To Teach Is to Invite Students into a Relationship with What Is Being Learned


I am rereading books on teaching that I want fresh inside me as I write my own. I’m beginning with the one that began my pedagogical journey back in college, Parker Palmer’s To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (1993). My teacher told me to read it and I did. It affected me profoundly, offering me a vision of authentic teaching and learning that I sensed I would spend my life trying to live out. As I reread more than a decade later, I realize I am in a very different place. The book strikes me differently, though just what the difference is I’m not quite able to articulate. And yet I realize I am in a different place in no small part because I read it back then. And, yes, it still strikes me as profound. I still aspire to his vision.

To Know as We Are Known is, first of all of, a book about “epistemology” (although it is decidedly not written in the dense technical language I usually associate with that term). Palmer first asks What does “knowing” mean ? before moving to How might we teach in light of that?

He makes a case against both “objectivism” and “subjectivism.” Knowledge is neither entirely out there, separate from us doing the knowing, nor entirely in here, accountable to nothing but our own whims. Instead, knowledge arises between here and there. Knowledge is a relationship. We know and are known in return. We know in relationship with the things we are knowing and with other knowers. In this book, Palmer comes to such a stance, a spiritual view of knowledge, by drawing overtly on his own Christian (Quaker) tradition, though he takes care to not exclude readers of other or of no religious traditions. (His more famous book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life covers similar ground but not in religious terms.)

On the foundation of a relational epistemology, Palmer proposes a compelling, contemplative pedagogy. To Know as We Are Known advocates ways of teaching marked by community, silence, solitude, dialogue, listening, humility, affect, hospitality, the slow practice of contemplative reading (lectio divina), and love.

The following are some of the passages that strike me most as I reread. Though I had a hard time narrowing down to just these, I hope they’ll give you enough of a taste to entice you, if these are the kinds of things that speak to you, to read the whole little book.

On Love

“The mind motivated by compassion reaches out to know as the heart reaches out to love. Here, the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entering and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own” (8).

On What It Is We Teach

“[A]s a teacher, I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be. Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulative pressure on my students’ sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world” (30).

On Learning Changing Lives

“To learn is to face transformation” (40).

“In conventional education, it does not matter if students respond with their lives” (42).

On the People Behind Abstractions

“The great abstractions of our intellectual tradition arose from the passionate involvement of a knower with the world to be known. From Plato’s ideas about form and substance, to Marx’s theory of labor and value, to Einstein’s E = mc², we find behind the generalization a person who allowed the world to speak to him at extraordinary depth” (63).

On the Pain of Learning

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us. . . . But precisely because a learning space can be a painful place, it must have one other characteristic—hospitality” (73-74).

On Strangers and Strange Ideas

“To be inhospitable to strangers or strange ideas, however unsettling they may be, is to be hostile to the possibility of truth . . . So the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome” (74).

On the Educational Purpose of Hospitality

“A learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur—things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought” (74).

On Subjects Speaking Back

“We need to find ways to give that subject a voice of its own, a voice that can speak its own truth and resist our tendency to reduce it to our terms” (98).

On Knowledge as “Friendship”

“It depends ultimately on a teacher who has a living relationship with the subject at hand, who invites students into that relationship as full partners. . . . The teacher, who knows the subject well, must introduce it to students in the way one would introduce a friend. The students must know why the teacher values the subject, how the subject has transformed the teacher’s life. By the same token, the teacher must value the students as potential friends, be vulnerable to the ways students may transform the teacher’s relationship with the subject as well as be transformed. . . . The friendship metaphor does not mean that the classroom must be all sweetness and light. The true test of a friendship is its ability to sustain conflict, its capacity to incorporate tension as a creative part of relationship; indeed, it is in tension and conflict that the transformations of friendship often occur. . . . The teacher, like any lover, must be capable of having a lover’s quarrel with the subject, stretching and testing the loved one and the relationship. In this way students are invited into the negation as well as affirmation, into argument as well as assent, within the secure context of friendship and hospitality” (103-04).


The multicolored highlighting shows my initial reading in college in 2006. The blue pen shows my return to the text in 2018.


2 responses to “To Teach Is to Invite Students into a Relationship with What Is Being Learned

  1. Thank you for sharing what resonated with you. I especially appreciate the section “On Knowledge as Friendhip” where he says the true test of friendship is it’s ability to sustain conflict. We need this ability within the classroom if we want to have the difficult conversations.

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