Friday, March 6, 2015

How Did Brunelleschi Fool a Fat Woodcutter?

A fat woodcutter, name unknown, did not attend a dinner party to which he had been invited, offending the diminutive architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Seems excessive, but, regardless, Brunelleschi planned to get his revenge by playing an elaborate prank on the woodcutter. While the woodcutter was asleep, Brunelleschi contrived to alter the woodcutter’s room so that, when he awoke, the woodcutter believed that he, the woodcutter, did not exist…

How did he do it? History doesn’t tell us, but here’s my hypothesis.

First, remember that Brunelleschi has rediscovered and systematized the representation of linear perspective in visual art. Among his other achievements, Brunelleschi has done this:

He has painted a Florentine street scene in perfect one-point perspective, building by building, on a mirror. Why a mirror? You’ll see in a moment. The horizon in the painting matches the horizon on the street. The vanishing point in the painting matches the point at which Brunelleschi stands to make the work, and then at which he has his viewers stand. At the vanishing point, Brunelleschi drills a small hole. He mounts the painting in the street that the painting portrays. He positions an unpainted mirror before the painting so that viewers standing behind the painting and looking through the small hole see, reflected, the painting and, around it, the actual street it represents (which it matches perfectly, at the right time of day). The mirror includes the actual sky, clouds scudding along, reflected twice, above the buildings. By forcing viewers to look with one eye only, peeking through his hole, Brunelleschi heightens the illusion of perspective, which otherwise would be compromised by our binocular vision. Florentines line up to see this almost miraculous vision. Here's a picture that gives you some idea of what he did:

Remember that, for Italians in the Renaissance, perspective is new and wholly captivating (sort of like the first time you were mesmerized by a screen saver, I imagine, or a 3-D movie). Their vision is less schooled in perspective, less alert to the illusion of depth. They are likely more gullible and susceptible to the authority—genuine and assumed—of their political, religious, and cultural leaders. For them, the illusion is almost certainly far greater than it would be for us more skeptical, more jaded modern persons.

The fat woodcutter runs afoul of Brunelleschi. A woodcutter? Since childhood, I heard of woodcutters in tales and fables and assumed they were like Mr. Briggs, who delivered our firewood. A strenuous, not especially skilled job. A chainsaw, a hydraulic splitter, and a pickup truck. What else is there? But woodcutters before the Industrial Revolution are something else. Fell a tree, by hand, haul it, store it, dry it, plan its use, cut it without waste, plane it smooth and square. Know what wood is best for what use, fill the orders, make a living through hard work. Don’t sell wood that will warp or doesn’t meet the demands of your client. Deliver an order on time. No excuses. Don’t run afoul of a brilliant, demanding Brunelleschi. According to one account, the woodcutter rudely missed a dinner party to which Brunelleschi had invited him. Oops.

Brunelleschi plots his revenge.

While the woodcutter is asleep, perhaps aided by some strong wine, Brunelleschi steals into his room and replaces the small metal mirror, which the woodcutter prizes and hangs on the wall near his door, with a small, careful painting, light falling at a morning angle, reversed as in a mirror, in perfect perspective, of the interior of the woodcutter’s room. Large, glass mirrors like we enjoy simply didn’t exist in the Renaissance, especially not for mere woodcutters.

When the groggy, unsophisticated woodcutter awakens and looks in his mirror, what does he see? Not himself, but his room, as if he’s not there at all. He looks for his own face. It’s not there. He moves his arms. Nothing alters. For several moments, he doubts his own existence, and Brunelleschi has his laugh.

Three mirrors, two paintings, one joke. How else could Brunelleschi have pulled this off?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Computers Think? Magical Thinking and Computer "Thinking"

I asked my students if computers would eventually be able to think, assuming they can’t already. Some said yes. Some said no. Some said it depends on what you mean by thinking. Are neurons digital? Even if thinking isn’t digital, couldn’t something digital, perhaps, think? Software can already learn, some said. That’s not learning, others said. Round and round.

And then we learned about ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, built at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II. ENIAC was the first “universal” computer, built according to Turing’s understanding of a "complete" machine; one built to do whatever it was programmed to do, and not simply a giant calculator or tabulator. Famously room-sized, made with vacuum tubes instead of transistors, and programmed with around one million punch cards, it had no memory and could solve between 300 and 400 multiplication problems per second. It was created to solve problems related to the trajectories of shells, but was used to create the first atomic bomb.


After learning about ENIAC, I asked the students, again, if they believed computers could think. Imagine a larger ENIAC, I said, as large as you like. Imagine a program of millions and millions of punch cards, as many as you like. Imagine it works more quickly, as quickly as you like. Imagine I attach some sort of conveyor belt to it so that its program will output new punch cards that can feed into the input stack and alter the existing program, I said. That’s what you mean when you tell me computers can learn, I told them. Nope, they said, not learning, not thinking. They all agreed that ENIAC would never be able to think.

But that’s all a computer is, I told them. Your smartest phone, your fastest laptop, the bestest supercomputer.


Is there something about the hidden, electrical, solid-state nature of computers built on microprocessors connected to glowing screens that seems, well, magical, Harry Potter? Something that convinces rational students of an irrational impossibility? Isn’t this the definition of superstition?

Humans can think, still. Computers clearly cannot—if you think about it clearly.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Every technological advance brings us power and control. And every technological advance robs something from us.

Clocks bring order and regularity to a conception of time, but, having invented the clock, we can… forget about time. The clock will remind us. Invent a printing press, and we can reproduce texts by the millions. And we can forget stories. We don’t need to remember, because the story is always waiting for us in the book. (How many stories did your children know by heart before they learned to read? And how many after?) Invent a light bulb, and we can forget about natural light. Invent GPS, and we can ignore where we are. And on and on.

I’m not arguing against technology, just pointing out one way and one direction in which it changes us, always.

So, what about the computer? Calculator, library, messenger, entertainer. The computer isn’t one thing. The computer is whatever we want it to be, within the limits of its digital existence.

Of what does it threaten to rob us? Of thinking itself. Not because the computer can think, but because, in using it, too often, we don’t have to.

And if we forget how to think, then it won’t matter much if computers can think or not, will it?

(Many thanks to the Class of 2017 and the Class of 2018 of the Berkshire Waldorf High School for a lively History of Technology course, one that prompted the entry above.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Happy (late) Michaelmas!

A bit late. I forgot that I did this (based on a colleague's story). Never let it be said that Waldorf teachers or students lack humor!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Waldorf School Administration and Enrollment

This article is prompted by years of work in Waldorf schools, by recent conversations about the current travails of a particular school that is struggling with shrinking enrollment, and by a recent glance through the financial statements of half a dozen Waldorf schools.

Are 150 students, to pick a number, a good enrollment or a bad enrollment for an independent Waldorf elementary school?

Among other factors, it depends on your point of view.

As a school grows from 100 to 120 and, finally, to 150, 150 feels like a comfortable number, a sustainable number, a number worth celebrating. The budget is balanced. Maybe there’s even a small surplus to create a reserve or put toward deferred maintenance or a capital campaign.

But if a school has 200 students and then sees its enrollment drop to 180, 160, and then to 150, it may feel as if the sky is falling, and the school may be on the verge of collapse.

Same buildings, same classrooms, same playgrounds and fields, even the same teachers… totally different feelings. So, beyond the worry of declining enrollment, what’s different? How a growing school structures itself to serve 150 students may be very different from how a shrinking school does the same thing.

Often, I believe, a large part of this difference lies in administration and support staff. Many Waldorf schools will cut teachers—full-time music or handwork or eurythmy teachers are cut back to part-time—before they cut staff. They believe that they “have to have” an admissions director, a development director, a full-time administrator, and so on. Nothing against anyone in these positions—I’ve been married to a spectacular fundraiser for almost 27 years and I’ve been a school administrator for 13 years—but many Waldorf schools have an administrative staff that could support an enrollment twice the actual enrollment, or more.

In the end, however, the value a school has lies in its education, in the quality of its programs, and not in its administration (this is not to excuse poor administration in Waldorf schools!).

How much less money would your school raise without your development director? What if she were halftime instead of full-time? Chances are, in a small school, that your community gives because it values the school and that its giving capacity doesn’t cover the increased expense of a professional fundraiser.

Or, how many checks enter and leave the school in a month? A few dozen? How many hours do your business manager and bookkeeper really require? Plenty of efficient bookkeepers and business managers make a good living by working for several businesses for a few hours per week each. But a job can expand to fill the hours allotted to it.

How many admissions inquiries are there in a year at your school? How many tours? How many phone calls? Do you need a full-time admissions director? Do you even need a half-time admissions director?

Finally, is your administrator a teacher? If not, what do you make of Steiner’s injunction below (one of remarkably few)?

“The administration of the educational institutions, the organization of courses of instruction and their goals should be entirely in the hands of persons who themselves are simultaneously either teaching or otherwise productively engaged in cultural life. In each case, such persons would divide their time between actual teaching (or some other form of cultural productivity) and the administrative control of the educational system. It will be evident to anyone who can bring himself to an unbiased examination of cultural life that the peculiar vitality and energy of soul required for organizing and directing educational institutions will be called forth only in someone actively engaged in teaching or in some sort of cultural creativity.” (Steiner, “The Threefold Social Order and Educational Freedom.”

Or, “Teachers should arrange their time so that they can also be administrators in their fields. They should be just as at home attending to administrative matters as they are in the classroom. No one should make decisions who is not directly engaged in the educational process. No parliament or congress, nor any individual who was perhaps once an educator, is to have anything to say.” (Steiner, 1992. Towards Social Renewal, 12.)

I don’t know exactly when and how the idea of a (non-teaching) administrator entered the world of Waldorf schools—probably some time in the 1980s, and not at first, I believe, in the older or more established schools. But the introduction of a non-teaching administrator may not be a good idea, depending on job description and understanding of Steiner’s work.

And, similarly, based on an understanding of Steiner’s insight, I question some of the activities of those in the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) who no longer teach but who exercise any control over the organization or direction of Waldorf schools!

I know from personal experience how quickly—and how subtly—I can lose touch with students once I step out of the classroom. I left teaching for about three years while I completed my doctorate, and I can still recall how I “lost my chops” with regard to my students. And, fortunately, how quickly my chops returned once I stepped back into the classroom. But, for that period when I was not teaching, advice I may have had to give toward teaching or school administration would have been theoretical and impractical, not based in reality and direct experience. (For the record, I have now been a teacher-administrator for the past thirteen years.)

Also working against a “reality-based” view of school administration may be a dedicated but somewhat insecure board of trustees, persons who may not know much about school management or function, let alone the peculiarities of Waldorf school or small, under-funded, creative independent school management or function. Many trustees may be somewhat uncertain when it comes to Steiner’s work, and may follow the lead of the teachers who, in a worst-case scenario, misunderstand Steiner’s work themselves, and introduce ideology, belief, and dogma where it doesn’t belong. Trustees may work in businesses that don’t operate so close to the bone, that don’t face the hard choices Waldorf schools sometimes need to make.

I can say, from experience, that the best board members are often small business owners who have built their businesses themselves. They are dogged, creative, entrepreneurial, and penny-pinching. Reality-based, not theory-based. Exactly what many schools need.

So, back to the beginning. What administrative structure and what configuration of full-time, part-time, and volunteer teaching and support did a school have the first year that it joyfully reached an enrollment of 150? That worked, right? And everyone felt good? Why shouldn’t a school that sees its enrollment drop to 150 recreate that structure, rather than stagger along with a structure that it can’t really support? The school will have to do this less joyfully, but the structure will be based on a realistic plan that works, and it may provide a stronger platform for future growth.

The question not addressed by this article is this: Why is your enrollment shrinking? To begin to answer it, consider why, a few years ago, it was growing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Marijuana use alters kids' paintings, and not for the better

After teaching painting to around 3000 students ranging from age 12 to age 60 or so over the past thirty years, I have come to see the characteristics listed below as signs of drug use. Not just any drug use—not stimulants or depressants, not alcohol, but marihuana, mushrooms, or acid—psychoactive drugs, perception-altering drugs.
  • Lurid colors; colors highly saturated.
  • “Dirty” colors; brown, gray, or black added.
  • Introduction of unobserved picture elements—a setting sun where there is none; a fish in the sky
  • Inability to complete a project or assignment; work partly completed, then self-sabotaged by meaningless over-painting…
Time after time, a student I had taught through middle school and into high school would return from the summer, let’s say, and her work would be altered. Students were not always honest about their drug use—the school at which I taught had a strict policy, the drugs were illegal—and I didn’t always believe it appropriate to ask. But, over time, circumstances made it clear in many cases what was going on. Sometimes a concerned classmate would speak to me or another teacher. Sometimes students told on themselves.

The appearance of these characteristics does not seem to depend on ability or interest—highly creative students and students who could care less about art are equally affected.

I do not claim that I can look at a painting and tell whether or not the painter has used drugs, which drugs, or when, with any certainty. But, more often than not, I believe such drug use is evident in students’ painting. The longer my relationship with the student, the more paintings I have seen, the clearer the picture becomes. And, in many cases, one painting is actually enough to show what’s going on.

It’s possible (although not likely, in my experience) that emotional disturbances other than drug use could contribute to the same characteristics.

Who cares? What does it mean?

If perception is affected by drug use, and changes in perception are manifest in things like paintings (and, of course, also in attitudes toward completing work, the value of effort, judgment in general…), then the changes I see in the work of those who start to use mind-altering drugs are evidence of what in an otherwise healthy person we would call damaging.

To be clear, I’m not talking about addiction. The drugs I’m talking about seem to be fairly low on the scale of addictive drugs anyway. I’m talking even about “casual” or “experimental” use that changes perception rapidly and, sometimes, profoundly.

At one end of what I’m talking about is psychedelic art. But the effects I’m talking about appear earlier, are more subtle, and do not always lead—or rarely lead, in my experience—to happiness or success in creative endeavors. They are evidence of a sort of perceptual suffering, I would say, a decreasing ability to try to perceive things as they are. (It’s clear that not all drugs affect all persons equally. Alcohol makes some aggressive, some passive, some talkative, some quiet. The few filmmakers or songwriters whose constitutions are such that they can continue to be creative through extended drug use are few and far between, and do not offer models for teens to emulate.)

I still have a lot of questions about drug use and painting. How long do these effects last? Is there a road back? Can therapy help? What sort? Are the characteristics I see universal? If not, then how prevalent are they?

But my experience in this area convinces me, arguments about legalization aside (that’s a different matter, a political question), that mind-altering drugs present a greater danger to human perception on many levels than we currently acknowledge.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Good Spirit, Lover of Truth:" Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education

What follows is based on “True Humanity: Anthroposophy, Waldorf Education, and High School Teaching,” a keynote address given at the National Steiner High School Teachers Conference, Steiner Education Australia (SEA), Noosa Pengari Steiner School, Doonan, Queensland, Australia, July 18, 2014. (Because of travel mishaps, I delivered the address from Massachusetts via Skype—sorry not to be present in person; grateful for the technology that made my virtual presence possible.)

What is anthroposophy?
What is Waldorf education?
What is their relationship?
And do you have to be an anthroposophist to teach in a Waldorf school?


Before trying to say what anthroposophy is, I’d like to cut away some misconceptions or misunderstandings about it and say what it is not.

First, the word anthroposophy should not be capitalized in English. Germans capitalize nouns. English speakers capitalize only proper nouns, and anthroposophy is not one.

Second, you may know that Rudolf Steiner did not make up or invent the word anthroposophy. Cornelius Agrippa may have used it in the early 1500s. Thomas Vaughan, a Welsh philosopher, non-practicing physician, and Rosicrucian appears to be the first in print, in 1650. He was followed by Immanuel Hermann Fichte, one of the founders of German Idealist philosophy; Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, philosopher; Ignaz Paul Vitalis Troxler, a Swiss physician, philosopher, politician, and a student of Hegel; and Robert Zimmerman, a Czech-Austrian philosopher, who published a book called Anthroposophie in 1882. These German uses span about 100 years prior to Steiner’s activity.

(Paragraph above corrected. Many thanks to Thomas O'Keefe for pointing out my errors with some names.)

Steiner was aware of and credited Zimmermann and also Fichte, Schelling, and Troxler, I believe. I don’t believe he made mention of Agrippa or of Vaughan, who wrote under the pen-name “Eugenius Philalethes,” which means “Good Spirit, Lover of Truth.” (I am indebted to Jean-Michel David—of Melbourne—for some of the research into uses of the word anthroposophy before Steiner.)

I point out Steiner’s adoption of a word and, to a limited extent, the concepts of others because I find that adherents and opponents of Steiner both often seek to emphasize his uniqueness. Adherents do this to demonstrate how truly special he was, and opponents find his ideas easier to attack if he is isolated. Steiner’s work is unique in some ways, but he is also part of deep intellectual and esoteric traditions, and should be seen in this context.

Third, anthroposophy is not belief in what Steiner said and it is not a body of knowledge. As a thought experiment, imagine that every “fact” in Steiner’s work turns out to be false—about karma and reincarnation, about blood and nerves. Anthroposophy, as an attempt to recognize and value human existence in the world will still be a necessary concern for human beings. (I don’t believe Steiner was actually wrong about everything, although I also don’t believe he was infallible.)

As Owen Barfield wrote, “What is anthroposophy? Believing (some would answer), without a shred of evidence, everything that Steiner chose to say. And that is exactly what it is not… I cannot think it is unduly paradoxical to say that it is really a kind of betrayal of the founder of anthroposophy to believe what he said. He poured out his assertions because he trusted his hearers not to believe.” (1966, pp. 76-77)

Fourth, anthroposophy is not an academic discipline, and should not stand in a university course catalog along with other disciplines or subjects like philosophy, anthropology, molecular biology, astrophysics, or art history. I hope we never have to see any university offer a degree in anthroposophy. As I hope to show, this would represent a complete misunderstanding of anthroposophy.

Fifth, anthroposophy is not a path of meditation, or meditation alone, or meditation tacked on to regular science or to conventional interpretation in the humanities, for example. A scientist who performs her work as usual, within its conventional paradigm, often a reductive and mechanistic one, and who then, because of reading Steiner goes home, sits in her armchair, and meditates about her work in order to gain greater insight may, in fact, gain some insight, but will not necessarily be working anthroposophically. She may be valiantly trying to add a bit of the inner world to her work in the outer world, and she may actually have success in doing this. But this is merely using meditation as an instrument.

Without naming names, I’ll mention that I had a colleague who wished to write a paper on a topic in education. But, rather than conduct due diligence and actually research his topic, he believed he could sit in his armchair and anthroposophically meditate his way to the insights necessary to write the paper. Needless to say, the paper was not very good.

Similarly, I have seen Waldorf school teachers sit in a circle and attempt to solve a problem in the school by meditating their way to a solution, without, again, conducting the investigations and having the conversations that might lay the groundwork for fruitful insight.

(Not important at the time of the talk on which this is based, but inserted here: Anthroposophy is not areligion.)

Owen Barfield

I’ve said some things that anthroposophy is not. What is it?

First, we may say that anthroposophy aims at a conscious reunification of the “inner” world of thinking and consciousness and the “outer” world that we perceive, however imperfectly, through our senses. But the terms inner and outer are misleading; we perceive much of our inner life—emotions, for instance, or the values we hold—as somehow external to our innermost self but still within us, not in the world of cows and trees outside us. They are the changeable “me” that my less changeable “I” can perceive within me at any moment. And we know that our sense impressions, which arrive via undifferentiated nerve impulses, are somehow synthesized into a more or less coherent world within us.

Second, Steiner uses the phrase “spiritual science” and the term anthroposophy interchangeably. The phrase spiritual science is unusual in English, but its German equivalent, Geisteswissenschaft, is not. Geisteswissenschaft refers, at least in a common form, to what English speakers call “the humanities.” Not the sciences, but the humanities—philosophy, history, literature. Not natural science—Naturwissenschaft—but spiritual science. (I believe it’s fair to say that only English-speaking anthropsophists translate Geisteswissenschaft as “spiritual science.” All others would translate it as “a humanity.”) And part of Steiner’s aim was to bring a rigorous approach to the humanities, based in experience and insight, one that the natural sciences, what we English speakers call simply, “science,” have enjoyed for the last few centuries.

And, to be clear, Steiner was not attached to these names. He said, “If I had my way, I would give anthroposophy a new name every day to prevent people from hanging on to its literal meaning, from translating it from the Greek, so they can form judgments accordingly. It is immaterial what name we attach to what is being done here. The only thing that matters is that everything we do here is focused on life’s realities and that we never lose sight of them. We must never be tempted to implement sectarian ideas.” (1996 a, pp. 21-22) A good name for a true anthroposophist might be “Good Spirit, Lover of Truth.”

Rudolf Steiner

Third, in Barfield’s phrase, anthroposophy is “Romanticism come of age.” (1966) Briefly, historians are apt to dismiss the Romantic era (roughly 1800-1850) as a beautiful but ultimately impractical artistic response to the social, political, and economic upheavals of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America. Can’t deal with what’s happening in and to London? Buy a cottage by a lake and write poetry about nature. Barfield believes this interpretation to be incorrect, to misunderstand the possibilities of Romanticism—true individuality, regard for nature, investigation of imagination as a human capacity, and so on. For Barfield, anthroposophy represents a more mature, more practical extension of Romanticism—into agriculture, medicine, education, and social policy, for instance.

One pinnacle of the Romantic era was Beethoven. As a whimsical thought experiment, imagine what it would mean to be able to teach as Beethoven composed. When we can do that, Romanticism will truly have come of age.

Fourth, I would say that anthroposophy, by whatever name, and practiced by anyone (even by someone who has not heard of Rudolf Steiner), may be thought of as the informing discipline of our age, by which I mean the age that began with the scientific revolution of the late 16th and 17th centuries and gave rise to our modern minds, mindset, mentality, or consciousness.

In contrast, philosophy, developed during Classical Greek times, was the informing discipline of the age prior to ours. Philosophy divided over time into theology (“the Queen of the Sciences”), “natural philosophy,” which we now simply call science, and all the other disciplines that we study in universities. (An exception to this is history, which arose in Greece at the same time as philosophy, and which has been its constant companion ever since. There’s a lot to say about this relationship, but not here.) Philosophy is, of course, still worthy of study, but we could say that it is far less vital than it used to be. Richard Rorty left the field for literature studies, believing philosophy as a study has run its course, for instance.

Richard Rorty

In what sense do I mean that anthroposophy is the informing discipline of our times? I mean that it aims consciously to overcome our division of the world into subject and object, inner and outer, quality and quantity. We will maintain these distinctions, but, as Steiner demonstrates in his Philosophy of Freedom, will recognize increasingly that these divisions arise subsequent to our consciousness of the world.  The initial source of this division of the world (which, in each life currently occurs in us at so young an age that we are unaware of it) is revived in what Steiner occasionally called living thinking, which Barfield called “concrete” thinking (1996), and which Henri Bortoft has called “upstream” thinking. (1996) As I will show below, I believe it may also be described as creative thinking or creativity.

Henri Bortoft

Fifth, and finally, I will add Barfield’s description of anthroposophy: “Anthroposophy is knowledge as it is expressed and grasped by the Consciousness Soul.” (1966) Another way to say this is that anthroposophy is knowledge as it is expressed and grasped by those who are inwardly free. Despite—or because of—the challenges of the fragmented, relativistic, reductionistic, mechanistic modern mind, human beings are—potentially—inwardly free in a way that they have not been in prior times. To demonstrate this would take us too far afield, but a good introduction to this topic is Barfield’s History, Guilt, and Habit. Barfield goes on to write:
… to become an anthroposophist is not to believe, it is to decide to use the words of Rudolf Steiner (and any others which may become available) for the purpose of raising oneself, if possible, to a kind of thinking which is itself beyond words. This is that concrete thinking [or living thinking; neither subjective nor objective but thinking prior to this division] which is the source of all such ideas and propositions, the source of all meaning whatsoever. (1966)

Not to believe is to live, necessarily, honestly acknowledging that we do not know that which we do not know. Not-knowing, like inner freedom, is a prime characteristic of the modern mind. (We could even say that not-knowing is a condition of freedom; can those who know truly be free?) Reincarnation? I don’t know for sure if it’s a fact or a fiction. I may follow the thoughts of others, like Steiner, who tell me about its reality. And I may follow the thoughts of those who tell me why it’s an impossibility. The thoughts of others, then, offer paths that I may choose to follow, but paths that extend only as far as I am able to raise myself in understanding and experience.

For several years, I have been interested in the question of dogma in Waldorf schools, but, beyond speculation, have not been able to figure out how to research it. No one admits to being dogmatic (well, religious fundamentalists may, but dogma extends far beyond religious bounds). But people who do not admit to dogma may admit to their beliefs. If we were more honest with ourselves, and with others, we would less often represent beliefs as assertions of truth (which could be the very definition of dogma or fundamentalism) and more often represent our interest in freely pursuing what we do not know. (I am indebted to Douglas Sloan for the thinking behind the representation of fundamentalism in this paragraph.)

From Anthroposophy to Waldorf Education

In Soul Economy in Waldorf Education (2003), Steiner begins by outlining what he sees as three stages in the development of anthroposophy. (Note: The word “Waldorf” was inserted in the title by the translator or editor and does not represent Steiner’s discussions of education, which extend far beyond the small group of Waldorf schools that we have created following his model. Its introduction introduces a division—between Waldorf education and any other form or method of education—that betrays Steiner’s transformative impulse.)

These stages in the development of anthroposophy are:

1. At its introduction, Steiner describes those interested in anthroposophy as having a “narrow religious perspective” that gave rise to “intolerable dogma.” This, he says, was “not what I was looking for,” and he found himself “not at all understood.” But he also acknowledges that this first stage supported anthroposophy with “deep sympathy and great devotion,” and that this was a “peaceful” time.

2. Following a break from the Theosophical Society, Steiner describes how, in an effort to free his work from a sectarian attitude, anthroposophy entered an artistic phase that strove to “bring ideals to earth and enter life in practical ways.” During this creative, fertile period, he and many others wrote and saw performed his four Mystery Dramas, built and began to re-build the Goetheanum, and invented eurythmy and the art of speech formation. Despite these successes, Steiner still found anthroposophy “not yet fully in life,” not yet “fully practical.”

3. And, in the wake of chaos and turmoil after World War I, anthroposophy finally entered a “practical” or pragmatic phase, working to address the “fundamental needs of human beings” through work in such endeavors as education, agriculture, medicine, and social organization.

This last stage represents the most mature phase, but that doesn’t mean that the other stages have died. As we know from Jean Piaget, stages are cumulative and integrative. Each builds on the previous ones, and capacities developed in one continue into the next.

We know that our schools can represent the “intolerable dogmatism” of the first stage, but may also enjoy “deep sympathy and great devotion.” We know that our schools can be tremendously artistic without being entirely practical. And, I hope, we also find that our schools can “address the fundamental needs of human beings” in education. The stages of development through which anthroposophy passed in the first decades of the 20th century live on. Can we maintain and integrate the gifts of each stage while letting fall away those aspects that make us unduly strange in the world’s eyes, or that are simply wrong?

Like it or not, people worry about the question, “Do you have to be an anthroposophist to teach in a Waldorf school?” Other than a glib, “no,” this is not an easy question to answer. Let’s see what Steiner has to say about this.

Steiner says, “In our school, spiritual science [anthroposophy] will shape the form of education necessary for our time.” (2007, 1-2)

Or, “As far as our school is concerned, the actual spiritual life can be present only because its staff consists of anthroposophists. We do not teach anthroposophy—our school must not represent a world conception—but through the way the teachers are acting, through their inner life, the soul and spirit elements enter the school as though through the imponderables of the soul.” (1996 b, 60)

What is this inner life? We can assert three things about it, at least. It is free (or strives toward freedom). It is creative (or strives to be creative). And it is moral or ethical (or strives to become so). Don’t believe me; think it over for yourself. Inner freedom, creativity, and morality or ethics are foundations of human existence, as I believe a brief introspection will show. And I’ll return to these later.

Later, Steiner says, “…unless we make every effort to permeate our life of instincts and feelings with spiritual science, we can no longer understand children in their fourteenth and fifteenth years. We learn to understand them only by progressing to such a knowledge. This is what is meant by our ever emphasizing that anthroposophy is pedagogy. In other words, anthroposophy becomes pedagogy when one gets to the stage at which one can educate.” (1996 b, 118)

Is Steiner saying that ONLY Waldorf school teachers, who have access to anthropsophical texts and spiritual exercises and meditation techniques, can understand fourteen and fifteen year old students? Of course not. That’s absurd. Any teacher of adolescents who truly understands her students—and it is a rare school anywhere that doesn’t have at least a few teachers who understand teenagers—is working from an anthroposophical understanding in a broad sense. They are, minimally, intuitive or instinctive anthroposophists. He continues:

“What I mean to say is that if the qualities present in each human being [not just those in the lecture hall, or those in Waldorf schools] are given a pedagogical direction, the anthroposophical understanding of the human being will also become a true pedagogy.” (1996 b, 118)

Waldorf Education

(Note: For those familiar with my book or my blog, much of the following may be redundant, although I’ve recast some of my previous thinking here. For those interested in a more complete treatment of this history and method, see my book, The Story ofWaldorf Education in the United States.)

In the U.S., Waldorf schools suffer from a stereotype that contains, as stereotypes often do, only grains of truth. It is often seen, to be glib, as an alternative, even counter-cultural, education in which students in tie-dyed shirts paint watery pictures or knit thick socks, guided by women who wear long skirts, sandals, and thick socks.

But even the grains of truth in this stereotype have a history, which I will recapitulate briefly. Australians, whose first Steiner school was founded in 1957, I believe, will have to see how this history parallels their own.

We may see Waldorf education in the United States grow through four generations. In the first generation, starting in 1928, Europeans—Germans, Swiss, and English—guided the very few American Waldorf schools with knowledge and wisdom from overseas. Little of Steiner’s work had yet been translated into English and there were no Waldorf teacher education programs.

World War II cut off much communication with Europe, especially German-speaking Europe, and attitudes at home necessitated a more patriotic, nationalistic approach to teaching and curriculum. Home-grown American Waldorf teachers took the reins, and curricula discarded Goethe in favor of Emerson and Thoreau, for instance.

These first two generations did not see themselves as alternatives, but as experimental reformers, engaged with other schools in the progressive education movement and with education legislation in Washington, D.C.

The concept of Waldorf education as alternative education entered with the growth of Waldorf schools beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s and 1980s. The greatest number of schools was founded in this generation, and many of the stereotypes about Waldorf education, true or false, date from this time.

In the early 1990s, Waldorf education found its way into public and charter schools in an attempt to deliver its gifts to students whose parents could not afford relatively expensive independent (private) schooling.

But growth in the number of independent Waldorf schools has now halted for almost a decade (although schools continue to grow by adding high schools, for example), and growth in the charter movement is slowing, too. Neither of these models promises to transform education as a whole, aiming at Steiner’s ideal. We stand, perhaps, on the doorstep of a fifth generation, one that will attempt to bring Steiner’s method in various ways to all interested teachers and students.

So far, I have been using the phrase “Waldorf education” as if it isn’t problematic, knowing that you will know more or less what I mean. But the phrase is problematic. First, what we now call Waldorf education came into being only gradually; we created it, not Rudolf Steiner. And what we have created honors Steiner’s ideas in some ways and betrays them in others.

Also, you should know that the first use of the phrase “Waldorf education” in print occurred in 1958 in A.C. Harwood’s book, The Recovery of Man in Childhood. Prior to this, writers referred to Steiner’s educational ideas and methods, but did not reify them as much as we have now done.

There is value, I believe, in understanding, as I have already pointed out, that Steiner did not wish to create a group of alternative schools. The Waldorf School in Stuttgart was meant to demonstrate the value and efficacy of his method so that all teachers in all schools could adopt it and all students in all schools could benefit from it. We are still quite far from this ideal.

Other concepts and practices that stray far from Steiner’s own work include these:

       Steiner did not mention decision-making by consensus. He was clear that cultural institutions, like schools, should enjoy free self-administration, and therefore should be free to determine their own governance. This might be aristocratic in some cases, democratic in others. Even the famous pamphlet by Ernst Lehrs, Republican, Not Democratic, that Waldorf schools often use as a template for governance, discusses governance in a German school in the early 20th century. It provides one example, and it is not a prescription.

       Steiner never spoke about non-competitive or cooperative games. This is not to say that we should introduce competitive sports to third graders, only that we should not be dogmatic in our approach to this question.

       Steiner spoke about teaching math in many ways without ever mentioning math gnomes. (For more on them, see my “Free the Math Gnomes.”) If you believe in an elemental world that includes gnomes, don’t trivialize their actual work by asking caricatures of them to teach arithmetic to young children. And if you don’t believe in them, then why introduce an element of untruth to the great truths of mathematics?

(For those interested in more myths of Waldorf education, see my articles on the topic, starting here.)

Because I’ve said earlier that we shouldn’t believe or disbelieve what we don’t know for certain, I should rephrase the preceding paragraph. I’ll call on my colleague at Sunbridge College, George McWilliam, who asks students not to believe or disbelieve what they read in Steiner, but to maintain an “as if” attitude toward those elements that attract them. What would it mean if a particular assertion were true? Try living with it for a while. What consequences flow from an understanding of the world that includes elemental beings? That does not?

“Circle time,” the colors of classroom walls, and many, many elements of what we do in Waldorf schools today as a matter of course have little or no basis in Steiner’s work. Recognizing this should reveal to us that Steiner’s ideas are available for greater variation and experimentation than we currently see in schools. And we should continue not to adhere dogmatically to practices and concepts that are contingent and somewhat superficial.

To get beyond these myths or trappings, we could ask ourselves what about our schools is essential. What elements of what we do, if we were somehow prevented from implementing them, would lead us to close our doors or remove the name “Waldorf” from our school signs?

I have a list of five such characteristics, but I don’t claim that it’s complete or comprehensive. The actual number of essentials may be smaller and it may be larger. I invite you to participate in the exercise of imagining what you could not do without.

1. Our education is a source of ideas and ideals. Briefly, an idea for a German philosopher is not the same as our blurry English use of the word idea. We might say, “Dessert now would be a good idea.” But this isn’t rigorous. Emerson calls an idea a “necessary, immortal, uncreated nature.” My dessert may be delicious, but it isn’t necessary to my existence as a human being in the universe. Similarly, it stands firmly in time, not immortally outside of it. And, in a box in my freezer, it is definitely manifest, created.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A student once pointed out that this sounds like neo-Platonism. I would say it’s really just Platonism.

2. Our education aims to address students as developing human beings. And the words we use to express this concept are not fixed. We could as well say evolving, transforming, or metamorphosing.

3. We address students through different modes of knowing and being. We refer to them as the soul-capacities of thinking, feeling, and will. A psychologist down the hall would recognize them as cognition, affect, and behavior. By “knowing,” I don’t mean just “head knowing.” Cognition seems pretty brain-centered to us, but we might call feeling “heart knowing” or aesthetic knowing. And will represents knowing “in our bones,” what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowing.” (1966)

Michael Polanyi

4. We encourage and model and teach reverence or respect for our environment, from care for our own bodies and the classroom, through a concern for nature broadly conceived, to gratitude for existence in the entire world.

5. And we encourage and model and teach for social health.

The source for these, in our work as teachers or in Steiner’s mind in conceiving a new method of education, is in creative imagination, in creativity.

Too often, we think of creativity in schools as something that students can do after lunch, sitting down with some paints in front of an empty sheet of paper to “express themselves.” And then we cut it out of the school budget when times are tight.

Even when we take creativity more seriously, we may focus unduly on moments of brilliant insight, the “eureka” or “aha” moments. Research in the development of creativity by Howard Gruber, however, demonstrates that creativity involves a lot more than a blank canvas and waiting for inspiration. Creativity is as much the province of scientists as artists—insight visits both equally—and is built on a foundation common to both.

Howard Gruber

Here are some of the characteristics of creative persons. Creative persons:
       Undergo an apprenticeship.
       Work hard prior to insight, preparing themselves for it, and then work hard after insight, proving it, or bringing it into the world.
       Have many overlapping but disparate interests—what Gruber calls a “network of enterprise.” Charles Darwin, for instance, was able to formulate his description of evolution not simply because he studied plants and animals, but because he was also an avocational geologist.
       Produce work that evolves over time.
       Use metaphors and images broadly—what Gruber calls “ensembles of metaphor” and “images of wide scope”—to give form to new concepts and insights.

If I think about my teaching and my students, I realize that this list of the characteristics of a creative person is also a list of what I find in my best students, and what I would most like to find and foster in all of my students. Creative work is akin to education. For a mature artist or scientist, we may say that it is ongoing self-education. And Steiner is not alone, I believe, in recognizing that all education is, in the end, self-education:
Essentially, there is no education other than self-education, whatever the level may be. This is recognized in its full depth within anthroposophy… Every education is self-education, and as teachers we can only provide the environment for children’s self-education. We have to provide the most favorable conditions where, through our agency, children can educate themselves according to their own destinies. (1996 a, 141)

It is clear that creativity is linked to ethical considerations. To create is to choose and to live with the consequences of your choices. This is the basis of ethics and morality. (Even fundamentalists have made an ethical choice—to accept a particular book as a source of truth, for instance.)

Creativity, ethics, and the (free) choices involved are intimately linked. Earlier in this talk, I said that they were qualities of (a teacher’s) inner life. This demonstrates to me that true teachers are creative persons, that teaching is an art and a science.

And in linking creativity, morality, and freedom I am not alone. Here is Gruber on this topic:
Our conceptions of creativity and morality are intertwined in a number of ways… At once we see that the indispensable middle term between creativity and morality is freedom. We can hardly speak of a moral act if the actor has no choice. Creative work also requires inner freedom… Creative work must be in some ways kindred to the world, if not the world as it is, then the world as it will or might be. It flows out of that world and it flows back into it. Thus the creative person, to carry out the responsibility to self, the responsibility for inner integrity, must also in some way be responsive to the world. (1989)

Once we recognize the links among creativity, morality, and freedom, we may link these with Steiner’s concepts of moral imagination (in a free human being) and the work of an ethical individual. Gruber was not an anthroposophist in a formal sense at all, but his work, at least as represented by the quotation above, is thoroughly anthroposophical. In Steiner’s work, those who have heard of anthroposophy have a tremendous advantage in approaching such meaningful and humanizing concepts. Let us not squander this advantage. Let us honor Rudolf Steiner’s work and words with our own free, creative, moral work and words.


Barfield, O. 1966. “Speech, Reason, and Imagination.” In Romanticism Comes of Age. Letchworth, Hertfordshire, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Bortoft, H. 1996. TheWholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participationin Nature. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.

Gruber, H. and Doris Wallace. 1989. Creative People at Work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. and Amartya Sen. 1966. TheTacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Co.

Steiner, R. 1996 a. The Child’s Changing Consciousness. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 1996 b. Education for Adolescents. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 2003. Soul Economy in Waldorf Education. Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press.

--------------- 2007Balance in Teaching. Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press/SteinerBooks.