Waldorf schools, Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner

Out of curiosity, I recently visited the École Rudolph Steiner de Montréal, a private French language school in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. The school spans grade 1 to 8 and practices Waldorf pedagogy, which is centered on imagination, spirituality and holistic learning. The first Waldorf School opened in 1919 in Germany and now there are over 1000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries worldwide.

Waldorf Education

Waldorf education was founded by philosopher, architect and esotericist, Rudolph Steiner, who is also the founder of the anthroposophy movement. The Steiner pedagogy is centered on the development of the child: “the right thing at the right time“. The curriculum is infused with spirituality, exploring a wide range of cultural and religious traditions around the world.

Rudolph Steiner in 1905
Rudolph Steiner in 1905

The goal of the Waldorf method is:

“to produce capable individuals, in themselves and by themselves, who have meaning to their lives, and become free individuals.”

Waldorf education seeks to educate the whole child: head, heart and hands.”

In addition to their teaching degree, Waldorf teachers must obtain an additional 3-year certification. The homeroom teacher stays with the same children through grade 1 to 8, but there are separate teachers for dance and music classes, English and German classes. Both boys and girls crochet, knit, play recorder, grow food, play violin and learn basic woodworking.

There are no textbooks. The students write and draw their own textbooks on blank notebooks, using the material taught in the classroom in the areas of mathematics, geometry, zoology, history, grammar and mythology. I was impressed by the beautifully written and insightful compositions and illustrations about fungi, monarch butterflies, Greek myths, French grammar and much more. They also had notebooks full of colourful geometric drawings resembling Celtic knots and mandalas.

The School and Pedagogy

The École Rudolph Steiner de Montréal opened in 1980, and was renting various spaces to teach its students. In 2007, the school was finally able to buy a building located on Kensington ave, after a successful fundraising campaign and a government grant.  The luminous grey-stone building was built in the 1950s and was originally a local library.

The classrooms are warm and luminous and furnished with antique wooden school desks and chairs. There’s a faint smell of patchouli in the air. There were beautiful multicoloured chalk drawings and lessons carefully written out on large chalkboards in every classroom. The kids only use coloured pencils, watercolours, pastels and natural materials at Steiner, and there are no markers, no ballpoint pens, no computers or screens, and almost no plastic. Their daycare was filled with soft lighting and colours, cloth dolls, wooden toys, traditional cooking and art supplies, and bamboo floors.

The pedagogy at the Waldorf schools follows the cycles of nature, and the rhythms of the children. They have seasonal festivals and bring the students and parents together for music, dance and theatre performances, effectively building a community and a sense of social responsibility. The Waldorf system aims to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence.

Anthroposophy and Theosophy

The Waldorf method is part of a larger spiritual philosophy called Anthroposophy. The word Anthroposophy comes from the Greek, anthropos = “human” and ophia = “wisdom”: or human wisdom.

Anthroposophy proposes that there is a spiritual world that can be objectively accessed through direct experience and through inner development. They focus on perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through the cultivation of a form of thinking that is independent of sensory experience. At the time, they were called “the most important esoteric society in European history”.

The roots of anthroposophy lie in the theosophy movement, which comes from the Greek words, theos, God and sophia, wisdom, meaning divine wisdom. The term was as a synonym to theology in the 3rd century CE. In the 12th century, theosophy was explored in the context of Islamic thought. Theosophy also has links with the Jewish Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Western esotericism. In the 18th century, theosophy became more widespread amongst philosophers.

Rudolph Steiner was involved in Theosophical movement and was Secretary-General of his section of the Theosophical Society in the early 1900s in Germany.

The motto of the Theosophical Society is:

“There is no Religion higher than Truth”

Their objectives were the following:

  1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
  2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.
  3. To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.

Steiner split from the Society after a dispute with the society’s president, Annie Besant, who stated that her protégé, Jiddu Krishnamurti, was reincarnated Jesus Christ. Steiner said this was nonsense and years later, even Jiddu denied the claim. This incident greatly damaged the standing of theosophy and it’s institutions, and great majority of the membership left to form the anthroposophy movement in 1912.

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The logo of the Theosophical Society. The Symbols include: 1) a serpent biting its tail (ouroboros); 2) the swastika; 3) the hexagram; 4) the cruxansata (Ankh); 7) the pin of the Society, composed of cruxansata and serpent entwined, forming together “T.S.”, and 7) Om (or aum).

The swastika on the Theosophical Society logo above is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Steiner was very much against the National Socialist movement in Germany (Nazi Party), and Adolph Hitler attacked Steiner on many fronts and said he was a “tool for the Jews”. He had to leave Germany when the Nazi party came into power. The Antroposophists were banned by the Nazi Party in Germany, and no anthroposophist ever joined the Party.

The Gift of Waldorf Education

The Waldorf schools have roots in esotericism, but their teaching method has been proven to be beneficial to child development and learning. The Waldorf method is focused on imagination, inspiration, rhythm, emotional intelligence and creative thinking. The child is not seen as an empty vessel that needs to be filled, but rather a complex person in spiritual development, with a rich inner life that is to be nurtured into a love of life and learning.

The Waldorf schools are extremely structured, and they are not to be confused with project-based alternative schools. When the students leave the École Rudoph Steiner de Montréal in grade 9, about half the students go to public high school and half go to private high school. Most are subsequently quite unhappy to be taught with conventional methods, and disappointed by their experience at “regular” high school. However, the Waldorf students have built a certain resilience and inner confidence that allows them to find their path within the conventional school system.

94% of Waldorf students attend university and over 50% obtain and Master’s degree or a PhD

The Waldorf teachers are extremely engaged and creative, and it is truly a passion for them to teach Waldorf pedagogy. The school pays attention to both educating the child and cultivating bright and engaged human beings that will enjoy a lifetime of learning.

“The experience of thinking, rightly understood, is in fact an experience of spirit.” (Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom)

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