Teaching in the 21st Century

For this final blog, I want to reflect on the mission of teaching in light of Parker Palmer’s article “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited”. I think Palmer raises one of the most important questions we, as instructors, have to consider. This question is two-fold: does our educational system humanize us; if not, how can it be redesigned to do so? Palmer, as his point of departure, brings up a case in which a healthy man was let down by a dehumanized healthcare system and as a result, died.

Even in the analysis of negligence concerning the man’s preventable death, Palmer finds a dehumanized, detached perspective that ultimately allows such injustices to continue. Palmer writes, “The report assigns culpability to common nouns, not people. When systems analysis is our only approach to situations such as this, it becomes a sophisticated way to know what has occurred but not recognize its meaning.”[1] By this, I take Palmer to be gesturing towards the manner in which, in the final analysis, institutions are not outside or beyond human interaction. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the ‘rule-of-nobody’ characteristic of a totalitarian bureaucracy is always the rule by somebody.

I think that this case study has an extremely important lesson for anyone who is interested in being an educator, which is to reflect on how our pedagogy may create more reflective and empathetic human beings that are willing to take action and responsibility.

Palmer calls on us all to consider with him the idea of a ‘new professional’ who is “in but not of” the institutions which may house them.[2] By this, Palmer seeks to bring attention to the fact that institutions may in reality function to the contrary to their professed values. The goal of education, then, is to create subjects who will actually act in accordance with these lofty goals and take action to do so, even at the potential cost to themselves. Palmer writes, “I am talking about acting ethically and courageously in the moment, while there is still something to be salvaged, instead of waiting for a review board to ask what went wrong.”[3] I think this is ultimately what we strive to do in the classroom, as difficult as it may be.

Palmer continues to offer five points that may help us get there. I want to reflect on the first. Palmer writes, “We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us as if they possessed powers that render us helpless – an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue.”[4] Recalling the above passage on the report of the man’s death, Palmer again emphasizes that the goal of a proper education system must instill in students that no matter how seemingly powerful, abstract, mechanistic, or totalitarian an institution may seem, it is never outside human action. As such, it is always in practice alterable. I think this is one of the most important lessons that we can incorporate in a number of potential classes, as it is nearly as close to a universal human experience as imaginable.


[1] Parker J. Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 39, no. 6 (January 1, 2007), p. 8.

[2] Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” p. 9.

[3] Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” p. 8.

[4] Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” p. 9.