Eric Utne on Education and Parenting the Waldorf Way
In 2000, Eric Utne walked away from the Utne Reader, the bimonthly magazine that he founded 30 years ago. The digest of forward-thinking ideas—now put out by Ogden Publications, which also publishes Mother Earth News—not only still bears Utne’s name, but also prints his column in every issue.
Burned out from publishing and editing the magazine for 16 years, Utne needed a break and took a sabbatical. He picked up a book by Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, which he had attempted to read while in his 20s. “I couldn’t understand it when I was young, but 30 years later, the words leapt off the page.”
As the father of four sons that attended Waldorf schools, Utne could hold some sort of record for spending 30 continuous years as a Waldorf parent. His appreciation of the value of the Waldorf curriculum, along with his knowledge of the need for more Waldorf teachers, were just two of the reasons that he responded to an invitation to become a class teacher at City of Lakes Waldorf School, in Minneapolis. “If you’d have me, I’d love to do it,” he told administrators.
The decision began an educational and spiritual odyssey for Utne as he prepared to teach his seventh-grade students. “I went to a number of summer teacher training programs to learn the art of Waldorf teaching, and I had a wonderful mentor who was one of my son’s teachers. Still, I often stayed up until 2 a.m., trying to stay a half-step ahead of my students. Rather than being viewed by my students as an authority, I tried to be a role model for striving to learn,” he explains.
Utne’s students were 12 and 13 years old, and he stayed with them through the eighth grade. “I was that age at the time of my parents’ divorce,” he recalls. “I felt that it was a privilege to go through that stage of life again, this time with my students. It was an opportunity to complete something that was incomplete for me.”
Utne says many Waldorf graduates have a sense of, “I can do anything,” largely because they develop tremendous social skills and are able to meet all types of people, of all ages, and be comfortable with them. “Waldorf students are happy and independent self-starters who have a genuine optimism for the future.”
This happens, he believes, because the Waldorf curriculum gives the children time to play and develop their imaginations and their social and emotional intelligence. “And these skills, according to Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence, are much more reliable predictors for success in life than IQ or SAT scores,” remarks Utne.
Waldorf does not push children to read and do math too early. While worrisome to many parents, Utne thinks his sons are proof that play may be more important than reading and math in the early years. He says, “Leif (now 42) learned to read at age 8, while Sam (32), Oliver (28) and Eli (22) learned to read at 7. They all did well in college, have successful careers and, more importantly, are sensitive, creative and fun-loving people. They care deeply about the environment and social justice, and each is working in his own way to make a difference in the world. Who could ask for more?”
Utne will be the keynote speaker at the 2014 Community Education Conference, titled Weaving a New Web: Education and Parenting in an Era of Technological Change. The fifth annual event, to be held at Prairie Hill Waldorf School, March 1, is a collaboration between Madison Waldorf School, Tamarack Waldorf School, Prairie Hill Waldorf School, the Great Lakes Waldorf Institute and LifeWays Early Childhood Center–Milwaukee.
“There is a crisis in American education and in our society—iPads, computers and cell phones are overwhelming people’s attention spans, their ability to communicate and their sense of community. I believe that parents need to minimize their children’s screen time and get them outdoors to play,” asserts Utne. “Waldorf schools are oases of safety and creativity, and greenhouses for the cultivation of social and emotional intelligence. They allow children to be children.”
Harvard University, Silicon Valley and public education are now discovering the benefits of Waldorf education, according to Utne, who says, “I believe Waldorf schools are the education of the future.”
The 2014 Community Education Conference will be held from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., March 1, at Prairie Hill Waldorf School, located at N14 W29143 Silvernail Rd., in Pewaukee. Cost (includes lunch): $30 if registered by Feb. 15, $35 after and $40 at the door. For more information, call 262-646-7497, ext. 12, email Admissions@PrairieHillWaldorf.org or visit TinyUrl.com/WaldorfTix.