The Undivided Life
Written by Jim Knight.
December 10, 2010

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  E. E. Cummings

Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride. U2

I was listening to U2’s tribute to Martin Luther King,  Pride (In the Name of Love) as I drove across town the other day, and the song prompted me to wonder what it was about Dr. King that made it possible for him lead in the way that he did.  What is it about any person that makes it possible for them to be a powerful force for good?

Many ideas came to the surface.  Dr. King had a crystal clear moral purpose. He was passionate. He had a deep faith. He was magnificently articulate, disciplined, hard working and so forth.

These were the leadership characteristics I thought of first, but then I arrived at something that is at least equally important: Martin Luther King Jr., and others like him, live an undivided life.

I learned about the divided and undivided life in Parker Palmer’s profound and beautiful book, The Courage to Teach. Here is a what he wrote:

Many of us know from personal experience how it feels to live a divided life.  Inwardly we experience an imperative for our lives, but outwardly we respond to quite another… there are extremes of dividedness that become intolerable…

The institutions we inhabit, Palmer explains, can make it very difficult to live an undivided life because those institutions make claims on us that are at “odds with our hearts”:

That tension [between who we are and what our organization asks us to do] can … become pathological when the heart becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the organization, when we internalize organizational logic and allow it to overwhelm the logic of our own lives.

Palmer describes Rosa Parks as “our most vivid icon of the undivided life.”  When she chose to sit at the front of the bus, he explains, she was deciding that she would no longer live the life divided. Indeed, when asked why she stayed in her seat, Palmer tells us, she said “I … was tired of giving in.” To live an undivided life, then, is to stop giving in.

And just like Rosa Parks, Palmer writes, teachers need to stop giving in.

I meet teachers around the country who remind me of Rosa Parks: they love education too much to let it sink to its lowest form … These teachers have decided that teaching is a front-of-the bus thing for them, even though their institutions want to move it to the back… they act in ways that honor their own commitment to the importance of teaching. What these teachers do is often as simple as refusing to yield their seat on the bus: they teach each day in ways that honor their deepest values rather than in ways that conform to the institutional norm.

It is the undivided life, I believe, as much as anything, that fuels many of our greatest actions whether we are talking about leading a generation-defining movement for freedom, or teaching a five-year old child to read.  And each of us carries within us the potential to stop living the life divided.

To know who we are and what we stand for, and act in ways that truly express that knowledge is an act of courage and integrity. But that action is also precisely what will save our schools, our students, and our selves.

There is so much we can do to improve the way all the people (adults and children) in our schools learn.  One way to start is to “stop giving in.” We can make it clear, in our words and actions, that education must always be a humane, authentic activity for everyone.

The divided life is soul destroying.  But the undivided life liberates us and our students and it is the beginning of creating the schools our children deserve.


  1. Sue Land

    Like a prayer. Amen and thanks!

  2. Charlotte

    I’ll second that ‘amen’, but you are more hopeful than I that kids can lead an undivided life…..doesn’t that imply some freedom to choose? First, they are abstracted from their homes and families; then they are abstracted from nature (and Louv has proved to us how whole-making that is, more the pity); they are abstracted from real work and real family dynamics and the English language spoken in a way that knits the minds capacity for reason together into a coherent whole….let’s see, what else??? Do they encounter real music, or is it all canned? Real physical objects to manipulate, or only virtual ones? Real work that someone depends upon them to do, or pretend work we all know is just getting your ticket punched? Anyway, I appreciate that you are trying to give people the hope you have of making things better, but maybe I’m just the one describing the ‘negative space’ in your work of art, so it’ll shine better! Keep up the good work!

  3. Mia

    Parker’s words inspire us to live and teach authentically, and we need to teach our students to do the same. This book is a great read for all who struggle to teach in a way that opens students’ hearts, as well as their minds.

  4. Jenny

    Charlotte–great points, and they each deserve serious reflection. I think a lot of us have the awareness of these issues niggling at the edges of our conscious mind, but their elucidation has been so….elusive 🙂

  5. Jen

    Hmmm….thinking out loud here….

    ….so if living an undivided life is to “stop giving in,” then this blog post’s concept is, generally speaking, unavailable to students in any meaningful way. I don’t know of a larger people group in this country than our children who have been denied choice (over who they are with, how their time is spent, what they would like to learn, when they can go to the bathroom or get a drink and so forth…) and are forced by a compulsory system to “give in” every single day of their precious lives. It’s one thing to require an education; another to force how and where and when it should happen across the board.

    To me, this is the crux of the matter, the double standard in educational change ideas that really upsets me: the choice to live an undivided life, to treat one another in the partnership way, is only afforded to adults, to teachers–to the ones with power-over (and that only half-way because they, too, are confined by the compulsory nature of the prevailing system; but radical learners will, a la Paulo Freire, overcome despite the limit situation). The choice is not afforded to our students in any deeply meaningful way because they currently have very little choice but to “give in” to the compulsory nature of the system (and the concurrent prevailing cultural belief that the compulsory system is the only way to be legitimately educated; thus the kids get a great deal of pressure to keep giving in from a misinformed culture as well… If you step out of system-lockstep, you are often seen as a pariah, although I believe that is changing). Illich had much to say about this…

    When women & racial minorities,for example, are told in not so many words to just suck it up and deal with the lack of choices and disempowerment they are up against because ‘this is the way it is,’ society generally has a hissy fit. But, compulsory schooling denies choice and individual empowerment to children on the most basic level every day for years on end. So, can I truly be amazed when I see vast numbers of now grown children living very divided lives as adults and behaving in ways that reveal that they seem to think little of democratic process, compassion, many other things that are dear to us?

    Now clearly, there are a lot of kids who have grown up very nicely, and are very engaged in life and are compassionate and so forth. I’m not trying to make false generalizations, nor am I trying to say we don’t need a public school system (that’d be ridiculous). But, I’m trying to point out what I perceive as a really rotten double standard. Does a healthy public education option really have to bear a compulsory nature which denies children so much personal sovereignty and choice? As the old saying goes, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” There’s also more than one way to honor the government’s mandate for the populace to be educated.

    Kids need guidance, but that needn’t necessarily equate to compulsory guidance.

    In my estimation, this double standard is fueled by what I have called academic intolerance–that is, being completely intolerant of children being empowered to learn in a place or way other than the compulsory system/brick and mortar school building, and of the parents and teachers who choose to educate within that alternate framework. I really do believe that this form of intolerance is finally being challenged thanks to great radical learners and thinkers who have been stalwart in the face of great animosity.

    The way I see it right now (and I know that I still have much to learn), eventually the radical learners in positions of school authority (if they really want to be the undivided, truly authentic people they aspire to be), will have to see this idea out to its logical, humane end: that children should be afforded the same choice to live the undivided lives we want for ourselves because these choices are choices that are humanizing (that is, they ought to be common to every human person). They should be able to do their work, and then be DONE at quitting time and take needed rest and refreshment among people they love.

    But, so often, compulsion (and strict authoritarianism) is convenient. And, we do love convenience…

  6. Jim Knight

    Hi Charlotte, I read this comment on Parker Palmer’s Facebook page, and I thought it might be relevant to this conversation. There he wrote:

    “There are times when it would be crazy not to be depressed. But I decided some years ago that if things are going to be hopeless, they are going to be hopeless in spite of me, not because of me.”

    • Charlotte

      To Jim: I love that quote….we can’t give in to despair in any sphere, or we lose free agency.

      To Jenny: Amen, amen! What seems to be lacking, when we say school must be compulsory, is any belief that education is something that is intrinsically attractive. Maybe we’ve been away from the ‘real world’ too long in our concrete education boxes, but all of our sciences developed because people have a deep-seated yearning to know, to investigate, to understand, to encounter reality. Part of the kids’ problem, even when in good schools, is that the whole system screams at them, “YOU WOULD NEVER DO THIS UNLESS WE FORCED YOU!!!!”, so, of course, they rarely do ever read, ever self-educate, ever experience their own boredom, or their own yearning to KNOW. What can we do about that, reformers??? The only answer I have is that these kids need to encounter more people who, themselves, would rather LEARN NEW STUFF than do anything else, and who get some chance to share that passion, that beginner-mind, that adventure with the kids they meet. What do you think???


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *