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Monday, May 21, 2012

Confronting Institutions That Dominate Lives

Parker Palmer

There is a call for a new professional -- 
one who can confront, challenge,
and help change the workplace.

-Parker J. Palmer
Founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal

I read these words and the article by Palmer titled "A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited" and found myself saying, "Yes, that's right!" over and over again.

Today, people feel increasingly powerless to change almost anything: health care, education, the justice system, democracy itself. Why?

1. "The public lacks the knowledge and access necessary to get sufficient leverage for social change. They need the skill and will to pull the levers of transformation."

2. "The functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structures that house it. The fact that we have schools does not mean we have education. The fact that we have hospitals does not mean we have health care. The fact that we have courts does not mean we have justice.

"We need professionals who are 'in but not of' their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values."

In the article, Palmer asks this question: "How might we prepare students to be teachers, lawyers, physicians, and clergy—to say nothing of parents and neighbors and citizens—who can help transform the institutions that dominate our lives?"

I am using large portions of Palmer's article in this post. I hope everyone excuses the plagiarism. I want you to read the entire piece at I owe this entire post to this entry.I merely have summarized some important information.

Five Immodest Proposals

To answer the question above, Parker Palmer makes what he calls "five immodest proposals." The following represent those proposals:

(1) We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless—an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue.

We professionals have a bad habit of telling themselves victim stories to excuse unprofessional behavior: “The Devil [read, ‘the system’] made me do it.”

Parker says, "We are conditioned to think this way. The hidden curriculum of our culture portrays institutions as powers other than us, over which we have marginal control at best—powers that will harm us if we cross them. But while we may find ourselves marginalized or dismissed for calling institutions to account, they are neither other than us nor alien to us: institutions are us.

"The shadows that institutions cast over our ethical lives
 are external expressions of our own inner shadows, individual and collective.
If institutions are rigid, it is because we fear change.

"If institutions are competitive,
it is because we value winning over all else.
If institutions are heedless of human need,
 it is because something in us also is heedless."

If we are even partly responsible for creating institutional dynamics, we also possess the power to alter them. We need to help students understand and take responsibility for all the ways we co-create institutional pathologies.

The power of the “inner light” to alter the external world is demonstrated in almost every movement for positive social change: the black liberation struggle, the woman’s movement, the Velvet Revolution, the undoing of apartheid—every one of which was animated by people who had been stripped of external power. But these apparently powerless people moved boulders by drawing on the power of the inner life—a power no one could take from them—in a disciplined and dedicated way. The new professional will understand this history of “powerless” people who have harnessed the power of the human heart to remake our world.

(2) We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects.

We unconsciously give institutions more power than they possess because we are taught to do so by our culture’s hidden curriculum. But we consciously give emotions less respect than they deserve because of what we are taught by our culture: “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.” The message is simple: If you want to stay safe, hide your feelings. And conventional education elevates this “folk wisdom” to the status of “philosophical truth” by demanding that we stifle subjectivity for the sake of objective knowledge.

"So the education of a new professional will reverse the academic notion
that we must suppress our emotions in order to become technicians.
Students will learn to explore their feelings about themselves,
the work they do, the people with whom they work,
 the institutional settings in which they work, the world in which they live."

They will be taught to honor painful emotions such as anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and burnout. They will be taught that such feelings are neither signs of weakness, nor sources of shame, nor irrelevant to the complex challenges of knowing, working, and living.

"We will not teach future professionals emotional distancing
 as a strategy for personal survival.
We will teach them instead how to stay close to emotions
that can generate energy for institutional change,
which might help everyone survive."

The fact that good pedagogy requires emotional intelligence has been demonstrated time and again by educational researchers. The effective exercise of our profession requires us to tap into our own and our students’ feelings.

Education in mathematics is a prime example. It was long assumed that females failed at math because their brains were structured differently than men’s. Then came a generation of pedagogues who saw the secret hidden in plain sight: Women are told early on that “girls can’t do math,” so they come to class with minds paralyzed by fear. Today, as many math educators pay attention to emotions as well as to the intellect, women succeed in math at rates similar to those of men.

(3) We must start taking seriously the “intelligence” in emotional intelligence.

We must do more than affirm and harness the power of emotions to animate learning and leadership: We must help our students develop the skill of “mining” their emotions for knowledge.

By and large, academic culture honors only two kinds of knowing—empirical observation and logical reasoning. But science begins in the hunches, intuitions, and bodily knowing that lie behind testable hypotheses. As philosophers of science such as Michael Polanyi demonstrate, what we call “objective” knowledge emerges from an interplay of our inner and outer worlds. And people who do good work of any sort, however technical, understand that not everything they need to know can be found in data points and cognitive constructs.

"Good teachers, lawyers, physicians, and leaders
bring at least as much art as science to their work,
art rooted partially in the affective knowledge
that eludes empirical measurement."

But the subtext of most higher education is that emotions are inimical to objectivity and must be suppressed. As a result, educated people tend to compartmentalize their feelings—acknowledging them in private life, perhaps, but regarding them as dangerous to academic or professional life. Professionals are “supposed to be” in charge at all times, and we fear that feeling too deeply will cause us to lose control.

People such as Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Dorothy Day, and Nelson Mandela named, claimed, and aimed their feelings, which shaped their knowledge, animated their actions, and attracted millions to their causes.

The women’s movement is a case in point. From the late 19th century until well into the 20th, women’s feelings of isolation and marginality were seen as personal pathologies, grist for the therapeutic mill if one could afford a psychiatrist. But when women began to understand that these feelings, these data, did not reveal sick psyches but a social condition called sexism, it became clear that their best therapy lay in agitating for social change.

"By translating “I feel crazy (or stupid or fearful or overwhelmed),
so something is wrong with me” into “I feel crazy, so something is wrong
with this institution or society,” we can begin to extract information,
as well as energy, from our emotions."

(4) We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support.

Not all personal feelings yield knowledge about the world—some really are reflections of personal rather than social pathologies. Mining our emotions for truth requires as much discipline as mining the senses and the intellect, and at the heart of that discipline is the communal sorting and sifting that helps us distinguish fool’s gold from the real thing.

Whatever the data source is, the question is always the same: How much of what I claim to know can be verified from viewpoints other than my own, and how much of it is my invention? A disciplined process of group reflection—whether that means a team working on a long-term problem or two people assessing a crisis—can help us distinguish between emotions that illuminate our environment and those that simply reveal our own shadows. Both kinds of knowledge are valuable, but they invite quite different responses.

"Unfortunately, faced with the claim that feelings as well as facts
must be addressed in the education of the new professional,
many faculty will say, 'I’m a biologist (or sociologist, or philosopher),
not a therapist. So don’t ask me to be one.'"

I am not making any such request. Therapy done by an amateur is an ugly form of psychological violence.

"But disciplined group inquiry led by a skilled teacher
is one of the most reliable ways to extract information from data of all sorts,
including emotional data. And the more experience we give students
 with this kind of inquiry, the more likely they are to read
their own feelings accurately when they lack time to summon a group."

In addition to discernment, there is another reason to teach our students how to cultivate community. Every serious effort at social change requires organized groups of people who can support each other when the demands of being a change agent threaten to overwhelm them and can generate the collective power necessary to make a difference.

Without communities that encourage us to assert core professional values in settings where we may well suffer for doing so, most of us will revert to conventional “wisdom” and refuse to wear our hearts on our sleeves.

(5) We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them.

Doing so means, of course, that as mentors we must embody what it looks like to live in that way. I do not mean we must achieve an undivided life before we can teach about it: If that were the case, few would qualify, and those few would not include me! And yet, as an imperfect person in an imperfect world, I can show my students what it means to wrap my life around this question: “How do I stay close to the passions and commitments that took me into this work—challenging myself, my colleagues, and my institution to keep faith with this profession’s deepest values?”

"Living that question can and usually does entail
fulfillment, frustration, and betrayal, by others or by one’s self, over time.
Our students need to see how we, their elders, deal with these vagaries
while refusing to sell out either our professions or our personal integrity.
 And they need to see how, when we fail and fall down,
as we always do, we manage to get up again."

Finally, modeling what it means to live as a new professional demands that we create academic programs open to student critique, challenge, and change. We can offer a curriculum that prepares students to be change agents in some other place at some other time. But if the hidden curriculum of the program simultaneously says, “Don’t mess with us!” the lesson our students learn is to stay safe by keeping quiet.

"When students spend year after year as passive recipients of education,
 small wonder that they carry their passivity into the workplace.
They have not learned, because we did not teach them,
that opening one’s mouth to challenge what is wrong is a way to stay sane,
honor their own integrity, and live by their deepest callings."

The education of the new professional will offer students real-time chances to translate feelings into knowledge and action by questioning and helping to develop the program they are in. I am not imagining a student uprising but rather an academic culture that invites students to find their voices about the program itself, gives them forums for speaking up, rewards rather than penalizes them for doing so, and encourages faculty and administrative responsiveness to student concerns.

(Parker J. Palmer, "A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited," Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, November-December 2007)


Why do I understand this information and believe it to be very beneficial?
1. Given instructors (a) who encourage discovery, (b) who use a wide range of materials that encourage reading and interpretation, and (c) who allow students to develop confidence in their own unique abilities to use reason and will power to construct change, students can become responsible, active participants in remaking a better world.

2. God knows students possess immeasurable emotion that can, with guidance and intelligence, be a means of promoting positive expression. Tapping students' emotions encourages them to become avid proponents of important issues.

3. As students understand strong emotions can work alongside intellect to bolster their interest and their drive, they use their incredible energy to support arguments and solve problems.

4. Acknowledging emotional intelligence can add a new dimension to learning, teachers encourage students to explore their own emotions, better understand why they feel "the way they do," and even use this intelligence to draw support for their particular beliefs.

5. Students can see the importance of personally maintaining a profession's deepest values by experiencing the challenges, frustrations, and even the failures of  human involvement in work that constantly changes. Then, they learn to preserve integrity by speaking out and being responsive as they develop their own important voices.

To me, teachers must provide theory and methodology as underpinnings of advanced learning. In order for this to work, instructors have to allow students to operate in an environment open to ideas beyond those found in stiff, "tradition-view" textbooks. A teacher must devise lessons that provide opportunities for their students to use their own thought processes and emotions to find their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Put simply, the job of a teacher is to get students to think... to think, to explore varied answers, and to use good reasoning to develop strategies that help them communicate and demonstrate positive actions. Too many teachers require students to do tasks simply for the sake of doing the tasks. The teachers, themselves, have never taken the time to master the relevance of the work as it relates to prediction, interpretation, and personal emotion. So, they just instruct the "how to" and never much of the "why."

The genuine imparting of knowledge requires students to become capable, active participants in a life outside the classroom. In learning to replicate tried-and-true strategies, to modify certain teacher-imparted understandings to fit their individual lives, and, eventually, to develop and contribute their own voice, these students discover they, personally, own a stake in preserving integrity and important values. They also discover that without their participation, their lives will surely suffer as these values slip away.
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