What is Anthroposophy?

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I spent the weekend of March 21st-23rd in Freeport, Maine attending the AWSNA (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America) Northeast regional conference held at Merriconeag Waldorf School. The conference was attended by over one hundred and fifty people representing Waldorf schools from all six New England states as well as the province of Quebec.  The keynote speaker was Florian Oswald, the head of pedagogy at the Goetheanum in Switzerland. The Goetheanum is also the world headquarter of the General Anthropological Society. Hearing Mr. Oswald’s thought provoking and inspirational speeches got me thinking more about what exactly is Anthroposophy? As a parent in a Waldorf school (not to mention a Director) I felt compelled to learn more about this important underpinning of this highly effective form of education.

I feel fairly well versed in the benefits of a Waldorf Education for children: integrated free play, art and music which develop neural pathways, original thinking and executive function, handwork and form drawing to develop fine motor skills and higher ordered thinking, rhythmic teaching via a concentrated main lesson and four week blocks for true retention of information and fostering curiosity, early introduction of foreign languages, much active year-round time spent outdoors developing a reverence for the beauty of earth, etc…and that is just the tip of the iceberg!  I have no doubt that our children receive much freedom, inspiration and fortitude from their Waldorf Education everyday.

What I was not at all as familiar with, and sometimes wondered about, is the philosophical basis underlying this very creative yet deliberate system of teaching: Anthroposophy.  I share with you what I have learned in the hope of not only de-mystify Anthroposophy but also embracing it for what it is: a key component in Waldorf Education’s evolution into the fastest growing independent school movement in the world.  Anthroposophy is a broad philosophy founded by Rudolph Steiner that has been applied practically in Waldorf Education, biodynamic agriculture, medicine, ethical banking, special education (the Camphilll Movement) and organizational development. The term Anthroposophy comes from the Greek words for “human” and “wisdom”.

Generally speaking, Anthroposophy advocates inner development of the human being’s intuition or inspiration, in order to develop our abilities of perceptive imagination beyond just sensory experience. This is often done via meditation, reflection, sleep, envisioning etc.  Anthroposophy, as a study, strives to apply the precision of science to investigations of such intuition. The idea is that when we have a powerful experience of imagination or intuition it is supported by a spiritual source which exists to help us – some may call this source the realm of the whole of shared human consciousness, some may call it God, some may call it the spiritual world, some may call it angels;  the terminology is entirely a personal choice.  The point is that intuition on the level of genius comes from somewhere beyond our own personal experiences.

Please note,  Anthroposophy is the philosophical foundation of Waldorf Education, it is not taught to children! Teachers and staff study Anthroposophy and strive to use it’s techniques in their work. For example, if a student is having a difficult behavioral issue, the teacher might make observations of that child, meditate that evening on the concerns – holding the child in the highest regard – and then sleep on it and see what ideas or inspiration they awaken the following day. Another example are the highly creative, sometimes impromptu lessons Waldorf teachers are famous for — where did these brilliant, on-the-spot ideas come from that reach the children exactly where they need to be reached in that moment, in that lesson, on that day? Some would say they come from the teacher’s previous Anthropological practices of meditation and reflection leading to their heightened imagination and intuition in the moment.

It is important to also note that Anthroposophy is not a religion. As a philosopher and writer, Rudolph Steiner’s work touched upon elements of many organized religions including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Muslim and Hindu faiths. According the U.S. Center for Anthroposophy, “Anthroposophy is a method of inquiry, a path of research, rather than a fixed set of ideas. Rudolf Steineronce characterized Anthroposophy as an upside-down plant, with its roots in the heavens (the world of the spirit) and its blossom and fruit in practical life on earth. This ‘growing down’ means that clear insights born of disciplined spiritual research can help us re-enliven the practice of education, health, farming, technology, and countless other areas of daily life.”

There are about 10,000 institutions around the world working on the basis of Anthroposophy today including sixteen Waldorf schools affiliated with the United Nations’ UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network, which “sponsors education projects that foster improved quality of education throughout the world, in particular in terms of its ethical, cultural, and international dimensions”.*   And many Waldorf schools receive full or partial governmental funding in European nations, Australia and in parts of the United States (as Waldorf Education charter schools).

Overall Athroposophy is a very optimistic philosophy advocating the spiritual dimension of all human beings and advocating our ability to use our spiritual abilities of intuition, imagination and inspiration to improve the work we do.  This conference was a truly enjoyable learning experience for me and I invite anyone interested in learning more about Waldorf Education, its teaching practices, history or underlying philosophy of Anthroposophy to attend an AWSNA conference.  If you are intrigued by this article and wish to discuss it or the study of Athroposophy as related to Waldorf Education,  I would welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation or even organize a study group.
* Agenda Fact Sheet, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization dated 18 April 2001