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Education and Democracy in the 21st Century

reviewed by Lauren Bradshaw - May 31, 2013

coverTitle: Education and Democracy in the 21st Century
Author(s): Nel Noddings
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753963, Pages: 192, Year: 2013
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Nel Noddings’ new publication Education and Democracy in the 21st Century provides a 21st century critique of the educational system within the United States.  Her research guides the reader through centuries of educational philosophy and history.  At the same time, Noddings connects educational history to the woes of modern education and she allows the reader to draw their own conclusions concerning the merits of educational reforms both historical and contemporary.  Noddings explores several themes throughout her work, including: the interdependence that is required within a global democracy, the many aims of education which need to be recognized, and the need for educators to be critical and analytical “to our work as educators” (p.  vii).  In addition to the preceding themes, Noddings draws particular attention to the reexamination of vocational education in modern times.

As the book title suggests, Noddings continually investigates the relationship between education and democracy; paying homage to John Dewey’s Democracy and Education throughout the work, she notes the role that education plays in the creation of a democratic society, and how it can give birth to a better world where interdependence and cooperation are at the heart of democracy.  Noddings notes various historical examples that equate equality with sameness, yet she argues that “sameness is the essence of inequality” as it causes stratification by creating accelerated as well as remedial groupings (p. 33).  Cultural literacy, “great books,” and a common curriculum do much more harm than good in the creation of an equal nation (p. 57).  Mortimer Alder’s proclamation that “all children can learn” is questioned by Noddings.  She emphasizes that “although such statements are appealing, they are virtually meaningless until we specify what it is that all children can learn and why they should learn it” (p.  27).  Deciding what it is that all children should learn is a difficult question, one that is not thoroughly answered within the text. Yet Noddings, who is resistant to any common curriculum, recommends that all children should be instructed in “universal standard English” in order to “shake up” our “society’s class system” (p. 110).  Without a common language, Noddings believes that people who cannot speak eloquently will be continually discriminated against.  What is strikingly interesting is that she does not believe that all students should be required to take advanced mathematics courses (a bold statement from a former high school mathematics teacher).  Noddings rationalizes that not all students have an interest in these courses, nor will they need them in their working careers, so why are they required to take them?

Instead of requiring a common curriculum in which all students are forced into a college preparatory track, Noddings advocates student choice and better vocational education programs.  She is quick to note how vocational programs have been utilized in the past to subjugate minority groups and students of low socio-economic status into menial and obsequious programs.  Noddings thus demands that vocational programs “should be rich and relevant” so that when we “we reject the old forms of discrimination” we do not “introduce students to the new, universal inequality” of a common curriculum. (p. 39).  Democracy is threatened by standardization, and yet standardization is much less expensive than quality vocational education.  In order to create an excellent vocational education program, schools need to do a better job in helping students decide what they would like to do for their careers.  Deciding on a career is a complex and difficult decision for many college students. Noddings’ solution is to restructure the purpose of middle schools.  She envisions middle school as a period of experimentation for students, where grades are not awarded and teachers continually make connections to careers where these skills might be employed.  Noddings acknowledges the fact that this radical yet first-class vocational education will be difficult to sell.  She notes that revolutionizing middle school and providing students with the resources that are needed to properly “try” a skill that is useful for various careers would require several fieldtrips, community involvement, professional development of educators, and an enormous amount of money (p. 114).    

Education, constantly riddled with financial woes, finds vocational education reform too costly, so how might schools address students’ vocational needs?  Noddings believes that homemaking and parenting are essential elements to life, so why not make them a part of a child’s educational experience?  Noddings outlines a method for caring teachers to expand their content parameters to include educating children for a better world.  She notes how difficult it would be to reconstruct the educational system in the United States to value vocational education courses, so instead she suggests that teachers teach beyond the narrow traditional curriculum of their content area and include real life scenarios that could improve the lives of their students beyond the classroom.  She suggests that literature classes might include a children’s literature section as a way of teaching parenting, history courses can include a history of women, and specifically the work that they have done in the home in order to convey the importance of homemaking.  Noddings believes that teacher education programs should prepare teachers “to acquire the breadth of knowledge that will enable them to stretch their disciplines from within” (p.  73).  Although the inclusion of children’s literature and women’s history within the standard curriculum may not have any true impact on the future parenting skills of students, Noddings’ sincere and eloquent portrayal of the benefits of “stretching disciplines from within” will encourage others to further investigate this teaching practice (p. 73).

While Noddings explores several themes through summarizing the research literature, the core idea that unites the disparate chapters together is cooperation; Noddings continually states the need for 21st century cooperation to replace the more imperialistic option of competition.  Cooperation will allow for reforms to tiptoe into the current education structure without any radical overhaul of all modern educational practices.  Noddings acknowledges that secondary teachers continually shut themselves away in silos, only teaching their subject contents. By employing the method of cooperation, she urges teachers to expand the parameters of their subject area, and acknowledge the fact that much of the content that they are so intent upon teaching will be forgotten, while the method of interdependence and cooperation has the potential to invariably stay with them.  This underlying theme of cooperation allows the reader to understand that although some of Noddings’ reforms for education might appear drastic, she provides a path for teachers to incorporate elements of her research within their own teaching.  She refuses to state that her way is the only right way, and repeatedly acknowledges the damage caused by universal panaceas in the field of education.  I recommend this carefully researched work to parents, teachers, teacher-educators, and educational policy makers.  If we are to accept the fact that education has many goals and aims, then we can accept that cooperation is indeed an important link between education and democracy.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 31, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17137, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 7:47:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Bradshaw
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    Lauren Yarnell Bradshaw is a doctoral student at Georgia State University and middle grades social studies teacher. Her research interests include educational history, vocational education, and citizenship education. Her recent publication history includes “The Struggle for Vocational Education in the ‘Lowell of the South;’ Columbus, Georgia 1850-1930” in American Educational History Journal.
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