Archive for Sunday, March 24, 2002

Critics call Waldorf movement a front for cult-like religion

March 24, 2002


Wary of the public-school approach to education, a group of Lawrence parents hopes to start a school of their own.

It'll definitely be different.

For starters, no tests or grades. No computers. At home, little or no television.

All students will learn to play a musical instrument, starting with flute-like recorders in kindergarten.

Art won't be a separate course; it'll be part of every course. Creativity comes first.

Students will learn at their own pace. Some will read in kindergarten, others not until second or third grade. There's no rush.

When students are ready, they'll learn.

"Our approach is very much rooted in the original meaning of the Greek word 'educate,' and that is 'to bring out,' rather than 'to put in,'" said group member Rick Mitchell, a professional photographer and gallery manager at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The group  six families, so far  is part of the Waldorf school movement.

Waldorf schools emphasize creativity in the early grades, while de-emphasizing competition and academics.

The Waldorf philosophy is that once students learn to use their imaginations and to think cognitively, everything else falls into place.

So, for example, in the first grade students aren't taught to read. Instead, they explore the origins of the alphabet and how each letter evolved from pictographs.

After they understand why there's an alphabet, reading comes easy. Same for math.

Waldorf schools don't shy away from spirituality and values.

Early on, students are exposed to the world's different religions and to mythology. They're also taught two foreign languages, starting in first grade.

A Lawrence native, Mitchell served on the governing board of a Waldorf school in Princeton, N.J., while on the faculty at Rutgers University. He and his family returned to Lawrence in 1992.

"Back when I was looking for schools for my two sons, the Waldorf school was the most practical and down-to-earth that I could find," he said. "I still feel that way."

Others don't.


"Waldorf schools bill themselves as offering education that is nonsectarian, arts-based and whole-child," said Debra Snell, co-founder of the California-based People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools. "But they're not; they are the missionary arm of anthroposophy."

Anthroposophy is a "spiritual science" developed by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded the Waldorf movement.

The movement takes its name from a 1919 speech in which Steiner challenged workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to create a new social order and sense of ethics in the aftermath of World War I.

Snell said Waldorf schools are cult-like fronts that are more about promoting Steiner and anthroposophy than they are about educating children.

"If your belief system does not align itself with anthroposophy, then I'd say your child is better off almost anywhere else," Snell said. "But if you're an anthroposophist, you'll absolutely love it."

Snell pulled her two children from the Yuba River Waldorf School in Washington, Calif., after realizing her fifth-grade son couldn't read.

"To find out why, I had him tested  I thought he may have a learning disability," she said. "But the (tester) looked at me and said, 'Oh, no, he's able. He just hasn't been taught!'

"After I got him out of there, he learned to read in a month."


Marty Haught is all for starting a Waldorf school in Lawrence. He's the group's president.

He also leads a once-a-month anthroposophy study group.

The school, he said, is not part of a cult.

"It's true that (Waldorf) teaches that humans are spiritual beings and that spirituality is something that should be explored, and it's true that Steiner felt that Christ was a model for human behavior," Haught said.

"But one particular religion isn't taught over another," he said, noting that students are encouraged to study whatever religion they find interesting, including Christianity.

So far, six families and nine children are committed to starting Prairie Moon Waldorf School in Lawrence. First-year enrollment is limited to kindergartners.

Plans call for the school opening this fall. The group does not yet have a building. They have found a Waldorf-trained teacher in India and are talking with her about coming to Lawrence.

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