'The Heart of Higher Education'

While many college faculty members and administrators are focused on budget cuts or research agendas, Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc have issued a call to return to what they think matters the most: teaching, and teaching in an "integrative" way that moves past individual disciplines. Their appeal comes in a new book, The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal (Jossey-Bass).

February 8, 2011

While many college faculty members and administrators are focused on budget cuts or research agendas, Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc have issued a call to return to what they think matters the most: teaching, and teaching in an "integrative" way that moves past individual disciplines. Their appeal comes in a new book, The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal (Jossey-Bass). Palmer is best known for his book The Courage to Teach. Zajonc is professor of physics at Amherst College and director of the academic program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Zajonc and Palmer responded to questions about their new book:

Q: What are the major problems in higher education that you hope your approach will alleviate?

A: While every college or university has its own unique set of problems, if we step back and ask what are the larger, fundamental shortcomings of higher education, we see a small but potent set of issues that reflect neglect or a failure of courage. Derek Bok describes, for example, our long "neglect of purposes." We fail to ask, what are the true aims of higher education? Harry Lewis and Anthony Kronman lament the "soulless university" that today neglects its important task of engaging students concerning the purpose and meaning of their lives, or in Kronman’s words, "what life is for." Helen and Alexander Astin document the hopes and expectations of students, over two-thirds of whom hope that their undergraduate education will offer them the occasion to develop personal values, self-understanding, and "to find purpose in my life." We neglect these educational tasks -- which form the heart of higher education -- because of an impoverished and outdated view of reality (including ourselves), a truncated notion of knowing and learning, and a cost-benefit approach to ethics. In our book we seek to redress these failures in higher education not by prescribing a universal curriculum or set of pedagogical techniques; rather we offer a philosophical infrastructure for a coherent, integrative college education. With this as the larger context, professors, administrators, trustees, and students can convene spirited conversations concerning the particular local issues of their educational community. In this way we hope to marry the unique set of problems an institution faces with the larger principles and aims of a comprehensive, integrative education that does not shy away from the heart of the enterprise.

Q: Many in higher education today feel overwhelmed by dealing with the impact of budget cuts. Why should they focus on this agenda?

A: The change strategy that we advocate is drawn from community organizing. It requires little or no extra funding because the profession from which it comes almost always works in settings where there is little financial capital to fuel change — so community organizers learn to fuel change with human and social capital. The strategy we spell out in the book harnesses the enthusiasm, creativity, and common concerns that faculty and administrators have for the students they serve. In a time of budget cuts, our academic communities can still gather for collegial conversation and pedagogical innovation. In fact, times of crisis and austerity also offer opportunities when we are willing to ask hard questions and to set priorities concerning what is of true importance. Our book offers an overarching framework within which such conversations can take place, one that supports a coherent, integrative development of higher education. We also give guidance for how collegial conversations can be initiated and sustained on campus. In this way, we offer both a method and a philosophical infrastructure for holding meaningful dialogue about the central educational questions we face today in our colleges and universities.

Q: What is "integrative education" and how can it be promoted?

A: Our world is multidimensional; so is higher education. Every disciplinary area is like an axis or road through the landscape of life. But each captures only a fragment of the whole, offers only a partial picture of the full reality and so lacks breadth. At the first level, integrative education combines mastery of a single discipline with a vibrant engagement with other disciplines, near and far. Too often we seek to redress lack of breadth by the simple juxtaposition of courses through a distribution requirement. No real integration arises in this way. Other pedagogical means are required that bring the richness of learning into the hearts and minds of students and faculty. But this level of integration redresses only the breadth dimension of education, and fails to treat the heights and depths. Integrative education cannot shy away from questions of meaning, purpose and values. One method of addressing these is through the wide range of contemplative methods of learning that are being developed by faculty across the disciplines and in co-curricular contexts as well. Finally, all learning is situated, we live our lives within community and we should not neglect our responsibilities it. To this end, we cannot neglect the cultivation of the fundamental human capacities for compassion and altruistic action. These too need to be part of an integrative education. In this way we achieve a meaningful integration of the breadth of learning, with a serious and intimate exploration of our highest aspirations, never forgetting the suffering around us that calls for deepening our human relationships and good work within our diverse communities.

Q: In several places in the book, you criticize various kinds of boundaries that are well guarded in the academy. Why has higher education embraced so many divisions and how can they be eliminated?

A: We can perhaps point to Francis Bacon’s bold 17th century efforts at the reclassification of knowledge as the dawn of its modern fragmentation. This way of dividing our world was further refined and codified by the Enlightenment figures Diderot and D’Alembert in their encyclopedia project. Each of the departments of knowledge they defined became the fiefdom of a community of scholars who competed for limited resources and prestige. In our view, while we acknowledge the power of specialization, the deconstruction of the world and of ourselves has gone too far. For every step we make toward specialization and fragmentation, we need simultaneously to take steps toward integration and synthesis. One model for overcoming fragmentation is that of Einstein’s tiny Olympia Academy. It was a diverse, three-person, learning community that read widely, argued vigorously, hiked and speculated together for the three years prior to 1905, Einstein’s annus mirabilis, when he published four landmark papers. In order to redress the fragmentation of knowledge we need social forms and practices that bring us together across disciplines, that encourage lively engagement, and that support our personal integration of the disciplines, their methods as well as content. The world is an interconnected whole; our learning and praxis should reflect the reality of that interconnectedness.

Q: What are some current efforts at colleges that you particularly admire for their commitment to the ideas you discuss?

A: Throughout the book, and especially in the book’s appendix, we give many examples of significant attempts to make higher education more integrative in one way or another. One mentioned in the book is the fast growing appreciation of what has come to be called "contemplative pedagogy." It makes extensive use of secular contemplative exercises both for general capacity building (such as strengthening attention or emotional balance), as well as subject-oriented practices designed for a particular class. For example, the contemplative art of "beholding" in art history or compassion practices that shift game theoretical outcomes in an economics class are both being taught at Amherst College. Contemplation offers a wonderful method for deep engagement with class material, as well as a means of taking up questions of meaning, purpose, and values. (For detail see the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.) A second example, not in the book, is the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). Like similar teaching and learning centers across the country, the CRLT has provided both resources and encouragement for integrative education. Its presence on campus since 1962 has yielded many valuable programs. The CRLT Players Theatre Program is one example. This program "develops and performs sketches that engage faculty and graduate students in discussions of multicultural teaching and learning and institutional climate. Sketches are based on research concerning the experiences of under-represented students and faculty, such as women faculty and students in science and engineering, students of color, and students with disabilities." This program simultaneously employs and encourages the use of multiple modes of knowing, and has been very effective in advancing the integrative education agenda at a large research-oriented university.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top