Review of "The Courage to Teach", Parker J. Palmer

Arvind Ranganathan

Teachers choose their vocation for a number of reasons: love of a subject, a desire to share one’s passion with others, care for young children, interest in understanding the human mind, or to have a say in shaping the next generation. But the demands of teaching cause many teachers to lose heart. Is it possible to remain in this demanding profession without losing heart?

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer takes teachers on an inner journey toward reconnecting their vocation and their students – and recovering their passion for one of the most difficult and important of human endeavours. This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Palmer points out that when we consider teaching, we often begin with the ‘what’ question – what subjects shall we teach? When we delve deeper, we ask the ‘how’ question – what are the methods to teach well? Next, we ask the ‘why’ question – for what purposes and ends do we teach? But, rarely, if ever, do we ask the ‘who’ question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subjects, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

Good teaching comes in various forms but good teachers seem to share an important trait: ‘they are truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subject.’ They ‘are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.’ Palmer writes of his own mentor, who seemed to break every ‘rule’ of good teaching – he lectured non-stop, there was little room for questions or comments, he listened poorly to students because he was keen to share his own knowledge of the subject. Yet he was an inspiring and effective teacher. Later, in his teaching career, Palmer tried to emulate his professor’s methods but failed. He writes: As we learn more about who we are, we can learn techniques that reveal rather than conceal the personhood from which good teaching comes. Palmer discovered that dialoguing was more integral to his being than non-stop lecturing, a method that was coherent with his mentor. A method of teaching derives its merit largely from its integration with the teacher who employs it. A familiar phrase of Krishnamurti comes to mind: Don’t ask ‘How?’ Find out for yourself.

Paradoxes, not polarities

A common problem in classrooms is fear. There is nothing more crippling to learning than fear – either in the student or the teacher. Fear is present where there is a sense of disconnectedness, where teachers are distanced from their students and subjects. What is it that teachers are afraid of? Palmer answers: ...a live encounter with an ‘alien otherness’ that can speak freely, speak its own truth and may tell us what we may not wish to hear. Teachers want control and are afraid to allow their own worldview to be challenged. However, the danger is that, in a Krishnamurti school, it is possible for the teacher to speak of fear or ambition during a culture class in a manner in which his own fear or ambition is not acknowledged. This disconnectedness could communicate destructively to the students.

Palmer explores the nature of the disconnectedness that we experience, which leads to a way of teaching and learning that is driven by fear. Another cause for our disconnectedness is the tendency to think in polarities. One might have encountered these polarities even while reading this review – to seek the identity and integrity of the teacher is all right, but one needs technique as well. Or, more commonly, ‘it is all very well to understand oneself but one also needs to find a job.’ The trouble with these oft-encountered exploration-stoppers is that one part of them is pitted against the other. Either – Or. One must come at the expense of the other. Palmer provides a means to step out of this dilemma: he asks if it is possible for us to think in terms of paradoxes. He quotes Niels Bohr, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist: The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.

Can light behave simultaneously like particles and waves? Can thought discover its own limitations? Can teachers not condition children even as they un-condition themselves? Can one speak of the confusions in one’s life while one finds a sane way of living? Can teachers guide young people to discover a direction in their own lives without creating a model? Can one discover who one is through relationship?

Palmer further shows the con-sequences of making such a division where life’s options are shown as mutually exclusive:

  • We separate head from heart. Result: minds that do not know how to feel and hearts that do not know how to think.
  • We separate facts from feelings. Result: bloodless facts that make the world distant and remote and ignorant emotions that reduce truth to how one feels today.
  • We separate theory from practice. Result: theories that have little to do with life and practice that is uninformed by understanding.
  • We separate teaching from learning. Result: teachers who talk but do not listen and students who listen but do not talk.

Paradox may be used in pedagogical design, thereby embracing a both-and approach rather than a divisive either-or. Palmer speaks of six paradoxes that he is aware of while constructing a classroom session:

  1. The space should be bounded and open. There needs to be space for questions but the discussion needs boundaries to prevent meandering.
  2. The space should be hospitable and ‘charged’. An open space needs to be hospitable so it is not forbidding, however it also needs to be challenging.
  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. The space should honour the ‘little’ stories of the students and the ‘big’ stories of the disciplines and tradition.
  5. The space should support solitude, and surround it with the resources of the community.
  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech.

A community of truth

While the first three chapters of the book focus on the individual teacher, Palmer devotes the second part of the book to learning in a community. Teaching is a public profession that is practised privately. Surgeons operate in the presence of other doctors, lawyers argue their cases in public view, so why do teachers seek the security of a closed classroom? Palmer reminds us that: If we want to grow in our practice, we have two places to go: to the inner ground from which teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. What, then, is the nature of a community that can support the individual teacher’s quest to discover an integral way to teach? Is it not to draw on both the sources?

Palmer writes of a ‘community of truth’ whose hallmark is that it claims that: reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it. He further states that: we know reality only by being in community with it ourselves. How can one human being know something about another... without leaving the mark of the knowing self on the thing known? (This feature) of relational knowing turns our capacity for connectedness into a strength. As knowers, we no longer need to regret our yearning to connect meaningfully with the other – nor do we need to ‘overcome’ this ‘liability’ by disconnecting ourselves from the world. ...If we were here merely as observers and not as participants in the world, we would have no capacity to know.

Palmer describes how a community of truth would invite diversity (diverse viewpoints are demanded by the manifold mysteries of great things); ambiguity (we understand the inadequacy of our concepts to embrace the vastness of great things); creative conflict (conflict is required to correct our biases and prejudices about great things); honesty (to lie about what we have seen would be to betray the truth of great things); humility (humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen – and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible); and freedom (tyranny in any form can be overcome only by invoking the grace of great things).

By ‘great things’, Palmer means: the subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered – not the disciplines that study these subjects, not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves. He means the genes and ecosystems of biology, the shapes and colours of music and art, the patterns of history, the materials of engineering, the symbols of philosophy, the rigour of mathematics, the nuances of human relationships and the mystery of how things have come to be. Is it possible to gather around the greatness of things in a community of learning and not reduce their greatness in our attempt to commune?

Palmer’s language is simple, lucid and accessible. The book is written at various levels. It provides guidelines for good teaching. It takes the reader on an exploration of his/her own inner landscape. It speaks of the need for an educational reform that begins with the individual teacher, who becomes part of a community of truth that evolves into a movement that can challenge and change the educational thinking at large. This, in turn, informs the practice of the individual teacher. While the examples quoted in the book are American, it is easy to draw parallels to one’s local reality. I have read this book on various occasions over the past three years, since I first decided to teach, and have found it revealing each time. Perhaps that is the nature of great things – they reveal more of you each time you encounter them.

About the Author

Parker J. Palmer is a senior associate of the American Association for Higher Education and senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute. Other books written by him are: The Company of Strangers, The Active Life, and To Know As We Are Known.