Purpose of Teaching

Care and Education

Nel Noddings, a giant in the field of philosophy of education, recently passed away. Noddings was best known for introducing care ethics into the field of education, and her work revolutionized the ways that scholars and practitioners think about the purposes of education. As much as education is about cultivating academic skills, it is also about forming a whole person.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, the time is right to continually reflect on what it means to care for students. Young people are being blitzed with competing ideas of what it means to practice self-care, and this has led to varied–and often highly conflicted–expectations. For example, some students expect that faculty will continue with flexible attendance policies that were necessary during the pandemic. Others make the case that the best thing one can do to experience well-being is to engage with one’s education.

Colleges are left in a bind. Enforcing pre-Covid attendance policies is seen by some students as demonstrating a lack of care, while other students believe that not enforcing attendance policies shows a lack care.

Of course, this isn’t a simple either-or, and faculty are thinking very creatively about their attendance policies. What I find myself returning to are two principles. First, our policies should mirror our purpose. Second, we need to spend time talking with students, especially when they are frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of care for their well-being.

As a residential liberal arts college, we are called to build a community of engaged learners. We can only build this type of community if students are present. Moving forward, we need to do our best to communicate the goods of being present, and the goods of being a community of learners.

I believe we care best for students when we really see each student. When a student is absent, we can reach out, not in a punitive way, but to remind them that their voice and their presence matter. As well, we can talk openly to students in class about how much we enjoy their presence and how the conversations we have in class would be impossible without their presence.

Small things, to be sure. But the devastation of the pandemic will not go away without doing these types of small things, and without being very explicit about our purpose and our care.