Friday, July 19, 2013

A book review

I just finished reading Nel Noddings' "Education and Democracy in the 21st Century". It's the second book of hers I've read (after "Critical Lessons"), and it will occupy a place of honor on my bookshelf next to those of Philip W. Jackson, Howard Gardner, Kieran Egan, Grant Lichtman, Mike Rose, and Parker Palmer as educators who exemplify care.

I may have mentioned already that last Sunday I gave a talk at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I attend, titled "The Future of Education". If you're curious, you may download and read it here. My motivation behind the talk was to describe the various forces that have buffeted public education since the beginning of the 21st century to an audience of largely non-educators. I focused on the history of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and Race to the Top. The feedback I received after my talk was largely of the "I had no idea!" and "That's really depressing! What can we do?" varieties, which was good, if a bit startling.

"Startling", because nothing there for me or for most educators I communicate with was particularly new. Most are aware of the alliances between corporations and politicians that are strangling public education in this country. Most are aware of the propaganda machines that have been fired up to promulgate the myth that American public schools are failures. Most are tired of being told that they are the problem and that more standardized testing will "fix education". What startled me was how stepping outside of that educator box and into a small subset of the wider world led to such a reaction. What can we do, indeed.

One of the things educators can do, I believe, is take their message to the streets, not simply in the confrontational way that groups like the "Badass Teachers' Association" do, but also in speaking to the public. We may only have a megaphone on a street corner, but we must start somewhere. We have to demonstrate that we do what we do because we care about students and the democratic ideals of public education.

Which brings me back to the book I just finished. One of the things that attracts me to Dr. Noddings' work is her emphasis on education as a caring profession. She reminds us to focus on something that is easily forgotten in this era of standardizing students: that our goal as educators is to help our students become "competent, caring, thoughtful, moral, well-balanced ... adults" (p. 155). This, she makes clear, will not happen by treating all students as identical units, but will only happen by acknowledging their differences in interest, aptitude, and preparation. Unless we recognize that students are NOT "standard", that students are not identical, we risk turning our schools into something profoundly undemocratic. Dr. Noddings discusses in great deal how important it is for schools and teachers to genuinely care about their students, not just in terms of what those students can "produce" as test-takers, but in terms of what they will become.

Dr. Noddings asks difficult questions of educators: why do we include the items in curricula we do? She gives a quote from one of my favorite authors, Jerome Bruner:
We might ask, as a criterion for any subject taught in primary school, whether, when fully developed, it is worth an adult's knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult. If the answer to both questions is negative or ambiguous, then the material is cluttering the curriculum. (quoted on p. 146)
As a math teacher, that quote gives me pause. I have argued elsewhere that much of what we teach in math is clutter. I suppose it's a relief to know that the idea, if not the specifics, have a solid backing.

She also asks: why do we leave many important facets of life out? Examples she discusses include homemaking, parenting, religion, ecology (not "environmental science", necessarily), war and the military, and politics. These are topics that are both interdisciplinary by their nature and relevant to life in a democracy. To have an informed citizenry requires citizens who can interact intelligently with these issues. In addition, one of the chapters in her book discusses vocational education, and what a truly meaningful and worthwhile vocational-educational program in this country would look like. She, along with Mike Rose in his works, have many excellent points to make and many apt suggestions. If I were in charge somehow of restructuring American education, I'd make a point to include genuine voc-ed in ways that they describe.

In addition to focusing on particular aspects of the curriculum, she has broad-ranging and thoughtful discussions of the meaning of the liberal arts in education, the "standards" debate, using test results to assess teachers, and much more. I commented to a friend that I wished I had read this book earlier, before I gave my own talk at UUCSH last weekend; if I had, I would have been able to say a lot of what I said better and with more conviction. Even so, though, I now have another guide on my path to figuring out what I want American education to be, and what I want to be able to do for my students. "Education and Democracy in the 21st Century" is an excellent book that should be read by any thoughtful educator, here or abroad.


  1. I love that you brought all this information to your church. All of us should find ways to get the word out about "The System".

    I agree that the curriculum is cluttered, but I don't think usefulness of topics is a sufficient criterion when uncluttering. Of course it fits with the pragmatism of American culture, and thus has broad appeal, but education is about more than that.

    1. Henri,

      Thanks for the comment! I think you're absolutely right that "utility" should not be the criteria for what topics to keep, remove, or just move elsewhere in a math course sequence. I simply wish there were real places and times for those conversations to take place, and for educators to discuss what topics make sense where and when. Right now the "what to keep/what to drop" decisions rarely come from us at all, but from those with little experience in the classroom or with students.

  2. Mike

    Lovely words. I would have loved to hear this at our UU in the valley