Nel Noddings

To Reduce War We Must Understand It, Part 2

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. Celebrated 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 One: "Confronting the Psychological Costs of War."

Sources of Meaning and the Embrace of Complexity

One of the things that motivates people to accept or even glorify war is the way that it can enhance our sense of meaning, the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves. How can a peace educator address this powerful attraction?

First by noticing it, and then engaging our students in dialogue about it. What else could give us this sense of meaning? But we almost never ask that in school. What will you do with your life that will mean something? Let kids talk a little bit about that. We spend so much time in our schools talking at the kids, having them take notes, having them repeat back what we just told them – things encouraged by the whole testing and standards movement.  We don’t back off from that enough and put those questions out there that used to be central to the liberal arts: Is there a meaning of life? What do I owe to others? What do I owe to my country? All of these questions demand conversation. We must spend time talking about them, exploring, countering each other’s arguments and so forth. And we just simply aren’t doing enough of that.

What has happened instead is that we’ve corrupted the liberal arts. I’ve been doing some reading on this and learned that this problem was identified way back in the early 20th century. I don’t agree with Robert Maynard Hutchins on much, but he noticed that there was already then a corruption in the liberal arts where we were looking at them as merely a set of important writers and a set of important book titles, but we weren’t looking at the deep questions that are asked and potentially answered by those authors and in those books.

So rather than a well-intentioned teacher saying that we would be wrong to find meaning in war, you would recommend they open up the question and invite students to discuss matters of meaning in the broadest sense.

"What else could give you a reason to be active? What else could excite you, could bring out your best efforts?"I confess at the outset of the book that people do find meaning in war; including people who feel they are living boring lives, that life is sort of “blah.” They get excited when war comes along, because it gives them a reason to be active. So then the questions should be: What else could give you a reason to be active? What else could excite you, could bring out your best efforts? Spend some time on that. That then gives you a reason to read some of the literature that liberal arts people are so excited about and gives you a reason to read some of the poetry that they are excited about. But you won’t be reading it because you are supposed to know that Robert Frost wrote such-and-such, you will be reading it because there is something deeply meaningful for human life in it.

One thing I found interesting while reading your book, is that you discussed in some depth three figures that we often don’t encounter in the context of peace education. These three are Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and Eric Hoffer. Would you care to tell our readers just a bit about each one and why they are important? 

Yes, well, Virginia Woolf I think is extraordinarily important because she faced up to the difficulty of this whole problem of peace and war, and she begins her best-known essay on it, Three Guineas, by saying, “I don't know.” That’s the way she started, and she doesn’t so much explore possibilities for getting rid of war so much as she takes a careful look at what’s behind it, what causes it. You and I have already today talked about a good many of those things. She looks at masculinity, she looks at the urge for power and money and superiority, and a whole list of things that we just don’t give enough attention to. You find something of worth in all of her books on this topic, but I recommend Three Guineas in particular.

Nel Noddings

Bertrand Russell, of course, in addition to his philosophical and mathematical work, put a lot of effort into peace possibilities, trying to convince other people in the world that there are workable ways to go at this. Russell was not an absolute pacifist and believed that we should always ask what good or evil will come out of our decision to fight or abstain from fighting. And, to me this is an interesting feature, because you see some wonderful moral statements from a confessed atheist. I would like kids to understand this, too: that atheism is not synonymous with immorality, that there are highly moral, good, upstanding atheists. I am not suggesting that you would indoctrinate students toward atheism, but it is a matter of helping them to understand the other who happens to be an atheist.

Atheism is one of the most untouchable subjects in our schools. 

Oh, it is very difficult, sure, extremely difficult. There are those who want to be able to preach Christianity in the schools, but we no longer start the day with Bible readings and the Lord’s Prayer. I mean, that practice was there in my lifetime but it is completely gone. Instead, we don’t talk at all about matters of religion, which brings up another important problem—that all of the great religions have been involved in warfare and violence.

Here again, kids need some help from teachers, and this is true at the college level as well. For example, young college students are often attracted to Buddhism, for some very good reasons, as you know, but also sort of blindly in some cases, with no recognition of the fact that Buddhists have been involved in wars and violence, too. I’ve got a whole collection of books on the shelf alongside the Ikeda ones that admit and deplore this darker side of religion, and talk about why. Again, I think that this honest investigation needs to be done. People are looking for a kind of ultimate solution to things, and at this moment, we don’t have ultimate solutions to things, and there probably are no ultimate solutions to large human problems. We’ve got to keep looking, keep talking, keep studying, keep trying, but you are just not going to find a panacea in any of the great religions or anywhere else. 

In the book, you said, “any mode of thought that lays out complete and final answers to great existential questions is liable to dogmatism.” You also said that this is where care ethics comes in. Can you describe this dynamic? 

"We must understand why when war comes along, we place certain patriotic values above other values."Well, I think the reason care ethics can come in is because it is a relational ethic based on relation rather than individualism, right from the start. As such, it is cognizant of all the ambiguities and ambivalences that we experience in life, so built into it is this recognition that there are no ultimate answers, no panaceas. But besides care ethics, there are other sources here. One that I find very attractive is an idea of Isaiah Berlin’s for which he was both revered and highly criticized. He tried to point out to people that if we look at our whole set of definable values, we will find that sometimes we have to sacrifice one in order to accomplish another. This makes us very uneasy, because in a sense, we are going against something that we believe, but we are doing it because there is something else we believe that at the moment is more important. This opens up a whole line of discussion, too, and helps us to understand again why when war comes along, we place certain patriotic values above all these values, including “thou shalt not kill” and all the others, and we don’t even bother noticing that we are sacrificing a value that we hold so dear, until we back off and ask: Must we do it, must we do it this way?

This relates to the third person I mentioned, Eric Hoffer, who talked about fanaticism and psychological phenomena of that type.

Oh yes, The True Believer, isn’t that right? That was his most famous book.

What should our readers know about him? What is important? 

For one thing, he was what might be called a working-class intellectual and I think that is awfully important in itself. School kids often come to believe that only highly educated people can really think and write. Hoffer worked as a longshoreman, a migratory field laborer, and a miner.

What did he argue in The True Believer and other of his books?

He pointed out how easily people can be persuaded to a position that is then held fanatically, and I think it tracks back to what we were saying earlier about the excitement and sense of meaning that often goes with war. When people become fanatical on something, it is usually because they found meaning there, and some of these people will even confess that they felt rootless before they got into the group, whatever it might be, they felt sort of alone, that there was no meaning in life. This group and its set of beliefs gives them something to live for, something to work for, and gives them a sense of belonging. Hoffer was concerned with how a true believer becomes a true believer and how we might educate to prevent this.

In reading your book, the core theme that kept coming back to me was your commitment to complexity; your desire to understand the many dimensions of these questions and psychological states, and to see that a virtue or motivation is rarely simply bad or good. That and your comments a few minutes ago about panaceas reminded me of the concept of solutionism, which has been defined by Siva Vaidhyanathan as “recasting all complex social situations as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions.” It seems to me that we often attempt forms of “solutionism” in schools today, not just in the context of data-driven, high-stakes testing, but also when intentions are humanistic.

"School successes can rarely be replicated in their original form."NN: I think you are right. This coming Saturday, I am going to be talking to a group of Teach for America people at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the main things we will talk about there is this tendency to find a perfect solution, one that can be used in all situations with all kids, for all purposes. We talk about “scaling up,” for example, which means you find a model for schooling at the local level and then scale it up and it will work anywhere. And of course, it doesn’t, because the whole secret of a model that works is that people work together, talk to one another, try to figure out what is best for their situation at this time in this place. A successful school experience isn’t easily replicated. You can get ideas from it and we should get ideas from each other that way, but these things can rarely be replicated in their original form. That is the big mistake right there.

I had a similar conversation with Deborah Meier years ago.

It is interesting that you mention Deborah Meier, because she is one of the educators who gave me a great enthusiasm for exploring this issue. I have even used her case. She founded this wonderful school in East Harlem, and because of that success school officials brought her into the New York City Central Department of Education. After she had been there a while, she and I met in Louisville at a conference. She looked so tired and she told me that they were asking her to model the whole city on her school. It can’t be done, she said.

In my interview with her, we talked about the standards movement. And what she told me was that standards are one thing, but the last thing we need is standardization. Because American life today is so standardized in every realm, a school could actually be the one place that you could have freedom from standardization.

She’s right. It was a wonderful conversation I had with her, which I have mentioned more than once.

Toward the end of Peace Education you say that we need to realize that these issues that we’re proposing to confront in schools arise in a strong emotional climate. We are dealing with emotions here. Can you talk about this and how teachers might respond? 

The danger expressed by critics is that we’ll wind up indoctrinating students in views that many people disagree with. When I talk about teaching something about religion in the schools—not teaching religion but teaching something about religion—that fear arises. It arises every time we try to teach a controversial topic. And it is not an unfounded fear, either. I recognize that fear, because it could happen. There are people who take advantage of these situations and attempt to indoctrinate, so we have to guard against that.

I just completed an article on the possibility of teaching parenting in our schools, and there are people who worry about that, fearing that we would indoctrinate a specific view on parenting. Of course, I am not advocating that. I am advocating that we talk about what people have said, what they have recommended in the past, why they recommended it, what we might do, what things seem to be of really high potential, such as reading with your kids. I would say that it not only can be done, that it must be done. But we also have to recognize that this wonderful thing we are talking about could go wrong, and that if we don’t recognize that, it probably will go wrong.

Is there a core idea we did not get to during our talk? Is there anything you would like to add as we conclude?

We have covered a lot of territory. 

What is the Nel Noddings message?

Something we haven’t said much about is having fun in our schools, enjoying our students, enjoying each other, sharing things that have given us delight. I remember once, in one of my math classes, reading a science fiction story to the kids and afterward—and this was many years ago—afterward someone asked if it would be on the test and I said no.  Another kid asked, so why did you do it then? This was way back, and I stumbled all over myself trying to explain why. I said, you’ve been working awfully hard in this class and this is a terrific story, and it has math in it, all of which was true. And I finally managed to choke out, “and I really like you guys.” I could hardly say it. Today I would have no trouble at all, but I think some of our young teachers are going through that now; they don’t realize that establishing relationships of care and trust is absolutely essential. When I talk to teachers they always ask how they can do this on top of everything else. And my response is always, “Look, it isn’t on top of everything else, it is underneath everything else.” Maybe that is a good note to end up on. 

I think so. That’s beautiful.

Underneath everything else.

Read Part One: "Confronting the Psychological Costs of War."

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