Rudolf Steiner founded an educational system called Waldorf, and also a spiritual philosophy called Anthroposophy. Waldorf Education and Anthroposophy share a perspective on the functioning of social beings, but one could easily work with Waldorf Education methods without ever touching on its connection to Anthroposophy in a didactic way. Educational ideas for Waldorf schools were developed out of an intention to educate free human beings. In other words, without indoctrination of any kind. Inflammatory-seeming articles such as “Is this Grade School a Cult and Do Parents Care?” are written from time to time. It has been our experience that Philly Waldorf parents do not care. This is because parents understand that Anthroposophy is a) not a religion and b) not taught in Waldorf schools.
Anthroposophy is defined by Steiner in his 1924 book, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, as: “a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual human being to the spiritual in the universe …” So, is Waldorf Education religious? No. Is it spiritual? Yes.
While Waldorf educators do not teach Anthroposophy to their students, they do incorporate questions of human nature and the universe into the curriculum. This may be why, as William Ward brings up in his article, “Is Waldorf Education Christian?” Waldorf schools are sometimes mistaken as parochial:
“Waldorf schools seek to cultivate positive human values of compassion, reverence for life, respect, cooperation, love of nature, interest in the world, and social conscience, as well as to develop cognitive, artistic and practical skills. The soul life of the child is affirmed and nourished as the ground for healthy, active thinking. Because of this, Waldorf schools sometimes are mistakenly perceived as religious, or, in particular, as Christian schools.”
Rudolf Steiner was a Christian creating an educational pedagogy within a Western, Christian culture. This is why early Steiner schools celebrated Christian festivals, and many still do, but typically in a more general fashion – such as Advent, to welcome light to darkening days. Waldorf students however have always studied many religions of many cultures within the context of their history, geography and literature studies. Steiner deeply believed in a spirit of freedom and discovery for each individual student. This is the primary reason Steiner schools were closed under Hitler’s rule in Germany.
Although not all Waldorf schools approach the curriculum identically, all foster an interest in world cultures, individual difference and diversity. At The Waldorf School of Philadelphia curriculum stories are drawn from the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” the Norse Edda, and from the words of great teachers like Mohammed, the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, and from contemporary cultural streams of thought. Folk and fairy tales from Asian, African, North and South American and European traditions round out this picture. As students mature, their history studies allow them to examine where religious thought and practice intersect with culture and politics to shape world events.
In providing opportunities for students to examine all major religions around the world, students develop their own understanding of the deeper questions considered throughout human history, reflecting the individualistic freedom of thought that Steiner valued and the diverse nature of our own community.
The Waldorf School of Philadelphia comprises families of varying cultures, races, ethnicities, orientations, educational backgrounds, and religions. Philly Waldorf families appreciate the developing diversity at our school. Teachers, staff and parents strive to reflect our commitment to teaching our children how to honor the varied ways of being in this world. Possibly one of the greatest reflections of this is in the variety of festivals celebrated at our school. Festivals and traditions honored include Passover, Diwali, Lunar New Year, Advent, Dios de los Muertos, and Zul. As one parent reflects “we appreciate The Waldorf School of Philadelphia’s commitment to diversity in its fullest form. It has been great to experience this as an active element in community development and the curriculum.”