Are former Waldorf pupils healthier?

Christoph Hueck

Psychosomatic medicine did not yet exist when the Waldorf school was founded and yet even then Rudolf Steiner pointed firmly towards the physical effects of education and teaching: “What the soul assimilated during childhood appears in the adult as a healthy or ill physical constitution. […] Because in the child every soul impulse affects the health or sickness of the respiration, the health or sickness of the circulation, the health or sickness of digestive activity. The pathology which develops is often not yet apparent in the child. It is only present in embryonic form. But that embryonic form grows with the person. And many of the chronic diseases of people in their forties is the result of a malformation of the soul in the first or second decade of life” (11 April 1923). He cites learning to read as an example: “If the child learns to read at too early a stage, then he or she is introduced to abstraction at too early a stage. And later on you would make countless sufferers from sclerosis happy for the whole of their lives if as children you did not teach them to read when they were too young. Because such hardening of the whole organism – I say that in popular language – which later manifests in a great many forms of sclerosis can be traced back to a wrong way of teaching children to read” (18 April 1923).

Many physical and physiological effects can be directly observed during lessons: are the children growing pale and restless or are they intent on their tasks with glowing cheeks? Other effects can be guessed at: can the children “breathe” in lessons in the alternation between concentration and relaxation, is there too much concentration (increased breathing in) or too much laissez faire or, indeed, boredom (too much breathing out)? And what effect might chaotically disorganised lessons have on the digestive system?

Indirect observation of lifelong health

In order to observe any lifelong effects of teaching and school on health, the author carried out a cross-sectional study in close collaboration with the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economy of the Charité hospital in Berlin. In a written questionnaire, 1,136 former Waldorf pupils aged between 20 and 80 answered a total of 52 questions on their health, lifestyle, education, social status and parental home.

These “alumni” came from four Waldorf schools in Berlin Dahlem, Hanover Maschsee, Stuttgart Uhlandshöhe and Nuremberg Erlenstegen. They had spent an average of 10.5 years at a Waldorf school and 43 percent of them had also attended a Waldorf kindergarten. As a comparison group, the responses of 1,746 persons of the same age who had not attended a Waldorf school but lived in the same region were analysed. The study showed that former Waldorf pupils in total suffered less frequently from certain disorders and illnesses than former non-Waldorf pupils.

There are statistically significant differences between both groups regarding gastrointestinal disorders (from which former Waldorf pupils suffered about 20% less), sleep disorders (approx. 30% less), balance disorders (approx. 45% less), joint ache (approx. 40% less), back ache (approx. 20% less) and headaches (approx. 20% less) as well as with regard to diabetes (approx. 50% less), osteoarthritis (approx. 30% less), hypertension (blood pressure, approx. 20% less), angina pectoris (approx. 45% less) and chronic bronchitis (approx. 40% less).

Some clear differences were also apparent in other diseases, e.g. arteriosclerosis, cancer, depression, allergies and colds, but the restricted size of the study meant that they were not statistically significant.

Education level also determines health

The next step was then to investigate the reasons which might explain the differences observed between both groups. For this purpose the results were statistically recalculated taking account of possible influencing factors such as diet, sporting activity, smoking , alcohol consumption, level of education and career, as well as the educational attainment of the parental home and other childhood factors. The risk calculation that former Waldorf and non-Waldorf pupils will suffer a certain illness or disorder is compared taking account e.g. of their own level of education or the educational attainment of the parental home, because it is known for example that academics for various reasons tend to suffer less frequently from osteoarthritis than people with lower levels of education.

Although the control group was selected to be similar to the Waldorf group in terms of age and regional origin, both groups differed in a series of characteristics. Thus the own educational attainment and that of the parental home was significantly different between both groups. Both groups were also clearly different in terms of diet while there was no noticeable difference with regard to the consumption of alcohol, smoking and the frequency and intensity of sporting activities.

By taking account of these characteristics in the analysis, (“adjustment”), the differences in the frequency with which illness occurred in both groups could be explained for some diseases. Thus the significant differences for high blood pressure, angina pectoris, diabetes and chronic bronchitis disappeared between former Waldorf and non-Waldorf pupils if the effect of parental educational attainment on the disease was taken into account. The risk of suffering from one of these diseases thus appears to depend primarily not on the attendance or non-attendance of a Waldorf school but on the educational background of the parents. In contrast, adjustment for the different nutritional behaviours does not show any influence on the frequency of illnesses and disorders.

Connection between early intellectualisation and subsequent sclerosis?

Interestingly, significant differences remained, however, between former Waldorf and non-Waldorf pupils for most disorders as well as osteoarthritis even when all the specified factors were taken into account. Also with regard to hay fever there was a significant advantage for former Waldorf pupils after adjustment. It is therefore true for osteoarthritis and hay fever, for gastrointestinal disorders and in a particularly pronounced way for sleep disorders, balance disorders, joint pain and back pain that the better health of the former Waldorf pupils cannot be explained on the basis of the influencing factors which were considered. The reduced frequency of these illnesses and disorders could thus be linked with attendance at a Waldorf school. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study at all which shows a connection between the type of school and health throughout life.

From the perspective of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being, it is interesting that the observed differences relate above all to the musculoskeletal system and the metabolism, the “sleeping human being” in a wider sense (cf. Steiner, The Study of Man).

It is, of course, impossible to draw conclusions from the present data about any particular aspect of Waldorf teaching which could have a particular health-promoting effect on the “metabolic and limb system”. Yet indications by Rudolf Steiner that premature intellectualisation, a premature “awakening” hardens the organism and causes it to become sclerotic are hard to ignore: “If we make the child think too much, we create the predisposition in the organism for early sclerosis, for early hardening of the arteries” (11.8.1923). If we consider the way that sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders and painful limbs can affect our life, then the following statement by Rudolf Steiner also appears in a new light: “In our age we can see in adults everywhere how they are too inwardly hardened, how they drag their body around with them in life almost like a wooden machine […], whereas the right kind of education which works out of the artistic element educates people in such a way that every stride gives them pleasure, that every hand movement they later have to perform in life in the service of humanity becomes an inner pleasure” (ibid.). In view of the facts we know today about the psychosomatic links between consciousness and health, such statements would appear plausible.

The cross-sectional design of the study and the long interval in some instances between attendance at a Waldorf school and the illnesses looked at in the study mean that the results by their nature only allow for a limited interpretation. That is why further research is planned to study potential salutogenic effects of Waldorf education in greater detail: for example, can the physiological effects of Waldorf education, which in the long term might lead to an improved state of health, be directly shown in pupils? How does school affect the regulation of the so-called stress hormones, of respiratory development, of the variation in the time interval between heartbeats (heart rate variability) or the quality of sleep?

Note: The detailed results of the study have been published in an international specialist journal following an extensive peer-review process and are freely available online at the address below. Fischer et al.: The Effect of attending Steiner Schools during childhood on health in adulthood: A multicentre cross-sectional study. PLOS one, 2013, Vol. 8, Issue 9, e73135.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Christoph Hueck is a scientist and lectures at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.