Monday, 22 October 2012

TV or not TV?

I attended the Healing powers of the mind? conference the other day, hosted by Stephen Law, which featured three fascinating talks on different sorts of healing, and a presentation by Andy Lewis, of Quackometer fame, on Anthroposophy and Spiritual Science. The story he told was intriguing, and links in with some of the things I said in my last blog. All that I've written here springs from Andy's talk, so a big h/t to him.

In a healthy functioning democracy, 'experiments of living', as Mill put it, can contribute to our basic freedoms. So it's in all our interests to allow a plurality of beliefs and not to police thought. However, it's also important that folk declare their interests, so we can see how their prescriptions and proscriptions in the public sphere are anchored. Without that transparency, we might disagree with their ultimate, invisible, goals, and this should make us doubt their immediate, visible, goals, even if those seem innocuous.

Consider the recent spate of articles prompted by Dr. Aric Sigman's piece in a BMJ journal calling for government restrictions on screen time for youngsters. Here's the Guardian:
Doctors and government health officials should set limits, as they do for alcohol, on the amount of time children spend watching screens – and under-threes should be kept away from the television altogether, according to a paper in an influential medical journal published on Tuesday.
It's not a paper, actually, but a leading article. And here's the BBC uncritically relaying Sigman's message:

Dr Sigman cites from a string of published studies suggesting links between prolonged screen time and conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But he suggests the effects go further than those simply associated with being sedentary for long periods.
He says prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span because of its effects on the brain chemical dopamine.

All very worrying, and just the sort of prejudicial view of television that appeals to some parents. The kids should be out the house, getting some fresh air! But it's difficult to see how television watching could be so much different to book reading in its effect on youngsters, and I doubt those same parents would have the same prejudice against books. But, I think we certainly should consider such an illiberal measure if serious harm could be shown to come from simply interacting with a screen, rather than print. But, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, Dr Sigman has form for distorting the scientific evidence:
Dr Sigman’s case is that social networking leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to biological harm (he doesn’t mention cancer specifically, incidentally). I didn’t get near the second half of his argument, though: because he was so spectacularly misleading on the first that it became irrelevant.
Then Goldacre explains that Sigman has cherry-picked the evidence to support his contentions. So what gives?

Sigman previously produced a report on The Benefits and Mechanisms Associated with a Craft - Based Curriculum, criticising TV use, in conjunction with the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust. The Ruskin Mill Educational Trust is...
Inspired by the ideals of William Morris, John Ruskin and Rudolf Steiner, the Trust has since developed a unique and brilliantly successful approach to problems of social exclusion, economic decline and environmental degradation. Its model has been acclaimed by stakeholders ranging from Ofsted and CSCI to HRH the Prince of Wales.
Prince Charles, eh? Sounds as if it has the establishment stamp of approval. I'm not really familiar with Rudolf Steiner; I've been aware of Steiner Waldorf schools, but just thought they were hippy-ish outfits, with unconventional views. No harm in that, and what I knew of their ideas sounded healthily earthy.

Rudolf Steiner was the founder of Anthroposophy, a  world view he developed out of his involvement with Theosophy. Anthroposophy (literally 'wisdom of the human being'), contrary to my view of Steiner schools, sounds less hippy-ish and more 'new world order'! For example, the Steiner view of human beings is decidedly spiritual:
Steiner believed that humans pass between stages of existence, incarnating into an earthly body, living a life, leaving the body behind and entering into the spiritual worlds before returning to be born again into a new life on earth. In earthly life, the individuality or ego awakens to self-consciousness through its experience of its reflection in the deeds and suffering of a physical body.
Because of this unscientific belief, the more persisting spirit of a person takes priority over the physical body, so the priority of Steiner schools is to develop this imaginary spirit:
The anthroposophical view of child development forms the philosophical basis for the educational theory, methodology of teaching and curriculum. Anthroposophy includes the belief that humans possess an innate spirit which, having passed through previous lives, in the current life works to fulfill a chosen purpose in a karmically determined environment. After death, the spiritual individuality returns to the spirit world where it will prepare for a future reincarnation.[69] Waldorf pedagogy views the teacher as having "a sacred task in helping each child's soul and spirit grow".
This can be done through a particular form of artistic expression:
At my school, we were taught to produce misty watercolor paintings with no straight lines or clear definitions. This was wet-on-wet watercoloring (wet brushes spreading watery paint over wet paper), a technique that effectively prevents a child from creating recognizable images of the real world, especially when only large, wide brushes are used. There was certainly something otherworldly about the images we created, bearing no resemblance to ordinary physical reality. Our paintings were in effect talismanic representations of the spirit realm — rich in color but devoid of harsh lines and clear-cut forms.
...and through Eurythmy:

All looks like fun. But some ideas are more controversial. Anthroposophy appears rooted in a a racial view of the world. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since Steiner lived at a time when people were embedded in a deeply racist world. But if this element was based on a flawed understanding of human nature, I think we are entitled to question the rest of its rather implausible view of human nature. And we cannot know if racism is still inherent in the philosophy, as this piece points out:
What must be stressed is that an adherence to Anthroposophy and aspects of this pedagogy can lead teachers to make decisions about individual children based on race and disability, which many people would consider to be outright discrimination.
The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship have a tiny disclaimer on their website stating:
We also reject any racism stated or implied in any of Rudolf Steiner's speeches and writings. 
Concerns have been raised about Steiner-Waldorf schools discouraging vaccination, because of their advocacy of alternative medicine:

A story in the London Times (March 6, 2002) by Alan Hall traces these practices to the Waldorf School, “which actively encourages people not to have their children vaccinated. Now we have an epidemic.” The Waldorf School is described as “a holistic teaching centre based on the methods of the late Dr. Rudolf Steiner and is one of several in Germany that promotes alternative medicine.” Parents also received anti-MMR letters from activists “advising them not to vaccinate their children.”
In the United States, a Waldorf School is among those schools in Boulder, Colorado where children are not receiving their pertussis and other immunization — with fatal consequences both for those children and their younger siblings who have not yet been vaccinated. A letter to the Lancet (August 24, 2002) indicates that in the United Kingdom in a twelve-month period, “eight infants of preimmunization age have required extracorporeal support for intractable cardiorespiratory failure due to Bordetella pertussis infection.” Five of them died “despite extracorporeal membrane oxygenation support, and one survivor has substantial neurological disability.” Although the reported cases indicate infection by members of the same household, parents with infants who have not yet received their full complement of vaccinations might be wise to inquire of their New Age/alternative medicine friends whether their children have been immunized before allowing them to come over and visit.

Famously, they don't teach reading and writing in the first seven years, and sometimes beyond. A number of studies have shown that this does not seem to affect long term reading and writing abilities, so perhaps we should be relaxed about this. Maybe, but it's concerning that the reasons for these beliefs are rooted in an arbitrary and unscientific view of the human animal rather than careful pedagogical research. In fact, a whole raft of studies appear to show benefits to the child from the Steiner-Waldorf approach - consider those listed on Wikipedia. It's not clear to me how these studies adjust for circumstances, but I'm no educational researcher, so I must take these at face value. It certainly explains how these establishments become popular among parents.

And Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has now enabled State funding of these schools, as he promised when he was only shadow children's minister:
Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove today gave his backing to an expansion of state funding for Montessori and Steiner schools, which aim to educate "the whole child" instead of focusing on the three Rs.
But not all parents and pupils view Steiner-Waldorf so rosily. There are accusations that they think that bullying is karmic retribution:
One of the more persistent complaints levelled at Steiner schools by disenchanted former pupils/parent is not only that bullying is common, if not rife, but, more disturbingly, that these schools do almost nothing to deal with this particular problem when it arises. Now, in itself, that’s not that uncommon an allegation in mainstream state education but what you certainly won’t come across in the state sector, but will frequently encounter when reading criticism of Steiner schools put forward by former pupils/parent, id the allegation that these schools, and teachers treat bullying as form of karmic ‘payback’ for misdemeanours committed in a previous incarnation, a practice that elevates blaming the victim to heights unimaginable even in the more vicious element of the sin-obsessed Catholic Church.
The piece by the Ministry of Truth quotes many more pupils and parents who have concerns about Steiner-Waldorf, from the website, many of which stem from the frankly bizarre beliefs in Anthroposophy. And this is really my concern: would parents be so enthusiastic about these schools if they realised exactly the principles on which they are based? I suspect many would not be.

Now, many might still be very happy with it, of course, and that is fine. But where is the transparency?

Here is the Brighton Steiner School Curriculum:
All Steiner schools follow the comprehensive and distinctive Steiner Curriculum. This international education system is designed to mirror a child's development and nurture social and creative abilities alongside academic achievement. A broad range of subjects is included, each introduced at an age-appropriate time and taught in an interdisciplinary way. In the Steiner Curriculum, the teaching of arts, crafts, drama, music and languages, in which all children participate, is woven in alongside core subjects.
Here is what St. Pauls's Steiner School says:
Steiner’s philosophical work, known as anthroposophy, is not taught as part of the curriculum, but underpins the vision for the education, which seeks to nurture equally the child and later young person’s capacities of thinking, feeling and volition, as well as fostering a sense of respect. At the centre of the school’s activities is a set of principles that recognises the integrated nature of mind, body and spirit set in a social or cultural context. These principles encourage teachers to use their own skills and creativity, and accept each individual’s capacity to achieve and exercise moral autonomy.
And the Bristol Steiner School:

Steiner education embodies a practical, active and artistic approach to learning.
The teachers work with the children's three roots of personality: thinking, feeling and willing.
From Kindergarten through to early adulthood the education fosters these three roots of personality with a curriculum that brings a wide variety of subjects and experiences appropriate to the different age groups.

The York Steiner School:
Our curriculum is based on Steiner’s views and teachings on child development.  It works to educate the whole child, their head, heart and hands and not just their intellect. Please click on the curriculum above to see how our subjects are integrated to give a holistic education from the beginning of class one through to the end of class eight. As with good food, the children love the nourishment that the teachers prepare for them in their own ways, from Steiner’s original educational recipes.
It's all so anodyne and appealing, with no mention of Steiner's actual beliefs about human nature, reflected here in comments made by Eugenie Scott, of the National Centre for Science Education in the States:
But if schools follow Steiner’s views on science, education will suffer. Steiner believed that materialism was insufficient for the understanding of nature. He believed that science needs to “go beyond” the empirical and consider vitalistic, unobservable forces, a perspective also common in 20th century New Age healing approaches. Anthroposophical medicine, similar to homeopathy but even less scientific, claims that disease is caused only secondarily by malfunctions of chemistry and biology, and primarily by a disturbance of the “vital essence.” Anatomy and physiology a la Steiner are unrecognizable by modern scientists: the heart does not pump blood; there are 12 senses (“touch, life, movement, equilibrium, warmth, smell,” etc.) corresponding to signs of the zodiac; there is a “rhythmic” system that mediates between the “nerve-sense” and “metabolic-muscular” systems. Physics and chemistry are just as bad: the “elements” are earth, air, fire, and water. The four “kingdoms of nature” are mineral, plant, animal and man. Color is said to be the result of the conflict of light and darkness. Typical geological stages are Post-Atlantis, Atlantis, Mid-Lemuria, and Lemuria.
...and so on. These principles are nonsense, and parents should be made aware of them. If they still want to send their children to such establishments, then they are, of course, free to do so.

But that shouldn't be at taxpayers' expense. Is it right that schools that are underpinned with such a curious and unscientific philosophy should be funded by the taxpayer? I think not, but sadly that is the position we are in, now that Gove has introduced 'free schools'. As Francis Gilbert of Local Schools Network said in 2011:

The pressure on the government to give these schools state funding is intense. Their chief UK spokesperson for Steiner schools, writer Emma Craigie, author of Chocolate Cake With Hitler, is the sister of Tory MP, Jacob Rees Mogg, and prominent Tory Annunziatta Rees-Mogg. The whole family, headed by their father, William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times, are friendly with Michael Gove. Emma Craigie is on the left of the photograph here:
Gove with Annunziatta Rees-Mogg (middle) and Emma Craigie (left)
So what a surprise to find that Steiner schools are now receiving state funding:
The Steiner Academy Hereford, the first state-funded Steiner school, teaches science from a curriculum book sceptical of evolution and gives homeopathy to students, the British Humanist Association (BHA) can reveal. The revelations come as a result of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to the school by the BHA and other campaigners. The news comes the same week as Frome Steiner School opens as the second state-funded Steiner school and the first Steiner Free School, and not long after Steiner Academy Exeter was 'pre-approved' to open as a Free School from 2013. The Exeter Academy is proposed by a team originating from Exeter Steiner School, a private school which has used the same curriculum book as Hereford and has also run a homeopathy clinic for students. The BHA has expressed concern about the quality of science education in the schools and the promotion of unevidenced medicines to students.
Much more light needs to be thrown on this very dubious initiative.

For more, read Andy Lewis.


  • Laurie says:
    22 October 2012 at 19:39

    Absolutely brilliant.

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