Part 2 of a 4 part series based on, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Antia Bates.
In Part One I pointed out the irony of the logic of the ethic of achievement. Here, I want to focus on the ethic of care itself. What is the ethic of care? What does it look like? How do we enact it?
The authors Of Drop Outs and Pushouts use Nel Noddings’ writing as a source for their frame of caring. They write, that, “According to Noddings (1984, 1992, 202) two essential elements of caring for one another are ‘apprehending the other’s reality’ (1984, 16) and being committed to caring action on the other’s behalf. For the caring relationship to be complete, care must be received; that is, the recipient of car must recognize, and in some way respond to, the care provided.”
What interests me here is that the enactment of caring requires, first and foremost, the “apprehending… the other’s reality.” It’s not easy to use the reality of “the other” as the starting point, rather than our own reality. This is perhaps the most difficult, and fundamentally important step in caring. From this starting point of the apprehension of the other, our behavior, our caring action, follows. It is too easy to abide by the illusion of caring from the starting point of our own needs, and a school environment can certainly add to this. When we try to a help students to “achieve” without first “apprehending” their realities, we are probably inflicting harm on them. When we attempt to “help” a student get a better test score, for instance, though there is nothing in that student’s reality that allows him/her to see the benefit of better test scores, that student is not likely “to recognize” our behavior as caring. And the student would be right. In order to care we need to start with the understanding of how the student views his/her world, and the relevance of our place in it.
At its root, care is grounded in the deepest form of respect. It shifts our perspective from relating from an “I/It” relationship (treating the other as an object for meeting our needs) , as philosopher Martin Buber writes, to an “I/Thou” relationship (treating the other as a mystery, one worthy of our deepest respect, and present as an interrelated aspect of our own self.)
William Isaacs, author of the book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, describes this deep form of respect:
“Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the spring that feeds the pool of their experience… At its core, the act of respect invites us to see others as legitimate. We may not like what they do or say or think, but we cannot deny their legitimacy as beings. In Zulu, a South African language, the word Sawu bona is spoken when people greet one another and when they depart. It means ‘I see you.’ To the Zulus, being seen has more meaning than in Western cultures. It means that the person is in some real way brought more fully into existence by virtue of the fact that they are seen.” (See Paul Thomas’s take on how this “being seen” is too often played out in schools: Many Closets, One Fear: How Not to Be Seen)
The educators featured in this study put it this way:
“The teachers stressed that what is important is not students’ respect for teachers and other staff, but rather the reverse, staff members’ respect for each and every student. Respect for students is given unconditionally and is not based on accomplishments, good behavior, or compliance, but simply as response to ‘their individuality.'”
Note the lack of condition in both quotes. The granting of respect is not granted on the condition that respect is first received. It is not something that is achieved in any way, shape or form. Respect is granted as a fundamental matter of honoring another’s humanity.
We often hear adults speak of the need to “be respected” rather than the desire “to respect.” This is really a sign of insecurity. Please know that I understand that we are all insecure to some degree, and I know that I personally fall into this need far too often myself. I also work to remember that the only behavior I control is my own, and that my current behavior shapes my future identity. I want to be the kind of person who grants respect unconditionally.
With this said, it becomes a bit clearer that the need to be respected comes from an insecure wish to shore up the ego. It is a “me first” approach that starts with our needs, rather than the needs of the other. The educators cited in this study understand this. In terms of respect, all we really control is our ability to respect others- respect may, or may not, come back to us a result, but our identity is not dependent on others’ reaction to us. Instead, our identity is created by our actions towards others. We control who we are as educators, and who we are becoming, through our actions. Our identity is not determined or controlled by others. And by acting from the ethic of care, one that starts by apprehending the reality of the other, we both model for, and invite others into, a space that allows them to experience care, and to thus grow into the humane versions of their selves that such care naturally invites.