Teaching as Pez dispensers – Parker Palmer and the active vs. contemplative life

One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

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