Simone Weil – some brief notes

The most recent book to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles. The session was introduced by Dr Susan Notess of Durham University, who introduced us to the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic and political activist, in 15 short minutes.

As she said, Simone Weil was an ‘interesting’ character, who had a different way of approaching the world. Elsewhere I have seen Weil described as eccentric, which, from what I have read, is putting it mildly, although Albert Camus described her as ‘The only great spirit of our time’. From a very early age it was clear that Simone Weil was gifted, although she lived in the shadow of her gifted, older brother, André, who was considered a mathematical genius. Weil could speak several languages and was reading Plato in Ancient Greek at the age of 12. Later she also taught herself Sanskrit, so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Her teacher, Émile Chartier, more commonly known as Alain, nicknamed her ‘The Martian’ to draw attention to her intellect and ‘very large brain’. Weil was an intellectual being, but also a woman struggling to compete in a man’s world. She managed this by adopting an asexual identity, wearing masculine-style clothes, and shunning intimate relationships and all forms of physical intimacy (although physical intimacy had appalled her from a very early age, and even as a child, she didn’t like to be touched or kissed for fear of germs). Another nickname for her was The Red Virgin, red referring to her left-wing political activism.

From a very young age, Weil empathised acutely with the suffering of others, to the detriment of her own health and well-being. At the age of six, she stopped eating sugar, because soldiers at the front in the first world war couldn’t have sugar. Later in life she tried to stay true to her belief in empathising with the suffering of others, and practise what she preached, by living very simply with minimum comforts and eating very little. She wanted to match the living conditions of people around her. She died young at the age of 34 in 1943 from tuberculosis, aggravated by malnutrition. Some believe that she may have been anorexic, but there is no evidence for this.

Weil came from an affluent non-practising Jewish family. Her father was a doctor, so she came from a privileged background and went to a fine school. She did brilliantly at University, being one of the first 5 women ever to attend the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, outshining Simone de Beauvoir by finishing first in the exam for the certificate of ‘General Philosophy and Logic’. de Beauvoir finished second.

On leaving University Weil became a teacher of philosophy and political activist, and ultimately became influential in religious and spiritual matters, but given that this book was chosen for discussion by a philosophy of education reading network, it is on education that I would like to focus. This film (1 hour 24 mins) gives a more complete introduction to Simone Weil than I have done here.

I must admit to only having dipped into the anthology being discussed in this session. I found several introductions to Weil’s life and work online, which were interesting – she definitely is an interesting character, but her political and social activism, mysticism and leaning towards religious and spiritual matters did not draw me in. Perhaps it was, for me, the wrong time to be trying to read this book. I do find a book a month, by these difficult authors, quite a challenge, and I was still thinking about Nel Noddings (see previous posts) when I came to Weil’s book. Despite only having dipped into Weil’s work, I can see the connections between her and Noddings, and to some extent between her and Hannah Arendt. Iris Murdoch was also influenced by Weil.

From the little I know of Weil’s approach to education and pedagogy, she was unorthodox. She tried to teach people wherever she went, sharing her philosophical and political ideas with workers in factories and publishing in workers’ journals. But she soon realised that labouring workers (in the car factories that she herself worked in to try and align herself with workers’ suffering) were too oppressed by their impoverished lives to have the energy or will to discuss philosophy. As a teacher she wanted to humanise education. In teaching sixth form philosophy, she realised that her students had no knowledge of the connections between philosophy and science, so she created a special curriculum. In doing this, she didn’t follow the curriculum or the rules of the school in which she worked, to the extent that her students didn’t pass the exams, and ultimately, she lost her job as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the students benefited from her teaching, claiming that she gave them ‘something else’. It’s interesting to think about this in the relation to the purpose of education.

For Weil the central purpose of education is to cultivate and develop the capacity for attention. She doesn’t mean by this that we should furrow our brows and strain to attend. Attention does not depend on the will. She writes (1986, p.233) ‘Attention is bound up with desire. Not with will, but with desire – or more exactly, consent’. For Weil attention is being receptive, open, patient and selfless. ‘I’ has to disappear. ‘Attention alone – that attention, which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.’ The mind is ‘detached, empty and ready’ to receive truth from the world (Weill, 2009, p.111).

She goes on to write (1986, p.234) ‘The authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness – in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.’ This is where we see the influence of Weil on Noddings, who wrote about the need for the one-caring to be engrossed in and fully committed to the cared-for, in the act of caring for the other. For Weil and Noddings alike, teachers must be attentive to their students and students must be attentive to their studies.

But for Weil, the ultimate aim of education is the orientation of all attention to the love of God, although she acknowledges in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’ (Weil, 2009) that this is the highest form of attention, whereas schools only develop a lower form of attention. ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ (1986, p.232). She expands on this in her essay on the right use of school studies as follows:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use. (2009, p.108)

Weil stresses the importance of failure in learning (learning from failure) and humility, but also joy. ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running’. (2009, p.110). Whilst Weil believed that cultivating attention would help students to reach God through prayer, she also thought that a capacity for attention would help students generally in their academic studies and particularly in their ability to attend to others.

A full discussion of Weil’s work, as it relates to education, is beyond the scope of this post. In addition, I think it is probably not possible to fully appreciate and understand Weil’s ideas on education, without having some knowledge and understanding of her wider work relating to politics, mysticism and religion. At this point, from my own limited reading and understanding of her work, I think her ideas are possibly too radical and too imbued with religious overtones, to be widely adopted in education. Having said that, most teachers would probably agree on the importance of cultivating attention, but they may have a different understanding of attention to Weil, i.e., thinking of attention as being muscle straining hard work, rather than the open receptivity advocated by Weil.

Finally, Susan Notess, who introduced this Philosophy of Education Reading Network session, posed some really thought-provoking questions for us to consider. I will finish this post by sharing them here. Three great questions to get you (and me) thinking.

Question 1:

What do you make of Weil’s zealous belief that ideology was not enough; that she had to live the experience of the causes she cared about? Does genuine activism require that we commit to abstract objectivity and remove, or to participation ‘in the trenches’, or both? Consider this: suppose you are a passionate proponent of revolution in some sphere, desiring to see an oppressed class revolt and find freedom, although you yourself tend towards pacifism and would prefer a nonviolent revolution. A genie who reads Simone Weil appears, and tells you they will ensure the revolution and its success, on the condition that you agree to participate and carry arms. How would you respond to the genie? Is it a mistake to think that our theoretical commitments require us to be committed to involvement also? Was Weil going too far by joining the Spanish Civil War, or was she setting a daunting precedent that we ought to follow?

Question 2:

To what extent can, or should, Weil’s notion of attention function to disrupt our philosophical praxis? In pedagogy broadly construed, what role can this ungrabbing, unboxed attention play? In philosophical pedagogy, how do we strike a balance between the need to equip students for technical knowledge/skill, and the need to teach people to find the open attunement of apophatic attention?

Question 3:

Take for granted Weil’s notion of roots and the human need for rootedness. How do the possibilities for rootedness change or modulate in the context of the following: immigration in a globalised age (uprooting and replanting); the internet, as a field in which communities of belonging can be established, an alternative or queered space of rootedness, a source of affordances for the displaced, the dispossessed, the divergent, and the estranged; cross-cultural living, and those who live with a dual identity, rooted in two places.

Evidently Simone Weil was ‘intensely displeased’ by the attention paid to her life rather than her works, so I expect she wouldn’t have liked this post very much!


Weil, S. Attention and Will in Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles, 2005, Penguin Books. First published by Virago Press in 1986.  

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 2009, Harper Collins

Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)

The title of Nel Noddings’ book (published in 1984) is in fact: Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The book has eight chapters. Broadly speaking chapters 1-3 and 7 focus on caring, chapters 4-6 focus on the ethics of caring and the ethical ideal, and chapter 8 focusses on moral education, although all the chapters make reference to all these topics.

This is the second time I have read Noddings’ book, and this time I made extensive notes, which I am sharing in two blog posts. In this post, I will share my notes on the final chapter on moral education. For my notes on chapters 1-7, see my previous post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Notes). If you are not familiar with Noddings’ work and ideas, it may be necessary to read the first post in order to fully understand this post – and, of course, reading notes is no substitute for reading the original text.

What is Moral Education?

Noddings tells us that moral education is an education which strives to meet all morally, and enhances the ethical ideal of those being educated. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. She believes that the primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring; parents, the police, social workers, teachers, preachers, neighbours, coaches and older siblings must all accept responsibility. To receive and to be received, to care and be cared-for are the basic realities of human being and its basic aims. When we behave ethically as one-caring, we are not obeying moral principles, although they may guide our thinking, but we are meeting the other in genuine encounters of caring and being cared for. Moral education does not dismiss thinking and reasoning. Training for intelligence and morality should not be separated, but moral education recognises the affective ‘I must’, and intellectual tasks and aesthetic appreciation should be deliberately set aside, temporarily, if their pursuit endangers the ethical ideal. The student is always more valuable, and infinitely more important, than the subject matter.

The One-Caring as Teacher

Noddings believes that teaching is not a role, but a specialised caring relation. ‘As teacher I am first one-caring’. The cared-for is encountered as ‘Thou’ rather than ‘It’ and the teacher seeks the involvement of the cared-for. Whilst the teacher considers the student as more important than the subject matter, the teacher is not necessarily permissive. First and foremost she must nurture the student’s ethical ideal. She leads and influences the student, but ultimately he learns what he pleases. As one-caring, the teacher meets the student directly, but not equally. The special gift of the teacher is to receive the student and to look at the subject matter with him. Her commitment is to him, the cared-for, and he is, through that commitment, set free to pursue his legitimate projects. She lives the one-caring ethic by establishing a relation with the student. Through dialogue, modelling, the provision of practise, and the attribution of best motive, the one-caring as teacher nurtures the ethical ideal. The teacher must be totally and non-selectively present to the student as he addresses her. The time interval may be brief, but the encounter is total.

The student’s contribution to caring is to reward his teacher with responsiveness, questions, effort, comment and cooperation. Whilst the cared-for (student) is free to accept or reject caring, the cared-for is essential to the relation. Responsiveness by the student completes the caring.

Nurturing the Ethical Ideal through dialogue, practise and confirmation

Noddings suggests that the three great means of nurturing the ethical ideal are dialogue, practise and confirmation.

For dialogue to occur, anything can be discussed, e.g. religion, values, beliefs, opinions and feelings. Talking, listening, sharing and responding are vital in every aspect of education. The purpose of dialogue is to come into contact with ideas and to understand, to meet the other and to care.

Students need practise in caring. They can do this through real voluntary work, such as in hospitals and gardens, or with the elderly or animals, not to learn skills as a vocational end, but to see how the skills developed contribute to competence in caring. This reminds me that when I was in the final years of my secondary schooling in the early 60s, it was a requirement to do this kind of voluntary work. Noddings believes that these tasks, in which students are involved in caring apprenticeships, should have equal status to other tasks in education. We should establish opportunities for students to care.

When we attribute the best possible motive consonant with reality to the cared-for, we confirm him, i.e. we reveal to him an attainable image of himself that is lovelier than that manifested in his present acts, but evaluation is difficult for teachers and students. Grading is an intrusion upon the relationship between the one-caring and the cared-for. In grading, teachers are asked to look at the student as object, a thing to which some measuring stick can be applied. Grading violates the relationship between student and teacher. To relieve this conflict, Noddings believes it is important to focus on what is to be attained/learned and not on when it is attained. Grading and evaluation, where teachers regard students as objects, should not be done by teachers. The caring teacher does evaluate, but does not need to sum it up for the world, or to inform others about the student’s progress. The caring teacher cannot confirm a child unless she talks with him and engages in cooperative practise with him. She must see and receive the student, see what he has actually done and receive the feelings with which it was done. The response of the student remains at the heart of the confirmation for the teacher.

Organising Schools for Caring

Noddings has some definite ideas for how schools should be organised, which she focusses on in the final pages of her book. She believes that schools can be designed to support caring, and that the traditional curriculum is masculine and needs to be feminine. These are some of the suggestions that she makes.

In order to nurture caring, schools should be smaller so that they can establish chains and circles of caring (see previous post for reference to chains and circles of caring). My own experience is that establishing a caring relation between teacher and student is easier in smaller schools.

To develop meaningful dialogue between teachers and students, there should be extended contact between them, which could be supported by students staying with the same teacher for a few years. Again, my experience is that this is often the case in smaller schools, with fewer teachers and classrooms.

Classrooms should be cooperative, and students should learn from each other. Noddings is wary of sharp age separations. Again, smaller schools will often have classrooms of mixed ages. Where I live (Cumbria, UK), there are still very small primary schools where all the children from age 4 to 11, or 4 to 7 and 7 to 11, may be taught in the same classroom.

Students should be continually involved in service activities.

The scope of subject matter should be broad. This does not mean that there should be a lot of subjects, but rather that subjects should be laid out along the entire range of human experience, and consider cultural, personal and psychological dimensions of the subject. We should dismantle structures that separate us into narrow specialisations.

Direct teaching for instruction in well-defined skills and the learning of such skills are only part of the process. They serve to set learners free to explore, such that they have opportunities to meet the subject without pre-stated objectives.

Teachers must be one-caring and knowledgeable in their subject if they are to practise inclusion. They must know their subject in depth if they are to follow students for three to four years. Apprentice teachers could work with master teachers, and parents and other adults should be frequent visitors to classrooms.

There should be no penalties for infraction of rules. Punitive moves work against subjective development, and obedience to law is simply not a reliable guide to moral behaviour. There should be invitation to dialogue.

There should be no hierarchy in schools. Instead there should be circles and chains of relations, with the opportunity to move from circles to chains. For example, career teachers could have a fourth year in a different role, enabling them to move from circles to chains, so giving them a break from the intensity and demands of the one-caring relation.

Most of these suggestions, of course, make for an expensive education system, which is perhaps why Noddings’ ideas have never been taken up successfully on a wide scale.

Noddings ends her book with these words.

‘One must meet the other in caring. From this requirement there is no escape for one who would be moral’.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.

Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Notes)

I first read this book by Nel Noddings 25 years ago, in a Gender Studies module for my Masters in Education. Her book has been sitting on my bookshelf all this time, rarely looked at, or even thought much about since then, although I have noted how her name is often mentioned in relation to the ‘Caring is Sharing’ meme, which is very popular in open education circles! I’m not sure what Noddings herself would have thought of this.

Recently I have read her book again in preparation for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s May meeting.

Although I was 50 when I first read Nodding’s book and had three children in their upper teens at that time, I don’t think I fully recognised the significance of her work. Noddings herself was 55 when she wrote this book. She is now 92. I didn’t know at the time of my first reading that she has 10 children. If you know this, then it’s much clearer how much personal experience she brings to her work on caring. I don’t know how old her 10 children were when she wrote this book. I am just amazed that she managed to bring up 10 children and pursue an academic career, whilst maintaining a focus on caring! She is clearly a rather unique and special woman.

It would be a mistake to think this a book solely for educators of young people, or solely for women, and although I can understand why it was a required text for my MA Gender Studies module all those years ago, I now think it an important text for all educators and carers, as well as for parents, based as it is in an understanding of relation and how to pay meaningful attention to the other.

In this post I will share the notes I made on Chapters 1-7. For notes on Chapter 8 see my next post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)


In the introduction to her book Nel Noddings tells us that the primary aim of all education must be nurturance of the ethical ideal. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. This resonates even more now than the first time I read her book. Twenty-five years ago I was working as an educator and caring for the children I was teaching, as well as my own three teenage children, so I was reading her book with that focus in mind. This time I am reading it as carer for my disabled husband, and so these notes do not focus as much on caring in teaching (which Noddings discusses throughout the book) as on what is means to care more generally.

According to Nel Noddings, if a relation is to be described as caring, my caring must somehow be completed in the other. This is a very important point which she repeats many times. Noddings believes that the ethical ideal (to be one-caring and to meet the other morally) is difficult to achieve, because ethics is discussed in the language of the father, the masculine voice, which fails to capture the receptive rationality of caring. The mother’s feminine voice has been silent, feminine being understood in the deep classical sense as rooted in receptivity, relatedness and responsiveness. (Masculine and feminine here is not being equated to men and women. Both men and women can be one-caring).

 Chapter 1: ‘Why Care about Caring?’ and ‘What Does it Mean to Care?’

Noddings says that the essential elements of caring are located in the relation between the one-caring and the cared-for. Apprehending the other’s reality, feeling what he feels as nearly as possible, is the essential part of caring from the view of the one-caring.

Caring is always characterised by a move away from self. It involves stepping out of one’s personal frame of reference into the other’s. The time-span may vary, and the intensity may vary, but caring always involves engrossment in the other and a desire for their well-being. In these terms, we can be one-caring for an instant. Warmth, body language, interest and concern are all recognised in the one-caring. To care is to act not by fixed rule, but by affection and regard. The actions of the one-caring are not rule-bound, but varied, and not always what the cared-for wants.

Universal caring is impossible. Conflict and guilt are inescapable risks of caring. There exists in all caring situations the risk that the one-caring will be overwhelmed by the responsibilities and duties of the task and that, as a result of being burdened, he or she will cease to care for the other and become instead the object of ‘caring’.

Something from the one-caring must be received and completed in the cared-for. When the attitude of the one-caring bespeaks caring, the cared-for glows, grows stronger and feels not so much that he has been given something as that something intangible has been added to him.

The danger is that caring, which is essentially non-rational in that it requires a constitutive engrossment and displacement of motivation, may gradually and abruptly be transformed into abstract problem-solving. If rational-objective thinking is to be put in the service of caring, we must, at the right moments, turn it away from the abstract towards what it tends and back to the concrete. At times we must suspend it in favour of subjective thinking and reflection, allowing time and space for seeing and feeling. Caring for is different to caring about (for example, about things and ideas).

Noddings believes that there is a form of caring that is natural and accessible to all human beings, and that human love and human caring are quite enough on which to found an ethic.

Chapter 2: The One-Caring

The one-caring receives the other into herself, sees and feels with the other, becomes a duality. This is not empathy, this is not putting myself in the other’s shoes; this is engrossment. Feeling is essentially involved in caring, but there is also motivation, a motivational shift towards the other. Vulnerability is increased when I care. I can be hurt through the other as well as through myself. All this is particularly easy to recognise in parenting, but the receptive or relational mode seems to be essential to living fully as a person. We move back and forth between this mode (feeling and engrossment) to abstract, analytic-objective problem solving mode.

In caring, we must make plans, respond and express ourselves, but we cannot remain perpetually in receptive mode. We need to move away from the cared-for to think about the problem, but we have to be careful to turn back and avoid caring only for the problem rather than the person. Guilt is a constant threat in caring, from accidents or a lapse of caring, but we must have courage to accept what cannot be changed and to go on caring.

How many people can we care for? Noddings responds to this question by writing about the concentric circles and chains that reflect and sustain caring. In our inner circle are those who we love and so care for. As we move out from the centre we care for those we hold in personal regard, and beyond this to strangers for whom there is the potential to care. Chains of caring are established to those who I may come in contact with through those in my inner circles. There is asymmetry and reciprocity in caring. The cared-for depends on the one-caring and the one-caring is dependent on the cared-for. Both are free and bound.

A natural imperative that arises as I receive the other is ‘I must’. I am closest to goodness when I accept and affirm the internal ‘I must’. The ethical self is an active relation between my actual self and a vision of my ideal self as one-caring and cared-for. As I care for others and am cared for by them, I become able to care for myself.

How can I meet the endless demands of caring? There are no rules or right or wrong. Rules and penalties should be kept to a minimum. There will always be conflicts between the perceived need of one and desire of the other and between what the cared-for wants and his best interest, but rules cannot guide us.

Chapter 3: The Cared-For

In this chapter, Noddings considers the one-caring’s attitudes and its effects, apprehension of caring necessary to the caring relationship; unequal meetings, reciprocity and the ethics of being cared-for.

Noddings writes that the one-caring’s attitude of receptivity maintains and enhances the relatedness that is fundamental to human reality. The basic relationship in caring is not reasoned or rational. The one-caring sees the best self in the cared-for and works with him to actualise that self.

Warm acceptance and trust are important in all caring relationships, but the meeting between one-caring and cared-for is unequal. One-caring involves inclusion (engrossment) and confirmation. It is an attitude that both accepts and confirms. The one-caring must see the cared-for as he is and as he might be, as he envisions his best self – in order to confirm him. The cared-for ‘grows’ and ‘glows’ under the perceived attitude of the one-caring. Caring is completed in reception. It involves two parties: the one-caring and the cared-for. It is complete when it is fulfilled in both. For the cared-for, reciprocity is to freely reveal himself. To behave ethically the cared-for must be free to pursue his own projects. A caring relationship requires the engrossment and motivational displacement of the one-caring, and it requires the recognition and spontaneous response of the cared-for. When caring is not felt in the cared-for, but its absence is felt, the cared-for may still, by an act of ethical heroism, respond and thus contribute to the caring relationship. Thus we can hope that we can learn to care and learn to be cared for.

Chapter 4: An Ethic of Caring

Noddings distinguishes between natural caring and ethical caring. Wanting to care is natural caring. In natural caring no ethical effort is required. ‘I must care but I don’t want to’ is ethical caring. Ethical caring is done out of duty, not love, but it is dependent on natural caring. When we act on ‘I must’ we are under the guidance of the ethical. If we do not care naturally, we must call on our capacity for ethical caring, commitment and obligation. The source of my obligation is the value I place on the relatedness of caring. I am obligated to maintain an attitude to meet the other as one-caring, and at the same time, to increase my own virtue as one-caring. An ethic of caring implies a limit on our obligation. We cannot care for everyone, but the caring attitude that lies at the heart of all ethical behaviour is universal.

Ethical caring depends not on rule or principle, but on the development of an ideal self. Ethical caring is about how to meet the other morally. It is not the study of justified action. As one-caring I am not seeking justification for my action. What I seek is completion in the other. Far from being romantic, an ethic of caring is practical. Caring is both self-serving and other serving. An ethic of caring is a tough ethic. It does not separate self and other in caring. It advocates deep and steady caring for self. If caring is to be maintained, the one-caring must be maintained. She must be strong, courageous and capable of joy.

Chapter 5: Construction of the Ideal

The ethical ideal springs from the natural sympathy that human beings feel for each other and our longing to maintain, recapture or enhance our most caring moments. A commitment to receptivity leads to natural caring occurring more frequently. For some, ethical caring springs from God, reason or self-interest. An ethic of caring strives to maintain a caring attitude, although the one-caring must be maintained and may have to withdraw for repairs. An ethic of caring is not dour, dutiful, cowardly or contemptuous. It finds joy, as well as obligation in its relation to the other.

There may be some constraints on attaining an ethic of care. Self-deception has the potential to destroy the ethical ideal. The ideal can also be constrained by jealousy, greed and small-mindedness. The one-caring never places principle above person. We must accept the constrained ideal, but attainment must be actually possible.

Feeling, thinking and behaving as one-caring mark ethical behaviour, but when caring must retreat to an inner circle, confine itself, and consciously exclude particular persons or groups, the ideal is qualitatively reduced. Ridicule, scorn and sarcasm etc. all undermine the ethical ideal. We (and institutions, such as the military, organizations and the church) may unwittingly contribute to the diminution of another’s ethical ideal. The words and acts of those caring must confirm that they do care. Listening, a supremely important form of receiving, is essential. Dialogue is also of central importance in nurturing the ethical ideal, and practise is required to develop competence in caring skills.

The ideal can be maintained thought activity in the non-human world and appreciation, affirmation and celebration of daily routines and repetition. The one-caring is not bored with ordinary life. Celebration of ordinary life leads to wonder and appreciation of the source of our ethicality. It requires and is likely to enhance receptivity. It provides practise in caretaking skills and induces deep, serene and receptive joy. Nevertheless, the one-caring who is not bored with ordinary life (usually women) need the public recognition that is granted by participation in the larger world of work in order to sustain themselves as persons and as ones-caring. Without this they may turn in on themselves, and whilst may continue caretaking, actual caring may all but disappear.

Noddings believes that women care more easily than men; there are strong biological factors which help women to become one-caring (e.g. motherhood). Men need to learn to care, and women need to learn to maintain themselves as one-caring.

Chapter 6: Enhancing the Ideal: Joy

In this chapter, Noddings discusses how joy often accompanies a realization of our relatedness and is a major reward for the one-caring, so encouraging growth in the ethical ideal. She suggests that joy might be considered an ‘affect’ or ‘feeling’ rather than an emotion, a reflective mode of consciousness, rather than the non-reflective mode associated with emotion, and triggered by something beyond the immediate object. She terms this receptive joy, joy that arises out of awareness of a caring relationship and comes to us unbidden when we are caught up in relation and are listening. Receptive joy sustains one-caring, and is very difficult to express in language. Joy thus seems out of place when considered with other emotions, although Noddings recognises that joy is sometimes an emotion. We do not offer joy as a reason for particular acts, although we may, of course, renew our commitment to caring as we are sustained by joy. Noddings writes that ‘the occurrence of joy reveals the part of our fundamental reality that may be identified with the feminine as it is experienced by both men and women’.

Chapter 7: Caring for Animals, Plants, Things and Ideas

In reading and making notes on this book, I became increasingly aware of how often Noddings repeats herself. This is useful as her key points become clearer with further reading. In this penultimate chapter (p.150) she reiterates what she has written before as follows:

‘The caring relation requires engrossment and motivational displacement on the part of the one-caring and a form of responsiveness or reciprocity on the part of the cared-for. It is important to re-emphasize that this reciprocity is not contractual, i.e. it is not characterized by mutuality. The cared-for contributes to the caring relation by receiving the efforts of the one-caring, and this receiving may be accomplished by a disclosure of his own subjective experience in direct response to the one-caring or by a happy and vigorous pursuit of his own projects.’

She then goes on to discuss the extent to which this is possible in relation to animals, plants, things and ideas.

Our obligation to summon the caring attitude is limited by the possibility of reciprocity. We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other, but the desire to prevent or relieve pain is a natural element of caring, and we betray our ethical selves when we ignore it. Noddings writes that whilst animals can be cared-for, they cannot be one-caring in relation to humans. Thinking of dogs, in particular, I wonder if this is true.

Noddings has written that caring, natural or ethical, must be completed in the other and that an ethic of caring limits our obligation to those so far removed from us that completion is impossible, which presumably would apply to animals, plants, things and ideas. Our relation to plants is one-sided. I feel ‘I must’ in connection with my plants. Plants serve me, but they cannot care for me. They are responsive cared-fors.

Our relation to ideas is not ethical. There is no affective reciprocity with things and ideas, but there can be receptivity. In the intellectual domain, this receptivity is sometimes labelled as intuition. In this chapter Noddings spends some time exploring intuition as a receptive faculty, and notes the common features of engrossment and displacement of motivation. She concludes in the summary to the chapter that intellectual caring is not ethical in itself, but may contribute to ethicality by giving rise to receptive joy, which may help to sustain us in our quest for ethicality.

The final chapter in this book focusses on moral education. Since this post is already long, I will share my notes on the final chapter in a separate post.

In this post, I hope that these notes help the reader to understand what Noddings means by an ethic of caring, what it means to be one-caring, and what we can expect from the ‘cared-for’, be they humans, animals, plants, things or ideas. I think these first seven chapters of the book can be read independently of an interest in education.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.

Art History 1700-1800

Module 5 of the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art. A Modular Introduction to Art History, covered 18th century art. This six week online course was presented by Dr Richard Stemp, who wrote in his introductory handout:

The 18th century was an important period of change across Europe. The death of Louis XIV in France led to a relaxation in court life, which led to a far lighter touch in French art, and the development of Rococo.

(I have included lots of images in this post. Clicking on them enlarges them.)

Week 1: A lighter touch

Baroque art of the 17th century had suited the bold dramatic style of Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. With his death, and the ensuing regency, the court returned to Paris and became more relaxed. Two artists whose work flourished in this new lighter atmosphere were JeanAntoine Watteau and William Hogarth.

Watteau was born at Valenciennes in the north of France and arrived in Paris in 1702 where he began to paint. He died in 1731 at the age of 36 from consumption. This lovely portrait of him, was painted by Rosalba Carriera (who was enormously popular in the 18th century and did wonderful work in pastels).

Watteau himself is considered one of the greatest of Rococo artists. His paintings were observations of society, normal people doing normal things. In the tradition of Rubens, he used red, white and black chalk for drawings, before he started to paint, creating hundreds of drawings which he used over and over again in his paintings.

E.H. Gombrich writes of Watteau, ‘The qualities of  Watteau’s art, the delicacy of his brushwork and the refinement of his colour harmonies are not easily revealed in reproductions. His immensely sensitive paintings and drawings must really be seen and enjoyed in the original.’ I also think that it really helps to be able to zoom in on his paintings, which is an advantage of an online course.

In Week 1 we also examined in close detail Hogarth’s first series dedicated to ‘Modern Moral Subjects’, Marriage A-la-Mode.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la Mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement, 1745

Hogarth’s paintings exposed the follies and vices of the age. He was the finest and liveliest British portrait painter of the time, a man with a well-developed sense of cynical humour,  and also an engraver, so he sold many prints of his work.

In Week 4 we were shown this painting, which illustrates his skill as a portrait painter.

William Hogarth, Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, c.1750-1755. Tate Britain, London.

Week 2: Defining the Rococo

In this week we were shown the work of a variety of artists of the period and at least 120 slides to explore the differences between Baroque and Rococo art. It seems that Rococo art is difficult to define. Some think that it’s not a style at all but a form of late Baroque, others that it is a style in its own right; it’s not what the baroque is. In his book Baroque and Rococo, Gauvin Alexander Bailey writes :

‘Baroque (c.1580-c.1700) grew out of the Catholic Reformation, and is a powerfully persuasive style based on rhetoric and drama, whereas Rococo (c.1700 – c.1800) began as décor, a whimsical, more intimate style that values ornamentation over structure and is more concerned with pastoral and exotic forms than with weighty theological or historical themes.’ (London: Phaidon, 2012)

Henrico Zucalli and J.B. Zimmermann, The Great Hall, 1701-2 and 1755-58, Nymphenburg Palace, Munich

Rococo art was described in this lecture as frilly, and joyful in its approach. Whereas Baroque art is bold and symmetrical, characteristics of Rococo art are asymmetry, and sinuous S-shaped scrolling curves. Rococo paintings were described as effervescent, gentle and elegant, employing soft, gentle colours and grounded in the world of imagination. An example of this is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. There couldn’t be a more Rococo painting than this.

This frothy, titillating painting is considered one of the quintessential works of Rococo art. Fragonard was influenced by the work of François Boucher and Giambattista Tiepolo.

Week 3: The Grand Tour

The 18th century was the time of the grand tour. Photography had not been invented so the best way to see European art was to travel to Europe, which many young gentlemen (known as ‘bear-cubs’) did, in the company of a tutor (the ‘bear-leader’), after studying at either Oxford or Cambridge (the only two Universities that existed at the time). These tours usually took about eighteen months, and of course they also served the purpose of ‘sowing wild oats’. The most common tour was to travel from England through France to Italy and down through Venice to Rome and Naples, but some ‘bear-cubs’ travelled further afield, and later in the century it became fashionable to travel to Wales, Scotland and the Lake District, no doubt attracted by the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

And since there was no photography in this era, what better way to capture memories of the tour than by buying paintings, either of memorable sites and monuments, or of having your portrait painted in situ. Even Goethe had his portrait painted in Italy on his grand tour. So, at this time artists could make money by painting souvenirs. Notable amongst these artists was Canaletto, who is known for his many, many paintings of Venice. Typical of these paintings is The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day.

Canaletto Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day about 1740 Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm Bequeathed by Lord Revelstoke, 1929 NG4453

To really appreciate Canaletto’s skill, visit the painting on the National Gallery’s website and zoom in, where you can see the extraordinary amount of detail in the painting and in his other paintings.

In this week’s session we saw many of Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice and those which Canaletto painted of the Thames whilst living in England. We also saw how Canaletto’s work influenced other artists and architecture of the time, but we didn’t discuss this lovely painting (below) of The Stonemason’s Yard, although we were recommended (as homework) to watch a really interesting video of Associate Curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper giving a talk about this painting –

Canaletto The Stonemason’s Yard about 1725 Oil on canvas, 123.8 x 162.9 cm Sir George Beaumont Gift, 1823; passed to the National Gallery, 1828 NG127

I think I prefer this painting to the canal paintings. Maybe because there are so many Canaletto paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice. There are even two in the Bowes Museum in County Durham, not so far from where I live.

Week 4: Crossing Genres

Part 1: A New Face for Portraiture

The first half of this week’s two hour session was presented by Richard Stemp, who discussed the new face of British Portraiture in the 18th century. He focussed on three artists, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and George Stubbs. Gainsborough combined portraiture and landscape painting; portraits made more money than landscapes, so many landscape artists turned to portraiture. Gainsborough’s famous painting Mr and Mrs Andrews, is an example of this, and also an example of a conversation piece, a type of painting that became popular at this time and depicted an informal group portrait in which people are gathered together and involved in real or imagined activity. The National Gallery has a very entertaining video on its site of a variety of people discussing this painting ––aEYmH8  Hogarth also painted a number of conversation pieces, as did Stubbs, but in the case of Stubbs the portraits were often of animals (particularly horses) as well as people, set in landscapes and depicting a narrative.  

George Stubbs, The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, c.1769. National Gallery, London

Stubbs studied the anatomy of horses, dissecting them and making many anatomical drawings which he later used to inform his paintings.

George Stubbs, Plate for the Twelfth Anatomical Table of the Muscles, Fascias, Ligaments, Nerves, Arteries, Veins, Glands, and Cartilages of a Horse, viewed posteriorly, explained, which is the twenty-first plate in the book, The Anatomy of the Horse, London, 1766

Part 2: Dido Elizabeth Lindsay Belle (1761-1804) and the Beginnings of Abolition

The second half of this session was presented by Leslie Primo, who traced the beginnings of abolition through the eyes of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman living in Kenwood House in the late 18th century. Through looking closely at her portrait by David Martin, and other art work of the time, we observed the emphasis in 18th century art on white skin superiority, and considered how Dido was depicted as an exotic other, and what her life might have been like.

David Martin, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, c.1779, Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland

Week 5: Taking things seriously – Academies and Enlightenment

In the first half of this week’s two-hour session, Richard Stemp discussed how during the 18th century art was changing, from the ‘lighter touch’ of the Rococo period, to the more serious period of the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), focussing on advances in science and philosophy. This was illustrated by discussion of  Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which depicts a scientist conducting an experiment during which a vacuum is created by the air pump, which for a moment robs the bird of the air it needs in order to breathe. The people in this painting are ‘being enlightened’ and their faces are lit up.

Richard Stemp then went on to discuss some of the great thinkers so of the age; Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot (who published the first encyclopaedia and became one of the first art critics), Voltaire, Goethe, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Edmund Burke. These thinkers encouraged artists to take art more seriously, which led to the founding of the British Royal Academy, depicted here by Johan Zoffany.

Artists working at this time included Francisco Goya, François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean-Simeon Chardin, William Gilpin, Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. As women, Kauffmann and Moser did not attend the academy, although Kauffmann was one of the most successful artists of the time and hugely wealthy; their portraits are displayed on the wall.

The second half of this week’s session was led by Dr Jenny Graham, Associate Professor (Reader) in Art History at the University of Plymouth, who spoke on the cult of sensibility and changing representations of masculinity in 18th century art, with reference to the paintings of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Chardin, Boucher and Greuze. We were shown a wide range of portraits showing the shift from portraits of men of power, very often symbolised by the white stockinged masculine calf, to softer representations of men of feeling, surrounded by nature, or depicted as loving husbands and tender fathers, often seated amongst their family. These two portraits below by Reynolds and Gainsborough, which have taken similar subjects, show the shift from Reynolds’ benchmark portrait of machismo, to Gainsborough’s pensive officer, lost in thought.

Week 6. Neo-Classicism: From Revolution to Empire

Richard Stemp introduced this module as follows:

Changes in artistic style are the result of many overlapping ideas – political, historical and theoretical. From the Renaissance onwards, an interest in the antique had been one of the major forces behind artistic style, but the focus had always been on ‘Rome’ as the highpoint of classical civilization. In 1764, Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art was one of the first books to distinguish between the arts of Greece and Rome, and to identify the primacy of the Greeks. At this point, the ‘Neo-Classical’ was born – the perfect antidote to the apparent superficiality of the Rococo. It became the perfect language for French revolutionaries to express the earnestness of their beliefs about the decadent monarchy, and an ideal form of expression of dignified intent for the revolutionary turned Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

There was far too much information packed into this week to cover in this very short reference to Week 6 of this module. Neo-Classical art was described as rational rather than emotional, with its origins in Greek sculpture. Neo-Classical art exhibits noble simplicity and quiet grandeur. It is cool, calm and sophisticated, with sculptures being white and paintings worked in subdued colours. Richard Stemp said, Baroque is like dark chocolate; Neo-Classicism is like spearmint, and Baroque is like full fat cream; Neo-Classicism is like skimmed milk. Many artists were referred to in this session. Here are some which exemplify Neo-Classical art.

Antonio Canovo, The Three Graces, 1814-17
Anton Raphael Mengs, Self Portrait in Red Mantle, 1744
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793

And these wonderful male nudes by Giulia Lama (1720-23). Most women artists at this time worked from sculptures rather than directly from the male model, but Giulia Lama broke with the convention of the time.

Module 6 will be led by Dr Amy Mechowski and will look at 19th century art (1800-1900).

It will start on June 2nd 2021

The Deceptive Allure of Clarity

You could be forgiven for thinking that a statement such as ‘The deceptive allure of clarity’ must have come straight from the mouth of Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. McGilchrist would align this statement with the way in which the left hemisphere attends to the world. In his book he explains that we are living in a left hemisphere dominated world. For the left hemisphere, the parts are more important than the whole. The left hemisphere values the known, familiar, certain, distinct, fragmentary, isolated and unchanging. It abstracts ideas from body and context, seeing things as inanimate and representational. In the left hemisphere’s view of the world, quality is replaced by quantity, and unique cases are replaced with categories.

But this statement, ‘The Deceptive Allure of Clarity’, did not come from McGilchrist, but from a Lancaster University online Department of Education Research Seminar that I attended this week, which was presented by Jan McArthur and Joanne Wood. The full title of their talk was ‘Towards Wicked Marking Criteria: the deceptive allure of clarity’, which is what drew me, and many others, in (the session was very well attended). This was how the session was advertised.

In this seminar we consider the dissonance between two major themes in the scholarship of teaching, learning and assessment in higher education: the engagement with complex and structured forms of knowledge and the development of increasingly precise marking criteria for assessment.  We question what is lost when we aim to make assessment a more and more precise practice?  We argue that academic knowledge cannot always be broken into manageable “bits” but often should be evaluated holistically.  Finally we propose that students who perform “badly” in assessments have often not done this by accident or neglect but rather through diligent and conscientious following of implicit messages we send out as teachers, often in the name of clarity.

They started the session by asking the question: ‘What if the pursuit of clarity is part of the problem?’ By this they were making reference to what they called ‘The Monster Rubric’, which is so detailed and atomised that it loses all sense of what it is trying to achieve.

What follows is my reaction to this seminar and should not be attributed to either of the speakers.

It is easy to find examples of these rubrics online, through a simple search for rubric images. For example here is one with an excessive level of granularity. I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken to develop this rubric – time that perhaps could have been better spent in the service of students?

Most institutions use rubrics for marking students work. Why? Well, principally for quality assurance reasons. The institution/tutor has to demonstrate that the marking is fair and equitable. But in reality, my experience is that for experienced tutors/markers, the rubric is not helpful and so they make the rubric fit their marking rather than the other way round. The rubric does not inform the marking. An experienced marker knows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. An experienced marker knows that complex knowledge can’t be broken down into bits. An experienced marker knows that there are qualities in assignments, which contribute to the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, that simply can’t be measured, but nevertheless contribute to the mark.  An experienced marker can pick up an assignment, flip through it and know straight away roughly what mark it will receive. The marker then reads the assignment carefully to check this initial assessment and give critical feedback. Only finally does the marker make sure (for quality assurance purposes) that the rubric fits the given mark.

We do students a disservice by misleading them into thinking that their achievements can be broken into bits and that each bit is worth a certain percentage. Complex knowledge cannot be defined in these terms. A rubric cannot cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. The rubric should not be so atomised that there is no room for students to move in.  As Iain McGilchrist says:

‘… the gaps in the structure are where the light gets in. If you tighten everything up, then you get total darkness’. (

If we must have rubrics, then they should be guides rather than prescriptive, and students and staff should be encouraged to move beyond them.

The Art of Seeing with Mary Attwood

This is just a quick post to recommend Mary Attwood’s monthly one hour sessions on The Art of Seeing. I attended my first session in this series this week in which we looked closely at one sculpture by Antony Gormley. This was the sculpture – Feeling Material XIV (2005).

For the first 15 minutes we were invited to look slowly at the image of the sculpture, taking a mindfulness approach to observing the details. We did this in silence, with audio muted, and, if we wished, with video switched off. During this time of silence, Mary projected slides of the sculpture from different angles for us to observe. We were asked to engage imaginatively with the sculpture through reflection, writing and drawing or however we wished to respond, seeing round it and through it.

There were about 16 participants in the session who all had unique responses to this work, but it was also possible to detect common threads.

Mary then shared with us her knowledge of Gormley’s work including this writing by Gormley:

I particularly liked the first 15 minutes of silent observation in this session. Such a relief from constantly being required to speak and explain our thinking, although we were also invited to do this. So there was a very nice balance in this session which I found both stimulating and relaxing.

Art History 1600 – 1700

Last week I completed the fourth module of the National Gallery’s six week online course – Stories of Art: A Modular Introduction to Art History, 1600 -1700. The title of this module, hosted by Lucrezia Walker, was Baroque and the Dutch Golden Age. I really enjoyed this module, probably because of the amazing artists discussed – Bernini, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rubens, Poussin, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

What I didn’t know before starting this module is that the word ‘baroque’ derives from the Portuguese ‘barroco’ word, which describes a large, irregularly shaped pearl. In relation to art, this was originally a derogatory term, suggesting excess, a flamboyant response to Renaissance classicism. Baroque was the leading style of this period.

As for previous modules, the course covered a wide range of artists, and showed hundreds of slides. There were 70 slides in Week 1 alone. For this post I will select one or two images from each week, to share a flavour of what the course was like.

Week 1: The power and the glory

The focus in Week 1 was on the power and glory of 17th century Rome and in particular the wonderful sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, described by Lucrezia Walker, as the ‘big boy of Baroque’, an extraordinary tour de force. Bernini’s father was a sculptor, so Bernini began his learning at the age of eight, to ultimately become the Michelangelo of Baroque, a giant figure of many talents – sculptor, architect, painter, playwright, theatre designer and musician. He has been described as the ‘artistic dictator of Rome’. Bernini worked on St Peter’s Basilica for 40 years, and was so talented that he could make marble look like flesh, as you can see from this photo below of his sculpture of The Rape of Proserpina.

Not only did we get a great introduction to Bernini in the first half of Week 1, but we were also given a good look around the sites of Rome where his work features.

The second half of Week 1 was devoted to the art collection of King Charles 1, which was unprecedented in England. This collection was an indication of his power and glory. He collected work by Van Dyck, Titian, Rubens, Holbein, Bronzino and Mantegna.

Week 2: Caravaggio, the Catholic Reformation and the beginnings of Baroque

This week focussed on the first half of the 17th century in Rome, and in particular on the work of Caravaggio, in the first half of the session, and Artemisia Gentileschi in the second half. Both Caravaggio and Artemisia were hugely influential in the early 1600s, and then became less important, and were not rediscovered until the late 20th century (Caravaggio) and 21st century (Artemisia).

Caravaggio had a violent temperament, characterised by drinking, brawling, gambling and fighting. In 1606 he had to flee Rome after killing a man and spent the rest of his life travelling between Naples, Malta and Sicily. He was constantly in trouble, but he was hugely influential. His style was innovative and naturalistic, with dramatic contrast of light and dark. It formed a new kind of art for a new catholic church, and from about 1600 onwards, Caravaggio never wanted for patrons. Because Caravaggio produced a lot of work for churches, his work was widely viewed, more so than if he had painted solely for private collectors.

Artemisia was the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. Her mother died when she was twelve and being the eldest child of a family of daughters she worked in her father’s studio, producing professional work by the age of 15. As a young woman, aged 17, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who visited her father’s studio. He was convicted of rape in 1612, but this event influenced not only Artemisia’s work, but also how her work was perceived. Nevertheless she became a successful court painter in Florence. Artemisia was strongly influenced by Caravaggio; her paintings were highly naturalistic.

Her painting, in 1610, of Susanna and the Elders (image above), which she painted at the age of 17, shows her distinctive style and was surely a premonition of what was to befall her within a year of painting it. But Artemisia has become a heroine of feminist art history. ‘I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,’ she wrote to a Sicilian patron. ‘You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.’

Week 3: The embarrassment of riches: Painting in the Dutch Republic (not baroque)

I found this the most stimulating all the six weeks. In preparation (as homework) we were asked to watch Rembrandt vs Vermeer on Intelligence Squared – This is a highly entertaining programme which I can recommend. Tim Marlow chairs a debate between Simon Schama and Tracy Chevalier over who is better, Rembrandt or Vermeer? This reminded me of a wonderful trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2014, where I saw paintings by both Rembrandt and Vermeer.

At the beginning of this week’s session we were asked to vote on whether we preferred Rembrandt or Vermeer. The result of the poll was exactly 43% to each, with the remainder being ‘no preference’ responses. I voted for Rembrandt, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been to the Rijksmuseum, but as one participant said, it’s like comparing apples and pears.

Rembrandt was the 9th child of a wealthy miller and had a classical education. He was married twice (his wives feature in his paintings), lived to the age of 63, and was successful in his lifetime with a large studio. He produced a huge amount of work, including 80 self-portraits. He was a great painter of humanity.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Aechje Claesdr, 1634

Vermeer, a tavern owner and a dealer, as well as a painter, lived a shorter life, dying at the age of 42 . He was a much quieter artist than Rembrandt, painting simple images of glorious ordinariness. He produced relatively few paintings, working slowly and producing a couple of paintings a year. Vermeer painted scenes from everyday life, often a single figure in a room with light from the left. It is thought that he may have used a camera obscura, and he is known for lavish use of the expensive pigment lapis lazuli.

Vermeer, Woman pouring milk, c1658

Between 1640 and 1660, Amsterdam was the place to be, clean, ordered, with impressive land reclamation projects (God made the world, except for Holland, which the Dutch made!). There were more painters than butchers in Amsterdam and an explosion of different genres of painting, portraits, landscapes (townscapes, seascapes, urban landscapes, winter scenes) and still-life (lavish still-life and the vanitas still-life); ordinary people were buying art. This was the era of the rise of the dealer and the beginning of the art market. This was also a time when artists worked collaboratively on paintings. Some of the other painters introduced this week were Gerrit Berckheyde, Peter Saenredam (so different from Italian paintings of Catholic Church interiors ), Willem Kalf, Jan Janz Treck, Harmen Steenwyck, Adrien van Utrecht, Rachel Ruysch (whose paintings sold for more than those of Rembrandt‘s at the time), Willem van Aelst, Jacob van Walscappelle (still life), Aelbert Cuyp (landscape), Judith Leyster (portraits) and Pieter de Hooch.

Week 4: The art of Spain

Significant artists working in Spain in the 17th century included El Greco, Zurburan, Velázquez and Murillo.  For the first half of this week’s session we looked at the work of all these artists. The second half of the session focussed on Diego Velázquez, whose work was discussed in more depth by Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

El Greco’s work took me by surprise. It seems so modern, and his influence can be seen in both cubism and expressionism. El Greco was a one off. He doesn’t seem to fit in any art school. His style was highly individual to the extent that people wondered whether he had a problem with his eyesight. His work is other worldly. He often elongated or over exaggerated his subject and used unusual colour effects. El Greco was born in Crete, but he travelled to Venice and Rome, before finally moving to Toledo, which was the capital of Spain until 1560. He was influenced by Titian, but particularly by Tintoretto.

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596-1600

Velázquez was born into an educated literary family (a Portuguese mother and Spanish father) in Seville. but ultimately moved to Madrid where he spent his entire career in the service of King Philip IV, who was a sophisticated admirer of art. Velázquez was a famous painter at court, knighted by the King, with the Order of Santiago, and twice sent to Italy, which played an important role in shaping his art, where he came under the influence of Titian’s work. Las Meninas is thought to be Velázquez’ masterpiece.

Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

The painting doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but Dr Gabriele Finaldi, gave a very plausible explanation of why it has become such a revered work of art. It is a large group portrait which includes Velázquez himself with the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest and the King’s daughter. The painting is a fascinating paradox of what is shown, and what isn’t; what is said and what isn’t; what is real and what is not; a story within a story; an image within an image. Las Meninas is a manifesto for painting. It shows that for Velázquez, painting is a speculative activity, not simply mechanical.

Velázquez is also known for The Rokeby Venus, which was famously attacked and badly damaged in 1914 by the suffragette Mary Richardson, although later restored.

Week 5: Rubens and Van Dyck (Flemish art)

This week the focus was almost entirely on Rubens and Van Dyck, Rubens’ pupil. The first half of the session provided an introduction to both painters by Lucrezia Walker, and the second by Dr Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe, who explored the work and skill of both artists in more depth, showing us how to recognise the difference between these two artists by their brush strokes.

Rubens was described as the most successful artist who ever lived. He was extraordinarily important as a painter and was knighted by both Charles I of England and Philip IV of  Spain. He was charming, and not only a painter, but also a polyglot, businessman and diplomat. Rubens had a very happy private life, marrying 16 year old Isabella Brandt at the age of 32, and after she died marrying another 16 year old, Hélène Fourment, at the age of 53. From Antwerp, Rubens visited Rome, where he saw the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio, who all influenced his work. As a painter Rubens was prolific. He had a studio of about 50 assistants and was therefore able to take on large commissions and deliver them quickly. On some paintings he collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder who painted the backgrounds. Rubens also painted landscapes but he was known more for his paintings of fulsome women.

Rubens, Le Chapeau de Paille, 1622-25

He was strongly influenced by the work of Titian, and like Titian used thick paint on a heavily-laden brush, which gave his work a 3-dimensional sculptural feel. He loved strong colour, particularly vermillion. Later in his career, like Titian, he began to experiment with ‘less is more’, a softer, non-specific way of painting and used thinner paint.

Van Dyck was Rubens’ best pupil, very precocious and almost like a post-grad student, to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to tell their work apart. He was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp and by the age of 15 was already an accomplished artist. His father was a silk merchant, so Van Dyck was excited by fabrics, which can be seen in his paintings. Van Dyck spent most of his life working in Spain and England, where he became the leading court painter and was knighted by King Charles I, but he also visited Italy. Like Rubens he was heavily influenced by the work of Titian, and owned 19 Titians by the time he died. Van Dyck was known for his portraits.

Van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635 or 1636

Van Dyck died at the age of 41 by which time he was painting with thinner and thinner paint to the point where the ground paint showed through.

Week 6: Dreaming in Rome

In this final week the focus was on two important French artists working in Rome in the 17th century:  Claude Lorrain (commonly known as just Claude) and Nicolas Poussin. Both these artists influenced future generations of painters. The influence of Poussin can be seen in the work of Benjamin West, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Cezanne and Picasso. The influence of Claude on Constable and particularly Turner is easily seen, to the extent that Turner, in his will, requested that the National Gallery hang two of his paintings next to two of Claude’s.

In the 17th century Rome was being revivified. The city was in ruins, but was full of vestiges of a great lost past, which artists found charming and poetic.

At this time the Cardinals were amassing art collections and there were many Papal commissions. This drew Poussin from Normandy to Rome in 1624 at the age of 30, when Rome was entering its full baroque period under Bernini. Poussin’s early work depicted mythological scenes and historical narratives, but later in his career he began to paint landscapes.

Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1651

Claude also finally ended up in Rome in 1628, where he too worked on landscapes, going out to paint with his friend Poussin. Both artists constructed their landscapes to lead the eye back through the paintings.

Claude, A Sea Port, 1639

Next week will see the start of Module 5 in this art history course, and will explore the 18th century (1700-1800), looking at the art of Fragonard, Watteau, David, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs and others.

Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo:

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

This book by bell hooks will be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week on Tuesday 16th March, 7.00 to 8.00 pm, GMT. This is an open group. Anyone can join any of the monthly discussions. For further details see –

You will notice, if you are not familiar with bell hooks’ work, that her name is written in lower case. There are two reasons for this. First Bell Hooks was her great grandmother’s name and she wanted to distinguish herself from her great grandmother who she greatly admired. Second is that she considers the substance of her books more important than who she is. By writing her name in lower case she wanted to shift attention from her identity to her ideas. bell hooks’ birth name was Gloria Jean Watkins.

Teaching to Transgress is made up of 15 chapters in which bell hooks shares her insights, strategies, and critical reflections on pedagogical practice. In the book bell hooks writes from a personal perspective as a black, female activist and intellectual feminist, about how teachers can help students to overcome the constraints of race, gender and class to achieve the gift of freedom. “I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is movement which makes education the practice of freedom.” (p.12)

bell hooks’ writing is informal, fluent and easily accessible. She writes in a variety of styles, from the academic to the conversational. The book includes two chapters written as conversations. Chapter 4 is an imagined conversation with Paulo Freire, who has greatly influenced her thinking and work, in which she asks herself questions about Freire and answers them herself. Chapter 10, Building a Teaching Community – A Dialogue, is an interview between bell hooks and her long-term friend Ron Scapp, a philosopher.

A good summary of the book has been written by Allen Cheng – And the entire book can be found as a PDF online, although the first couple of chapters are marked up with highlighted text –

Teaching to Transgress was first published in 1994, but this first paragraph from Chapter 1 on Engaged Pedagogy seems as relevant now as it ever was.

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

Throughout my years as student and professor, I have been most inspired by those teachers who have had the courage to transgress those boundaries that would confine each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning. Such teachers approach students with the will and desire to respond to our unique beings, even if the situation does not allow the full emergence of a relationship based on mutual recognition. Yet the possibility of such recognition is always present. (p.13)


bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge

Philosophers on Education: Amélie Rorty

This collection of chapters by different authors, each on a philosopher of education, was the selected text for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s  discussion this month.

The book includes 33 chapters, clearly far too long for a one hour discussion on zoom, so the organisers, in consultation with the group, selected seven chapters (1-4 and 25-27) for this meeting, with a view to revisiting the book at some future date. Even seven chapters seemed a lot to me since they covered Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Dewey, Marx and the first chapter on The Ruling History of Education.

The discussion usually starts with a brief introduction by either a member of the group, or an invited speaker, who has some expertise in the topic. This week this task fell to Owen Gower, Director at UK Council for Graduate Education, since the book was his choice for discussion. The books for discussion each month are voted for on Twitter by members of the group. By his own admission, Owen had his work cut out for him in pulling the seven different chapters together for discussion, but he did an impressive job. This is how he did it.

First he said he recognised three themes running through all the chapters.

  1. Educational methods
  2. Cultural influences
  3. Education and human nature

Then he broke this down a bit further for us.

Educational Methods could be identified in

Chapter 2. Socratic Education by Paul Woodruff. Through his questions Socrates shamed people into critical and consist thinking. Socrates advocated teacherless education.

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Provoke powerful emotional responses to motivate learning. The need to educate the whole person.

Chapter 26. Moral Education in and after Marx by Richard. W. Miller. Tap into the loyalties needed for successful socialist revolution.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. All education starts with a problem. Owen wanted us to discuss whether this statement is true, but as I have noted in previous meetings, the group rarely sticks to the questions raised by the presenter!

Cultural Influences in

Chapter 3. Plato’s Counsel on Education by Zhang LoShan, a pseudonym for Amélie Rorty. (An explanation for this pseudonym is included in the notes at the end of the chapter). You can’t have a good education in a bad society. A good society is central to education. Our opinions are not independent of society. It takes a whole village to raise a child.

Chapter 25. The Past in the Present. Plato as Educator of Nineteenth-Century Britain by M. F. Burnyeat. Social norms stifle education. Education should make us critical autonomous thinkers.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Education should connect the individual to society and culture.

Education and Human Nature in

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Education for happiness.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Human knowledge is a form of engaging with the world.

Any errors in the above notes are mine. These discussions in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom calls are difficult to keep up with, so I appreciated Owen Gower’s effort to structure this session for us. It must have been much more difficult than focussing attention on one author and book. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that the chapters could be pulled together in this way, but I am always interested to note how the participants in these discussions, myself included, focus attention on different aspects of the text.

For me what is becoming increasingly apparent from these discussions is that (as is written at the end of Chapter 2 on Socratic Education, p.27), “Philosophy …. seems to lead nowhere but to more philosophy ”, but it is very interesting to be prompted to read all these different authors and learn more about different philosophers.

Next month the book chosen for discussion is bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. My copy should be arriving in the post today.