Few would fault Nel Noddings ’49 for spending her retirement years in, well, retirement. But this expert in educational theory is as passionate as ever about education philosophy – and she has concerns. “There has been such a loss of public unity in recent years,” she observes.
Fortunately for us all, Noddings is willing to bring her perspective to the table to develop a response to society’s disunity. “I haven’t been out in public this past year, of course,” she says. “But I have been part of a couple of virtual meetings and events. I am spending a lot of time considering what we can do in the schools that might contribute to public harmony, and I have a few ideas outlined.”
It would be hard to find anyone more suited to design an approach to education that has the potential to transform the public sphere.
Noddings completed her Montclair State degree in just three years. “Money was tight, and I needed to make way for my younger sister, who was only three years behind me in school,” she says.
Noddings went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics from Rutgers and a Ph.D. in education from Stanford. Her career includes positions at Stanford, Columbia and Colgate Universities. While at Stanford, she was the Jacks Professor of Child Education and received three awards for teaching excellence. She is past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and the John Dewey Society and in 2002-2003, she held the prestigious John W. Porter Chair in Urban Education at Eastern Michigan University.
Her career is so much more than a series of titles and awards, however. Known for her interpretation of scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism and peaceful human relationships, Noddings’ name is most often associated with the concept of “ethics of care” – a philosophy that places caring at the foundation of ethical decision-making.
Noddings is the author of twenty-two books including Philosophy of Education, Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, The Challenge to Care in Schools, Educating Moral People, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy, Happiness and Education, Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach, When School Reform Goes Wrong, The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality, Peace Education: How We Came to Love and Hate War, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, and A Richer Brighter Vision for American High Schools. She has written more than 200 articles and book chapters on topics ranging from the ethics of care to mathematical problem solving.
Her contributions to the field of education theory have been recognized with six honorary doctorates as well as the Medal for Distinguished Service from Teachers College, Columbia University; the Anne Roe Award for Contributions to the Professional Development of Women from Harvard University; and the Willystine Goodsell Award from the American Educational Research Association. She currently serves as an honorary member of Montclair State’s College of Education and Human Services Advisory Board.
Noddings is ready to bring her considerable knowledge and experience to bear on the current state of education and how, she feels, we can do better. “There are good reasons to test and separate children according to their abilities,” she notes. “It provides students at every level with opportunities to succeed.”
“But it is also important for children to learn in groups that are not organized by ability,” she continues. “When students work alongside peers with diverse learning capacities, they must develop their communication skills. They have a chance to experience empathy and compassion. They will be more likely to bring those sensibilities into the wider community.”
Noddings’ interest in the future of education is further expressed through her philanthropy to her alma mater. “I was born into a working-class family,” she says. “I was fortunate to get a scholarship when I went to Montclair State.”
Over more than three decades, Noddings has supported the University through several scholarships for students enrolled in the College of Education and Human Services, and lately she has been giving thought to her legacy at the institution. “I want the best possible college education for kids who can’t afford to just go to any school they choose,” she adds. “Schools like Montclair State are extremely important to maintaining a unified public as well as our connections with one another.”
She marvels at the diversity of the campus today but is quick to note that the financial situation of many Montclair State students is not very different from her own, when she was an undergraduate. Montclair State was a crucial stepping-stone in her career, and her life.
“When I was in elementary school, I could see the red roofs of the Montclair State buildings from my classroom windows,” she recalls. “MSU has always been special because of its location and because of the beauty of the campus, even from a distance.”
She also appreciates how hard it can be for students to enjoy a full, well-rounded college experience. “Since I was on track to finish my degree in three years, I didn’t have too much time to socialize while going to school, but I did manage to make a few friends – who are still friends today,” she says. “I encourage students to see their college years as an opportunity to make memories and friends that they will treasure for the rest of their lives.”