The other day, I saw a remarkable documentary called The Transformation of Allen School, about an inner-city school in Dayton, Ohio. For many years, Allen School was at the bottom of all the lists. There were fifth-graders who had parole officers. The dropout rate was incredibly high. Then along came a new principal from the Philippines, a culture that, unlike ours, has an inherent respect for things spiritual. This new principal brought the teachers together and said to them (I’m paraphrasing here), We have to understand that the young people we are working with have nothing of external substance or support. They have dangerous neighborhoods. They have poor places to live. They have little food to eat. They have parents who are on the ropes and barely able to pay attention to them.
But these students have one thing no one can take away from them, he said. They have their souls. And from this day forth in this school, we are going to lift those souls up. We are going to make those souls visible to the young people themselves, and to their parents, and to the community. We are going to celebrate their souls, and we are going to reground their lives in the power of their souls. And that will require this faculty to recover the power of our own souls, remembering that we, too, are soul-driven, soul-animated creatures.
Within five years, the Allen School had risen to the top of every list, through hard, disciplined work, yes, but also through attentiveness to inward factors.
This care for the soul is not romanticism; it gets results in the real world. What happened at the Allen School is what so desperately needs to happen in many sectors of American education. This country’s public-school system leaves many people feeling stupid because they’re convinced they have lost a contest of learning. The system dissects life and distances us from the world. We come out of schools thinking that learning is dull, and not wanting to learn anymore. Too many children have their inborn love of learning taken from them by the very process that’s supposed to enhance that gift. And so we must bring forces that are life-giving into the midst of a system that is too often death-dealing.
Everyone has had his or her own encounter with the forces of death: racism, sexism, justice denied. For me, it was two prolonged, devastating bouts of clinical depression in my forties. I came face to face with the darkness. It was not clear from one day to the next whether I even wished to be alive.
My depression was, I believe, partly due to my schooling, the way I was taught by the educational systems of this country to trust only cognitive rationality and the powers of the intellect — that top inch and a half of the human self. I learned to live out of touch with body, intuition, feeling, emotion, relationship.
Finally, a therapist and spiritual guide said something that helped to save me. He said, “You keep imagining your depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Why don’t you try imagining it as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” That image has stayed with me. Too many educated people are riding a hot-air balloon through the world of abstraction, which education falsely presents as the good life. We need to come down to the ground, where it’s not only safe to stand but to fall.
At one point during my depression, a friend shared with me some words from T. H. White’s extraordinary novel The Once and Future King. In this passage, young Arthur, king-to-be, is experiencing his dark night of the soul, and has sought counsel from Merlin the magician, his mentor. Merlin says to him:
The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it, then: to learn. . . . That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.
Reading those words, I began to understand that in the midst of death, there is life in learning. I couldn’t do much in the darkness of my depression. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t connect with other people. But I could grope around in the darkness and learn what was there — learn about the ground of my own being.
White’s Merlin knows that education at its best is not just about memorizing information or getting jobs. It’s about healing. It’s about wholeness. It’s about empowerment, liberation, transcendence. It’s about reclaiming the vitality of life. Yet, in our culture, there is little life-giving power associated with the words education, teaching, and learning. Why, for us, are the images those words call to mind so flat, dull, and banal? Many problems are to blame: the industrial model of schooling that is still with us from the nineteenth century; the diminishing effects of professionalism in teacher training; the way education has devolved into political rhetoric that serves the purposes of power.
But most of all, education is dull because we have driven the sacred out of it. White’s Merlin understood the sacredness at the heart of all things, and to him learning was a natural derivative of this. We need to reclaim the sacred at the heart of knowing, teaching, and learning; to reclaim it from our current, essentially depressive mode of knowing, which honors only data, logic, analysis, and the systematic disconnection of self from the world and others.
The marriage of education and the sacred has not always been a happy one. Ask Galileo. Ask a Muslim child subjected to Christian school prayer. Ask anyone whose family or history was touched by the Nazis’ murderous attachment of the sacred to blood, soil, and race. There are real dangers involved when the sacred gets attached to the wrong things, when the sacred gets institutionalized and imposed on people, when it becomes one more weapon wielded by the objectifying forces of society.
But we need to have the courage to jump into this mess. The murderousness of the Third Reich was not only about the attachment of the sacred to the wrong things; it was also about German higher education’s refusal to get involved with these issues, distancing itself, clinging to logic and data and objectivism as a way of staying disengaged from the social reality of its time. We can no longer afford a system of education that refuses to get involved. Educators must be willing to engage life where people live it, which is at the complicated intersection of the sacred and the secular.
When I was young, the sacred was only a word I heard in church, but I knew it was important, and I yearned for an experience of it. In college I ran across Rudolph Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy, in which he gives a remarkable description of the sacred, using terms like numinosity and mysterium tremendum. But I still had only an idea of the holy, not an experience of it. Over the years, I struggled to move beyond the level of idea.
One night, in the middle of one of my depressions, I heard a voice I’d never heard before, and haven’t heard since. The voice said, “I love you, Parker.” This was not a psychological phenomenon, because my psyche was crushed. It was “the numinous.” It was “mysterium tremendum.” But it came to me in the simplest and most human way: “I love you, Parker.”
That rare experience taught me that the sacred is everywhere, that there is nothing that is not sacred, and therefore worthy of respect. But I do not have a steady flow of numinous experience; I cannot count on it to remind me daily of the sacredness of life. What I can do is practice respect on a minute-by-minute basis, especially toward those circumstances that somehow arouse my anger, or jealousy, or other strong negative emotion.
Imagine how it would transform academic life if everyone involved practiced simple respect. I don’t think there are many places where people feel less respected than on university campuses. The university is a place that has learned to grant respect to only a few things: the texts, the experts, and those who win in competition. We don’t grant respect to students who are stumbling and failing. We don’t grant respect to tentative and heartfelt ways of being in the world, where a person can’t quite think of the right word — or of any word at all. We don’t grant respect to silence and wonder. We don’t grant it to voices outside our tight little circle, let alone to the voiceless things of the world.
Why? Because academia is a culture of fear. We are afraid of hearing something that would challenge and change us. The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “There is no place at all that is not looking at you. You must change your life.” In the same way, there is no voice that is not speaking to us. But we don’t want to hear those voices. We carefully wall ourselves off, by means of systematic disrespect, from all those things that might challenge us, break us, open us. We have forgotten the counsel at the heart of every great spiritual tradition: Be not afraid.
It is love that overcomes fear — so I want to tell a story about love, from the heart of the academy.
The biologist Barbara McClintock died a few years ago in her early nineties. She was, arguably, the greatest American scientist of the twentieth century. Her obituary was on the front page of the New York Times, an honor usually reserved for heads of state. In it, she was eulogized by one of her colleagues, who called her “a mystic who knew where the mysteries lie but who did not mystify.”
As a young woman, McClintock became fascinated with genetic transposition: how genes carry their messages from one place to another. She worked with ears of corn because they were cheap and plentiful. In her day, there were no instruments or chemical procedures for working with DNA; there were only hunches, hypotheses, clues, and the powers of human imagination. McClintock was marginalized in her profession, her work scoffed at and distrusted. She could not get grants. She could not get articles published. She could not get much affirmation — until she won the Nobel prize.
When McClintock was in her early eighties, Evelyn Fox Keller, her fellow scientist and intellectual biographer, asked her, “How do you do great science?” McClintock, one of the most precise empirical observers and most logical thinkers we have ever had, thought for a moment about these ears of corn that she had worked with all her life, and said, “About the only thing I can tell you about the doing of science is that you somehow have to have a feeling for the organism. . . . You somehow have to learn to lean into the kernel.”
In her biography of McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, Keller wrote that McClintock, “in her relation with ears of corn, practiced the highest form of love, which is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.”
When I read that, tears came to my eyes. McClintock had a relationship with ears of corn that I yearn to have with other people. And she knew it was possible to have that kind of relationship with all creatures and all beings. Here was a scientist — a Nobel prize winner responsible for genetic breakthroughs the effects of which we now all live with — who practiced the highest form of love while doing science itself.
If we could embody in our knowing, teaching, and learning the same sense of the sacred that Barbara McClintock brought to her work, we could recover our sense of the precious otherness of things. One of the greatest sins of our educational system is reductionism, which destroys that otherness by cramming everything into categories that we find comfortable, ignoring competing data and even simple facts that don’t fit. When, in our teaching, we require that Third World cultures measure up to our idea of greatness or excellence, we ignore their powerful richness. These cultures have much to teach us about real values — community, respect, the sacred — yet, by our measures, they come out looking shabby, dirty, dusty, lacking in merit. Too many students have learned, through our reductionist model, a disrespect for such otherness.
We do the same with great literature. A story may convey powerful messages about the human condition, but if it or its author does not measure up to current tests of rightness or credibility, the text gets dismissed. As the writer David Denby has said, “What a convenient way of making the professor and students superior to the text” — by not respecting the otherness of that voice and engaging it on its own terms.
If we could recover the sacred in education, we might also recover our sense of the precious inwardness of the things of the world. Barbara McClintock respected ears of corn the way one should respect the integrity of an alien nation, as an otherness that demands respect. But at the same time, she believed that an ear of corn had an inwardness to it, a mind. She once said, “I learned to think like corn.” She used her intuitive capacities to enter the mind of the corn. And when we don’t respect the inwardness of the things we study, we miss the inward teachings those things have for us, the learners.
I have thought often and painfully of the education I received — in some of the best colleges in this country — about the history of the Third Reich. I was taught by good historians, some of them award-winning. But I was taught the history of Nazi Germany in such a way that I felt as if all of that murderousness had happened to another species on another planet.
My teachers were not Holocaust revisionists. They weren’t saying it didn’t happen. They taught the statistics and the facts and the theories behind the facts, but they presented them at such objective arm’s length that the inwardness of those events was never revealed to me. All was objectified and externalized, and I ended up morally and spiritually deformed as a consequence.
There are two things that I failed to learn from my history courses on Nazi Germany — things that I should have learned, and did learn painfully in later years. One was that the very community I grew up in, on the North Shore of Chicago, had its own fascist antisemitic tendencies. I grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, and if you were a Jew in the Chicago area, you didn’t live in Wilmette. You didn’t live in Evanston or Kenilworth, either, because there was fascism at work. I should have been taught that. Had my life been connected with history in that way, it would have helped me understand my own time and place, and my own involvement in the same evil. Without that knowledge, there was no way for me to grow morally.
The second, even more deeply inward thing I didn’t learn is that there is within me, in the shadow of my soul, a little Hitler, a force of evil that, when the difference between you and me gets too great, will order me to kill you off. I won’t do it with a bullet or a gas chamber but with a category, a word that renders you irrelevant to my universe: “Oh, you’re just a [fill in the blank].” In academic life, we do this to each other with great facility.
Sadly, the inward self often disappears in the midst of objectivist education. Not long ago, I taught a course at a college in Kentucky in which I asked my students to write autobiographical essays connected to the history we were studying. I wanted them to see that the big story was related to their little story, despite the fact that the whole Appalachian experience had been omitted from their text on American history.
At the end of the first session, a young man came up to me and said, “Dr. Palmer, in these autobiographical papers that you want us to write, is it OK to use the word I?” I said, “Of course, it is. I don’t know how you’d be able to fulfill the assignment if you didn’t. Why did you feel the need to ask?” And he said, “Because every time I use the word I in a paper for my major, I’m downgraded one full grade.”
This goes on all the time in education. Yet without the “I” — without inwardness — real education cannot happen.
By recovering the sacred in education, we could also recover our sense of community with each other and with all of creation — the community that the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton so wonderfully called the “hidden wholeness.” This recovery of community is at the heart of good teaching.
Good teaching isn’t about technique. I’ve asked students around the country to describe their best teachers to me. Some describe teachers who lecture all the time, and others describe teachers who use group process, and still others describe something in between. But all of them talk about teachers who somehow connect students with the subject being studied, and with each other.
There is a distance, a coldness, a lack of community in a secularized academy, because we lack the connective tissue of the sacred to hold the apparent chaos together. As Merton said, it’s a wholeness, but it’s a hidden wholeness. It’s easy to look on the surface of things and judge that there is no community here at all. But if you go deep, as you do when you seek the sacred, you find the community that a good teacher evokes and invites students into, which somehow weaves a fragmented life back together.
Community goes far beyond our face-to-face relationship with each other as human beings. In education especially, community connects us with what Rilke called “the grace of great things.” We are, in reality, in community with the genes and ecosystems of biology, the great questions of philosophy and theology, the archetypes of literature, the artifacts of anthropology, the materials of engineering, the logic of systems and management, the shapes and colors of art, the patterns of history, the elusive idea of justice under the law — we are in community with all these great things. Great teaching is about knowing and feeling that community, and then drawing your students into it.
I had a teacher at Carleton College who lectured nonstop. He would sometimes make a vigorous Marxist statement, appear puzzled, then step over to one side and argue with himself from a Hegelian viewpoint. It wasn’t an act; he was really debating it in his head. We would raise our hands, and he would say, “Wait a minute. I’ll get to that at the end of the hour.” He wouldn’t, of course. He wouldn’t have gotten to it at the end of the week, the month, the year. Still, I was engaged by his lectures. He made me feel deeply connected to the world of social thought, even though he was basically a shy and awkward person who didn’t know how to connect with me on the social level.
This teacher didn’t need me to be in his community. He carried a community within himself, a community of people long gone. Who needs an eighteen-year-old from North Shore of Chicago when you’re hanging out with Marx and Hegel and Troeltsch and the rest? But he opened a door to a world of thought that I’d had no idea existed. He introduced me to an invisible community, and he changed my life.
A sense of the sacred would also help us recover the humility that makes real knowing, teaching, and learning possible. Speaking about the development of nuclear weaponry, physicist Freeman Dyson said, “It is almost irresistible, the arrogance that comes over us when we see what we can do with our minds.” So much arrogance that we are willing to keep turning the crank until we destroy the earth itself.
Several years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their discovery of the DNA molecule. Though their book Double Helix is full of all the antivirtues of academic life — competitiveness, ego, greed, power, money — the anniversary found the two scientists humbled by their discovery. Watson said, “The molecule is so beautiful. Its glory was reflected on Francis and me. I guess the rest of my life has been spent trying to prove that I was almost equal to being associated with DNA, which was a hard task.”
Then Crick — of whom Watson once said, “I have never seen him in a modest mood” — added, “We were upstaged by a molecule.”
If we recovered a sense of the sacred, we would recover our capacity for wonder and surprise, another essential quality in education. This would be a great change from what typically happens when we get surprised in an academic context: we reach for the nearest rhetorical weapon and try to kill what has surprised us, because we are scared to death.
I will never understand why people devoutly believe that competition is the best way to generate new ideas. What actually happens in competition is that you don’t reach for a new idea, because a new idea is risky: you don’t know how to use it; you don’t know where it’s going to take you; you don’t know what flank it may leave open to attack. In competition, you reach for an old idea that you can wield as a weapon, and you smite the new “untruth” as quickly as you can.
We do this often, because we have flattened our landscape in higher education to the point that anything that pops up is instantly defined as a threat: Where did it come from? It must be from underground. It must be the work of the devil. The sacred landscape, on the other hand, has hills and valleys, mountains and streams, forests and deserts. It is a place where wonder and surprise are our constant companions.
I do not believe that we can hope for or rightly ask our institutions to manifest the sacred qualities I have been describing. Institutions aren’t well suited to carry the sacred. The sacred gets distorted in an institutional framework. Rather, the sacred is something we carry in our hearts into the world, in solitude and in community.
I have been doing a study of social movements that have transformed the contemporary landscape: the women’s movement, the black-liberation movement, the gay-and-lesbian-identity movement, the movements for freedom in Eastern Europe and in South Africa. I believe that such movements start when individuals who feel isolated and alone in the midst of a death-dealing culture get in touch with something life-giving, and they make a decision, one of the most basic decisions a human being can make. I call it the decision to live “divided no more,” to no longer act on the outside in a way that runs counter to what they know is true on the inside. I also call it the Rosa Parks decision, because she is emblematic of the power of an isolated person who decided to live an undivided life.
Rosa Parks was prepared for that day, December 1, 1955, on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She had gone to the Highlander Folk School, where Martin Luther King learned nonviolence. She was the secretary of the NAACP in her community. But at the moment she refused to move to the back of the bus, as blacks were required to do, she had no assurance that the theory would work, that the strategy would succeed, nor that her friends would be there with her in the aftermath of that decision. It was a lonely choice made in isolation, but it helped to change the lay and the law of the land.
I’ve often asked myself how people find the courage to make a decision like that, when they know that the power of the institution is going to come down on their heads, when it could easily lead to loss of status, loss of reputation, loss of income, job, friends, and perhaps even meaning. The answer comes from studying the lives of the Rosa Parkses and the Vaclav Havels and the Nelson Mandelas and the Dorothy Days of this world. These are people who understand that no punishment that anybody could lay on us could possibly be worse than the punishment we lay on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment, by living a divided life, by acting and speaking on the outside in ways not consonant with what we know to be true on the inside. When the police told Rosa Parks, “If you continue to sit there, we’re going to have to throw you in jail,” she said, “You may do that” — which was an enormously polite way of saying, “What could your jail possibly mean compared to the imprisonment I’ve kept myself in for the last forty-three years, which I break out of today?”
And as soon as we make such a decision, amazing things happen. For one thing, the enemy stops being the enemy. With her protest, Rosa Parks was partly acknowledging that by conspiring with racism, she had helped to create racism. By conspiring with death-dealing education, we help to create death-dealing education. But by deciding to live divided no more — to act and speak in the classroom the sacred truths we know in our hearts — we can help education to become life-giving once again.
“The Grace of Great Things” is adapted from the keynote address for last year’s conference on “Spirituality in Education” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. It was originally published in Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice.