Sunday, November 20, 2011

My open letter to Roger Rawlings

While searching around to see what the good people of the internet are saying about my book today, I came across this reference to it on Waldorf Watch, a site maintained by one Roger Rawlings. He quoted my post about Anthroposophy and Mormonism-- which he called "a little informative, a little defensive, and a little (or maybe more than a little) questionable"-- and summed it up with the following:

Setting a novel in a Waldorf school community while "largely avoiding" Anthroposophy is a bit like setting a novel in Yankee Stadium while largely avoiding baseball. The point of Yankee Stadium, after all, is that it is a place for playing baseball. Likewise, the point of Waldorf schools is that they are places for applying Anthroposophy. Most Waldorf schools acknowledge this, if only indirectly, when they profess their debt to Rudolf Steiner — whose teachings are found in the tenets of Anthroposophy.

THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD may be a good novel, but — because it largely sidesteps Anthroposophy — it cannot present a reliable picture of Waldorf education. Read the novel for its literary and entertainment value, by all means. But if you want to learn about Waldorf education, look elsewhere." 

I have to love it when people dismiss my book without ever actually cracking the spine. This was an especially interesting series of criticisms for him to make, given that his very own site is one I used a great deal in my research for the book-- in tandem with Waldorf Critics-- and that in the same month he discourages his own readers from reading my work, he posts about the low vaccination rate in Waldorf schools, an issue of which I'm openly critical from the first page of Chapter One of my novel. 

I admit it does take one doing a little homework on me to find out I'm quite critical of Waldorf education. For example, you'd have to hunt down my guest post on Bea's Book Nook, in which I detail my son's poor experiences in a Waldorf preschool and how that shaped my skepticism about whether the ideals of this system match up to the reality. Or you'd have to find the comment thread on The Ethereal Kiosk in which I share all kinds of opinions about Steiner and his philosophies, and with a candidness that usually takes several glasses of wine to procure, but can be achieved with none if you speak negatively of my work. But yes, it's true that I haven't come out swinging where Waldorf is concerned, and that's for two reasons. One, that it's a novel, not a platform, and I'm not about to promote my creative writing based on some kind of noisy agenda; the fiction should speak for itself, and that's that. And Two, because I'm not interested in alienating anybody-- Waldorf critic or Waldorf devotee-- who might want to pick up the book. If I start making tedious chess moves into the "pro-Waldorf" or "anti-Waldorf" camps, then either one group or the other will decide they're not the audience, when in fact it holds valuable things for both.

The other thing that's amusing-- or perhaps irritating, I can't decide which-- about posts like Rawlings' is that my novel is the first widely-distributed pop-culture account of Waldorf schooling, EVER. And it isn't either pro or anti, and so it puts this subject which is of such great importance to them before a national audience and makes their positions that much more engaging and relevant to a much larger group. I've seen one review after another in which readers have said they had never heard of the philosophy before, but after they finished the book, went hunting for more information. So here's your chance, guys, to influence their opinions. By dismissing my book as irrelevant to the discussion, you're handing over a golden opportunity to argue your own pros and cons. 

Of course, right away I went looking for a way to tell Roger Rawlings that. But he has no contact information-- not surprising, given that incendiary content leads to incendiary emails. But there's something particularly annoying about issuing a public dismissal of my work without ever reading it, and not providing any way for the author in question to respond. It's like those groups that declare that Harry Potter is anti-Christian because there's magic in it, without ever actually reading the book to discover it's all about the battle between good and evil. 

Now, let me talk about this anthroposophy thing for a minute, as long as my lack of inclusion of it in the novel-- as a term, at least-- is "more than a little questionable." And defensive, but I'll own that one.
This is a novel, not a philosophical text. If this were a book about a Catholic priest, I would not be required to explain Christianity beginning with the birth of Jesus in order for the priest character to be believable, so long as his actions, his words, and his motivations are all informed by his belief system. And so it is with Judy, and the rest of the characters who work at and populate the book's fictional Waldorf school. Did I factor in the teachers' beliefs, or training, in anthroposophy into my writing of the story? Of course I did. That's perfectly apparent to anyone with a knowledge of the subject who reads the book. Having said that, it's also clear from the story that the two main characters are not practicing anthroposophists; Judy professes not to believe in anything anymore, and Zach's family cannot possibly be, given that his mother practices the kind of attachment parenting (including extended breastfeeding) that is discouraged by that philosophy. 

So I would ask Roger Rawlings-- and other critics of Waldorf-- to consider reading The Kingdom of Childhood, fictional version, if for no other reason than to take advantage of the opportunity to either support or refute what I actually wrote. How many times is it going to happen that a book featuring Waldorf schooling is available in airport bookstores? If you take issue with anthroposophy, by all means write about it. I certainly did.


  1. Hello again, Rebecca! I will send your post to Roger, although I think he might find it himself.

    Personally, I agree with you that you can write a novel just the way you've done -- you can choose an interesting setting and deal with this setting in such a way that it best benefits the novel. You don't have to present anthroposophy or to be critical of it... or anything. It *is* a novel. It's a whole other thing to write a factual account (ie, non-fiction) of waldorf education and neglect to explore the anthroposophy angle. But you didn't write that; your wrote fiction, and it is obviously your freedom to write what your story requires in order to be a good story. I would do the same. Also if I wrote a novel set in a context like that of waldorf or anthroposophy -- and this despite me being fairly critical of these things. (I'm not sure what Roger wrote contradicts any of this.)

    I do feel somewhat guilty for also dismissing your novel off-hand. We talked about it already, so I think you know why I said what I said. However, my objection was not the same as Roger's, and I fully realize it has to do with my taste in literature, nothing else. It didn't have much, if anything, to do with you using waldorf as the setting or how you did it. That's totally ok with me. And so is the fact that there are lots of books -- even very popular books -- out there that I don't necessarily pay much attention to. In short, there were other elements that didn't resonate with me, when I read the description of the book, and I'm very aware that my reactions are probably different from many other people's, and I don't doubt that they might find a book that they enjoy reading. That's great. And if they take anything away from it, in terms of knowledge of waldorf and anthroposophy, then that's good too.

    best regards,

  2. Thanks, Alicia. I think my frustration comes from the fact that I feel like we're all asking the same questions-- what are the problems with this system, is it fair to kids, does it provide what it claims-- and so it frustrates me when someone glances at my work and says I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. But because you are reachable, I could engage in a conversation with you (and your readers) about it that ended up being really rewarding and productive. If the person isn't contactable, and hasn't read it, but has made it their business to tell people my book is "not reliable," that's really not a fair criticism to make.

    By the way, yesterday I also came across this blog post by a former Waldorf student who now works for my publisher and had some interesting things to say about it:

    And also, Alicia, I'm sorry I haven't been back to your blog lately. I've been spending little time on Twitter and can't figure out the RSS feed system for Wordpress, so I haven't been keeping up with Wordpress blogs very well, despite my ongoing interest.

  3. '...and says I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.'

    Oh, I hope and I believe that that's not what Roger's trying to express. It would be unlike the Roger I've come to know (he does participate frequently on the waldorf critics list). His own project is very much based on providing sources and information and all of that, and that is very much his focus throughout everything he does. And that is his angle when he comments on the things he comes across. He believes people ought to do a lot of research before sending their children to waldorf, of course, but that's not the point of disagreement here. That's the angle he's using when he comments, though. I still thinks he sees that a novel is a novel and not a decision to choose one school over another, or some such thing, and that he sees a novel for a novel even if he comments from the other perspective. But I won't attempt to explain his position more than this -- I may have misunderstood it completely!

    Interesting link, hadn't seen that post!

  4. Hi.

    I did not dismiss your novel. In fact, I suggested that people might want to read it. I simply pointed out the obvious truth that no description of Waldorf education that largely avoids the essence of Waldorf education can be very informative. This is fine. You have written a novel, not a scholarly report. People should read and enjoy your book for what it is, a novel, a work of fiction. If people want to actually learn about Waldorf education, however, they should look elsewhere.

    - Roger Rawlings

  5. Hi Roger, my point in my post here is that I did not ignore the essence at all, I simply didn't get into an overt explanation of it. What texts would you suggest laypeople read to get the kind of information you'd encourage them to have? Steiner on his own is not the easiest read.

  6. If I were to reply to that question, I'd say: read the material provided on various websites, pro and con, those of adherents and those of critics. And then add the Steiner! I think parents need to familiarize themselves a little with Steiner -- and actually also with his own work. It's just better to do it than not to do it. Even if reading him can be a bit of a... task. Sometimes at least. But his pedagogical works aren't so bad a parent -- equipped with a decent, average brain -- can't cope! They're actually quite readable.

  7. Hi Rebecca,

    I'm from Indonesia,and to tell you the truth me and several parents here are already moved by Steiner's philosophy.But as i search more information about Anthroposophy (since its not an easy read) i have doubts here and there, can you perhaps share in private with me via email on anything that you know of? We are about to open a Waldorf school here,but now im hesitating.
    Thank you

  8. Hi ljk,

    Thanks for reading. I'd be glad to email you with my thoughts, but I can't see an email for you-- your profile seems to be private. If you send me an email of give an address I'll get back to you quickly. Thank you!

  9. How does one even email Roger Rawlings? He seems to leave no contact info.
    I would not want to be him - he is building nasty karma for himself, promoting delusion and falsehood regarding the very thing we need most to resolve the worlds problems - Waldorf Education!

  10. Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Roger Rawlings just makes me want to send my children to a Steiner school even more, when they come of age. Great work Roger. It reminds me of telling children in December -
    I'm going out for an hour, whatever you kids do, don't look for your Christmas presents whilst I'm away or you'll no doubt spoil the surprise. Best left unsaid.

  12. Roger Rawlings appears to hide, writing as he does and leaving no way to respond personally. Since I know for a fact that he misrepresents the school he attended, not intentionally, I am sure, but with the memories of his impressions as a young teen-ager, I would not try to counter his attacks but would like to set the record straight with him, not publicly, concerning his lack of knowledge of individuals whom he sets forth to portray as if it were the truth. Will he have the courage to come out from hiding and open himself to fair conversation?