The following interview is shared with you by both Parker Palmer and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click here. To find out more about Parker Palmer and his work, visit the Center for Courage & Renewal where he serves as Senior Partner, visit his Facebook page, and read his new book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.
Isaac Graves: What does community mean to you?
Parker Palmer: Well, you know, I think the word community has a sort of prism, prismatic quality to it, in that every time you turn it, it refracts the light a little differently. I think it has a lot of meanings to a lot of people. The one that came to me just when you asked the question, is that community means taking each other seriously. Which is something that I think we need to do at every level of life. I mean we know that a marriage or a relationship with a significant other, or parenting, doesn’t work very well if we don’t take each other seriously. But the same is also true of living in a neighborhood, living in a civil community, living in a democracy, and certainly it’s true in the classroom—or in schools. So, in a very generic way, I think community means paying attention to each other, being aware of each other’s needs, being—feeling accountable to each other, interacting around important goals and not always trying to go it alone as we Americans so love to do. So that would be at least a starting point for me. I lived for 11 years in an intentional community—a Quaker community called Pendle Hill near Philadelphia where 80 people lived a daily round of life that involved silent meeting for worship, Quaker style, physical work, decision making, eating meals together, maintaining the property, and studying—I was Dean of studies there and we had classes on both the inner and the outer life for adult students. So, you know, I’ve lived in a sort of classic form of community which is bounded by space, I mean we had 22 acres and 18 buildings and we had a kitchen and a garden and all that stuff. So, that was for 11 years, a very intense experience of community. We also did some pretty radical economic sharing in that everyone who lived there got the same based salary. I had a PhD from Berkley and I was Dean of Students but I got the same based salary as an 18 year old coming to cook in the kitchen or to work in the shop or the garden because he or she didn’t know what to do next with their life. And that was, for me, that was a great equalizer—a great leveling—it had a great leveling effect, this being on the same scale without any regard to statist of rank, or education, or privilege. And it—as I’ve often said—it helped me do something very important which was to loose my sense of entitlement as a white middle class male who grew up in the suburbs at the benefit of a good education and I think, in my early 30’s, a pretty strong sense of entitlement. 11 years of Pendle Hill was a sort of exercise in de-programming for me. So, you can look to community in that very intense form of intentional residential community of radical sharing, both sharing economically, sharing space, sharing spiritually, psychologically, emotionally. Pendle Hill was all of that and more. It was also a community that took stands and took actions in the larger world. But the point, of course, is that very few people in our society are ever going to have that kind of intentional community in their lives. So, if we are going to give people experiences of community it’s going to have to be in smaller doses. And so I go back to taking each other seriously as an operating definition of community, which is in fact one that I’ve never used before—I’ve never said those words before as far as I know as a definition of community. But they kind of interest me because they give rise to a question, which is: In a classroom, in a neighborhood, in a family, in a voluntary association, in a religious institution, how might we learn to take each other seriously? So, that’s—to me questions like that are very generative because they can kind of give us our marching orders when we hope to foster an experience for people that we think they need. You know, when I throw your world democracy into the mix, God knows we need more and more people who have a capacity to take other people seriously. Especially people they disagree with—and not just write them off or blow them off. I should just add parenthetically that I just finished a new book that will be out in August called “Healing the Heart of Democracy”—subtitled is “The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”. So, these issues of democracy and community are very much on my mind. In fact, I have a chapter in that book about the contributions that can be made in classrooms and school settings to this larger topic. So anyway, that’s a bit of a ramble. But the core definition is there for whatever use it may be to you.
IG: How does community play out in your life?
PP: Well, when I left Pendle Hill which was in 1985, I sort of felt like I was going back out into the cold, hard world of individualism, you know? Because I knew that the circumstances under which I had lived for 11 years were pretty rare. I think I went through a period of time of really feeling like in the long run Pendle Hill would have been my immersion in community and there wouldn’t be much more along those lines. But life has a way of surprising us. In the early 90’s, not long after I left Pendle Hill, to make a very long story short, I started a project that has now become the Center for Courage and Renewal. I don’t know if you’re aware of that outfit—you can check out our website. We do a lot of work with public school teachers—these public school teachers and their needs were one of the main motivations behind our founding. We now have 200 facilitators who in effect create community all over the country, in a varying 30 states and 50 cities and they work with people in many different roles: K-12 teachers, school leaders, clergy of various backgrounds, non profit leaders, physicians and other health care professionals, and now with citizens in that sort of generic role that we all share. Work with these groups through a series of retreats, that are aimed at helping people bring their identity and integrity more fully into their personal, professional and public lives. And so that work, which is scattered around the country but which started with me, which then moved onto the staff people who helped me found the Center for Courage and Renewal, now to 200 facilitators and to the 40,000 people we have worked with. That network has become my community in many ways. And I am 72 years old now and since I turned 65 I have essentially been volunteering my time for this organization because like every non-profit we are trying to make it work on a shoe-string budget without a lot of loose change lying around for anybody. Wanting to continue to serve people like teachers who can’t afford much by way of extended series of retreats but who need exactly that—so I’ll just mention for example the typical program that we run for teachers would involve a group of 25 teachers who journey together over a 2 year period through 8 retreats of about 3 days each on a quarterly basis—so it’s not just a one weekend mountain top experience, it’s really a deepening experience for individuals and it’s a community formation experience for the group and the community of 25 teachers or 25 clergy or 25 philanthropists or health care folk or whatever. This community becomes very important to people, because one of the sad realities of our society is that a lot of teacher and other professionals work in silos where they’re separated from one another and don’t have the kind of support that community has to offer. So, we try to keep the cost down so that it becomes possible for more and more people. So this network of folks is my community and I live in Madison, Wisconsin and there people here in town whom I see regularly and I’m married and my wife and I are kind of the wards of my 20 year old granddaughter. So I have a lot more traditional forms of close, at home community but you know as is true of many people these days there’s a very powerful dimension of my community life that is scattered across the country that keeps in touch with each other virtually and electronically that shares a common goal. Because I am able to travel and volunteer to help the center with serious events that are related to this work, I see a fair amount of these people too. My community is, I think the largest form that it takes is this community of shared concern, of people who are pursuing a common purpose in this world. And certainly to go back to your first question, community can and sometimes does mean sharing a common purpose. Now, I didn’t want to limit my definition of community to that, because we need to have civic community in a democracy, where it’s not clear that everyone shares a common purpose, but we still need to be able to talk to each other. So, I don’t want to limit my generic definition of community that way, but in terms of what I understand as my community—like the most close end community to me, that combines personal and professional and public life, it is this group of people with very much a shared purpose.
IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?
PP: I think probably it is that it is caught up in that word purpose. You know, human beings don’t thrive if they don’t have sense of purpose in life and while it’s important to develop an individual sense of purpose I’m unable to imagine an individual sense of purpose that doesn’t require, or even demand, community in order to pursue it. So, I feel very blessed by the fact that I have a community that sort of undergirds my personal sense of purpose—supports and animates it and helps me achieve it, in the same way that I help others achieve theirs. So there’s a lot of mutuality in my understanding of this. So, that’s certainly one of the things that I find most valuable. I also find it valuable to have people in my life who will speak honestly to me not only sharing my joys, you know my successes, but also telling me where they think I’ve got it wrong. That’s really, really important. I have found—you know I’ve been writing and giving talks, and playing various kinds of leadership roles for 40 years and one of the things that I started seeing maybe 10 or 15 years ago was the older and better established I got and (to use a word that I really don’t like very much and if you have to understand that I use it with hesitation and with a real sense of limits), but as I became more “famous” in my own field, the fewer and fewer people were able to raise this hand after a talk and say: “Well I think you’re full of horse hockey”. When I was younger, that was no problem. And I learned, I’ve always been aware that I learn more from my critics than from my fans. Because your fans, they’re wonderful, they pump you up, they make you feel good about yourself and I’m grateful for that. But you know your critics cause you to chew on stuff and make you rethink stuff and often time learn things that you need to know. So, I think that right alongside this mutuality of purpose and meaning, what I find most valuable from my community is this honest dialogue or discourse that just covers the whole range. Like, if I bring a joy to them they don’t think I’m bragging they celebrate it with me. If I bring a sorrow to them, they help me heal. And if they think I’ve got it wrong they tell me. I trust them to give me honest feedback. I suppose what I’ve just done is put a little more language around my opening definition that community is about taking each other seriously. So those are some of the ways, that I just named, that I think we need to take each other seriously.
IG: What's missing in community?
PP: Well I think that in this ago of virtual community and high social mobility and people able to work together but at great distance, I miss being face to face with a number of people in my network that I value. I mean, I’ve got at least 200 people out there that I really do value, with whom I have a strong sense of shared purpose, only a few of them are in town. So, yeah I miss that. The face to face opportunities where communication can be more nuanced and conversation, I think, can go deeper. I mean I’m lucky that the work we do involves actually gathering people in retreat settings and formats because that means that there is a certain amount of face to faceness with this work. But compared to my 11 years at Pendle Hill, it’s pretty thin in that regard. I do wonder, every now and again, what price we are going to pay as a society or as individuals, for generation after generation of people who think that online encounters are the ultimate form of human encounter. I don’t believe that’s the case. I think there’s something about being face to face with each other that is irreplaceable and that adds very important dimensions to the experience that we’re calling community. So, I think that’s probably the thing that doesn’t exist for me—it’s not that it’s all together absent, but I would be glad for more of it.
IG:What is an ideal community to you?
PP: Well, you know, I saw that question on your list just under your part one and I have to say that I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean by this because these are things you’re studying and these are things you live. For me the words ideal and community just don’t go together. I think community is tough. I think taking each other seriously is hard work. And I think that some of the most important learnings in community come from screwing up. There’s a remarkable man, that I admire very greatly, named Jean Vanier, French Canadian who founded a series of communities around the world called L’Arche, which are places where a very remarkable form of intentional community, where people who do not have developmental disabilities, or at least as we commonly understand those developmental disabilities, who do not have such disabilities live side by side, in full partnership with people who have a variety mental and or physical, developmental disabilities. It’s a very very powerful experience to be in a large community because for all kinds of reasons, but Jean Vanier has a book on community in which he offers one of the best definitions of community that I’ve ever heard—he says: “Community is a continual act of forgiveness”. And I just think there’s a lot of truth in that, I mean when we come together in community we stumble over each other and we hurt each other and we consciously of unconsciously betray each other, etc. we let each other down etc. etc. And what I’ve always thought was so critically important was to understand those experiences not as the end of community but as the doorway into true community. I think there are sort of false forms of community, “make believe” community, where people aren’t around each other enough to get past just being nice and they mistake that for community. I think a lot churches for example, or places where people show up on Sunday and for a couple hours they’re on their best behavior and they make nice on each other as the saying goes. And they think they’ve experienced community—but that ain’t community. That’s just—it’s a charade of some sort. So I think—what’s interesting is an ideal community for me would be a community which fully embraces the fact that we can never live in an ideal way. A community that accepts our flaws, our brokenness, our need for forgiveness and our need to forgive one another. So, you know it’s tempting—if the question has to do with something like ‘where would an ideal community be along this continuum from Pendle Hill (which is where people are face to face 24-7), to this more virtual kind of community that we were talking about earlier. I have no idea what the answer is. To me it’s whatever you’re able to do under the limits of your own life in your current situation, given the realities of who’s involved and what’s involved. Whatever you’re able to do to structure relationships in which people take each other seriously, I think that that would be the ideal community to me.
IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?
PP: Well I think one thing to say is, of course you and I both see intimate connections between part one and part two of your interview, and so I’ll begin by saying everything we’ve just been talking about is part of what a democratic education means to me. You know, if we could create community in the classroom or in the school along the lines that I’ve just discussed, we would give kids a lived experience of what it means to take each other seriously and to negotiate our differences and to work past the hard places, you know to treat the crises and the collisions as opportunities to go deeper into community rather than as excuses to run away from each other screaming. And you know, it’s so clear that our democracy today is really I think perhaps even in an accelerating state of atrophy because so many people, they either want to go it alone—without reference to the needs of anybody else—or they have very destructive ways of dismissing or marginalizing other people. It seems to be the toxin in our society these days, you know, that if you’re pro-abortion and I’m anti-abortion, then I’m the devil to you and you’re the devil to me. And that kind of thing is really the death knell of democracy. It creates a situation where because we don’t take each other seriously there’s no conceivable way for us to be part of “we the people”—which is the clarion call of American democracy, the foundation of American democracy. And there’s no conceivable way for us to determine what’s in the common good because we can’t even talk to each other. So, it seems to me that a democratic education would give kids a lived experience of everything we’ve been talking about. In the new book I’ve written I reach that to Alexis de Tocqueville, this French visitor who came to America in the 1830’s and wrote this amazing book called “Democracy in America” which was so prophetic and prescient. But even in that book he says that the fate of American democracy will depend in part on what he calls the habits of the heart that its citizens develop. He names schools as one of the key places where those habits of the heart develop. And by habits of the heart he does not mean simply the emotions but he meant a central place in the human self where all of our capacities converge. So a habit of the heart involves the intellect as well as the emotions. It involves intuition, it involves will, and so forth. And he saw schools as critical places where those habits of the heart get formed. Well, what happens I think, in a lot of public education especially, is that democratic education gets boiled down to some wrote learning of American history, the structure of American government, the ways laws get passed—you know kind of the skeleton of the thing. And while that kind of information or knowledge is worth having, having it doesn’t make you a citizen of a democracy. You become a citizen of a democracy when you learn how to both speak and listen in the midst of diversity of opinion and sometimes considerable conflict. So, in the book I do a lot with this habits of the heart concept. At one point I say: If somebody were to press me to give 2 words that would pin point the habits of the heart that I think we most need, those two words would be chutzpah and humility. So the capacity to speak my voice, and the to think that it can make a difference, and also the humility to know that I need to listen to other to enlarge my understanding of what’s true. So, these are things that we should be working with in school. And yet these are hard times, as you well know, because so much of this kind of stuff—everything that’s not directly related to the high stakes standardized tests is being driven out of public education. And the kind of education and community that we’ve just been talking about I’m afraid is part of that, along with art, and music, and a lot of other good things. So, democratic education to me means replicating both the demands and the opportunities of life in a democratic society, in the school itself and in the classroom. And I think that you could take that in dozens of different directions all the way from student involvement in decision making to more communal forms of teaching and learning, etc. etc.
IG: How does education play out in your life?
PP: I’m grateful for the education I got. Although, like most of us I had to un-learn a bunch of stuff in order to learn the deeper lessons of life after school. There’s so much that school doesn’t prepare you for and can’t prepare you for. But I’m very valuable—I think I’m especially valuable for and especially grateful for the liberal arts education I got for the sort of broad based education in philosophy and literature, history, the arts, social science. You know I find that having that broad base has served me well in a thousand different ways. I think what I am saying is that I am grateful for the fact that what plays out in my life most powerfully from my own educational background is not any particular specialization but it’s the education of the generalist that has best equipped me for the life I’ve lived. Education also plays out in that I understand myself to be a student to this day. You know as people say: life long learning. At age 72 that doesn’t stop—I don’t think it stops until you’re dead myself. If you’re still alive before you die, it won’t stop. The book I just finished on democracy is probably the most challenging book I’ve ever written. It’s my 9th book and when I took it on at age 65 or 66 when I started it, I thought “man, I don’t know if I have enough energy to do this—to do something that’s going to require so much learning on my part”. But I’m awfully glad that I took it on because I learned an enormous amount, and I’m glad I know what I now know. And then the other way it plays out in my life, in addition to being a critical part of my background and an ongoing part of my journey, I mean I don’t know—I wouldn’t know how to live if I didn’t know how to learn from my living. It’s absolutely—it’s a survival thing I think, the capacity to learn from what you’re living. Without which experience is opaque and often very harsh and can be destructive. But if you can extract something from it, you can make meaning out of your experience and I think that’s what we’re in the business of doing. So one more way education plays out in my life is that I never stopped being an educator. I’m doing it to this day in the work that I do for the Center for Courage and Renewal and I’m really, really grateful for that. I spent 5 years of my life, right after graduate school at Berkeley I spent 5 years as a community organizer. For a while I thought “Gosh—the cities are burning and I really feel called to work on race relations in the Washington D.C. area”, which is where I went to be a community organizer. But I really missed what I thought my vocation was—which was to be a teacher. One morning early on, I woke up and realized that even as a community organizer I was still a teacher. And if your vocation is to teach, then you will teach no matter what you’re doing. So, I feel that teaching is part of my deepest identity. There’s no way for me not to teach—when I’m writing a book, I’m teaching. When I’m talking with my 20-year-old granddaughter, I’m teaching. It’s just education is a red thread that runs through everything for me.
IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?
PP: Well I think it is in fact, I’ll loop back with the language of your questions itself, I think that it is—if you have an education and you continue to get an education, then you are also likely to have the capacity to continue to make meaning in your life. To make meaning of your experience. And so I think the most meaningful part of education from where I sit, and I think from in the lives of most people I know, it is the power it gives you to make meaning which is such a fundamental human need without which people die. They either die metaphorically, spiritually, or they die literally.
IG: What's missing in education?
PP: I’m going to loop back here, I mean there’s a lot I think that we could talk about. For one thing if we’re talking about K-12 education, what’s missing is any real concern for the kids—you know we’re more concerned with the tests than we are with kids. Not because teacher’s want to be, but because they’re under enormous pressure to “live up to the tests” rather than serve the best interests, or deepest needs of this student or that student. But I could name all kinds of things that are being driven out by high stakes testing, whether it’s No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, you know it all comes out in the same place. There’s more about adults trying to look good than there is about trying to serve the true needs of kids. So I think that—I want to go back to that word spirituality that we used early on. What spirituality means to me, is not anything to do with creed or dogma or theology or formal religious belief. I think the word points to what I would call the dimension of depth in human life—this dimension of meaning and purpose that we’re been talking about all along. My generic definition of spirituality is that spirituality is the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than “my own ego”. Because if all you are connected with is your own ego, life is pretty lonely. People give different kinds of answers to that yearning, or they find that they fulfill that yearning in different ways. Some of them are filled with light and some of them are filled with darkness. And so it’s a neutral definition that can take you in any direction, which is what a definition ought to be. What I find missing in education is this willingness to dive beneath the surface into these depths of meaning and purpose and what is this largeness that I’m connected to—whether that’s human history or the environment or the needs of the world—whatever that may be, I don’t think there’s much going on in education that helps students explore those questions of depth where most of us end up—well the people that I admire at any rate—end up wanting and needing to go. They would mostly say, “I did not get much help doing that from my formal education”. Well I think young people are ready for that dimension of depth. I think they have a natural curiosity. I think they have very active inner lives and I think any discipline in the curriculum can take us there in some pretty interesting ways when it’s taught by a teacher with some imagination who really wants to connect with kids. I think that’s what I want from education that currently doesn’t exist, it has something to do (doesn’t it?) with the formation of the heart in the sense that Alexis de Tocqueville used the word in his phrase habits of the heart. What habits of the heart are we helping kids develop in school? How deep do those habits go? How life giving are they? How resilient are they going to be in the face of the true challenges of life? I think these are the kinds of questions that education needs to attend to.
IG: What is an ideal education to you?
PP: I think, again, I would say an ideal education is one that allows kids to make mistakes and learn from them, and to understand that failure is not the end of the road but might be the beginning of the most important thing in your life. So, I think that an ideal education would make room for human limitation and human frailty along with expanding human potential. If I had to put it in the most general possible terms, I would say that an ideal education would be structured in such a way that allows us to just keep the focus on the kids. To remember that we’re not subjects so much as we’re teaching children. I think there are tens of thousands of teachers who want to do that, that’s why they went into the business in the first place, but I think the conditions under which they work make it really difficult to do that. If they don’t teach to the test, they loose their jobs, their schools suffer, their colleagues suffer, and their kids suffer. But because the whole thing is being driven by something other than true educational imperatives, everyone suffers at an even deeper level from the fact that we’re just not doing what we need to do and what most teachers want to do. So, it’s partly a structural question that would take us in many directions, including public policy issues around public education, but for a quick answer that’s the one I’d give.
IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?
PP: Well for me, and this is I suppose the core of what I’ve been writing about for a number of years, for me if you ask people, “At it’s core, what is education about?” I think a fair answer would be “education is about knowing, teaching and learning”. And what interests me is the fact that knowing, teaching and learning—if we can agree that those are three key words in the mission statement of any educational institution—is that all three of those human activities, knowing, teaching, and learning, are communal activities. Knowing is not—is never a function of individual genius. No one ever gets declared a genius until what he or she has discovered gets tested in community. So knowing is a communal process of people sorting and sifting evidence and offering alternative interpretations and doing it across space and over time. So at it’s very heart you can’t know anything if you can’t function in community, or if you’re unwilling to function in community. I could go on about teaching and learning in the same way. Teaching is about creating a community of connections between the teacher, the student, and the students and the subject. And what good teachers are basically in the business of doing is weaving a community of connections in the classrooms, in the lab, in the field, wherever it may be, that evokes the learning capacities. And so learning, also, is best done in community. It’s relational, it’s interactive. So I think what I’m trying to say here, to put it negatively, community is not some sort of add on or decorative element in education. It’s right at the heart of these three things that are key to the mission of every educational institution. If we don’t have community in a school, if we don’t have community in a classroom, if community is not a key dimension or element in our pedagogy, then the mission of knowing and teaching and learning simply can’t be fulfilled. You know we can deliver information into the heads of kids and get them to parrot it back on tests, but we all know that that’s not learning. That may be individualized instruction that allows each student, one by one by one, to pass the exam but that’s not getting educated. And so, I think that’s where I would finally come down on that.