Friday, March 24, 2006

I am not a caring teacher

Some days, I think that Nel Noddings is the most dangerous person in America, or rather, because others abuse her ideas, the common image of Nel Noddings is the most dangerous (imaginary) person in America. I don't mean dangerous as in David Horowitz's Dangerous Professors (though perhaps Noddings avoided being on the list merely because she's retired), nor dangerous as in Michael Bérubé's parody, International Professor of Danger.

Instead, I'm thinking of the implications some draw from her work on caring. From what I understand as a mere historian of education, her work (going back to her 1984 book Caring) argues that a relational ethic of caring is an alternative to the deontological arguments of Kant or the utilitarian ethic of Bentham and that ilk. I'll return in a moment to the contribution she and other feminist philosophers make towards ethics and justice in a minute, but what concerns me is how others misread her. The most studious misreading I know of is by virtue ethicists such as Michael Slote, who argues that one must turn her relational argument into virtue ethics because to do otherwise would be unfair to the person who is caring (since caring may not be worth anything unless received as caring by the other person). (See Nodding's response.) That's an interesting argument (though I think it gives considerable privilege to paternalism), but I will leave the proper categorization of Nodding's caring to the professional philosophers here at The Wall.

What concerns me is the more casual transformation of Nodding's caring notion into a rougher virtue, especially in teacher education programs. Those taking inspiration from Noddings often write about a "caring teacher," including the characteristics a caring teacher might have (e.g., Concordia College, 2003; Lewis-Clark State College, n.d.; Nowak-Fabrykowski & Caldwell, 2002). Mentioning the characteristics of a "caring teacher" (or dispositions, in NCATE lingo) instantly turns caring into a virtue.

But virtue ethics have no place in professional education, especially in teacher education. I say this from an historian's perspective, not a philosopher's. There are a number of reasons why virtue ethics are inappropriate in professional education—the way that it can lead to litmus testing (as in LeMoyne College), or the psychologization of evaluation and the presumption that faculty in a professional school can somehow evaluate (or worse, intuit) what's inside someone's head. This search for some sort of a professional soul tempts faculty to think of professional education as a process reconstructing the self, something with which I am highly uncomfortable.

More insidious is the way that this transformation of caring into a virtue feeds into the historical rhetoric denigrating teaching as an intellectual occupation. Two hundred years ago, the primary qualification for teaching was virtue, not academics. When Mann and others encouraged the hiring of women as teachers, it was from the essentialist argument that women are more nurturing. While that was a shift from the predominance of men in teaching, it dovetailed with changing sex roles (Strober & Tyack, 1980).

We retain this legacy of seeing teachers as role models, with virtue and morals more important than skill. People assume my wife must be patient because she teaches special education, but whether she can think about her students is ignored. And then there are the old chestnuts: Women who care and teach don't need to be paid decently, because that's just what women (and teachers) do. It's a service profession, after all, like nursing and social work. Who goes into teaching to make money? So pardon the sound of my teeth grinding when I hear about "caring teachers." Regardless of the philosophical arguments, writing and talking about teacher virtues feeds into some of the worst historical legacies for teachers.

That conclusion doesn't mean that Noddings isn't important. She is, but in a different way. In my mind, her work falls within a literature on reconstructing (liberal) philosophical arguments from relational assumptions. Rawls' (1971) original position was the ultimate end-point of liberal philosophy, focusing on the logical consequences of assuming that people are isolatable individuals: take that individual outside of reality, behind the veil of ignorance, and see what the logical person-in-a-vacuum would conclude is just. As many others have noted, that assumes the existence of the person-in-a-vacuum. Communitarians have taken one counterposition to liberalism, arguing that we must see the community in itself as an important unit of society.

Others have taken a different approach, seeing relationships as the source of self (Guignon, 2003) and of a network of obligations that have ethical consequences, including public policy (Kittay, 2001). In this regard, I find Kittay's work more satisfying than the others, because she recognizes the way that there are multi-level dependencies, where those who care for a dependent are themselves weaker and dependent. Kittay argues that welfare reform of the 1990s privatized the act of caring, placing it in the bounds of family, outside public policy. Leo Casey's argument against the "caring teacher" language echoes Kittay's criticism of the privatization of dependency: when teachers are assumed to be the sole ones who care for kids' minds, then the network of support that teachers themselves need is neatly placed on the shelf.

Thus, Noddings' work is better seen as tentative, raising interesting questions about the extent to which we can (re)construct notions of ethics and justice from a relational starting point. Those in education have much to offer in this regard, from the relational nature of teaching to the implications of disability for our notion of the self. Instead, too many of our colleagues see her work as the caring gospel, a reification that does far more harm than good. Do I care for my students? I try. But don't call me a caring teacher, ever.


Concordia College. (2003). Conceptual framework. New York: Author.

Guignon, C. (2004). On being authentic. New York: Routledge.

Kittay, E. F. (2001). A feminist public ethic of care meets the new communitarian family policy. Ethics, 111, 523-547.

Lewis-Clarke State College. (n.d.). Conceptual framework. Lewiston, ID: Author.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminist approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K., & Caldwell, P. (2002). Developing a caring attitude in the early childhood pre-service teachers. Education, 123(2), 358-364.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Strober, M., & Tyack, D. (1980). Why women teach while men manage. Signs, 5, 494-503.


Aaron Schutz said...

I tend to see Noddings not in terms of her vision of relational virtues, but instead as the current embodiment of a particular vision of the teaching relationship. In some ways, Noddings is the inheritor of a vision of what I am calling "liberationist" education that reached its pinnacle in the now largely unread writings of Paul Goodman and Alexander Neill. It is the idea that the job of teaching should focus _only_ on actualizing the unique capacities of other individuals, and their ability to interact authentically and in a caring way with each other. In this sense, although I very much respect the sophistication and subtlety of Noddings's conception, there is nothing much new, here.

Sherman is right that the idea of "caring" has become increasingly pervasive in teacher education. For example, NCATE defines its mission as embodying the belief that "every student deserves a caring, competent and highly qualified teacher." E.g., the two key characteristics are competence and caring. (see: teacandncateframeworkscompared.pdf).

In many ways, however, Noddings's vision is anti-democratic. It participates in a general evacuation in schools of any significant vision of political action that goes beyond individual responses to others. There is no room for collective identity of any coherent sort in her vision of caring.

Noddings's vision is, fundamentally, middle class as much as it is feminist. It is a vision of a world populated by empowered individuals with the power to choose their own destiny, and focuses on the moral imperative of enhancing the unique perspectives of others. Speaking generally, working-class and poor people don't see themselves as isolated individuals. Caring, for those on the margins, often takes on a much more collective aspect, and is integrated into a sense of mutualism, self-defense, against an often threatening world. (This is not a denial of individuality, but can frame this issue in very different ways).

I wonder if it is even possible to link a focus on "caring" for individuals (even though it nessesarily includes issues of race, gender, etc.) to the general decline of the influence of foundations in education. By helping to eliminate visions of collective resistance from our lexicon, it may weaken our focus on the social structures schools are embedded in. But this may be too much of a "conspiracy theory."

I'm not really up on the "care" literature, but for a fascinating discussio of caring, class, and race, see
Michele Lamont's (2002) _The Dignity of Working Men_. Audrey Thompson also wrote a couple of extremely insightful articles on caring and social position that make points simlar to Sherman's. I also wrote about the relationship between Noddings and democracy in Ed Theory a few years ago.


Jim Horn said...

There are a couple of points that I will make regarding Nel Noddings. I will leave the subject of virtue ethics in teacher education for another time.

From my reading of Noddings, there is nothing I can find that is anti-intellectual in her call for schooling grounded in the ethic of caring. The Latin grammar school masters of the 19th Century (the protectors of academic rigor mortis) certainly did denigrate the Pestalozzian “soft pedagogy” based on moral suasion that Mann imported, but this pedagogy was formulated before women were recruited as more affordable employees than the male teachers they would come to replace. The fact that women were believed to be more nurturing was an argument that Mann used only when he wasn’t talking to the monied interests whose favor he had to curry in order to sell the idea of tax-supported schools.

The sad fact is that, as Jane Roland Martin has pointed out, work related to the reproductive needs of society has always been seen as less important than the manly tasks of production, whether those tasks are aimed at producing goods or producing knowledge. In her case for a gender-sensitive pedagogy, Martin makes the point that the nurturing capacity that has normally been associated with women has recently come to be denigrated by, otherwise, liberated souls (both male and female) who would now insist that women adopt the historically-favored traits of hard-nosed male if she is to be taken seriously in this previously all-male members-only reservation of production. Why not, Martin asks, allow and expect men to be nurturing (or caring), too, thus allowing men to exercise an often-atrophied aspect of their psyhes, while acknowledging the important work that women have done for eons.

Second point: Noddings is careful to point out that caring is, indeed, not a virtue—but is, rather, a skill that must be taught if we are to see any evidence of it in a democratic society that some would say we should care about if it is to preserved and grown. The belief that caring is a virtue is widespread, even among women. Notice how many teachers are dumbstruck when they act as a carer and students don’t automatically respond as cared-fors. Caring is a relational skill that has to be taught and learned, at home and at school, much the same way as everything else that can’t be memorized—by modeling, dialogue, practice, and confirmation.

The fact that we should expect teacher candidates to come to understand this as part of their professional preparation appears to me to so obvious as to require no defense. One of the reasons that foundations is seen by some to be faltering is that foundations people sometimes don’t grasp the opportunity to make these connections between theory and practice when they are offered by people like Noddings who has done a fair amount of both.

In regards to this hackneyed dichotomy of individual vs. group, this is just more digital thinking. I would guess that Nodding, as a good analogic neo-pragmatist, might say that democratic communities, unlike anthills, exist in order to promote the happiness of the individuals whose contributions to said communities constitute them as such. Every individual, then, who is enabled to reach for that happiness by that caring community, receives that care, acknowledges it, and subsequently, becomes the carer for the preservation of that community. But that is just a guess by another white guy.

Aaron Schutz said...

Just to be clear, I don't have any problem with "caring" as one possible criteria for good teaching, especially in Noddings's sophisticated presentation of this. The problem I have is with a focus _only_ on caring.

And my comments about caring and democracy may be hackneyed. However, if (and this is a big if) the current pervasive and almost exclusive focus on caring for individuals tends to shift the field towards an anti-political, anti-democratic perspective, then this, it seems to me, constitutes a real problem. Maybe a focus on caring doesn't produce a general "anti-politicalness." I bet it does, although I'm not sure how one would get at this, empirically.

And I mean anti-democratic in terms of collective action, not in terms of helping each individual contribute. "Caring" for the common community (which Noddings is very uncomfortable with, by the way) seems, to me at least, unlikely to foster much critical action or engagement. Handing out sandwiches to homeless people will never have much impact on the problem of homelessness--and this, it seems to me,is where "caring" for the community generally ends up, whether we like it or not. It's like the difference between social action groups and service learning groups.

Jim Horn said...

Before we leave this caring issue behind like a poor child in an urban classroom, let me say just a couple more things about Noddings’ notion of caring. I agree with you, Aaron, about the need to get beyond the patronizing (and matronizing?) notion of caring as handing out sandwiches or some other guilt-assuaging activity.

When I use Noddings with my students, it is in close proximity with Dewey and Freire. And I think that Noddings helps to contextualize Freire’s insistence upon “reconciliation” as the beginning point to the “teacher-student contradiction,” the same contradiction that Dewey refers to as the long-standing war between teacher and student. For Freire, this reconciliation has to occur before liberatory education can begin. It has always seemed to me that Noddings’ ethic of caring provides a well-crafted tool to do just that.

Anonymous said...

Being new to this blogging community, and to the work of Nel Nodding, I have found this a fascinating discussion thread. I am curious to learn more about Dewey's teacher-student contradiction. Of course caring should not be our only priority, but how often is it not a priority at all! I also think it is a pity that caring has to be couched as a 'soft option', a practice confined to women. Shame on you for not wanting to be called a 'caring teacher'.

Sherman Dorn said...

Of course caring should not be our only priority, but how often is it not a priority at all! I also think it is a pity that caring has to be couched as a 'soft option', a practice confined to women.

I was making a distinction between our wanting teachers to act in a caring manner and wanting teachers to be caring. The first is fine; the second is dangerous.