Heavenly beings and astral forces: the real meaning of ‘social pedagogy’

Social pedagogy has become something of a buzz-phrase within the social care sector in recent years. Many in the caring professions – particularly those working with looked-after children – simply understand it to be an approach that brings childcare, education and social work together.

But the method actually has its roots in anthroposophy, an early 20th century esoteric movement founded by Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophy affirms the reality of reincarnation and holds that children – and adults with learning and developmental disabilities – exist partly in the spirit world.

Steiner is best known for the schools that bear his name (which I’ve written about before) but his ideas are also promulgated through a network of residential care centres called Camphill communities, which apply anthroposophical beliefs to the care of children and adults with severe disabilities. That, essentially, is the definition of social pedagogy – originally called ‘curative education’.

The BA (Hons) in Social Pedagogy at the University of Aberdeen – the first of its kind – has been central in establishing social pedagogy’s credibility and raising its profile among social care professionals. It’s run in partnership with the Camphill School Aberdeen, which describes its therapeutic approach as ‘social pedagogy in practice’ and is quite open about its close links to anthroposophy.

Residents at the school must be registered with the Camphill Medical Practice, an NHS surgery whose three GPs ‘make extensive use of anthroposophic, homeopathic and herbal remedies’. (Under the trading name of Camphill Wellbeing Trust, the practice promotes the use of mistletoe in the treatment of cancer, which – according to Professor Edzard Ernst writing in the BMJ – has no proven benefit and has considerable potential for harm.)

The course – which combines study of anthroposophy with practical therapeutic work at Camphill – is run by key figures in the anthroposophical movement and the majority of its students already work or volunteer for Camphill communities, which pay their fees and provide accommodation. It was formerly provided by Northern College, which merged with the University and became its School of Education in 2000. Originally entitled Curative Education, the course was revised and renamed last year.

I wanted to know exactly what was being taught on the course, so in late 2010 I submitted a freedom of information request to the University. I received very little in response, apart from a curt email from one  anthroposophist asking why I hadn’t sought the information through ‘normal professional channels’. But a couple of months ago I put in another request in the hope it would be more fruitful. It was. The documents disclosed to me reveal the extent to which the teaching of social pedagogy (at least at Aberdeen) is still dominated by esoteric and occultist beliefs.

According to the course descriptor, the degree aims to ‘enable students to develop a holistic understanding of the individual with complex needs and to become familiar with aspects of the anthroposophical view of the human being’. The course reading list contains more than 40 titles from anthroposophical publishers such as Hawthorn Press, Floris Books and Steiner Press – Working with the Angels: The Young Child and the Spiritual World is a typical example - and its online student portal contains links to the Rudolf Steiner Archive and the US-based Waldorf Library.

A Powerpoint presentation on child development begins with the words: ‘The whole lifespan is an integral wholeness. It bridges from before our birth to beyond our death in a complete tapestry [my italics]. The life we live is evidence of the striving of our being to “become fully itself and fully human”’.

On a slide entitled ‘Reincarnation and Conception … The Spiritual World’ – illustrated with a stork and an angel, both carrying babies – students are taught that it is ‘our choice to be born’ and that ‘incarnating into this world is a journey’. Birth is described as the point at which the soul ‘becomes an earth citizen’ while the newborn remains ‘connected to [the] cosmos’, reflecting the anthroposophical belief that babies choose the bodies they are born into (particularly troubling in the context of disabled children).

Slide presentation from the BA in Social Pedagogy at the University of Aberdeen

‘At birth the ego, astral and etheric forces work strongly from outside the body,’ says another slide. ‘Internally the etheric sculpts the form. Outer parental or environmental issues may draw astral forces too quickly thus hardening and maturing the child too early and altering the natural unfolding of the ego.’

Slide presentation from the BA in Social Pedagogy at the University of Aberdeen
In the same part of the course, a diagram describes ‘heavenly beings’ and the ‘spiritual world’ as key influences on a child’s development.

Diagram from the BA in Social Pedagogy at the University of Aberdeen

In a series of sessions on illness, students are said to gain ‘an understanding of the classification of “warm” and “cold” illnesses’ (a fundamental distinction in anthroposophical ‘medicine’) and learn ‘the therapeutic value of common substances [including] onion, mustard, lemon and chamomile’. In practical exercises, students observe the preparation and application of a chamomile compress and learn the techniques of ‘rhythmical einreibung’, a kind of massage using anthroposophical principles.

An important element of the course is students’ own creative development through art, dance and performance. Students participate in an ‘Introduction to Clowning’ (through clowning, say anthroposophists, we can ‘rediscover inner qualities of openness, spontaneity and play’) and eurythmy, a kind of mystical dance invented by Steiner. The course notes accompanying the eurythmy sessions include quotes from Steiner himself and – inevitably – from Prince Charles (‘It’s the way in which you can motivate people through your own inner understanding of things that makes the whole difference I think.’).

It’s clear that the course presents anthroposophical beliefs as intellectually equal to established theories of child psychology and development. But this isn’t just about the publicly-funded promotion of quackery. This is about the promotion of quackery at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society – those with complex needs and disabilities.

I’d like to think that adverse publicity or embarrassment could persuade the University to sever its links with Camphill and drop the course altogether. Let’s see if this is enough.

Special thanks to Melanie Byng for helping make some sense of the bizarre world of anthroposophy.

Update February 8, 2012

I’ve just noticed that the Anthroposophic Health, Education and Social Care Movement (AHASC) – based at the Camphill Medical Practice – is planning to open a new £1.5m ‘Centre for Integrative Health, Education and Social Care’ at the University.

The centre will ‘build on the research base’ of the Social Pedagogy BA, acting as ‘the focus for anthroposophic medicine, therapeutic education and social therapy in the English speaking world’ and  ’furthering the anthroposophic medical approach worldwide’.

‘Aberdeen University’s openness to host this initiative presents a unique and timely milestone in the development of anthroposophic approaches to health,’ says the publicity material.

The Mistletoe for Cancer campaign is understandably excited.


  1. Thank you very much for going through the trouble of getting them to release that course material, James. It was very interesting. Although I may have expected it, it’s still interesting to see. These programs really are heavily influenced by Steiner, despite initial appearances. I can see why they don’t want to share this stuff if they can avoid it.

  2. I have not the words.

    I went to Southampton University and studied electrical engineering. This involved study of empirically verifiable phenomena. If I had turned in anything like the bollocks you were sent, I’d have been (rightly) derided.

    These people seem to live in a parallel universe, don’t they?

  3. Look again at the the picture, entitled ‘The Importance of Home and Family’, which you have rightly said “describes ‘heavenly beings’ and the ‘spiritual world’ as key influences on a child’s development.” I must point out, that it also posits health and nutrition, learning environments, role modelling and social codes as key influences on child development. Moreover I’m fairly sure that people receiving care at Camphill go to regular GPs, despite the bit about mistletoe and cancer.

    In my experience of working at Camphill I met people of remarkable integrity and devotion to a cause. They work six days a week, all day, receiving no fincancial remuneration. They create a bubble in which children and adults who have special needs can be protected from the outer world.

    I recognise that this is not the thrust of your point. I just smarted a little when I read the statement: ‘This is about the promotion of quackery at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society’. Many of our more conventional care settings could benefit from imbuing themselves with a little of the same idealism and passion which Camphill can inspire, quackery or no quackery.

  4. Every theory has the potential to become quackery once it’s discussed subjectively. However, any social work course deals with theories that look like quackery to some people. Psychology has been one of those, the theory of cognitive development as well and even social work has been quackery to many until it got itself accepted.
    The care for people with complex needs seems a tough task. If the quackery works at this place, why wouldn’t You visit it and form yourself a first hand picture before writing about it?

  5. Informative and well-written post – thanks. I’m curious to know how such courses find their way into universities. Any idea? Btw, I don’t question the passion, work ethic or intentions of Steiner-inspired occultists; one must question, however, the propriety of using occultism and faith-based systems on unsuspecting people. Steiner schools, Camphills, etc. Public funding of such endeavours also deserves public scrutiny.


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