Review of Nel Noddings, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century

I recently finished reading Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, a slim but provocative book from Nel Noddings, Professor Emerita at Stanford. She packs a lot of punch into 157 pages.

Noddings clearly leans progressive, both in terms of her educational philosophy and her politics, but she is even-handed. While some of her particular recommendations are likely to appeal more to “liberals” than to “conservatives,” she argues above all that we must teach students to think critically. At first blush, such a stance seems uncontroversial. (After all, what parent—Republican or Democrat—doesn’t want their child to learn to think critically?) Noddings, however, takes the rarer and more subversive step of actually thinking critically about the current state of education.

Notably, Noddings challenges one of the central dogmas of education in the 21st century: the idea that “all children can learn.” To be fair, Noddings, would probably not disagree with that simplistic statement; rather, she would flesh it out and add a qualifier. Throughout the essays in this book, Noddings argues that while all children can learn, not all children can learn everything we hope to teach them equally well. She acknowledges, for instance, that some children may not have an aptitude for or an interest in higher level math and that a true 21st century education should accommodate this. “Children are not equal in their capacity for academic learning,” she writes, “and a universal, academic curriculum may well aggravate academic differences. A richer, more varied curriculum might help students find out what they are suited to do . . . Even within a particular course, there should be a balance between common learning and individualized units and topics that provide students with opportunities to exercise their special talents and interests” (30-31).

Here I detect a similarity to Ken Robinson, who notes in his famous TED talk, “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” Why continue treating children as widgets, forcing square pegs into round holes? This is the outdated factory model of education. More to the point, Noddings argues against the notion that every child should learn everything; followed to its logical end, she says, that idea is fundamentally anti-democratic. In our pursuit of “equality,” she posits, we have created an educational system that is unfair and counterproductive.

Her point about aptitudes and interests leads me to reflect on Carol Dweck and the “growth mindset,” an idea that has received much attention from educators over the last ten years or so—and one which has become a central part of my own educational philosophy and practice. In her work, Dweck argues that while we may all differ in our natural aptitudes, we can all improve with effort. (Try as I might, I’m never going to surpass LeBron James in basketball ability—but I can become better than I am today.) Also, we have different mindsets in different areas. I, for instance, have a growth mindset when it comes to cooking but a fixed mindset when it comes to art. I believe that I can improve in the kitchen with practice, and to this end, I have taken a few cooking classes, bought onions to practice my knife skills, etc. If you were to ask me about my artistic ability, however, I would tell you, “I’m not an artist.” The reality, however, is that I simply don’t have a strong enough interest in art to justify the time and energy it would take to improve. If I did, I’m sure that I could improve.

Noddings argues for more student choice in the curriculum. She supports the notion that students—especially middle school students—should be encouraged to discover their aptitudes and interests, and that education should provide multiple paths to success. Not everyone can do calculus, but then, not everyone needs to do calculus. Contrary to one of the central tenets of “standards-based” education reform, an “equal” education does not mean that everyone should get the same education.

Similarly, Noddings notes that, despite our best intentions of sending every student to college in the name of equality, “there will always be unattractive work that needs doing” (102)—work which does not require a college degree. Thus, she argues that “schools should direct their efforts toward producing people who can act purposefully and morally in every domain of life. When people are forced to work at meaningless jobs, they need even more to find meaning in their personal and civic lives” (102). Again, the supposedly “equal” college preparatory track may not serve every student equally well—especially if that track serves to tell some students that they are stupid. Noddings calls for more respect—and support—for vocational education, a better vocational education that goes beyond the mere learning of employable skills to include some liberal arts exposure as well as training for parenting and home life.

Although the book will generally serve to further our thinking on education in the 21st century, it is not devoid of flaws. For instance, Noddings seems to believe that she is only suggesting tweaks to our current system, when in actuality, her proposals would amount to massive changes in American education. She is careful to point out that her intention is not to prescribe a full curriculum, and she restates several times throughout the book that we must work within the existing discipline-based curriculum framework. For instance, in her chapter entitled “Educating for Home Life,” Noddings writes, “I am not suggesting that we should develop detailed sub-curricula on houses and homemaking for each of the traditional subjects. That might well defeat our purpose. Teachers would revolt against one more demand on their time” (72). However, she then goes on to propose numerous additions to the curriculum. For history courses alone, she suggests adding material on “the history of homes or women’s history” (74) and “the history of childhood and child-rearing” (80). While these would be likely be valuable additions, Noddings does not seem to recognize that these add up to “detailed sub-curricula”: yet another demand on limited instructional time. To add them would mean cutting something else, and therein lies the rub.

Also, in her call for “ecological cosmopolitanism,” Noddings reveals a certain degree of naiveté. She calls for a 21st century “ecological cosmopolitanism” (a love of and commitment to the Earth) to replace the 19th and 20th century emphasis on nationalism, she acknowledges that cosmopolitanism “does not ‘grab’ us emotionally as does national patriotism with its multiple supports in rousing music, flags, parades, uniforms, heroic stories, and celebrations.” However, she posits that “The possibility of destroying Earth through neglect and selfish exploitation might well have some emotional impact” (99). I won’t dispute Noddings argument that we must do a better job of protecting our planet, or even that such a call should inspire an emotional response. The fact of the matter, however, is that it doesn’t inspire an emotional response, at least not for most people. Here Noddings is guilty of preaching to the choir. (Here, too, she also proposes numerous additions to the curriculum for helping students learn about the Earth and develop their ecological cosmopolitanism.)

In the end, Noddings offers a powerful reminder that “Education is an enterprise with multiple aims” (41). In an era of increasing standardization, centralization, and politicization, that is a worthwhile thing to remember. Schools should never be anti-intellectual places, but to say that their focus should not be strictly academic is hardly anti-intellectual. It is honest. In fact, those who present the false dichotomy of schools as “intellectual” or “anti-intellectual” are the ones who are guilty of anti-intellectualism. It is possible to disagree with some—or even most—of Noddings proposals, but we can, and should, and must think critically about education rather than accepting the cant of “reformers.” Here, Noddings makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

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