Schooled in spirituality

The Waldorf charter schools tend toward the metaphysical in approach, but is that religious teaching? A federal-court judge will decide.

All students at a local public Waldorf school incorporate physical movement and games, like the rainy-day game pictured in the above photo, as well as art and music into their everyday activities. Even math and science are taught with the help of storytelling and illustration. But critics see something else: taxpayer-supported public schools embracing the teaching methods of a 19th-century mystic.

All students at a local public Waldorf school incorporate physical movement and games, like the rainy-day game pictured in the above photo, as well as art and music into their everyday activities. Even math and science are taught with the help of storytelling and illustration. But critics see something else: taxpayer-supported public schools embracing the teaching methods of a 19th-century mystic.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If asked, most of us would say we know what religion is. Even nonbelievers can rattle off a handful of sects by name and identify some common elements: worship, belief in a higher power, prayer. Even if the details vary, we think we know it when we see it.

We also might trust our intuitive understanding when asked what constitutes religion in the schools, as banned under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. California’s own constitution puts it this way: “no public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school … nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted, directly or indirectly, in any of the common schools of this state.”

The language may seem clear enough, but once examples of potentially “sectarian or denominational doctrine” are examined, rational people may find themselves on separate sides of a sensitive argument with far-reaching implications for local schools.

For instance, Waldorf-method schools—public schools based on the educational model developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century—are currently under fire from a group called People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS). In the mid-1990s, these critics’ experiences with Waldorf private and public schools led them to claim that Steiner’s educational method was too closely aligned with another of his developments, a worldview or philosophy called anthroposophy. Sometimes defined as “the wisdom of mankind,” anthroposophy was what Steiner called “spiritual science,” the science of exploring the world as a spiritual as well as a physical place, and exploring the self as a spiritual as well as a physical being.

Waldorf educators claim that regardless of what Steiner believed (which many don’t consider religious anyway), Waldorf educational methods, especially as practiced in the public schools, don’t include any anthroposophical instruction. Waldorf-method schools feature an “art-based” curriculum that focuses on the developmental age of the child, saving certain lessons, such as formal reading instruction, until second or third grade, when children are able to absorb them easily.

PLANS claims that Steiner’s methods were based less on developmental science than on his own spiritual belief that a child didn’t fully incarnate—that is, bind his spirit to his body—until about age 7. They believe that all of Steiner’s work includes occult and Christian beliefs, like the existence of angels, which imbue certain classroom activities with religious meaning.

Photo By Larry Dalton

For instance, opponents claim that Steiner used the sun as a metaphor for Christ, so that when public-school students recite a verse in the morning that thanks the sun for its warmth, they’re really praying. PLANS members also claim that tables in the classrooms displaying little winged dolls and evidence of the changing seasons, such as flowers, bark and moss, are altars used for a kind of “nature worship.”

Waldorf educators deny this. They describe the morning verse as a way of centering and focusing the children, and inspiring respect and gratitude for the environment. Students start gardening as early as kindergarten, and the “nature tables” are artistic displays that teach them about the changing seasons. One local teacher called her own little winged dolls “fairies”—Waldorf also incorporates a lot of storytelling and mythology into its lessons.

When citizens can’t agree that a gray area is more black than white, we let the courts decide. In Sacramento, the Eastern District of California federal court is preparing to examine the intricacies of Waldorf’s little-understood educational model as it’s practiced in public schools. The court will look at two main issues: Is anthroposophy a religion, and, if it is, is it so integral to Waldorf education that it constitutes religious instruction?

The lawsuit actually was begun in 1998 against two California school districts, including Sacramento City Unified, which launched the first publicly funded Waldorf-method schools in the area. After delays, PLANS’ case was dismissed in 2001 on the grounds that the plaintiff didn’t have standing to bring the suit. But in 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that because PLANS challenges the Waldorf school curriculum as a whole, and the schools are supported by public funds, PLANS had taxpayer standing. The decision effectively threw the case back to the district court. In November 2004, Judge Frank Damrell denied the plaintiff’s request for summary judgment, preparing the case to go to trial sometime in 2005 or early 2006.

Debra Snell is the president of PLANS and an energetic Grass Valley parent whose experience with her local Waldorf charter school inspired the lawsuit. From her rural home, Snell claimed she just wants to see the issues closely examined. Studying Steiner, she found evidence that he believed in reincarnation, his own clairvoyance, and spirits inhabiting a spiritual plane to which we ascend during sleep. Although she admits she’s not familiar with the current curriculum at local Waldorf public schools, she believes that Waldorf teachers are trained to teach using the spiritual principles of anthroposophy.

“I just have a question,” she said. “How can public Waldorf schools be legal?”

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was nothing if not productive. Credited with medicinal, architectural and educational breakthroughs, he also found time to produce approximately 30 books and 6,000 lectures on topics of all kinds. It’s partly this breadth that gets him into trouble now, as some discredited ideas still can be found in his voluminous writings.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In founding anthroposophy (years before developing the first Waldorf school for children of Waldorf Astoria cigarette-factory workers), Steiner advocated for the development of the spiritual part of the human being, a part that could think more actively and explore more completely the world around it by escaping conventional limitations—this included traveling to a “spiritual plane.”

Anthroposophists vary in their interpretations of his writings. One anthroposophist, from the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, said that anthroposophy could be considered just a path of knowledge: “looking into the world and finding what lives inside of you.”

Because it’s easier to recognize the differences between traditional religions and anthroposophy than to deny the similarities, anthroposophists point out that Steiner’s philosophy doesn’t ask people to believe anything specific, gather to worship, recite any creed or be loyal to any god. Anyone can be an anthroposophist and be a member of any religion—or of no religion.

This point of view, that anthroposophy is spiritual but not religious, is held by a great number of people, including priests of the Christian Community, founded with Steiner’s help in 1922.

On a gray Sunday, about 20 people entered Sacramento’s small Christian Community church, with its lavender walls. The priest, in rosy purple vestments and with a particularly sonorous voice, read the story of Christ turning water into wine. He faced his congregation, struck a classical pose and repeated, “The father God be in us. The son God create in us. The spirit God enlighten us.”

Doorways within the church were oddly shaped, their tops carved into three or four up-reaching facets, as if one side of the doorway had grown up from the floor faster than the other. Calming colors and nonlinear shapes are part of Steiner’s architectural model.

By phone, the Rev. Sanford Miller tried to explain why anthroposophy can’t be considered religious. “One can only take it up in freedom,” he said. “It’s a lack of refinement in our time that one does not distinguish between what is spiritual and what is religion.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

The distinction eludes critics like Snell, who think none of it should be included in public schools. The Rudolf Steiner College apparently agrees. Waldorf schools traditionally have been private schools, and Waldorf teachers often receive special credentials from organizations like the Rudolf Steiner College. According to a court statement by Betty Staley, the director of high-school teacher education for the college, references to spirituality were removed from the public teachers’ training materials to meet state standards.

Ray McDermott, a Stanford University professor who studied the progress of the first public Waldorf-methods school, e-mailed a statement to SN&R suggesting a possible middle ground between learning anthroposophy and teaching it: “[T]he schools should be completely free of anthroposophy. That is the way Steiner … wanted it. The teachers can learn anthroposophy and study Steiner for his educational and other ideas, and this may or may not inform their teaching, but none of his philosophy is supposed to reach the children directly.”

The ultimate test may be whether PLANS can present enough evidence that elements of anthroposophy—lessons on reincarnation or Christ, for instance—are presented to students. Last November, the PLANS people were chided by Damrell for failing to do so in their request for summary judgment.

A recent peek into a local Waldorf school showed evidence of an unusual approach to education but no obvious signs of religion or Steiner’s “spiritual science.”

John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School in South Sacramento is one of the two schools named in Snell’s lawsuit. It educates approximately 270 students, in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Of the six Waldorf schools in the Sacramento region, according to Maria Lopez of the Sacramento City Unified School District, only John Morse and a charter school in Citrus Heights are public. They’re two of approximately 20 Waldorf magnet schools in California, according to representatives of the Rudolf Steiner College. The state Department of Education couldn’t confirm the statewide number.

As a public, non-charter school, John Morse has a 2004-2005 budget that includes $144,000 in state dollars, $76,000 in federal dollars, and $1,316,000 from the district’s general fund based on average daily attendance. The school regularly raises additional funds, because field trips and seasonal festivals are expensive extras. The student body is diverse: Almost one-fifth of the students are African-American, and almost one-quarter are Hispanic.

From the first step into the classroom, especially in the younger grades, lots of unusual things catch the eye. The kindergarten classroom is divided into various environments: a miniature, functioning kitchen; small, well-crafted wooden tables; and a big red circle on the floor.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On a regular morning, 5-year-olds were wiping off tabletops like miniature busboys and washing dishes in the pint-sized sink. Around the circle, other children were looking at picture books, or fidgeting. In a sweet, melodic voice, teacher Sandy Allen sang her directions to them: “If your name is Evelyn, put your book away.”

Slowly, the final children took their favorite spaces around the circle, and Allen began to read to them.

Toys were everywhere, but they were designed simply. The dolls in the classroom had small dots for eyes and tiny lines for mouths, or no faces at all, which can look eerie to adults. A second kindergarten teacher, Jo Ann Kergan, explained that Waldorf provides simple toys so that the children’s imaginations do all the work.

Explaining some of the distinctions of Waldorf kindergarten, Kergan said the kids prepare, serve and clean up after a hot snack every day and that the school favors whole grains and organics. They always have vegetable soup on Fridays, she said, so parents are encouraged to send over that spare carrot or that last stalk of celery.

She gave examples of student activities that develop strength and motor skills: drawing with beeswax crayons, baking bread, molding with beeswax, gardening, and taking nature walks to notice the seasonal changes in the nearby greenbelt.

The room had its own nature table, draped in colorful fabrics and decorated with shells and a big crystal. Underneath the table, the small space was draped in brown and watched over by a round-bellied, handmade doll, which Kergan once referred to as “Mother Earth.”

Arts instruction gets increasingly complex after kindergarten. All Waldorf students begin to knit in the first grade. Eventually, they make their own socks and colorful bags for carrying art materials. From the beginning, Waldorf teachers use drawings, narratives, physical games and handmade dolls to teach everything, including the four mathematical functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Kergan was one of the public-school teachers who saw the founding of John Morse. She worked at Oak Ridge Elementary School in the early 1990s, when the district decided to diversify the student body by turning the Oak Park school into a magnet school. The district agreed on a Waldorf-methods model and accepted a proposal from the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks to train the Oak Ridge teachers. The new John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School opened in 1995. Families who rejected the Waldorf method stayed at Oak Ridge.

Asked if her teacher training included anthroposophy, Kergan said Steiner’s philosophy was alluded to. Teachers who wanted to learn more could pay for their own classes, she said, but most of the teachers at John Morse did not pursue any anthroposophical training.

“We are not a Waldorf school,” Principal Cheryl Eining said, sitting in her cozy, dimly lit office, where all the doorways are straight and square. “We’re a Waldorf-methods school.”

Some of her teachers hadn’t received any special Waldorf training, she said.

Eining explained that critics believe that Waldorf methods can’t be separated from anthroposophy. “But that’s not what we’re about,” she insisted. When she got to John Morse after many years in public education, she said, she didn’t even know what anthroposophy was. Even now, she’s not sure how to describe it.

But she is clear about the Waldorf method—teaching the whole child lovingly, as opposed to teaching specifically to standardized tests. However, John Morse, as a public school, does complete all state and federally mandated tests. Although they don’t compare well academically to other small, boutique schools across the state, John Morse students are close to the district average.

Starting in first grade, students bond with a single teacher who, ideally, sees them through the entire eight years of their elementary education. Although special teachers come in for Spanish or music lessons, the students are meant to spend every morning with a teacher they’ve known since they were 6.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Waldorf discourages television and early computer use, believing that children learn best by physically doing. The school also emphasizes respect for the environment, which is why materials in the school are mostly organic: wooden toys and beeswax crayons. There are few commercially prepared posters or handouts or even textbooks. Students make their own books, illustrating and writing up lessons throughout the year. Waldorf advocates say these books are often very beautiful.

A book of photographs from school fairs and festivals shows adults belly-dancing and girls in kimonos. Eining explained that the Waldorf curriculum emphasizes cultural history. In fourth grade, it’s Norse mythology; in fifth, ancient civilizations; in sixth, ancient Rome; and in seventh, Arthurian legends. Students are taught about religious movements because they’re an integral part of human history, said Eining, “but we don’t teach religion.”

Waldorf’s art emphasis is evident in the paintings and drawings along each classroom’s back wall. Eighth grade features skulls on black paper in white chalk. First grade features watercolor blobs of red, yellow and blue. None of these pieces is uniquely rendered. They’re copies of originals, all in similar colors, all in similar shapes: the snowmen in fourth grade, the pharaoh masks in fifth. In seventh, there are 30 Mona Lisas, all framed.

In front of their Mona Lisas on a regular winter morning, the seventh-grade students stood behind their two-person tables, facing their teacher, Barbara Warren. They each had been assigned a word in a poem, and they were trying to create an appropriate physical representation of that word. It looked like a crude form of “eurythmy,” a kind of a movement/dance designed by Steiner to interpret words and music.

“Be your word,” said Warren with enthusiasm. “I want you to get hungrier,” she told one student, who grabbed at her sides and pretended to wither. “Turn around and do ‘glow’ for them,” she told another. Over and over, they recited the poem by Friedrich Nietzsche.

On other mornings, some students regularly join a parent volunteer, Bill Alston, in a quiet corner of a multipurpose room. If students have trouble tracking from left to right, Alston explained, reading will be exhausting. He asked one student to lie on his back, and then he dangled a ball over the student’s head. Slowly, Alston moved the ball in lines and circles while the student followed with his eyes, a practice the student said used to be a strain.

Behind Alston, two more students were standing on balance boards that looked like very blunt seesaws. They kept the surfaces flat with their feet while tossing beanbags back and forth and reciting, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Alston explained that improving physical balance increases mental-processing efficiency. “It can create new neural pathways,” he said. He also claimed these exercises sharpened the students’ eyesight.

Back in her office, Eining said that John Morse was not a “free to be you and me” sort of place. Some people get that impression from the Waldorf practice of teaching formal reading in the second or third grade.

At John Morse, reading preparation begins early, with picture books, the alphabet and stories. But Steiner felt that students forced to read in the first grade would have to struggle too hard. They wouldn’t learn to love reading. Because Steiner favored learning by doing, Waldorf students traditionally learn to write before they learn to read.

When Eining visited a second-grade class, the children approached her with three- and four-sentence stories written in their homemade textbooks. They fumbled over their spelling mistakes, but each one could read his or her own words.

Eining explained that the school had made a commitment to the district to graduate eighth-graders at or above grade level, though the students might not learn at the same exact rates as the rest of the district. They were very close to meeting that goal, said Eining, and recently, their test scores beat the district’s.

During a recent talk to parents, Eining was asked questions about things like what grade homework started in and where the computers were, but she was not asked about anthroposophy, nature worship or sun gods.

Had Snell been there, it might have been a different question-and-answer period altogether. And that, according to Snell, is part of the problem. Although public Waldorf schools may be trying to distance themselves from anthroposophy, Snell feels it’s dishonest not to explain its meaning to parents. She’d rather Waldorf remain in the private sector and admit that the method is rooted in anthroposophical beliefs.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Snell said she’s been painted as an atheist and as a right-wing zealot by the other side, but she’s really neither. She’s a progressive parent who originally was attracted to Waldorf.

Living in a small Grass Valley community in the early 1990s, with a student needing extra attention, Snell was anxious to try any method that might engage her son. She got involved with a private Waldorf school, and her son thrived, but Snell saw how hard it was for the school to support itself without district oversight and without state and federal funding. With the financial help of a sponsoring school district, Snell and other members of her community helped open what became the Yuba River Charter School, one of the first public Waldorf charter schools. But Snell was confused when prospective teachers were asked about their relationship to anthroposophy.

“One teacher said, ‘Anthroposophy is my life,’” remembered Snell, who claimed that all three newly hired teachers were anthroposophists.

Wondering what anthroposophy was and what it had to do with education, Snell requested some information from the Rudolf Steiner College’s teacher-training program. Among other things, she received reading lists that included titles like Calendar of the Soul, Occult Science and Christianity as Mystical Fact, all written by Steiner.

“He thought he had the only truth,” said Snell. “In meetings, what Steiner thought was a huge topic of conversation.”

Snell had a hard time getting a clear definition of anthroposophy from teachers, but when she looked into Steiner’s own writings, anthroposophy looked a lot like a religion to her.

“Peel off that top layer,” Snell said, looking over years’ worth of gathered materials in her kitchen, “and it’s a cult.”

Debra Snell and Dan Dugan are partners in a lawsuit questioning whether Waldorf-methods public schools incorporate spiritual or religious instruction.

Photo By Larry Dalton

While Snell was learning more about Steiner, her second son began complaining that he wasn’t learning anything at the charter school. Snell claimed that teachers said they were just teaching what they’d been trained to teach.

By the time Snell met Dan Dugan, a San Francisco parent equally disappointed by his local private Waldorf school, the Grass Valley charter school was losing families.

“The more I read, the more convinced I was that I made a huge mistake by founding the school and asking the board to sponsor it,” said Snell. She said she went to the district, to the state and through every channel she could think of to reform the school before eventually joining Dugan and others in a lawsuit.

“The New Age belief systems are so complex and widespread that school boards don’t recognize them,” she said.

John Morse was included in the suit after educators from Oak Ridge contacted PLANS and mentioned that some of the teacher training for the new Waldorf school made them uncomfortable. Looking at the training materials, Snell believed that even though the school was trying to follow the state framework, anthroposophy colored everything.

At John Morse, “teacher training is the core of our concern,” said Snell.

If the court finds Waldorf unacceptable for public-school education, Snell hopes that public Waldorf schools will lose all state and federal funding, money that can flow into other public schools.

Rudolf Steiner engaged in “spiritual science” throughout his long career as a philosopher, long before he founded the first private Waldorf schools. It’s estimated that there are now more than 800 Waldorf schools worldwide.

Speaking of funding, Snell mentioned that her own organization has come under attack for accepting support from organizations like the Pacific Justice Institute, which provides free legal assistance—usually on behalf of conservative and religious organizations or individuals.

Dugan imagines that the fight won’t end with the district court, but will go all the way up to the Supreme Court, as the issue of public Waldorf schools hasn’t been debated in the courts before. “It’s a First Amendment issue,” he said.

Ultimately, the courts will have to look at a question seemingly so simple: What is (and isn’t) religious?

PLANS points to previous court definitions of religions: They address fundamental questions, provide a comprehensive belief system and “can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.”

Defendants agree that these “formal and external signs” should determine whether anthroposophy fits the mold. Douglas Sloan, a professor emeritus from Columbia University who spent 16 years with various anthroposophical organizations, said, “These religious forms include such things as beliefs and doctrines (creeds), ritual activities, forms of worship, sacred texts and recognized sources of authority.” In the absence of these things, Sloan says, he can “meaningfully and concretely testify that anthroposophy is not a religion.”

As a further boost, the Anthroposophical Society in America reminded the court of Steiner’s opinion: “It is a perversion of the truth to ascribe sectarian tendencies to Anthroposophy, for it certainly has no such intentions. It is a perversion of the truth to believe that it wants to be a new religious foundation. It does not want to do any such thing.”

The fact that Steiner had to make such a statement suggests that anthroposophy has been questioned on these grounds since the early 20th century.

If anthroposophy is found to be a religion, plaintiffs still have to prove it’s being used in the classroom. A recent statement by Judge Damrell denying the plaintiff summary judgment explains: “PLANS argues that ‘excessive entanglement’ [between church and state] exists merely because teachers from public and private Waldorf schools attend the same classes, and because public Waldorf teachers are often hired from private Waldorf schools … PLANS presents no curriculum evidence from either school at issue to support such claims.”

Although Waldorf methods have not been reviewed by the courts before, a recent case from New Jersey showed that the courts did consider a class on transcendental meditation to be religious instruction and therefore illegal—a decision the district court will take into account.

But students at John Morse don’t appear to be taking classes in anthroposophy. And even if some Waldorf teachers are anthroposophists, certainly there are teachers in other public schools from other religions—and even from other religious colleges.

Snell says the difference is that you cannot receive instruction on Waldorf methods without receiving instruction on anthroposophy. She also asserts that a teacher can’t teach using Waldorf methods without teaching anthroposophy. The two are too entangled.

Visiting classrooms for an introduction to Waldorf methods recently, prospective parents saw a lot of unusual things, but nothing that instructed students to embrace a set of religious beliefs. However, there were a lot of little winged dolls with no faces that give the imagination a lot to work with.

Explore the Waldorf issue (John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School) (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools) (Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks)