steiner and Waldorf schools on his own study of Anthroposophy, his experience as a supply teacher in Waldorf schools and 53 years of Waldorf education that have been accumulated by his four children. Von Bezold has no problems with Waldorf’s mystical views regarding things such as karma and reincarnation, and he points out many mainstream religions have questionable or objectionable elements to them, yet society accepts them without question.

Using Von Bezold’s logic, one could view the publication of horoscopes in the daily newspapers as weird or objectionable, or the religious teachings of any non-secular school in mainstream society. Telling children about Santa (which is objectionable to many Anthroposophists), the Easter bunny, or the tooth fairy could also be held up to moral scrutiny.

To further their defence, Waldorf supporters could also point out they are not the only schools with disenchanted parents. Rates of dissatisfaction and attrition are much higher in French immersion programs than Waldorf schools, for example, and significant numbers of parents withdraw their children from Montessori schools due to school pressure for early literacy.

Nor is there a shortage of highly satisfied Waldorf graduates. Elegwen O Maoileoin, 21, of Vancouver expresses a strong attachment to his 13 years as a student at the Vancouver Waldorf School. “Honestly, sending me to Waldorf was the best thing my parents ever did for me,” says O Maoileoin. “I would love to be able to go back to teach in a Waldorf one day.”

O Maoileoin is one of only six graduating students at Vancouver Waldorf School in 1999, and in many ways O Maoileoin could be considered the quintessential Waldorfian protegé.

O Maoileoin recalls with fondness the spiritual rituals of his early Waldorf years, including the group blessings of fresh fruit; the staring at tree roots for gnomes; and his school’s prohibition against black clothing or black crayons in the early years. O Maoileoin is particularly grateful for learning that “there is credibility to less popular beliefs,” and he also appreciates his lessons on native American culture, Norse mythology, Egyptian history and the stories of the Bible.

As with many Waldorf parents, O Maoileoin’s parents were not ones to embrace a wholly conventional belief system. When they decided to send their son to Waldorf 16 years ago, they were both practicing transcendental meditation. Since then O Maoileoin’s mother has worked as a professional astrologist. As a child, O Maoileoin was taught about telekinesis and astral travel.

While a teenager at Waldorf, O Maoileoin spent six years practicing Wicca (modern witchcraft), after which he said he became an agnostic and then an atheist. As with many of his classmates, O Maoileoin rejected Steiner and Anthroposophy as a teen, although now he is a follower. Recently, O Maoileoin also converted to Catholicism.

After graduating from Waldorf, O Maoileoin studied linguistics at a local college, and has read Rudolf Steiner’s works on Anthroposophy extensively. On charges that Steiner was racist, O Maoileoin echoes Toronto Waldorf parent Ernst Von Bezold by claiming he was never taught anything racist at his Waldorf school and the critics misunderstand Steiner. (On a personal level, O Maoileoin conveys sincerity in his conviction that the white race is “definitely not” superior to any other, and that “all races have a lot to learn from each other.”)

In storybook fashion, O Maoileoin recently became engaged to a woman who was in his Grade One class at the Vancouver Waldorf School. He now sets his sights on a master’s degree in divinity at Vancouver School of Theology and his dream is to eventually teach at a Waldorf school.

While Waldorf graduates such as O Maoileoin feel they have thrived from their unconventional and spiritual education, disenchanted Waldorf parents express a common sense of being misled by the school’s wholesome image.

“There is nothing in the [school brochures] about incarnating children’s souls,” says a Waldorf parent-turned-critic in British Columbia who requests anonymity due to pending legal action with a local Waldorf school. “How many parents even know that Waldorf teachers study Steiner’s occultism in order to teach at a Waldorf?”

“When our son started in the San Francisco Waldorf,” recalls critic Dan Dugan, “I thought it was a progressive, artistic school. The teachers said they teach a standard curriculum, just based on Steiner’s teaching methods. In fact, it is more than that. Waldorf schools are actually about Anthroposophy.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 18, 2002.
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