Steiner, Rudolf (1861–1925)

Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner was born in Kraljevic, Austria-Hungary, in 1861. He was educated in Wiener Neustadt and graduated from the Technical University in Vienna in 1884. Rudolf Steiner's view of life is called anthroposophy: wisdom of men. It stresses the unity of body, mind, and soul, in the sense not of a personal but of a cosmic unity. According to this philosophy, there are three worlds, the physical, the soulish, and the spiritual. Humans are part of all three worlds through the seven forms of their whole existence on earth. They are "rooted" in the physical world with their physical, ethereal, and soulish bodies, and "blossomed" into the spiritual world with their spiritual selves, their spirit of life and spiritual existence.

Anthroposophy is intended to be a counterproject to Western scientific culture, one that includes the doctrines of cosmic fate and reincarnation. When this purely occult philosophy is applied to education, the child is considered to be the "human in being" whose "substance" is known only when the "hidden" or "secret" nature of man is revealed. Education then is part of the Geheimwissenschaft: that is not publicly known but revealed only to its believers. This view is in opposition to all that constitutes modern education since the ENLIGHTENMENT.

For Steiner and his followers, the basis of education is neither teaching nor learning, but development. Development, however, refers not to nature, as Rousseau had stated, nor to mind, as JEAN PIAGET proposed. Steiner spoke of the "three births of men" that succeeded one after the other in a sequence of seven years. Up to the age of seven the child is woven within the ethereal and astral cover. After the child's second dentition, the ethereal body is born; at the age of fourteen the astral body, or the body of sensation, is revealed; and at the age of twenty-one the "body of I" is set into spiritual life. The means of education during the first period are imitation and modelling, during the second period succession and authority, and in the third period the road to the "higher soul of men" is opened.

Teaching in the first periods, Steiner believed, should not take place in an "abstract" manner, but in a concrete way, with "lively, vivid pictures" representing true spirituality for the understanding of the child. The educator should be "sensitive, warm and imbued with empathy" as a result of his or her studies of the sources of spiritual science. In the end the educator should represent the "true knowing of spritual science" and this would be at the heart of all true education. Until the child reaches sexual maturity, teaching relates to the memory of the child, Steiner argued, and after that it relates to reason. Working with concepts is necessary only after sexual maturity. Teaching has one central principle, namely that memory comes first and only then comes comprehension. The better the memory, the better the understanding will be, so all first schooling should be based upon memorizing.

In February 1919, Steiner delivered four public lectures in Zurich. These lectures were published soon after as "the key points of the social question." Steiner developed his later famous principles of the "trinominal organization of society," namely economy, law, and spiritual life. Education and schooling are part of the spiritual life, or the geistige Kultur, which can only work when it is completely free. Thus schooling should be completely free, too. The Waldorf Schools, following this principle, are nonstate enterprises and call themselves Free Schools because they operate independently from the curricula of the state.

The grounding principle of the schools is "rhythm," not lecturing: the rhythm of the day, of the week, and of the year. The curriculum is constructed around a seven-year cycle, with special forms of teaching, such as epoch-instruction or the learning of eurythmics. The schools are nonselective and use neither grades nor rankings. The pupils are not divided into classes but remain together as a group with one teacher as long as one cycle lasts. The schools are coeducational and have an independent administration and a close connection between teachers and parents. They attempt to avoid putting pressure on children and allow them to work according to their own personal potential.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Neill, A. S.; Progressive Education.


Lindenberg, C. 1997 Rudolf Steiner. Eine Biographie. Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag Freies Geistesieben.

Steiner, Rudolf. 1919. Die Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage in den Lebensnotwendigkeiten der Gegenwart und Zukunft. Stuttgart, Germany: Greiffer and Pfeiffer.

Steiner, Rudolf. 1948 [1907]. Die Erziehung des Kindes vom Gesichtspunkte der Geisteswissenschaft. Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag Freies Geistesleben.

Steiner, Rudolf. 1982 [1925]. Mein Lebensgang. Eine nicht vollendete Autobiographie. Ed. M. von Sievers. Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag.

Steiner, Rudolf. 1994 [1904]. Theosophy: An Introduction to the Super-sensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1973.

Wilkinson, Roy, ed. 1993. Rudolf Steiner on Education: A Compendium. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn.