Reading Reflection Noddings, 'Caring Feminine Approach to Ethics

I had a surprise reading Noddings first chapter of Caring- a feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The title was very appealing and I was looking forward to hearing another female voice in our conversation of leadership. I also happen to believe that the subject of caring is extremely important in the ongoing dialogue of what makes an exceptional leader. I was not prepared to convince myself to finish the reading. I wasn’t happy with the difficulty of digesting this woman’s scattered writing style. I am challenged in having to offer a critical review of her thoughts and opinions on the subject. Yet I did find some interesting opinions and appreciate some of the references she cited.

I knew my difficulties with the manner of how Noddings writes was a personal reflection on me and my own lens of wanting easy approachable intellectual discourse. My own bias reflects my resistance to the intellectual manner of many PhD writers and I wondered more about where Noddings own perceptions were attributed. I decided further investigation would help me understand her writing style. On this particular site; http://www.infed.org/thinkers/noddings.htm the biography praises Noddings contributions of ethics and morals to educational advances in teaching. Noddings was highly motivated as a student by having caring teachers that led her to follow an academic career in mathematics receiving a Masters from Rutgers University and then switched focus when pursuing her PhD at Stanford University and received a doctorate in educational philosophy. Her feministic perspective and insistence on comprehension of subject matter is unusual for a woman who has raised 10 children and quoted stating she likes ‘order in the kitchen, a fresh tablecloth, flowers on the table and food waiting for guests'. She added, 'I like having pets and kids around' (O'Toole 1998). After reading more about this amazing woman and gaining an immense appreciation for her own personal accomplishments and the contributions she has given to the world, I am attempting to make sense of this reading and offer this summary. I ‘care’ (a state of mental suffering or of engrossment) about her analysis on caring.

Basically in the two chapters we were given to read, she discusses caring in two contextual categories. The one who is doing the caring and the one receiving the caring. One of the major criticisms that I offer is that she was not able to support those two viewpoints with equanimity. There was much more subjective content regarding the first concept of the caregiver with an intellectual discourse that offered random thoughts with examples that didn’t necessarily support effectively what Noddings was trying to prove. The second concept of the one cared for was even more confusing in the specific ideas Noddings offered to relate the role of receiving caring from another, making many assumptions that readers may or may not have had familiarity with. The audience Noddings was writing for may have more background and familiarity with the many generalizations she bantered about. I only wish her assumptions were more logically ordered.

Summarizing the main points is difficult in that Noddings had so many opinions and assumptions. I think she was attempting to solve the problem of defining caring in what she termed concretization, a masculine approach to analysis, yet offering a more feminine approach of abstraction. She certainly was abstract in her discourse. Having immersed herself in a masculine world of mathematics and emerging into a field dominated by women, I can understand her desire to approach the work with that mindset of looking at caring with how caring is actually experienced. Yet she was so intellectual about the process that I feel she failed in getting her main points across and therefore blurred the message. Noddings defends that ‘if we can understand how complex and intricate, indeed how subjective caring is, we shall perhaps be better equipped to meet the conflicts and pains it sometimes induces.’(p 12) This desire to make caring a priority is shared by many in that we often find ourselves asking each other, “who really cares anymore??. Why do we need to analyze it to death is beyond my comprehension and seems to turn off those who need to hear the message, the people who can’t be bothered. What does all this dissecting the concept of caring improve? Seems to me, Noddings is preaching to the choir, that the women who read her books already intrinsically know a feminine intuitive approach to caring. Perhaps she is writing to impress the analytical mind of those who make the rules, and labors much in her analysis of caring. Yet I would be interested in taking a poll from our class to find out if they come away with more motivation to care from all this discourse.

Here are some of the take-aways that I feel are worth highlighting. Noddings offers the risks to caring can become greater than the need to overcome those risks and perform true acts of caring. Could it be, that if we understand caring in more philosophical terms that we would become better at caring or more effective at caring? She uses the example of Mr. Smith caring for his elderly mother. Why should we judge Mr. Smith or anyone’s acts of caring is a concept I can not grasp and wish Noddings would of made clear as to why judging others caring to be valuable. What will this accomplish? Unless that through the act of judging someone else’s caring we then may judge our own? Not very likely in that judging comes from looking outward not in. Yet, she states that the fundamental aspect of caring is from the inside (p.14) and wants us to think about how we are when we care. In summary, Noddings believes the essential elements to caring from the inner view to be, ‘ a commitment to act in behalf of the cared-for, a continued interest in his reality throughout the appropriate time span, and the continual renewal of commitment over this span of time’. (p.16) The concept of analyzing how we are when we care is where the discourse gets interesting and convoluted.

She brings up the concepts of ethical reality and ethical self, introduces the ideas and explains more will be discussed later in the book. I think the basis for Noddings whole analysis of caring in ethical terms states caring makes one a better person by arousing a feeling of having to do something about the cared for or the situational context one cares about. Noddings quotes Kierkegaard’s use of ethical reality, in that it is important to see another reality as a possibility for ones own. Yet if looking at it from a factual data perspective one misses the opportunity of touching one’s own ethical reality, or feeling the need to act, ‘to eliminate the intolerable, to reduce the pain, fill the need, to actualize the dream’.(p.14) What I find appealing, is that Noddings offers that caring for others, having our ethical reality stirred, allows us to experience ‘a genuine caring for self’ or a discovery of the ‘ethical self’ (p.14). What Noddings does not go into detail but offers as a concept I know very important to the aspect of caring and I would hope gets discussed later in the book is that this caring for self precedes caring for others. I would hope that Noddings goes beyond describing someone not caring for self as ‘ethically zero and finished’ (p15), and that becoming is only a physical becoming distilled to what gives one pain or pleasure. In my understanding and own experience of caring, identifying one’s own worth, value, and potential contribution to society enables one to more effectively care for others. I believe this is what she might describe as an ethical self later in the book.

Noddings offers some of the problems arising in the analysis of one-caring. She suggests we must reconsider the requirement of engrossment. ‘The engrossment need not be intense nor need it be pervasive in the life of the one-caring, but it must occur’. (p.17) This consideration means becoming aware of problems arising with time, intensity, and formal relationships, yet she doesn’t offer further support of these ideas. Perhaps later in the book she will elaborate on these themes. Yet Noddings continues to list some of the problems with caring as it relates to the one who cares by posing good questions. What happens when we do not naturally care and when engrossment brings revulsion? What happens to situations when the cared for is beyond the reach of the one caring, not that it is even remotely possible caring for everyone, but maintaining an ‘internal state of readiness to try for whoever crosses our path’. (p.18) Having to analyze time, intensity, and relationships with those we care for stimulates the risk of conflict and guilt that suggests an exploration of courage.

The commentary on the one cared for is so complicated that I will only pull out a few of the themes that seem relevant to mention. I appreciated that Noddings places dignity and respect as aspects needed in all interactions between the caregiver and the one cared for. The concept of being present and disposable is imperative to both parties as it relates to engrossment. Noddings states that no act on behalf of the cared for is more important or as influential as attitude. Noddings introduces the expression “aesthetical caring?, caring about things and ideas as a qualitatively different form of caring. (p.21) Ethical caring can be lost with a highly intellectualized aesthetic. Procedures, rules and a rational-objective mode may be a great danger to effectively caring by forgetting the cared for and becoming enmeshed in processes that serve only themselves. (p. 26) The end of the reading jumps into ethics and leads into a discussion on morals, which doesn’t include much on the way of how that relates to the one cared for, but again emphasizes the role of the caregiver. I got lost on Noddings connection to questioning morality and caring. She ends the chapter speaking of ‘an ethic of caring locates morality primarily in the pre-act consciousness of the one caring,’ p. 28, stating it is not a form of agapism, a command to love. Nodding ends saying human love, human caring is enough to found an ethic of caring rather than relying on Christian ethics. Yet, what I think she was trying to convey on the subject of morality that it too has been lost in a masculine analysis and perspective and that ethical caring needs to be studied through the lens of the feminine. After reading this document, I will not read the book. I will preview another book she wrote in 2002, Educating Moral People as it was referenced as a better summary for the above ideas. I want to give her writing style a second chance.

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