She Brought Caring to Education Research

Nellie Laura Rieth Noddings, PhD ’73

March 2023

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In the May 28, 2001, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, there’s a photo of educational scholar Nel Noddings reuniting with her first-ever students. She’d taught them 50 years prior, when she was 20 years old, and stayed in touch with many, still recalling, for instance, which one had played Scrooge in the school play. “The reporter observing all of this couldn’t get over the fact that I remembered all of their names,” Noddings said in a 2016 interview for the Stanford Historical Society’s oral history program. Her strong bonds with those students helped shape her career and informed her later research on caring relationships—research that is still taught in teacher education programs today.

Nel Noddings standing with crossed arms in front of shelves of booksPhoto: Rod Searcey

Nellie Laura Rieth Noddings, PhD ’73, feminist philosopher, professor emerita at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), and the first woman to serve as the acting dean of a professional school at Stanford, died August 25. She was 93.

As a child, Noddings loved school, and by second grade she’d decided to become a teacher. Her students looked to her for chess lessons and weekend walks. Her house brimmed with children—10 of her own, five of whom were adopted—which only reinforced her aversion to educational trends such as standardized testing.

“We’re just so concentrated on cramming stuff into kids’ heads,” she said during her Stanford Historical Society interview. “We need to stop that and spend time with the people we’re teaching. Talk with them. Listen to them.”

With a master’s in math from Rutgers and a PhD in education from Stanford, she taught at Penn State University and the University of Chicago before becoming director of the Stanford Teacher Education Program and eventually acting dean of the GSE. Her research probed the importance of the student-teacher relationship, which led to her best-known work, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. In the book, she posited that caring and the memory of being cared for formed the foundation of moral action. Rather than focusing exclusively on academics, she later argued, schools had a moral imperative to encourage the development of caring, loving people.

The book “was of national and international importance,” says Denis Phillips, a close friend and fellow GSE faculty member who provided feedback on early drafts. Noddings published more than 20 other books, received six honorary doctorates, and became known as one of the world’s most influential scholars in the field of educational philosophy.

Her love of learning endured—she read Kierkegaard and Kant while preparing dinner and liked the idea of becoming an entomologist. And she practiced the care that she preached. “For [our parents’] 60th wedding anniversary, the press was interviewing us,” remembers her daughter Laurie Brooks. “We said, ‘All 14 of her 10 children are here,’” referring to those whom Noddings had cared for as if they were family.

Noddings was predeceased by her husband of 63 years, Jim, and her son Howard. In addition to Brooks, she is survived by her children Nancy Lake, Sharon Miller, Chris Wallace, James, William, Tim, Betty, and Victoria, ’82, MA ’83; more than 30 grandchildren; and dozens of great-grandchildren.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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