significance of the headscarf for some
Muslims or the way in which faith
healing plays a central role in the lives
of Christian Scientists is distinct from
endorsing those beliefs ourselves.
We can certainly demonstrate respect
toward beliefs we disagree with. In
fact, a lack of critical engagement with
other perspectives can demonstrate a
profound disrespect—“You aren’t worth
the time and energy for me to provide a
critique!” We demonstrate civic respect
toward others not by agreeing with
them, but by striving mightily to under-
stand what they value and why, and
then being willing to explain our dis-
agreements. Such insight doesn’t guar-
that saddling future generations with
massive debt violates religious precepts
as well. At the same time, however,
recognizing the reasonableness of other
perspectives can often make us more
willing to seek compromise and accom-
modation, even while holding firm to
our own beliefs.
4. Religions are internally diverse.
Religion is a complicated subject, and
many public school teachers understandably despair of doing it justice
in the classroom. Recognizing the
remarkable diversity within religious
traditions makes such a task seem
even more daunting. But this internal
Civic multilingualism may represent the
greatest social challenge of the 21st century.
antee fruitful deliberations, of course,
but it’s hard to imagine how a deep-seated ignorance of our fellow citizens
and their priorities could lead us to fair
and respectful decisions about the shape
of our public life together.
3. Reasonable doesn’t mean right.
Reasonable disagreement is the heart
of civic virtue—it involves a genuine
engagement with conflicting perspectives and a recognition that others usually have coherent reasons for believing
what they do. But even when we
recognize the reasonableness of other
perspectives, we might conclude that
competing arguments have a stronger
case. Teachers need to help students
understand that reasonable doesn’t necessarily equal right.
Consider the debates over govern-
mental fiscal policy and the religious
arguments that have been made in sup-
port of competing sides of the issue.
Advocates for increased social spend-
ing cite scriptural admonitions to care
for the poor and vulnerable, whereas
those who seek spending cuts argue
diversity should also provide comfort
to teachers—they don’t need to feel
responsible for providing the definitive
viewpoint for any particular religion
because there typically isn’t any.
religious beliefs. But that doesn’t mean
there’s no place for critical engagement
with religion. Teachers should help students focus on the civic implications of
religious beliefs, regardless of whether
they endorse them.
Here are some vital questions for
the public school curriculum. Given
the inevitable conflicts among different
ways of life—and the impossibility of
everyone changing their minds to agree
with one another—how do we craft a
civic life together? Where can we compromise or accommodate? And when
do we let the democratic process create
winners or losers, while remaining committed to continuing the conversation?
An exploration of the arguments surrounding abortion rights, for example,
will need to acknowledge the religious
sources of many citizens’ desire to see
abortion outlawed. But it’s beyond the
expertise of most public school teachers, and certainly beyond their ethical
prerogative, to subject those religious
reasons to theological critique (for
example, Does the Bible really condemn
abortion?). Instead, the relevant civic
questions are these: Given these conflicting perspectives among citizens,
how should we use the power of the
state to regulate abortion (or not)? Are
there areas of agreement, potential for
common ground, or possibilities for
accommodation? There’s certainly a
place for insider critique of religious
texts and interpretations, but that place
is not the public school.
5. Focus on the civic implications,
not the beliefs themselves.
Public schools are not the place for
debating the truth or falsehood of
6. Public and private mix
but shouldn’t match.
Focusing on the civic implications of
religion—what it means for our common life together—is a crucial distinction for civic multilingualism. It doesn’t
ask students to question the core of
their religious beliefs or how they practice those beliefs in their private lives.
Instead, it asks us all to recognize that
the application of private beliefs to civic
life together will often be a matter of