“Ask a [Smrt] Homeschooler” about the Waldorf method
For starters, have you made your “awesome” lists yet? If not, you’d better get right on that.
Now, for today’s “Ask a [Smrt] Homeschooler” question, submitted anonymously through Formspring.
You seem to be kind of anti-waldorf (correct me if I’m wrong!). Do you feel it’s one of those methods that doesn’t work for you but is fine for others, or do you feel about it how you feel about unschooling? Why?
I really don’t think that Waldorf and unschooling are quite analogous. Waldorf education tends to be done in a structured environment, with text books and a curriculum. It’s a methodology that is applied in multiple settings, from private Waldorf schools to public schools (though the method’s application in public schools has been a subject of controversy) to homeschooling. Some unschoolers even espouse a “Waldorf philosophy,” though by that, I think they mean a focus on nature, open-ended play, etc. more than an implementation of Waldorf methodology. My problems with unschooling lies in the lack of formal/structured education, while my issues with Waldorf education lie in the philosophy and implementation. Either could result in a well-rounded, well-educated child. Either could result in a child who is educationally short-changed. Neither strike me as the ideal education for all or most children.
I like the Waldorf-inspired toys, I like the wide array of art forms Waldorf schools teach to their students, I like that nature is valued, and I like the cool way they paint their walls…and that’s about where my “like” of this methodology ends. I feel that Waldorf can probably work for some children (just like unschooling can work for some children), and some Waldorf schools may not embody all the unpleasant aspects of Waldorf philosophy, but on the whole, I don’t see the Waldorf method as a means of imparting a thorough education in a child. In fact, in confirming some of the things I’d heard and read about Waldorf education, I have actually found some downright frightening aspects to it. I don’t think parents who choose the Waldorf method are being neglectful or have negative/harmful attitudes or intentions, but I also think that many of them don’t explore the roots of Waldorf or consider the greater implications of some of the philosophies and methodologies.
Waldorf education does have some specific aspects that greatly put me off, such as:
No technology — Sorry, folks. I’m a believer in the written word, both the hand-written word and the printed paper book, as much as the next bibliophile, but technology is absolutely ingrained in our society…and much of it with good reason. Technological literacy is as much a necessity as reading literacy at this point, perhaps even more so. Labeling all technology as evil or harmful is absurd. Technology is neutral, on the whole; what you do with it is what gives it weight. Rather than “protecting” children from the supposed dangerous influences of technology, I feel it is important to introduce children to responsible uses of technology in education.
Technology provides an incomparable fount of research and resources, far beyond a library’s physical (and financial) capabilities to hold. Technology provides a means for a child whose brain works faster than his hands or who has certain learning disabilities to get the words out without frustration. This “fearing technology just because” mentality makes no sense — electric lights were a technological advance, the printing press was technological advance, the eyeglasses or contact lenses you wear were a technological advance. What makes them acceptable and not other technology? Because of the newness? Because someone has arbitrarily decided certain technologies are acceptable, but others are not? I don’t think computers necessary need to be in every classroom or used all the time, but there’s an expectation in many Waldorf schools that computing should not be done by students at all, television watched at all, technology from their disapproved list used at all. It’s one of many ways in which Waldorf education attempts to extend its sphere of influence beyond the classroom.
The downplaying of the importance of technology is also one of my biggest qualms with classical education, come to think of it. Come on, guys. I don’t think classical education is a perfect methodology, either.
Intentionally delaying reading — The Waldorf method discourages “early” reading, which they classify as reading before at least 2nd grade. They don’t just mean “don’t push reading.” They actually mean “try to delay it.” Independent reading is discouraged, because apparently reading is somehow damaging to a child. Y’all know how I feel about the importance of reading.
While some Waldorf parents (and some Waldorf schools) may simply not encourage (or in their words, “push”) reading before second grade, some do, in fact, outright discourage “early” reading. The wording “discourage early reading” is used throughout multiple pro-Waldorf information sites. This isn’t just a matter of not teaching or not encouraging reading, but of actively thwarting the learning process if possible, in order to protect the “development of the etheric body.” Rudolph Steiner himself said, “A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen (I can speak out of my own experience because I could not do it at that age) is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years can already read and write perfectly.” This is not an education method that loves or values literacy.
Claiming to encourage artistic qualities and creativities, while really controlling the artistic process — The “no black crayons” thing is a great example of this. Elementary school students aren’t allowed to use black crayons in many Waldorf schools. I heard this one directly from my future sister-in-law (who went through Waldorf education) and thought that surely it must have been her school only! Since then, I have had it confirmed in multiple places. Black crayons might lead to horrible things like drawing outlines and black is a “dead color,” apparently. Scroll down to “About Black Crayons at Waldorf” to learn more about that.
Of course, if you have black hair or very dark skin, you’re out of luck. My future-SIL said that her school encouraged substitution of the color blue for black when coloring hair. A commenter in this thread (whose children were enrolled in Waldorf education) expresses quite well why I find this anti-black(and sometimes even brown!) crayon sentiment to be so damaging:
There is no way to express or comprehend how an oriental or African American child must feel being unable to draw their own hair or the hair of their family members. And while there may seem like a stretch to make a racial connection with this, we hear time and time again of children who have tried to draw angels with dark skin or hair and are corrected by the teacher and told angels must have light skin and golden hair.
Waldorf schools often tend to discourage the use of pencils, markers, or anything else that can draw a crisp line. Children are typically given block crayons that can only make wide swaths of color and discouraged from detailed face drawings. Much of their art is “wet on wet” watercolor art, which doesn’t allow for much detail work. There also seems to be a heavy emphasis on copying other artwork examples or art under specific direction, at least early on, rather than truly creative artistic expression.
It’s more than a little bit cultish — I was unaware of how much of Waldorf education is wrapped up in anthroposophy. They call it a “spiritual science,” a term I have difficulty even dignifying, as there is absolutely no evidence for their supposed scientific claims. What teachers are taught to teach is sometimes just plain bizarre. The more I read, the more cult-like Steiner’s foundations of Waldorf education seem. The fixation with “demons” (like Lucifer and especially this “Ahriman”), the strange melding of eastern philosophies with European mythologies in order to create a magical world that–of course–only a Waldorf-education person could contact and understand, the encouragement of Waldorf families to associate with only other Waldorf families (I’ve seen this one first-hand), Steiner’s beliefs about racial superiority. Though Steiner’s defenders like to claim his quotes are taken out of context, I’m not sure what context, exactly, would justify statements like, “If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense if men do not arrive at a form of intelligence that is independent of blondness.”
While blatant racism may not be tolerated in Waldorf schools, Waldorf education’s roots are planted in questionable soil and I have found plenty of examples of Waldorf schools subtly and not-so-subtly presenting white as right. By devaluing the colors black and (sometimes) brown and by insisting that angels must be drawn as blonde-haired and fair-skinned, Waldorf schools may be sending dangerous messages about race.
Downplaying the importance of the study of history. — The Waldorf method seems to present history and mythology as essentially same thing, especially in the early years. While I’m not as history-centric as some classical (or neo-classical, as I’m starting to think of myself) educators, the idea of dismissing history as a separate subject entirely or presenting it solely or primarily through myths and legends is troubling and I have a hard time believing that a thorough historical education could be had through such means. Myths have an important role to play within the context of history, but when you remove them from their historical context, you essentially boil the entirety of the human experience down to fairy tales.
What I have written here is my own set of concerns regarding Waldorf education. I have tried to, by and large, use only pro-Waldorf links in my examples above, though in the area of racism/anthroposophy, I have linked to experiences and examples on sites with a negative view of the Waldorf method. I haven’t address Waldorf as it applies to homeschooling, because I honestly have no idea how much of the Waldorf method could be applied at home (as Waldorf method teachers seem to require a goodly amount of specialized training in the methodology/philosophy), outside of the more benign art-and-nature-focused aspects of it. The former Waldorf students I know have been taught in traditional Waldorf method schools, not at home, and their experiences and accounts have had the most significant influence on my perception of Waldorf education.
If you’re interested in reading more about concerns and pitfalls of Waldorf education, you can find quite a few sites out there that actively explore and deconstruct the philosophies and practices of the Waldorf method, including those site I linked in the section on anthroposophy and racism. Mothering.com’s forums have multiple discussion threads about negative experiences with Waldorf or with specific aspects of the method. Other parents have had experiences like this blogger’s and written about it. You can also find many sites and accounts that praise the method, including those I have linked in most of the above post.
To answer my anonymous questioner, no, I don’t feel that the Waldorf method is one that “doesn’t work for [me] but is fine for others” in a larger sense. Like with unschooling, I feel there are people and circumstances that can probably do it very well and very right, with the result of a well-educated and thoroughly delightful student. As with unschooling, I think it has merits that can make it seem quite appealing. I don’t think those merits and the slim possibility of the stars aligning for a perfect education are strong enough to consider Waldorf education a good call for most families. Your mileage may vary. If you are a Waldorf family, I sincerely hope your mileage does vary, because (as with unschooling, believe it or not) I’d like to be wrong on this one.