The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal

The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc
Reviewed by Allison Gale, Departmental Teaching Fellow for Earth and Planetary Sciences

Given its saccharine title, a skeptic might expect this book to be filled with touchy-feely jargon and ideas that lack substance. Instead, it strikes a welcome balance between theoretical claims and practical applications (including appendices at the back of the book dedicated to actual experiments in “integrative education” around the country). The book is divided into essays by each of the authors, who wished to “maintain the differences in voices and viewpoints that proved fruitful when [they] were speaking face-to-face.” Simply stated, both authors argue for a return to the teaching of the whole human being – harnessing emotions as well as intellect in the classroom.

Perhaps not surprisingly (!), they trace the roots of our objective, emotionless classrooms to science, arguing that the “ways in which we educate students today are, in large part, a reflection of our worldview, which itself is an image of nineteenth-century science.” We have come to believe that knowledge is “inert and objective,” and that education is “limited to teaching students how to manipulate the knowledge they learn in school.” Students memorize formulas, focusing on abstract mechanisms and causal factors rather than coming to understand such principles through their own direct experience. We teach them to disconnect the personal from the educational.

Zajonc argues in his first essay (Chapter 3) that this educational philosophy is “outmoded and limiting.” Modern science has come to recognize the critical importance of the kinds of experience that cannot be reduced to component parts and abstract mechanisms. Indeed, the complex relationships that structure our world mean that the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. As a concrete example, Zajonc points out in Chapter 4 that the “wetness” of water is not a property possessed by its constituent components, the gases hydrogen and oxygen. Only when hydrogen and oxygen combine does the “wetness” emerge. Later on in the chapter, he highlights the similar errors that occur when economists reduce humans to objects acting solely to maximize their own “utility function.” The message is clear: whether it’s hydrogen or humans, relationships change everything.

Palmer, in his essay “Toward a Philosophy of Integrative Education” (Chapter 1), asserts that we cannot come to understand the world through a purely objective approach (Sorry, Sir Isaac Newton!). Higher education’s steadfast loyalty to the “myth of objectivity” must be replaced by the recognition that the knower cannot be separated from the known. There is no way to eliminate human subjectivity from human knowing – and indeed, we wouldn’t want to! Palmer convinces us of this by highlighting Nobel Prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock, whose work on corn plants revolutionized genetics, and who herself recognized the fundamental importance of subjectivity. When asked by Evelyn Fox Keller (author of a book documenting her work) for the secret to her science, McClintock replied, “…one must have a feeling for the organism.” Indeed, some of the best scientific discoveries have come not from keeping our distance, but from directly engaging with the subject matter. This process is exemplified by McClintock’s approach, which Keller describes as “empathizing with corn plants…dissolving the boundary between object and observer.”

Empathy in science? Could emotions really have a place in science or in the classroom? Whether or not we choose to accept it, the authors argue, our emotions influence our thinking. In a section addressing the criticism often leveled against integrative education, that “emotions have no place in the classroom,” Palmer uses women’s math proficiency as an unfortunate example of the inextricable link between emotion and cognition. As he notes, girls and women were, once upon a time, horrible at math. Until far too recently, the dominant theory for this phenomenon was that the female brain is structured to make computation difficult. This false theory is itself the root cause of the phenomenon: girls assimilated the notion that they could not do math, and thus walked into math and science classrooms burdened with fear and anxiety. As scholar Sheila Tobias has stressed, eliminating this fear could (and did) eliminate the performance gap. Palmer cleverly points out that the elite academics who claim that “subjective emotions” have no place in data analysis and “objective knowledge” are, ironically, ignoring data that shows important links between emotions and learning.

As a scientist, I found this concept – that it is acceptable to directly address emotions while teaching – particularly liberating and heartening. A recent personal teaching experience came to mind. One of my slides for the day’s class showed the current rate of human-induced extinction of species, the highest levels on record. I had explained the data, and was about to click to the next slide, when I suddenly paused. Facing the students, I said, tentatively, “I just have to say that I feel sick when I think about this statistic. Who are we, as humans, to destroy thousands of species annually? Where do we get off?” I was remembering a talk E.O. Wilson had recently given at Harvard, which began with a slideshow of species after species that are no longer on this planet. There’s a powerful emotional experience in seeing images of animals that no longer exist. Snapping back to reality, I worried that I had gone too far, inappropriately voicing my views on the topic rather than objectively stating facts. I hurriedly clicked to the next slide.

While reading this book, however, I recalled that teaching moment with a new sense of pride. I am convinced that it is all right, on occasion, for scientists (and indeed humanities professors too) to talk about feelings, to engage our students in ethical questions where appropriate. I also realized that my discomfort with my emotional digression hinted at an underlying, deep-seated sense of the way science “should” be taught. It made me hungry for change, and even more swayed by the arguments put forth by Palmer and Zajonc.

In short, I find this book a worthy read for anyone interested in asking the deeper questions about what it means to educate an undergraduate. (Harvard’s own Derek Bok has noted that our colleges are “neglecting purposes.”) The book has some shortcomings, in particular a lack of structure. The authors jump around from topic to topic, diluting some of their arguments. But within this smorgasbord of topics and case studies are truly enlightening paragraphs that have stayed with me long after my reading was complete. Strangely, the book’s scattered structure promotes exactly the kind of emotional response the authors advocate. I encourage you to find the paragraphs that resonate most deeply with you, and to do the one thing the authors ask of us: have a meaningful conversation about higher education with a few colleagues. For, as they put it, “renewal…will germinate first in the soil of these caring and collegial conversations.”

This post was written by Allison Gale.

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