Parker Palmer on Education as a Spiritual Practice
An inspired vision for our path to truth.
By Maria Popova
“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1837 speech on the life of the mind and the enterprise of education, adding: “A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.” And yet in the century and a half since Emerson, the notion that education’s highest task is the cultivation of a great soul has become increasingly radical as we’ve grown more and more reliant on measuring the intellect and standardizing those measurements to the point of absurdity.
How to reclaim education’s essential engagement with the spirit is what writer and longtime educator Parker Palmer, a contemporary counterpart of Emerson’s, explores in his 1983 treatise To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (public library).
I call the pain that permeates education “the pain of disconnection.” … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.
In the midst of such pain, the spiritual traditions offer hope that is hard to find elsewhere, for all of them are ultimately concerned with getting us reconnected. These traditions build on the great truth that beneath the broken surface of our lives there remains — in the words of Thomas Merton — “a hidden wholeness.” The hope of every wisdom tradition is to recall us to that wholeness in the midst of our torn world, to reweave us into the community that is so threadbare today.
Pointing out that spiritual traditions have all too often been hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging inquiry, Palmer argues for a spirituality of “sources” in education rather than one of “ends”:
A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes.
But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.
To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced.
In the remainder of To Know as We Are Known, tremendously timely three decades later, Palmer goes on to explore how to cultivate that space, why civic community is integral to it, and where the experience of education fits with the broader question of how we come to know reality. Complement it with John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own light, and Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission,” then revisit Palmer on the art of letting your soul speak.
Published September 8, 2015