A Commencement Address by Parker Palmer

Parker PalmerCalifornia Institute of Integral Studies Commencement Address delivered in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts on May 27, 2007

(Author’s Note: This commencement address, delivered when I received an honorary doctorate from the CIIS, has been shortened by nearly half to fit the CC&R newsletter. Unfortunately, this has required me to remove all the parts that contained wit, grace, intelligence and insight.)

The education you have received at the California Institute of Integral Studies is nearly unique in the world of higher education. It is also revolutionary. I urge you to carry what you know out into the world with a depth of commitment, knowledge, skill and passion that will help this revolution flourish.

The intellectual and cultural revolution I’m talking about is one that takes the reality and power of the inner world as seriously as we take the reality and power of the outer world. It links our inner and outer lives, knowing that the world we inhabit is constantly co-created by the interplay of what is within us and what is around us. It’s a revolution premised on the notion that people are not truly educated until they understand their inner dynamics.

In this commencement season, thousands of people with the knowledge and skill to manipulate the external world are being graduated from colleges and universities. But few of these graduates know much about the inner drivers that animate their external actions because they have not been taught how to explore their inner lives.

Putting power to manipulate things in the hands of people who know nothing about their own motivations is dangerous. If you need evidence of how dangerous it is, look at any newspaper of the last ten years, months, weeks, or days. Many powerful people have inner lives bereft of reflection, self-criticism, or self-correction. As a result, the inner repertoire of too many of our leaders ranges from arrogance to dogmatism to bullheadedness. I don't think that's a very wide range.

The late, great David Halberstam wrote a book called The Best and the Brightest about the people who led us into Vietnam. We can’t use that phrase today: it's “dumb and dumber” who have led us into Iraq. But it turns out that it doesn't matter much whether it's the best and the brightest or dumb and dumber. If leaders don't have inner wisdom, we end up in the same place: the soulless and arrogant use of power, with great harm done to other people and the planet.

Today’s leaders graduated from some of the best universities in the country: Yale, to take one random example. So, I ask in all seriousness, if we are going to hold public schools accountable for outcomes in the lives of their students through a piece of legislation called “No Child Left Behind,” do we not need parallel legislation for higher education called “No Leader Left Behind?”

But one key to the examined life is to spend less time looking at what's wrong with others, and more time looking self-critically and self-reflectively at what we can do to carry inner-life knowledge into the outer world. So I want to turn from talking about “them” to talking about us.

Your first task as people who understand the power and reality of the inner life is to carry what you know into the world with tenacity and courage. Even though our inner lives have a clear effect on the external world, you will be surrounded by denial and resistance from people who are afraid of what they might find if they looked within.

Here’s an example of the power of the inner life that reveals why it takes courage to explore it publicly. Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, two scholars at the University of Chicago, did a study of school reform in Chicago through the 1990’s. What factors, they wondered, made the difference between schools that got better at educating children over the course of that decade—as measured by improved test scores—and schools that did not?

The answer was not money, models of governance, up-to-date curricula, the latest in teaching techniques, or any other external variable. The answer was “relational trust” between teachers and administrators, teachers and parents, teachers and teachers. Schools with high relational trust, and/or leaders who cared about it, had a much better chance of serving students well than schools that ranked low on those variable.

And what is relational trust based on? On inner life factors, on our ability to deal with things like arrogance, envy, suspicion, greed, fear, and all of the other inner impediments to basic human trust.

Well, you might say, who does not know that a building full of people who don't trust each other will not do much good given money galore? And who does not know that a building full of people who trust each other can do great work, even with material scarcity? Everyone knows that, right?

But think for a moment about what happens in this society when a leader at a public school or any other institution says: “Folks, it’s not about money, it's not about technology, it's not about curriculum or technique. It's about how much we trust each other.” Such leaders often get marginalized, ridiculed, and labeled “touchy-feely.” People scoff at them for trying to act on a secret hidden in plain sight: that what goes on in the human heart makes a big difference in how well the world works. So your first job is to be feisty in the face of nay-sayers about witnessing to what you know about the power of the inner life.

Your second task is to give these inner-life powers—which are non-rational and non-empirical—the best possible rational and empirical defense, making it as hard as possible for our objectivist culture to marginalize them or reject them. We need to stop letting the inner-life movement be represented by people who have not done their homework, who make outrageous claims, who only talk to each other and not to the critics. Not to put too fine a point on it, we need to stop letting this movement be represented by airheads, lotus-eaters, and wackos.

We need less talk about how war would end if only everyone would meditate for ten minutes at the same time every week, and more talk about what can happen in the public schools when people are willing to do the hard work of cultivating inner qualities that engender relational trust so we can serve poor kids well. We need less talk about the wonders of out-of-body experience and more talk about the wonders of wheels-down people like Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, who gave us the breakthrough findings that opened up the genetic revolution—and did so by being a mystic as much as a scientist.

When asked by her biographer, “How did you do your great science?” McClintock said, “You have to have a feeling for the organism.” When asked to say more, she said—thinking about the ears of corn she had worked with all her life—“To do great science you have to lean into the kernel.”

At her memorial service, McClintock was eulogized by another great biologist with the following words: “She was a mystic who did not mystify.” If are going to carry a message about the power of the inner life into a world that does not want to hear it, we must make a case that blows away the smoke and fog.

Your third task is to model a life of real learning as you carry this upstream message about the power of the inner life into our objectivist culture. You can do this, first, by listening to the thoughtful critics and engaging them in respectful dialogue—remembering that spirituality and human subjectivity are very important, but if unfettered and unchecked can lead to excesses easily as cruel as the objectivist view of reality. Remember Galileo. Remember all the women who were burned as witches because someone's spirituality said they were evil. Do not romanticize the powers of the inner life. Hold them in creative tension with reason, evidence and communal discourse that invites all points of view into play.

You go out from this place with a way of seeing, knowing, and being that the world desperately needs. Offer it up to the world with courage, with intelligence, with openness to dialogue, with compassion and commitment, and you can be among those blessed souls doing the vital work of helping to reclaim the hidden wholeness of our broken and wounded world.