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Update 20 Mary 2000

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Parker Palmer
The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life
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Parker Palmer--senior associate of the American Association for Higher Education and senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute--is an educational activist who has been called a "master teacher," and a writer whose books include The Promise of Paradox, The Company of Strangers, To Know As We Are Known, The Active Life, The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), and most recently Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).  

Palmer received a B.A. in philosophy and sociology from Carleton College, where he was selected for Phi Beta Kappa and earned a Danforth Graduate Fellowship.  After a year at Union Theological Seminary, he went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied sociology and received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees with honors.  His own teaching has been primarily in universities and adult study programs (including Beloit College, Georgetown University, and Pendle Hill, a Quaker living-learning community).   During the last ten years, he has been an itinerant teacher, teaching and learning in short-term classrooms called "seminars," "workshops," and "retreats."   In his preface to his latest book he writes, "I was grateful to be appointed the Eli Lilly Visiting Professor at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, in 1993-94.  During that year, I was rebaptized into the realities of college teaching, and I wrote the first draft of this book."  As founder of Fetzer Institute's Teacher Formation Program for K-12 teachers, Palmer has learned from teachers who work with children, adolescents, and young adults in public schools in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, and Washington state; he has woven their insights into The Courage to Teach.  (See also <>) Top of page


"Wisdom literatures have brought us important insight over the years. Who thought more deeply about teaching and learning than Alfred North Whitehead? I reread his short book The Aims of Education, published in 1929, every two or three years. I think also of the wonderful books on teaching from Gilbert Highet and Kenneth Eble. And, good as any of these, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach." (from Theodore J. Marchese's "The New Conversations About Learning Insights From Neuroscience and Anthropology, Cognitive Science and Work-Place Studies"--cf. The Adult Learner at <>.   The essay can also be found at <>.)

"A profoundly moving, utterly passionate, and inspired articulation of the call to, and the pain and joy of, teaching.  It is must reading for any and every teacher, at any level." (John Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are)

"Parker Palmer is a Teacher in the truest sense of the word.  In a series of insightful, eloquent, and spirit-filled books he has deepened our understanding of what it means to educate and to be educated.  No one has done more to raise our standards or deepen our insight about the connections between education, community, and spirituality."  (David W. Orr, Chair, Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, and author of Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect)

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palmer1.jpg (330032 bytes)EXCERPTS

"This book is for teachers who have good days and bad—and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life."  (Introduction, page 1)

"This book raises a question about teaching that goes unasked in our national dialogue--and often goes unasked even in the places where teachers are educated and employed.  But it should be asked wherever good teaching is at stake, for it honors and challenges the teacher's heart, and it invites a deeper inquiry than our traditional questions do. . . .  Who is the self that teaches?  How does the quality of my selfhood form--or deform--the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?  How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?" (4)

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn. . . "is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins,. . . you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then--to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you."

If we who lead and we who teach would take that counsel to heart, everyone in education, administrators and teachers and students alike, would have a chance at healing and new life.  Learning--learning together--is the thing for all of us. (161)

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HOW TO GET THE BOOK: Faculty at MiraCosta and Palomar Colleges can borrow Palmer's The Courage to Teach from the Reserve Desks at their respective colleges.  An additional copy is available at the Professional Development Office at MiraCosta College.  You can purchase the book directly from (list price $22.00; Amazon's price $15.40 plus shipping and handling); call toll-free (800-201-7575), or order your copy from the Website: <>.


In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his associates say, "Perhaps the notion that private and public lives are at odds is incorrect. Perhaps they are so deeply involved with each other that the impoverishment of one entails the impoverishment of the other. Parker Palmer is probably right when he says that 'in a healthy society the private and the public are not mutually exclusive, not in competition with each other. They are, instead, two halves of a whole, two poles of a paradox. They work together dialectically, helping to create and nurture one another.'" / / This point, properly understood, brings us to our vision of the undergraduate experience. It warns against making too great a distinction between careerism and the liberal arts, between self-benefit and service. We more comfortably embrace the notion that the aim of the undergraduate experience is not only to prepare the young for productive careers, but also to enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose; not only to generate new knowledge, but to channel that knowledge to humane ends; not merely to study government, but to help shape a citizenry that can promote the public good.

Reprinted herein you'll find, among other things, an interview with Parker Palmer, a guru of "spirituality in education" and our personal hero and icon for much that is hopeful in education here at the cusp of two millenniums. Palmer argues that to teach within a system that is contrary to one's beliefs is to be divided, to be
less than whole. Thus, the teacher who teaches "democracy" in a fear-based system without democratic choices is as divided as the investor whose believes in health but whose wealth accrues from tobacco stocks. By extension, the divided teacher's students are divided as well, perhaps unable to articulate their frustration in any way other than acting out, which in turn leads to even fewer rather than more democratic choices in the system.

In 1996, at a meeting where a number of the Fetzer Institute’s partners were presenting highlights of their work, a participant remarked that, despite the fact that everyone was working in different areas on different projects, it felt like everyone was doing the same work. Since that meeting we have come to realize that the concept of "common work" is a process of relationship and of learning to discover that which we share in common. The common work that the Fetzer Institute shares with others is what the historian Arnold Toynbee described as the ultimate work of civilization: the unfolding of ever-deeper spiritual understanding.

It was said that for Gandhi public life was not secular, it was sacred. The challenge of the common work is to reunite the secular with the sacred, the inner world of spirit with the outer world of service. With the very survival of people and the planet at risk, we hear the cry for a conscious integration of spirit into all aspects of our lives. The health of our civilization depends continually on the enlivened wholeness and spiritual freedom of its citizens. We cannot address the larger issues without simultaneously freeing our own inner lives.

True freedom arises as we become conscious of the relationship between the inner life of mind and spirit and the outer life of service. When we act to heal an injury, to right a wrong, or even to love a child, how do our inner states of mind and spirit influence the outcome? Can we heal the outer world without healing our inner world? How do we become more fully aware of this spiritual dimension of reality?


The sacred is that which is worthy of respect. As soon as we see that, the sacred is everywhere. There is nothing, when rightly understood, that it is not worthy of respect. . . .  How it would transform academic life if we could practice simple respect! I don't think there are many places where people feel less respect than they do on university campuses. The university is a place that has learned to grant respect to only a few things: to the text, to the expert, to those who win in competition./ /   But we do not grant respect to students, to stumbling and failing. We do not grant respect to tentative and heartfelt ways of being in the world where the person can't quite think of the right word or can't think of any word at all. We don't grant respect to silence and wonder. We don t grant it to voices outside our tight little circle, let alone to the voiceless things of the world. / /  Why? Because in academic culture, we are afraid. It is a culture of fear. What are we afraid of? We are afraid of hearing something that would challenge and change us.

After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face,
engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear,
but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my
identity, my selfhood, my sense of this "I" who teaches -- without which I have no sense of the "Thou" who learns.

Here is a secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes
from the identity and integrity of the teacher. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and
to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trustmy selfhood -- and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.

LOCAL PALMER EVENTS (North County Higher Education Alliance):

Julie Hatoff and the instructional deans will bring drinks and desserts when they meet with this year's class of new faculty for six brown-bag lunches.   Participants need to bring a sandwich and the book The Courage to Teach.   Together, participants will explore Palmer's views on subject-centered education and learning in community.  See PDP/Flex Calendar at for March 3 and 17--see also February 11, April 14, and May 5 and 12.

Call the Professional Development Office (760-757-2121 x-6498) to register.  Or send E-mail message to Louise McDermott, Professional Development Assistant ,at <>, or contact the workshop facilitator Gloria Floren at 760-757-2121 x-6221 or E-mail her at <>.   To visit the MiraCosta College Professional Development Website, go to this URL: <>.

Call the Professional Development Office (760-744-1150 x-2257) to register. Or send E-mail message to Leigh Squires, Professional Development Assistant, at or Bonnie Ann Dowd, Professional Development Coordinator, at . To view the Palomar College Professional Development
Website, go to this URL: [May 2000 update:  The current Professional Development Coordinator is Margaret Gunther at <>, and the current PDP Secretary is Terri Messna at <>.]  

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Gloria Floren, Letters Department, MiraCosta College, One Barnard Drive, Oceanside, California 92056. U.S.A.
Created 04 October 1998. Revised 20 May 2000.   Contents Copyright 1998  Gloria L. Floren. All rights reserved

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