Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pierre Manent on Republicanism

From his very interesting article in the latest issue of First Things, "The Tragedy of the Republic," in which Manent explores some of the themes of Shakespeare's Roman plays in describing the nature of a republic:

The first political dimension is especially disagreeable and bitter for us, but for this reason it is particularly useful: The principle of the republic is aristocratic; the spirit of those who govern a republic is aristocratic pride, the pride of the few who are capable and virtuous. Coriolanus takes this pride to the point of insolence and furor, but it remains the general principle of the regime. The life of the republic rests on the emulation of those who judge themselves to be the most capable of governing the city and who expect from the city honors proportionate to their service. This aristocratic character belongs to the essence of a self-governing political body, one that wishes to be governed by the best. The modern device of representation is designed to manufacture artificially, with the consent of the many, a few who are capable, if not virtuous.

April 21, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

On The Boy Who Cried Wolf Hypothesis (Further Thoughts in Response To Rob)

A couple of further thought in response to Rob, with whom I am greatly enjoying an exchange concerning perceptions of discrimination against Christians.

First, Rob writes that Christians are "lead[ing] the charge" against Muslims in some communities, citing conservative Christian support for so-called anti-Sharia laws and for the denial of zoning permits for the construction of mosques. I wonder if this is true. No doubt some conservative Christians do support these policies. But some say that those leading the charge today against immigrants, and those most hostile toward Muslims (and African Americans, and others, too), from the right tend to be non-Christians, not Christians. Rob suggests that the failure of some conservative Christians to advocate against, e.g., anti-Sharia laws might "smooth the way for the demonization of conservative Christians." Perhaps that is true, but the point assumes that politics rewards a kind of principled, rational consistency (I have disagreed with Tom Berg in a similar way before, regarding his view that politics rewards reciprocality and consistency). Conservative Christians, the argument seems to say, are likelier to be rewarded with non-demonization if they support the non-demonization of another group. But it seems to me that the real reasons for Christian demonization are located in very different places than these, and that the question of whether Christians will or will not be demonized as a political and/or cultural matter depends on much more powerful political and cultural forces. To name two: the cultural desires and aspirations of the secular left and of religiously disengaged conservatism.

Second, Rob says that Christians should be "specific and restrained" in pointing out discrimination against Christians. The reason is that "our too-easy embrace of that narrative [of discrimination and/or persecution]...can limit its power when we need it most." I don't think I agree with this point, but whether I could agree with it or not would depend upon facts I don't presently possess. The point being pressed by Rob could be called "the boy who cried wolf" hypothesis--the more frequently Christians point out episodes of discrimination and/or persecution against themselves, the more likely they are to be labeled "whiners" or some similarly dismissive appellation by their cultural and political opponents, and the less likely they will be to succeed when they invoke the charge of discrimination and/or persecution when it "really" happens. But why should one think that invoking discrimination is like this? To the contrary, why should one not think that the more one invokes the discrimination/persecution charge, the more powerful it becomes. And the less frequently one invokes it, the less plausible it seems (as, indeed, it seemed very implausible to the Washington State Supreme Court in the example Rob cites, notwithstanding what are to me the entirely persuasive arguments that Rob himself makes). You could call it the muscle hypothesis--the more you exercise, the stronger you get. There are many other examples of the power that the charge of discrimination can generate on behalf of a cause as a legal and political matter. Indeed, constitutional law (among other areas) is absolutely stuffed to the gills with them. If the objective is legal or political success, I'm not sure that I would accept the boy who cried wolf hypothesis as just self-evidently true, at least not without further evidence that this is, in fact, the likely outcome of "too many" claims of discrimination/persecution. In this instance, less may not be more. More may be more.

March 14, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Monday, March 13, 2017

Disagreement With Rob

I see things a little differently than Rob does in his latest post concerning discrimination against Christians. I hasten to add that I am neither an Evangelical conservative Christian nor have I ever listened to Christian rock. I also have not read the original piece to which Rob links. The disagreements run to a number of issues, and as to some I am not sure they are disagreements at all. But for purposes of this post, let me point out three:

  1. Objection from demandingness: Rob says that "[i]f millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground." I am not sure this argument is correct. A person could perceive certain threats to religious liberty and not others, and still make contributions to the protection of religious liberty. He or she could defend certain principles in certain contexts and not in others, and still help toward the defense of those principles. That person need not have to perceive all threats, as well as the relative strength of those threats, and make all possible defenses. But Rob seems to say that if one does not do this, then one is contributing to the weakening of religious liberty. That imposes a very high standard on people to perceive accurately the quality of all threats and defend religious liberty accordingly. Otherwise they are weakening religious freedom.
  2. Global context: Rob may not have been saying this, but I also do not agree that Americans should recognize that discrimination and persecution of Christians is, at least as a global phenomenon, of lesser importance or significance or urgency than discrimination against other religious groups. In fact, if anything it is secular Americans, not Evangelical Christians, who fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats to religious freedom are aimed. Those threats are aimed at Christians in the Mideast. The American political regime that preceded this one consistently, almost willfully, misperceived that threat to religious freedom. Many American Christians seem not to perceive the atrocities that have been and are occurring to their co-religionists, and that my colleague, Mark Movsesian (among others), has documented. But I am not sure that I blame them for this. Here again, I revert to the first point of disagreement. It will be very difficult to protect religious freedom if every person has to accurately assess the relative strength of various threats to religious freedom and protect them in corresponding proportion. Whose metrics will be used? What happens when we disagree about the relative power of the threats? Is it not better to allow for different constituencies to emphasize and advocate for different problem issues? Is it not a more realistic approach that might result in the collective strengthening of religious freedom?
  3. Just Wait Until It's Worse!: Finally, I disagree with an implication of Rob's post: that until Christians in this country have it as bad as other constituencies, they need to recognize their own relatively insignificant lot and wait for things to get worse before they can really start to complain. Rob almost certainly did not mean to say this, but the argument he makes reminds me very much of the 'now that's real persecution' style of argument. It is of course true that people ought to be concerned with severe violations of religious freedom. But I do not think it is true that people ought to measure or evaluate the state of their own religious freedom only by comparison with its worst violations. There is inevitably a kind of recursion to the lowest common denominator in these kinds of arguments, a suggestion that until American Christians endure the same sorts of threats as others, they are just "whining." I must say that this argument (as I've written before) has always been mysterious and borderline perverse to me. Assuming the threats to religious liberty (as in point 1) to be of differential urgency, why is it necessary for those threats to become much, much worse before we will acknowledge their legitimacy?

UPDATE: Apropos, an interesting column by Damon Linker today on the very subject of "Why so many conservative Christians feel like a persecuted minority."

March 13, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An Atheist and a Monk Discuss Church-State Separation and the Justification of Punishment

In preparation for an upcoming conference on Russian traditionalism, I thought it was a good moment to pick up Dotoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." In a fairly early part of the book, I came across the following incredible exchange between Ivan Karamazov and the Orthodox monk "Elder," Father Zossima, concerning the separation of church and state and its effect on the justification of criminal punishment. It's as interesting and useful a reflection (particularly by the monk) on these issues as one can find anywhere:

"If everything became the Church, the Church would exclude all the criminal and the disobedient, and would not cut off their hands," Ivan went on. "I ask you, what would become of the excluded? He would be cut off then, not only from men, as now, but from Christ. By his crime he would have transgressed not only against men but against the Church of Christ. This is so even now, of course, strictly speaking, but it is not clearly enunciated, and very, very often the criminal of today compromises with his conscience: 'I steal,' he says, 'but I don't go against Church. I'm not an enemy of Christ.' That's what the criminal of today is continually saying to himself, but when the Church takes the place of the State it will be difficult for him, in opposition to the Church all over the world, to say: 'All men are mistaken, all in error, all mankind are the false Church. I, a thief and murderer, am the only true Christian Church.' It will be very difficult to say this to himself; it requires a rare combination of unusual circumstances. Now, on the other side, take the Church's own view of crime: is it not bound to renounce the present almost pagan attitude, and to change from a mechanical cutting off of its tainted member for the preservation of society, as at present, into completely and honestly adopting the idea of the regeneration of the man, and of his reformation and salvation?"

....

"Yes, but you know in reality it is so now," said the elder suddenly, and all turned to him at once. "If it were not for the Church of Christ there would be nothing to restrain the criminal from evil-doing, no real chastisement for it afterwards; none, that is, but the mechanical punishment spoken of just now, which in the majority of cases only embitters the heart; and not the real punishment, the only effectual one, the only deterrent and softening one, which lies in the recognition of sin by conscience....

"[A]ll these sentences to exile with hard labor, and formerly with flogging also, reform no one, and what's more deter hardly a single criminal, and the number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase....Consequently the security of society is not preserved, for, although the obnoxious member is mechanically cut off and sent far away out of sight, another criminal always comes to take his place at once, and often two of them. If anything does preserve society, even in our time, and does regenerate and transform the criminal, it is only the law of Christ speaking in his conscience. It is only by recognizing his wrongdoing as a son of a Christian society--that is, of the Church--that he recognizes his sin against society--that is, against the Church. So that it is only against the Church, and not against the State, that the criminal of today can recognize that he has sinned. If society, as a Church, had jurisdiction then it would know whom to bring back from exclusion and to reunite to itself. Now the Church having no real jurisdiction, but only the power of moral condemnation, withdraws of her own accord from punishing the criminal actively. She does not excommunicate him but simply persists in fatherly exhortation of him. What is more, the Church even tries to preserve all Christian communion with the criminal. She admits him to church services, to the holy sacrament, gives him alms, and treats him more as a captive than as a convict. And what would become of the criminal, O Lord, if even the Christian society--that is, the Church--were to reject him even as the civil law rejects him and cuts him off? What would become of him if the Church punished him with her excommunication as the direct consequence of the secular law?

"There could be no more terrible despair, at least for a Russian criminal, for Russian criminals still have faith. Though, who knows, perhaps then a fearful thing would happen, perhaps the despairing heart of the criminal would lose its faith and then what would become of him? But the Church, like a tender, loving mother, holds aloof from active punishment herself, as the sinner is too severely punished already by the civil law, and there must be at least someone to have pity on him. The Church holds aloof, above all, because its judgment is the only one that contains the truth, and therefore cannot practically and morally be united to any other judgment even as a temporary compromise. She can enter into no compact about that. The foreign criminal, they say, rarely repents, for the very doctrines of today confirm him in the idea that his crime is not a crime, but only a reaction against an unjustly oppressive force. Society cuts him off completely by a force that triumphs over him mechanically and (so at least they say of themselves in Europe) accompanies this exclusion with hatred, forgetfulness, and the most profound indifference as to the ultimate fate of the erring brother. In this way, it all takes place without the compassionate intervention of the Church, for in many cases there are no churches there at all, for though ecclesiastics and splendid church buildings remain, the churches themselves have long ago striven to pass from Church into State and to disappear in it completely. So it seems at least in the Lutheran countries. As for Rome, it was proclaimed a State instead of a Church a thousand years ago. And so the criminal is no longer conscious of being a member of the Church, and sinks into despair. If he returns to society, often it is with such hatred that society itself instinctively cuts him off. You can judge for yourself how it must end....

"What was said here just now is true too, that is, that if the jurisdiction of the Church were introduced in practice in its full force, that is, if the whole of the society were changed into the Church, not only the judgment of the Church would have influence on the reformation of the criminal such as it never has now, but possibly also the crimes themselves would be incredibly diminished. And there can be no doubt that the Church would look upon the criminal and the crime of the future in many cases quite differently and would succeed in restoring the excluded, in restraining those who plan evil, and in regenerating the fallen. It is true," said Father Zossima, with a smile, "the Christian society now is not ready and is only resting on some seven righteous men, but as they are never lacking, it will continue still unshaken in expectation of its complete transformation from a society almost heathen in character into a single universal and all-powerful Church. So be it, so be it!"

February 28, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Monday, February 27, 2017

Danish Blasphemy Prosecution for Koran Burning

Here's a fascinating story in the New York Times about a prosecution in Denmark for blasphemy, against a man who burned a Koran and posted his burning to Facebook. It seems that blasphemy laws remain on the Danish books, notwithstanding that the country is, by all accounts, very secular. Though the decision to charge was made at the local level, it has been ratified by Denmark's attorney general.  

No one has been convicted under the Danish blasphemy laws since 1946, when the law was used to prosecute a man who dressed up as a priest and mock "baptized" a doll.

A few thoughts:

1. Apparently the defendant had been charged initially with a "hate speech" crime, but the charge was subsequently changed to blasphemy. Perhaps hate speech is a lesser included offense? The linear continuity of hate speech with blasphemy is itself worthy of a separate article. Indeed, as I have argued at length, but as Tocqueville said more pithily, freedom never governs without faith. The only real question for a society that enjoys some speech protections is for what ends speech will be restricted, not whether it will restrict it at all. Of course, it will. And it seems altogether natural that the proscription on hate speech would in the end find its fullest and most complete expression in the zealotry (I use the term neutrally) of an anti-blasphemy law. (Parenthetically, the man also stated that he hated children. That seems rather sweeping, and perhaps worthy of its own hate speech prosecution. Perhaps if he had said, "I hate some children," one might be more sympathetic.)

2. Denmark of course has a recent history of conflict with Islam, as in the infamous Mohammed cartoon incident about 10 years ago that resulted in no charges, and, as the story says, "deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark." Perhaps, for these and other reasons, Denmark has come to a different conclusion today. Still, it's clear from the story that the burning of a Bible is legal, since in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on television and nobody batted an eye. Perhaps what Denmark really needs is to refine its blasphemy laws--to give more detailed guidance about which religious texts may be defiled with impunity and which must be let alone. One thing that Denmark should not do: abandon blasphemy laws. It will only send such laws underground, and similar policies will be enforced through other means without the honesty of calling them what they are (vide, e.g., hate speech).

3.  The defendant's lawyer seems to be making the utterly bizarre claim that the man acted in "self-defense" in burning the Koran, because the Koran contains language about how Mohammed's followers "must kill the infidel." I don't know the Danish law of self-defense, but this strikes me as a highly unusual principle of proportionality. But I suppose we need to know about the physical assaults committed by the Koran on this poor man in order properly to judge the self-defense claim.

4. Don't miss the wonderful comments of Professor Per Mouritsen, who with one side of his mouth tells us that "blasphemy law is a thing of the past" and with the other tells the Times that in Denmark, "the very idea that religion is taken seriously is the antithesis of being a good citizen." Perhaps Denmark should adopt laws authorizing the state-enforced (but nondiscriminatory, of course) burning of all holy books. It could be done on a state holiday. Call it "Conflagration Sunday." 

February 27, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Gorsuch on Intention, the Formation of Character, and the Western Legal Tradition

Michael has already quoted a passage from Judge Neil Gorsuch's chapter in the Finnis festschrift (Reason, Morality, and Law (Keown & George, eds. 2013)). Here's another one that caught my attention (419-20):

Not only does Finnis help us to see that the traditional intent-knowledge distinction in law bears analytical power overlooked by its critics. He also helps expose the undergirding normative reasons for the law's traditional cognizance of intention. He reminds us, for example, that some of the law's harshest punishments are often (and have long been) reserved for intentional wrongs precisely because to intend something is to endorse it as a matter of free will--and freely choosing something matters. Our intentional choices reflect and shape our character--who we are and who we wish to be--in a way that unintended or accidental consequences cannot. Our intentional choices define us. They last, remain as part of one's will, one's orientation toward the world. They differ qualitatively from consequences that happen accidentally, unintentionally....

This is a view, of course, that has long and deeply resonated through American and British jurisprudence, and indeed the Western tradition. It is precisely why the law treats the spring gun owner who maims or kills intentionally so differently from the negligent driver whose conduct yields the same result. As Roscoe Pound once put it, our "substantive criminal law is," at least at minimum, "based upon a theory of punishing the vicious will. It postulates a free agent confronted with a choice between doing right and doing wrong."

And then from Professor Finnis's reflection on Judge Gorsuch's chapter (564-65), which comments interestingly on the tendency of tort law to wipe out the distinction between intention and foreseeability:

The underlying point is that--put at its briefest--what is intended so figures in the acting person's proposal that it is adopted--chosen and made his or her own, as end and/or means--in the adopting of the proposal, whereas the side effects, however foreseeable and foreseen and perhaps very 'directly' caused, are not adopted, but only accepted or permitted.

February 2, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Symposium Papers on Law and Religion in an Increasingly Polarized America

The Lewis and Clark Law Review, with the guidance of Professor Jim Oleske, has put together a very nice symposium on Law and Religion in an Increasingly Polarized America. Very interesting papers by Kathleen Brady, Kent Greenawalt, Jessie Hill, Andy Koppelman, Ron Krotoszynski, Chip Lupu and Bob Tuttle, Jim Oleske, and Robin Wilson.

I've got a piece in there too, Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization, which takes a somewhat critical look at the religious accommodation regime from, as it were, the other side. 

February 1, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Thoughts on Conference on "Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom"

I am just back from a conference at Yale Law School organized jointly by Professors Robin Wilson and Bill Eskridge on "Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom," and I offer here some general thoughts about the presentations and the nature of the conference. While the conference's rules do not permit me to get into specifics about who said what, my overall impression is that it was a gathering of academics, politicians, religious leaders, and practitioners drawn from a comparatively broad spectrum of political, religious, and cultural opinion. Robin and Bill are to be commended, in my view, for that balance--always difficult to achieve to everyone's satisfaction.

One of the conference's launch points was the fairly recent report by the US Commission on Civil Rights entitled, "Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles With Civil Liberties," but which did not contain, in my view, very much sound advice for achieving peaceful coexistence or reconciliation. All of the panels concerned the topic of achieving modus vivendi arrangements for the proper legal accommodation of rights of religious liberty and rights of sexual freedom and equality. This has been a large and important part of Robin's own policy work over the last few years, and the so-called Utah Compromise was studied and considered in this respect. 

Two things stood out for me in particular.

First, one of the more interesting debates among the group, and, it seems to me, going forward, is about the baseline question of what constitutes the sort of discrimination that the law ought to proscribe in the first place. Once a particular judgment is found to be proscribable discrimination (I suppose the term is "invidious"), the result is all but foreordained. Some argued that the motivation for a particular discrimination is irrelevant; so long as the effect is adverse action against a person within a designated protected category, that ought to be sufficient. Others returned that this was in effect stacking the deck. The first question must be whether somebody has engaged in invidious discrimination at all, and that this is not a question about motivation but about how we properly describe the discrimination that the person has made. Barronelle Stutzman's case is one example of this sort of debate, and this brief authored by Professor Steve Smith addresses the question. But the larger issue of the baseline affects many sorts of discriminations that people make in other contexts. Suppose, for example, that a hospital refuses to perform a surgery to remove the healthy uterus of a woman who identifies as transgender and desires to become a man. Is that the sort of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that the law should condemn? Or is it nothing of the kind--is it simply a judgment that hospitals do not remove healthy uteruses--and certainly nothing like a hospital's refusal to perform heart bypass surgery on a woman who identifies as transgender? 

Second, one of the pervasive themes of the conference was the conflict between perfectionist and anti-perfectionist accounts of liberalism, and whether perfectionist liberalism is in its ascendancy at the moment. As is well-known, Robin, in her work with others like Professor Douglas Laycock and some of our own MOJ colleagues, has worked tirelessly to hammer out compromises that reflect a judicious anti-perfectionist liberalism. But my sense, in some ways confirmed by this conference, is that perfectionist accounts of liberalism (indeed, perfectionist accounts of politics in general) cannot really ever be sidelined. My own inclinations have always been rather pessimistic when it comes to true pluralism in a liberal democratic nation, even as I deeply appreciate the work of Robin and others. I believe strongly that the expressive and symbolic power of the law is an extremely important feature of it--what the law says about its people, what its people are proud of it to say, always lurks as a sort of subtext beneath the surface of whatever modus vivendi arrangements we might achieve. It is a mistake to ignore that subtext, as it will otherwise only come frothing and bubbling up at unexpected moments.

My own presentation involved what is seemingly a somewhat esoteric topic--Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli--which begins with the statement that "[T]he government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion." Part of my talk involved the history of Article XI (which is fascinating) but part suggested that the fight over American identity that the phrase (and many phrases like it) has come to represent--and the symbolic and expressive force of the law--is both a substantial impediment to anti-perfectionist liberal democratic governance and an inevitable and important feature of any government worth the name. More on this soon, I hope.

January 15, 2017 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Four Pieces on the Culture War--Inevitable, Interminable, Permanent

For one reason or another, a number of people in the blogosphere have been writing culture war posts in the last few days. Perhaps it's the end of the year, or the looming political changes, or exam avoidance, or just the holiday cheer. For those who are interested, have a look at Mark Tushnet's recent post, Paul Horwitz's response, and this rather grim comment by R.J. Snell--all of them culture war related.

But the piece I really want to highlight is alluded to in the Snell post--Philip Rieff's "The Newer Noises of War in the Second Culture Camp: Notes on Professor Burt's Legal Fictions," published in 1991 and in response to Robert Burt's then-recent book, "Two Jewish Justices: Outcasts in the Promised Land." I cannot do justice to the entire piece, but here is a fragment that is, in its way, responsive to each of the three posts above:

Let there be fight? And there was. And there is. James Joyce's pun, on the words of Jewish second world creation, Genesis 1:3, is more than mildly amusing; it gives readers the most exact and concise account I know of the sociological form of culture. Culture is the form of fighting before the firing actually begins. Every culture declares peace on its own inevitably political terms. Unless a culture is defeated politically, as the Jewish was from the Roman conquest to the founding of Israel, it will assert itself politically. A living culture, even one that imitates life by politicizing its cultural impoverishment, works for itself. That cultural work is the matter and manner of disarming competing cultures, inside and outside its previously bounded self. In its disarming manner, a culture makes the ultimate political means of enforcement, armed force, unnecessary....

12) Kulturkampf. The German compound word for the disarming force/form of culture has an awkward English equivalent: culture/struggle. As I remarked in the first note, the punning polemical genius of Joyce brought him closer than any sociologist I know to both the formal fighting sense of culture and its superordinate creative sense. It is in that both/and that the historical task of culture is always and everywhere the same: the creation of a world in which its inhabitants may find themselves at home and yet accommodate the stranger without yielding their habitus to him. Here and now, pluralism has its price: a united front of second against third world assaults [for Rieff's discussion of first, second, and third worlds, see earlier in the piece], which are often mounted in the name of pluralism.

13) Origins of kulturkampf. Law is the ultimate weapon, before any turn to harder ware, in a kulturkampf. That word first appeared in common German use in the early 1870's during the struggle of the National Liberal political party to disarm by law the moral/educational authority, and political pulpitry, of a triumphalist Roman Catholic hierarchy, revitalized as it then was by its dogma of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The aim of the National Liberals was to shift the German Catholic imagination away from the church to the state. The Pope responded to newly restrictive laws by forbidding clerical conformity to them. In turn, the state dismissed clerical resisters from their duties and, moreover, suspended their state salaries. Elites of the kulturstaat, both Catholic and Protestant, then learned a fatally rational and enduring lesson: the high price of being other than indifferent to the temptation of opposing the machtstaat.

December 22, 2016 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ashley Berner on her book, "Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School"

Over at the Law and Religion Forum, my colleague, Mark Movsesian, has an interview with Ashley Berner, professor and deputy director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins School of Education, concerning her new book, Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School. Here's a bit from the conversation:

L&R Forum: You argue for “educational pluralism,” which you say is a “middle path” between state-sponsored uniformity and a libertarian, privatized model. Could you explain what you mean? How would educational pluralism work in practice?

Berner: Educational pluralism asks us to de-couple funding schools and operating schools. Thus in the Netherlands, only 30% of students attend state-funded, state-operated schools, while the rest attend schools that are funded and regulated by the state but operated by non-state institutions. Educational pluralism also requires regulatory guardrails that apply to all schools, thus ensuring some level of coherence across (for instance) content and assessments and sometimes admissions.

That’s why I think of it as a middle path: education is a public good (hence state-mandated requirements) that may be provided by a variety of civic organizations (religious or otherwise).

L&R Forum: Most Americans think that uniform public education is necessary to promote good citizenship. Yet civic knowledge among public school students is appallingly low. Why the mismatch between theory and practice? What benefits would educational pluralism offer in this respect?

Berner: Citizenship formation includes specific knowledge (How does the government work?), specific skills (How do I write my Congressperson?), attachment and participation (Why is this country/state/city worth participating in?), and tolerance (How can we respectfully disagree?). Cultivating the above requires a robust academic program and the possibility of classroom debate. Yet many of our schools – public and private – undervalue the content and skills required to engage in the democratic process. Do schools insist that all students know the basic tenets of the Constitution? Or understand the separation of powers? Or can name the capital of every state? What about actually learning a foreign language and knowing world geography inside out? Our public schools don’t even come close, and plenty of non-public schools undervalue rigorous content.

A second reason may be that many schools struggle to articulate the why’s for students, a point that James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character (2000) drives home. Citizenship requires duty to something greater than oneself. In schools with strong normative cultures, the “greater than” is simply more readily available than it in a supposedly neutral school. Scott Seider’s Character Compass (2012) takes us inside three Boston charter schools whose core commitments draw upon Aristotelian, Pacific Rim, and performance ethics, each of which shapes their respective traditions and rituals.

Educational pluralism simply foregrounds the role that values and commitments play in school culture. The structure of educational pluralism does not solve the problem of citizenship formation by itself. It does, however, create space for schools that are organized around explicit normative claims. And in general, non-public schools provide richer academic content than do district schools. Put these two factors together, and the odds are that pluralizing the school system will yield better civic outcomes.

December 20, 2016 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink