One of my favorite pastimes is contacting professors, authors, and academics I admire, and somehow asking them if they might be ok to sit down with me to discuss their work. Actually, it’s not really a pastime, but I’ve done it enough to feel confident in my approach. You send them an email, ask a pertinent or stimulating question, and await their reply.
A few months ago, I took it upon my self to contact Nel Noddings, whose contributions to the field of education, philosophy, ethics, and teaching have been profound. She is currently the Jacks Professor Emerti of Child Education at Stanford University, where she also earned her PhD in Philosophy of Education in 1975. She’s served on the faculties of Columbia University, University of Chicago, and Penn State Univerity, and she also directed the Lab School at the University of Chicago. She is also former president of the John Dewey Society and the Philosophy of Education Society. She has written books on democratic education, care based ethics, peace education, school reform, and many other topics. Even more impressively, she has 22 grand children and 10 great grand children. A strong body of work by any standard.
After corresponding with her over email (I had just completed her work on Democracy and Education in the 21st century), she invited me to her home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, right on the Jersey Shore. When I arrived, we immediately set to talking about education, philosophy, and all the rest. She prepared a tray with two mugs of coffee, we found a place to sit down in her book filled living room, and I immediately asked her about her career– and where she developed her philosophy of education (and whether she still has one). This might be a silly question– of course she has a philosophy of education– but I also understood from her work that she has no fixed ideas and answers about what education means. She doesn’t believe in antecedent first principles. She is a Deweyite, in the sense that she sees meaning as rooted in experience. Because experience is always changing, so must our concepts, ideas, and principles. Here’s how she puts it:
I have a philosophy of education, but it isn’t something you can just state in a couple words. I mean it’s something that bothers me about a lot of what’s going on in education at every level now. People would like to hang simple words on things, you know? Along with Dewey, I think that’s a mistake. Things are more complicated, more complex, than that. Maybe that was one reason he hesitated to label himself a pragmatist. He always stepped back from that. He didn’t want that label. Nor did he want to use the words progressive education, because his fundamental philosophy tended toward the pragmatic, but the idea was that you start with what’s right in front of you. You know? The current problem. You look both backward and forward, and you try things out, and you don’t buy anything hook, line, and sinker. If I’m going to describe my philosophy in a few words, that’s it: you don’t buy anything hook, line, and sinker.
The idea that “you don’t buy anything hook, line, and sinker” may seem like an uninspired philosophy of learning. But this is a good thing. The problem with most philosophies is their tendency to get mired in abstractions, and their preference for truth claims which exclude messy and unpredictable aspects of experience. William James began one of his lectures on Pragmatism with a quick anecdote about one of his former students, who submitted a thesis that opened with a confession; the student explained that he’d taken for granted that when he entered an philosophical seminar, he was supposed to forget the traffic outside; the pedestrians, the beating of horns, and the chaotic sounds of street life.
The basic premise is this; for ideas to have any genuine value, they must interact with human behavior, and they must at least try to account for the vagaries of experience–which are always in the process of transition and fluctuation. A true education helps us control and direct this process, which in turn leads to deeper, more fulfilling experiences.
We also discussed the tendency to separate vocational education (in the utilitarian sense) from learning as an end in itself. There is great confusion about how to reconcile these two values, and the problem worsens as education and economics become more deeply intertwined. Is education preparation for a future career (and a process of acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in that career), or should it cultivate habits of mind– i.e, dispositions that can’t be reduced to tools and techniques? Here’s how Nel thinks about the issue:
Well this is a tough one, and it’s one reason that I’m so glad that I reread The Quest for Certainty, because Dewey actually tackles that in his book. He talks about the enormous growth in knowledge within each of the disciplines. Then he says, ‘But when we think about their uses, the disciplines, in social life, we’re at a total loss.’ Before you leave I can get that particular paragraph for you, because it’s really wonderful, and he’s probing there. As is E.O. Wilson. How do we use this massive knowledge to engage our social problems? Wilson’s partial answer is to go interdisciplinary, working together across fields, and of course a lot of people feel that he’s gone a little too far in talking about the unity of knowledge, and maybe he has gone too far. It doesn’t mean you throw everything he’s written out.
Similarly, Dewey is of course criticizing this whole quest for certainty. That we have to keep experimenting in a responsible sort of way; experimenting, reflecting, and talking to one another. Trying things out; shrugging off this whole passion for certainty. But through the whole book, and particularly towards the end and the paragraphs that I just mentioned, he is pointing out that all of this accumulated knowledge has been virtually useless on the social level. He isn’t saying that by its very nature it has to be, but there’s something wrong with the way we go at it, you know?
From Nel’s point of view, the “tremendous growth in knowledge” has further confused our sense of what the purposes and aims of education must be. We may have a sense of what’s required to develop competency in a specific discipline, but we’re far less skilled at adapting knowledge to social life, or determining which forms of knowledge are most valuable. There’s no easy answer to this problem; given the pace of change, the best thing we can do as educators is emphasize collaborative forms of inquiry, and abandon the quest for certainty–emphasizing experimentation, reflection, and “trying things out.” Further, we should avoid separating the meaning of a thing from its use, and creating boundaries that divide the arts from the sciences, intellectual learning from experiential learning, the mind from nature, the self from society, etc. These concepts belong together; we only separate them in our desire to organize knowledge for the purpose of schooling.
We also discussed Nel’s approach to care based ethics, a field she pioneered in the early 1980s. Nel’s approach to caring is very much a personal concern. As she herself admits, she’s been involved in caretaking most of her whole life, and these experiences have directly shaped her philosophy. At the heart of caring is a concern for the needs of others. When we care for someone, we respond to them as individuals with unique needs, not as abstract moral agents. In contrast to Kantian ethics, which derive their authority from categorical imperatives and moral absolutes, and even Rawls, whose theory of justice removes personal considerations from questions of morality and fairness, Nel’s care based ethics focus on the expressed needs of individuals– not the needs we assume for them, even with the best of intentions. Here’s how she describes it:
What I had depended on came out of a traditional mode of thinking about the emphasis on meeting needs, on developing relationships, and it’s been a hard thing to get across to a lot of people. Something that I emphasize in a lot of my talks is that it’s a relational ethic– it’s needs based– but the emphasis is on expressed needs rather than assumed needs. Almost everything we do in education today is based on assumed needs. You get a curriculum that’s specified from beginning to end, and that’s why teachers say ‘I can’t get through all this.’ You probably should throw half of it out and listen to the kids to find out what the expressed needs are. There’s got to be a balance there.
Here’s the exchange that follows:
Nel: If there’s no caring relation, then the sort of caring I’m talking about is just not fulfilled. Now that doesn’t mean that the person trying to care is necessarily at fault. It just means that the relation is not a caring relation, unless there’s a response from the cared for. It doesn’t mean either that as carers we always have to meet the need of others, because there are times when we can’t. It’s just beyond our powers, and there are times when we would like to talk the person out of this expressed need, but if we want to call this caring, then there has to be an effort to maintain the caring relation. When I have to say to one of my kids, “No I don’t think you should do that,” I have to do it in a way that will maintain the caring relation, even though I’m rejecting the expressed need. You follow me there?”
Roy: That’s right. Yeah.
Nel: Yeah. That is so different from the traditional, individualistic ethics, where you’re okay if, in Kantian terms, you’ve done your duty, or in utilitarian terms, it’s the greatest need for the greatest number.
Roy: Right, because those don’t approximate real life situations at all. They’re all just sort of like the trolley problem. They’re abstractions.
Nel: I was writing about the Trolley Problem, and I said, “To begin with, I wouldn’t know which switch to push. I mean what would I be doing standing by this switch. You know what I mean?
Roy: Well they presume that you’ll have actually a moment to reflect ethically on what you should do when a train is coming.
Nel: It doesn’t mean that those things are useless, because they do incite thinking, and they’re fun.
And so on. I think we both agreed that the Trolley Problem was a fun way of thinking about moral dilemmas, but its hypothetical nature–and its tendency to divide choice into two absolutes– either you allow the train to kill two people who are tied to the tracks, or you actively change the direction of the train by pressing a switch so the train kills one person– doesn’t come close to approximating real moral problems, which involve a range of needs, interests, and concerns that are specific to individual persons, in all their complexity. How this relates to Nel’s care based ethics is less than clear, except to say that the more we engage students in real problems– ones that involve questions of both justice and caring– the fuller and richer their development will be.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about a host of other topics: building community in schools, the value of democracy as an educational practice, the value of empathy, understanding, and tolerance, the problem with paternalism in education (providing ready made solutions and practices inspired by our values, rather than the needs and interests of a particular community), the importance of deliberation and dialogue among groups with competing interests and values, the value of civility in discourse, the importance of keeping students and teachers together for several years, and the value of teachers as role models. Here’s our final exchange:
What teachers or mentors had the greatest influence on your growth as an educator?
Well certainly my advisor at Stanford would be a stand out. Larry Thomas. He didn’t do a heck of a lot in the line of scholarly production, but he was marvelous teacher and mentor. Before that, my high school math teacher, he was my ideal, but he wouldn’t be today, because most everything he did was not the way I would do it as a teacher. You see, so much that affects us is influenced by our own personal knowledge. I mean my family was a working class family. Neither of my parents went beyond ninth grade. My father was certainly a good man, but he never learned to use proper English, and in a way was an embarrassment to me. My high school math teacher, and in all 4 years of math spoke perfect English, and he was interested in music, acted on the community level, and he was just, in a sense I suppose as a kid, I sort of wished he was my father. Not that I didn’t love my father mind you, but that’s the sort of thing that kids are so influenced by. That’s one example, but certainly as a mentor, Larry Thomas was it.
Was it the fact that Larry Thomas took a genuine interest in your work, or was it what you learned from him intellectually? What about the relationship was so valuable for you?
Well I mean he taught these two classes in philosophy of education that I had in my first term and opened a whole world to me. I had heard other people say he’s just a genius at teaching, and I think that’s right. He was. Certainly that was an enormously powerful influence, but I can go all the way back to second grade to a teacher who noticed something about me and got me into the top reading group. There are things that happen in your student life that you just never forget.
Then she took me through her library–a vast, dogeared collection that includes fiction, non fiction, history, philosophy, education, politics, psychology, ethics, religion, etc. Nel is a voracious reader, and she speaks about books with a genuine, unpretentious reverence. This is someone who is a life long learner, whose curiosity and scholarship is rooted in a concern for happiness, well being, and the future of education.