As I continue to read Parker J. Palmer’s A Courage to Teach, I feel like my head is overflowing with new ideas and discoveries about what it means to be a teacher. Before reading this book, I never gave a second thought to the trials of the teacher or the teaching world they live in. I took my learning situations at face value. I was the student and my job was to absorb as much knowledge from my teacher as required to pass a test. While I found many classroom topics interesting and inviting I barely tried to learn more than I had to. I was in school for the grades not intellectual satiety. I did not question the education formula, I just made sure I did my part. What I know now, thanks to Palmer, is that there are alternatives to this formula.
In the chapter titled knowing in the community, Palmer presents his reader with two diagrams. One diagram outlines the only education formula I thought existed, which shows that there is an object of knowledge which someone studies to the point of expertise, this expert then passes on knowledge of that object to amateurs. Palmer goes on to elaborate the expert as someone trained to know an object in its purest form, free of bias and subjectivity, and the amateur as an untrained someone riddled with the aforementioned. In this linear education formula, the expert is the ruler of the object of knowledge and their students are mere peasants begging for alms of intellect.
The rigid hierarchy of the first diagram gets a healthy dose of kumbayah with Palmer’s introduction of an alternative. First of all, there is no need for an object of knowledge pure and free from the filth of subjectivity, instead there is a subject. Rather than being placed at the top of a one way conveyor belt like the object, the subject is smack dab in the center of a interconnected web of, not experts or amateurs, but knowers. Any given knower can be an individual or a community of knowers, each “far-flung across space and ever-changing through time”(101). Since there is a flowing exchange of knowledge between all knowers concerning the subject, there are no experts or amateurs, only people who know a little and people who know a lot. In this education formula, knowers of all calibers are empowered to teach, learn, and share knowledge of their subject with one another.
While reflecting on the first diagram I am taken back to classrooms of old. I am the amateur and the teacher is the expert. Looking back I’m pretty sure my indifference towards educational exploration was born from the fear of getting my object of study sticky with my own biases and subjectivity. I didn’t want to be the kid who ruins the purity of the object.
On the other hand, without much thought, diagram two immediately reminds me of tango and how much our Sangha Space smircle resembles it. Tango is our central shared subject and all of us surrounding it create a diverse community of knowers, which itself is made up of individual knowers. What’s more, every time we walk into the studio we dirty tango with our thoughts, our feelings, our everything. We are not afraid of “dirtying” tango because our ability to have a relationship with it is what allows exchange among knowers. There are no absolute truths to learn, memorize, and if expertise is achieved, recite. Instead there are ideas, feelings, and discoveries, unique to each individual knower, which facilitates a community of sharing and learning.
The linear modal consisting of object, expert, and amateur is fragile. It can easily collapse on itself, bend, or break. God forbid a brisk wind blows by. But the web modal is strong. In fact, its network of knowers can make it infinitely stronger by leaning on one another or becoming closer with the subject itself. Without even knowing it, we are an example of a more stable and clearly more successful, education formula.
Now that deserves an ankle hug.
Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1998. Print.
(I like to think of an object as a thing and a subject as a what.)