I’ve been tuning in and out to the chatter of the Waldorf Critics for years now. Frankly, I find most of it tedious. But I do often ponder the significance of the Waldorf Critics as a phenomenon. One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the nature of dogmatism. A frequent criticism levied against the whole Waldorf movement on the WC list is that everyone in it is a dogmatic Steiner devotee.
What I realized recently is that the vocal core of the Waldorf Critics list – really only about a dozen individuals – are far more dogmatic that most anyone I have ever met working at a Waldorf school. I came to this realization by looking at the nature of the argumentation on that list, the way that they bring facts to support an argument. They seem to believe that if you can just find one thing in all of Rudolf Steiner’s work that is wrong – either factually in error, too strange to be true, or racist – that this somehow invalidates everything else the man ever wrote. They further believe that anyone who believes any one thing Steiner ever said must also somehow believe all the silly/stupid/racist thing that they have found as well. That is, they argue on the assumption of dogmatism amongst those they are attacking. It is a basic logical error, but is a fundamental assumption in their attacks on Waldorf Schools.
Let me put it another way. The Waldorf Critics actually operate from the assumption that people believe things they have never even heard of. Think about it for a moment. Rudolf Steiner authored nearly 330 books. Some of them are popular, at least among readers of Steiner. You can tell the popular books because they get reprinted frequently. Most books by Steiner are obscure (one printing or never even translated into English). The average person working at a Waldorf School has probably read five Steiner books in their life, plus a few compilations related to the subjects they teach, while most of their knowledge comes from secondary literature, mentoring, trainings and workshops. Those five books are probably the popular ones. Meanwhile, without exception all the problematic quotes come from obscure books, and several have not even been officially published in English. Yet the Waldorf Critics seriously argue that everyone working at a Waldorf School must not only know about these problematic quotes, but also believe them to be true and operate on a daily basis with them as guiding ideals! They can only come to this irrational assumption by assuming both ill will and an incredibly high level of dogmatism among Waldorf teachers. Neither assumption matches reality.
In fact, most people working in Waldorf schools never even knew there were problematic sections of Rudolf Steiner’s work until the Waldorf Critics put them all over the internet. Even when brought to their attention, most Waldorf teachers don’t know what to do with it, so they just ignore it. I’ve been party to quite a few conversations along the lines of, “So what about the racist quotes from Steiner?” “It really surprised me. Nothing like the Steiner I know. I guess he was a little bit racist. Whatever. ” I’ve never once heard anyone say, “Wait a minute, let us consider how Steiner is right…” much less “I’ve been treasuring these exact words for decades”. Most people on the Waldorf side can accept that Steiner was in some ways a man of his times, and are flexible enough to use the best that he has to offer and ignore the parts where he was wrong. It is the Waldorf Critics who can’t get past the problematic quotes. And this I find highly ironic, that Waldorf teachers can’t even get started with the problematic parts of Steiner’s work, whereas the Waldorf critics can’t get past them! And in this I find the evidence of WC dogmatism.
The Waldorf Critics are dogmatic because they treat Rudolf Steiner’s entire work as a fixed and rigid thing. They feel that if they can find just one single thing wrong they can invalidate the entire output. This is the stance of a dogmatic. Waldorf teachers, on the other hand, work flexibly with what Steiner has to offer, making use of the positive and ignoring the negative as they seek to create engaging schools and improve the world one student at a time.
But it is not really clear who “everyone” is. Are the dogmatics supposed to include all 60,000 US Waldorf parents, or just the 6,000 or so people who teach at the schools? Or is it just the 600 or so of those teachers who are also members of the Anthroposophical Society (the nonprofit established to spread Stiener’s work), since membership rates among Waldorf faculty average less than 10% across all the schools in the US. For that matter, is anyone who ever picked up a Steiner book and did not immediately put it back down a “dogmatic” in the eyes of the WC?