Waldorf: Is There a Hidden Agenda? Interview with Dan Dugan

Waldorf classrooms can seem an attractive alternative to the traditional classroom. Children spend lots of time out of doors. Technology isn’t a thing. And there’s a focus on the arts.

Waldorf is different than Montessori and democratic classrooms, where students learn at their own pace with the teacher as a guide. In the Waldorf education system, students don’t begin to learn things like reading, writing, and math until they are seven. The teacher serves as an authority, staying with the same classroom for up to 8 years. The students create lesson books documenting their learning progress.

Delayed Academics is an important feature of the Waldorf education system, which is the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner felt that early formal learning kept children from the natural development of the spirit, mind, and body. Steiner’s philosophy of human development is called Anthroposophy.

Rudolph Steiner in 1905, founder of Waldorf education system and Anthroposophy
Rudolf Steiner, 1861-1925, founder of Anthroposophy and the Waldorf education system.

Some parents are enthusiastic about the Waldorf education system. Others, initially enthusiastic, have had bad experiences with the schools. Some parents dislike the hands-off manner with which some Waldorf teachers handle bullying. Some take issue with the way Waldorf parts way with basic scientific beliefs. Still more parents have uncovered some strange teaching ideas about race that hearken back to Steiner’s early 20th century philosophy.

The issues that parents have experienced in the Waldorf education system are, to a degree, shrouded in mystery. The schools seem to have attempted to create a distance between the education system and some of Steiner’s more outlandish theories. But some parents believe the separation between Steiner’s ideas and today’s Waldorf classroom is artificial. They feel that the Waldorf education system is based on a hidden religious agenda that is odd, outmoded, and perhaps even dangerous.

Dan Dugan, co-founder of PLANS.

Dan Dugan is an audio-engineer by profession, and a co-founder of PLANS (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools), an organization formed in 1997 to educate parents about the Waldorf education system. PLANS serves as a clearinghouse for information on both Steiner and the education system he developed. As editor of Kars4Kids Parenting, I spoke with Dan Dugan to find out more about PLANS and the Waldorf education system:

Varda Epstein: Can you tell us about your personal experience with the Waldorf school system?

Dan Dugan: I enrolled my son in the San Francisco Waldorf School halfway through 6th grade. He was there through the seventh grade.

Varda Epstein: What attracts parents to the Waldorf classroom?

Dan Dugan: Waldorf appeals strongly to romantic notions of the sanctity of childhood, truth, beauty, and goodness. I was seduced by the integration of art into all subjects, teaching arithmetic through physical activities like marching and tossing beanbags, Greek mythology.

Why Doesn’t Waldorf Teach Early Reading Skills?

Varda Epstein: Generally, readiness for first grade entails knowing letter sounds, how to read and recite the alphabet, the ability to recognize and write one’s own name in print, and even to read simple books. Waldorf doesn’t teach children to read and write until much later. Why?

Dan Dugan: Steiner taught that human life is divided into seven-year periods. The physical body is born at birth. Before their seventh year children are developing their etheric body, the “life body” that humans share with plants. They can be harmed by intellectual activity. From seven to fourteen they are developing their astral body, the body of sensations. From fourteen to 21 they develop the “I”, the individual spirit.

See https://sites.google.com/site/waldorfwatch/incarnation

Steiner said it would really be best to teach reading after age fourteen, but parents and the government would never tolerate that. His compromise was to teach reading in grade three, and by teaching writing first. They claim that telling stories, singing songs, etc., is really early reading training.

Varda Epstein: Does the delay in developing reading and writing skills impact the child’s learning in any measurable way?

Dan Dugan: Most children catch up, but it may be too late for children with reading disabilities. Because of the extremely variable quality of Waldorf teachers, Waldorf outcomes vary wildly.

Waldorf Dismissed Jewish Teachers During WWII

Varda Epstein: During WWII, Hitler was against Waldorf schools and his policy was to close them down. Rudolf Hess, on the other hand, was big into Anthroposophy and sought to keep the schools open. What would be attractive to a Nazi about Anthroposophy? Why did Hitler seek to shut down Waldorf schools within the German Reich?

Dan Dugan: Hitler didn’t like Steiner because Steiner had his own following and attempted to influence politics between the wars. When the Nazis took over, the Waldorf schools dismissed their Jewish teachers and wrote to authorities that their program was perfect for the new regime. The Nazis didn’t buy it and the controversy continued for about six years. Local authorities made it difficult for Waldorf schools but there was no national policy. When Hess fled to England, Hitler cracked down on all forms of occultism, Anthroposophy was outlawed, and the schools closed.

See: https://www.academia.edu/2429972/Education_for_the_National_Community_Waldorf_Schools_in_the_Third_Reich

Steiner’s Views On Race

Varda Epstein: Can you describe Rudolf Steiner’s views on race?

Dan Dugan: Steiner adopted Theosophy’s cyclical racial plan of history. Here is a chart of the grand plan:


Humans reincarnate in successively higher races, dark-skinned people being the childhood of humanity, and the mythical Aryan race currently being the highest. People who fail to achieve growth in consciousness may reincarnate where they are or even fall back.

Varda Epstein: Are all Waldorf teachers believers in Anthroposophy? Is it possible for teachers to separate their personal Anthroposophical beliefs from what they teach to their students?

Dan Dugan: Because the movement is growing, there aren’t enough fully trained and committed teachers. At a school some will be Anthroposophists and some will be in on-the-job training. The Anthroposophists constitute the College of Teachers, the governing body of the school that makes all decisions to do with pedagogy.

Varda Epstein: Can you describe the mystical component of Anthroposophy as it impacts the school day? What’s the deal with gnomes and spirits? How are they treated in the typical Waldorf classroom?

Dan Dugan: Students say prayers several times a day. Art work illustrates lessons which always teach the Anthroposophical attitude toward the subjects. Young children are told that gnomes and angels are real. Anthroposophical rituals mark the seasons of the year.

Is Waldorf Anti-Science?

Varda Epstein: Waldorf teaches some odd notions about science, from what I understand. For instance, the heart is not a pump, and there are 12 senses corresponding to the zodiac signs. Could a child who comes out of the Waldorf system conceivably be ready to prepare for med school, or become a chemist or a physicist?

Dan Dugan: I’m sure some manage to overcome the basically anti-science position of Anthroposophy. “Goethean Science” teaches by observation only, carefully avoiding theory. They teach the “what” but not the “how,” always leaving an opening for mystical explanations of the world.

Varda Epstein: What made you decide to fight against Waldorf by founding the organization PLANS? Wouldn’t it have been enough for you to pull your son out of the school? Shouldn’t all parents be free to educate their children as they see fit?

Dan Dugan: When I started objecting to 1) bad science, 2) racism in Steiner books sold at the school, and 3) the school promoting quack medicine, my son was expelled. Not willing to disappear silently, I intended to write articles about these topics and distribute them to the parents. When I did research I discovered the deep and complex world of Anthroposophy. I decided to write the first book about Waldorf as seen from outside the Steiner cult. Some years later that project converted to activism when Waldorf schools started to get public funding as charter schools and magnet schools. I joined with Debra Snell and eight others who had experience with or interest in Waldorf to incorporate PLANS. We began a federal lawsuit against two California school districts with publicly-funded Waldorf schools, based on the First Amendment which forbids the government from supporting a religion.

Of course parents should be free to choose, but tax money is not given freely. Waldorf schools have fine-tuned their misrepresentation of what they are: religious schools, with over 100 years of practice. Most Waldorf parents don’t know what Anthroposophy is, and don’t care.

“You will have to take over children for their education and instruction—children who will have received already (as you must remember) the education, or mis-education given them by their parents. Indeed our intentions will only be fully accomplished when we, as humanity, will have reached the stage where parents, too, will understand that special tasks are set for mankind today.” Steiner, Rudolf. Study of Man: General Education Course: Fourteen Lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart 21st August—5th September 1919.  (1919, GA 293) Trans. Daphne Harwood and Helen Fox. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1960, p. 16.

“Let us bear in mind that when we do one task or another we are actually carrying out the intentions of the Gods; that we are, as it were, the vehicles for the realisation that the spirit that needs to be realised in the world [sic]; that we must not for a moment fail to feel the whole earnestness and dignity of this work.” Steiner, Rudolf. Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart 1919 to 1920:  Volume One: The First and Second Years of the Waldorf School, Stuttgart. (1920) Forest Row, U.K.: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1986, p. 64.


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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Dita Helle says

    Dear Mrs. Epstein,

    I’m so sorry about the conspiracy-image you help to peddle about Waldorf, Steiner and Anthroposophy. The goetheanistic-science begins as academic philosophy (ontology) and goes further on scientific basis. It’s basis is philosophy on highest academic level. One of the main and central works for Goetheanism of Steiner is his promotion for the Ph.D. That means it’s not for you and me, but for people who at least go through thoroughly studies through many years in the main philosophers, history of philosophy AND the written works of Steiner (not secondary literature, Waldorfschools or contemplations of anthropospophical artworks etc.). Since Steiner spoke to not-academic people in his later life, friends and foes of anthroposophy and Waldorf tend to the meaning, that they understand something of the goetheanistic sicience of spiritual acitvity. With which right are spread time-related prejudices (i.e. children are lied by adults if told fairy-tales) about this or that thing Steiner spoke about? Why do we not make the attempt to understand thoroughly what he wanted to communicate indeed, in only one single subject as i.e. development of children? Thereby it would also be seen how short-minded it is to “judge” over his whole world view by just knowing nothing about it out of own personal experience. Steiner is one of the few extraordinary people in the history of conciousness by whom we can learn a lot and for a long time into future, to develop our mankindness. He wants people to be concious about what they think, feel and do – and not to believe in this or that what a person or organisation claims. Goetheanism is an intelligent science. It doesn’t suit our time-related imaginations, but we are not brain-automats, are we? We have a sense for ideas and thoughts, haven’t we? (It’s one of the 12!!) – Thanks to this human sense we can take over new ideas. If they are lively ideas, they have no expiration date and even if they were born to earth in 1920, they can be new for us today. Eg. democracy – the category is about 2000 years old and still in every mind and mouth. And every child has to learn it for new. There are also ideas for adults to learn for new…
    Waldorf-critics is just another hype to scratch an image in order to saw the branch of humanity on which we sit.
    My advice: Never judge about a person of conciousness by his followers or enemies.

    I wished that you could publish this statement as a counterstatement to the PLANS-interview. But I reject if you want only to take over a part of it. If you have serious questions on the subject, don’t hesitate to ask me. Thank you.

    Best regards
    Dita Helle

    • Varda Epstein says

      Thank you for your comment, Dita. I did make an attempt to find someone from Waldorf to interview to lend balance to my piece. Unfortunately, I could not find anyone from Waldorf willing to answer the questions I posed to Dan Dugan.

      If you would like to take a stab at answering the same questions I sent to Dan, feel free to send your responses to Varda at Kars4kids dot org.

  2. Lauren Broemmelsiek says

    Hi Varda,
    Thank you for your time on this piece. It was interesting to hear of your experience. While I understand the difference in philosophy between your personal beliefs and that of a Waldorf school, I am not really understanding the vendetta against this type of alternative education? If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. That’s ok. But to start a group, such as PLANS to decommission it seems a bit radical and perhaps growing from a place of vengeance? I have seen great successes come out of Waldorf schools (e.g. Many happy children (mine included)). I understand this is the way our world works, but really does it have to?

    • Varda Epstein says

      Lauren, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have no personal experience with Waldorf and I have no connection to PLANS. My intention with this article was to give another side of the Waldorf story for parents looking for a fuller background and the history of this alternative education style.

  3. Danica Wolkiser says

    I was very fortunate to attend the Waldorf School in New York City all 14 years. I went on to an “Ivy League School”, as did other of my classmates. One of them even went on to teach biology as a professor at Yale University and then started her own research lab abroad. There are so many other interesting stories I could share! I and also others in my class also chose to send their own children to Waldorf schools, grateful for the kind of education they themselves received which left us more creative, independent and free, and still loving to learn.

    I am very familiar with the Waldorf curriculum and philosophy and so I have to disagree with many statements in the above article, where, I feel, much is twisted and misinterpreted and essential background is left out.

    For instance, although reading is not formally taught in the Waldorf kindergarten, it is actually taught with movement and storytelling, for instance, the letters emerge like the M-shape of a mountain, out of the children’s drawing that is encouraged and then his observations, many of them in nature, guided by a loving teacher. When children are more ready to learn, they are eager for sitting down at their desks with all their classmates to learn the actual writing and they seem to do much better when they have a real interest in and preparation for the subject they are studying. This is not “delayed reading”, but a kind of immersion program that is developmentally sound and starts much earlier than the age of 7, but always sensitive to the needs of each child, who is never pushed but also given all the time that is needed for a skill to develop, so the child experiences joy rather than more stress.

    Here is a very nice video on Waldorf Education (filmed at a school in California and shared in 2012):


    I think it shows more of the life and activities that I and my fellow students enjoyed in the Waldorf School to give readers here a better picture about what the schools are about.

  4. Brody says

    Waldorf Schools say they’re based on Steiner’s beliefs but they don’t follow the racist stuff or any of the other terrible ideas he had? It’s like saying ‘Hitler had some good ideas’.
    Waldorf trains students to see the rest of the world as ‘outsiders’ and the only people on Earth that ‘really get it’ are Steiner worshipers and the brainwashed alum. First thing brainwashed Steiner clones always say, ” Waldorf is not a cult!” It’s also the first thing every cult member in the world says.
    I went to Waldorf until I was 8. The ‘school’ never made any attempt to teach me to read, no alphabet in the classroom, no group reading time, no books to be found. We were taught nothing at all. I don’t consider making wreaths and finger knitting to be useful life skills in the last 200 years.
    When I reached public school in third grade, I couldn’t recognize my own name on paper. The public school did everything they could to catch me up but there is no system in place to repair 5 years of criminal neglect. A few hours of “special Ed” and reading tutors every week won’t fix it. I’ve only really started to comprehend the damage in my 40’s.
    There is also a disturbing connection to white supremacy and Satanic worship in Waldorf schools. We were taught to honor Lucifer by name. We were told our skin color is a reflection of our karma and purity. The whiter you are the better you are in the eyes of Waldorf. Two of my classmates grew up to be hardcore white supremacists. One of them was also a fan of cults and literally, a member of the Church of Satan.
    The fact that my tax dollars go to fund the school that abused me so badly is beyond upsetting. The fact that the school is a religious, white supremacist, Satan worshiping cult… receiving my tax dollars is criminal. I’m being forced to pay my abuser.
    Education is mandatory in the USA. Failure to educate is criminal child neglect. How does Waldorf not only get away with abusing children but gets government funding to do it!? How is it fair to religious schools that actually teach reading and math, to see Waldorf get tax treasure that a Christian or Catholic school is not entitled to?

    • Varda Epstein says

      Wow! First of all, thank you for sharing your experience here. That is truly dreadful and you are brave to talk about your educational abuse, and how difficult it was for you in the years that followed. Second of all, thanks for confirming the truth about Waldorf. I agree that it is a shameful thing that tax dollars support this ideology and abuse of our children.

  5. Marianne says

    It’s not that simple that “if it is not for you, it is not for you”. Even if it is not for you, doesn’t mean that you are qualified to be bullied of both teachers, classmates and even parents. The daughter of a friend of mine loved the school and had many friends, but in one or another way she was not what she “was supposed to be”, and was blamed for every single thing she did, and also what others did. They fabricated stuff and used it as an evidence for serious behavior problems, they sent out rumours and sensitive information to all the parents in the class and the teachers in school. This is just a small part of what has happened. Her classsmates turned their back to her one by one, and in a year she stood completely alone. I don’t know what they did and said to convince them that they should keep away from the girl and the family.

    It is nearly impossible to start in an ordinary school after many years in a Steinerschool because they haven’t learnt more than 1/3 of what others do. The result of this story is a young girl with serious mental problems. The calm, happy and smiling kid has turned into a depressed and angry person. The family has of course been standing up for her and have taken the fight, which is not popular. You don’t go against those people and think they will not do everything to get revenge.

    Where we live in Europe, the Waldorf movement and school are things you not talk negative about, so if you have problems, you are completely alone. Many have met problems on their way, but instead of stand up and tell the world, they dissapear in silence. Actually I can understand that they are afraid. So thank you for sharing this valuable information

  6. Becca says

    Please read more about both cults and waldorf before you send your kids there! we sent our kids to waldorf for several years because our family is spirtitually earth centered, and we liked the way the school made that a focus. However the cult-like environment was unhealthy and we had to remove our kids. It was very dispointing because we thought we had a place our family finally felt at home in the world.

    There are so many similarities to cults. I see debates online about what is a cult vs just cult-like, and it is my opinion that if something is cult-like, then we should not be sending our children there, because cults are filled with abuse, cults are a serious danger and more prevelent than we realize, and we are setting our children up to be susceptable to cults and abusive workplaces.

    some of the ways our local waldrof school was similar to a cult:
    -there was little mention of rudolph steiner, and no mention of the religion he created upon entrance to the school. only later did i see the school library was filled almost only with his books.

    -the bontany i saw the kids learning was filled with strange words i had never heard of. It was rudolph steiners invented religion, anthropomorphism, his invented words. they teach this intstead of science. Cults give their followers a new lexicon. waldorf openly has an invented religion they follow like cults do.

    – the teachers all dress in a type of uniform like they do in cults, and speak in a fake sort of sing-songy accent.

    -the school was protrayed as a safe haven in a dangerous world, and a dangerous public school system. So much of the focus was on protecting them from outside influence. we also signed a paper saying we would limit tv exposure for our children.

    -there are many racists steiner theories we are told to overlook, but then we are we still talking so much about steiner! they also read the kindergarteners little house on the priaire, a book with anti indigenous racism in it. They also taught the children that people are not animals, we are spiritual beings. the kindergarteners were saying prayers about angels coming to take them home when they die. not age appropriate.

    -The children are isolated in many ways by making it more difficult for them to rejoin a standard school. academics are delayed. There is a physical test to see if the kindergardeners are ready for 1st grade or not, rather than it be expected they will be ready. A lot of the most devoted families, those are the kids who were held back for another year of kindergarten. Removing them even further from being able to transfer schools someday.

    -strange culturally approriated craft time. the students sew moccasins and make dream catchers in art class.

    -parents are told to sing and dance along in childish, embrassing feeling ways at the festivals. this is a common cult strategy that lowers your boundaries and puts you in a childlike place at the same time. I hated it, but i still did it. we all did. A main feeder into the school is their parent and me class, which also treats parents as if they themselves are young children and has crafts only for the parents to do while the children watch.

    – one teacher for 8 years. less outside influence. more controlled and entrenched in the cult like environment.

    -I witnessed teachers using shame and embarassment to control the classroom. Teachers were praised by parents not by their classroom management but by how much magic they had in their eyes. how much magic they brought to the classroom.

    -they brought in an anthromoporphic doctor to teach about elemental beings (Fairies). no mention of anthropomorphism in his talk, he spoke about it as if it were simply the truth. They brought in speakers from several other cult-like, for-profit self help organizations. There are webs of cults that share the same base of followers.

    -they hire young waldorf graduates without teaching degrees to become waldorf teachers, commiting themselves to another 8 years with waldorf.

    please know this is coming from a parent who enjoys dabbling in new age spirituality. I am not opposed to my kids learning spiritual ideas. but the idea that it is a cult like religion that is hidden from the parents, and it teaches both kids and parents to fear the outside world, and to take cover in the safety of waldorf. This is not a safe environment for children that helps them feel confident in their place in the world.

    • Varda Epstein says

      Wow. I really appreciate you sharing your experience and I hope your children are okay! This must be exposed. That was my feeling when I wrote this piece, and your comment underscores the importance of this mission. Thank you.