The Courage to Teach

“A Live Encounter with Diversity”

By Parker J. Palmer

“Academic institutions offer myriad ways to protect ourselves from the threat of the live encounter. To avoid a live encounter with teachers, students can hide behind their notebooks and their silence. To avoid a live encounter with students, teacher can hide behind their podiums, their credentials, their power. To avoid a live encounter with one another, faculty can hide behind their academic specialties.

To avoid a live encounter with subject of study, teachers and students alike can hide behind the pretense of objectivity: students can say, “Don’t ask me to think about this stuff – just give me the facts,” and faculty can say, “Here are the facts – don’t think about them, just get them straight.” To avoid a live encounter with ourselves, we can learn the art of self-alienation, of living a divided life.

This fear of the live encounter is actually a sequence of fears that begins in the fear of diversity. As long as we inhabit a universe made homogeneous by our refusal to admit otherness, we can maintain the illusion that we possess the truth about ourselves and the world – after all, there is no “other” to challenge us! But as soon as we admit pluralism, we are forced to admit that ours is not the only standpoint, the only experience, the only way, and the truths we have build our lives and begin to feel fragile.

If we embrace diversity, we find ourselves on the doorstep of our next fear; fear of the conflict that will ensure when divergent truths meet. Because academic culture knows only one form of conflict, the win-lose form called competition, we fear the live encounter as a contest from which one party emerges victorious while the other leaves defeated and ashamed. To evade public engagement over our dangerous differences, we privatize them, only to find them growing larger and more divisive.

If we peel back our fear of conflict, we find a third layer of fear, the fear of losing identity. Many of us are so deeply identified with our ideas that when we have a competitive encounter, we risk losing more than the debate: we risk losing our sense of self.

Of course, there are forms of conflict more creative than the win-lose form called competition, forms that are vital if the self is to grow. But academic culture knows little of these alternative forms – such as consensual decision making – in which all can win and none need lose, in which “winning” means emerging from the encounter with a larger sense of self than one brought int it, in which we learn that the self is not a scrap of turf to be defended but a capacity to be enlarged.

If we embrace the promise of diversity, of creative conflict, and of “losing” in order to “win,” we still face one final fear – the fear that a live encounter with otherness will challenge or even compel us to change our lives.

Otherness taken seriously, always invites transformation, calling us not only to new facts and theories and values but also to new ways of living our lives – and that is, the most daunting threat of all.”