Is It Right to Teach About What Is Wrong?

Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines (left) has written a nice piece on values education in the Journal-Sentinel. I know that President Hines and I disagree on many things, but he is someone whose leadership I greatly respect.

In response to the Hines piece, Patrick McIlheran points out an obvious problem. Under current law, it is unclear that schools could effectively incorporate religious perspectives on morality into values education. (There is some room for schools to teach “about” religion, but, in the type of normative education that President Hines is calling for, that distinction — and the lack of clarity about just where it ought to be drawn — would probably preclude any deep inclusion of religious perspectives.)

Marquette alum Tom Foley (the blogger known as “Illusory Tenant”) can’t wait to dismiss Patrick as a “tin pot philosopher,” but he is wrong to do so for at least two reasons.

First, our current notions of disestablishment require neutrality between religion and irreligion and, in the two most frequent doctrinal formulations, forbid the state from advancing or endorsing either. Teaching values and morality while excluding the religious perspectives that believers contend are indispensable to those concepts will almost certainly be perceived by believers as inhibiting religion and advancing or endorsing irreligion. While scholars and courts have, from time to time, suggested that they “should not” have that perception, that suggestion is, in itself, rooted in a particular view of the role of religion in community life.

For that reason, I have argued that neutrality ought not be the sine qua non of disestablishment and, in a forthcoming paper, suggest that there ought to be greater room for religious perspectives in government speech.

Second, while one can discuss values and morality from a secular perspective, it is unclear that the resulting conversation will adequately reflect and develop the values that most of us hold that, whether we believe or not, are rooted (for us in the U.S.) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. One can, I suppose, offer Rawlsian and other secular justifications for values such as equality or personal autonomy, but that is not really how we came to honor them and may not be sufficient to sustain them. While it is too much to say (as some want to do) that an abandonment of religious perspectives will inevitable lead to the secular totalitarianisms that marred the twentieth century, a discussion of values without reference to the grounds in which they are historically rooted would be quite thin and can’t help but alter the way in which we see those values.

There is, even under existing law, some room for values education in public schools and in the delivery of social services. My own sense, however, is that it is inevitable that schools and other governmental bodies will want to move beyond that into areas that are religiously sensitive. Because I believe that it is improbable, in the twenty-first century, that government will refrain (or can be restrained) from intruding on those areas of life with which religion is concerned, there needs to be more room to incorporate religious perspectives.

Cross posted at the Shark and Shepherd.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Alex Runner

    Rick, thanks for mentioning this — I know that Pres. Hines (an MU alumnus himself) has great respect for you and your work, too.

    I would only add that there are a number of school districts around Wisconsin (and even a few MPS schools) that have centered their curricula around core pillars/tenets of values/morals/life skills. Obviously the roots of these are often (or perhaps always) religious, but we can still teach them without teaching the religion.

    And as far as that goes, I do believe that separation of church-state was intended to protect the church from the state, not the other way around.

    Hope it’s OK to post on here — even though I’m not associated with the Law School.

  2. Rick Esenberg

    Thanks, Alex. I think it is certainly possible to discuss values rooted in religious traditions without teaching the traditions themselves. But there are, I think, two problems. The first and most obvious one is where the traditons do not agree or the underlying principle is interpreted differently. Think of human sexuality. Schools can avoid those subjects, but quite often they do not.

    Second and more subtly, what President Hines is insisting upon is normative teaching about morals. What you want to do is assume the first principles that underlie the lessons that he quite rightly wants to convey. But I think that something is lost when acknowledgement of those first principles becomes forbidden.

    This doesn’t mean that one teaches the religion. It means that one recognizes and names the animating principle for many of the students’ sense of what is right and wrong. While I think that this can be done in a way that respects dissenters and avoids proselytization, it’s not clear to me that current Establishment Clause doctrine permits that or at least that its indeterminancy doesn’t discourage it.

    I do agree that the state can be a danger to the church.

  3. Alex Runner

    Well said. You mention that “something is lost when acknowledgement of those first principles becomes forbidden.” I do not disagree, but we are treading on an ancient debate that is not easily solved. And it may be tangential to the point of WHETHER or not it is good for students to learn these things in the classroom — as opposed to WHY it is good.

    Plato addressed this same question in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, I believe. Is it wrong to murder because the gods say so? (Euthyphro.) Or is it wrong to murder simply because we know it to be wrong? (Socrates.)

    Pres. Hines and you might personally side with Euthyphro. (But maybe not, because not many people put stock in Zeus these days.) Others will surely side with Socrates. But surely we can all agree that it’s good for students to be taught not to murder. (Or lie, cheat, steal, interrupt, gossip, etc.)

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