My Experience As a Waldorf Student
From ages seven to eighteen, I attended an occultist school that was devoted to a radical variant of Christianity. I’m talking about the Waldorf School in Garden City, New York. The school's curriculum was based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a European mystic who, among other astonishing pronouncements, prophesied a worldwide racial apocalypse. Being a student there was a weird experience, far out on the fringe of normality. Yet today there are more than 800 such schools, many of them also called Waldorf, operating mainly in Europe and North America.
Steiner (1861-1925) was born and educated in Austria. As a young man, he was drawn to the works of Goethe. Having moved to Germany, he became increasingly interested in spiritualism. He believed in a “supersensible” world of spiritual beings, facts, and figures that was inaccessible to normal human senses but that could be perceived through clairvoyance. Having served for some time as leader of the German Theosophical movement, in 1912 Steiner established his own religious system, which he dubbed Anthroposophy (meaning, literally, “human wisdom”). His beliefs also spawned what is now called "Anthroposophical medicine." Like Theosophy—which is closely resembles—Anthroposophy is an amalgam of spiritualistic beliefs gleaned from around the world. In 1919, Steiner was invited by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to establish a school for the children of the factory's employees. This was the prototype for all the Waldorf schools that have followed.
The Waldorf I attended was lovely, with caring teachers and pleasant, carefully selected classmates. For the most part, I enjoyed my years there. Waldorf was small: twenty or so students at each grade level. The ambiance was close and comfortable. As Steiner would have wanted, Waldorf was a religious school, but with a twist: It hid its faith. Waldorf projected the image of a nonsectarian, arts-intensive preparatory school with a progressive curriculum. This appearance undoubtedly led many parents to enroll their children without realizing what the youngsters were in for. Even after enrollment, many families found Waldorf’s disguise hard to penetrate. We students memorized no passages from holy books, we sang from no hymnals. Yet a strange aura hung about the school. There was a pervasive but unspoken spiritualistic vibe in almost every lesson, in almost every activity. It was hard for most parents to detect, but we students felt it to one degree or another. It was in the air we breathed; it defined the tenor and subtext of our days. Ultimately, it shaped and colored our education as effectively as if priests were delivering sermons to us.
The mystical core of Waldorf was well hidden. Only rarely did anyone get a clear glimpse of it. But on a single, dramatic occasion, the core was startlingly exposed. This occurred several years after I graduated—and long before I’d fully grasped what had been done to me at the school. In 1979, The New York Times ran an article about my alma mater: “'Psychic' Ex-Student's Influence Shakes Waldorf School.” Coming upon the article in a library, I was galvanized. The Times revealed that a former Waldorf student had started claiming that he had paranormal powers and could converse with spirits. And, shockingly, several teachers—including the headmaster, the former headmaster, and the high school principal—accepted his story and began using him as a clairvoyant sage. In effect, they ceded control of the school to the young man and his “spiritual contacts,” turning to them for supernatural decisions in matters large and small, ranging from curricular decisions to the selection of records played at school dances. When word of this remarkable administrative arrangement inevitably leaked, the occult beliefs of the school’s leaders emerged into plain view.
The scandal nearly ripped Waldorf apart. Scores of parents, appalled to learn what had been going on, yanked their kids out. The school seemed doomed. Nevertheless, after the firings and/or resignations of those who were most deeply implicated in the scandal, Waldorf survived. I don’t know how little or how much the school has changed since my day (I attended from 1953 till 1964). That’s not my point. This article is intended to help parents understand what to look out for if they consider sending their children to such a school. Some Waldorf schools may hold Steiner at arm’s length; others cling to him tightly. In either case, check to be sure that you understand and approve the agenda of the school you are considering.
Spiritual ConditioningOurs was a school of secrets. Our teachers—most of whom I admired—did not spell out their spiritualistic goals for us. Nonetheless, Waldorf’s curriculum persistently, artfully sought to shape us in conformity with Steiner’s mystic beliefs. It is only now, in long retrospect and after considerable research, that I can give a clear account of how and why it was done.
The educational process at Waldorf was circumspect and subtle. Instead of teaching us explicit doctrines, the Anthroposophists on the faculty typically tried to lead us by indirection. They sensitized us to the supernatural, and then they worked, quietly, to nurture in us a feeling of intuitive connection to the spirit realm. Their conception of that realm was largely determined by visions Rudolf Steiner claimed to have attained through clairvoyance.
Our school days were pleasant—mellow and tranquil. There was scarcely any unruliness or rude behavior at Waldorf. Pranks and mild rebelliousness were not unknown, but they were rare. Incorrigible troublemakers were weeded out during the application process or were expelled. Arriving at the school each day was like entering a refuge from worldly turmoil. The morning began with a prayer, although no one called it that. In the lower grades, we would then have classes about myths or Bible stories (Steiner believed that many myths and legends contained at least kernels of literal truth, as well as serving as markers along the route of mankind’s spiritual development). Interspersed with these supernatural lessons we had classes in math and geography and history: regular subjects. We had no textbooks—we copied lessons written on the blackboards for us by our teachers. Reading was not emphasized in the lower grades. We had no “Weekly Reader,” no “Dick and Jane.” We laid our heads on our desks and listened as our teachers recited or read to us—often tales of the magical or mystical.
At other times of the day, we knitted, crocheted, and played simple woodwind instruments en masse. Sometimes we merely gazed about while our teachers spoke. The teachers urged us to imaginatively identify with whatever we studied or saw—to feel the life-force coursing through a tree, or absorb an eagle’s noble spirit, or experience the meaning of a boulder. In art classes, we were taught to produce misty watercolor paintings with no straight lines or clear definitions. There was something otherworldly about the images we created, bearing no resemblance to ordinary physical reality, yet completely unlike the stick-figure cartoons kids often produce. The teachers didn’t say so, but our paintings were in effect talismanic representations of the spirit realm.
In dance classes, we performed “eurythmy,” a form of bodily movement that looks a bit like slow-motion modern dance, but was actually intended to teach the proper stances to manifest spiritual states of being—calling upon influences from our past lives and preparing the basis for our future lives. We did eurythmy while manipulating therapeutic copper rods and holding our pelvises strictly still. We were made to feel that eurythmy had an especially strong spiritual component. Our teachers didn’t need to articulate their beliefs about such matters; their tone of voice and facial expressions conveyed the seriousness of the tasks they set us. The eurythmy instructors made a particularly powerful impression in this regard—an impression they underscored when they arranged student performances for school assemblies. These performances were almost invariably solemn and were often freighted with spiritual significance. In my class’s first public eurythmic display (during the third or fourth grade), we enacted the creation of the world—the emergence of light, the separation of light from darkness, the separation of dry land from the waters, and so on. We portrayed angels and archangels and the fulfillment of God’s commands. I played the role of God Almighty.
By the time we reached the upper grades, our spiritual conditioning was fairly well advanced and our curriculum seemed somewhat more conventional. We had a few textbooks now—although sometimes these were simple collections of primary texts: important historical documents from the US revolution, for instance, or from European history, with little editorial commentary. Our teachers told us what to make of the texts. In art classes, realism was increasingly permitted; and our dancing now included some ballroom instruction.
But Waldorf’s essential nature remained. Throughout most of each day, throughout most of the curriculum, the spiritualistic vibe persisted. Eurythmy persisted. Misty watercoloring persisted. We sat through lessons on the shortcomings of science and the failings of modern technology. Our math classes were infused with Platonic idealism: The numbers, operators, and geometric figures we worked with were, we learned, rude shadows of their true, perfect counterparts residing in an ideal, supersensory region. In literature classes, we read ordinary novels interspersed with works of supernatural and even theological content: The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.
Intimations of the great beyond were subtly, recurrently present in our studies—and Jesus became increasingly central. Our headmaster guided us in reading spiritualistic essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Selected Writings, for instance, and Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship. I still have my copies of these books, in which I see that I dutifully underlined passages honoring Jesus and praising “Christianism.” Our teachers rarely acknowledged their interest in Jesus, but his overwhelming significance was hard to miss. We were encouraged to read disguised Christian parables by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were members of a coterie known as the Oxford Christians. We had a chorus comprising the entire high school—during my senior year, our biggest number was Handel’s “Messiah.” The central event of each “nonsectarian” year was the Carol Sing on a December evening. Students, parents, faculty, and alumni filled the candlelit auditorium, which for the evening became a kind of chapel. The Sing was our community bonding experience. It was unmistakably Christian (all the carols were traditional birth-of-Jesus songs—no secular ditties about Santa Clause or reindeer or snowmen), and it always culminated in “Silent Night”—which most of us sang in English but some sang in contrapuntal German.
The effects of Waldorf’s educational program gradually accumulated in our heads and hearts. After I had been at the school only a few years, the notion of trying to see the world clearly had lost almost all meaning for me. Everything seemed symbolic rather than concrete, although what the symbols stood for was vague. Everything had its hidden deeps. It’s hard to remember now precisely how I was led to adopt this attitude. But a booklet written by our headmaster, John Fentress Gardner, throws light on the world view that Waldorf encouraged. In the booklet, Mr. Gardner discusses “the art of education developed in Waldorf Schools.” The booklet included such statements as:
Is not the contrast between mountain and sea a cause as well as an image of deep contrasts in the moral experience of mankind? Mountains define, but by the same act they also divide. They teach integrity, but may go further to instill antipathy.
The language was more elevated than any that our teachers used with us, but the message paralleled what we were taught: Nothing is simply what it is, it is always something more. A mountain isn’t just a mass of granite, it is a lesson, an image bearing on our moral experience. Later in the booklet, Mr. Gardner wrote:
Understandably, many teachers today [at conventional secular schools] do not recognize that the world-content has something to give, through completely experienced thought, to every power of the human soul. Their training has not led them to appreciate that within each of its facts the apparent world conceals many levels of truth.”
Properly trained teachers at Waldorf schools don’t make that mistake: They always direct attention away from the “apparent world” to the many concealed “levels of truth” in order to empower the human soul. They have their eyes on what lies beyond—real or otherwise.
I should stress that not everyone at our Waldorf was an occultist. Most of the students, lots of the parents, and even a fair number of the teachers seemed to be regular folks. And there were a few apparent fence-sitters—teachers and parents who seemed to sense something spiritually alluring about Waldorf without fully committing themselves to it. But among the faculty, undeniably, there were true believers: individuals who always seemed to be trying to peer through the thin tissue separating the physical realm from the spiritual (as they might have put it). They were serious individuals, mainly, who sometimes got faraway looks in their eyes—yet they also had a sort of steel in them, a sense of sureness. They possessed holy secrets, keys to cosmic truth.
Sometimes secrets were partially revealed. Surprisingly, at least a few seemed to involve race. During twelfth grade, my class was taught biology by Mr. Gardner. I don’t know what credentials he had in biology, if any, but because he was headmaster, his authority was unquestioned. I respected him greatly. He was tall, dignified, and articulate—just what a dominant male should be. Still, I remember being troubled by a lecture he delivered one morning about the overarching structure of the family of man. He explained that the various races stood at different levels of moral development—each was forging its own destiny. He said these things sympathetically, with no hint of condescension. Yet the vibe was in the room that morning: The terms he used were more metaphysical than biological. The oriental races, he said, are ancient, wise, but vitiated. The African races are youthful, unformed, childlike, he said. Standing near the center of humanity’s family are the currently most advanced races, the whites, he said.
I also remember a lesson our class received in a related subject: botany. The teacher in this instance was Hertha Karl, who taught both German and “earth science.” Her background is, to me, a closed book—but of all the Waldorf faculty, she made the least effort to disguise her devotion to Steiner. She drew figures-of-eight on the blackboard and lectured us about "lemniscates": the mystic interaction of the "telluric" and "etheric" forces, which is the basic structure of nature, she said. During one day's main lesson, she veered off topic to warn us never to receive blood transfusions from members of other races. Blacks and Orientals have blood types that are physically different from ours, she taught us, and receiving such inferior blood would diminish our “Aryan” qualities. The moral once again seemed to be that for Anthroposophists, racial identity has great significance. Years after leaving Waldorf, I learned that the things Mr. Gardner and Mrs. Karl said were largely consistent with Steiner’s doctrines.
All the students in my class were white, which would have freed Mr. Gardner and Mrs. Karl to speak openly. Today, Waldorf schools seem to be fairly well integrated—and I trust the faculties are free of racial bigotry. But I wonder how those faculties reconcile integration with the racism that infects Steiner’s teachings. I hope that teachers as Waldorf schools no longer engage in open discussions of superior/inferior races, and I assume that the word “Aryan” is not often used now.
I had been at Waldorf virtually my entire life, which meant that what I saw and heard there generally seemed normal to me. And I believe my allegiance to the school deepened with each passing year. Nonetheless, around the time I became a senior, certain things started to strike me as a bit odd. Certainly, those biology and botany lessons bothered me (the mid-1960s was the civil rights era, after all—weren’t we supposed to know better than to talk about “inferior” races?) And I started paying attention to other, harder-to-pinpoint oddities. Occasionally our teachers would casually refer to angels or other supernatural beings as if they were objective, verifiable phenomena, as real as trees or planets or electrons. What to make of that? Having put in so many years at Waldorf, I was strongly disposed to believe in the supernatural—but how could our teachers sound so sure? And then there was this: From time to time, faculty members would reverently utter the name of Rudolf Steiner—always reverently. I knew that in some undefined way Steiner was the font of wisdom at Waldorf, but beyond that things were indeterminate. Imagine being educated by a group of dedicated Catholics or Communists or Mormons or Fascists—or members of any ideological group: For year after year, you are taught to think and speak and act in accordance with the group's ideology, but you are never told precisely what that ideology is, and you are never shown any of its central texts. That's what going to Waldorf was like.
Actually, information of all kinds was kept from us, not just the ideological sort. Waldorf’s curriculum wasn’t primarily meant to educate us, as that term is usually understood. We did homework, and took tests, and wrote papers. We picked up some knowledge of standard academic subjects. Yet all of that was, in a sense, incidental. No one could have mistaken Waldorf for a hotbed of intellectual excellence. Our teachers had different, overriding concerns. Waldorf’s priority was to quietly condition our souls and hearts to receive spiritual influences. To that end, our teachers subtly encouraged us always to move toward the light and away from the dark (in all its meanings). Those of us who were most susceptible to this silent manipulation were powerfully affected. I won’t violate the privacy of my former schoolmates, so I’ll speak only for myself. To my ultimate regret, I was a dutiful and studious schoolboy, not wholly credulous, but nearly so. For me, Waldorf’s impact was thrilling. I developed esoteric yearnings—I was eager for revelation—I longed for things transcendent, for supernal beauty and grandeur. The expectation of these blessings grew in me for years and sustained me. But then, gradually, a reaction set in. It became increasingly pronounced as I progressed through high school. I was pained that the world, and I, fell so far short—always, it seemed, so far short. Dreams of the transcendent remained just that—vague, alluring dreams, perpetually out of reach. Longing for the unobtainable is a prescription for frustration, or desperation. I continued to long—perhaps more than ever—but I came to feel that my longings were a burden.
Distrust for Science
I was a member of the student council. During my junior year, the council urged Mr. Gardner to tell the student body more about Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy. There was a growing suspicion among us that our teachers had a clandestine agenda rooted in Steiner’s tenets. Despite being such a square —I ultimately was student council president and a graduation speaker—I was one of the more suspicious students. You see, I had a couple of private peepholes onto events behind the scenes. My mother was Mr. Gardner’s secretary. Although she never intentionally betrayed any of Mr. Gardner's confidences to me, my mother dropped occasional tidbits about the man and his beliefs—not very informative, but enough to pique my curiosity. In addition, Mr. Gardner took a special interest in me. We had several private conversations. Once he gave me what amounted to a fatherly sex talk: Love should always come before sex, he counseled (no surprises there). Once he asked me whether he should fire the school’s Latin teacher, and he quickly added “Don’t think about it with your brain”—I should give an instinctive response, not a considered reply. (Which raises the question, what organ should be used for thinking, if not the brain?) Once he questioned me about evolution and then conducted an hour-long private colloquy with me on the subject. Taking his cue from Steiner (whom he did not mention), he explained that some contemporary peoples and animals had not evolved upwards but are actually the degenerate remnants of earlier, higher life-forms. Earth’s evolutionary scheme is complex, he informed me, with some species, races, and individuals rising, and others receding. I came away from our discussion feeling reasonably confident that he and I were among the upward-movers.
The student council asked Mr. Gardner to address the high school: to tell us about Steiner and then take our questions. He did so, reluctantly, and most circumspectly. As I now know from reading many of Steiner’s books, Mr. Gardner omitted a great deal: Steiner’s belief in karma and reincarnation, for instance; his belief in Atlantis, and goblins, and Lemuria, and Ahriman, etc. Instead, Mr. Gardner told the assembled students that Steiner had been a wise teacher, a spiritualist with extraordinary insight. He said Steiner’s insights into the arts helped lay the foundation for our arts curriculum, and that Steiner’s scientific insights had, among other things, led to the development of a particularly productive form of organic gardening. He said Steiner was enormously perceptive and aware. Then somehow he let slip that Steiner could see angels with his naked eye—which caused a few gasps and giggles from the students, but only a few. (I now suspect this “slip” was intentional: Mr. Gardner was hinting at the talent we all should cultivate when sufficiently evolved: clairvoyance: the basis of Steiner’s insights and wisdom.) Beyond that, he told us little. He said Waldorf’s purpose was obvious: to educate and improve us. Steiner’s educational principles were certainly invaluable, he said, but then he added that it would do us no good to delve into Steiner’s doctrines at our age—we were too young to grasp them. The right way to learn about Steiner, he told us, was to form study groups when we were older, and then with like-minded seekers we should read and discuss as many of Steiner’s books as caught our interest.
The scandal of the ‘psychic’ ex-student broke in the late 1970s, more than a decade after I graduated. But as I read and reread the Times article, I thought of people I had known during my Waldorf years—classmates and teachers. Mr. Gardner was named in the article: He had resigned. Also named were my class advisor/math teacher, my history teacher/soccer coach, and a librarian I remembered. One person tangentially involved in the scandal went unmentioned in the article. My class’s homeroom teacher during grades two through five was Gardner's wife Carol Hemingway Gardner. She was a tender, motherly woman. I think every kid in the class loved her. I was sorry to think of her following her husband into disgraced retreat. I still remember her fondly, although I now realize that she—in the gentlest manner possible, and I’m sure with pure motives—began my introduction to the supernatural. The class history printed in our 1964 yearbook includes the following:
In the third grade we began our study of the Bible, and put on a play about Joseph’s coat of many colors.... Besides the three R’s, the fourth grade was occupied with the study of Norse myths. The high point of the year was the building of Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life, out of paper. The fifth grade, where we learned about Greek and Egyptian myths, was our last with Mrs. Gardner.
Mythology lay much closer to the heart of our curriculum than did science. At my Waldorf, the study of science occurred in the context of a pervasive antiscientific bias. The shortcomings of science were conveyed to us in many ways, in discussion groups and even in what were nominally our science classes. Our physics/chemistry teacher recommended the book Science Is a Sacred Cow, which aims to debunk science and the scientific method. I read it and reread it. Our headmaster assigned us the book The Failure of Technology, which became the subject of our senior discussion group for several weeks. The book’s subtitle is “Perfection without Purpose," the thesis is that a technologist’s “preoccupation with facts . . . blocks his approach to that more spiritual wisdom which cannot be reduced to mechanics.” Our discussion reiterated several lessons we had already absorbed deeply: to doubt “facts” (i.e., physical phenomena), to distrust science and its practical applications, and to seek instead “spiritual wisdom.”
All in all, science meant little to us. “Truth,” for us, tended to be a metaphysical rather than an empirical concept. Thus, the line between verifiable truth and woolly speculation became blurred. Our school’s small library found space in its scanty collection for books on flying saucers (with photos), dragons, yetis, and other fictitious phenomena, generally presented as if they were not merely plausible but almost certainly true. One of our science teachers directed me to On the Track of Unknown Animals, by crypto-zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans. The author argues that numerous fabulous beasts—including various types of ape men—may well roam the Earth. Heuvelmans chastises scientists for failing to credit anecdotal reports about such creatures. To my young mind—and presumably the minds of other students—such books were persuasive. And for at least some of us, they reinforced the effect created by all the myths we heard and studied in class. We were led further and further from a rational appreciation of reality.
This brings us to a crucial issue. For Steiner and his followers, the truest thinking is not rational cognition or brainwork, which they deem dry and un-heartfelt. Steiner advocated an emotive form of "thinking" that—in contrast to cool, rational conceptualizing—often leads to complication or even mystification rather than to clarity. Ask yourself whether this is what you want for your children. Nothing in the physical world is as it seems. What we see around us isn’t what it is, exactly—there are layers upon layers of hidden deeps. The Anthroposophical solution is to feel one’s way past appearances by opening outwards through imagination or clairvoyance (in Anthroposophy, these terms are sometimes synonymous). According to Steiner:
Essentially, people today have no inkling of how people looked out into the universe in ancient times when human beings still possessed an instinctive clairvoyance. . . . If we want to be fully human, however, we must struggle to regain a view of the cosmos that moves toward Imagination again. . .
Some students at my Waldorf did not succumb to the school’s agenda. Those with thick skins, or high innate levels of skepticism—or who attended for only a few years—came through relatively unscathed. Other students were affected in varying degrees. I’d guess that a small but not insignificant minority were essentially won over: Waldorf gave them what their souls seemed to need, and they entered into a long-term commitment. They came back year after year for the reunions, Carol Sings, and special events; they contributed to the annual fundraising appeals; and they did what they could to further the school’s mission. Some eventually became dedicated, Steiner-studying Anthroposophists.
I would not want others to undergo that long, wearisome, needless struggle. If you contemplate sending your sons or daughters to a religious school (or to a “nonsectarian” school whose true nature you question), work hard to learn precisely what the school’s curriculum and goals are. How much of the curriculum is pure memorization? Is discussion allowed? Is dissent allowed? Are prayers mandatory? What sorts of books are in (or banned from) the library? Are science courses taught straight, or with a religious bent?
If the school is a Waldorf, also ask what role myths and legends play in the curriculum. Ask who Rudolf Steiner was. Ask for his views on evolution. Ask about clairvoyance. Pass around copies of Steiner quotations that raise questions for you, then ask those questions. Try to learn how deeply committed the school is to Steiner’s doctrines. As I indicated earlier, not all Waldorfs are alike. Some may distance themselves from Steiner’s racism, for instance. The problem, however, is that Steiner’s entire system is built on his clairvoyant, mystical “insights” that include his racist views. A Waldorf school cannot wholly rid itself of mysticism unless it wholly renounces Steiner—in which case it ceases to be a real Waldorf school. Halfway measures may be possible—affirming some of his mystical teachings while rejecting others—but mysticism would necessarily remain entrenched in the curriculum, while some of the “truths” that gave that mysticism its justification would be absent. The resulting pedagogy, tacking among an expurgated set of Steiner’s teachings, would inevitably lose much of its coherence and rationale.
Jewish parents may want to take special precautions. Steiner was arguably not an anti-Semite. But any Jewish parents who are considering a Waldorf school should think carefully about Steiner’s racism and the emphasis he placed on Jesus. Evaluate, too, Steiner’s comments about the historical role of Judaism, such as the following: “Judaism as such has long outlived itself and no longer has a legitimate place in the modern life of peoples; the fact that it has nevertheless succeeded in maintaining itself is an aberration in world history the consequences of which had to follow.” You may also want to investigate the debate over possible ties between some Anthroposophists and Nazis.
All parents of all backgrounds who consider religious schools for their children should press persistently for honest answers about the schools’ policies and underlying theologies. If you mistrust any answers you receive, send your kids elsewhere. Their lives are in your hands.
- People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS)
- Anthroposophical Medicine (Skeptic's Dictionary)
- Rudolf Steiner's Quackery
Mr. Rawlings, now semi-retired, has been a college instructor, magazine writer, and editor. His book, The Last Airmen: Exploring My Father's World (Harper, 1989) is an informal history of American commercial aviation. A longer, referenced version of this article titled Unenlightened: The Inside Story of an Occult Education is posted on his Web site.
This article was revised on February 14, 2007.