Peace Cultures

Nel Noddings: To Reduce War We Must Understand It

Nel Noddings was Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, and past president of the National Academy of Education, the Philosophy of Education Society, and the John Dewey Society. Known for her work on the ethics of care, her many books include Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education and Educating Citizens for Global Citizenship, which she edited and developed in collaboration with the Center and Teachers College Press in 2005. A former public school mathematics teacher and a mother of ten, Dr. Noddings’ work is grounded in richly lived experience. She talked with Ikeda Center publications associate Mitch Bogen in July 2013 about her conviction that effective peace education must include an understanding of the psychology of war.

PART ONE: Confronting the Psychological Costs of War

Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule of speaking and writing to do this interview, Dr. Noddings. I’d like to focus our conversation on your book from 2012, Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War. Why did you frame the content of the book this way and what do you hope to achieve?

Well, what I would like to see happen is that we would give more attention in our schools to the topics I cover in the book, topics that explore from many angles the psychological factors that encourage us to embrace war, as well as those that might lead us to try to avoid it. Right now, we don’t. A lot of our history curriculum is organized by war; you find units on the Revolutionary War to the Mexican War, and from the Civil War to the First World War, that sort of thing. There is a tremendous emphasis on war, but there is almost no emphasis on the psychology of war, including the heavy psychological costs of war on warriors. For example, when we turn kids out of high school, the vast majority of them have never heard of the possibility that they might lose their moral identity in combat. Now, this isn’t a matter of telling them, “This will surely happen to you,” but it’s a matter of honestly telling them that it may happen to them, that it has happened to many, many people before. I think somehow or other, we have to find a way to include these discussions in our school studies. That is very difficult.

I want to return to this question of the loss of moral identity, but first I’d like to discuss what I think is a unique aspect of your book, namely that you urge peace-oriented educators not simply to teach that war is a bad or destructive thing. Instead you suggest that teachers look closely at why we are drawn to war in the first place. Can you talk about this?

It’s pretty clear thinking about war, talking about war, looking back on war—it’s exciting, you know? It’s not boring, it is very exciting, so there is a tendency to love it even when we say we hate it, although there are those who actually do love it as well. To discuss that part of the psychology, why we are attracted to war movies, for example, I think is another important function of the schools, to help kids understand themselves, their neighbors, and their whole society. So much of what I have read shows that when the actual war comes on, civilians are usually more excited about it than the soldiers who are on the front fighting, because they have romanticized it somehow.

War is also associated with what we would call positive virtues. How can an educator address that? 

You can take, let’s say courage, for example, and talk about the various meanings of courage and how it is so often identified with the warrior, but stress that it doesn’t have to be identified only with the warrior. Teachers ought to come up with stories of enormous courage that have nothing to do with war and violence, that have to do with any number of other things. Another big one, of course, and I spend quite a lot of time on it in Peace Education, is the notion of manliness and masculinity. What does it mean to be masculine, to be manly? Throughout most of history, that, too, has been identified with the warrior. One of the most awful insults under that way of thinking that you can direct at a man is to call him a woman! 


And we do not talk about those things nearly enough in our schools.

So you are not denying that courage and masculinity have been legitimately associated with war, but rather, saying that we are too limited if we just think of those qualities in just that way. 

Way too limited; yes, way too limited. A lot of kids go all through school and never hear any trace of the kind of conversation we are having now. 

That means even peace educators aren’t addressing this point quite often enough. Is that how it appears to you?

Well, there are real challenges for peace educators trying to take a hard look at the reality of war. We’ve come under all kinds of criticism here in America. We are sometimes accused of being unpatriotic or not being in love with our country, and so forth. You know that kind of stuff goes on constantly, where we get attacked by those I consider to be extremists on patriotism. What I want to say to them is that I’m talking this way because I do love my country, and I love my country as part of the whole world. I want to do something about bringing up kids who might naively think that it is wonderful to put on a uniform and go out courageously and kill whomever they are told to kill. 

That gets to your earlier point about the destructive cost of war that you are calling loss of moral identity, and which writers such as Jonathan Shay and Tyler Boudreau and others are calling moral injury.

I have been very impressed with Jonathan Shay’s work, and the stories he tells about the Vietnam veterans that he has been working with and trying to help for years. He is helping them I’m sure, but he admits that some of them will never get over their moral injury. What they keep asking, and what kids should hear, is “Why did I do that, why did I do what I did? That is not me.” Those words are so typical of moral injury, of a loss of moral identity, where a guy looks back and he can’t for the life of him identity himself with an awful act that he did, and yet, he knows that he did it. Shay gives several examples of soldiers who fired wildly in fear and anger, killing civilians—even children. Later, deeply wounded emotionally, they can’t reconcile what they did with their moral view of themselves. That is a serious loss of moral identity, and my guess is that some of the things that we call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), which so many of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering with, is probably due to the sort of thing that you and I are talking about now. But this topic is not often enough talked about deeply or at any length or honestly. It is a real injury to our young people to send them into battle, unaware that this loss of moral identity might happen to them.

This might be the most destructive cost of all, even more so than losing a limb. 

Yes, I think so. We prepare them for that, for the possibility that they may lose their life or limb or sight or whatever, and then they gird themselves up with courage for these things, but we don’t prepare them for this thing that may be even more awful. 

Tyler Boudreau makes the point that when you talk about moral injury instead of PTSD, instead of becoming a medical problem, or even a psychological problem, the injury actually becomes a social problem, because at this point, a good person who signed on to do this job is questioning the very ethical basis of what they have been asked to do by society.

And reasonable people can differ on exactly how we should handle this, of course. In peace education, what we would like to do, if possible, is eliminate war, but given that that’s unlikely, the next best thing is to help people understand war at this deeper, possibly more honest level.  

Is it possible to wage war morally or justly? 

It has never been done. Recently I was re-reading Michael Walzer, who has a lot of suggestions about how to wage war justly. But if you look at the early chapters of his book Just and Unjust Wars, he admits that it has never been done, which to me is so striking. He indicates what we should do and how we can do it, but then goes on to admit that it has never been done, though we’ve come close once in a while. I mean, you can look at wars and see that one side is more nearly just than another, and that there may have be a just reason for declaring war, but when the actual activity gets underway, it never seems to play out in a moral and just way. To be clear, I don’t think we should be trying to find a way to wage wars like that. The only good option is to find an alternative to war. 

In Peace Education you observe that that framing our goal as peace educators as the elimination of war might be hurting our cause, because that goal can appear as unrealistic to some as the goal of waging war morally might seem to us. Throughout the book, it appears you are always coming down on the side of amelioration and reduction, more so than total elimination. Is that true? 

Yes, coming as close as possible to the elimination of war—having that as an ideal—but recognizing how enormously difficult that is; so striving at every stage, at every step of the game, to come as close as we can to eliminating the violence associated with war. And this includes even violence of a non-physical sort, which we saw deployed in the Cold War, and more recently, too. So, you might avoid killing people with guns and bombs, but you may very well come close to starving them to death, you know? 

Yes, there is continuum of violence. This relates to the question of pacifism, which you also identify as something that we can’t think of in an absolute sense. Would you explore this topic for us?

There is quite a lot in the book on pacifism, and I do point out that absolute pacifism is not a realistic position if we really examine ourselves. Most of us know, almost all mothers know anyway, that we would fight, we would risk killing another person, if that person were threatening our children—no question about it. Still, just as we can’t eliminate war, but want to move toward the elimination of war, we can’t have absolute pacifism, but nevertheless would like to move in the direction of non-violence indicated by pacifism.

I believe this is called contingent pacifism. Can you talk about that? 

Yes, contingent pacifism, again, is a form of pacifism that is aimed at nonviolence, but recognizes that this is not always possible. So we settle for contingent or more pragmatic pacifism (one based on certain conditions), which means we will come as close as we can come to nonviolence, but accept the fact that there may be situations where there is no alternative but to go to war. Of course, this has happened over and over and over again: when a nation is attacked, actually physically attacked, it feels that it has no alternative but to fight back. But I wonder whether if we embraced contingent, pragmatic pacifism more we might do more to truly search for alternatives. Let’s say after Pearl Harbor was attacked, could we have sent messages to Japan saying “Let’s meet, let’s not let this go any farther.” Does that sound ridiculous? It doesn’t to me now, so many years later, but I don’t think anyone even considered such a possibility at the time.

It often cuts off communication and dialogue when you lay down absolute rules.

Nel Noddings

In the book you suggest that strict adherence to another core principle among peace educators and activists—no peace without justice—might also hinder our progress toward peace. One reason is the same as we’ve been discussing with pacifism; which is that absolute justice is unlikely. The other relates to how it impacts dialogue.

I think what happens there is, it often cuts off communication and dialogue when you lay down absolute rules. A good example would be the kind of thing that is holding up talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Absolute rules are laid down, saying we will talk provided that certain things happen. My suggestion is this: stop after you say, “We will talk,” and then start talking. And don’t give up on the talking. Don’t lay down the rules before you begin the discussion. Happily, there are a few people who agree on that and will proceed to discussions. Too often discussions are cut off even before they begin because of the absolutes that are laid down at the outset.

Another impediment to peace that you discuss is that there are two apparently opposed evolutionary inheritances that work together, ironically, to foster war—namely that males are predisposed toward war and violence, at least on some level, but at the same time are predisposed toward altruism toward their kin or within their group.

First of all, there seems to be overwhelming evidence for both of these. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about evolutionary biology, and there doesn’t seem to be any question but that those two things are true. The question is then, what do you do with it, once you’ve got this knowledge? One thing is, of course, that you educate people about it, help them understand what is operating here. You can ask: Why do boys, especially, get this surge of militaristic fire within and how is it encouraged by systems designed to promote a particular kind of patriotism?

I write in the book that even when I was a kid in high school, I was bothered by these things we called pep rallies—you know, where you sit in the stands and yell and cheer. For some reason, I often just left the scene. I didn’t like that feeling that we’ve got to fight, we’ve got to win, and that these other folks are our enemies. Now, I knew we weren’t going to go out and kill them on the field, but there was still a feeling of revulsion, even then, when I was a kid. And I would like kids today to understand this, to consider how it feels when you are with a crowd under those circumstances. It can be perfectly innocent, but it will be more likely to stay innocent if you understand it and what may result from it. Kids should know that, at its extreme, such group solidarity can be unhealthy. 

Listening to you it occurred to me that hatred for the other team, the next town over, the other side of town, is almost completely arbitrary. There is actually no reason to dislike the other team, so you conjure up this fervor to help beat them. 

That’s right. So understanding that whole psychology of crowds is an important topic for schools. It’s not just that violent impulses can be nurtured in crowds. There is also the reality of what Cass Sunstein has called “group polarization,” which means we are inclined to agree with people or disagree with them on the basis of who they are and what group they belong to, rather than on the strength of the argument. (For more on this, see Cass R. Sunstein, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, 2009.) Oftentimes in political situations, before a person even speaks, we say to ourselves, “Now who is that, what party does he belong to, what does he stand for?” And we agree or disagree before he or she even says anything, because we are not looking at the argument, we are looking at the identification, at the collective identification. People need help understanding this psychology, too.

There is a process of education, or what Jane Roland Martin and others might identify as miseducation, in which citizens and soldiers alike are taught to truly hate the other. I understand that prior to and during World War II, horrible, negative caricatures of the Japanese were rampant, in order that we might be more inclined to war. No doubt the Japanese engaged in their own form of this miseducation. And we see how this transpires now with Muslims in our society. Can you talk about this?  

I do spend quite a bit of time on that topic in Peace Education. Let me just share here a story to illustrate the power of education and miseducation. My husband and I visited a Soka school in Japan just a few years ago, and we were so deeply moved by the school choir singing “America the Beautiful.” They did that out of courtesy to us, and they did a beautiful job with it. And Jim and I looked at each other—and neither of us has ever been easily moved to tears—but we were awfully close on that occasion, because we were kids during World War II, and we remember the horrible things that we were taught to say and think about the Japanese. Now there we were, so many years later, with kids that we would have been taught to hate sixty years ago. It boggles the mind, Mitch, when you think, if only we could have thought that way back then, what might have been prevented.

Thank you for sharing that story, Nel. I’d like to follow up a bit on the topic of evolutionary influences with a question: To what extent are we prisoners of our biology when it comes to issues of violence and gender and so forth?

There are a lot of different opinions on this, as you know, but my own sense of it is that we are less held prisoner by it if we understand it; that the most important thing is to study about it, learn about it, talk about it, identify important cases from the past so that we have some defense against it, and certainly not to send our kids out after twelve years of schooling with no sense whatsoever of any of these considerations, because then they have no defense against it. 

That links up with one of my favorite points from the book, which is a bit of a provocative point. You argue that our efforts for global citizenship and multicultural education, of which you have been a participant and leader, are less important than the cultivation of self-knowledge in the ways our attitudes are manipulated during war, or during the run up to a war.

I think that is probably true, and it doesn’t mean I am opposed to what might be called the ordinary study of societies and cultures, because obviously, that is not so; I am very interested in and would endorse enthusiastically much of the education happening in this area. But when you understand how easily all that can be turned upside down, then you understand what dangerous territory we are in. It is not enough just to be able to describe another culture and appreciate its food, its dress, its music and art. You also have to have this deep understanding that all of that can be pushed aside and we can be convinced to kill the other anyway. So I think we need both, but I would stick by my statement that the more important of the two is this understanding of our own nature and how we can be led into doing things that most of us on a day-to-day basis wouldn’t even consider doing.

PART TWO: Sources of Meaning and the Embrace of Complexity

One of the things that motivates people to accept or even glorify war is the way that it can enhance our sense of meaning, the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves. How can a peace educator address this powerful attraction?

First by noticing it, and then engaging our students in dialogue about it. What else could give us this sense of meaning? But we almost never ask that in school. What will you do with your life that will mean something? Let kids talk a little bit about that. We spend so much time in our schools talking at the kids, having them take notes, having them repeat back what we just told them – things encouraged by the whole testing and standards movement.  We don’t back off from that enough and put those questions out there that used to be central to the liberal arts: Is there a meaning of life? What do I owe to others? What do I owe to my country? All of these questions demand conversation. We must spend time talking about them, exploring, countering each other’s arguments and so forth. And we just simply aren’t doing enough of that.

What has happened instead is that we’ve corrupted the liberal arts. I’ve been doing some reading on this and learned that this problem was identified way back in the early 20th century. I don’t agree with Robert Maynard Hutchins on much, but he noticed that there was already then a corruption in the liberal arts where we were looking at them as merely a set of important writers and a set of important book titles, but we weren’t looking at the deep questions that are asked and potentially answered by those authors and in those books.

So rather than a well-intentioned teacher saying that we would be wrong to find meaning in war, you would recommend they open up the question and invite students to discuss matters of meaning in the broadest sense.

I confess at the outset of the book that people do find meaning in war; including people who feel they are living boring lives, that life is sort of “blah.” They get excited when war comes along, because it gives them a reason to be active. So then the questions should be: What else could give you a reason to be active? What else could excite you, could bring out your best efforts? Spend some time on that. That then gives you a reason to read some of the literature that liberal arts people are so excited about and gives you a reason to read some of the poetry that they are excited about. But you won’t be reading it because you are supposed to know that Robert Frost wrote such-and-such, you will be reading it because there is something deeply meaningful for human life in it.

One thing I found interesting while reading your book, is that you discussed in some depth three figures that we often don’t encounter in the context of peace education. These three are Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and Eric Hoffer. Would you care to tell our readers just a bit about each one and why they are important? 

Yes, well, Virginia Woolf I think is extraordinarily important because she faced up to the difficulty of this whole problem of peace and war, and she begins her best-known essay on it, Three Guineas, by saying, “I don’t know.” That’s the way she started, and she doesn’t so much explore possibilities for getting rid of war so much as she takes a careful look at what’s behind it, what causes it. You and I have already today talked about a good many of those things. She looks at masculinity, she looks at the urge for power and money and superiority, and a whole list of things that we just don’t give enough attention to. You find something of worth in all of her books on this topic, but I recommend Three Guineas in particular.

Bertrand Russell, of course, in addition to his philosophical and mathematical work, put a lot of effort into peace possibilities, trying to convince other people in the world that there are workable ways to go at this. Russell was not an absolute pacifist and believed that we should always ask what good or evil will come out of our decision to fight or abstain from fighting. And, to me this is an interesting feature, because you see some wonderful moral statements from a confessed atheist. I would like kids to understand this, too: that atheism is not synonymous with immorality, that there are highly moral, good, upstanding atheists. I am not suggesting that you would indoctrinate students toward atheism, but it is a matter of helping them to understand the other who happens to be an atheist.

Atheism is one of the most untouchable subjects in our schools. 

Oh, it is very difficult, sure, extremely difficult. There are those who want to be able to preach Christianity in the schools, but we no longer start the day with Bible readings and the Lord’s Prayer. I mean, that practice was there in my lifetime but it is completely gone. Instead, we don’t talk at all about matters of religion, which brings up another important problem—that all of the great religions have been involved in warfare and violence.

Here again, kids need some help from teachers, and this is true at the college level as well. For example, young college students are often attracted to Buddhism, for some very good reasons, as you know, but also sort of blindly in some cases, with no recognition of the fact that Buddhists have been involved in wars and violence, too. I’ve got a whole collection of books on the shelf alongside the Ikeda ones that admit and deplore this darker side of religion, and talk about why. Again, I think that this honest investigation needs to be done. People are looking for a kind of ultimate solution to things, and at this moment, we don’t have ultimate solutions to things, and there probably are no ultimate solutions to large human problems. We’ve got to keep looking, keep talking, keep studying, keep trying, but you are just not going to find a panacea in any of the great religions or anywhere else. 

In the book, you said, “any mode of thought that lays out complete and final answers to great existential questions is liable to dogmatism.” You also said that this is where care ethics comes in. Can you describe this dynamic? 

Well, I think the reason care ethics can come in is because it is a relational ethic based on relation rather than individualism, right from the start. As such, it is cognizant of all the ambiguities and ambivalences that we experience in life, so built into it is this recognition that there are no ultimate answers, no panaceas. But besides care ethics, there are other sources here. One that I find very attractive is an idea of Isaiah Berlin’s for which he was both revered and highly criticized. He tried to point out to people that if we look at our whole set of definable values, we will find that sometimes we have to sacrifice one in order to accomplish another. This makes us very uneasy, because in a sense, we are going against something that we believe, but we are doing it because there is something else we believe that at the moment is more important. This opens up a whole line of discussion, too, and helps us to understand again why when war comes along, we place certain patriotic values above all these values, including “thou shalt not kill” and all the others, and we don’t even bother noticing that we are sacrificing a value that we hold so dear, until we back off and ask: Must we do it, must we do it this way?

When people become fanatical on something, it is usually because they found meaning there.

Nel Noddings

This relates to the third person I mentioned, Eric Hoffer, who talked about fanaticism and psychological phenomena of that type.

Oh yes, The True Believer, isn’t that right? That was his most famous book.

What should our readers know about him? What is important? 

For one thing, he was what might be called a working-class intellectual and I think that is awfully important in itself. School kids often come to believe that only highly educated people can really think and write. Hoffer worked as a longshoreman, a migratory field laborer, and a miner.

What did he argue in The True Believer and other of his books?

He pointed out how easily people can be persuaded to a position that is then held fanatically, and I think it tracks back to what we were saying earlier about the excitement and sense of meaning that often goes with war. When people become fanatical on something, it is usually because they found meaning there, and some of these people will even confess that they felt rootless before they got into the group, whatever it might be, they felt sort of alone, that there was no meaning in life. This group and its set of beliefs gives them something to live for, something to work for, and gives them a sense of belonging. Hoffer was concerned with how a true believer becomes a true believer and how we might educate to prevent this.

In reading your book, the core theme that kept coming back to me was your commitment to complexity; your desire to understand the many dimensions of these questions and psychological states, and to see that a virtue or motivation is rarely simply bad or good. That and your comments a few minutes ago about panaceas reminded me of the concept of solutionism, which has been defined by Siva Vaidhyanathan as “recasting all complex social situations as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions.” It seems to me that we often attempt forms of “solutionism” in schools today, not just in the context of data-driven, high-stakes testing, but also when intentions are humanistic.

I think you are right. This coming Saturday, I am going to be talking to a group of Teach for America people at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the main things we will talk about there is this tendency to find a perfect solution, one that can be used in all situations with all kids, for all purposes. We talk about “scaling up,” for example, which means you find a model for schooling at the local level and then scale it up and it will work anywhere. And of course, it doesn’t, because the whole secret of a model that works is that people work together, talk to one another, try to figure out what is best for their situation at this time in this place. A successful school experience isn’t easily replicated. You can get ideas from it and we should get ideas from each other that way, but these things can rarely be replicated in their original form. That is the big mistake right there.

I had a similar conversation with Deborah Meier years ago.

It is interesting that you mention Deborah Meier, because she is one of the educators who gave me a great enthusiasm for exploring this issue. I have even used her case. She founded this wonderful school in East Harlem, and because of that success school officials brought her into the New York City Central Department of Education. After she had been there a while, she and I met in Louisville at a conference. She looked so tired and she told me that they were asking her to model the whole city on her school. It can’t be done, she said.

In my interview with her, we talked about the standards movement. And what she told me was that standards are one thing, but the last thing we need is standardization. Because American life today is so standardized in every realm, a school could actually be the one place that you could have freedom from standardization.

She’s right. It was a wonderful conversation I had with her, which I have mentioned more than once.

Toward the end of Peace Education you say that we need to realize that these issues that we’re proposing to confront in schools arise in a strong emotional climate. We are dealing with emotions here. Can you talk about this and how teachers might respond? 

The danger expressed by critics is that we’ll wind up indoctrinating students in views that many people disagree with. When I talk about teaching something about religion in the schools—not teaching religion but teaching something about religion—that fear arises. It arises every time we try to teach a controversial topic. And it is not an unfounded fear, either. I recognize that fear, because it could happen. There are people who take advantage of these situations and attempt to indoctrinate, so we have to guard against that.

I just completed an article on the possibility of teaching parenting in our schools, and there are people who worry about that, fearing that we would indoctrinate a specific view on parenting. Of course, I am not advocating that. I am advocating that we talk about what people have said, what they have recommended in the past, why they recommended it, what we might do, what things seem to be of really high potential, such as reading with your kids. I would say that it not only can be done, that it must be done. But we also have to recognize that this wonderful thing we are talking about could go wrong, and that if we don’t recognize that, it probably will go wrong.

Is there a core idea we did not get to during our talk? Is there anything you would like to add as we conclude?

We have covered a lot of territory. 

What is the Nel Noddings message?

Something we haven’t said much about is having fun in our schools, enjoying our students, enjoying each other, sharing things that have given us delight. I remember once, in one of my math classes, reading a science fiction story to the kids and afterward—and this was many years ago—afterward someone asked if it would be on the test and I said no.  Another kid asked, so why did you do it then? This was way back, and I stumbled all over myself trying to explain why. I said, you’ve been working awfully hard in this class and this is a terrific story, and it has math in it, all of which was true. And I finally managed to choke out, “and I really like you guys.” I could hardly say it. Today I would have no trouble at all, but I think some of our young teachers are going through that now; they don’t realize that establishing relationships of care and trust is absolutely essential. When I talk to teachers they always ask how they can do this on top of everything else. And my response is always, “Look, it isn’t on top of everything else, it is underneath everything else.” Maybe that is a good note to end up on. 

I think so. That’s beautiful.

Underneath everything else.