Waldorf: Cultish or genius?

Picture this: you walk onto campus, ready for school. You find your classroom, and are greeted by your teacher, whom you know like a parent. You have known them for the majority of your life, and they know your idiosyncrasies. They know that you play with the ends of your hair when you are nervous, and they know you want to be an astronaut one day.

They shake your hand as you step into the classroom, and the door opens to your fellow peers who you have known since kindergarten. They are dispersed, some using scarves, or silks, to compose a dance routine for their history project. Others are knitting cases for the flute they are learning to play. You join a group of your peers preparing for your school’s annual celebration of the coming of spring: the Mayfair. You will all dance around the pole in the courtyard, gripping your strand of ribbon.

Later on in the school day, the class works on math. Lots of your peers are drawing out their times tables, but you do not feel incredibly confident in your handwriting. You create your times table by stacking stones instead, and you are not the only one who takes a unique approach. Some draw theirs, some clap theirs and some stack stones. You are at a Waldorf School.

The Waldorf School System, with around 3,000 locations worldwide, is a pre-K through 12th-grade school that, according to the San Francisco Waldorf School website, “offer[s] an education that is both creative and rigorous and based on human connection.”

These values stem from an Austrian social reformer who was an esotericist, occultist and self-proclaimed clairvoyant named Rudolf Steiner. In short, he believed that he had supernatural abilities and a level of telepathy with spiritual worlds. Steiner founded anthroposophy, which is the philosophy that the mind can reach and come in contact with spiritual worlds. Waldorf uses art and experiential education as primary learning tools to help students connect with both the material they are taught and themselves in an effort to implement Steiner’s beliefs.

In an interview with The Urban Legend, San Francisco Waldorf School’s Administrative Director Craig Appel said, “In early childhood it is all play-based. Kids are playing in the dirt, playing outside, playing with natural materials, etc. As it moves through middle school, experiential education continues, but that might show up as, you know, when you’re studying history, you’re studying the history through the biography of an individual person, like Gandhi or Eli Whitney.”

Along with experiences, art is widely incorporated into Waldorf’s educational practices. Appel said, “Waldorf School integrates art and artistic expression into every aspect of the curriculum…It not only meets the intellectual development of children but also their understanding of their feelings, of beauty, of the subtler understandings of themselves and the subjects.”

Appel went on to explain Waldorf’s lesson books, one of many ways Waldorf incorporates art into its curriculum. At the end of each course (or block, as courses are referred to at Waldorf), students create a lesson book. In these lesson books, students must integrate and summarize everything they learned from the completed course, accompanied by a creative medium such as poetry or visual art.

Maya Lee ‘23, an ex-Waldorf student, said, “We would write a history essay and then have a drawing that goes with it.”

Visual art, however, is only the beginning of what Waldorf incorporates into their daily educational practices.

Colby Daniels ‘24, another ex-Waldorf student, tried to suppress a laugh as he said, “You know about Eurythmy?” He went on. “It’s this class that everyone has to take… It’s like a mix of some sort of dance, maybe ballet, and yoga. And you have to do all these weird movements. It’s really strange. I don’t get it. But it’s supposed to help your brain and your hand-eye coordination. It feels cultish.”

Movement, as an art form, is also a prominent practice at Waldorf schools. In the documentary “Eurythmy: Making Movement Human,” former Waldorf teacher and current therapeutic eurythmist for the School of Eurythmy Maria Ver Eecke explains the significance of Eurythmy, which was also created by Steiner and his wife, Marie Steiner-von Sivers. Eecke said, “If we watch children, they’re always in movement. Through activity, touch, and taste, and all the senses learning to balance. Eurythmy brings this in a rhythmic manner.”

“We would do certain movements or dances that were like, ‘why are we doing this?’” said Lee.

Eurythmy, sometimes referred to as visible song, features movements like gracefully flapping arms like wings, moving in formations and being flowy, as Daniels put it. Swords are sometimes used as props, as well as silks. The dance is typically performed to live, calm, spiritual music and the teacher instructs in prose. Eecke said to her students during a Eurythmy lesson, “Transform the earth to a radiant crystal.”

Along with spirituality, the school also has a strict belief system around birth and pregnancy, according to Joanna Martins, whose name has been changed to protect her medical confidentiality. Martins was considering sending her son to a Waldorf school starting in kindergarten, but during her interview with the school, she said they crossed lines. “The interviewer asked me what my birthing experience was like.” She shook her head. “I had a C-section and [I felt like] they were judging me and my baby and how his birth influenced his stability — like mental or physical health? I don’t know…Maybe it didn’t align with their ideas or something. It was just very inappropriate and personal. I was like f–k off, man.”

Appel confirmed that the school asks this interview question. “In the application, we ask about [people’s birthing experiences], but that’s not a criteria for whether you’re admitted or not, it’s more of if you do decide to come to the school, to understand the history of the child… [It’s] just to get to know the family… You know, was it a difficult pregnancy?” He said, “The Waldorf School definitely believes that children evolve from the beginning, so it just helps to kind of create a picture… If that student comes to the school, their teacher will read that before… school starts.”

Despite some of the school’s more abnormal and seemingly cultish features, Daniels explained the Waldorf model still has more to offer than what immediately meets the eye. He said, “There’s a lot of hands-on work, a lot of building things, making things and learning more about the social aspect of being a person. Like how to share, how to be with other people, how to be a good person.”

Along with creativity, aspects of Waldorf’s spiritual approach work for some students. “[The use of spirituality] is very comforting… We lit candles every morning. Our teacher would light a candle and then she’d ask who we wanted to light it for, and so people would talk about someone that needed support in something or someone that they were thinking about,” she said. “That helps with reflection and also just recognizing that there are things happening in peoples’ lives that you don’t necessarily know about unless you ask.”

In addition to spirituality, Daniels brings Waldorf’s strengths back to art and experience. “[Waldorf] also makes kids use their imaginations so much. We had to put on these little plays and wear these little silks on our heads to be different animals, and the mouse is purple, and everyone’s like ‘Why is the mouse purple?’ but like, they would just do that,” he said.

Waldorf’s novel approach to education does have its own benefits. Waldorf’s education model is compatible with neurodivergent students who, at other schools with different values and teaching styles, may not have as great an experience in school. Appel said, “What makes Waldorf schools work well for certain neurodivergent students is that we teach in many different modalities.” For example, Waldorf has many approaches to teaching its students multiplication.

Similarly, according to The Waldorf Approach to Attention Related Disorders, a research study conducted by educators Kim Payne, Arthur Zajonc and Martha Hadley, the way Waldorf approaches learning aligns especially well with students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other attention-related disorders. After establishing how well low-sensory settings work for those with ADHD or other attention-related disorders, they wrote, “During the kindergarten phase a creative ‘homelike’ environment surrounds the children in a Waldorf school. Importance is placed on maintaining low-sensory impact by using gentle lighting, diffuse color schemes, cloth veils hung to soften ceilings and corners.”

The Waldorf Approach to Attention Related Disorders research found that traditional education models increase pressure put on students, neurodivergent or not. “An increasing demand for academic achievement has led schools to introduce academics earlier in the life of the child, to dramatically cut artistic and movement-based classes throughout the curriculum, and to increase testing, resulting in more and more pressure for the student,” they wrote. “It is not unusual to hear accounts such as a mother relating a situation of a little league baseball coach demanding that her 10-year-old son be put on Ritalin in order to improve his catching ability.”

Waldorf views child development differently. “We have this guiding vision of child development, of what happens at each… life stage for people. [We understand] that different children develop differently than the norm,” Appel said. “We expect students to know fractions in fourth grade, et cetera, et cetera, but we’re much more flexible if we see the development happening.”

Waldorf approaches learning with more academic and creative freedom, and in turn, the curriculum can be more effective at teaching students fundamental academic and social skills. Research conducted by Stanford University in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years found that Waldorf students in Sacramento performed higher on state standardized tests and had lower rates of problematic behavior resulting in suspension in comparison to other schools in the Sacramento Unified School District.

While Waldorf fosters a level of creativity that some other schools do not, it also presents other challenges and issues. Isaac Hoffman ‘25 said, “My sister went to a Waldorf school and hated it immensely…The people were obnoxious, the curriculum was not great — she just wasn’t learning anything. She was… learning math at like a third grade level in like fifth grade.”

Another criticism of Waldorf is its proximity to Steiner’s racist beliefs. In an Age of Awareness article titled “Waldorf Schools Are Inherently Racist Cults,” ex-Waldorf teacher Jennifer Sapio wrote about one of Steiner’s pieces that she read. “I read about Steiner’s ‘folk souls’ — his theories about the hierarchies of human evolution — in order to see in Steiner’s own words what he thinks about the ‘black and yellow races,’ and let me tell you, it’s revolting,” she wrote. “He writes that humans are on an evolutionary journey through reincarnation and that as souls are refined and purified, they move up from the African to the Asian and finally to the European races.”

Private schools’ historic role has been in prioritizing the education of white people. This is true for the history of Waldorf, as it is for Urban. In an effort to move away from these ideals, it is vital for schools to address diversity, equity and inclusion in their administrative policies, workplace practices, educational culture and core values. Waldorf is working towards this goal by addressing their diversity and equity issues.

The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America wrote in their Statement of Equity and Racial Justice, “[Steiner] made statements that reflect harmful assertions regarding race and ethnicity. Racism, explicit or implicit, stands in direct conflict to the fundamental principles of Waldorf education. We commit to working to address any dehumanizing or disparaging aspects of our history and practices.”

In terms of Waldorf’s education model, there is compelling evidence that the school offers an effective educational experience through creativity and spirituality. So why is it so heavily criticized?

In Urban ninth-grade Identity and Ethnic Studies & former service learning teacher Deborah Dent-Samake taught a lesson on a piece written by Horace Miner called “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” Students read his piece about a society called Nacirema and its many traditions, which they found strange and slightly disturbing. For example, in Nacirema, each morning members of the society must perform a daily body ritual called the mouth-rite, where they force hog hairs into their mouths. They also must visit the holy-mouth-man twice a year for what Miner calls an exorcism of the evils of the mouth using various torturous paraphernalia.

At the end of the lesson, Dent-Samake revealed that Nacirema is actually “American” spelled backwards. The brutal mouth rituals were an alternate way to describe brushing teeth and going to the dentist.

Looking beyond the blinders, what is often perceived as strange and outlandish just because it strays from the norm is a result of a lack of familiarity. Who is to say dancing with silks on your head is weird? Is it weird that other schools have gym class instead of game time like Waldorf, where instead of playing games and laughing, lots of people shamefully attempt to play a sport they know nothing about?

“Waldorf education is really focused on developing the shared human capacity that we all need. You know, our own initiative and creativity and imagination. So even though it looks different from the outside, it’s really not that different ultimately,” Appel said. “It’s a unique way to lead each individual child, but I think it’s important that everybody knows that the capacities that our school and…every other school are trying to develop are what we all need to survive.”