Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.


One thought on “Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

  1. As someone who has recently returned to the college classroom after a lengthy hiatus, many things seem risky for me! Yet I know that the concept of hospitality is the ONLY way to go. I feel like my class sessions aren’t successful if there isn’t a rigorous exchange of ideas, questions, confusion at times and clarity between the learning community that involves me as well as my students. Hospitality in any classroom opens the doors, windows and even the roof sometimes for quality learning experiences to take place.

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