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Parker Palmer, Center for Courage & Renewal

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker

Parker-Palmer-150x150.jpgPalmer, widely known author, educator, and activist, spoke by phone to Pam Crosby, Clearinghouse editor, on September 18, 2010. Palmer  is founder and senior advisor of the Center for Courage & Renewal. The article below is based on that interview.

Professional Title: Author

InstitutionCenter for Courage & Renewal

Although at 71, Parker Palmer has written several landmark books and has an extensive following of readers and listeners, he speaks as though he were still a wide-eyed student activist, exploring a world that often provokes fascination about its possibilities as well as discontent with its shortcomings. He comments that he has learned much from every student he has met, and perhaps his immense insight into students’ needs as well as their potentials is a result of his sharing so many qualities with them. On the other hand, he conveys a sense of groundedness and connection that many of us envy.  Both the empathy and groundedness likely are aided by his Quaker faith, which has led him to appreciate the importance of “speaking to people’s condition.”

Having a conversation with Palmer is an adventure marked by twists and turns—filled with insightful metaphors, allegories, and stories. For example, when lamenting that the primary focus of universities is often on garnering as much funding as possible rather than on teaching and guiding students, he says that frequently administrators are more concerned with the “sizzle than the steak” when “the steak is what matters.”  When mentioning that the goal of “the pursuit of truth” is listed prominently in  almost “every college catalog,” he remarks that such statements reflect a conception of truth as if it were something we chase “over the fields and through the hedgerows, tracking it down and trying to kill it.” Instead, he argues, “truth is chasing us,” with our aggressive pursuit of it and our intention of controlling it—yes, he says, we are the elusive ones.


A common theme of Palmer’s books is the importance of conversations. The model of conversation he often evokes is one that involves face-to-face, personal interactions.  However, he acknowledges that much of how we communicate today, including our staff, faculty, and student interactions, is by means of technology, and in most cases, not face-to-face.

Is  meaningful conversation still possible when we communicate online? Palmer notes that he has been asked this question often, and he thinks that it is an important one. Online exchange adds to the isolation of the individual, who is often cut off from others while driving in her car or at home, watching television. For example, sometimes persons may turn to Facebook at work for conversation, instead of communicating face-to-face with fellow employees.  However, he maintains that technology “need not and must not destroy” opportunities for thoughtful conversation.

We don’t have to give up on conversation to take advantage of what technology can offer us. He mentions that there are opportunities for educational online experiences that have been “enormously enriching,” such as those offered by the University of Wisconsin Madison to those living in Northern Wisconsin. Thus, genuine conversation is possible online. In turn, while communication without a technological medium offers many advantages, it is often the case, even when we are physically present with one another, to have, what he describes as parallel conversations. A parallel conversation is a situation when persons do not interact with others, that is, when they do not respond and engage in a shared conversation but rather each one is only tuned into his or her personal opinion—intent only on broadcasting a singular viewpoint.

Accordingly, “technology or no technology?” is not really the question we should ask, emphasizes Palmer. Instead we should look at what makes a substantive, meaningful conversation, and a basic factor in such interaction is dialogue engagement. Dialogue engagement involves people sharing ideas and feelings, while having the openness to acknowledge the possibility that any or all of them might change their opinions.

A Narrow View of Knowing

A lack of such openness, treating knowledge only as something fixed and somewhat easily manipulated and transmitted, is an outlook that can have harmful effects on society. Abstractions, such as mathematical models and formulas, mission statements, rankings, tests, and so on, help us to simplify and communicate vast amounts of complex information, but they can only provide us with limited insight; we should not expect them to express adequately the fullness of experienced life. Palmer uses the example of attempting to describe a forest by bringing back a “shoebox of items” taken from a wooded area—the articles in the small, confining shoebox cannot convey the rich, diverse, and immense character of the ecological system.

Similarly, when educators argue that it is possible to be “value neutral,” they “cheapen the education enterprise” by ignoring the emotional and valuative features that are closely connected to thinking, knowing, and being.  Such a view by professors and administrators that they are “above the fray” in dealing with emotions and values is doing a tremendous damage to our society. The mantra “Don’t talk to us about values” and the insistence on “trying to stay out of the mess” of dealing with important issues that demand discussion about values have  helped to provide conditions for some otherwise brilliant people to lead us into economic crisis. In addition, he contends, people were able to acquire things that they could not afford, and they did so because they had to have the latest thing—a symptom of “unbridled consumerism” in our culture.  In response to this prevailing attitude, colleges and universities ran up “the white flag” rather than taking a stand to oppose it.

As a result, higher education has contributed to the role of irresponsible consumerism as a dominant force in our society. The market has become the leader and educator, and higher education institutions ape the market’s ploys by putting time and money into efforts such as clever branding and the advertizing of the latest, superficial amenities to lure students—things which students, in turn, think they must have. The effects have been extensive, for such misdirection “undermines student learning”—being detrimental to young people and our society as a whole.

A Broader View of Knowing

With so many perspectives needed to provide an integrative view of education and to address the many aspects of students’ learning and welfare, including their rational, emotive, and valuative well being, who should be designated to put the pieces together of knowledge in order to create a holistic view?  According to Palmer, there is no one person, no “Czar of Integration.” Such responsibility should not merely be assumed by presidents or deans. Instead bringing about effective and meaningful education “takes a village,” a “communal effort of watchfulness of a culture.” Palmer regrets that at this time, such an effort to bring together voices required to address educational needs of our complex society is not evident. We need conveners of a “microcosmic community of scholars” to integrate our many points of view.

Beginning this type of communal enterprise first demands the energy and forward thinking of individuals. Palmer cites examples that show that much change can originate with dynamic leaders and shapers. He refers to persons such as Joseph Tussman, Clark Kerr, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Alexander Meiklejohn as highly influential thinkers in the history of higher education. Adding to the list of individuals he admires, Palmer he points to groundbreaking thinkers like Sharon Parks who enrich pedagogy by research in young adults’ development.

Palmer’s attitude regarding faculty and student affairs leaders who cherish their roles as teachers and leaders is one of awe. These are the persons, he says, who share their excitement about student’ learning and development and seek to understand the struggles of young people, and who can intuitively tap into the mood of their classes or group sessions. At any time when these caring adults gather together, he has found (in his over 30 years of experience) they genuinely search for better ways to understand their students at this important stage of their lives.  It is not a “technique d’jour” or “gimmick of the week” for which they are seeking, but a deep insight into who their students are and what they need and value.

Palmer often argues that there should be many more of these kinds of interactions and collaborations among educators when dealing with problems. Instead of isolating themselves from their colleagues, faculty and administrators should rely on each other for help to solve problems—and in turn, these kinds of partnerships can draw from the creative abilities and ideas of those involved. Such partnerships and collaborations are the major source of inspiration for Palmer’s writings. As a result, much of what stimulates Palmer’s thinking about particular topics and themes comes from his “experiences through conversations,” not from reading works in the fields of philosophy, sociology, or even education.  As a result, he admits he is “not expert in technical fields.” His reading, in contrast, includes poetry as well as essays by authors such as Wendell Barry, who writes on ecology. The subjects of his books come from the heart, and he does not choose his topics according to what may appeal to a particular readers’ market. His reluctance to write for a particular audience sometimes “drives the publishers crazy” when he cannot offer a ready answer to “Who is this book for?!”

The Heart of Parker Palmer

In fact, right now he is “pounding” away at another book, not really remembering, he admits, if this will be number eight or nine.  Responding to questions about his busy life, he remarks that he does not travel from place to place as often as he did earlier—before he was 70—preferring to devote his time to longer sessions—such as conferences and retreats.   He notes that he is excited about “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,”[1] a retreat he will soon lead,  sponsored by the Center for Courage & Renewal, an organization he founded. At this particular gathering, he will work with persons to devise ways to engage in political topics and activities which will help to revive rather than divide the “heart of American democracy.” Heart—a metaphor Palmer employs often—such as in the title of his latest book he co-authored The Heart of Higher Education—symbolizes the whole person in all of his or her complexity and wide-range, relational, and multidimensional experiences; it symbolizes the wholeness of community and the vital connections we have with each other that help make our lives more meaningful and altruistic.

And for me, it symbolizes the crucial point where Parker’s compassion for the world, his discontent with the ways some things are, and his determination to improve society, make their home. Parker Palmer, author, activist, wide-eyed student, wise teacher, will never be contented to be one who is “above the fray.”

[1] Scheduled for October 21-24, 2010, in Boston MA.