(for my ENG 104 students)
“Community of Truths” by Parker Palmer (From the book Courage to Teach)
Notes by Michael Benton
1) Why is Truth “not a word much spoken in educational circles these days.” And why would it signify an earlier “naïve era when people were confident they could know the truth”? (99) Explain the difference between Truth (universal and absolute) and truth/s (provisional, relational and mutable).
2) What is the mythical objectivist model of truth? (99) Discuss the two visual models that Palmer supplies in the essay (100 and 102). Refer to the belief of some that the “objectivist knowledge” is the only method to “uncover” the truth. This is a belief that “Truth” is out there waiting for us to discover it in its unaltered and eternal form. The Dangerous Myth of Objectivity (unbiased objectivity) insists that facts can be separated from values, and that the proper role of the expert (media, journalist, scientist, historian, teacher, leader, conqueror) is to sort, verify, and deliver those "unbiased" facts to readers. A critical function of the ideology of objectivity is to render invisible (or as Palmer states “unconscious”) the expert’s power to shape and reinforce public opinion and cultural standards. Furthermore, the objectivist model relies upon the production of passive consumers who absorb knowledge without questioning instead of active citizens who search out their own meanings and understandings of the truth/s. For Palmer and others the notion of an objective “Truth” waiting to be discovered is a “myth.” This is because they realize that we produce our subjective understandings of truth/s through a dialogical/dialectical process of interaction, comparison, discussion and conflict between: knower <--> subject, subject <--> community, community <--> knower, knower <--> subject <--> time/space, and so on…
3) What does Palmer mean when he says “The community of truth is, in fact, many communities, far-flung across space and ever-changing through time” (101).
4) Why is this distinction so important: “a subject is available for relationship; an object is not” (102).
5) Key quote: “As we try to understand the subject in the community of truth, we enter into complex patterns of communication—sharing observations and interpretations, correcting and complementing each other, torn by conflict in this moment and joined by consensus in the next. The community of truth, far from being linear and static and hierarchical, is circular, interactive, and dynamic. At its best, the community of truth advances our knowledge through conflict, not competition. … Competition is the antithesis of community, an acid that can dissolve the fabric of relationships. Conflict is the dynamic by which we test ideas in the open, in a communal effort to stretch each other and make better sense of the world. (103)
6) Now at this point someone will probably ask “isn’t this just a slide into extreme relativism in which there is the impossibility of knowing the Truth?” Now we know that there will always be Truth in the sense that if you cut my arm off with a sword there is no denying that my arm has been cut off, BUT, what I am saying here, is that your “reason” for cutting off my arm is debatable and our understanding of the “truth” of your motivations/reasons for the act depends on the interpretative community that resolves the situation. This is why in our society if someone did cut my arm off in front of witnesses, there may still be a trial to decide guilt or innocence (or degrees of guilt).
7) This brings us to another key quote: “This communal dynamic is governed by rules of observation and interpretation that help define us as a community by bringing focus and discipline to our discourse. To be in the community of truth, we must abide by its norms and procedures, which differ from one field to another… . These standards are strong but not chiseled in stone: they evolve even as our understanding of a subject evolves. We can challenge and change the norms, but we must be able to justify any deviation from them in a public and compelling way” (103-104)
8) Why is it important to Parker Palmer that we recognize and participate in the production of truth/s. Is this important to a democratic society?
9) Why does Palmer state that: “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (104).
10) Another key quote: “We need to know the current conclusions in order to get in on the conversation. But it is not our knowledge of conclusions that keeps us in the truth. It is our commitment to the conversation itself, our willingness to put forward our observations and interpretations for testing by the community and to return the favor to others. To be in the truth, we must know how to observe and reflect and speak and listen, with passion and with discipline, in the circle gathered around a given subject.” (104)
Response to Parker Palmer's "Community of Truths" and Democracy as a Concept
Teaching in the Face of Fear