Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education

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Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education. Parker J. Palmer’s explorations of education as a spiritual journey and of the inner lives of educators have been deeply influential. We explore his teachings and contribution.

contents: introduction · parker j. palmer – life · education as a spiritual journey · parker palmer – knowing, teaching and learning · participating in a community of truth · creating space for learning · attending to the inner life of educators · calling · parker palmer – assessment and conclusion · further reading and references · parker palmer links · how to cite this piece

My vocation (to use the poet’s term) is the spiritual life, the quest for God, which relies on the eye of the heart. My avocation is education, the quest for knowledge, which relies on the eye of the mind. I have seen life through both these eyes as long as I can remember – but the two images have not always coincided… I have been forced to find ways for my eyes to work together, to find a common focus for my spirit-seeking heart and my knowledge-seeking mind that embraces reality in all its amazing dimensions. (Parker Palmer 1993: xxiv)

Parker J. Palmer (1939-) has touched many people through his work. In that old Quaker phrase he has been able to speak to their condition. Partly this ability flows from the truth of his subject matter; partly from his capacity to draw from, and reflect upon, his own experience; and partly from the directness and accessibility of his writing. As well as being a gifted teacher, Parker Palmer has authored at least three landmark books – The Company of Strangers: Christians and the renewal of American public life (1983), To Know as We are Known. Education as a spiritual journey (1983) and The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (1998). He has also written on community (1977), paradox (1980), the spirituality of work, creativity and caring (1990) and vocation (2000). His most recent book – A Hidden Wholeness; The Journey Toward an Undivided Life – was published in 2004. Along the way Parker Palmer has picked up eight honorary doctorates and several national awards. The Leadership Project, a 1998 US survey of 10,000 administrators and faculty named Parker J. Palmer one of the thirty most influential senior leaders in higher education and one of ten key “agenda-setters” of the past decade.

The terrain that Parker J. Palmer explores has had a number of distinguished visitors such as Donald Schön and Michael Polanyi on knowing and reflection; and Martin Buber on spirituality, community and education. However, Parker Palmer has the knack, probably born of a long and continuing engagement with people in workshops and groups, of exploring such themes in ways that resonate with some very contemporary concerns. To appreciate this contribution it is important to attend both to Parker Palmer’s ‘leading ideas’ and to the particular circumstances in which they found life.


Parker J. Palmer grew up in a white, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. His father, Max J. Palmer, worked for the same fine chinaware company for 50 years. In the end he owned the company and was Chairman of the Board. Parker Palmer talks about his father teaching him to rely on a ‘larger and deeper grace’ and modelling compassion and generosity. Although Parker Palmer embarked on a rather different vocational path, the elder Palmer never put pressure on him ‘to be one thing or another’ (Faith Alive 2004). In grade school Parker Palmer became fascinated by flight and when in high school he intended to become a naval aviator (followed by a career in advertising – he had already become fascinated by language) (Palmer 2000: 13). However, he ended up at Carleton College, Minnesota where he gained a BA in Philosophy and Sociology (and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa). Parker Palmer was the first in the family to attend college (Palmer 1998: 22). From Carleton he went to the Union Theological Seminary, NYC – certain that the ministry was his calling. However, at the end of his first year, as Parker Palmer has wryly put it, ‘God spoke to me – in the form of mediocre grades and massive misery – and informed me that under no conditions was I to become an ordained leader in His or Her church’ (Palmer 2000: 19-20). Fairly quickly he started a Masters in Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley (1962) and then went on to do his PhD there (which he received in 1970). In the middle of graduate school Palmer taught for two years (1965-7) – finding that he both loved the experience and was good at it. He has commented that Berkeley in the sixties was ‘an astounding mix of shadow and light’. Parker Palmer continued:

[C]ontrary to the current myth, many of us were less seduced by the shadow than drawn by the light, coming away from that time and place with a lifelong sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social change. (ibid.: 20)

Parker Palmer made the decision to leave the academy believing that a university career would be a ‘cop out’.

Instead Parker J. Palmer went to Washington DC in 1969 as a community organizer. ‘My heart wanted to keep teaching’, he has commented, ‘but my ethics – laced liberally with ego – told me I was supposed to save the city’ (ibid.: 21). After two or so years of community organizing Parker Palmer was offered a faculty post (in sociology) at Georgetown University – which also involved working with students in the surrounding communities. He later commented that by looking anew at his community work he saw that as an organizer he never stopped being a teacher he was simply teaching ‘in a classroom without walls’ (op. cit.). However, Parker Palmer was burnt-out after five years community work – he was ‘too thin-skinned to make a good community organizer’ (ibid.: 22). In 1974 he opted to take a years sabbatical at Pendle Hill the Quaker retreat centre near Philadelphia. The year at Pendle Hill grew into ten or more when he became Dean of Studies there (he left in 1985).

The time at Pendle Hill was of fundamental significance. Parker Palmer found God in the silence of the Quaker meetings at the retreat. Until then, he has commented, faith and the experience of God had been an intellectual exercise. ‘In the silence, I was able to reconstruct my faith life in a way that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise,’ he has said. ‘It was a much more direct experience of how God was working in my life’ (Faith Alive 2004). Parker Palmer was also diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression. ‘When I was young’, he later wrote, ‘there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had known’ (Parker Palmer 2000: 19). When ‘darkness’ first descended in his early twenties there was a sense of failure. Now, in his early forties, he began to see that depression was largely situational – and that while it crushed him – it was also, in a way, his friend. It kept his feet on the ground (ibid.: 66). From that painful period, Parker Palmer learned, as he has said, to tell the truth about himself (Faith Alive 2004). It was also while at Pendle Hill that Parker Palmer came to the attention of wider public through his writing. He wrote on community (in a Pendle Hill pamphlet) (1977), the power of paradox (1980) and produced his acclaimed books on spirituality and education (1983) and the role of Christians in the renewal of public life (1983).

After Pendle Hill, Parker J. Palmer was in demand as a speaker and facilitator – and he worked with a variety of institutions including universities and colleges, schools, community organizations, religious groups, foundations and corporations. He served as a senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education and was a senior adviser to the Fetzer Institute. One of the most significant pieces of work that he undertook with the Institute was the ‘Courage to Teach’ program, piloted in Michigan from 1994 to 1996, and subsequently replicated in coastal Carolina, Dallas, the Baltimore-Washington DC area, southwest Michigan and Washington State. This work resulted in the establishment of the Center for Teacher Formation in 1997 and contributed to Parker Palmer’s well-received book The Courage to Teach (1998). Subsequently he has written about vocation (2000) and the integrated life (2004). Now Parker Palmer is reported as preparing to ‘leave the public arena of appearances and applause for a quieter, more solitary work’ (Faith Alive 2004). ‘I don’t want to be a 70-year-old man who doesn’t know who he is when the books are out of print and the audiences are no longer applauding. I’ve decided to retire in order to make space for whatever else is out there’ (op. cit.).

Education as a spiritual journey

Parker J. Palmer has written in various places of the pain experienced by many educators. In particular he has highlighted the ‘pain of disconnection’. This disconnection is from colleagues, students, and their hearts (1993: x). The culture and size of the institutions and settings where people teach, the emphasis upon achieving grades and gaining marketable skills, and the pressure to ‘produce’ all take their toll. Hope, optimism and social commitment are not in abundance in many formal educational systems (see Halpin 2003). As a result, Parker Palmer suggests, some educators have been turning to the spiritual traditions for the hope they offer. All them, he says, ‘are ultimately concerned with getting us reconnected’ (1993: x). The problem with this it that in the past (and today) the spiritual traditions are often used ‘to obstruct inquiry rather than encourage it. As a result Parker Palmer looked to 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 behaviours of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his of 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. (Parker Palmer 1993: xi)

Palmer looks to an education that is prayerful and transcendent – for it is only when both are present can authentic and spontaneous relations flourish between ourselves and the world. Here we touch on what Parker Palmer views as the insight most central to spiritual experience: ‘we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us, known as members of a community of creation that depends on us and on which we depend’ (1983: 10).

Parker J. Palmer on knowing, teaching and learning

In To Know as We are Known (1983, 1993) Parker J. Palmer explores an understanding of education that looks to community and its recovery. He is concerned with knowing, teaching and learning. It is important to look at how Parker J. Palmer uses these terms. First knowing. He argues that the dominant mode of knowing in education is rooted in fear and creates disconnections between teachers, their subjects and their students (1983: 1-16; 1998: 50-60). This mode, which he calls ‘objectivism’ (and which shares many qualities with what Schön talks about as technical rationalism), ‘portrays truth as something we can only achieve by disconnecting ourselves physically and emotionally from the thing we want to know’ (Parker Palmer 1998: 51). Furthermore, it fails to give a proper account of what actually happens. ‘Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know’ (Palmer 1998: 54). Parker Palmer asks us to look beyond knowledge inspired either purely by curiosity or by a desire to control. The first, he suggests, ‘corresponds to pure speculative knowledge, to knowledge as an end in itself’. The second ‘corresponds to applied science, to knowledge as a means to practical ends’ (1983, 1993: 7). He argues that another kind of knowledge is open to us, ‘one that begins in a different passion and is drawn to other ends’ (ibid.: 8). This knowledge originates in compassion or love.

The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds. A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself. The mind motivated by compassion reaches out to know as the heart reaches out to love. Here, the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entertaining an embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own. In such knowing we know and are known as members of one community, and our knowing becomes a way of reweaving that community’s bonds. (Parker Palmer 1983; 1993: 8)

Such an understanding of knowing, Parker Palmer argues, is what our spiritual heritage claims. The origin of knowledge is love.

To appreciate how Parker Palmer approaches learning it is necessary to return to one of his early concerns – paradox (Palmer 1980). He argues that disconnection in teaching and learning is not only brought about by fear but by a western tendency to think in polarities. This tendency ‘elevates disconnection into an intellectual virtue’ (Palmer 1998: 61). As a way into appreciating the idea he has used the work of Niels Bohr the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Bohr once said that the ‘opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth’. In certain circumstances, Parker Palmer has argued, ‘truth is found not be splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and. In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know the truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one’ (Palmer 1998: 63). This concern with paradox appears to take Parker Palmer close to the approach of John Dewey and others, who argue that learning inevitably concerned with the exploration of differentiation within wholes.

Parker J. Palmer’s conception of teaching flows in significant part, he has argued, from Abba Felix and the desert searchers. ‘To teach’, he has argued, ‘is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced’ (1983: 69). While this may entail some of the standard forms we routinely associate with teaching, to embrace the sort of knowing and learning that Palmer is talking about requires a fundamentally different approach. At one level it entails a shift, as Carl Rogers might have put it, from the diadactive to the facilitative. At another, it involves recovering a sense of education as spiritual formation. Here three spiritual practices are of central importance: ‘the study of sacred texts, the practice of prayer and contemplation, and the gathered life of the community itself’ (Parker Palmer 1983; 1993: 17). This approach to teaching has much to recommend it – but as Palmer found many who encountered it distrusted the authoritarian connotations of the word ‘obedience’ (1993: xii). Instead he has substituted ‘the community of truth’ for ‘obedience to truth’ (see, for example, 1998: 90). He has argued that this ‘community of truth’ was what he originally meant by ‘obedience’ – ‘a rich and complex network of relationships in which we must both speak and listen, and make claims on others, and make ourselves accountable’ (Parker Palmer 1993: xii). In some ways the loss of the notion of obedience as an overt notion is a great pity. It becomes something implied. As a result there is always the danger that we do not engage with the full of the call that a commitment to truth makes upon us.

Participating in the community of truth

Parker J. Palmer argues that the cultivation of such communities of truth should be our goal as educators. A substantial part of The Courage to Teach is concerned with knowing, teaching and learning in community. He is at some pains to problematize some prominent models of community – the therapeutic, the civic, and the marketing (Parker Palmer 1998: 90). For, example, he is concerned that the focus on intimacy in the first can damage our capacity for connectedness with ‘the strange and the stranger’ (ibid.: 91). In a similar fashion, while the civic model of community offers something of a corrective to the therapeutic (the model is one of public mutuality rather than private vulnerability) and contains many features vital to teaching and learning, it can mean that the quest for the public good takes precedence over the truth (ibid.: 92). Parker Palmer laments the fact that the marketing model of community is ‘blitzing’ American education in the form of Total Quality Management. ‘The norms of the marketing model are quite straightforward: educational institutions must improve their product by strengthening relations with customers and becoming accountable to them’ (Parker Palmer 1998: 93). Apart from any other problems, and however important is the notion of accountability, the model suffers from ‘assuming the customer is always right’. Furthermore, we can argue, it introduces a language and orientation that works against many of the fundamental tenets of education (see globalization and the incorporation of education).

Parker Palmer looks to a what he sees as a more comprehensive form of community that has the capacity to support authentic education. and to develop its ‘core mission’ of knowing, teaching and learning.

The hallmark of the community of truth is not psychological intimacy or political civility or pragmatic accountability, though it does not exclude these virtues. This model of community reaches deeper, into ontology and epistemology – into assumptions about the nature of reality and how we know it – on which all education is built. The hallmark of a community of truth is in its claim that reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it. (Parker Palmer 1998: 95)

At the centre of this communal circle is a subject (and here Parker Palmer draws on Buber and others. ‘This distinction is crucial to knowing, teaching and learning: a subject is available for relationship; an object is not. When we know the other as a subject, we do not merely hold it at arm’s length’ (ibid.: 102-3). When this is added to the notion of truth that Parker Palmer employs – ‘truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline’ (1998: 104) we have a very powerful form. The commitment to conversation, and our willingness to engage with others in community ‘keeps us in the truth’ (op. cit.). Parker J. Palmer argues, further, that such a community is not just held together by our personal powers but also by the power of ‘the grace of great things’. By ‘great things’ he 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 (1998: 107).

To this combination, Parker Palmer adds a ‘third thing’ at the centre of the pedagogic circle. ‘True community in any context’, he states, ‘requires a transcendent third thing that holds both me and thee accountable to something beyond ourselves. The presence of the ‘third thing’ in a subject-centred place is ‘so real, so vivid, so vocal, that it can hold teachers and students alike accountable for what they say and do’ (op. cit.). In an earlier work on community Palmer also made explicit the significance of place in this.

Clearly community is a process. But it is also a place. When Buber says, “We expect a theophany of which we know nothing but the place, and the place is called community,” he suggests how process and place are intertwined. For theophany, the meeting with the living God, is obviously dynamic and full of movement. But for Christians and Jews that meeting always happens in the concrete places of this world. It is important to retain that sense of place lest community become one of those diffuse and disembodied words which excite our imaginations but never confront us with daily reality. (Parker Palmer 1977: 21)

The task of the educator in all this is to make a space so that the great thing has an independent voice, to speak for itself – and to be heard and understood.

Creating space for learning

In To Know As We Are Known, Parker J. Palmer argues that a learning space has three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries and an air of hospitality (1983; 1993: 71-75). In the first the educator and participants work to clear away the clutter – whether that is meaningless words, pressure to get on with the daily round, obstructive feelings, whatever. However, ‘the openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries‘ (ibid.: 72). It has to be a structure for learning, not ‘an invitation to confusion and chaos’. (op. cit.). Learning can be painful, its processes and outcomes off-putting. For this reason, and much in the same way that Ivan Illich championed conviviality, Parker J. Palmer has looked, helpfully, to hospitality. ‘Hospitality means receiving each other, our struggles, our newborn ideas, with openness and care’. He continues, ‘the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome’ (Parker Palmer 1983; 1993: 74).

Later, in The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer develops these points into a set of six paradoxical guidelines.

Exhibit 1: spaces for learning

Parker J. Palmer talks about six tensions or paradoxes that need to be built into learning spaces.

The space should be bounded and open. Without limits it is difficult to see how learning can occur. Explorations need a focus. However, spaces need to be open as well – open to the many paths down which discovery may take us. ‘If boundaries remind us that our journey has a destination, openness reminds us that there are many ways to reach that end’. More than that, openness allows us to find other destinations.

The space should be hospitable and “charged”. We may find the experience of space strange and fear that we may get lost. Learning spaces need to be hospitable – ‘inviting as well as open, safe and trustworthy as well as free’. When exploring we need places to rest and find nourishment. But if we feel too safe, then we may stay on the surface of things. Space needs to be charged so that we may know the risks involved in looking at the deeper things of life.

The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. Learning spaces should invite people to speak truly and honestly. People need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. This involves building environments both so that individuals can speak and where groups can gather and give voice to their concerns and passions.

The space should honour the “little” stories of those involved and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition. Learning spaces should honour people’s experiences, give room to stories about everyday life. At the same time, we need to connect these stories with the larger picture. We need to be able to explore how our personal experiences fit in with those of others; and how they may relate to more general ‘stories’ and understandings about life.

The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. Learning demands both solitude and community. People need time alone to reflect and absorb. Their experiences and struggles need to be respected. At the same time, they need to be able to call upon and be with others. We need conversations in which our ideas are tested and biases challenged.

The space should welcome both silence and speech. Silence gives us the chance to reflect on things. It can be a sort of speech ‘emerging from the deepest part of ourselves, of others, of the world’. At the same time we need to be able to put things into words so that we gain a greater understanding and to make concrete what we may share in silence.

Taken from Parker J. Palmer (1998) The Courage to Teach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pages 73 – 77.

Thus far, we have many of the key elements of an uplifting pedagogy – but Palmer has also brought us back to a further, fundamental aspect – the character and integrity of the educator.

Parker J. Palmer – attending to the inner life of educators

In one of a number of memorable passages in The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer dissects a fundamental problem with much of the discussion around educational reform:

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purposes and to what ends do we teach?

But seldom, 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 subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? (Parker Palmer 1998: 4)

We cannot hope to reform education, he argues, if we fail to cherish and challenge ‘the human heart that is the source of good teaching’ (Parker Palmer 1998: 3). For Parker Palmer, good teaching is rather more than technique: ‘good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher’ (Parker Palmer 2000: 11). This means that they both know themselves, and that they are seeking to live life as well as they can. Good teachers are, thus, connected, able to be in touch with themselves, with their students and their subjects – and act in ways that further flourishing and wholeness.

In a passage which provides one of the most succinct and direct rationales for a concern with attending to, and knowing, our selves Parker Palmer draws out the implications of his argument.

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together…. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject – not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the world as I am from personal truth. (Parker Palmer 1998: 2)

If we do not know who we are then we cannot know those we work with, nor the subjects we teach and explore. As educators we can work on this through things like keeping personal journals, exploring our feelings and experiences in supervision, talking with colleagues and friends, contemplation and prayer, and so on.


Parker J. Palmer has talked about vocation and calling in a number of different context – but here we want to highlight two different dimensions. First, and very significantly, he has looked at how subjects choose us.

Many of us were called to teach by encountering not only a mentor, but also a particular field of study. We are drawn to a body of knowledge because it shed light on our identity as well as on the world. We did not merely find a subject to teach – the subject also found us. (Parker Palmer 1998: 25)

Remaining open to that calling, listening for the voice of other subjects is vital if we are to sustain ourselves and our enthusiasm as educators.

Second, Parker Palmer has talked movingly about the calling of educators – and of his own changing understanding of vocation and how this has impacted upon him. Initially, through his socialization in church, he understood vocation, or calling, as something that came from ‘a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet – someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach’ (Parker Palmer 2000: 10). The problem with this both for him and for others is that when we focus on what we ‘ought’ to be doing we can easily fall prey to malignant external forces that distort our identity and integrity. We end up feeling inadequate and guilty. Such an understanding of vocation is, according to Parker Palmer (2000: 10) rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood – that we will tend to selfishness ‘unless corrected by external forces of virtue’. Parker Palmer has come to know vocation in a different way – ‘not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received’ (op. cit.). The voice of vocation is not ‘out there’ but within us ‘calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given me at birth by God (op. cit.). In the light of this Parker J. Palmer concludes that the authentic call to teach ‘comes from the voice of the teacher within, the voice that calls me to honour the nature of my true self’ (1998: 29).

Parker J. Palmer – an assessment and conclusion

So what critique can be mounted against these arguments? Here we want to highlight four areas – ongoing debate around the nature of truth; the particular notion of selfhood that Parker J. Palmer employs; attention to the social, political and economic context; and the process of learning.

First, there will be those who are deeply uncomfortable with Parker J. Palmer’s embracing of the spiritual and with his dismissal of what he calls ‘objectivism’. Substantial elements of his thinking will not resonate with readers who doubt the existence of God. While there are some ways around this – for example, viewing connectedness as both a genetic inheritance and something that is learned, or accepting the centrality of the character and integrity of the educator (but without a fully holistic appreciation of what these might entail) – the whole project is rather empty without faith. In a similar fashion those who believe there is considerable power in technical models of rationality will find Parker Palmer’s focus deeply suspect – just as they would Dewey’s focus on differientation within wholes or Schön’s critique of technical-rationality as a positivist epistemology of practice. Debates about the nature of truth are not about to be resolved (Blackburn 2005).

Second, the model of selfhood that Parker Palmer employs with it’s strong demarcation between inner and outer (admittedly mediated by the presence of the ‘third thing’ and his emphasis upon connectiveness) still tends to a particular, western or northern, understanding. As Burkitt (1991: 1) has put it, ‘the view of human beings as self-contained unitary individuals who carry their uniqueness deep inside themselves, like pearls hidden in their shells’ is deeply engrained (see the discussion of selfhood elsewhere on these pages). In this way of understanding ourselves the body plays a crucial role. The skin becomes a boundary – everything that happens outside the wall it forms becomes the other – the world outside; what is inside is me – the world inside (Sampson 1993). As an alternative we might look to a more interactional or dialogical appreciation of selfhood that places connection in even stronger position. Such a perspective flows from the idea that people’s lives ‘are characterized by the ongoing conversations and dialogues they carry out in the course of their everyday activities, and therefore that the most important thing about people is not what is contained within them, but what transpires between them’ (Sampson 1993: 20). It might well be that a fuller embracing of such thinking around selfhood would have added further power to his argument. Part of the problem that Parker J. Palmer faces in his writing is that a significant proportion of his audience have difficulty moving beyond the constraints of individualized notions of selfhood. This means that while he places considerable emphasis on knowing and being in community – it is filtered by many through a bounded notion of the self. As a result, there has been a tendency on the part of some readers at least to not properly grasp the significance of community and to remain focused on their individualized selves. This may also be something to do with the titling and structuring of The Courage to Teach and to identification with his confessional style of writing.

Third, given his background in sociology, it is surprising that Parker Palmer hasn’t developed a stronger structural critique with regard to education, learning and teaching in his later books. In earlier work (e.g. The Company of Strangers) there was more attention to this area, and there remains some acknowledgement of context. He does argue that teachers must be paid more, freed from bureaucratic harassment and given a role in academic government (Palmer 1998: 3). Parker J. Palmer also gives some sound guidance with regard to the importance of social movements within education and the need to cultivate them. However, what we do not get is an extended treatment of why we fail to cherish the human heart – and what social and political forces might be in play. Nor do we get a full exploration of the economic, social and political situation of learners and teachers. This is a shame, for as C. Wright Mills has pointed out, it is important to ‘know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making’ (1959: 226). Without an appreciation of this many efforts at change in education will founder as those involved put energy into unproductive activity and become dispirited at the lack of progress made.

Fourth, compared with his attention to teaching and knowing, the process of learning is relatively under-explored by Parker J. Palmer. There has been a significant amount of relatively recent work around reflection and learning that would strengthen his exploration. Some of the more obvious candidates here include Donald Schön on reflection; Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on communities of practice; and the various writers exploring situated learning.

In a sense, these are relatively minor quibbles when one considers the significance of Parker J. Palmer’s work. He has provided us with the strongest and most direct exploration of what the ‘inner landscape’ of teachers might look like; one of the best explorations of spirituality in education; and a strong model of what reflective, engaged and connected teaching, learning and knowing might look like. Talking of mentors Parker Palmer (1998: 21) wrote: ‘Their power lies in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later by recalling their impact on our lives’. Palmer has that capacity to awaken truth within us, to encourage us to allow it to live and to radiate throughout our lives.

Further reading and references

Intrator, S. (ed.) (2005) Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Life and Work of Parker J. Palmer, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 416 pages. A celebration of Palmer’s work with chapters from a range of distinguished contributors.

Palmer, Parker J. (1977) A Place called Community, Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Publications. Available as a pdf download –

Palmer, Parker, J. (1980) The Promise of Paradox, Ave Maria Press. 125 pages.

Palmer, Parker J. (1983) The Company of Strangers: Christians and the renewal of American public life, New York: Crossroad. In this influential book Palmer examines our public experience – our ‘life among strangers with whom our lot is cast, with whom we are interdependent whether we like it or not’ and the educational processes that ‘brings us out of ourselves into an awareness of our connectedness’.

Palmer, Parker J. (1983, 1993) To Know as We are Known. Education as a spiritual journey, San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco. 130 + xix pages. A fascinating and influential exploration of education as spiritual formation. ‘To teach’, he argues, ‘is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced’.

Palmer, Parker, J. (1990 ) The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, Harper and Row (now published San Francisco: Jossey-Bass). 162 + xii pages. The early chapters explore the spirituality of work, creativity and caring in readiness for a series of six reflections on poems and stories that bring insights into ‘the spirituality of active life’.

Palmer, Parker J. (1997) ‘The grace of great things. Recovering the sacred in knowing, teaching and learning’, Spirituality in Education Online,

Palmer, Parker. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Based on the premise that good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, but comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher, this book explores a number of themes central to informal education and to Christian teaching.

Palmer, Parker, J. (2000) Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 117 + x pages. Fascinating series of essays exploring calling linked to the well-known Quaker admonition.

Palmer, Parker J. (2004) A Hidden Wholeness; The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 208pages. This book ‘brings together four themes … the shape of an integral life, the meaning of community, teaching and learning for transformation, and non-violent social change.

Palmer, Parker, J. et. al. (1990) Caring for the Commonweal: Education for Religious and Public Life, Mercer University Press.


Blackburn, S. (2005) Truth. A guide for the perplexed, London: Allen Lane.

Burkitt, I. (1990) Social Selves. Theories of the social formation of personality, London: Sage.

Dalton J. (2002) ‘One Year Later: Exploring the Larger Questions of Learning and Life after September 11 – An Interview with Parker J. Palmer’.

Faith Alive Books (2004) ‘Let Your Life Speak’,

Halpin, D. (2003) Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination, London, Routledge-Falmer.

Jones, J. (2002) ‘Recapturing the courage to teach. An interview with Parker J. Palmer’, TeacherView.Com,

McDonald, W. M. and Palmer, P. J. (eds.) (2002) Creating Campus Community: In Search of Ernest Boyer’s Legacy, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Sampson, E. E. (1993) Celebrating the Other. A dialogic account of human nature, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.


Center for Teacher Formation: Runs programmes around The Courage to Teach.

Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction: has four articles by Parker J. Palmer reprinted from Change Magazine.

Pendle Hill. Details of the current work of the center plus downloadable publications.

Acknowledgement: The picture of Parker J. Palmer and Staci Haines is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence. It is by fteleaders/6220986487  – and sourced from Flickr.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2005). ‘Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: inset date].

© Mark K. Smith 2005