Waldorf Spiritualism & Literate Minds

Over at The Atlantic, Emily Chertoff asks whether the Waldorf schools are a “cult.” This kind of question immediately suggests an orthodoxy outside of which the other — that which is different — is suspect, deviant, and hence a “cult.” When used in this way, the term “cult” is neither useful nor enlightening. We should get rid of the word and take the time to describe, in detail, the people and ideas being categorized, judged, and dismissed as a “cult.” Whatever they might be, the Waldorf schools are not a cult.

There is, however, a “spiritualist” aspect to the pedagogy that is rooted in the anthroposophical interests of its founder, Rudolf Steiner:

Steiner started his career as a Goethe scholar in the late 19th century. But as he became less interested in science and more interested in spirituality, his writing began to take a mystical turn. By the turn of the 20th century, he had become a proponent of theosophy — an esoteric belief system centered on ways of knowing God — and founded a society dedicated to promoting his own brand of “anthroposophical” thinking.

Most occultists of the era believed that spirits of the dead regularly attempted to contact or enter the world of the living. Steiner was more interested in the opposite possibility. He believed the living could cultivate the ability to enter the spirit world. After World War I, the director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany —  an adherent of anthroposophy — invited Steiner to create a school for the children of factory workers. This was Steiner’s chance to train children who could initiate such spiritual contact.

The Waldorf school at Stuttgart, founded in 1919, grew rapidly, and five more schools opened across Germany in short order. In the 1930s, all were closed by the Nazis. By that point, however, there were thriving Waldorf schools in Holland and New York City, and Steiner’s method survived the war. There are about 160 Waldorf schools in the U.S. today, with an unknown number that have adapted some Waldorf methods to their curriculum, and close to 1,000 Waldorf schools around the world.

Many of the methods used at Waldorf today (for instance the movement exercises and the use of music) are rooted in Steiner’s belief that schools need to cultivate spirit — the medium for contact between the living and the dead. (The concept of “spirit” is not well-defined — a fact that makes the Waldorf pedagogy look a little mushy.)

While current Waldorf pedagogy may be mushy, I’m guessing this is deliberate. Steiner’s spiritualism was as eclectic as it was syncretic. He was interested in everything from romanticism to theosophy to Christianity, and he tied them together in a way that made sense to him. This is quite a feat but it doesn’t sound like a coherent basis for pedagogy. The current Waldorf curriculum seems content to encourage crafts, creativity, and connection, with an emphasis on nature and music. To some parents’ consternation and worry, Waldorf kids aren’t taught how to read until the second or third grade. There doesn’t seem to be any direct teaching about spirits or spirituality, though the implicit aim may be to cultivate an attitude of openness to these, or an awareness that the world is not just matter and mechanics.

Speaking as a non-mystical materialist with an abiding love for the humanities, I have to say this sounds fairly appealing. I don’t have children but if I did, I’d consider sending them to such a school. I can even see how the delay in teaching reading can be a good thing. We are massively conditioned by the world of text and underestimate what literacy does to our minds. Reading (and writing) is anything but natural and requires extraordinary training. That training irrevocably shapes the mind in some sobering ways.

I’ll never forget the unease I felt when reading Merlin Donald’s brilliant book, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (1991). In Chapter 8, Donald discusses the momentous transition from oral (or mythic) culture to literate (or theoretic) culture:

Individuals in possession of reading, writing, and other visuographic skills thus become somewhat like computers with networking capabilities; they are equipped to interface, to plug into whatever network becomes available. And once plugged in, their skills are determined by both the network and their own biological inheritance. Humans without such skills are isolated from the external memory system, somewhat like a computer that lacks the input/output devices needed to link up with a network. [Readers] therefore share a common memory system; and as the data base in that system expands far beyond the mastery of any single individual, the system becomes by far the greatest determining factor in the cognitions of individuals.

While being plugged into a literate reading network may sound like an unadulterated good (and in some ways it is), Donald is not so sanguine. All this literacy plugs us into a system that strikes me as a bit borgish:

External memory is a critical feature of modern human cognition, if we are trying to build an evolutionary bridge from Neolithic to modern cognitive capabilities or a structural bridge from mythic to theoretic culture. The brain may not have changed recently in its genetic makeup, but its link to an accumulating external memory network affords it cognitive powers that would not be possible in isolation.

This is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network. Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive  control changes.

The major locus of stored memory is out there, not within the bounds of biological memory. Biological memories carry around the code, rather than a great deal of specific information. [Individuals] confronted with a symbolic information environment are freed from the obligation to depend wholly on biological memory; but the price of this freedom is interpretative baggage.

Reading is a cognitive state whereby the biological mind is brought temporarily under the complete dominance of an external symbolic storage device. The mind is literally “played” by the book, moved into a state crafted by the author. Disconnect the reader from a book, and detail is immediately forgotten; reconnect, and the state quickly reforms itself. In very long novels, the amount of detail is staggering and impossible to recall once the book is put down; but immediately upon starting to re-read it, the mind-state induced by the book is reestablished and the reader’s awareness is reconfigured, following the intentions of the author; the external symbolic storage is in control.

None of this is to say that literacy and reading is bad; Donald is no Luddite and no one in modern society can function without these broadening skills. It is to say that if kids aren’t plugged into that system until the second or third grade, it may be a good thing — opening up spaces for them to develop attitudes, stances, and competencies that might variously be called spiritual, creative, playful, soulful, lyrical, or simply social. It sounds good to me.

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5 thoughts on “Waldorf Spiritualism & Literate Minds

  1. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I agree that we tend to overestimate the importance of literacy. But I wonder if the external memory storage has always been there through specialization even in non-literate societies. Sure, if you don’t write, you can’t take notes or Google, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t externalize your memory. Illiterate people masking their illiteracy do it, blind people who can rely on notes less than sighted people, do it. But historically, there have always been people who memorized things for others. Folk tales, myths, folk taxonomies. I doubt that knowledge was ever evenly distributed. But even now we say to people, remind me to do X, etc. So obviously we’re not relying on literacy entirely. I wrote about the mysticization of digital literacy here: http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/07/theres-more-to-memory-than-the-brain-psychologists-run-clever-experiments-make-trivial-claims-take-gullible-internet-by-storm/.

    I think there’s plenty of evidence that early start to reading is completely unnecessary. But since children in the early stages are not really reading in ways that exposes them to the literate culture and there are plenty of non-written channels that do, I don’t think that delaying reading can be of much help in the sense you imply (although personally I’m all for it).

  2. Alan

    To un-borg this view of literacy, consider the eye-witness phenomenon at the crime scene – for any three witnesses, it is easy to get five to twelve ‘true accounts’ as everyone ‘sees’ something different and their recollections of events morphs significantly over time. There may be consistency among printed volumes, but there is none among the minds of readers. Re-read any favored book, and you will find something new between the covers. There is a great synergy between the pen’s of authors and the minds of readers – and it comes out a bit different for each.

  3. Cris Post author

    Alan — your comment reminds me a bit of Stanley Fish and reader response theory. If you haven’t read his book, Is There a Text in This Class?, you should — I think you’d like it. I was fortunate to study under Fish while at Duke, and I always found him to be scintillating despite his undeserved reputation as a post-modernist.

  4. Lillian Cannon

    Darn. …cliquish and excluding those parents who do not suck up, or who let their kids watch tv, or other reasons. In pursuit of the Waldorf ideal, they enforce conformity and this alienates some parents who just wanted a nature-based school with slower academics in the early grades.

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