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  • Nel Noddings:Courageous Philosopher and Reformer
  • Lynda Stone

In July 2017, Nel Noddings, internationally renowned philosopher of education, wrote an invited comment in response to her 1993 lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and subsequently published in The High School Journal.

Twenty-five years ago, I expressed great concern about the schools' concentration on specific facts and concepts—"learning objectives"—and their neglect of the great questions traditionally associated with a full life and wisdom. That concern is even greater today. The disciplines taught in our high schools are still sharply separated and far too specifically defined. Although some scientific thinkers have begun to emphasize interdisciplinary studies, most high school teachers rarely explore related work in other disciplines. How often do math teachers draw on biographies and historical examples to explore questions of friendship, beauty, art, music, religion, or patriotism? In a recent book (A Richer, Brighter Vision for American High Schools, [Noddings,] 2015), I revisited and expanded my argument for interdisciplinary studies that should enliven and deepen educational experience, that will promote democratic participation, collegiality, and connection among the central facets of life. A richer, brighter education should enable people to live more interesting, more fulfilling lives.

(personal communication, 2017)

This statement from Noddings provides a glimpse into her approach to philosophy, to education and schooling, and especially to propositions for high school reform.

Informal unifying parts provide a conceptual organization for this essay. In a first part, Noddings's biography and her academic project are overviewed. In a second part, the lecture at Carolina and her recent book on high school reform receive detailed attention. It is important to emphasize that this substantive part of the essay is a not a simple summary but an invitation to enter into a conversation for current reform. Surely for many high school teachers this is needed because of current constraints on their work. In a third informal part, a single section summarizes Nodddings's unique contribution to a vision for education that focuses on America but can have resonance worldwide. This essay then closes with a brief personal reflection; this is because Nel Noddings has been my doctoral adviser, teacher, mentor, friend, and family across more than thirty years.

Importantly to a unifying theme: this essay attempts to describe the life and accomplishments of Nel Noddings as a philosopher and educational reformer through a theme of everyday courage. One might posit that courageous work comes from courageous persons. A commonsense understanding of courage is that individuals and groups of persons perform highly unusual acts and services. Military service, civil rights protests offer sites for courageous acts. In addition, courage is the purview of ordinary people; one recognition is the Profiles in Courage annual awards, begun by President John F. Kennedy and continued today by his family. Courage is also lived with moral commitment to self and others and to fulfilling one's path in its own best [End Page 100] sense. This may mean that the actions of those least privileged are the most courageous, supporting neighbors, working with diverse others to resolve common problems irrespective of politics. In the present societal climate of the US, these forms of everyday courage may well be the most needed. The theme of everyday courage ties the essay together and perhaps suggests a way that today's teachers can think about their daily contributions as they further commitments to school reform.


Born nearly eighty-nine years ago, Nel Noddings grew up in a working class family on the US east coast and worked her way through a state college. She married her high school sweetheart; they had five biological children and then the entire family adopted five multicultural children and young adults. To this group of ten, several others have become considered 'family members.' Noddings's husband of over sixty years died just a few years ago. Her academic career has spanned six plus decades with her early years in public schools. Across her life she has loved mathematics, studied mathematics and mathematics education and principally taught this subject in secondary schools. Also she served as a school administrator in New Jersey and finally as a teacher educator. Following...


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