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Parker Palmer

By L. Callid Keefe-Perry


PARKER J. PALMER (February 28, 1939 -  ) is a religious educator in a broad sense. He brings his own faith commitments into play with educational discourses related to public schooling, higher education, nursing education, American political service, and leadership studies. A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Palmer is most known for his warm sense of humor and his published work on vocation and discernment, especially as it pertains to teaching and public life. He is also the impetus behind founding The Center for Courage and Renewal, an organization formed “to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.” In religious education literature he is often cited for his call to pay greater attention to communal ways of knowing and the positive role that spirituality can play in education and public life.


Parker Jay Palmer was born February 28, 1939 to Max and LaVerne Palmer. He had two younger sisters, and they all grew up in the predominantly middle-class, white, Chicago suburbs of Kenilworth and Wilmette, Illinois. For 55 years his father worked for E.A. Hinrichs & Co., a chinaware company. During that time he rose through the ranks from a temporary accountant to eventually become its president and CEO (Chicago Tribune). Palmer recalls his family as one with "blue collar roots," recounting the fact that his paternal grandfather, Jessie Palmer, was a machine tool operator for John Deere tractors based out of Waterlou, Iowa. These roots were important to Max Palmer and, in turn, influenced his son. For example, when Parker turned thirteen he was expected to spend his summers employed, during which time he had various jobs including working on cars and being a golf caddy at the very same country club that Max Palmer's workmates took their sons to golf (Palmer, 2014a).

Palmer recalls his father and mother as bringing ordered and chaotic energy to his life respectively. He acknowledges that the inheritance of focus from his father and creativity from his mother have both served him well in his career. He remembers his mother as an often anxious person, but is quick to note that there is a “kind of fecund relationship with the world” when one can't always exert mastery over feelings the way he remembers his father doing (Palmer, 2014a). Of his father, Palmer remembers that “he carried along with him a hospitable space. When you met him you knew that there was a kind of unconditional love that was possible, but that it came along with the expectation that something new and wonderful could happen in your life. That expectation mixed with that love sets the possibility for taking risks and being willing to fail”(REA-APPRRE, 2010b).

Max Palmer served on the boards of the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA (Chicago Tribune). Parker Palmer cites his father's influence as one that instilled in him the belief that one must live and act with compassion and generosity, noting that it was from him that he learned to rely on “a larger and deeper grace” (Palmer, 1999, 14). He identifies his mother's “edgy, creative energy” as a gift that helped him to make his career in writing, speaking, and teaching (Palmer, 2014a). What they shared was their commitment to their faith life: Max and LaVerne were “loyal and church-going” Methodists that brought the whole family to church every week (Palmer, 2014a).

While Palmer looks back on his time in his Methodist Church with fondness, he primarily identifies his youth minister, Bert Randall, as being the most significant aspect of that community (Palmer, 2014a). Randall hosted weekend retreats and Palmer identifies those times as his first experience of beloved community and a radical equality that “cut through the social strata that divided people during high school weekdays” (Palmer, 2014a). In fact, his experiences with youth group were so formative that Palmer believes his own career's focus on creating spaces for people to be honest and reflective may well stem from his time there (Palmer, 2014a). Beyond youth group, he also recalls singing as being powerful for him, noting that he often cried while singing hymns, and citing this engagement as the source of his later love of poetry (Palmer, 2014a). In terms of Christian teachings that he recalls as being important to him, Palmer says there is one in particular that stood out for him as an adolescent. He remembers being powerfully struck by a sermon based in 2 Corinthians and prominently featuring 4:7: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” Reflecting on that message Palmer notes that

I remember thinking those earthen vessels are things like every theological formulation on the face of the earth, every language set in which we try to talk about God, or in our conception of ordained ministry or in our conception of church itself. All of these images about who we are as Christians and how we are holding this treasure.... the mistake we keep making is to confuse the vessel with the treasure. The vessel can and must be broken to reveal more of the treasure, which isn't to say that vessels are unimportant, they aren't. They carry things down through time which might otherwise get lost... but at any moment you ought to be willing to give up the vessel in which you are holding the treasure if it obscures the treasure, which it always will start to do in one way or another…

So, as a result of this notion which was planted in me at a very early age, I've never understood why some people defend certain theological formulas as if they were god. Because they aren't! They are pointers toward God, and if you can find a better pointer, or if you can see that someone else has a different pointer that allows you to look at this great mystery from another angle, or to turn the prism on this very complex light which has all kind of dimensions to it, then that's what you ought to do. You ought to be willing to do that because we have this treasure in earthen vessels precisely to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us (Palmer, 2014a).”

This theme -- the importance of being willing to “break the vessel” to get at the treasure -- returns significantly in Palmer’s life both in his eventual connection to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and his professional work in the 1990s, during which time he specifically tried to reach audiences within and beyond Christianity. Before that time, though, his path was far from a straight connection between those two points.

While he was in elementary school, Palmer became captivated by aviation, an interest that stayed with him for years. When he was in high school he was a “gawky and clumsy president of the student council” (Bergin, 2004), and his stated plans included becoming a naval pilot and “then taking up a career in advertising” (Palmer, 2000, 13). Contrary to this course, though, he wound up attending Carleton College, Minnesota where, in 1961, he graduated with a dual major in Philosophy and Sociology. He was the first person in his family to attend college (Palmer, 1998, 22) and notes that all his mentors at Carleton were men in whom “faith and reason had a happy relationship” (Palmer, 2014a), a theme which later became central to his work.

Upon graduation with his BA, Palmer went to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He went thinking he might become a minister, though he knew even at the time that he had “more academic interests as well” (Palmer, 2014a).  Writing about the end of his first year at Union, Palmer jokes that “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). Leaving Union, he began coursework towards a Masters in Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. He completed that degree in 1964 and went on to complete his PhD in Sociology there as well (Palmer, 1970, 2). His doctoral work focused on the sociology of religion, and he completed his degree in 1970. His dissertation, “Religion, Political Modernization, and Secularization: Case Studies in America, Turkey, and Japan,” was done under Robert Bellah as Chairman, and with the support of several faculty from the Pacific School of Religion (Palmer, 1970, 4-5).

While Palmer had enjoyed teaching during the doctoral program, after finishing his doctorate he felt like he needed to “bring his sociology to the streets” (Palmer, 2014a), and decided to turn away from a life in the academy proper. Reflecting on this period, Palmer has written that “my heart wanted to keep teaching, but my ethics – laced liberally with ego – told me I was supposed to save the city” (Palmer, 2000, 21).  As a result, he finished the degree from a distance as he, his wife (Sharon), and his three children moved to Washington D.C. in 1969 so that he could become a community organizer in the neighborhood called Tacoma Park East Silver Spring (Palmer, 2014a).

After about two years of community organizing, Georgetown University offered Palmer a tenure track position in sociology. The dean of the school requested that Palmer “not be on campus all week long,” but instead “get students involved in the community” (Palmer, 2000, 21). He accepted the position and began to teach while he continued to work as an organizer. In 1974, after five years of work in the D.C. area, he had the realization that thus far, his major life's work had been “to lead people to a sense of community” but that he himself  “hadn't had a strong experience of it” (Palmer, 2014a). As a result of this realization he began to look around the country for a place that would take a family with three children and where he could learn more intentionally what it meant to be part of a community (Palmer, 2014a). It was as a result of this search that he discovered Pendle Hill, a Philadelphia area intentional community for living and learning in the manner of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Palmer first moved to Pendle Hill as an adult student, planning to spend a year there, during which time he was to be on a formal leave of absence from his work in D.C. and at Georgetown. However, he ended up spending eleven years total at Pendle Hill, eventually leaving his other positions and becoming the Dean of Studies at Pendle Hill -- the first ever non-Quaker appointed to this position -- before moving on to serve as a teacher and writer-in-residence (Palmer, 2014a).

It is during his time at Pendle Hill that two related, and significant developments took place. First, Palmer identifies that it was at Pendle Hill that he began to practice the silent, waiting worship of the Religious Society of Friends, bringing him, for the first time, to an experience of God: until that point, “faith and the experience of God had been an intellectual exercise” (Smith, 2005).  Having greatly appreciated Thomas Merton and his writing on monastic silence, Palmer felt that the daily silent and communal worship of The Religious Society of Friends would be a good fit for him (Palmer, 2014a). Palmer has often directly reflected on the thinking that propelled him to Pendle Hill.

I think I was attracted to Quakerism because Quakers practice silent worship. They don't try to wrap a lot of words around the religious experience. They stand in the stream that is known to scholars as “apophatic spirituality”... So this isn't to say that only this is worthwhile and other things aren't, but for some people, and I'm one of these people, I have a need to tread very lightly all ways of naming God, which is another way of saying I need to take them all very seriously... and not to fixate or lock in on any one. Every word, including the word God, is a pointer toward a reality that absolutely illudes language. And the minute you confuse that reality with you language or anybody else's language I think you’ve made a dangerous mistake. You start clinging to a formula rather than swimming in the water of life. The Quakers get this. (Palmer, 2014a)

Much to his surprise, though, Palmer found out in short order that the fit with silence was not nearly as apt as he had anticipated. When he first arrived at Pendle Hill the daily silent worship made him “angrier and angrier” as he “didn't hear anything in the silence that sounded like the word of God” (Palmer, 2014a). When he finally shared his anger with some of the Elders there at the Pendle Hill community they “gently asked what was behind the anger” and he realized that in the silence none of his concepts of God – ones learned in church and in seminary – were able to be propped up. What he had thought was his faith was just an intellectual construct and in the silence he “felt it collapsing.”  In that collapse he came “to realize what the Quakers meant when they said that the whole basis of their faith tradition has to do with what it is you can claim experientially” (Palmer, 2014a).  It was only after he had “let it all fall apart” around him – and yet continued to worship daily – that certain theological ideas began to come back to him with a fuller resonance than they had ever had before. “As a survivor of clinical depression,” Palmer says, “I eventually saw that I no longer needed to rely on anyone’s theology of resurrection: I had a direct experience of it” (Friends General Conference, 2015). On this point Palmer often cites Sydney Carter's lyric as representative of his perspective “Your wholly hearsay is not evidence / give me the Good News in the present tense” (Palmer, 2014a). Reflecting on his spiritual growth during this period, Palmer notes,

In my own Christian formation I went through a development where first the big ideas... you know... Grace, redemption, Incarnation, forgiveness, salvation, death and resurrection... were mostly just abstract received notions that came from my home church and seminary ideas, but then I went through a bunch of life crises where that just didn't work for me and all that stuff just fell apart and wasn't the least bit helpful. And then I found myself later reclaiming those lenses as ways of looking at the tough stuff that had happened and I found that then they helped me make sense of what had happened. Ideas are useful but they have to be reclaimed through experience. (REA-APPRRE, 2010a)

As a result of his deepening faith, Palmer was able to begin reflecting on “the darkness” of his periodic depression, the result of which was an increased capacity for personal openness and a desire to communicate with others about his struggles (Palmer, 1999, 19). His eventual openness to publicly grappling with the realities of depression and vocation is a pivotal part of Palmer’s career. Asked in 2010 what he felt like his most significant contributions have been he replied that “of all of the things I've written, the things that get the most response are about the shadow side... The single chapter on depression in Let Your Life Speak is a short one, but I hear about it from lots of people who want to thank me for helping them either their own depression or the depression of someone they love” (REA-APPRRE, 2010a). Palmer’s own acceptance of struggle and continued perserverence in the face of that tension led to the second major development of this period: increasing national attention turned towards Palmer's writing.

First came two pamphlets produced for denominational dissemination among the Quakers. In 1977's A Place Called Community Palmer asserted that “community is finally a religious phenomonon,” arguing that “there is nothing capable of binding together willful, broken human selves except some transcendent power” (Palmer, 1977, 18). 1979 saw him publish In the Belly of a Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Thought of Thomas Merton, a text with a foreword by Henri Nouwen, and the beginnings of Palmer's own exploration of a “both/and” mentality rather than an “either/or” one. Following these two short texts he published 1980's The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, a longer book intended for a larger audience than the Merton-inspired Quaker pamphlet on similar themes. It was what came next that thrust him onto the national stage. 1983 saw the release of both The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of American Public Life and To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

The Company of Strangers explores the claim that “public life is... our life among strangers with whom our lot is cast, with whom we are interdependent whether we like it or not” (Palmer, 1983a, 18) and the ways in which some forms of dynamic education can serve to “bring us out of ourselves into an awareness of our connectedness” (Palmer, 1983a, 20). In it he criticizes the "ideology of intimacy," in which people come to believe that in order for them to be meaningful, all relationships must have a marked measure of warmth and closeness like those relationships we have in our private life. Palmer claims that a consequence of this is that we are likely to shy away from others who are "different" from us because there seems like less chance for intimacy and therefore no possibility of common interest or effort (Palmer, 1983a, 49). This “ideology” must be overcome, says Palmer, so that we can build generative bridges across difference. According to Palmer, we ought to seek growth through the "therapy of public life" not simply the "private" kind. While he certainly does not condemn individual therapy or counseling, he argues that  "it will always be incomplete without the therapy of public life, which comes from identifying with one another and working together against the circumstances which create private oppression" (Palmer, 1983a, 77).

To Know as We are Known is an extended reflection on the ways in which we might profitably consider education – even of the type unconcerned with explicitly religious themes – as a type of spiritual formation. In it Palmer claims that “to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced” (Palmer, 1983b, 88), and asserts that too much of educational preparation for teachers neglects the development of the self as important, overly focusing on data acquisition and technique. Instead, he argues, there should be attention to the ways in which knowledge is produced in community and affirmed by individuals. “The true professor,” he writes, “is one who affirms a transcendent center of truth, a center that lies beyond our contriving, that enters history through the lives of those who profess it and brings us into community with each other and the world... To do so, we must cultivate personal experience of that which we need to profess” (Palmer, 1983b, 113). Palmer thinks a key educative priority is the bringing together of the rationality and reason of “eye-sight” with the compassion and love of “the eye of the heart,” yielding what he calls “wholesight” (Palmer, 1983b, xi - xiii). Truth, in Palmer's work,  involves entering into a relationship beyond ourselves. This can be with ideas or people, but to really know the truth of them we must become intimately bound to them. For Palmer, truth is personal and it is communal, needing affirmation from other subjects who are striving for their subjectivity. That is, a learner seeking the truth necessarily seeks not mere objective knowledge – though this is included – but also knowledge-in-relationship: knowledge as a means to further other relationships and knowing in the world.

After the publication of his two books in 1983, Palmer began to actively consider his transition away from Pendle Hill and in 1985 he and his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. There, with the support of the Lilly Foundation, he “launched an independent career as a writer and traveling teacher” (Palmer, 2014a). He felt, even at that time, that his work with teachers “was essentially spiritual” and “concerned the inner life of educators” (Palmer, 2014a). Much to his surprise then, his work – even though explicitly about the spiritual dimensions of education – came to be primarily focused on trainings with public school teachers. In the preface to the second edition of To Know as We Are Known, he recalls the fact that he had thought his readers would be “faculty at church-related colleges and seminaries, professors of religion, and people involved in religious education,” but discovered instead that half his time was being spent “exploring the issues... with faculty at public schools and state universities, at independent colleges and major research institutions” (Palmer, 1993, ix). Palmer's reflection as to why this might be the case? “Educators of all sorts are in real pain these days, and that pain has compelled them to explore unconventional resources... They know that students are often served poorly in the classroom, and that their own growth as teachers is not supported by the system” (Palmer, 1993, ix – x). It is perhaps because of this pain and Palmer's desire to address it head on, that he became more widely known.

After Pendle Hill, Palmer came into significant attention as a speaker and facilitator, working with numerous educational institutions, ranging from large public schools to universities and colleges and national foundations. 1990 saw the publication of The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring, Palmer’s exploration of spirituality intended to speak to our current condition as rushed and often overly frenetic busybodies. In it, he challenges the idea that “being spiritual” means turning away from the world, insisting instead that if we are to be busy that our busyness must be “live-giving action.” Otherwise we will not be able to fully proceed with sustainable spiritual growth, consequently burning out. Palmer’s vision in The Active Life was one he followed himself and throughout the early 1990s he continued traveling and speaking, preferring his independence to being part of a larger institution (Palmer, 2014a). Indeed, Palmer’s own value of independence – he jokingly says of himself that “he’s not much of a joiner for someone so into community” – is reflected in those whom he admires (Palmer, 2014a). Asked in 1991 to name the people who have most influenced him, Palmer immediately offered up his doctoral advisor Robert Bellah, moving on to add “Thomas Merton, Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, May Sarton, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry” (Palmer & Claxton, 1991, 24), a cadre of authors that include a number of fiercely autonomous authors. That such a person as Palmer should value both independence and community is a testament to his conviction that we need to make more space in our lives to live into the paradoxes of society.

In 1993 Palmer won the national award of the Council of Independent Colleges for Outstanding Contributions to Higher Education. That same year he was appointed the Eli Lilly Visiting Professor at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. There, some nineteen years after first entering into the silent worship and community of Pendle Hill, Palmer first became a formal member of a Quaker meeting, doing so in Berea Friends Meeting in Kentucky (Friends General Conference, 2015). That community helped him to continue to discern on what mattered most to him and to pursue that goal with patience and focus.  It was through this work and his continued teaching that he came to serve as a senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education and a senior adviser to the Fetzer Institute.

It was the Fetzer Institute that first asked Palmer to develop a pilot program for teachers consisting of a series of eight retreats to occur over two years, with the goal of helping people connect more fully to the life-giving parts of their work. This pilot, originally called the “Teacher Formation” program, was tested with twenty-five K-12 teachers in Michigan from 1994 to 1996 (Palmer, 1998, xvi). It was deemed successful enough to warrant replication in coastal Carolina, Dallas, the Baltimore-Washington DC area, southwest Michigan and Washington state. This program eventually led — with Rick and Marcy Jackson — to the 1997 creation of The Center for Teacher Formation (Palmer, 1998, xvi), an organization that would later become the Center for Courage & Renewal. In turn, this work with Fetzer formed the basis of Palmer's 1998 book The Courage to Teach, which he saw as a direct response to requests he had been receiving while traveling and teaching.

As Palmer writes, “I was challenged to write a book that would go beyond To Know As We Are Known in two respects: it would have both a sustained focus on the practice of teaching and an approach to the inner life that is open to the varied paths of the devoted teachers I have met” (Palmer, 1998, xv). The consequence of this response is that the Christian allusions and tone of Palmer's work that is clearly present in his writing prior to 1998 begins to transition into a broader type of spirituality afterwards, drawing from a number of faith traditions and texts for wisdom. For example, To Know As We Are Known has numerous passages with comparisons being made to texts from Paul's letters, the contents of Genesis, and Pilate's engagement with Jesus. Found scattered through that book are also citations from Christian thinkers like G.K. Chesterson, Louis Dupré, and the desert father Abba Felix. Comparatively, while The Courage to Teach continues to drawn on some Judeo-Christian perspectives, it also pulls in more content from Rumi, the Japanese non-violent martial art Aikido, and spiritually resonant poetry such as that from William Stafford, Mary Oliver, and T.S. Eliot (Palmer, 1998). The result is a text that is less explicitly Christian and more “open to varied paths,” a trajectory which Palmer's work follows to the present.

As a writer, Palmer closed out a chapter of his own life with Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation in 2000 and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life in 2004. While he continued to write smaller pieces and do public lectures after these, from 2004 to 2010 the majority of his professional energy went toward work deepening and expanding the breadth of services of the Center for Courage and Renewal, which began to frame its mission as “reconnecting who you are with what you do” (The Center for Courage and Renewal, 2015). In 2003 the Center became an independent non-profit, splitting off from the Fetzer Institute, and, with Palmer as a founder and advisor, began to expanded its scope beyond just serving teachers. In 2011 the Center hosted the first national conference for Courage & Renewal in Health Care and in 2012 they began training programs for “Young Leaders & Activists ” as well as local groups dedicated to the development of “Healing Democracy Action Study Circles” (The Center for Courage and Renewal, 2015). In July of 2015, Palmer had this to say of the Center’s accomplishments:

Thanks to its very able leadership — leaders younger and smarter than I — the Center’s work has had quite a reach. We now have 240 facilitators around the U.S., as well as in Canada, England, Australia and South Korea. We offer various long-term retreat series for a wide variety of people, including K-12 teachers and school leaders, faculty and administrators in higher education, physicians and other health care professionals, clergy, philanthropists, non-profit leaders, attorneys and judges and others. More recently, we’ve been developing programs for citizens who want to help renew American democracy. Over the past fifteen years, some 80,000 people have been directly involved in our programs, and many times more than that have been touched by what those people brought back to their workplaces. (Friends General Conference, 2015)

While Palmer’s work still engages with teachers, his personal scope has paralleled that of the Center, broadening to take up issues of politics and leadership more generally. In 2010, with Arthur Zajonc and Megan Scribne, Palmer published The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, a sustained argument “to redress failures in higher education not by prescribing a universal curriculum or set of pedagogical techniques,” but by offering “a philosophical infrastructure for a coherent, integrative college education” (Jaschik, 2011). This reflects Palmer’s life long concern for public life, the integration of the individual, and a reconception of knowledge and learning that is heavily contextualized and communal. In 2011 he published Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, which was selected by Spirituality & Practice as one of the best books of 2011 to focus on contemplation and social activism. In this book there are familiar themes: a lamentation for the waning of American public life and the growing emphasis on life lived “in private” without much diversity; the ways in which classrooms and faith communities unintentionally contribute to this unintentional segregation; and the need for congregations to devote more time to “developing and enhancing a theology of hospitality to overcome fear of the Other” (Brussat & Brussat, 2011).

In some significant ways, Healing the Heart is Palmer in peak form. This book draws heavily on the reflections of Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln, joining them to the ranks of Palmer’s favorite authors – Merton, Weber, Berry, Polanyi, Illich, et al – for the sake of a sustained argument regarding not just the soul of the classroom, but the heart of the nation. The convictions he developed in schools all over the country are still there, but his focus has turned to more distant horizons. Palmer notes that “one of the open questions in my book is whether Americans can rally around something other than an enemy, something that we’re afraid of… My hope is to energize people around what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. A deeper instinct to be human, to be at home in our own skins, and at home on the face of the earth, which necessarily means being at home with diversity and otherness, and learning to handle the conflicts that come with all of that in a more life-giving way”(Schimke, 2011). His authorial voice is clear and his vision is for more than critique: he sees a way forward and has already been contributing toward it for more than 50 years. Indeed, it was because of points just like these that in 2011 he was named an Utne Reader visionary, an award given to world visionaries “who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them” (Schimke, 2011).

With the Center for Courage and Renewal in able hands other than his and eleven influential books under his belt, Palmer is now turning to other concerns. In his seventies, Palmer became more vocal about his increasing awareness of mortality. He is "very grateful for the opportunities [his] work has given [him]... but... it's time to clear the way for whatever's next!" (Email Communication). In an interview in 2010 he offered the following:

What questions do I want to be able to answer on the day I draw my last breath? I really don't think that the questions I'm going to care about are 'Did you write enough books? Sell enough copies? Get enough positive review?' Actually, the fact is, I don't even want the question to be “How did your friends and colleagues think of you and your work?' the question I want to be asking on that day is 'Did you live the best life you knew how? In the midst of your brokenness did you keep taking next steps towards something good? Did you forgive yourself when you fell down trying to do that? Did you get up to do it again?' Those are the kinds of questions I hope I'm asking. (REA-APPRRE, 2010a)

Robert Bellah, who served on Palmer’s doctoral committee has said that Palmer is a “kind of Socratic gadfly in American life... constantly on the move intellectually and spiritually” and usually received well (Bellah, 2011, 35). It is fitting then, that Palmer – as an American Socrates – has turned to questions like “Did you live the best life you knew how?” As he asks himself this question he asks it also of us: are we living undivided lives? Making time for community and quiet? Valuing relationship above the acquisition of data? Helping others do the same? Are we letting our lives speak? Parker J. Palmer certainly has.

Contributions to Christian Education

Palmer’s contribution to the field of Christian Education has largely been indirect. Though he has functionally developed something akin to John Hull’s sense of “a theology of education,” the reality is that Palmer’s offerings to CE come about mostly through his sustained reflection on the nature of knowledge, a spiritually-grounded practice of teaching, and the role of community in public life. Though not directly related to CE, these contributions are certainly relevant. In a jointly written article, Charles Foster, Robert O'Gorman, and Jack Seymour point out that Palmer is a good model for the ways in which “the religious educator may join public dialogue about an issue from his or her own religious perspective without at the same time imposing those expectations on others as they seek to clarify community meanings and actions” (Foster, et al., 1994, 526). They continue, noting that “without denying or sublimating his faith commitments, his insights into education from his faith journey and tradition have been appreciated by a wide variety of persons concerned with education and public life. [Palmer's] work has influenced the thinking of people in both religious and public education” (Foster, et al., 1994, 526). Indeed, this persepective was likely the impetus behind Palmer receiving the 2010 William Rainey Harper Award from the Religous Education Association, given to someone who has had “a profound impact on religious education”(REA-APPRRE, 2010b).

In reflecting on Palmer’s contributions to religious education, Craig Dykstra has offered that he has “taught us how to create hospitable spaces in our classrooms, congregations, places of work, and in public contexts,” and attested to the fact that Palmer’s work is one of the “mainstays in my teaching” (REA-APPRRE, 2010b). Boyung Lee echoes this, sharing that Palmer’s work is regularly used in her large introductory course “Spiritual Disciplines for Leadership” (REA-APPRRE, 2010b). Likewise, Elenor Daniel writes in Christian Education Journal that she uses The Courage to Teach as a key text in her course, “The Principles of Christian Teaching” (Daniel, 2006, 215). Robert W. Pazmino also regularly uses Courage “in courses on the art and craft of teaching.” He particularly emphasizes how it pairs well with Let Your Life Speak and Palmer’s citation of Douglas Steere’s line that “the ancient human question ‘Who am I?’ leads inevitably to the equally important question ‘Whose am I?’--for there is no selfhood outside of relationship” (Pazmino, 2014, 421). Lucinda Huffaker adds that Palmer has an “exceptional ability to speak and write about education and teaching in a language of soul and spirit and in a way that has captivated imaginations across disciplines and service” (REA-APPRRE, 2010b).

Thomas Groome agrees with assessments of Palmer’s importance, adding that he “was the first person I read that made the connections between the work of Quaker theologians like Douglas Steere and education”(REA-APPRRE, 2010b). For Groome, though, Palmer’s work is more relevant than as course content. He notes that Palmer's work has been “a gift to my life,” and an essential part of his entire career's work, especially in regards to Palmer's development of his communal epistemology, something which is vital to Groome's own Shared Praxis Approach (REA-APPRRE, 2010b). Indeed, Palmer’s epistemological work is some of his most cited material in both education (e.g. Reed, 2015; Schiller et al., 2004; Badley, 2012) and religious education (e.g. Han, 2000; Pazmino, 2014; Siejk,1993; Veling, 2007; Moore, 1991).

Asked about the ways in which he felt his work was relevant to the field of Christian Education, Palmer replied that in the contemporary context of the United States,

I think it’s more important to build bridges and walls, so I think Christian educators need to try to figure out how to be in genuine dialogue with people of different beliefs and no beliefs. For me that often begins not with theology – or as I like to say, “throwing propositions at each other” –  but with an invitation to storytelling and especially autobiographical story telling. I think then, that a lot of the work I do in politics is around trying to translate the political equivalent of doctrinal questions and positional issues... translate all of that into what’s the story behind it all that will help me understand. Because the more I know about your story the less it is likely it’s going to be that I can dismiss you or despise you. (Personal Communication 5/6/2016)

Palmer himself identifies the goal of most of his work as “to bring spiritual insights into secular settings,” noting that early on in his career it was unpopular to talk about spirituality and education, but that “talking about epistemology could get to many of the same places” (Palmer, 2014a). Referencing Palmer’s routine call for the “undivided life and “ integrative learning,” Ken Badley, a Christian Educator, writes that  Palmer “builds on and repeatedly reminds his readers of his view that an ontology is realized in an epistemology, which shapes a pedagogy, which leads to ethical outcomes. That's a mouthful, but it is true, and Palmer's deft treatment makes it seem simultaneously profound and commonplace. Furthermore, this set of connections provides a useful framework for any teacher wanting to see how worldviews shape what happens in classrooms” (Badley, 2012, 273). Indeed, Palmer's interwoven conception of knowledge, ethics, and learning is so relevant to religious education that it is addressed in some detail in the work of practical theologian and religious educator Mary Elizabeth Moore.

While not overly critical of Palmer’s project as a whole, Moore does take issue with an aspect of Palmer’s framing of knowledge, especially as it pertains to Christian Education. In her book, Teaching from the Heart, she notes that the “vocation of humanization” is shared across all educational areas, from primary school, to religious education, and graduate school. For her, education is leading people into growth by drawing out the truth wherever it is found, regardless of whether or not the context is explicitly religious. Moore compares her vision to that of Palmer, acknowledging that his project supporting a teaching method focused on making spaces intended for “practicing the community of truth,” is very similar. Where she differs, though, is in her passion for Whiteheadian process relational thought, a commitment which leads her to develop a different epistemology.

Palmer's goals for educators entail the development of what he calls “wholesight,” or the combining of the rational and objective knowing of the eye with the compassionate and relational knowing of the heart (Palmer, 1983b). We most hold these together, says Palmer, or we will be too easily swayed into one or another poor replacements for what we should be doing: making space for the practicing of communities of truth. Not only should learners invest their own subjectivity in pursuit of the truth but that the truth – in the Christian sense  - also pursues them, helps to make communities, and wants to be known. This kind of knowing needs the braiding together of sights of the eye and heart into wholesight (Palmer, 1983b, xi - xiii).

While Moore is sympathetic to Palmer's desire to have knowing become communal and less “neutrally objective” she is critical of his “wholesight” notion. She draws on the Hebraic notion of heart (leb) as the simultaneous seat of emotive and intellectual life. For her, rationality and compassion are not separate, distinct capacities tensively locked in struggle for dominance, but are part of a matrix of coherence and identity. It is this vision which allows Moore to say that the vocation of humanization, the goal of education, takes heart: it is an activity – when done in its fullness – that engages the whole person and engenders growth in the individual by means of that individual coming to a greater awareness of the ways in which their own being is actually tied up in the becoming of many other people and things around them. This heart-teaching, in turn, takes courage, which Palmer acknowledges in A Courage to Teach, a neatly named phrase that has its roots also in the heart, with courage coming from the Latin cor. There is a mutuality to Moore's process relational perspective and Palmer's visions of truth, both of which highlight the religious resonances of education.

While Palmer’s work on epistemology has been much lauded for its broad appeal, he has also acknowledged the particular role of tradition and Christian education in his own life. He has remarked that religious educators “represent the kinds of people that touched and shaped and formed and guided and prayed for me and gave me a hand along the way”(REA-APPRRE, 2010b). Interestingly, though Palmer’s later work itself does not explicitly take up confessional theology or doctrinal issues, he has been explicit that faith must be embedded in a place and with a people. “I don’t think that it is possible to escape culture and tradition altogether even if you are not conscious of it or educated in it. The cultures that we all live in have somehow been formed by certain ways of reproaching the holy  mysteries” (Personal Communication 5/6/2016). He writes, "There is no such thing as 'spirituality in general.' Every spiritual search is and must be guided by a particular literature, practice, and community of faith" (Palmer, 1993, 14). That being said, Palmer finds that sometimes it is necessary to approach sacred texts indirectly. Speaking about the use of scripture for reflection in his teaching, he says the following:

When I start out by teaching Bible stories – which I love to do because they're such extraordinary, powerful stories, and to me they have the deepest meaning – I find that we often get frozen into pro or con positions. No one in the group has an investment in stories from the Taoist tradition, and since nobody is trying to prove or disprove anything we can learn to play with those stories--to enter them imaginatively, creatively and freely Then when we get to the Bible stories I can ask people to stay playful and creative. Whether Christian or not, people are going to get more out of the stories if they approach them imaginatively than if they take them as lessons either to learn or to reject. (Palmer, 1995, 329)

Though most of his influence on religious education is largely indirect, there are some ways in which Palmer’s impact does engage directly with congregational life. Within his own tradition of The Religious Society of Friends, Palmer's essay "The Clearness Committee - A Communal Approach To Discernment" (Palmer, 2005) is regularly referenced in Quaker denominational materials for suggested materials in adult religious education (Friends General Conference, 2016). Similarly, the Catholic Association of Religious and Family Life Educators of Ontario has identified five key themes that they feel are important to religious education:

  1. Good teaching is not simply about technique; to be an effective teacher, we must first be in touch with our inner self.
  2. Teaching as a vocation:  Palmer believes that an authentic call to teach comes from within, and that this call is recognized when one understands the nature of their true self, inspired by God.
  3. Transformation happens in one’s life when one experiences disillusionment with one’s present situation, leading one on a journey to “reconnect who you are with what you do.”
  4. Good teaching and learning can result in spiritual transformation
  5. Palmer has developed six paradoxes that should be incorporated into all learning spaces (CARFLEO, 2015).

This fifth point, on paradoxes, is often referenced in CE literature, including more conservative streams of the Christian tradition as well (Han, 2000; Daniel, 2006;  Miller, 2000; Pemberton, 2015, et al.).

Palmer argues that people, regardless of religious tradition, have an innate and paradoxical need for community and solitude. Even though people are inherently social creatures, "the human self remains a mystery of enfolded inwardness that no other person can possibly enter or know" (Palmer, 1998, 65). It is present also in Palmer's approach to the use of scripture for spiritual growth. In regards to the use of holy texts, he says that “the question now is if can we recover the original freshness of that story and the way people held it when it was first held...” (Personal Communication 5/6/2016). This is the challenge to which Palmer speaks: the present meaning and the past freshness held together. This kind of tension is essential to his vision of education. He understands that one of the vital tasks of the educator is to engender an environment in which “opposites are joined, so that we can see the world clearly and see it whole" (Palmer, 1998, 66). His six “paradox principles” contribute to tensions that he feels ought to be addressed in the design of learning environments:

  1. The space should be bounded and open.
  2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.”
  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. The space should honor 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 community.
  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech (Palmer, 1998, 74 – 77).

Tending to each of these tensions, Palmer, suggests, “adds up to sound pedagogy” (Palmer, 1998, 77). Having said this, though, he quickly – and very frequently – notes that good teaching does not result from good teaching methodology nearly as much as it proceeds from the mind and heart of the individual teacher, from their spiritually-formed self. In a frequently cited passage he writes, "good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" (Palmer, 1998, 10). Put more simply, "we teach who we are” (Palmer, 1998, 1), an idea that has traction in teacher training programs for both public and religious education. 



Palmer, P. J. (1970) “Religion, Political Modernization, and Secularization: Case Studies in America, Turkey, and Japan,” Ph.D. Diss. University of California, Berkeley.

Palmer, P. J. (1977) A Place Called Community. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications.

Palmer, P. J.(1979) In the Belly of a Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Thought of Thomas Merton.

Palmer, P. J. (1980) The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: Ave Maria Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1983a) The Company of Strangers: Christians and the renewal of American public life, New York: Crossroad

Palmer, P. J. (1983b) To Know as We are Known. Education as a Spiritual Journey, San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco

Palmer, P. J. with Barbara Wheeler & James Fowler (Eds.). (1990) Caring for the Commonweal: Education for Religious and Public Life. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press

Palmer, P. J. (1990) The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring. Harper San Francisco

Palmer, P. J. (1993) To Know as We are Known. Education as a Spiritual Journey, Paperback Edition. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco.

Palmer, P. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (2000) Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (2004) A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. with Zajonc, A. & Scribner, M. (2010) The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (2011) Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chapters in Books:

Palmer, P. J. (2000b). A vision of education as transformation. In V. H. Kazanjian, Jr. and Peter L. Laurence (Eds.), Education as transformation (pp. 17-22). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.



Palmer, P. J.. (1964). [Review of Religion and Career: A Study of College Graduates]. Review of Religious Research, 6(1), 42–43. 

Palmer, P. J.. (1966). Objectivism and Pragmatism in Religion, Science, and Society. The Christian Scholar, 49(1), 17–23. 

Palmer, P. J. (1979). The conversion of knowledge. Religious Education, 74(6), 629-640.

Palmer, P. J. (1981). Truth is personal: a deeply Christian education. The Christian Century, 98(33), 1051-1055.

Palmer, P. J. (1987) Ways to deepen our educational agenda. Change; 26, 3.

Palmer, P. J.. (1992). Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Educational Reform. Change, 24(2), 10–17.

Palmer, P. J. & Claxton, C. S. (1991). Teaching, Learning, and Community: An Interview with Parker J. Palmer. Journal of Developmental Education, 15(2), 22–33. 

Palmer, P. J. (1993). Good Talk about Good Teaching: Improving Teaching through Conversation and Community. Change, 25(6), 8–13.

Palmer, P. J. (1995) Action and insight: an interview with Parker Palmer. The Christian Century, 112(10), 326+.

Palmer, P. J. (1999). Evoking the spirit in the public education. Educational Leadership, 56(4), 6-11.

Palmer, P. J. (2001). To whom do you report? The Journal for Quality and Participation. 24(3), 19. 

Palmer, P. J.. (2003a). Education as Spiritual Formation. Educational Horizons, 82(1), 55–67.

Palmer, P. J. (2003b). Teaching with heart and soul: reflections on spirituality in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 54(5), 376+

Palmer, P. J. (2004, February). Making the Rosa Parks decision. Curriculum Review, 43(6), 3.

Palmer, P. J. (2005) “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach To Discernment in Retreats” Accessed 2/3/2016

Palmer, P. J.. (2007a). A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited. Change, 39(6), 6–12.

Palmer, P. (2007b). Heart at work: professionals who care. The Christian Century, 124(20), 28+.

Palmer, P. J. (2008). On the Edge. Journal of Staff Development, 29(2), 12-14,16,66.

Palmer, P. J. (2010). Taking pen in hand: a writer's life and faith. The Christian Century, 127(18), 22+.


Videos and Video Interviews

[30GoodMinutes]. (Jun 3, 2011) Parker Palmer - Spiritual Journey. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Apr 4, 2013) Leading Together: Building Adult Community in Schools. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 1: The Primacy of Soul (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 10: Standing in the Tragic Gap (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 11: Nonviolence in Everyday Life (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 12: The Soul of the Citizen (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 2: The Great Divide (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 3: Journey toward an Undivided Life (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 4: Circles of Trust (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 5: Establishing Conditions for Circles of Trust (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 6: Characteristics of a Circle of Trust (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 7: Common Ground & Third Things (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 8: Clearness Committee (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Dec 9, 2015) Chapter 9: Inner Work can change the Outer World (Parker J. Palmer). [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Jan 29, 2014) Life on the Mobius Strip ParkerPalmer. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Jun 9, 2009_ Circles of Trust in Life. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Mar 19, 2013) Parker J. Palmer - What is a Divided Life?. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Mar 3, 2009) Tragic Gap. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (May 2, 2008) Inner Work and the Life of a Teacher. [Video file] Retrieved from

[C&R Videos]. (Sep 23, 2008) Parker Palmer on Power and Powerlessness. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Cojourneo]. (Apr 10, 2013) Parker Palmer: "We are human beings before we are human doings". [Video file] Retrieved from

[Dan Hines]. (Jun 16, 2014) Interview with Parker J. Palmer about Jean Vanier June, 2014. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Earlham College]. (May 9, 2015). Parker Palmer's 6 tips for Earlham's class of 2015. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Elephant Journal]. (Jul 9, 2015) How to make our Lives Simple without Taking ourselves too Seriously. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute]. (Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - Inner Authority. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute]. (Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - Myth of the Individual. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute]. (Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - New Professional. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute]. (Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - Rules for Inner Work. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute]. (Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - Wisdom of the Heart. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Fetzer Institute].(Sep 22, 2009) Parker Palmer - Practicing Inner Work. [Video file] Retrieved from

[inspirationandspirit]. (Aug 5, 2011) Parker Palmer – Miracles. [Video file] Retrieved from

[inspirationandspirit]. (Jul 12, 2011) Parker Palmer – Faith. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Jonathan Reams]. (Sep 25, 2014) Parker Palmer Courage to Teach: talk is from Gonzaga University in about 1997. [Video file] Retrieved from

[LawrenceUniversity]. (Jan 26, 2012) Parker Palmer Lecture - January 25, 2012 - Lawrence University. [Video file] Retrieved from

[mentorsgallery]. (Feb 12, 2010) Gonzaga Mentor Gallery Clip: Parker Palmer - Clearness Commitee 1. [Video file] Retrieved from

[mentorsgallery]. (Feb 12, 2010) Gonzaga Mentor Gallery Clip: Parker Palmer - How Do Leaders Maintain Integrity 1. [Video file] Retrieved from

[Naropa University]. (May 10, 2015) Naropa University Presents Parker Palmer & "Living from the Inside Out". [Video file] Retrieved from

[ontheearthproduction]. (Feb 7, 2013) Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy. [Video file] Retrieved from

Palmer, P.J. & Epstein, D. (2014a, April 21) Portraits In Faith: Parker Palmer. [Video file] Retrieved from

[REA-APPRRE]. (2010a, November 8). An interview of Parker Palmer by Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. [Video file] Retrieved from

[REA-APPRRE]. (2010b, November 8). William Rainey Harper Award presentation honoring Parker Palmer. [Video file] Retrieved from


Works Significantly Citing Palmer

Note: A 3/30/2016 Google Scholar search for all sources citing Palmer's work returns the following results, making an exhaustive list unfeasible. What follows after this note are texts citing Palmer that are either referenced in the body of the biography above or directly related to the fields of Christian and religious education.

The Courage to Teach: 5626 responses

Let your Life Speak: 825

To Know as We Are Known: 822

A Hidden Wholeness: 500 

The Heart of Higher Education: 248

The Company of Strangers: 208 

The Active Life: 163

Healing the Heart of Democracy: 52

The Promise of Paradox: 43

Badley, K. (2012) Palmer, Zajonc, and Scribner's "The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal" -BookReview. Faculty Publications - School of Education, paper 42. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.georgefo.... Accessed 2/23/2016.

Bergin, M. (2003) “Parker Palmer, Teacher Extraoridnaire.” The Capital Times. Madison, WI. October 26, 2004.

CARFLEO. “Parker J. Palmer” Accessed 3/11/16

The Center for Courage and Renewal. (2015). History of the Center for Courage & Renewal. Retrieved from Accessed 2/3/2016.

Chicago Tribune. Max J. Palmer – Obituary. http://articles.chicagotribune...

Foster, C.R. with O'Gorman, R.T. & Seymour, J.L. (1994) For the Life of a Child: The “Religious” in the Education of the Public, Religious Education, 89:4, 515-529.

Friends General Conference. (2016) Clearness Committees - What They Are and What They Do Accessed 3/21/2016

Han, C. (2000) Indwelling Knowledge: A Reinterpretation of the Knower and the Known Focused on a Holistic Epistemology with Implication for Evangelical Christian Education. Ph.D. Diss. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Intrator, S.M. (Ed.) Living The Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker Palmer. SanFrancisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Jaschik, S. (2011) The Heart of Higher Education. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from Accessed 3/14/2016.

Miller, K. (2000) The 5 Shadows of Leaders: What you don't see can hurt you. Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.c.... Accessed 2/12/2016

Moore, M.E. (1991) Teaching from the Heart: Theology and Educational Method. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

O'Brien, M.R. (1993) The Public Church as a Model for Religious Education. Religious Education, 88:3, 394-414,

Pazmino, R.W. (2014) “Teaching both who and whose we are: honoring individuality and connection.” Christian Education Journal. 11.2: p421.

Pemberton, R.J. (2015) Pursue the Caller, Not the Calling: What we forgot about vocation. Christianity Today. Vol. 59, No. 7, 60.

Powell, W. E. (2001). On creating a space: An interview with parker palmer. Families in Society, 82(1), 13-22.

Reed, E. L. (2015). Navigating the gap between the ideal and the real: A heuristic inquiry with teacher educators influenced by the work of parker palmer (Order No. 10017925). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.   

Schiller, S. A., Taylor, M. M., & Gates, P. S. (2004). Teacher evaluation within a community of truth: Testing the ideas of parker palmer. Innovative Higher Education, 28(3), 163-186. 

Schimke, David.  (2011) “Parker J. Palmer: Wise Guy.”  Utne Reader. Accessed 2/2/2016

Siejk, K. (1993) An Aspect of Multicultural Religious Education: Re-Visioning Our Epistemological Foundations. Religious Education, 88:3, 434-450

Smith, M. K. (2005). ‘Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: 2/13/2-16

Veling, T.A. (2007) Listening to “The Voices of the Pages” and “Combining the Letters:” Spiritual Practices of Reading and Writing. Religious Education, 102:2, 206-222


Reviews of the Palmer’s Publications:

Amlani, A. (2012). Heart work. Jung Journal, 6(3), 99-103. 

Balon, R. (2014) “Courage and Passion to Teach.” Academic Psychiatry. Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 652-654

Bellah, R. N. (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. The Christian Century, 128(21), 35+.

Brussat, F. & Brussat M.A. (2011) A challenge to us to try practicing politics through the eye of the heart. Spirituality & Practice. Retrieved from Accessed 3/21/2016.

Carpenter, A. (1999). [Review of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life]. The Antioch Review, 57(4), 570–571.

Carrigan, H. (1997). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Publishers Weekly, 244(50), 68.

Catherine, H. M. (1999). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(12), 1625-1627.

Daniel, E. (2006). The courage to teach. Christian Education Journal, 3(1), 215. 

Davis, R. E. (2014). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 26(1), 206-208.

Farrar, A. L.. (2003). [Review of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life]. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2(4), 422–423. Retrieved from

Forney, D. S. (2009). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Review of Higher Education, 32(3), 426-427.

Gordon, R. D. (2000). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. The Southern Communication Journal, 65(2), 266. 

Graham, W. C. (1992). Bookshelf -- the active life: Wisdom for work, creativity, and caring by parker J. palmer. National Catholic Reporter, 28(14), 36.

Harshbarger, B. (1998, September). The Courage to Teach. NEA Today, 17(1), 61.

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. (2011, August 8). Publishers Weekly, 258(32), 42.

Janet, F. F. (1998, Feb). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. The Christian Century, 115, 128-131.

Jerome, S. (2015). Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit. School Administrator, 72(3), 38. 

Kampmeier, C. (1998). The courage to teach. Journal of Management Consulting,10(2), 73-74.

Litz, R. (1999). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. The Academy of Management Review, 24(2), 364-366. 

McConaghy, T. (2001). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life]. ATA Magazine, , 32.

McDaniel, T. R. (2009). Review of the courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. The Clearing House, 82(3), 153-154.

Meagher, B. S. (1998, February 15). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. Library Journal, 123(3), 153+.

Neuenschwander, D.E. (2000) The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. American Journal of Physics 68, 93.

Ramirez, F. (1991, Oct 23). Books -- the active life: Spirituality of work, creativity, and caring by parker J. palmer. The Christian Century, 108, 972.

Rosen, M. (1998) The courage to teach (Book Review). Principal; Vol. 78 Issue 1, p69-69, 1p

Scanlon, M. A. (2013). The heart is as important as the mind for higher education renewal. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 6(1), 134-137. 

Schmidt, S. A. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Religious Education, 93(4), 496.

Scott, D. G. (1992). Book notes -- the active life: A spirituality of work, creativity, and caring by parker J. palmer. Theology Today, 48(4), 502.

Shaughnessy, A. (1999). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Voices from the Middle, 7(1), 1. 

Showalter, S. H. (2009, Dec 01). A heart for teaching. The Christian Century, 126, 36-37.

Smith, K. S. (1992). Faith & works -- the active life by parker palmer / A virtuous life in business edited by oliver F. williams and john W. houck / the monday connection by william E. diehl / and others. Commonweal, 119(15), 37. 

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. (1997, December 8). Publishers Weekly, 244(50), 68.

Thomas, M. T. (2002). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. International Journal on World Peace, 19(3), 103-106.

Thorpe, D. (1991). Re-membrance of Things Present . Cross Currents, 41(2), 260-264.

Tynes, S. R. (2005). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Contemporary Sociology, 34(5), 554-555.

Watts, L. S. (2000). Palmer, parker J. the courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Transformations, 11(1), 109.

Excerpts from Publications

To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey
San Francisco, CA: HarperSan, 1983; pp. x.

I call the pain that permeates education “the pain of disconnection.” Everywhere I go, I meet faculty who feel disconnected from their students, and from their own hearts.  Most of us go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.


“Ways to Deepen our Educational Agenda.”

Change; May 1987; 26.3; pp. 40.

The root fallacy in the pedagogy of most of our institutions is that the individual is the agent of knowing and there-fore the focus for teaching and learning. We all know that if we draw the lines of t instruction in most classrooms, they run singularly I from teacher to each individual student. These lines are there for the convenience of the instructor, not for their corporate reality. They do not reveal a complex web of relationships between teacher and students and subject that would look like true community. Given this focus on the individual in the class-room, competition between individuals for knowledge becomes inevitable. The competitive individualism of the classroom is not simply the function of a social ethic; it reflects a pedagogy that stresses the individual as the prime agent of knowing. But to say the obvious, knowing and learning are communal acts. They require many eyes and ears, many observations and experiences. They require a continual cycle of discussion, disagreement, and consensus over what has been seen and what it all means. This is the essence of the "community of scholars,” and it should be the essence of the classroom as well...


“Teaching, Learning, and Community: An Interview with Parker J. Palmer.”

Journal of Developmental Education. 15.2 (1991); pp. 25. 

We need to find more and more ways of bringing the little stories, the subcommunity stories, into creative intersection with the big story that's being told by the disciplines. There are all kinds of ways to do that. There are assignments which allow students to find out for themselves that the big story has weight but, at the same time, that their own "little stories" are also important. A good teacher is someone who finds ways to allow that big story to illumine the little story. Such a teacher also allows the little story to warm up the big story, to make it fit for human habitation. The work that I'm doing on objectivism, both as an epistemology and a pedagogy, is very relevant to the issue of minority students. Their pain is often that higher education feels to them like a vast conspiracy to make them think that their stories and the stories of their communities are not worth telling. It's as if they are being told that to function in the modem world, they have to forget that story and replace it with this abstract, objectivist stuff. That's just dead wrong. These students can get drawn into the educational process when they find a teacher who is willing to say in a variety of ways, "Here's the story I have to tell you. But I want to hear your story, too, and I want to find out how these can intersect and interact.


The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998; pp. 10 – 11.

  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.

  The premise is simple, but its implications are not. It will take time to unfold what I do and do not mean by those words. But here is one way to put it: in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.

  My evidence for this claim comes, in part, from years of asking students to tell me about their good teachers. Listening to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that all good teachers use similar techniques: some lecture nonstop and others speak very little; some stay close to their material and others loose the imagination; some teach with the carrot and others with the stick.

  But in every story I have heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work. "Dr. A is really there when she teaches," a student tells me, or "Mr. B has such enthusiasm for his subject," or "You can tell that this is really Prof. C's life."

      One student I heard about said she could not describe her good teachers because they differed so greatly, one from another. But she could describe her bad teachers because they were all the same: "Their words float somewhere in front of their faces, like the balloon speech in cartoons."

      With one remarkable image she said it all. Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching—and in the process, from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.

      Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. 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. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts—meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.

      As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. 

To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey
San Francisco, CA: HarperSan, 1983.

One of Palmer's early works with a more explicit Christian ethos, this is a short book about how truly transformative education will involve both the mind and the heart, each working to contribute to a more holistic education.  This book houses the beginning of Palmer's recurrent refrain that while the technique of teaching is important, a teacher must teach with their whole self, not just with aquired skills. The book is written given a context when “most academic disciplines have largely abandoned truth in favor of facts and reasons.” Palmer thinks that “spirituality is the one discipline I know still committed to compassing truth in the round,” and that spirituality can have a place in the classroom without it being oppressive or exclusionary.


The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

This text is intended to take educators an inward journey aimed at (re)connecting their vocation and their students. It is an attempt to help teachers rekindle their passion and sense of teaching as vocation. Here Palmer argues more thoroughly that good teaching ought not be reduced to mere technique, suggesting that it comes mostly primarily from the integrity and identity of the teacher. There is also an extended interogation of what Palmer calls “the myth of objectivist knowing” and his call for education to develop “communities of truth.”


Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

This book is largely autobiographical, exploring Palmer's own narrative of vocational seeking. It includes a discussion of his depression and “dark night” periods, which he says have been some of the most important writing he has ever done. The book challenges an overly prescriptive approach to life, arguing instead that discernment is an under utilized practice. Palmer suggests that vocation does not come from the will but from listening. This is a brief text, but will orient readers to Palmer's highly personal style and regular themes.


Author Information

L. Callid Keefe-Perry

L. Callid Keefe-Perry travels in the ministry within and beyond the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and is a Doctoral Fellow at Boston University School of Theology. He has written several articles on the Clearness Committee and the discernment practices of The Religious Society of Friends, material to which Palmer has contributed greatly.