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January 2, 2012

Public Schools, Democracy at Work

by Chris Lindholm

If you are an educator who has spent a few sleepless nights wondering why you were called into this difficult work (isn’t that all of us?) and you haven’t read some of Parker Palmer’s work, adding a couple of his books to your 2012 reading list is a must.  I was first introduced to Palmer through his best seller The Courage to Teach and have been blessed to hear him speak and facilitate rich conversation at his almamater, Carleton College here in Northfield, MN.  Palmer reaches beyond our routine conversations around pedagogy, policy or content and dives deeply into the teacher heart and soul.  His writing puts words to the deep feelings of tension and paradox that encompass our work each day, and he paints a refreshing picture of hope and understanding cultivating a deep sense of courage and purpose.  Years ago he launched The Center for Courage & Renewal to further the impact of his work and has continued to be a grass roots activist on behalf of our work and our country.

I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see that Palmer’s newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, focuses not on education, but on the current state of our nation’s politics.  Maybe because I am a former social studies teacher and political science major, I dove happily into this new release hoping to glean a stroke of “Palmeresque” brilliance from it that would explain some deep stirring in my own soul about how to tackle the demoralizing state of our politics.  Well… stir it did, but not in the direction I had anticipated (and naively so I must admit…).  Palmer focuses his laser sharp thinking not on Washington DC, the media, or the ambiguous “those powerful people” but on the heart of America’s political structure… you and me.  “If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takover that keeps some Americans awake at night.  It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form” (pg. 9 – location 475).  He accurately captures the value of positive tension in democracy and challenges all of us to embrace it while authentically caring for the souls of our fellow Americans, agreed with or not.  He holds up the power of listening, real dialogue, and engaging in grass roots political activity in pursuit of a life journey that aligns with our values versus the political win.  I couldn’t agree more…

Palmer’s thoughts in Healing the Heart of Democracy have much to offer leaders of public education – or of any public sector for that matter.  I can’t help but drift into many thoughts about leading under the direction of a public school board, navigating labor relations, managing the perceptions of staff and the public, and dealing with those who blindly bash our work with little understanding beyond having been a student at one time.  His reflections on the intentional messiness of democracy and the slow pace for dealing with critical issues seemed to read right out of a routine meeting I might have with key stakeholders.

When democracy is working as it should, it is a complex and confusing mess where we can think and act as we choose, within the rule of law; can generate social and technological advances via the creative conflict of ideas; and can still manage to come together fo rthe sake of the common good.

Just as a virgin prairie is less efficient that agribusiness land, democracy is less efficient than a dictatorship.  We often move too slowly on matters of moral or practical urgency.  And yet this loss of efficiency is more than offset by the way human diversity, freely expressed, can strengthen the body politic – offering resilience in the face of threat, adaptability to change, creativity and productivity in everything from commerce to science to culture (pg. 12 – Location 533).

Indeed our work is messy and slow.  It is riddled with differing opinions and difficult conflict.  Ultimately every leader has to make decisions that disappoint someone and how that gets done is a significant determiner of one’s leadership quality.  “No habit of the heart is more crucial to making ‘We the People’ a reality than extending hospitality to those who appear alien to us” (pg. 38 – location 1025).  We can disagree and often must, but we need to uphold and care for the souls of others in the process.  Being authentic in my answer to Palmer’s call to heal the heart of democracy is my personal 2012 goal as I step deeper into the work of district level leadership.

Today, my definition of citizenship is deep-seated and wide-reaching: ‘Citizenship is a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself.’

I see now that I have no choice – at least, no honorable choice – except to affirm, celebrate, and express my gratitude for that community in every aspect of my life, trying to be responsive to its needs whether or not my immediate self-interests are met.  Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine… 

I must learn to speak up in the civic community without denying my opponents their humanity and further poisoning the political ecosystem on which democracy depends (pg. 31 – location 881).

Notice: Parker Palmer is leading a musical retreat with singer and activist Carrie Newcomer called Democracy from the Inside Out: A Circle of Trust Retreat at Luther College in IA later this month! 

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