Nel Noddings

To Reduce War We Must Understand It, Part 1

Nel Noddings is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, and past president of the National Academy of Education, the Philosophy of Education Society, and the John Dewey Society. Known for her work on the ethics of care, her many books include Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education; Education and Democracy in the 21st Century; and Educating Citizens for Global Citizenship, which she edited and developed in collaboration with the Ikeda Center (then the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century) and Teachers College Press in 2005. A former public school mathematics teacher and a mother of ten, Dr. Noddings’ work is grounded in richly lived experience. She talked with Ikeda Center publications associate Mitch Bogen in July 2013 about her conviction that effective peace education must include an understanding of the psychology of war. We are posting this interview in two parts. Read Part Two:"Sources of Meaning and the Embrace of Complexity."

Confronting the Psychological Costs of War

Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule of speaking and writing to do this interview, Dr. Noddings. I’d like to focus our conversation on your book from 2012, Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War. Why did you frame the content of the book this way and what do you hope to achieve?

Well, what I would like to see happen is that we would give more attention in our schools to the topics I cover in the book, topics that explore from many angles the psychological factors that encourage us to embrace war, as well as those that might lead us to try to avoid it. Right now, we don’t. A lot of our history curriculum is organized by war; you find units on the Revolutionary War to the Mexican War, and from the Civil War to the First World War, that sort of thing. There is a tremendous emphasis on war, but there is almost no emphasis on the psychology of war, including the heavy psychological costs of war on warriors. For example, when we turn kids out of high school, the vast majority of them have never heard of the possibility that they might lose their moral identity in combat. Now, this isn’t a matter of telling them, “This will surely happen to you,” but it’s a matter of honestly telling them that it may happen to them, that it has happened to many, many people before. I think somehow or other, we have to find a way to include these discussions in our school studies. That is very difficult.

I want to return to this question of the loss of moral identity, but first I’d like to discuss what I think is a unique aspect of your book, namely that you urge peace-oriented educators not simply to teach that war is a bad or destructive thing. Instead you suggest that teachers look closely at why we are drawn to war in the first place. Can you talk about this?

It’s pretty clear thinking about war, talking about war, looking back on war—it’s exciting, you know? It’s not boring, it is very exciting, so there is a tendency to love it even when we say we hate it, although there are those who actually do love it as well. To discuss that part of the psychology, why we are attracted to war movies, for example, I think is another important function of the schools, to help kids understand themselves, their neighbors, and their whole society. So much of what I have read shows that when the actual war comes on, civilians are usually more excited about it than the soldiers who are on the front fighting, because they have romanticized it somehow. 

Nel Noddings

War is also associated with what we would call positive virtues. How can an educator address that? 

"Courage doesn’t have to be identified only with the warrior."You can take, let’s say courage, for example, and talk about the various meanings of courage and how it is so often identified with the warrior, but stress that it doesn’t have to be identified only with the warrior. Teachers ought to come up with stories of enormous courage that have nothing to do with war and violence, that have to do with any number of other things. Another big one, of course, and I spend quite a lot of time on it in Peace Education, is the notion of manliness and masculinity. What does it mean to be masculine, to be manly? Throughout most of history, that, too, has been identified with the warrior. One of the most awful insults under that way of thinking that you can direct at a man is to call him a woman! 


And we do not talk about those things nearly enough in our schools.

So you are not denying that courage and masculinity have been legitimately associated with war, but rather, saying that we are too limited if we just think of those qualities in just that way. 

Way too limited; yes, way too limited. A lot of kids go all through school and never hear any trace of the kind of conversation we are having now. 

That means even peace educators aren’t addressing this point quite often enough. Is that how it appears to you?

Well, there are real challenges for peace educators trying to take a hard look at the reality of war. We’ve come under all kinds of criticism here in America. We are sometimes accused of being unpatriotic or not being in love with our country, and so forth. You know that kind of stuff goes on constantly, where we get attacked by those I consider to be extremists on patriotism. What I want to say to them is that I’m talking this way because I do love my country, and I love my country as part of the whole world. I want to do something about bringing up kids who might naively think that it is wonderful to put on a uniform and go out courageously and kill whomever they are told to kill. 

That gets to your earlier point about the destructive cost of war that you are calling loss of moral identity, and which writers such as Jonathan Shay and Tyler Boudreau and others are calling moral injury.

I have been very impressed with Jonathan Shay’s work, and the stories he tells about the Vietnam veterans that he has been working with and trying to help for years. He is helping them I’m sure, but he admits that some of them will never get over their moral injury. What they keep asking, and what kids should hear, is “Why did I do that, why did I do what I did? That is not me.” Those words are so typical of moral injury, of a loss of moral identity, where a guy looks back and he can’t for the life of him identity himself with an awful act that he did, and yet, he knows that he did it. Shay gives several examples of soldiers who fired wildly in fear and anger, killing civilians—even children. Later, deeply wounded emotionally, they can’t reconcile what they did with their moral view of themselves. That is a serious loss of moral identity, and my guess is that some of the things that we call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), which so many of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering with, is probably due to the sort of thing that you and I are talking about now. But this topic is not often enough talked about deeply or at any length or honestly. It is a real injury to our young people to send them into battle, unaware that this loss of moral identity might happen to them.

This might be the most destructive cost of all, even more so than losing a limb. 

Yes, I think so. We prepare them for that, for the possibility that they may lose their life or limb or sight or whatever, and then they gird themselves up with courage for these things, but we don’t prepare them for this thing that may be even more awful. 

Tyler Boudreau makes the point that when you talk about moral injury instead of PTSD, instead of becoming a medical problem, or even a psychological problem, the injury actually becomes a social problem, because at this point, a good person who signed on to do this job is questioning the very ethical basis of what they have been asked to do by society.

And reasonable people can differ on exactly how we should handle this, of course. In peace education, what we would like to do, if possible, is eliminate war, but given that that’s unlikely, the next best thing is to help people understand war at this deeper, possibly more honest level.  

Is it possible to wage war morally or justly? 

It has never been done. Recently I was re-reading Michael Walzer, who has a lot of suggestions about how to wage war justly. But if you look at the early chapters of his book Just and Unjust Wars, he admits that it has never been done, which to me is so striking. He indicates what we should do and how we can do it, but then goes on to admit that it has never been done, though we’ve come close once in a while. I mean, you can look at wars and see that one side is more nearly just than another, and that there may have be a just reason for declaring war, but when the actual activity gets underway, it never seems to play out in a moral and just way. To be clear, I don’t think we should be trying to find a way to wage wars like that. The only good option is to find an alternative to war. 

In Peace Education you observe that that framing our goal as peace educators as the elimination of war might be hurting our cause, because that goal can appear as unrealistic to some as the goal of waging war morally might seem to us. Throughout the book, it appears you are always coming down on the side of amelioration and reduction, more so than total elimination. Is that true? 

Yes, coming as close as possible to the elimination of war—having that as an ideal—but recognizing how enormously difficult that is; so striving at every stage, at every step of the game, to come as close as we can to eliminating the violence associated with war. And this includes even violence of a non-physical sort, which we saw deployed in the Cold War, and more recently, too. So, you might avoid killing people with guns and bombs, but you may very well come close to starving them to death, you know? 

Yes, there is continuum of violence. This relates to the question of pacifism, which you also identify as something that we can’t think of in an absolute sense. Would you explore this topic for us?

"We can’t have absolute pacifism, but nevertheless would like to move in the direction of non-violence indicated by pacifism." There is quite a lot in the book on pacifism, and I do point out that absolute pacifism is not a realistic position if we really examine ourselves. Most of us know, almost all mothers know anyway, that we would fight, we would risk killing another person, if that person were threatening our children—no question about it. Still, just as we can’t eliminate war, but want to move toward the elimination of war, we can’t have absolute pacifism, but nevertheless would like to move in the direction of non-violence indicated by pacifism.

I believe this is called contingent pacifism. Can you talk about that? 

Yes, contingent pacifism, again, is a form of pacifism that is aimed at nonviolence, but recognizes that this is not always possible. So we settle for contingent or more pragmatic pacifism (one based on certain conditions), which means we will come as close as we can come to nonviolence, but accept the fact that there may be situations where there is no alternative but to go to war. Of course, this has happened over and over and over again: when a nation is attacked, actually physically attacked, it feels that it has no alternative but to fight back. But I wonder whether if we embraced contingent, pragmatic pacifism more we might do more to truly search for alternatives. Let’s say after Pearl Harbor was attacked, could we have sent messages to Japan saying “Let’s meet, let’s not let this go any farther.” Does that sound ridiculous? It doesn’t to me now, so many years later, but I don’t think anyone even considered such a possibility at the time. 

In the book you suggest that strict adherence to another core principle among peace educators and activists—no peace without justice—might also hinder our progress toward peace. One reason is the same as we’ve been discussing with pacifism; which is that absolute justice is unlikely. The other relates to how it impacts dialogue.

I think what happens there is, it often cuts off communication and dialogue when you lay down absolute rules. A good example would be the kind of thing that is holding up talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Absolute rules are laid down, saying we will talk provided that certain things happen. My suggestion is this: stop after you say, “We will talk,” and then start talking. And don’t give up on the talking. Don’t lay down the rules before you begin the discussion. Happily, there are a few people who agree on that and will proceed to discussions. Too often discussions are cut off even before they begin because of the absolutes that are laid down at the outset.

Another impediment to peace that you discuss is that there are two apparently opposed evolutionary inheritances that work together, ironically, to foster war—namely that males are predisposed toward war and violence, at least on some level, but at the same time are predisposed toward altruism toward their kin or within their group.

First of all, there seems to be overwhelming evidence for both of these. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about evolutionary biology, and there doesn’t seem to be any question but that those two things are true. The question is then, what do you do with it, once you’ve got this knowledge? One thing is, of course, that you educate people about it, help them understand what is operating here. You can ask: Why do boys, especially, get this surge of militaristic fire within and how is it encouraged by systems designed to promote a particular kind of patriotism?

I write in the book that even when I was a kid in high school, I was bothered by these things we called pep rallies—you know, where you sit in the stands and yell and cheer. For some reason, I often just left the scene. I didn’t like that feeling that we’ve got to fight, we’ve got to win, and that these other folks are our enemies. Now, I knew we weren’t going to go out and kill them on the field, but there was still a feeling of revulsion, even then, when I was a kid. And I would like kids today to understand this, to consider how it feels when you are with a crowd under those circumstances. It can be perfectly innocent, but it will be more likely to stay innocent if you understand it and what may result from it. Kids should know that, at its extreme, such group solidarity can be unhealthy.   

Listening to you it occurred to me that hatred for the other team, the next town over, the other side of town, is almost completely arbitrary. There is actually no reason to dislike the other team, so you conjure up this fervor to help beat them. 

"We are inclined to agree with people or disagree with them on the basis of who they are and what group they belong to, rather than on the strength of the argument."NN: That’s right. So understanding that whole psychology of crowds is an important topic for schools. It’s not just that violent impulses can be nurtured in crowds. There is also the reality of what Cass Sunstein has called “group polarization,” which means we are inclined to agree with people or disagree with them on the basis of who they are and what group they belong to, rather than on the strength of the argument. (For more on this, see Cass R. Sunstein, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, 2009.) Oftentimes in political situations, before a person even speaks, we say to ourselves, “Now who is that, what party does he belong to, what does he stand for?” And we agree or disagree before he or she even says anything, because we are not looking at the argument, we are looking at the identification, at the collective identification. People need help understanding this psychology, too.

There is a process of education, or what Jane Roland Martin and others might identify as miseducation, in which citizens and soldiers alike are taught to truly hate the other. I understand that prior to and during World War II, horrible, negative caricatures of the Japanese were rampant, in order that we might be more inclined to war. No doubt the Japanese engaged in their own form of this miseducation. And we see how this transpires now with Muslims in our society. Can you talk about this?  

I do spend quite a bit of time on that topic in Peace Education. Let me just share here a story to illustrate the power of education and miseducation. My husband and I visited a Soka school in Japan just a few years ago, and we were so deeply moved by the school choir singing “America the Beautiful.” They did that out of courtesy to us, and they did a beautiful job with it. And Jim and I looked at each other—and neither of us has ever been easily moved to tears—but we were awfully close on that occasion, because we were kids during World War II, and we remember the horrible things that we were taught to say and think about the Japanese. Now there we were, so many years later, with kids that we would have been taught to hate sixty years ago. It boggles the mind, Mitch, when you think, if only we could have thought that way back then, what might have been prevented.

Thank you for sharing that story, Nel. I’d like to follow up a bit on the topic of evolutionary influences with a question: To what extent are we prisoners of our biology when it comes to issues of violence and gender and so forth?

There are a lot of different opinions on this, as you know, but my own sense of it is that we are less held prisoner by it if we understand it; that the most important thing is to study about it, learn about it, talk about it, identify important cases from the past so that we have some defense against it, and certainly not to send our kids out after twelve years of schooling with no sense whatsoever of any of these considerations, because then they have no defense against it. 

That links up with one of my favorite points from the book, which is a bit of a provocative point. You argue that our efforts for global citizenship and multicultural education, of which you have been a participant and leader, are less important than the cultivation of self-knowledge in the ways our attitudes are manipulated during war, or during the run up to a war.

I think that is probably true, and it doesn’t mean I am opposed to what might be called the ordinary study of societies and cultures, because obviously, that is not so; I am very interested in and would endorse enthusiastically much of the education happening in this area. But when you understand how easily all that can be turned upside down, then you understand what dangerous territory we are in. It is not enough just to be able to describe another culture and appreciate its food, its dress, its music and art. You also have to have this deep understanding that all of that can be pushed aside and we can be convinced to kill the other anyway. So I think we need both, but I would stick by my statement that the more important of the two is this understanding of our own nature and how we can be led into doing things that most of us on a day-to-day basis wouldn’t even consider doing.

Read Part Two:"Sources of Meaning and the Embrace of Complexity."

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