On a hilltop playground in City Heights, a woman in a pink wraparound apron and straw hat is walking. She looks like an American mother of a certain period — before feminism and dual careers — but thinner, thin as a flapper, as thin as the girls in Kate Greenaway illustrations. She steps patiently toward the Waldorf School of San Diego, a raw stucco building among raw stucco buildings, barred windows, paved yards, chain-link fences, and houses, houses, houses.
“Follow, follow, follow,” the woman sings, “follow me.”
She sings liltingly, unselfconsciously, although she never sang to anyone except her own children before she got this job. She’s Miss Lea here, the teacher of one-, two-, and three-year-olds who come to the Waldorf School’s Morning Glory class once a week with their mothers, and being a Morning Glory teacher means you sing, you knit, you sing, you teach mothers to knit, you sing, you tell stories, you make oatmeal, you sing, and you bake bread. You do this even if for 25 years you had a phobia about your voice.
“Follow, follow, follow, follow me.”
The mothers sing too, though with less confidence in the results, and their children, who are disinclined to follow anyone anywhere, do. They follow.
Back in the classroom, the barred windows, paved yards, chain-link fences, and flat houses disappear. The world is reduced to a semicircle of tiny wooden chairs before a low wooden table, which serves as a stage for the story Miss Lea is about to tell. A nearly transparent silk scarf covers her props — three pinecones for the forest, a wooden arch for the house, a knitted doll, a hunk of wool. The children sit down for the rituals that precede the lifting of the silk scarf.
First the singsong chant for resting your hands:
- Open them, shut them
- Open them, shut them
- Lay them in your lap!
A song for lighting the candle:
- I can light a candle,
- God can light a star.
- Both of them are useful,
- Shining where they are.
Then, as Miss Lea lifts the scarf, she delivers the most mysterious of the daily sayings, a metafictional pronouncement: “When and where did it happen? When and where did it not happen?”
In this manner, the story begins.
The first Waldorf School was Die Freie Waldorfschule of Stuttgart, Germany, founded in 1919 by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory and an Austrian mystic named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s aim, in a country ravaged by the first world war, was to educate children of factory workers for what he called “a more humane existence than we have had.” More than 800 schools would eventually be founded in its likeness, 127 of them in North America, and because the schools aim to teach spiritual truth as well as the usual academic skills, they tend to convert — not just employ — instructors.
The conversion of Lea Nelson began in Lakeside 20 years ago. She wasn’t Miss Lea then. She was a 14-year-old girl riding her bicycle to a housecleaning job. Her parents weren’t religious — her father, in fact, said “atheist” when Lea asked what religion she was — but her grandmother in Illinois talked openly about her conversations with God.
As she approached a busy intersection, Lea spotted two of her friends across the street. She intended to say hello, but at that moment a drunk driver’s car struck her bicycle. Her friends watched her body fly over five lanes like the body of a cloth doll. She landed on her head. The doctor who examined Lea said she was lucky the car had been going so slowly when it hit her. That was the only explanation for Lea’s survival, for her solid unbroken bones.
But a driver who’d been on the road at the time said otherwise. That driver told police the car that hit Lea’s bicycle had been going more than 60 miles per hour.
When and where did it happen? When and where did it not happen?
After that, Lea couldn’t say there wasn’t a higher power.
She began to pursue the question of what God is. She wanted, in particular, to devote herself to some earthly cause, to do the kind of charity work her devout grandmother had always done, but she found no satisfactory means until a year or so after high school, when she saw a notice for a new antiapartheid group at Grossmont College. Lea showed up, but no one else did. Just the organizer himself. He was so charismatic that Lea became his student and did her ministry training in the Church of the Essene, a Christian sect that, like the Waldorf School, puts great emphasis on the human relationship with the natural world.
At 20, Lea Nelson married the man who would father her three children, who would work in sales, study herbology, and find himself addicted to a wide range of things. They stayed together for years in spite of that because she didn’t want it to come to separation, to divorce, to separation, to divorce. Eight years ago, when Lea was four months pregnant with their third child, it came to that. She moved back to her childhood home in Lakeside with two children and one not born yet.
But before those unhappy things, back when their first daughter was born, she and her husband had begun looking for a different sort of education. They tried a Montessori preschool, then homeschooling, then a Rudolf Steiner book group. She brought her son to his first Morning Glory class in 1993, and there she found, at last, other mothers like herself.
She found what you would find if you sat down on a tiny wooden chair for kindergarten orientation. The Waldorf School attracts people whose children are, for various reasons, not thriving in the public schools, and it attracts those who wouldn’t want their children to thrive in the public schools. It attracts iconoclasts, idealists, environmentalists, homeschoolers, and freethinkers, specifically freethinkers who would call themselves spiritual, not religious. It attracts those who question the conventions and tools of modern parenthood, who want alternatives to hospital births, circumcision, vaccinations, allopathic medicine (the kind prescribed by doctors), Ritalin, early weaning, disposable diapers, cribs, Disney videos, standardized testing, plastic toys, fast food, white flour, white sugar, and vegetables grown inorganically.
Finally among others who doubted the goodness of technology, Lea Nelson found a model for a particular kind of home life, which she now gives to parents, and that model may, perhaps, be the most unusual aspect of a Waldorf education: it seeks to establish not just a way of learning but a way of dressing, eating, parenting, and consuming.
The dress code, for example, excludes clothes marked with slogans, cartoons, caricatures, numbers, and letters. Instead of bringing Lunchables in Pokémon or Power Ranger lunch boxes, children are to bring a “wholesome” meal in a basket with a cloth napkin to use as a placemat. Kindergartners bake whole-wheat bread in class, and the daily snack, which children help prepare, contains cooked barley, oatmeal, wheat, rice, or millet. The school recommends that children watch no television at home and play no video games.
Beginning with the Morning Glory program, the school seeks, instead, “to provide parents with the needed information to bring Steiner’s ideas into the most important area of influence — their home life. In essence, a healthy, rhythmic home life is the best foundation for the later development of the intellect.”
As a consequence, the Morning Glory room is homelike and couldn’t be more different from a typical preschool room, where number charts, alphabet charts, animal pictures, construction-paper insects, oversized calendars, books, maps, and dinosaur pictures form floor-to-ceiling wraparound wallpaper; where books, blocks, papers, easels, paints, crayons, games, Legos, cars, puzzles, and miniature animals fill the shelves in an effort to teach, through osmosis and repetition, a multitude of facts. These facts are specifically designed to prepare the preschool child for kindergarten, which is specifically designed to prepare the kindergarten child for first grade, all according to a fat book of standards established by the state board of education.
The Morning Glory and kindergarten rooms don’t teach facts. They contain no children’s books, no Legos, no glossy pictures, no children’s artwork, no “manipulatives,” no charts of any kind. Nothing is plastic, and almost nothing is a primary color. The walls of the Morning Glory room are a hand-washed pink. The windows are draped with pastel silk, and the shelves, what few there are, hold seasonal displays that in spring might consist of sticks, nests, eggs, live lemongrass, wooden figures, and a candle. Entering a Morning Glory room is like entering a church for gnomes, and if you could fit in the chairs, you’d worship there.
The rooms do, of course, contain educational toys, but the toys don’t teach the alphabet, shapes, colors, or phonics. They teach what the school as a whole teaches: that life is more satisfying if you can make things yourself, preferably with things plants and animals made themselves.
In one corner of the room are the baskets. The baskets hold acorns, pinecones, thinly sliced and varnished logs, hunks of colored wool, simple knitted animals, scarves, knitted strings, clothespins, and shells. During free play, while Miss Lea and the mothers attempt to knit (the theory being that handwork sets a mood of industrious calm), children are encouraged to make rivers of scarves, houses of logs, pastures of wool, and forests of pinecones. The idea is that the children will, by making an imaginary world from real things, develop a relationship with real things. Occasionally, of course, the children whack each other with the pinecones and try to wrap their mothers’ knitting yarn around the necks of four or five seated people, which tends to disrupt the industrious calm. When this happens, Miss Lea sings something gentle, says something gentle, or suggests a less lethal imaginary game, such as cooking.
Play cooking is done in the play kitchen, which has no dishwasher, no fancy dials, no plastic hot dogs, no rubber fruit. The Waldorf kitchen is an unfinished wooden cupboard full of enameled tin plates, miniature steel cutlery, wooden spoons, wooden bowls, and tin cups. Beside it stands a nursery full of dolls in doll beds, but the dolls are different too. They have no faces, no fingers, no shoes, no changeable dresses, no bottles, no toy horses, no tiny suitcases, no American Girl–colonial–pioneer–Civil War accessories. The dolls can be carried, rocked, patted, or fed, but to fashion, history, and acquisitiveness they’re utterly immune.
Because Waldorf preschools and kindergartens don’t seek to prepare children academically for school but to create a soothing, almost puritanical home outside of home, they don’t teach reading or even read books at story time. Teachers tell stories instead. They make a kind of puppet show with the knitted animals and hunks of wool, using acorns for Baby Bear’s porridge bowl and wood chips for Baby Bear’s bed. When Miss Lea tells a story in this fashion, she’s more entrancing than any librarian holding a book — normally raucous two-year-olds are spellbound — but in its reliance on the tactile world instead of the written world, the Waldorf philosophy can seem antiacademic, antireading, almost Luddite.
“And if things haven’t changed,” Miss Lea will sometimes say at the end of a story, “they are still the same today.”
This refers, I was told, to the timelessness of fairy tales, but it also alludes to the unceasing, rock-moving wistfulness of Waldorf philosophy. From the school bulletin board, with its notices about community-supported agriculture and peat clothing, to the pastoral lunch baskets, Waldorfian life is a life of dogged revival, restoration, and reenactment. It requires you to hope that things haven’t changed and to prove that, indeed, they haven’t: that you can still give birth at home, breast-feed your children for three or more years, grow vegetables for them in the back yard, chop firewood with them, hike with them through pure mountains, tell them stories, sing them centuries-old nursery rhymes, bake your own bread — give them, in urban, car-choked 21st-century San Diego, the sort of childhood Rudolf Steiner had in pastoral, 19th-century Austria before he laid out plans for Die Freie Waldorfschule.
Rudolf Steiner was born on February 27, 1861, in a town called Kraljevec, which lay on what was then the border of Hungary and Austria. His father had once been a huntsman in the service of a count but at the time of Rudolf’s birth was a telegraphist on the Southern Austrian Railway. Although the Steiner family lived in what Rudolf describes as the “wonderful landscape of the lower Austrian mountains,” his parents pined for a still purer land, their homes north of the Danube, “a region into which the railway was late in coming.”
As a boy, Steiner loved a set of picture books that contained string puppets. “One associated little stories with these figures, to whom one gave a part of their life by pulling the strings,” he writes, recalling that he sat by the hour with his sister, making the figures move in much the same way that Waldorf teachers and, ideally, their pupils, give life to small knitted figures in the classroom.
The village school was less arresting to Rudolf than his puppet-books. The schoolmaster seemed, in Rudolf’s opinion, to hate his work, and when he blamed Rudolf for some vandalism his own son had done, Herr Steiner took Rudolf to the train station and taught the lessons himself.
In the railway office where Rudolf was supposed to copy his letters, he was interested, instead, in natural phenomena — in why a freight car on a passing train had burst into flames, at what speed his father’s ink dried under a cloud of absorbent dust, to what depth he could force his father’s ruler into the slit at the point of a quill. When left to amuse himself with the materials of writing, Rudolf learned to write, and it was perhaps in memory of this that he said, at the opening lecture for the Waldorfschule in Stuttgart more than 50 years later, “Our children will learn to read and write from life itself. This is our intention. We will not pedantically force them to write letters that for every child at first seem all the same.”
The San Diego Waldorf School has remained true to this dictum. The alphabet is not introduced until first grade — at least a year later than in conventional schools — and it makes its appearance via stories, such as, “The K is a king who undergoes many trials as he journeys over the mountains (M) and through the waves (W).”
In Rudolf’s eighth year, his family moved to the village of Neudorfl, where the Laytha River divided Hungary from Austria. It’s impossible to read his description of life there without seeing, as through a picture window, the wished-for world of the schools he would eventually found, where children would carry their lunches to school in baskets, where sanded logs and acorns would provide the materials of play, where children would dance around the Maypole every spring, where Christianity would excite interest in the unseen world, where children would learn to draw, knit, carve, read, calculate, and make music instead of preparing themselves for college.
“Massive heights covered with beautiful forests bounded the view in one direction; in the other, the eye could range over a level region, decked out in fields and woodland, all the way to Hungary.” The mountain he loved most could be scaled in less than an hour, and on its crest stood a chapel that he visited with his parents and siblings, collecting, on the way down, blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries for supper.
“Such walks,” he wrote, “were filled with a special happiness because of the fact that at that time of year we could bring back with us rich gifts of nature.”
In the same forests, villagers collected firewood, saying to Rudolf when they met, “So thou goest again for a bit of a walk, Steiner Rudolf,” and chatting with him as though he were not a child.
In another direction lay the spring at Sauerbrunn, where, during vacation time, Rudolf would take his clay Blutzer every morning and fetch sparkling water for lunch. When he met, on occasion, the silent monks of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, who lived in a cloister nearby, he felt an “undefined but solemn feeling…that there must be weighty matters in connection with the duties of these monks which I ought to learn to understand.”
At nine, he borrowed a geometry book from a teacher. “For weeks at a time my mind it was filled with coincidences, similarities between triangles, squares, polygons; I racked my brains over the question: Where do parallel lines actually meet? The theorem of Pythagoras fascinated me. That one can live within the mind in the shaping of forms perceived only within oneself, entirely without impression upon the external senses — this gave me the deepest satisfaction.”
This was, for Steiner, a spiritual awakening, and the beginning of what would become not just an educational idyll but a religion he called Anthroposophy, “the science of the spirit.” Although he could not, at 9, articulate what he felt about the spiritual world, he could at 20.
“I said to myself: ‘The objects and occurrences which the senses perceive are in space. But, just as this space is outside of man, so there exists also within man a sort of soul-space which is the arena of spiritual realities and occurrences.’ ”
The school Steiner envisioned would attempt to recognize and develop the “soul-space.” Religion “must permeate the teaching of every subject,” he wrote, and “School is an illusion without religion.”
The Morning Glory classroom contains a portrait of the Madonna and Child, the rhyme that precedes story time says, “God can light a star,” and prayers are said before and after meals. Saint legends are taught in second grade, Old Testament stories in third, the lives of Christ and Buddha in fifth and sixth. “I send my daughter to a Waldorf School,” said Eugene Schwartz, the former director of Waldorf Teacher Training at Sunbridge College, “so that she can have a religious experience. So that she learns something about reverence. So that she learns something about respecting a higher being.”
This respect was fostered in Steiner by a charismatic priest and a Catholic education. “Of the deepest significance for my life as a boy was the nearness of the church and the churchyard beside it,” he wrote. “Everything that happened in the village school was affected in its course by its relationship to these. This was not by reason of certain dominant social and political relationships existing in every community; it was due to the fact that the priest was an impressive personality.”
For Steiner, the other impressive personality was a doctor from the town of Wiener Neustadt. While the doctor waited for the train to take him home, he would join the Steiner family in the shade of two enormous lime trees near the train station. Under the lime trees, while Steiner’s mother knitted or crocheted, while his brother and sister busied themselves at something, Herr Steiner and another railway employee would argue about politics, and the doctor from Wiener Neustadt would talk to Rudolf.
“This man passed with my parents,” Steiner wrote, “and with most persons who knew him, as an odd character. He did not like to talk about his profession as a doctor, but all the more gladly did he talk about German literature. It was from him that I first heard of Lessing, Goethe, Schiller.… He took an interest in me; often drew me aside after he had rested for a while under the lime trees, walked up and down with me by the station, and talked — not like a lecturer, but enthusiastically — about German literature. In these talks he set forth all sorts of ideas as to what is beautiful and what is ugly.”
There is a picture of Rudolf Steiner in which he stands, arms crossed, fingers blurred, staring at what appears to be something just above your head. He’s slender, handsome, knowing. A strand of hair has fallen across his eyebrow, but he is otherwise neatly dressed in a white shirt, dark jacket, and elaborately knotted silk tie. The right side of his face is delicately shaded so that the cleft in his chin and the hard smooth points of his lips are intensified. He’s neither smiling nor frowning. He looks calmly triumphant, as if he has just discovered something.
When the photograph was made in 1905, Steiner was 44 years old and an impressive personality himself. He had already delivered 25 lectures on “Christianity and Mystical Fact,” and he had already declared that his life’s aim was the founding of new, scientific methods of spiritual research.
“Here was one,” says champion and biographer Gilbert Childs, “who was capable of perceiving not only the materially manifest world, but also the occult, in the true sense of what is hidden and unmanifest.”
Here was one who had already written Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. Here was one who would say, years later, that at this time the beings and events of the unseen world drew near to him and gave him aid. In 1909, he wrote Occult Science and began to break away from Theosophy — an American movement based on Buddhist theories — to nurture his own Christ-based Anthroposophy. Between 1905 and 1924, Rudolf Steiner would deliver more than 6000 lectures — an average of 300 a year for 19 years.
Although few people outside the Waldorf School or religious studies have heard of Steiner or Anthroposophy, 1500 of Steiner’s 6000 lectures have been translated into English and collected into books, which are kept in print by the Anthroposophic Press in the United States and Steiner Press in London. None of these books is required reading at the Waldorf School, and Steiner’s theories are not explicitly taught in the classroom, but Waldorf teachers study his works extensively.
The first-year book list for 1993-94 at Rudolf Steiner College included, for a course called Psych 101, three texts: Theosophy, by Rudolf Steiner; Calendar of the Soul, by Rudolf Steiner; and The Younger Generation, also by Rudolf Steiner. For a course called Lit 100, prospective teachers read three books about the myth of the Holy Grail, including one by Rudolf Steiner. Out of 15 courses and 35 listed texts, 22 of them were written by Steiner and 2 more are about him. The texts by Steiner for education, psychology, social science, history, and Christology courses include The Cycle of the Year as a Breathing Process, The Festivals and Their Meaning, The Four Seasons and the Archangels, The Course of My Life, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, Occult Science, Christianity as Mystical Fact, Reincarnation and Karma, and Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science.
More than 300 of Steiner’s books and lectures are available through the Rudolf Steiner Archive, including Steiner’s thoughts on the Michaelmas festival, Egyptian myths, Buddha, the biblical myth of Creation, the poetry and meaning of fairy tales, and the occult significance of the Bhagavad Gita. The archive also offers Steiner’s lectures on nutrition, music, painting, color, and the influence of planetary spheres on human life. The subjects on which he lectured correspond so closely with the Waldorf Schools’ that it’s hard to imagine a topic on which his views could not be consulted.
Consider, for example, “The Influence of Planetary Spheres on Human Life.” Last winter, the San Diego Waldorf School sent home with parents a flyer offering “pedagogical silk scarves” for sale. The flyer explained that “Waldorf kindergarten teachers often wear specific colors each day of the week for ‘color therapy’ for the children.” It then listed the colors with the appropriate day and planet: “Monday — lilac — Moon Influence, Tuesday — red — Mars Influence,” and so on through yellow Mercury, orange Jupiter, and green Venus.
In Steiner’s lectures, too, red is not just red, green is not just green. He discusses at length, in lecture after lecture, the fact that there are seven colors in the rainbow, seven days of the week, seven notes in the Western scale. The number seven has occult significance for him, as does practically everything in the seen and unseen world, from crystals and blood to fire and trees.
Say “occult” in the same breath as “private school” and you have a social problem. People may wonder what you’re doing, choosing such a school. Say “occult” in the same breath as “public school,” however, and you have a lawsuit.
In 1987, a sound engineer named Dan Dugan enrolled his son in the sixth grade of the San Francisco Waldorf School. He thought he’d found the most beautiful school in the world, a place where the teachers were as dedicated as nuns, where teaching methods were progressive, creative, and artistic. Then he picked up one of Steiner’s books, which the school itself was selling. The book contained a lecture from 1922, delivered in Germany: “You see, when we really study science and history, we must conclude that if people become increasingly strong, they will also become increasingly stupid. If the blondes 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. Blond hair actually bestows intelligence.… It is indeed true that the more the fair individuals die out the more will the instinctive wisdom of humans vanish.”
Then Dugan’s son complained, “They’re teaching us baby science.” A science teacher had apparently told the sixth grade that “the elements are earth, air, fire, and water.” So Dugan looked at several science-lesson books and found that “planetary influences” were said to affect the growth of plants, that the body was said to be made up of “the nerve-sense system, the metabolic-muscular system, and the rhythmic system,” and that the science curriculum was based entirely on direct observation, not on scientific theories.
According to an article in Skeptical Inquirer called “Weird Science at Steiner School,” Dugan was rebuffed when he proposed a parents’ committee to reform the science teaching. He then requested an administrative hearing. “He was refused, and a delegation of teachers informed him that the family would be expelled unless he stopped making trouble. Beaten, they withdrew from the school.” That was in 1989, at the end of his son’s seventh-grade year.
Six years later, Dan Dugan and some former Waldorf parents and teachers started a group called People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, or PLANS, whose mission statement advises that it will provide parents, teachers, and school boards with views of Waldorf education from outside the cult of Rudolf Steiner, expose the illegality of public funding for Waldorf School programs, and litigate against schools violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In early 1998, PLANS filed a federal lawsuit in Sacramento, naming as defendants the Sacramento Unified School District, which operates a “Waldorf Method” magnet school, and the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which has established seven “Waldorf-inspired” charter schools.
Three years later, in May 2001, a federal court in Sacramento dismissed the lawsuit. PLANS is now appealing the dismissal, and Dan Dugan remains the most prolific author and publisher on the subject of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Schools next to Rudolf Steiner himself. On Dugan’s website, which is regularly updated, he continues to collect and publish criticism from all over the world. Fourteen years after the enrollment of his son in the Waldorf School, 12 years after leaving it behind, he shows no sign of fatigue, no flagging of interest in his cause of exposing what he calls the pseudoscientific teachings and “benevolent but paternalistic racism” of the Waldorf School.
It’s quite simple to prove that Rudolf Steiner said racist things. Like Dan Dugan, Steiner was fervent, opinionated, inexhaustible. As such, he is a public relations nightmare, holding forth in his hundreds of texts not only about beekeeping, the Pentecost, and biodynamic farming, but also about miscegenation and racial evolution. To make matters worse, he wrote and spoke about these things in Germany between the wars. Still worse, the things he wrote and said are kept in print by various Waldorf-associated presses.
“No doubt about it,” Steiner said in conference with the teachers of the Stuttgart Waldorf School in 1923, “the soul becomes corrupted through using the French language.… It is also possible at the present time that the French will even ruin their own blood, the very element which has kept their language going as a corpse. That is a terrible thing the French people are doing to other people, the frightful cultural brutality of transplanting black people to Europe. It affects France itself worst of all. This has an incredibly strong effect on the blood, the race. This will substantially add to French decadence. The French nation will be weakened as a race.”
It would be comforting to say that Dan Dugan dug these remarks out of an archive somewhere in Bavaria and then published them on his website, but Dugan found them in a British book published in 1988 by Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, which has translated all of Steiner’s school conferences and collected them in four volumes.
It would also be comforting to find no further evidence that Steiner believed skin color was an index of virtue, but the spiritual superiority of Anglo-Saxons is actually a central tenet of Steiner’s philosophy. “The prominent position occupied by the Anglo-Saxon nation in our time,” he said in 1921, “is indeed due to the fact that this nation is especially suited for the development of the consciousness soul.” He spoke at length (and with breathtaking lapses in logic) about blood and destiny, blood and race, blood and purity.
To be fair, he was a nationalist in a time of nationalism, and he did make more benevolent remarks, such as his plea, in 1909, that the “anthroposophical movement…must cast aside the division into races. It must seek to unite people of all races and nations and to bridge the divisions and differences between people and various groups of people.… [W]e must get beyond the illnesses of childhood and understand clearly that the concept of race has ceased to have any meaning in our time.”
When and where did it happen? When and where did it not happen? Does the earlier remark about racial unity negate the later remark about racial superiority? For which of Steiner’s millions of words should he be held most accountable? For those that led Lea Nelson to teach two-year-olds all day for a very small salary, or for those which a Nazi ideologist quoted in his “programme for the restoration of Aryan authority in the world”?
Perhaps Steiner can be compared to a painter who has not only left hundreds of paintings but launched a style of painting that seemed unusually gentle and benign — perfect for the nursery — until someone discovered that all of the images in his art had symbolic value and that some of those symbols were racial allusions that made his paintings very popular with the Third Reich. Knowing that about him, would you feel comfortable having a Steiner painting on your child’s wall? Would you feel comfortable discussing the painting when your dinner guests were African-American? Jewish? Haitian?
If, in other words, you didn’t know that Rudolf Steiner said, “Blond hair actually bestows intelligence,” and if no teacher ever said that in class, if the teacher shares Steiner-approved and -interpreted fables, fairy tales, myths, and legends without believing in what Steiner said about blondness and intelligence, is she still complicit, somehow, in his racism? Should the school be judged by the ugliest words of its founder or by the words spoken in the classroom and the effect those words seem to have?
On a bright Tuesday morning in May, Bonnie Holden stands in an upstairs room of the Waldorf School of San Diego and leads a class of 31 fifth and sixth graders in what’s called the morning verse, which begins:
- I look into the world in which the sun is shining
- In which the stars are sparkling
- In which the stones repose.
- The living plants are growing
- The feeling beasts are living
- And human beings in souls give dwelling to the spirit.
Eighteen of Bonnie Holden’s students — the oldest in the school — have been saying a morning prayer with her since first grade; 13 of them were in her kindergarten class. In the Waldorf School, as in Rudolf Steiner’s life, the best teacher is a mentor, a presence for years and years. When children enter first grade there, they meet the person who will, barring disillusionment, a family emergency, illness, or death, teach them the core curriculum for the next eight years. The idea is to provide students with continuity, connection, and security.
After the morning verse, the class sings a medieval round in preparation of the May Faire, and then it’s time to recite the choral passages of the play they’ll perform next month: scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. As with the saints’ legends in second grade, the Michaelmas play in fourth grade, and the Christmas play last winter, everyone has learned all the lines, all the parts.
“In a horse made of wood full of war-riors,” they chant, each word staccato and yet droning, “to the cit-y the Tro-jans went rock-ing.” Despite the monotonous tone of their joined voices, the words form a strangely vivid picture of the ancient past.
- Troy’s might-y walls have now fall-en
- The ash-es of Troy catch the wind.
- Pri-am’s great cit-y de-stroyed…
Bonnie Holden came to the ashes of Troy through a food co-op in Akron, Ohio, more than 20 years ago. She and her friends bought and sold organic food, made whole-wheat bread, organized against nuclear power, read Mother Earth News, and looked, like Lea Nelson, for an alternative form of schooling for their children. In the latter, Bonnie Holden was following a vow. As a teenager, she had watched her younger brother rebel against going to school. He had a learning disability that is now commonly diagnosed but which, to this day, he doesn’t want anyone to know about.
Bonnie isn’t sure what kind of testing was available then. All she, her mother, and her sister knew was that he cried every day. “He didn’t want to go to school. And my mom forced him to go to school. My mom just thought she had no options, you know.”
Bonnie and her sister vowed there would be options. Her sister became a Montessori teacher, and Bonnie helped found a Waldorf School, the second one in Ohio, in 1981. She’s been teaching at the San Diego school since 1986.
The room in which Bonnie Holden now stands has been painted, like the Morning Glory room, with a wash of color over white, but here the colors are blue and green. The institutional hue of the chalkboard is tempered by a natural, timber-ish wood frame and a pair of periwinkle blue curtains. Over the board hang jewel-toned silk flags, mementos of the annual pentathlon, when sixth graders from a half-dozen Southern California Waldorf Schools meet in Santa Barbara to reenact the Olympiad. Each flag represents a different city-state — yellow for Athens, red for Sparta, blue for Thebes — and was dyed by the Athenian, Spartan, Theban, or Roman student who wrestled, threw the javelin, or otherwise won glory for his or her state.
On the board, with colored chalk, Bonnie has sketched a complicated three-dimensional scene of Hannibal’s army crossing the Alps on the backs of elephants. Beside this she has sketched, with attention to what looks like every inlet, spit, and boulder, a map of the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean. Other evidence of the fifth- and sixth-grade curriculum is on the side walls: blurry student paintings of St. George and the dragon (Waldorf painting is done with bright Stockmar watercolors on a wet surface, so that everything has a dreamlike corona at the edge), a lemon-hued North and South America in a bright blue sea, and, on a smaller chalkboard, a diagram of the eightfold path of Buddha.
After the recitation, Bonnie tosses a knitted ball to a student. “One-half,” she says.
The boy who catches the ball says “point five” and gets to sit down. The others stand and wait for the knitted ball to fall into their nervously sweaty or calmly cool, long-nailed or nibbled-upon, clumsy or delicate hands.
The kids look like any kids on the verge of 12. They don’t wear peat smocks or sweaters they’ve knitted themselves. Girls hunch over their desks in board shorts and nylon sweatpants. They wear Adidas sneakers, glitter polish, ponytails, and cardigans. There are flat-chested girls and girls who’ve been bra-shopping with their mothers. The boys, some thick, some thin, wear chunky basketball shoes like the chunky basketball shoes worn this minute all over the city, all over the state, all over the world.
The kids who have tossed the knitted ball back to Bonnie Holden bite their cuticles, crack their knuckles. Girls finger their hair, their cardigans, their pencils, their desks. They’re crammed together in mismatched public school desks, but they don’t talk or harass each other. The mouths of their desks are stuffed with eraser bits, pencils, folders, knitted things, wadded shirts to wear as painting smocks, and the oversized floppy books in which they write about Odysseus, the Cyclops, Jesus, and Buddha.
These books are their texts, and they’ve been writing and illustrating them for years, making a new one for each main lesson. In these books, the students amplify, condense, copy, and illustrate lessons about Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Chaldean, and Greek mythology, United States geography, Roman history, medieval history, and world geography.
After the last student has said the last decimal, it’s time for a lecture on Jesus in the time of Rome.
“What were the three temptations of Christ?” Holden asks.
A hand shoots up. The temptations are listed: the stones into bread, the “cast thyself down,” the exceeding high mountain, then the part where Jesus says, “Get thee hence, Satan.” There’s some comparison to Buddha, some historical background, some material from the view of the Essenes.
It’s quite possible that the lecture contains material from Rudolf Steiner’s writings, but he isn’t mentioned by name.
“Anthroposophy is a world view,” Bonnie Holden told me, “and the teachers work out of it, but we do not bring dogma to the children. We celebrate spiritual festivals. In third grade, we will do the Hebrew people. In sixth grade, with the Romans, we’ll do the birth of Christ, and then we’ll do Islam. In fifth grade we’ve done Hinduism and Buddha, Zarathustra — all out of our literature and mythology.”
When I asked how she would describe the religious or spiritual teachings of the Waldorf School, she said, “Starting in the kindergarten, the most important festival is the child’s birthday.… With that celebration, we recognize their spiritual origins. They came from a spiritual place, and they will one day return there. I think that’s the thread that goes through all the grades…that there is in reality a spiritual world, that we come from, and we go back to someday.”
I asked her if there were points on which she strongly agreed with Rudolf Steiner, and she said, “Rudolf Steiner was a man ahead of his time.” She said you could take something that seemed blatantly wrong, study it for years and years, then change your mind. In her study group, for example, the participants recently debated something Steiner said about CO2, or carbon dioxide. Steiner evidently called CO2 a death force, and Holden disagreed because plants take in carbon dioxide and it doesn’t kill them. Later, though, when Holden was teaching a botany segment to her class, she read that Steiner believed “plants are actually doing a deed for the rest of the world by taking these forces into themselves and transforming them.” Steiner was, in other words, personifying the plants — giving them the power to choose and act morally.
Still in a quandary about Steiner’s root-race theories, I asked, “Are there any points of his teaching, however, where you find yourself strongly disagreeing, where you don’t find yourself coming around to seeing a truth?”
“No,” Holden said. She said that when she first came to Anthroposophy and first started studying it, it seemed like going backwards. That happens to everyone at first, she said. “Everybody’s up in arms about it, but when you begin to study it, you see…”
Still unsure, I pressed further. “Some of his more controversial statements seem to be those about the Atlantean theory of the evolution of the world, and his theories about races. I find a lot of criticism of those.”
“Basically, it’s all taken out of context,” Holden said, “and people are just looking for sensational things to say.”
The Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, she continued, has responded to those charges, has issued statements. For her, what is more important is Steiner’s message about brotherly love, “that no one can be happy if we know someone else is suffering. That’s what we’re aiming for. That we know human suffering is a reality like we know two plus two is four. And that we need to do something about it.”
After she said that, she paused. “Am I going to sound like a kook in this?” she asked.
I think about that in her classroom. She stands in her gray knit skirt and red silk blouse, talking about the wandering in the wilderness. She doesn’t look like a kook, talk like a kook, sound like a kook. She wears half glasses. Her hair is wavy and brown. Her 14-year-old son, Joaquin, is 500 miles away at the Sacramento Waldorf School, which means that he’s getting the education she wanted for him and he wanted for himself (the Sacramento school goes through 12th grade, as the San Diego school does not) but that she won’t see him when she goes home at the end of the day. It’s nine o’clock and the room is already warm.
Holden stops lecturing and asks for volunteers to act out the death of Julius Caesar. “Two turns of the sand clock to get ready, actors,” she says.
Behind the bookshelves, in the open half of the room, kids discuss who will be Brutus. They say, “Whatever.” They say, “Josh will just be the murderer.” They say, “Does Brutus just stand there?”
It’s Saturday, May 12, the day of the May Faire, rite of spring, but the sky over the Waldorf School is milky and low. Rain threatens but doesn’t fall. It’s gloomy all over San Diego, a gloom the color of sand.
Undaunted, children dart around in crowns made of silk ribbons and rosebuds. Fathers are grilling ribs and “ribs,” a vegetarian alternative. Two Maypoles stand on the playground like women in curlers, their bright ribbons rolled up and pinned in place until flower-crowned students are ready to weave in and out, in and out, in and out.
Unlike most of the Waldorf School’s festivals, which are based on the Christian calendar and Steiner’s teachings, the May Faire appears to be Steiner-free. Steiner seems not to have lectured anyone on the significance of May Day, perhaps because it is a pre-Christian celebration of renewal and fecundity.
May Day is also, in this case, a fund-raiser, so booths abound. At the bubble booth, a father dips a wood-and-copper-wire wand the size of a scepter into a vat of homemade bubble soap and waves the wet copper loops over the grass, sending huge, cell-like globs into the air, over upturned faces, the fence, the roofs of houses down below. Mothers entwine pink rosebuds with rosemary branches, then tie them with trailing ribbons. Ponies decked with ribbons and bells clop past, their saddle horns in the grip of amazed children. On the makeshift stage, a man in tights and a velvet tunic plays the lute, a woman shakes her tambourine, and the milk-white sky begins to feel Elizabethan.
Lea Nelson is here, of course, and Bonnie Holden. So is Kirsten Morrell, part-time office secretary, Waldorf parent, and former Waldorf student. Morrell’s daughter Bailey will dance around the Maypole today, finish her study of Norse mythology and Kumeyaay culture this month, and leave fourth grade for fifth. Bailey’s class has lost its teacher more than once. Bailey is on her third new teacher now, not the Waldorf ideal, but Kirsten still wants nothing more than continuation of what was, for her, the perfect schooling.
Kirsten Morrell went to Highland Hall, a Waldorf School in the San Fernando Valley, from the age of 3 to the age of 13. She regrets nothing about her Waldorf education except the premature ending of it — leaving the 250 people she knew intimately and who knew her intimately for the 3000-person public school where, as she puts it, it was “here’s your book, do your homework, see you tomorrow.” In a few weeks, she’ll attend a reunion of her Waldorf School class, not her high school class, to see the people who, like her, had the same teacher for eight years, who fought to sit on the same lap under the same tree on the same playground, memorized the same plays, and started the school day with prayer. Kirsten still has all the main lesson books she made during those eight years, books of fables, saints, Norsemen, and Romans, and her mother still wears the sweater Kirsten knitted for her in fourth grade.
Although the Waldorf School of San Diego has no plans to expand into high school in the near future, although it must first repair the parking lot, build a new kindergarten, find more teachers willing to stay for eight consecutive years at a subsistence-level salary, Kirsten has her fingers crossed that Bailey will, somehow, be going to May Faires for the next seven years.
The ponies trot and the children cling. In the cakewalk, someone wins a confection that looks gloriously free of whole-wheat flour and millet. When it’s time for the Maypole ribbons to drop, the students circle. They hold the bright satin ends. Their parents point cameras. Girls in pigtails and boys in T-shirts lift their pentatonic flutes. When they play, the sound is not exactly Zamfir. It’s not quite medieval. In truth, the children’s flutes make a whiny hoo hoo hoo sound with what you only suspect is a melody between hoos. The girls and boys weave in and out, hoo hoo hoo, in and out, hoo hoo hoo, and above them, against the milk-white sky, a scarlet-purple-yellow-green-orange-lavender lattice emerges, a sign, perhaps, of what is hidden and unmanifest, but more likely just a thing of beauty, quite innocent, quite pure.