Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach

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How can schools prepare students for real life? What should students learn in high school that is rarely addressed today? Critical Lessons recommends sharing highly controversial issues with high school students, including “hot” questions on war, gender, advertising, and religion.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Drawing on historical and pedagogical studies, literary analysis, and primary-source materials, Noddings provides a wide-ranging argument for the discussion of race, class, gender, consumerism, mass communications, the family, and the workplace in the curriculum.[...] This volume is likely to become an important resource for future scholarship."
—Library Journal

"Most readers of education-policy books like this expect the author to tell them what to think. But Noddings rarely advocates for any controversial position; instead, she gives teachers suggestions on how to begin provocative conversations, and offers ideas to keep these conversations safe, civil, and engaging. Most public-school graduates will find Critical Lessons a provocative course in their post- secondary education."
—Greater Good Magazine

"This book engages the reader from the introduction to the final pages[...]The author, past president of the John Dewey Society, moves through each of the chapters discussing key topics such as war, people, parenting, nature, propaganda, gender, and religion, relating them all to critical thinking and self-understanding. She weaves a complex book that is superbly written and combines literature, psychology, theology, philosophy, and liberal education."
—H.B. Arnold, University of the Pacific, Choice

"It is refreshing to read a volume written by an individual who has the understanding and experience to offer a well-reasoned, if radical, plan for curricular reform in public secondary schools[...]Critical Lessons should be required reading for every student in teacher education programs."
—Jean Shepherd Hamm, Feminist Teacher

Publishers Weekly
Education theorist Noddings calls attention to aspects of ordinary contemporary living: "topics, claims, and issues to which critical thinking should be applied, but [which are] rarely addressed in the schools." Her wide-ranging ideas encompass involving students as they directly apply those critical thinking skills to their lives. These skills touch on issues that all students will eventually face in their domestic world (e.g., the nature of learning itself, of parenting, of home building), their civic lives (e.g., the nature of war, of earning a living, of advertising) and their broader public concerns (e.g., gender, religion). Noddings, a Stanford education professor, has strong opinions about many of these matters, but she never loses sight of her main point: teaching through challenging questions that go to the logical and moral heart of the matter. She proposes a daring and controversial transformation of secondary education, one that would prepare "students for life in a liberal democracy [by offering] real choices among rich courses." High school teachers and administrators, to whom this book is particularly addressed, will be stimulated to fresh thinking about what they teach and why. Parents, general readers and inquisitive high school students will find it accessible and persuasive. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A number of works, including Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised and James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, have explored both the biases and the lacunae found in the public school curriculum. Noddings (education, emerita, Stanford Univ.; The Challenge To Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education) takes a novel approach to this topic by identifying key issues in which she believes students must be engaged if they are to grow into well-rounded adults. Unfortunately, she argues, these issues are rarely incorporated into the curriculum or, if addressed at all, are approached without critical reflection. Drawing on historical and pedagogical studies, literary analysis, and primary-source materials, Noddings provides a wide-ranging argument for the discussion of race, class, gender, consumerism, mass communications, the family, and the workplace in the curriculum. With clearly defined positions on matters of ongoing debate, the author's arguments will appeal most to those already familiar with her earlier works. Like those works, this volume is likely to become an important resource for future scholarship. Recommended for academic libraries.-Scott Walter, Univ. of Kansas Libs., Lawrence Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521710008
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 326
  • Sales rank: 428,037
  • Product dimensions: 8.88 (w) x 5.86 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Nel Noddings is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University. She is past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and of the John Dewey Society. In addition to fourteen books - among them are Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Women and Evil, The Challenge to Care in Schools, Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, and Philosophy of Education - she is the author of some 200 articles and chapters on various topics ranging from the ethics of care to mathematical problem solving. Her latest books are Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy, Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education and Happiness and Education (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Noddings spent 15 years as a teacher, administrator, and curriculum developer in public schools. She served as a mathematics department chairperson in New Jersey and as Director of the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago. At Stanford, she received the Award for Teaching Excellence three times, most recently in 1997. She also served as Associate Dean and as Acting Dean at Stanford University for four years.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521851882 - Critical lessons - what our schools should teach - by Nel Noddings



“It is not our business,” he said, “to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.”


The Professor of Worldly Wisdom in Samuel Butler, Erewhon

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, many public school teachers were forbidden to discuss the war in their classrooms. Such a restriction on free discussion seems outrageous in a liberal democracy. But, although free debate is rarely so directly forbidden, the suppression of discussion and critical thinking in our educational system is widespread. Usually it is accomplished by defining the curriculum so narrowly and specifically that genuinely controversial issues simply do not arise. Without controversial issues, critical thinking is nonexistent or, at best, weak. Students are encouraged now and then to exercise a bit of critical thinking in science or mathematics as they try to solve word problems or think of alternative hypotheses, but such exercises are usually constrained tightly by the topic athand and the limited knowledge of young students. Further, this sort of critical thinking does not challenge deeply held beliefs or ways of life.

   In recent interactions with students at some of our finest universities and colleges, I’ve been amazed to learn that many of them have never been asked in school to consider: that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, and that its status as a myth is part of its great power; what it means to make a home; how their own minds work and what motivates their thinking; that the drive for top-notch grades may actually reduce intrinsic motivation for learning; that joining the military and engaging in battle may cause the loss not only of life or limb, but of moral identity or soul; that some forms of parenting are more effective than others for life in liberal democracies; that it might not be true that most jobs in the near future will require a college education. This list presents just some of the topics, claims, and issues to which critical thinking should be applied, but they are rarely addressed in schools. Good teachers should not ask that students believe or disbelieve the ideas and claims involved in the topics just mentioned, but they should encourage students to think about them and discuss them.

   The neglect of critical thinking is not limited to poor urban and rural schools. It is pervasive. Young people preparing to teach are not encouraged to challenge the slogan “All children can learn” or even to ask what it means. Some have told me, in amazement, that I was the first (respectable) person who had ever suggested to them that perhaps not all children need algebra and geometry. Again, some are aghast when I tell them honestly that I do not believe that “poor children can learn as well as rich children.” They have never considered the possibility that, by advertising the success of some hard-working educators with poor children, we may be encouraging a mean-spirited public to suppose that it need do nothing about poverty and its attendant ills – lack of decent housing, medical insurance, safe streets, financial security, adequate diet, and sufficient time for a rich family life. Just expect more from poor children and their teachers!

   The neglect of topics that call forth critical and reflective thinking pervades our system of education. Teachers study some psychology and are urged to use what they learn in classrooms. They use psychology on students but not with them. Teachers and students are rarely invited to turn a reflective eye on their own thought processes and work habits. In a passion to control students, parents and teachers often structure homework and study time, assign penalties for missing deadlines, and preach lessons on the value of hard, steady work. But teachers might instead encourage students to ask questions such as: When and under what conditions do I do my best work? Is it ever productive to stop thinking and just look or listen? Is it possible that a problem, topic, or potential product might “speak” to us or somehow reveal itself? Is it sometimes morally acceptable and creatively productive to do less than my best work? What does it mean, anyway, to be educated?

   An exploration of such questions opens the door not only to reflective thinking about one’s own work habits but also to a host of wonderful biographical accounts, psychological/historical studies, and the analysis of claims for the enhancement of creativity through religion, drugs, alcohol, exercise, meditation, and fasting. Why do we not teach critical lessons on these topics? One answer to this question is ignorance. People who have never explored these topics are unlikely to provide opportunities for others to do so; the notion never arises.

   But fear may be an even greater impediment. What harm might we do to our students if we encourage them to think critically and reflectively? It is not only fictional characters like Butler’s Professor of Worldly Wisdom and Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind who fear that real harm might be done to individuals or to the social fabric by promoting critical thinking. Edmund Burke expressed misgivings along these lines and, more recently, William Galston warned against encouraging students to question their own ways of life.1 Burke and Galston feared that the social order itself might suffer if citizens were to exercise critical thinking. But there are other fears. If students hear about artists who have used drugs, might they decide to copy them? If they hear about people who dropped out of school and yet became highly successful, might they quit school then and there? If they learn that some religious revelations are the products of near starvation, might they either discount the revelations or starve themselves?

   Fear of adverse effects also inhibits discussion of the psychology of war, religion, and even parenting. On the last, although every sensible person recognizes the importance of the topic, many fear that teaching about parenting in public schools may offend those who wish to keep public and private domains sharply separated, upset some minorities whose parenting styles may not be favored, and raise issues about gay/lesbian families. Why open ourselves to controversy when there are so many safe (if boring) topics to teach?

   In this book, I consider an array of topics that demand critical thinking. In doing so, I use a broad definition of critical thinking, and I rarely differentiate it from reflective thinking. Critical thinking refers not only to the assessment of arguments (that will certainly be included) but also to the diligent and skillful use of reason on matters of moral/social importance – on personal decision making, conduct, and belief. By including its application to personal belief and decision making, we extend critical thinking to every domain of human interest. Mathematicians, health care professionals, artists, and farmers all properly use critical thinking in deciding what to believe and what to do in their professional lives. For present purposes, however, I have chosen topics that should be of crucial interest to everyone: teaching and learning, war, homemaking, parenting, advertising, making a living, relating to nonhuman animals, issues of gender, and religion. To neglect critical thinking on topics central to everyday life is to make the word education virtually meaningless.

   Concentrating on the diligent and skillful use of reason does not imply that we will ignore emotion and feeling. With David Hume, I believe that human beings are mainly motivated by emotion or passion, but that belief does not entail that our emotions should not be carefully examined by reason. (There may be exceptions to this, as Freud has noted.) It is rarely helpful for others to tell us that we “shouldn’t feel that way,” but it can be enormously useful for us to ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way?” Nor will I argue that all of our commitments must be supported by rational argument. Some of our most important commitments are nonrational, but even these may be enriched by asking, Why? and accepting the reassuring inner answer that they are somehow final in themselves: She is my child, I love him, this is my country, God says....Notice, however, that others may ask, Why? even though we are content with our nonrational commitment. When that happens, we should be willing to engage in a new round of critical thinking. However, caring and affect will always be factors in the application of critical thinking.

   Almost all of the topics considered here might be explored from a civic perspective; that is, our main concerns might be directed at improving the communities in which we live. Such concerns will indeed arise, but their careful examination must await a future volume. Here the emphasis – not exclusive, of course – is on self-understanding and how critical thinking may be applied to our individual lives.

   I start this book on critical lessons with the least controversial of the topics to be considered: learning. Why do I learn? What motivates me? Must I learn everything the teacher or expert sets out? Is it all right to do less than my best work? Under what conditions do I work best? Why do I work hard (or not work hard) in school? When we talk with students about these questions (and we rarely do – instead, we talk at them), we often propagandize. Without thinking critically ourselves, we simply pass on the party line: Work hard, get high marks, go to a good college, get a good job, make lots of money, and buy lots of stuff! Will this bring happiness? Is this what education is all about?

   The second major topic for critical lessons is the psychology of war. Most of the young people who fill the enlisted ranks in our armed forces are not college graduates. They have had little exposure (perhaps none at all) to the literature on pacifism and opposition to war. They know, of course, that they might be injured or killed in battle, but they have not been encouraged to consider the horrible things that they might do as fighting rages. Atrocities? Those are committed by the enemy, by the bad guys. Our side stands for peace and freedom. We say that education should prepare young people for adult life. Can we claim to educate, then, if we do not prepare our students for the many possible soul-destroying effects of war? How does it happen that otherwise good people commit atrocious acts in war? How do some real heroes avoid moral degeneration?

   American students study a lot about war in their social studies courses. Indeed, a year’s course of study may be organized around war: “From the Revolution to the Civil War” or “The Civil War to World War I.” They learn something about the political and economic causes of war, but they do not study the psychological causes of participation. What makes war so exciting? Why are so many people drawn to it? And why do educators accept texts and curricula that fail to address the psychology of war? As we explore this topic, we will see, too, that the psychology of the public response to war should be examined. Why are military personnel ignored or even denigrated in times of peace? How do they become, overnight, “our boys” and “heroes” in times of war?

   The next several topics concentrate on everyday life. What does it mean to make a home? It may seem odd to consider critical thinking in connection with homemaking. What is there about making a home that requires critical thinking? The short answer to this question is, almost everything. For many of us, home is the major source of both sustenance and happiness; for others, it is a source of contention and misery. Today we insist that everyone (almost without exception) must study academic mathematics. Yet relatively few students will actually use this material in their adult lives. In contrast, all of us make a home of some sort. Why, then, does homemaking not appear as a serious and sustained subject in our schools? Among the questions we will consider are these: What is a home? What does our house, room, or corner say about us? What attitude might we take toward our possessions? What organic habits do we acquire in our childhood homes? Is it possible (or desirable) to enjoy household tasks? What role does conversation play in contributing to the growth of partners and children? What does ignorance or ineptitude on these topics contribute to present societal conditions? Are there people who want to maintain those conditions? Can it be that your ignorance might serve my purposes?

   The next topic, other people, is one of primary interest to adolescents. How do we relate to other people? What do we need to learn about patterns of communication? Is it true that, as one of Sartre’s characters lamented, “Hell is other people”? Or is our greatest happiness derived from relations with other people? In treating this topic, we will look at the relation between mother and child, between men and women, and the history of relations characterized by domination. Why have men insisted on dominating and controlling women, and what harm has been done by this longstanding pattern of domination? That question will be revisited in the chapter on gender.

   In all of this discussion, topics will be suggested that might add greatly to the cultural literacy of students. Students cannot think critically without some knowledge of the topics under consideration, but it is a mistake to defer critical thinking indefinitely while we stuff information into our students. I hope to convince readers that much of the curriculum now taught in unmotivated fragments might better be introduced as material to trigger or facilitate critical thinking. Conversely, critical questions may well necessitate a search for knowledge.

   Many of the questions we consider will appear in several contexts and thus will be treated more than once. For example, in the discussion of male–female relations, I will raise the question of why so many theologians and preachers have preferred the creation story of Adam and Eve over the simpler one – “male and female created he them” – that also appears in Genesis. This question will arise again in the chapter on religion, but its treatment there will extend to a study of evil and its role in religion. Repetition of this sort – of topic, not of argument – can be taken as evidence for the centrality of certain issues in human life. Their frequent appearance makes us wonder even more why they are not addressed critically in schools.

   Among our most important human relations is that of parent and child. Why is parenting not a central object of study in schools? Raising this question provides an opportunity to discuss the traditional liberal separation of public and private life and to ask who benefits and who is harmed by that separation. What arguments are made to support the separation? The study of parenting should also include open, sensitive examination of parenting styles and why it is now widely believed – at least in professional circles – that an authoritative style is more effective for life in a liberal democracy than either an authoritarian or a permissive style.2 Not only would social studies and psychology courses be enriched by such study, but one can well imagine great interest being aroused by a semester’s study of children’s literature in English.

   In addition to a host of critical questions on our relations with other human beings, many people today are concerned with our relations to nonhuman animals. The object of critical thinking in this area is neither to convert students to vegetarianism nor to debunk the work of those who insist on the ethical treatment of animals. The aim is to examine a host of questions concerning our love and care for pets, the treatment of animals raised for food, the harm done to the environment by some methods of animal farming, and the many dilemmas (both logical and moral) that arise as we try to work through these problems. Again, related topics will appear in more than one chapter.

   The emphasis in this book is on critical thinking for self-understanding, but the questions considered will lead us into social and philosophical problems as well. As we ask questions central to everyday life, we have to explore issues of social, moral, and cultural importance. When students are invited to think about how they will eventually make a living for themselves and their families, they should also be asked to reflect on the lives of others. In the best society, would anyone live in poverty? What have social thinkers said about this problem? What sort of work might I enjoy and why? What do I owe to those who do necessary work that I would hate to do?

   Continuing a focus on everyday life, we will explore the topics of advertising and our lives as consumers. Math teachers often use ads to get students to do some consumer calculations. Which of two similar brands is the better buy? Sometimes teachers have students look for outright (or likely) lies in advertising. But we rarely ask students to consider how we are all manipulated by advertising. Why is it so profitable? If we were to ignore it – even defy it – would our economy collapse? Is the deliberate choice of a simple lifestyle unpatriotic? Is it ethical to work for a company that produces or advertises a harmful product? How should critical thinkers resist the manipulation of advertising?

   In chapter 9, we’ll return to topics treated earlier – now from the perspective of gender. Why are women paid less than men for the same work? Why are so many women, and so few men, employed in the so-called caring professions? Should girls be taught to avoid these fields? Are males and females genetically different psychologically and intellectually as well as anatomically? How has the topic of “woman” been treated in Western culture and by whom? What attitude should we take toward homosexuality? Some of the questions addressed here will lead logically to the following topic.

   That topic – religion – is perhaps the most controversial of all. Dare we discuss religious questions in school? Young people who have the good fortune to attend fine universities or liberal arts colleges are introduced to powerful arguments for and against religion. We do not suppose that exposure to Augustine will convert our students to Catholicism or that reading Freud will make them atheists. Conscientious teachers approach questions of religion (and all other questions) nondogmatically. They search out and present the most powerful arguments on all sides and invite students to engage them critically. Students are not told what to believe. They learn what others have said and believed. Some of the world’s most beautiful and engaging literature treats religious issues. It should not be reserved for elite college students. But I am not suggesting a mere survey course in which students are introduced to the world’s great religions. When students read Augustine and Freud, they will encounter arguments, and this will invite critical thinking on the logic of certain religious doctrines. Although I believe this sort of examination should be conducted in secondary education, I am not at all sure that it can be done well. The alternative – to shield large numbers of people from knowledge and critical thinking on religion – is unattractive, but my suggested course of critical lessons is loaded with problems. I will leave it to readers to decide how much of what I suggest is feasible.

   Finally, in a brief conclusion, I turn to the problems of teacher education. Most teachers are not critical thinkers because they have not been asked to think critically. They readily accept the propaganda put forth by their professional associations and professors, and then they pass much of it along to their students. How can we help those training to teach to become critical thinkers? Is it important that we do so? As we explore these questions, we will see that the massive structure of schooling as it is makes our task very difficult. Indeed, many of the great educational critics of the 1960s all but despaired in their efforts to move public schools toward the greater freedom and critical thinking required by democratic education.3 Still, if only as a thought exercise, we should try again.

Learning and Self-Understanding


What brains they must have in Christminster and the great schools, he presently thought, to learn words one by one up to tens of thousands!


Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

Possibly no goal of education is more important – or more neglected – than self-understanding. Socrates advised us, “Know thyself,” and he claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. We may feel that Socrates went too far on this, thereby dismissing the lives of millions who have not had the opportunity to examine their lives. But when we claim to educate, we must take Socrates seriously. Unexamined lives may well be valuable and worth living, but an education that does not invite such examination may not be worthy of the label education.

   In an important sense, this entire book is about self-understanding and an examination of how external and internal forces affect out lives. We need to ask not only what we believe but why we believe it. Similarly, we need to ask, What do I feel? Why? What am I doing? Why? And even, What am I saying? And, again, why?

   The most fundamental expectation of schooling is that students will learn. If we want them to learn to use their minds well, it is reasonable to help them understand how their minds function, how and why they learn. What motivates us to learn? What habits are helpful? Why do I remember some things and forget so many others? Does the object of learning ever enter actively into the process? If so, how can I encourage it to speak to me?

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments; Introduction; 1. Learning and self-understanding; 2. The psychology of war; 3. House and home; 4. Other people; 5. Parenting; 6. Animals and nature; 7. Advertising and propaganda; 8. Making a living; 9. Gender; 10. Religion; 11. Preparing our schools; Notes; Bibliography.

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