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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rethinking education to make school meaningful again, November 15, 2004
This review is from: Happiness and Education (Hardcover)
Nel Noddings absolutely hits the nail on the head with her discussion of how we need to reevaluate the aims of our educational system. As it is currently situated, education serves almost entirely an economic function, in preparing students to enter the workforce and become good consumers in a successful economy. Whatever social functions the school serves are relegated to the background, and in fact tend to be discouraged if they are ever considered to be possibly getting in the way of the true goals. Of course, Noddings is also right in that we seem to have even lost focus of our original economic aims. The need to compete with others in standardized testing has forced students to learn things that may be becoming increasingly less and less relevant - Noddings's point about how asking an algebra teacher says that the point of a lesson is always going to be related only to other algebra lessons is something that every student of the school system has been frustrated with at one point or another (75).

Fortunately, Noddings does not fall into the trap that I envisioned as possible - that she would instead declare that the defined goal of education should be happiness. Such a lofty but ultimately nonsubstantive goal would be, to put it quite simply, silly, and ultimately even worse than the economic goals of the current arrangement. Fortunately, Noddings avoids the mistake of trying to make a singular definition of happiness and then working toward it. Instead, the final two thirds of the book are devoted to various different parts of life that Noddings would like to see become more prominent as aims of education. What makes the book so good is in how Noddings successfully weaves in the notion of happiness throughout all of these elements of life - which include raising a family, spirituality, participation in the democratic process, and, yes, in the workplace - together with the discussion of how education must be aimed toward these goals. It is almost as if the book is a collaboration of two distinct theses - how these parts of life are important to our happiness, and how education must serve these parts of life - and that seems to be the reason for how the book flows as well as it does when it is based on a topic like happiness that in lesser hands would be incredibly trite and quickly grow repetitive.

Of the two theses, neither is easy to quibble with. In regard to the thesis about how schools need to refocus their aims toward more relevant applications, I certainly have no disagreement; I believe that we clearly have lost track of what schools should be about and that the U.S. educational system is slowly careening toward greater and greater irrelevance (although it probably isn't much of a new phenomenon after all; how much of what scholars studied in ancient times was really necessary for their life experiences?). The idea of how the various elements that Noddings discusses as being keys to personal happiness are somewhat more spurious, in that personal happiness is by definition personal, and what makes one person happy is going to be far different from what makes another person happy (traditional education does make many lifelong scholars happy, for one). But Noddings does allow for this, and so I have no quarrel with her desire to try to point out some elements that typically make people happy for the sake of the argument.

Consider a sample sentence from the introduction to chapter 7; the introductions to all of the chapters in parts 2 and 3 of the book are structured quite similarly: "Possibly there is no human task more demanding, more rewarding, and more universal than parenting, and yet our schools apparently think that algebra and Shakespeare are more important" (138). The point of how schools are inadequate in their current aims is constantly reinforced. Here Noddings makes the argument that education needs to be reshaped such that students become more acquainted with concepts like child-rearing and how parents can play effective roles in their children's lives, "without preaching or direct instruction" (156). Noddings is right in having to address this final qualifier, since such nontraditional lessons might be controversial if they try to teach right and wrong answers in the same way that algebra might. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to go in that direction. After all, having an open discussion about the legitimacy of educational lessons is far from being the worst thing that could happen. The worst thing, rather, would be to maintain our current inertia.
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