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Review of The Heart of Higher Education By Palmer and Zajonc

Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc with Megan Scribner. Jossey-Bass. 2010. 256 pp.

The “heart” in The Heart of Higher Education, it might be argued, consists of at least four “C’s” of integrative education: complexityconnections, conversations, and community. Authors Palmer and Zajonc contend that the implementation of policies and practices in colleges and universities should be a result of thoughtful philosophical discussions by those in the educational community.  The topic of discussion? (a) the fact that students and faculty are complex human beings whose wide range of experiences are  relational, extensive, and multidimensional, while their educational experiences are often disconnected, reductive, and hollow, and (b) ways institutions can create the vital connections that help make students’ and faculty’s lives more meaningful and altruistic.

Integrative education, the approach which the authors espouse, “engages the students in the systematic exploration of the relationship between their studies of the objective world and the purpose, meaning, limits, and aspirations of  their lives” (p. 10). Critics (Fish, 2008) of such movements as integrative education would say that providing conditions for students to seek meaning and purpose in their lives is not the job of universities. However, the authors respond to such criticism by saying that the need is so critical, so vital to the future of our world (p. vii) that its realization cannot be “left to chance” (p. 56).

The authors note that this book is not an instruction manual; rather it is a means to stimulate thought, discussion, and action of those who are directly involved and/or interested in campus life (p.17).  The method they espouse at first look seems simple: educationalists should begin with stories of personal and institutional educational experiences with their colleagues and friends, move on to philosophical and scientific theories that underpin integrative education, and progress to action by means of programs and practices that are supported by such theories (p. 17). Palmer and Zajonc know from their own experiences, however, that overcoming intense opposition to any attempt at profound institutional change is not at all simple. Noting main criticisms of integrative education early in the book, Palmer quickly gets to the task of responding to his critics.

For example, one criticism is the alleged lack of a coherent theoretical foundation; instead some argue, integrative education is “a grab bag of techniques” and “an assortment of pedagogies . . .” (p. 23). In reply to this criticism, Palmer and Zajonc present what they identify as a philosophy of integrative education based on ideas of philosophers such as process thinkers James and Whitehead and discoveries by “new science” pioneers such as Einstein and Bohrs.

The unifying element of integrative education, they underscore throughout the book, is the lived human experiences of complex interrelations, including cognitive, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social,  which significantly influence thought, learning, behavior, values, and so on. A philosophy of integrative education, therefore, is about the “interconnectedness of reality and its multiple dimensions,” which includes different types of knowing—“contemplative, aesthetic and moral”—as well as “the ethical dimensions of our way of knowing” (p. 122).

Two other criticisms of integrative education Palmer mentions are that (a) its implementation is “messy” and (b) involves “emotions,” which, some say, have no place in the classroom. Palmer argues that order and rationality give us direction and grounding. However, placing too much value on order simply because we fear what we cannot completely control can lead to what he calls a “purity obsession” (p. 37). This obsession with order forces teachers and administrators to rely on a “top down” approach, which allows for little spontaneity and exploration and discounts the importance of many types of relevant knowledge such as “relational,” “bodily,” “institutive,” and “emotional” (p. 36). To those educators who maintain that they are not qualified to handle the problems that accompany emotional situations, Palmer says emotional connections to learning are unavoidable. Denying these connections is ignoring crucial pedagogical research (p. 42). As an educator, I would like to learn more about how to deal with these emotions; for example, some teachers express concern about students’ emotipnal reactions they observe in and out of the classroom, but feel powerless to help them (Welch, 2010).

For those who seek practical examples of integrative education, Zajonc offers stories from his experiences as a professor as well as those from other colleagues. Palmer provides a chapter on strategies that he has found work well in creating a context and method for effective conversations, and about which he writes extensively elsewere (Palmer, 2004). In the appendices, readers can read about programs and practices that incorporate the principles of integrative education through the stories of professors, administrators, and others. The sections are titled “In the Classroom,” “Beyond the Classroom,” and “Administrative and Campuswide Initiatives.”

For example, Jon C. Dalton, former vice president of student affairs at The Florida State University, describes his once regular practice of “being there” at his “The VP Is In” table during weekly Market Day, a popular flea market at the Student Union Plaza. This ritual helped to foster the type of conversations that Palmer and Zajonc advocate while creating among students and student affairs administrators, as well as others, a closer campus community (pp. 195-197). Tom Schrand, interim dean of liberal arts, and Aurelio Valente, assistant dean of student development at Philadelphia University, describe their SERVE-101 course that connects students with both their campus community and the wider Philadelphia area while building collaborative partnerships between the student affairs division and academic affairs (pp. 188-191).

With its general discussion of neuroscience, physics, developmental psychology, and philosophy, Heart speaks to a broad audience. Scholars in the field of education, however, who engage primarily in quantitative and qualitative research in specialized fields rather than philosophical approaches to wide-ranging problems may not find the authors’ claims persuasive. Yet Palmer argues that educators cannot “go on remaining on the margins” and “tinkering with methodology” (p. 24) but must confront their philosophical assumptions—ontological, pedagogical, epistemological, and ethical—which we all have, whether we admit their influence or not. For example, not only do we have assumptions about how students learn best and how teachers teach best, and about what knowledge and skills are most worthy, we also have assumptions about what it means to be a flourishing human being and what responsibilities we have to our fellow human beings. All of these assumptions guide what we do as educators, the authors argue. If we, as leaders and thinkers of our communities, do not examine the reasons for our actions critically and rigorously together, we are apt to overlook vital gaps as well as critical patterns and connections.

What will readers gain from reading Heart? Hard-core skeptics who think that educators should not be in the business of “saving the world” (Fish, 2008) will likely not be convinced by the philosophical and scientific arguments the authors present. However, Palmer and Zajonc hope that those individuals who are persuaded that the learning environment should reflect the rich and multifaceted lived experience of the “human self” will take Heart to heart. The task at hand, say the authors, for those who see the value of  integrative education is crucial: gather ‘round, begin your conversations, share your ideas and discoveries with each other, and work together to make a more meaningful and holistic world for yourselves and your students (pp.152-153).


Fish, S. (2008). Save the world on your own time. New York: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, P. J. (2004) A hidden wholeness: The journal toward an undivided life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Welch, M. (2010). Shedding light on the shadow-side of reflection in service-learning. Journal of College and Character, 11(2), 1-6.