In my experience, this is not a question that first grade parents ask. Likewise, the second grade parents do not ask it in regards to the fables that are told. I believe there are two reasons for this. First, the fairytales and the fables are fanciful. There are talking animals, supernatural creatures, and events that do not actually occur in our modern-day experiences with our modern-day consciousness. Secondly, there is virtually nothing in those stories that has any religious connection. So, there is just not any worry that the use of fairytales or fables are being used to convince or indoctrinate students into any kind of belief or belief system.
However, the question and/or concern about indoctrination almost always arises in second grade when the teacher informs parents that the students will hear "Saint Stories". Likewise, there can be another level of concern and questions arising in third grade when parents hear about the use of "Old Testament Stories".
If you have seen the second grade course I have created here at Simply Waldorf, then you might have noticed that I call them "Good People Stories". I will return to this in a moment to explain why I do so. I am using this example in the hopes that it will be emblematic of the healthy approach to all stories in Waldorf Education.
For some parents, the word "saint" is connected to Christianity, or perhaps another religion, and this can be a greater or lesser concern, depending on that person's experiences with religions and/or the adherents of that or those religion(s). There is nothing wrong with this concern. It is a healthy concern. In fact, let me say up front that I would feel very uncomfortable if I thought Waldorf education were attempting to indoctrinate children. In fact, I would refuse to participate. Both of my children attended a small private Waldorf school from preschool to 8th grade and neither of them came away with a belief in Christianity or any other particular religion, and they are certainly not advocates of Anthroposophy. They are free thinkers and both of them have their own authentic personal paths in relation to what has spiritual meaning for them.
One of the great foundational tenets of Waldorf Education is that we are striving to educate the human beings so that they can "go forth in freedom". Indoctrination would not align with such a goal.
Still, using my two children as examples is anecdotal. So let us continue our exploration of the actual philosophy and practice of using stories, even those from religious or spiritual belief traditions, and how this meets the growing child.
One may ask: "By calling them 'Good People Stories' instead of 'Saint Stories' are you actually using camouflage, just using religious stories in a more stealthy way?"
Again, I understand the concern. Such a question might even hint at a bit of suspicion, which is also understandable. Parents have every right to question and have some doubts. If an education has true integrity, it must be able to prove itself with such questions.
The reason I call them "Good People Stories" is to open the parameters for what can be included. This is to demonstrate how the Waldorf curriculum can be adapted to time, place, and culture. Dr Rudolf Steiner created the elementary Waldorf curriculum (or in many cases made suggestions for what might be effective), beginning in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. Thus, the use of "Saint Stories" from the Catholic Christian tradition was a very simple cultural decision for that place and time. There, in Northern Europe, the saint stories were much more commonplace and well known. Religious and/or cultural diversity in that small town was quite simply not a reality and therefore not a concern.
Obviously, we now live in a different time, in different places, and in different cultures. So, what are we to do? Should we abandon any and everything that might relate to other times, other places, and other cultures? Should we steer clear of any and everything that was or is related to other cultures or religions?
No, we do not need to avoid all of these things, for doing so could lead to a curricular desert, devoid of the wonderful wisdom streams that are passed down through various cultures from various times. Yet, we might need to improve our understanding of how children hear stories, because it is a very different thing than becoming indoctrinated with a belief system.
Once we expand our potential scope from Christian Saint Stories to Good People Stories, we might come to understand what was originally important about the Saint Stories. Let us recall that there are two types of stories which are part of the traditional Waldorf second grade. In addition to the Saint Stories, we tell Fables, quite often the Fables of Aesops, but not always. Holding these two types of stories in consideration together helps us have a deeper understanding for their particular roles in meeting the second grader beneficially. The second grader's consciousness is just dawning into a faint understanding of duality, of right/wrong, fair/unfair, truth/falsehood, good/bad, virtue/vice, etc. The Saint Stories and Fables work to meet their consciousness in a similar way.
The Saint Stories are pictures of human beings who make extraordinary efforts for the good of human beings. The saints are kind, courageous, altruistic, generous, loving, truthful people. They are people possessing strong convictions based in high morals. On the other hand, the Fables most often portray animals who are busy playing tricks on one another, or we see elements of nature learning difficult lessons through character flaws such as pride or selfishness. Basically, the Saint Stories portray virtues and the Fables portray vices. The Saint Stories portray our higher selves and the Fables portray our lower selves.
Once we understand this, we can easily see that there is no need for the Saint Stories to be confined to any one particular culture or religion. It is not important. What is important is that we tell stories of good people, people who embody the realization of that higher moral potential that we all carry. To the child listening to these kinds of stories, it does not matter if the main character is a Jew, Muslim, Christian, or a non-sectarian. What matters is the high moral character and virtuous deeds. This is what speaks to the child's growing moral sense, their developing sense of conscience, their soul. Thus, when I tell the "Good People Stories", I do include some of the Christian Saints, but I am just as happy to tell stories of good people from any other tradition in the world. The Fables can be similarly universal and there are many different cultures and traditions who have their versions of fables.
In the third grade of a traditional Waldorf school, the students are told stories from the Old Testament. Once again, concerns can understandable arise. Are we trying to indoctrinate children into Judaic or Christian beliefs?
We can understand this more clearly when we approach it through the child's consciousness. The third grader's consciousness is becoming keenly aware that things are not as they once were. Of course, we adults understand that it is actually the third grader who is changing the most dramatically. Either way, the third grader's experience is that the world is a different place. The people in the world are different than they once seemed. The third grader even has a sense that they are also different. Up until now, the world has been more or less a wholeness of experience. Their parents or parental figures, teachers, etc. have been people that were basically without flaws. Before now the child did not question the adults around them. Around the ninth year of life, this begins to shift. They sense that the world is not a complete wholeness. They begin to notice character flaws and behavioral inconsistencies in the adults who once seemed like gods in their perfection. They start to play with dishonesty and deception. It is not that they have not been dishonest before; it is that now they are doing it consciously. When you understand this kind of shift, you see that there are many parallels to the Old Testament stories which begin with the creation of a perfect world, where human beings live in a perfect garden, at one with God the Creator, and then give in to the temptation of the serpent (a being of lower nature) to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This good and evil is the duality that they began to have knowledge of in second grade. Thereafter, the human beings are "cast out" of the garden. They spread over the earth, attempting to live good lives, to find their ways back into accord with "the one true God".
Over and over and over, the stories repeat a simple theme. God tells the people how to be good. They try, sometimes doing well and sometimes failing. When they do well, they know peace, contentment, and harmony. When they fail, things are more difficult and they often suffer.
It is also important to remember that there is an incredibly poignant explanation of this "one true God" in the Old Testament. When he is called by God to go down to Pharaoh in Egypt and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, Moses asks God, "Who shall I say has sent me?" To this God says, "I am that I am." How wonderful and mysterious!
No one can say with absolute authority what is meant by this answer. So, you can be sure that I am only sharing what it means to me personally. You can find dozens of various explanations of this phrase with research. To me, it demonstrates the very point I am attempting to make. It demonstrates the truth that children innately understand when they hear stories like this. It says that the "one true God" is inside of every human being. It is a direct experience we can all have when we hear that "still, small voice" telling us that it does not feel good to lie, reminding us that it feels wonderful to be generous, imploring us to create harmony and fellowship rather than enmity and strife. It is a universal morality that we can all experience within ourselves. This same sense of what is good and right and true comes through the stories to affirm this inner experience, this inner awakening of consciousness and conscience.
Besides, I am here to tell you that the children are absolutely not converted to a religion or belief system by hearing these stories.
How can I be so sure? I will answer that with an experience I had with one family and then we will look to fourth grade as well.
In my first class, a parent voiced her serious concerns about the use of Old Testament stories in third grade. This mother had been raised spiritually herself, but not within any traditional religious belief system. She was concerned that her third grade child was bringing home some of the stories from school and recounting them as if they were real. I assured her that the stories were "real" but in a universal sense. The stories relayed moral truths.
Fortunately, she loved Waldorf education, our school, and trusted me enough as her child's teacher to remain in a state of exploration, especially when I assured her that I had absolutely no intention to convince, convert, or indoctrinate her child. We touched in from time to time throughout the school year, eventually finishing the year without any great incident.
Sometime during the next school year, she shared something with me. She was talking to a family who's child had just entered third grade. This family had concerns about the Old Testament stories. She was talking to them about how she had had similar concerns the year prior and what I had told her at that time. The third grade mother said that she felt as if her child was starting to actually believe the stories. At that point, the student in my class spoke up. The child said, "Oh, don't worry about all of that. I believed those stories last year, too!"
We have laughed about that many times over the years.
Perhaps it will help to consider fourth grade. We could look at other grades as well, but fourth should be enough. If there is still a concern that the stories might indoctrinate students, then consider this: there should be fourth grade students who become believers in the Nordic gods and goddesses. They should believe that there are nine worlds, all of them sheltered by Yggdrasil, the Great World Tree. They should believe that the gods and goddesses of Asgard hold sway and even come down to where we live in Midgard walk among us disguised. And so on! They should believe in these things, because the Norse Myths are told with the same reverence and conviction as the Fairytales, the Fables, the Good People Stories, and the Old Testament stories. However there are not any fourth graders who have become converts to the Norse "religion". It simply does not happen.
Children are not convinced, converted, or indoctrinated by the stories used in lessons. The stories, any and all of them, are vehicles for deeper meaning. They convey moral truths. They meet the child with images and characters and events that speak on deep levels about the world and the human experience in it, and each collection does so in unique ways that meet the child's developing consciousness at different stages. As they pass through these stages, they receive a rich trove of wisdom stories from around the world. They begin to see that the same messages about truth, beauty, love, forgiveness, courage, kindness, and morality are universally conveyed through various cultures, times, and traditions.
It is the parents, the adults, who worry about these things. We have all seen what can happen when human beings behave poorly in the name of religious truth. So of course we want to be clear about the role of stories in our lessons. I hope that this exploration is helpful, but I do not pretend it puts the topic to rest. We must continues to discuss these things. As I said before, true integrity must be open to questions and must be able to prove itself in the answering of questions. Only when we embrace the discussion, the true conversation that occurs between the hearts of human beings, only then do we begin to find our way together.