New York Magazine

Measles for the One Percent

Vaccines, Waldorf schools, and the problem with liberal Luddites.

ON AN UNSEASONABLY CHILLY MORNING in May, three dozen or so plaintiff-parents, most of them from the Green Meadow Waldorf School, showed up at the Rockland County Courthouse, looking, in their draped layers and comfortable shoes, like any PTA from Park Slope or Berkeley. They were virtually vibrating with expectation and stress. For four long months, on behalf of their kids, they had been on the phone, sending off bullet-point emails, arranging meetings, coordinating calendars, and taking time off work, in an endless battle that had so far cost them hours of lost income and created child-care hassles—and made them into national pariahs besides. Today’s proceedings, they hoped, would result in a decision that might enable them to move on with their lives.

When legal arguments began, small smiles appeared on the parents’ faces. The opposition’s lawyer came off as clumsy, like an oversize actor fumbling his lines. Their lawyer, on the other hand, exuded a smooth confidence bordering on arrogance, an attitude that seemed to swell as he approached the lectern. Michael Sussman, 65 years old and educated at Harvard Law, is the most prominent civil-rights crusader in the Hudson Valley, having made his mark at 30, while working for the NAACP, when he helped to desegregate the Yonkers public schools. Now Sussman, who happened to have sent his own seven children and stepchildren to Waldorf schools, was defending his clients against the intrusion of local politicians into their personal decisions and private lives.

As he stood before the judge, Sussman’s voice rose in a slow crescendo. Recent actions by Rockland County against his clients were “infuriating,” he said; they pandered to biased constituencies and were rooted in “fundamental hysteria.” And then he roared. “Executive authority has its limits!” The parents were as still as forest animals, riveted. Their lawyer was articulating what they fervently believed: that even amid the biggest outbreak of measles in the United States since 1994—with 200 cases in Rockland County, their own backyard—it was their right as citizens not to vaccinate their kids. This conviction had become for them a matter of conscience and principle. Most had kept their kids out of school for almost half the year rather than take them to the pediatrician for a shot.

IF YOU LIVE AMONG or near certain quarters of the progressive left, among the art and fashion and tech elites who shop at farmers’ markets and worry about toxins in the air and water and believe that hiring a doula may gentle today’s medical-industrial approach to giving birth, then you have probably heard of Waldorf schools. Perhaps you have friends whose children go to one, or perhaps you’ve yearned for such a community for your own, knowing that Waldorf signals a countercultural wholesomeness, a respite from the onslaught of modern forces you’re pretty sure aren’t good for kids: the wide-open access to violence, snark, and pornography available with every Wi-Fi connection; the birthday-party goody bags stuffed with plastic crap; the stress and anxiety you see on very young children already worried about how they’ll do on the test. If you are the kind of person who sees self-interested, app-driven American capitalism as a threat to the preciousness of childhood and to a durable, intimate family life, then you are, at least conceptually, in Waldorf’s prospective audience. Waldorf parents, many of whom are themselves deluged by busyness and stress, agree that they will expose their children to no technology—none, including television, movies, and recorded music, even on long car rides—until middle school. The parents who work at Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard and send their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Menlo Park, California, endorse these limits with psychic relief—they know too well what their kids need protection from.

Waldorf pioneered this off-piste approach to raising kids, but it does not have a monopoly on the many ways liberal parents try to circumvent the institutionalized options that dominate the public-school system: “free” schools; home-school collectives; schools boasting “child-centered learning”; mountain, backcountry, or farming schools. There are about 300 Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired

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