Schools of Caring

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September 15, 2010

I first heard of Nel Noddings in a class on "Social and Ethical Issues in Education." Her comments on the ethics of care, that is, putting caring first in ethical decision-making as essential for education, caught my attention.

She came to EMU last spring to speak on caring and attachment theory. As her ideas provided foundations for EMU's education department, people were excited to say the least.

I was intrigued with her ideas of education as not only academic. She talked about the need humans have to be cared for and to care for others. She also suggested that we also have a need to care about things and ideas. All of these need to happen in education.

In The Challenge to Care in Schools, Noddings challenges the notion of a liberal arts education which requires everyone to learn everything and instead promotes identifying gifts, talents, and passions and focusing on those first. Her dream for education is to create a place where hearts and relationships of caring become part of educational goals.

This reminds me of the curriculum fable one professor read to us, which describes animals at school learning very unnatural types of skills to the detriment of their strengths. It's a sad story, but our class laughed when we heard it because we recognized the education systems we know.

For me, the idea of educating "whole selves" in a caring environment, focusing on gifts and talents seems essential for healthy learning. I think it stems from my faith community's understanding of growth and transformation. Jesus models the essence of caring as he teaches his followers, showing them how to care for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others.

Interestingly enough, Noddings comes from a secular point of view and comes to the same conclusions. Perhaps there are more points in common that could contribute to more caring in our schools.

"I have argued that education should be organized around themes of care rather than the traditional disciplines. All students should be engaged in a general education that guides them in caring for self, intimate others, global others, plants, animals and the environment, objects and instruments, and ideas. Moral life so defined should be frankly embraced as the main goal of education. Such an aim does not work against intellectual development or academic achievement. On the contrary, it supplies a firm foundation for both." From A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century by Nel Noddings


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Cheryl, thanks for the heads-up to Noddings work. I'm interested to hear what practical changes you think would be needed in a place like CMU or EMU to account for the truths that she is pointing us towards.

Thanks for your comment, Marco. I'm still doing a lot of reflecting on Noddings' comments for the EMU context as well. I think in Anabaptist education, there are a lot of similarities to her emphasis on caring and on encouraging the individual student in whatever gifts they have. I think some of the structural aspects which intersect with the larger academic culture, though, may need to be challenged further. I'm thinking in particular of grading systems, awarding scholarships, contributing research to the larger bodies of literature... all these come with prices to pay to fit in to the academic world. The prices do not necessarily end up supporting an ethic of care.

These are just some of my thoughts. What have you observed?

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