Published Online: August 12, 2006
Published in Print: September 1, 2006, as Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach
Book Review

Critical Lessons

What Our Schools Should Teach

by Nel Noddings
(Cambridge, 319 pages, $30)
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Stanford University professor Nel Noddings, the author of several notable books on progressive education, does not much like conventional schooling. Among the punches she throws in the first chapter of this wonderfully iconoclastic book are that “perhaps not all children need algebra and geometry,” that poor students do not learn as well as rich ones, and this advice to kids: “Don’t ‘do your best in everything.’” Rather, she admonishes, “save your energy for that about which you are passionate.” Education at the high school level, she further asserts, is irrelevant to most students, consisting of a fragmented curriculum that is digested and then consigned to oblivion.

Critical Lessons Cover

In its place, Noddings wants an education that is designed to “facilitate critical thinking.” Of course, this is hardly a new idea—teachers have always paid homage to critical thinking. The difference is that Noddings wants the thinking to cover “topics central to everyday life.” Among the topics she proposes—a chapter is devoted to each one—are “The Psychology of War,” “Animals and Nature,” “Other People,” and “Religion.”

The lessons on war, for instance, would have students ponder such questions as, Is masculinity inevitably associated with war? and, Why does war provide so many people with meaning and purpose? The topic concerning animals would have students examine the morality of eating them and “the paradoxical behavior of a society that is at once highly sentimental about animals and almost cavalierly negligent in its treatment of them.”The ultimate goal of all such musings is to have students arrive at self-knowledge: What do I think? Feel? Truly believe?

Noddings repeatedly emphasizes that discussions of such topics must not turn into informal “rap sessions.” She wants thorough examinations that lead to deep exploration of content, not—as is so often the case—schooling in which content is merely skated over.

Vol. 18, Issue 01, Page 46

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