Anthroposophy in Waldorf Teacher Education
Waldorf education and Waldorf teacher education are based on a broad range of fields of knowledge and experience. Teacher education programs thus incorporate numerous relevant topics from the humanities and natural sciences, including general pedagogy and educational science, psychology, neurology, the arts, and philosophy. A unique attribute of Waldorf teacher education programs is that they also incorporate the study of anthroposophy, which forms a basis for much of the pedagogical anthropology, the methodology, and the didactics of Waldorf schools. Anthroposophy, which was first developed by Rudolf Steiner, can be understood as a spiritual practice based on a holistic understanding of the human being. It is a path of knowledge directed toward the attainment of encompassing and objective insights into human nature, based on exact observation and a highly developed meditative practice. It aims to help people develop “consciousness of their own humanity” (Steiner 1923/1975, p.61). By addressing not just the physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of human experience, but also the spiritual, this consciousness ties the human being to the spiritual dimensions of nature and the wider cosmos. “Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge which aims to guide the spiritual in mankind to the spiritual in the universe“ (Steiner 1924/2007, p.13).
Anthroposophy thus extends the realm of human knowledge to include a science of the spirit. At the same time, it has been the founding impulse for innumerable practical applications: biodynamic farming, social banking, organizational development, art, architecture, dance, theater, and medicine are some of the fields where anthroposophy has inspired fundamental innovations in approach and practice. Waldorf education is a further example, and probably the best known.
The close relationship between Waldorf pedagogy and anthroposophy has sometimes been the focus of criticism, in that anthroposophy is seen as an outdated view of the world (Ulrich, 2015). It is not so much the schools themselves that are criticized – their success in practice is hardly contested – but rather the “suspicious esotericism” and “dogmatism” of the underlying anthroposophical ideas.
What such critics fail to note is that Steiner himself warned of the risks of an unquestioning and belief-centered esotericism, and even more of any form of dogmatism. The foundations of anthroposophy lie in epistemology: the questioning of the limits of human knowledge, and the search for methods by which those limits can be extended. The notion of a “dogmatic anthroposophy” – in which beliefs are transferred without the experiential process by which knowledge is individualized – is thus self-contradictory. The very goal of anthroposophy is the extension and further development of human knowledge and human consciousness: the exact opposite of narrow-minded, unquestioning dogmatism.
In this context, it also becomes clear why Steiner vehemently warned against Waldorf schools becoming a kind of “Weltanschauungschule”, a school that propagates a defined and pre-determined worldview (Steiner, 1923).
This stance has far-ranging and practical consequences for teacher education. First, a Waldorf teacher needs to have a broad base of knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines, so that knowledge and approaches understood in an anthroposophical context can be brought into fruitful dialogue with other disciplines and in other intellectual contexts. Waldorf teacher education in an academic context also has the responsibility to engage in meaningful research-based examination of current Waldorf practices, thus creating a further basis for fruitful exchange with educational scientists in the context of ongoing educational research. Such dialogues have, in fact, increasingly demonstrated points of intersection and correlation in a variety of relevant fields, perhaps most notably in the case of recent neurobiological research.
A further important consequence for teacher education is that the approach to anthroposophy itself within teacher education programs needs to be as objective and as open-minded as the approach to any other discipline. Concepts such as seven-year patterns of development, the three-fold view of the human being, the role of the temperaments, or reincarnation and karma are approached as possible ways of understanding the human being and the world – ways which need to be questioned, discussed, continually reinterpreted and, above all, explored within the sphere of individual experience. They are heuristic models, upon which pedagogical perception can be practiced, sensitivity to social dynamics can be tuned, and impulses can be derived to inspire creative and innovative teaching. Experience has shown that through working with anthroposophical content, students of Waldorf pedagogy are able to develop qualities such as authenticity, mindfulness, creativity, and, in particular, capacities for astute perceptions of children’s development. These are abilities that are valuable for any educator, regardless of place or context. Working with anthroposophy in Waldorf teacher education programs is meaningful and valuable insofar as it helps to inspire and support teachers in the development of such qualities, and thus in extending and developing themselves.