Monday, January 12, 2009

Is it right to teach about what is wrong

Common Council President Willie Hines 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 "tinpot 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 US)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 the it is improbable, in the 21st 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 Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.

8 comments:

Clutch said...

There is quite simply no reason on offer to think that moral education requires religious reference.

The allegation that such shared moral vision as exists in the USA is actually a consequence of some Abrahamic religious convictions is irrelevant to the issue at hand. If this is historically accurate, to be sure, then nothing obviously precludes teaching that historical datum in history class; its likely controversial status has everything to do with its dubious truth-value (and, in practice, the motives for introducing it; you will know more about the Lemon Test than I) rather than any prima facie tension with disestablishment principles.

What's relevant to the question at hand, though, is whether inculcating religion is key to teaching kids how to be moral, by common standards. On this score, McIlerhan's truly tinpot ramblings about not mentioning God and talking about God are carefully ambiguous between a fairly benign complete non-sequitur and a proposal at once substantive, groundless, and highly extremist.

The benign but goofy idea is that schools should merely "mention" or "talk about" god(s) without trying to inculcate belief in them, with the extraordinarily strange hope that this will somehow engender moral conduct. In its purest form, this would be the idea that one could explicitly encourage atheism from students, yet still engender greater moral behaviour just by alluding to deities nevertheless. (Ironically, there's an interpretation of this that many atheists might accept: that talking about religion and its effects is a good way of learning morality -- via negativa.)

On the other hand, the substantive idea, and the one that most advocates of morals-by-god clearly have in mind, is that teaching people to accept specifically religious precepts is what helps make them moral. (Otherwise, of course, we could just abstract away the god stuff and teach rules like PM's various Commandments as rules for a society -- clearly not what all this handwringing is meant to support).

But it sounds so much more reasonable to moan about not being permitted to "mention God," doesn't it, than to come out and say "Public schools should teach people to be religious, in order to make them moral". This rather would seem to be inconsistent with both the Constitution and, um... reality.

Dad29 said...

Well, it is certainly possible to found social morality on natural law without mentioning that natural law is a subset of Divine law, although it is philosophically impossible to specifically exclude Divine law, if pressed...

But the difficulty is to avoid utilitarianism (e.g., "don't get pregnant b/c you will live in poverty") as the only motivator.

It's sufficient, but certainly not convincing--and in the end, it is self-defeating, as utilitarianism certainly is not a 'higher purpose' modus operandi.

yoSAMite said...

The teaching of manners would be a great start. Those things like thank you, you're welcome, excuse me, taking the phone from the ear before talking to someone else could be the beginning of the walk down the yellow brick road.

Clutch said...

The teaching of manners would be a great start. Those things like thank you, you're welcome, excuse me, taking the phone from the ear before talking to someone else could be the beginning of the walk down the yellow brick road.

Amen... if I may.

It's worth asking whether the relevant group of cultural worriors (must teach morality! today's youth is circling the drain!) really have in mind a whole lot more than a dearth of basic polite behaviour in any case.

Yet does anyone really think that imparting something as value-laden as mannerly behaviour is facilitated by telling students that Judith Martin is a deity, and convincing them to pray from the Book of Common Manners?

Anonymous said...

It is really too bad for society that people who believe as Clutch believe, that the 'fear of God' is not a worthwhile teacher of morals/manners, are the same people who have taken away the fear of parents.

Sorry to be so backward, (and I don't even go to church) but I firmly believe that the reason a kid does not touch the hot stove is either because he has already been burned or he fears his parents. When they say 'don't touch that', if he already has reason to respect/fear them, he listens. I learned to say please and thank you before I knew what they meant. I did it because I feared their harsh words, or I feared some privilege/treat would be taken away, or I did it to please. When there is no consequence to not saying please or thank you, kids do not learn it except to manipulate. The most common one I see is where the kid will be atrocious at a restaurant, not eat his meal, then cry about dessert until he gets it. The best is when they say please only for the dessert and get it 'because they said please'.

Before a child develops the cognitive functions for higher mental thought such as respect, fear/necessity is the best teacher. I do not mean fear like a horror film or a whuppin'. I mean if a child truly fears he will not get a piece of dessert if he does not first eat what is put on his plate and then ask politely, he will then do those things. If he knows he will get the sweets either way(the child's necessity at this point), there is no need to do those other things.

Ironically, if discipline were not such a four letter word today(if I may use a Bidenism) there may well not be such a dearth of morals and manners in the youth of today regardless of religion. I believe the double whammy of taking fear (of God and parent) out of a child's rearing in the name of sensitivity (read: political correctness) is the largest single reason for the immorality problems of today.
Tuerqas

PaulNoonan said...

I've always found arguing against utilitarianism while simultaneously arguing that morality is based off of avoiding eternal torture to be inconsistent. And kinda stupid.

John Foust said...

Tuerqas, for their sake and yours, I hope that your children, or perhaps their children, will grow up to break the chain of beating children. And then it will stop.

Anonymous said...

John, I have never even hit a single one of my children, they all show respect to others and other parents compliment me on their manner and outlook. It is unclear to me why you blog at all some times as I find most of your comments to be close minded tripe, often not even based on the comments that you are responding to. Do you think that it is somehow clever to read 'beating' between the lines, though I specifically noted what type of 'fear' I use/used and that it did not include violence? See, I do not call that clever, I call it something else.

Paul, in all that circumlocution, who is arguing that? I think it is 'kinda stupid' too. it is equally as relevant for to reveal that I think aliens do exist somewhere.
Tuerqas