education philosopher

Caring Theory Goes to School: Should Public Schools Teach Moral and Emotional Growth?

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Self-esteem movement by KevinCK on October 13, 2009

Today, a colleague of mine gave a very interesting presentation on , Nel Noddings, an education theorist who pioneered the idea of “caring theory.” The article my colleague spoke about, authored by Noddings, is entitled “A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century (1995, Phi Delta Kappan v. 76[5], 465-368). This brief article outlines Noddings vision that too much focus on academics has left our students uncared for and outlining a vision of the future where schools’ primary focus is on nurturing students moral and emotional lives.

There is much to agree with in Noddings articles and much to disagree with. To start with my agreements with Noddings, she and I share a deep belief that one-size-fits-all curricula and schools have more costs than benefits. In their quests to cater to the greatest number, they end up catering to no one in particular.

In trying to teach everyone what we once taught only a few, we have wound up teaching everyone inadequately. Further, we have not bothered to ask whether the traditional education so highly treasured was ever the best education for anyone.

Noddings points out, very controversially, that “The vast majority of adults do not use algebra in their work, and forcing all students to study it is a simplistic response to the real issues of equity and mathematical literacy.” As a former schoolteacher, I believe that I and my colleagues did damage to many students who may have been ill-served by taking Algebra II and Chemistry in a quest to keep them on the college track. It has been my experience that standardized curricula is the moral equivalent of trying to make everyone to fit into the proverbial “round hold” regardless of their shape. In other words, we mold students to fit the curricula rather than the other way around.

But Noddings alternative vision to the standardized curriculum is one I cannot share.

In direct opposition to the current emphasis on academic standards, a national curriculum, and national assessment, I have argued that our main educational aim should be to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.

Noddings goes on to describe a curriculum that focuses much less on academics and more on nurturing students emotional and moral compasses.

All children must learn to care for other human beings, and all must find an ultimate concern in some center of care: care for self, for intimate others, for associates and acquaintances, for distant others, for animals, for plants and the physical environment, for objects and instruments, and for ideas. Within each of these centers, we can find many themes on which to build courses, topical seminars, projects, reading lists, and dialogue.

Far be it from me to suggest that I am not in favor of kids emotional and moral sides being nurtured and guided. I very much am for this. I disagree with Noddings, though, on the idea that this should take place in school. Traditionally, this has been the purview of the home, and for good reason.

Unlike Noddings, I am particularly concerned that schools not  “>overstretch the amount they are doing for two reasons. First, compulsory attendance laws make Noddings”s and awkward suggestion by compelling students to recieive training that used to belong to the home at school. To quote Murray Rothbard,

 The idea that the school should not simply teach subjects, but should educate the “whole child” in all phases of life, is obviously an attempt to arrogate to the State all the functions of the home.

Partly, Noddings theory is difficult because public education – compulsory as it is – forces children’s attendance and, should we start educating students in moral matters, the state would, in effect, be forcing what was a familial matter into the government arena. If I can rephrase Rothbard’s concerns a bit more bluntly: once we give the state the power to educate the whole child, we give the family the power to play, at best, a supporting role.

My second concern about Noddings idea that we teach caring, morality, etc, in schools is that this takes time away from schools to teach what they are most effective at teaching  – academics. To see this, we can easily ask which of these things – morality or math, emotional growth or english, friendmaking or french – a student would be more likely to learn if he did not attend school at all. The obvious answer is that he would learn morality, emotional growth and frinedmaking. It is much more likely that a child will learn these social things from parents, friends, and social activity than she would academics because parents and others are generally more versed at the former. Teachers raison d’etat, in fact, is that they can give students knowledge they are unlikely to get elsewhere – knowledge of academics.

An additional concern I have is that when we give the state the power to teach a moral vision, we are giving them the power to choose the moral vision they want taught. In a pluralistic society, this is hardly feasible and risks at every turn the idea that we will be teaching values that do not share broad social consensus. In Noddings own article, she advocates several values we should teach that, whether she knows it or wants to acknowledge it, reflect her own preferences more than universal values.

Both men and women, if they choose to be parents, should participate in the joys and responsibilities of direct parenting, of acting as psychological parent. Too often, women have complained about beating this responsibility almost entirely. When men volunteer to help with child care or help with housework, the very language suggests that the tasks are women’s responsibilities. Men “help” in tasks they do not perceive as their own. That has to change.

I share this value as well, but when Noddings says “this has to change,” she is making a dangerous declaration: that schools should focus on eradicating values or behaviors that she disagrees with. There are many families in the United States who do not share Noddings value, and while her and I may want to change their value system, it seems hardly just to compel their children to government schools with that end in mind. It would be very hard to teach moral values in schools without giving schools the power to shape children as they please (and remember that as a political institution, schools could just as easily teach values we think are abhorrent once they have the power to teach values).

Doubtless, the objection to this is to point out that parents aren’t doing a great job at present of teaching children morality, emotional development, and the like. This certainly is true; not all parents live up to their responsibilities as parents. I am simply not sure that schools and government should take away the parental responsibilities and rights – to educate their children as they see fit – because of the lack of some parents to follow their responsibilities and exercise rights. If we did this, we would quickly obliterate the familial relationship and the state would quickly become a larger and larger presence in children’s lives.

There is, I think, also something to be said for holding parents accountable for their children. If the state takes over the area of moral and emotional education in response to many a parent’s abdication of this duty, we not only expand the state’s power, but we risk parents giving up on the task altogether; when the state will do a thing, why, parents might reason, should I do it? And if I don’t feel like doing x, y, or z, maybe the state will do that too. Not only do we risk overextending the state, we risk the moral hazard involved when one party is all too eager to alleviate another party of responsibility.

Sol, I am with Noddings on her astute comments regarding the failure of one-size-fits-all education, but see an equal danger in her solution of building curricula around emotional and moral education. I believe that doing this puts the state in an awkward position of having to teach a thing best done in the home (for a variety of reasons), and puts the family in an awkward position of having the state take more control of their children. Let the school stick to its primary raison d’etat and let’s hold a clear line between what public education will do and what the family unit will do.

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2 Responses

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  1. Guilherme said, on October 16, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “we can easily ask which of these things – morality or math, emotional growth or english, friendmaking or french – a student would be more likely to learn if he did not attend school at all. The obvious answer is that he would learn morality, emotional growth and frinedmaking.”

    I only wish it were so obvious, even if I do think it is. Here in Brazil where homeschooling is absolutely prohibited and both public and private schools rank awfully in international tests, “socializing” is the first word thats comes to the mouths of every defender of compulsory attendance to school. “Socializing” is the first and “diversity”* is the second. And I am not talking about professional educators or shoolteachers or education bureaucrats. I mean pretty much every parent, every person who first hears about homeschooling–because most of them have never even heard about it.

    *Apparently, putting kids of the age and same social stratum together in a same room so all can learn the same things at the same pace is what people call “diversity” today.


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