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The Ethics of Caring: Bridging Pedagogy and Utopia

reviewed by Candice Shelby - June 10, 2008

coverTitle: The Ethics of Caring: Bridging Pedagogy and Utopia
Author(s): Tammy A. Shel
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9087902093, Pages: 133, Year: 2007
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Tammy Shel believes that “it is essential to understand how different individuals and societies understand love, caring, leaders, masculinity, and femininity.”  Such understanding will help to bridge differences “because violence stems from an individual’s distress and from her basic understanding of survival within society” (p. 2). Her Ethics of Caring is replete with such argumentation which, as far as I can see, amounts to nothing more than confusion.  The lack of connection among the various lines of investigation and reasoning in this volume is truly stunning.  While Shel’s underlying concern seems to be to promote a gentler, more child-empowering pedagogy, her jumble of ethnography, vague references to philosophy, psychologizing, and simple opining provides no insight into how pedagogy might be brought to bear on her concern.

The core of the text is a collection of five case studies of male and female teachers from two public schools and one private school.  These teachers were recommended as representatives of what others deemed to be ‘caring,’ and the schools were chosen as representatives of a variety of private and public, more and less affluent settings.  The word ‘care’ is used very broadly.  Its employment in this book extends far beyond the categories that Shel defines—inclusive, selective, adaptive, resistant, cultural, authentic, and aesthetic.  Any of these types of care can overlap and interconnect, however, since one who provides adaptive caring (such as preparing students for survival in restricted systems alien to them, as might be evidenced in the instruction of African-American students in standard English usage) might be either authentic (nurturing) or aesthetic (concerned with the students’ development in a less personal way).  That seems correct, but the types of “care” mentioned throughout the text proliferate from here so that the term becomes so broad as to be devoid of meaning.  What comes out of all of this talk is that everything remains the same as in any other pedagogical discussion, except that for Shel, those who do what they do in a caring way, care about it. The study even includes a canvass of third-to-fifth graders’ own definitions of ‘caring’, which does not seem to be any less specific than Shel’s own.  Such breadth of use is not unintentional. However; bringing in all of these views would seem to be necessary, as Shel says that her approach to care is inclusive, rather than selective.  The question, though, is whether it can then be meaningful.

The Ethics of Caring seems to be offered as a cross between philosophy and ethnography.  On the one hand, Shel states emphatically that although none of the teachers included in the study was white, she did not choose the teachers on that basis.  Perhaps, then, it is not intended as an ethnographical study.  It does, however, employ methodology suggestive of ethnography and makes reference to the need for further studies in ethnological terms.  In any case, Shel believes its outcome to have a quite general application.  In something that strikes one as a mighty leap of logic, Shel concludes on the grounds that she did not intentionally choose all non-white teachers for her study, “[t]herefore, this study has the potential to apply to any teacher regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, nationality, socioeconomic status, and the like” (p. 3).  It is not clear how anything about the applicability of this study is supposed to follow from Shel’s intentions in her choice of subjects.  

Neither is it any clearer how she purports to use philosophy:  although Shel references a number of philosophers and developmental psychologists, she does not appear to have more than the most superficial understanding of their views, nor does she give evidence of what she sees their role to be in her work.  For instance, Shel says that Julio, one of the teachers involved in the study, “approached teaching in a manner similar to Freire’s philosophy regarding the teacher-student, otherwise labeled as the oppressor-oppressed relationship,” (p. 37) leaving the reader utterly baffled regarding her belief either about Freire or about Julio’s approach, since in the very next sentence she states that Julio used his power in the classroom to cultivate sensitive, loving human beings, rather than to focus on grades and testing.  The only evidence one gets of Shel’s sense of her use of philosophy comes at the end of Chapter Four, when she says “[t]he theories of caring I presented in Chapter Two, based on scholars such as Dewey, Rousseau, Plato, Noddings, and Valenzuela, also support the of school [sic] as a second home” (p. 40), noting that this claim needs to be supported by longitudinal ethnographic study.  I have no idea what that means.

Often Shel takes on the guise of amateur psychologist.  She notes, for instance, with respect to one of the teachers, that Julio “carried with him the scar of a childhood that lacked a strong, protective, adult caregiver, as well as scars that come [sic] from his inclusion in a minority ethnic group” (2007, p. 30).  Another teacher, Stephanie, was a product of an African-American mother and a Jewish father, who were divorced and lived very different lifestyles. “All of these factors contributed to her personality and made her very sensitive toward herself, her students, and her school’s administration,” Shel diagnoses.  Further, according to Shel, Stephanie “perceived herself as a victim due to her African-American ethnicity” (p. 71). Finally, noting that although Stephanie had entered the field with high ideals, when the realities of the classroom set in, Shel says that “she did not have the tools to cope with them” (p. 63).  Shel states in connection to her observation of another classroom that a student named Samantha assumed that everyone was affiliated with a religion.  “This,” Shel concludes “was most likely resulted [sic] from her home environment” (p. 131). I would have to concur, although I am no psychologist.    

One of the most distressing things about this text is the raw irony that a book on pedagogy is rife with grammatical, punctuation, style, and simple typographical errors.  From the very beginning the reader is put off by such sentences as “[t]he more valued teachers feel, the efficacious they are” (p. 22), and “[t]he students within the classes set in groups” (p. 27).  Throughout the study, Shel makes it clear that caring teaching avoids focusing on such constraining and mundane skills as spelling and grammar, and that although teaching such things can be done in a caring way, this is “adaptive” caring, which she avows to be system-subservient and not fully child-centered.  From Shel’s commentary, it would appear that caring teachers are those who forebear to judge students in the interest of empowering them (although she does allow that “it is sometimes inevitable to slightly embarrass” a student for the sake of some pedagogical good [p. 114]). While it is certainly true that learning requires a safe environment (another truism that the study “discovered”), failure to attend to the conventions of written English is one of the things that makes this book nearly impossible to read, despite its short length.

In her introduction, Shel says that her study shows “that education is primarily about the moral, emotional, social, and intellectual growth (MESIG) of us as individuals and as a society” (p. 4).  First of all, it is not clear what could show what education “is primarily about.” And in any case, what Shel does is to presume that education is about what she calls MESIG and then to seek instances of it in the teachers that she chooses to observe and interview.  Unsurprisingly, she finds in her selected subjects exactly what she seeks.  Then Shel concludes that “through history we can learn how to advance humanity toward a caring and humanist civilization,” which she says “should be one of education’s main goals” (p. 133).  I cannot follow this reasoning through its circles and leaps of logic.  While I agree with Shel that “educating students to love and care for all of humankind is the cornerstone of a genuine revolution” (p. 133), I do not see how this book furthers that cause.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 10, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15270, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:27:49 AM

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About the Author
  • Candice Shelby
    University of Colorado, Denver
    CANDICE SHELBY is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy and University of Colorado Denver. She received her Ph.D. in 1991 from Rice University. Prof. Shelby has published numerous articles in the history of philosophy, particularly in the epistemology and metaphysics of Leibniz, as well as in the areas of care ethics, philosophy of education, and contemporary philosophy of mind. Her most recent publications include "The Addicted Mind", and "What's God Got to do With It? Leibniz and Spinoza on Religion and Ethics". Currently she is working on a book on the implications of a materialist conception of mind for addiction treatment.
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