Debate Magazine

A Hidden Wholeness

By Stevemiranda

I often write that we can begin addressing the problems of our education system by changing our perspective: instead of viewing school as being primarily about academic content delivery, we should be looking at it through the lens of human development.

Here’s an example of what I mean. PSCS founder Andy Smallman gave me a book called A Hidden Wholeness, by Parker Palmer. (Many educators are familiar with Parker’s bestseller The Courage to Teach.)

Palmer’s book starts—and explains its title—with this:

Every summer, I go to the Boundary Waters, a million acres of pristine wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border. My first trip, years ago, was a vacation, pure and simple. But as I returned time and again to that elemental world of water, rock, woods, and sky, my vacation began to feel more like a pilgrimage to me—an annual trek to holy ground driven by spiritual need. Douglas Wood’s meditation on the jack pine, a tree native to that part of the world, names what I go up north seeking: images of how life looks when it is lived with integrity.

Thomas Merton claimed that “there is in all things . . . a hidden wholeness.” But back in the human world—where we are less self-revealing than jack pines—Merton’s words can, at times, sound like wishful thinking. Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

The divided life, Parker writes, is when we refuse to invest ourselves in our work, when we collect a paycheck from a company whose values we don’t share, or when we remain in relationships that kill off our spirits. Even hiding one’s beliefs from those who disagree simply to avoid conflict, or concealing one’s true identity for fear of being criticized—these are all examples of living a divided life.

School prepares kids for living a divided life. Daydreaming through a required class, cheating on a test in a class that you couldn’t possibly care less about, surrendering your autonomy by doing homework that is completely meaningless to you . . . all of this pulls kids away from growing into whole human beings. All this stunts kids’ development into mature adults with a powerful sense of self.

When you look at school from a human development standpoint, getting a good grade in Washington State History class doesn’t seem nearly as important as, to use Parker’s words, aligning one’s soul with their role in the world.

The best part is that it’s not an either/or question. By helping kids become whole, academic learning comes as a byproduct of that.

But it doesn’t work the other way around; academic learning alone can’t help you grow into a whole human being.

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