Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
Parker J. Palmer Reads Ken Wilber
by R. Michael Fisher - Friday, February 17, 2012, 10:36 AM

Back in 2009, when I served as Director of Research and Education for Gaia House Interfaith Center, I was deeply steeped in reading Parker J. Palmer's The Courage To Teach (1). There was a local group of people from Gaia House community (Hugh Muldoon, then Director, and Michael Batinsky, Board member and a few others off and on) discussing the "integrative education" work of Palmer and his critique of higher education and his invitation to renewal. Our group co-sponsored talks on the SIUC campus for students and faculty on changes needed in higher education, of which one of those sessions was particularly geared to Palmer's contributions.

Palmer has had a great influence on many thousands of educators from all levels, but he has written most particularly in adult and higher education. I came across his book in 1998 (first ed.) during my graduate research because he had a chapter in that book on the "Culture of Fear" in higher education and its deadly consequences. That was right up my alley, and I so appreciated Palmer was one of the first, at least the biggest well-known, higher educator to call out the "culture of fear" as problematic.

Two interesting bits of research lately have made me very encouraged that Palmer's work, which I have also been a big critic of (2) from an integral educational perspective, is extending beyond his typical spiritual-liberal "green meme"-centric positioning. The first case was discovering that he was invited to speak at the 2007 commencement for the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in 2007. I thought to myself, wow, Palmer has never in his writing and talks, that I know of, ever referred to "integral" (3) in the tradition of Integral Studies, and CIIS is the premier institute in North America if not the world on integral philosophy and integral theory. Ken Wilber, and other important integral thinkers have influenced CIIS and taught there, although lately Wilber specifically has distanced himself from it's ideological direction into aspects of what he would call political correctness via "extreme postmodernism" (i.e., his critique of the "mean green meme" which he argues resists and largely attacks the manifestation of integral consciousness) (4).

The second case, just this morning, was coming across Palmer's new book with Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education (5). It's unclear who brought Wilber's work to Palmer, maybe it was his co-authors in this new book. It is delightful to see they engage and cite two of Wilber's books (albeit, his earlier works only), but they also engage and cite the basic characteristics of "integral education" as given by students and scholars of Wilber and other integral philosophers. They cite Esbjorn-Hargens, Reams, and Gunnlaugson (2010), and the new book on integral education in adult and higher education (6). This is not an insignificant connection, and alignment of strategic importance for CSIIE. It seems there is a next wave of potential here to link critical changes in adult and higher education with integral theory, and Palmer with Wilber, specifically. All that is good news to my researcher's ears. I look forward to reading Palmer and Zajonc's book. And of course this all is directly related to CSIIE's new pilot study on contemporary integral adult/higher education (for that report go to Dept. of Integral and 'Fear' Studies, scroll down for a free pdf copy). We at CSIIE have two articles as spin-offs from that report underway. It seems things are moving in a positive direction for our organization right now.

So what did Palmer and Zajonc (2010) say about Wilber's contribution to their own thinking about "integrative education" (their preferred term)? I quotes from their book:

"True integrative education must, therefore, make use of the extensive investigation of and insights into the stages of cognitive, affective, moral, and spiritual development of the human being throughout life as articulated by such researchers as William Perry, Jack Mezirow, Robert Kegan, Lawrence Kohlberg, Sharon Parks, and Ken Wilber." (p. 102). All those theorists talk about stages of development in sequencing, more or less, and that "each one of which changes the fundamental way in which they [we] make meaning of the world."

[Wilber's work offers] "grounding the recent origins of integral education in the spiritual philosophy of the Indian write Sri Aurobindo" (p. 10). From Esbjorn-Hargen's et al., drawing primarily on Wilber's integral theory:] "While eschewing a definition of integral education, they [Esbjorn-Hargens et al.] enumerate the characteristics of learning and teaching with that model:

- exploring multiple perspectives

- including first-, second-, and third-person methodologies of teaching and learning

- combining critical thinking with experiential feeling

- including the insights of constructive developmental psychology

- multiple ways of knowing

- weaving together the domains of self, culture, and nurture [sp. nature]

- recognizing various types of learners and teachers

- encouraging 'shadow work' within learners and teachers, an exploration of the nonrational side of the human self (p. 10)

I find Palmer has used "integrative" as many would use "holistic." That's a longer argument, and it is also one that needs to be clarified, because Wilber's integral philosophy (and other integralists throughout history) are not so easily put in a box (nor "integrated") into the "integrative education" worldview of Palmer, or "holistic education" (although, many integrativists and holists try to do so). I agree with Wilber's integral critique of both those views, while at the same time embracing their best aspects. Palmer unfortunately doesn't seem to make that distinction in his new book, and I'm frankly not surprised, because I don't think he fully understands integral theory yet but it is great he is beginning to engage it and publicize it more popularly than Wilber and other integral theorists could ever hope to do. I'm delighted in thinking how many Palmer fans are buying his latest book and getting introduced to integral education at the same time. Wow!

Whatever the case, this is a very small beginning of stretching the dialogue from the integrative, holistic camps into the integral camp. I've been waiting for such an opening for a long time. Which isn't to say it hasn't be tried or done somewhat effectively in the past. It has, as I think of particularly Ron Miller, and Jack Miller as holistic education leaders who have embraced and been influenced in curriculum and pedagogy by integral thinking (especially Wilber, Steiner, Kegan). Anyways, CSIIE has a foot in this door, since 2009, to keep the conversation going, and surely it will be contentious at times, but that's how we stretch and grow and it seems never straightforward, nor as simple as theory and intellects may want it to be. This is obviously then, an invitation to all kinds of people interested in Palmer's work and holistic education, to enter dialogue with the integral worldview at CSIIE. I for one, look forward to that and will encourage it where I can.


1. Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [see 2008, 10th anniversary ed. also by Jossey-Bass].

2. See Fisher, R. M. (2010). The world's fearlessness teachings: A critical integral approach to fear management/education for the 21st century. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, pp. 13, 212, 225-28. My basic critique is his overly-simplistic definition of "fear" and his non-engagement with my work despite sending it to him many times, and having a few email exchanges.

3. Albeit, Palmer does refer to the "integral life" of the higher educator or teacher, yet he has not in the past integrated integral philosophy or theory per se in that construction and the practices that go with it; much to my disappointment over the years, I may add.

4. One of the places he published on this, of many, is in his book Wilber, K. (1997). The eye of spirit: An integral vision for a world gone slightly mad. Boston, MA: Shambhala, pp. 303-04. Another good place is in Wilber, K. (1998). The marriage of sense and soul: Integrating science and religion. NY: Random House, pp. 34-35, 43, 119-20, 135-36.

5. Palmer, P. J., Zajonc, A. (with Megan Scribner) (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal: Transforming the academy through collegial conversations. San Fancisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

6. Esjborn-Hargens, S., Reams, J., and Gunnlaugson, O. (eds.) (2010). Integral education: New directions for higher learning. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.