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Observe your actions to know what matters, ethicist advises

If we excel at deception and rationalization, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, how can we come to know our own quest? Not, as parents tend to say, through "high ideals and whipping ourselves into shape," but by "observing our own actions."

That was the parting advice that Nel Noddings, the well-known philosopher of education and feminist ethics, gave to the Stanford community during her recent talk for the lecture series, "What Matters to Me and Why."

Noddings, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Child Education, is leaving Stanford's School of Education for Columbia after this academic year, she said, partly because by watching her own actions, she has learned that being in step with "cyclic time" matters a lot to her now. At Columbia, the author of several books on bringing caring and moral education into schools will still be able to teach and write part time, activities that have mattered to her during her two decades at Stanford. But she also will be able to live year-round on the seashore, observing each sunrise from the beach or her study, charting each tide from her kitchen window and gardening with the changing seasons.

Noddings, who taught mathematics in public schools before she became a professor and a dean of the education school, listed three categories of things that she knows matter to her because of observing herself: domestic life, learning and writing, and living life as a moral quest.

She knows she is "incurably domestic," she said, not just because she has raised "a flock of kids" (10 to be exact) and stayed married to the same man for 48 years, but also because "I like order in the kitchen, a fresh tablecloth, flowers on the table and food waiting for guests. I like having pets and kids around." Feminists, she said, sometimes find it hard to admit such things matter to them.

She knows she likes learning and writing because each day she deserts her guests and family to head for the solitude of her study. It is not a life without tension, she said. Once her youngest daughter walked into the study and demanded, "Mother, will you stop writing about caring and look at my broken finger!"

Her finger, Noddings said, "wasn't even close to broken."

Living and working in an academic community may put you at increased risk of missing what matters to you, Noddings said, because it is an environment where "only one way of life is acceptable." Academics sometimes remind her of a man psychologist Carl Jung once described, whom upon hearing suspicious noises from the cellar, rushed to the attic. Finding nothing unusual, he assumed the grumblings were his imagination.

The story, Noddings said, describes an assistant professor she once met who spent her energy on worthwhile projects in schools and the community instead of on her academic research and writing. She stayed on because she felt she had committed herself to do research, but was deceiving both herself and others.

The author of a 1993 book called Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, Noddings has told others that she is a "non-believer." "Yet, I watch the sunrise and I find myself communicating with whom?" A similar communication happens, she said, when she is working in her garden or when one of her children comes home after a "troubling journey."

"If I watch what I do, I find what I do is at odds with what I say."

Noddings said she regards life as a moral quest because "I am fairly sure about some things, but not very many. . . . If you were to visit me on the New Jersey shore, we would take a long walk and we would be talking about this uncertainty that is part of life as a moral quest."

She is sure, she said, that "it is wrong to deliberately cause unnecessary pain" and also wrong to cause it accidentally without reflecting upon if afterward. "But that leaves a lot of territory open. What is 'necessary pain?' "

And, how, she asked, do you know when you have gone too far in one direction? For example, she said, she let some of her children miss a lot of school. "They wound up being the best academically. That's something to think about."

Perhaps because Noddings has written extensively about moral education and schooling, this observation prompted her audience to seek more details. Her eldest daughter, she said, was very ill at a young age and missed school of necessity. When she was able to return, she skipped a grade. "That was my first clue that maybe not everything is learned in school."

When some of her later children wanted to skip school to finish a painting, clean the aquarium or cook a Chinese dinner, she said, she let them do it, as long as they could assure her their absence would not cause a problem for a fellow-student lab partner or for a teacher who might have to give them a make-up test.

Asked how schools could be made more meaningful, Noddings said she didn't have many suggestions "except making school more home-like" with more opportunities to explore subjects that are "at the center of life" such as personal commitment, family, children, friendships, neighborhoods.

Instead, she said, "we hear a noise in the cellar and we go up to the attic and find trunkloads of algebra and SAT tests."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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