Integral Life, Integral Teacher:
An Interview with Parker J. Palmer
This conversation with Parker J. Palmer first appeared in Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (winter 1998/99).
INTERVIEWER: One of the things that I found very striking about your work is the idea that the simple choice to live with integrity can have far-reaching effects. What experiences brought you to believe that this was such a central issue?
PALMER: What I know about living a divided life starts with my training as an academic. I was taught to keep things in airtight compartments: to keep my ideas apart from my feelings, because ideas were reliable but feelings were not; to keep my theories apart from my actions, because the theory can be pure, but the action is always sullied.
For the teachers I meet around the country, the decision to live divided-no-more means teaching in a way that corresponds to the truth that they know, rather than according to the latest pedagogical fad or to whatever pressures the institution may be putting on them.
These are teachers, for example, who are integrating emotional work with cognitive work in the classroom. Certainly in higher education, there's a real taboo against doing that. These teachers are choosing to take the significant risks that come with going against the taboo because they know from their own experience that the mind and the heart can't be separated.
An example of that is the work of Sheila Tobias and others who have helped young women learn mathematics by dealing not just with the intellect, but with the emotional paralysis that many young women have felt about math. By addressing that message at the emotional level, Sheila Tobias and others have helped women achieve in mathematics at rates equal to, and surpassing, those of men.
But the divided life is not just an academic dilemma, it's a human dilemma. We work within institutions like schools, businesses, and civic society, because they provide us with opportunities that we value. But the claims those institutions make on us are sometimes at odds with our heartsfor example, the demand for loyalty to the corporation, right or wrong, can conflict with the inward imperative to speak truth. That tension can be creative, up to a point. But it becomes pathological when the heart becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the organization, when we internalize organizational logic and allow it to overwhelm the logic of our own lives.
At a certain juncture, some people find they must choose between allowing selfhood to die or claiming their identity and integrity. What I mean by divided-no-more is living on the outside the truth you know on the inside.
INTERVIEWER: What happens to people's lives when they make that choice, to live "divided-no-more"?
PALMER: Let me tell you a story about two teachers, a story I tell in The Courage to Teach.
Alan and Eric were born into different families of skilled rural craftspeople. Each grew skilled in working with his hands and developed a sense of pride in their respective crafts. Both also excelled in school and became the first in their families to go to college, eventually earning doctorates and choosing academic careers.
Here their paths diverged. Eric, who attended an elite private college, suffered culture shock and was always insecure with fellow students and later with academic colleagues. He learned to speak and act like an intellectual, but he always felt fraudulent. This insecurity didn't draw Eric into self reflection, instead, he bullied his way through his professional life, made pronouncements rather than probes, listened for weaknesses rather than strengths in what other people said. In his classroom, Eric was critical and judgmental, quick to put down "stupid questions," adept at using trick questions of his own, and merciless in mocking wrong answers.
Alan's is a different story. He attended a land-grant university where many students had backgrounds much like his own. He was not driven to hide his gift, but was able to honor and transform it by turning it toward his work in academia. Watching Alan teach, you felt that you were watching a craftsman at work. In his lectures, every move Alan made was informed by attention to detail and respect for the materials at hand. Beyond the classroom, students knew that Alan would extend himself with great generosity to any of them who wanted to become his apprentice.
Alan taught from an undivided selfan integral state of being in which every major thread of one's life experience is honored, creating a weave of coherence and strength. Such a self is able to make the outward connections on which good teaching depends.
INTERVIEWER: There's another dimension implicit here. I gather that you support teachers bringing their learnings from their spiritual life into the classroom.
PALMER: Yes, in fact, I'd put it even more strongly than that. I don't see how a teacher or any human being can fail to bring their spirituality into whatever it is they're doing. And by that I don't mean the content of one's religious belief. I mean the way we deal with fundamental questions like "What am I doing here?" and "Does my life have a meaning?" and "Does that meaning depend on how successful I am in whatever I'm doing?" and "What about the fact that I'm going to die one day?"
These are the same questions that our students have. We need to find ways to support our students in asking these questions. I'm not saying we need to give them the answers. These are questions that you wrap your life around. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, you live these questions and don't try to get formulaic answers to them. They're too important for that.
INTERVIEWER: There are those who feel that schools ought to make sure that young people get "correct" answers to those questions. One of the traditions that many people feel very strongly about is the separation of church and schooling or church and state.
PALMER: I absolutely believe in the separation of church and state. As a Quaker, I come from a history of people who were persecuted, imprisoned, even executed by folks who found our religious beliefs nonconforming with the truth they knew absolutely.
But I think that the surest way to encourage religious fascism is to sweep questions of meaning under the rug; pretend that either they don't exist or that they aren't important, rather than to hold these questions in a way that illuminates them and helps young people learn to live them more and more deeply.
INTERVIEWER: Have you seen that done successfully?
PALMER: I was teaching, not too long ago, at a college in Appalachia where the students came from very fundamentalist religious backgrounds. In the middle of the year, the Dalai Lama visited the college. There was a group of students who protested this visit; from their point of view, the Dalai Lama was the Antichrist.
One of these students started talking in class about what a terrible thing it was that the Tibetan Buddhists hold certain beliefs about the Dalai Lama. He said he felt it was especially ridiculous that the Tibetans went out and found a young child, somehow magically decided that he was the one they were seeking, and then raised him up to his current status.
I said to him, "Like you, I'm a Christian, and what I need to do is to explore with you the fact that our own faith tradition has a very similar belief. In fact, we believe that we identified Jesus when he was an infant, younger even than the boy that became the Dalai Lama."
Well, that opened up a dialogue about some very basic questions, such as how people discern reality. I framed this as an open questionI didn't put [that student] down for putting down someone else, but simply held up as a matter of wonder that around the world, we look at babies and young children and we say that they have something of truth that we need and want to nurture into larger life. So what could have been a shoot out became a genuine conversation Months later he thanked me and said that he'd never stopped thinking about this conversation.
INTERVIEWER: Talking to people with values so different from our own can be very scary. How do you overcome your own fear and that of your students?
PALMER: The answer is not to avoid situations where you feel fearful; the more you try to ignore fear or to sweep it under the rug, the stronger it becomes. There's a curious alchemy in the spiritual lifewhen I acknowledge and embrace those parts of myself that are most difficult, I find they have less power over me or that the power somehow starts working for me rather than against me.
INTERVIEWER: We've been talking so far mainly about the inner work of being divided-no-morelearning to be true to ourselves, and getting beyond our fears. What about the implications for society? What happens on a larger scale when people decide they will no longer live divided lives?
PALMER: In political/social terms, I call this the Rosa Parks decision. She essentially said, "I'm no longer going to behave on the outside as if I were less than the full person I know myself to be on the inside."
How do people find the courage to bring inner convictions into harmony with outer acts, knowing the risks involved? I think in Rosa Parks's story there's a clue. When the police came to Rosa Parks on the bus and informed her that they would have to put her in jail if she did not move, she replied, "You may do that." It was a very polite way of saying, "How could your jail begin to compare with the jail I have had myself in all these years by collaborating with this racist system?"
When you realize that you can no longer collaborate in something that violates your own integrity, your understanding of punishment is suddenly transformed.
INTERVIEWER: How does this individual act set the stage for a larger shift in society?
PALMER: In the second stage of a movement, people who have chosen the undivided life but still feel shaky about it come together in "communities of congruence." The first purpose of these communities is mutual reassurance; people help each other to understand that the "normal" behavior expected by the institutions they are part of can be crazy, but that seeking integrity is always sane. In the movement sparked by Rosa Parks, the black churches provided gathering places for people who needed to know that they were not alone in choosing an integral life.
These communities are also places where people begin to develop the language to explain their visionand that language provides the strength they will need in the rough-and-tumble world of the public realm, which is where a movement goes into the third stage.
As a movement goes public, the identity and integrity of its participants are tested against the great diversity of values and visions at work in the public arena. Paradoxically, although we must stay close to our own integrity in this complex field of forces, we must also risk opening ourselves to conflicting influences, because in that way both the movement and our integrity can grow.
In the final stage, the movement returns to alter the logic of the organizations from which it first sprang. Movements have this power when people decide that the institution's punishments are irrelevant and develop an alternative system of rewards. In the first stage, the rewards involve learning more about one's identity. In Stage 2, the reward comes from being in community. In Stage 3, the reward comes in living a more expansive public life. In Stage 4, people are clear that no reward anyone offers them could be greater than the way they reward themselves by living their own truth. As this happens, institutions often awaken to the need for change, lest the action go elsewhere and they become irrelevant to people's lives.
INTERVIEWER: That's a powerful analysis of social movements. I guess I don't normally think of teachers as social change activists.
PALMER: I am a teacher at heart, and I am not naturally drawn to political activism. But I've found that there is no essential conflict between loving to teach and working to reform education. An authentic movement is not a play for powerit is teaching and learning writ large. Now the world becomes our classroom, and the potential to teach and learn is found everywhere. We need only be in the world as our true selves, with open hearts and minds.
Excerpted from Schools with Spirit by . Copyright © 2001 by Linda Lantieri. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.