Eric Utne Goes Back to School

Utne's founder joins the wave of people making midlife moves into teaching.

| September-October 2000

After many years in the publishing business, as a founder and publisher of New Age Journal, as a literary agent, and as founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, Eric Utne is joining a substantial wave of people who are making midlife moves into teaching. This fall he will become the seventh-grade teacher at the City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis. We asked him to chart his journey from sitting in the editor’s chair to standing in front of the blackboard. 

It seems way too soon to say why I accepted the invitation to become the seventh-grade teacher at my kids’ Waldorf school. The decision was quick and intuitive, based more on gut and heart feelings than on rational deliberation. But I’ve come to trust this way of making decisions.

I started Utne Reader in 1984 with the explicit intent to promote "personal growth and social change," so if you think that I’m moved to teach out of my abiding interest in social change, you’re half right. Longtime educator and activist Bill Ayers, author of A Kind and Just Parent (Ballantine, 1998), said recently, "People who have worked on issues of social justice all their lives find themselves today working in schools." In an interview on Chicago public television station WTTW, Ayers said that schools are the arena where the real action is—where we still have a chance to influence, even save, lives, while people are young and still forming.

Waldorf schools, founded in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, have a distinguished history of social activism. Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, asked the scientist, philosopher, and visionary Rudolf Steiner to design a school free of government control and open to all children, rich or poor, those destined for university as well as those destined for factory and shop. Steiner produced a curriculum intended to enable students to create a "just and peaceful society." In the 1980s many Waldorf school teachers and graduates took part in the creation of the German Green Party.

But social change is only part of my motivation. I’m also doing it to save my own soul. I left Utne Reader three years ago because I needed to get out of the magazine and, frankly, the magazine needed me out. After promoting "personal growth" in countless articles over the years, it was time for me to practice what I was preaching. So I set off on what I called a "walkabout" to find, feel, and follow my heart. Along the way I learned to meditate, did lots of therapy and "inner work," took singing lessons and joined a gospel choir, enjoyed lots of leisurely conversations for the first time in years, and volunteered at a local health crisis resource center. A year and a half ago, my wife, Nina, and I reversed roles. She now runs the company and I’ve been at home shopping, cooking, and trying to keep track of our three school-age sons. Over the past few months I’ve been listening for what might be next, for where I might be needed. Now it feels right to take another step, out into my community.

Waldorf education is soul work. The teachers see their work as a spiritual calling. Their task, Rudolf Steiner said, was to "accept the children with reverence, educate them with love, and send them forth in freedom." Waldorf teachers ideally stay with their class from first grade all the way through eighth, a commitment that requires them to keep growing and learning right along with the class. In the early grades they teach art, music, and handicrafts, as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic. This year, I’ll be teaching the life of Leonardo da Vinci, human physiology, Western European geography, perspective drawing, chemistry, physics, astronomy, pre-algebra, nutrition, English grammar, and creative writing, to name only some of the subjects.

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