Eric Utne Goes Back to School

After many years in the publishing business, as a founder and publisher ofNew Age Journal, as a literary agent, and as founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief ofUtne 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.

Although I’ve been around Waldorf education for 25 years as a parent, I’m not certified to teach. The usual route to becoming a Waldorf teacher is a rigorous two-year training program. Others, like me, get their training on the job, while teaching, fitting formal instruction in on weekends and in summer intensives. After this summer, I will have completed seventh-grade teacher training courses at the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California, and Sunbridge College in Spring Valley, New York.

I feel like life has been preparing me to teach for years. One particular experience comes to mind. Twenty-five years ago, I was just finishing my studies in Chinese medicine when I visited Findhorn, a New Age spiritual community in northern Scotland. Shortly after arriving, I was asked to lecture the entire 120-member community about acupuncture. Normally shy in front of groups, I was emboldened by the positive interest everyone projected not only toward me and my subject, but toward each other as well. In the midst of my lecture I had a genuine epiphany. I realized that my disposition and orientation toward life was to notice and recognize what is wrong with people, whereas the people at Findhorn were learning to notice and encourage what is right with people.

Soon thereafter I abandoned acupuncture and got involved in journalism and magazine publishing. My intent, inspired by Findhorn, was to offer an alternative to the negative, problem-oriented perspective of most mainstream media. I wanted to help people see a more complete picture of themselves and the world–not just what was breaking down, but also what’s breaking through.

Teaching kids in a Waldorf school feels as right to me now as starting Utne Reader did nearly 17 years ago. I learned a little about a lot of things while editing and publishing the magazine, which was great preparation for teaching. But I needed to learn my most important life lessons elsewhere. If I can help these kids learn one thing–besides eventually nailing their SATs (just kidding)–it will be to discover and intelligently nurture what they love. I want to help them deeply listen to, and trust, and even think with their heart. It’s the key to all real personal growth and social change, and I only learned it when I stopped talking about it and literally came home to live it. And now, soon, I’m taking it to school.

For information about Waldorf education contact Rudolf Steiner College, 9200 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks, CA 95628 (916/961-8727; www.steinercollege.org) or Sunbridge College, 260 Hungry Hollow Rd., Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977 (914/425-0055; www.sunbridge.edu).

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