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Linking morality and civic education

Earlier this year, politics professor Stephen Macedo published a new book titled "Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Society" in which he evaluates the goals of the American educational system. He recently sat down with 'Prince' staff writer Bill Beaver.

'Prince': What should the aims of the American educational system be?


Macedo: Among the things that [the book] focused on is the tension between the moral diversity of various communities and the shared aims of political order. The central question I'm focusing on is how do we deal, in a free society, with the particular interest of parents as well as religious and moral communities within society versus the aims of society as a whole. My argument is that there are very deep tensions between various religious and moral communities in society and the political order as a whole. There is a realistic determination that there should be constructed political thinking and political response to this problem of shaping citizens even though it would lead to deep conflicts in society. It has become common values versus the diverse moral perspective.

P: How would you reform our educational system?

M: Near the end of my book I come around to the debate of school vouchers and the question of whether political concerns around schools should be given more weight to parental choice, diversity or school competition. It seems possible that a system could be created to advance our common values. The best public case for shifting tax dollars into a voucher system would be to pursue our public purposes more effectively. There isn't a good argument for vouchers from the point of view of radical diversity. We need to keep in mind the legitimacy of the fundamental purposes of the common school system even if we believe the instrument needs to be redesigned.

P: How do you think religion fits in with your model for civic education?

M: Religious communities in general contribute very positively. There is evidence in a recent book by Robert Putnam called "Bowling Alone" that mainstream churches tend to promote civic engagement and more tolerant attitudes. Not all religious groups contribute beneficially to society, but many do because they are supportive of the basic values of liberal democracy. The fundamental project for our society is not just to respect religious diversity but shape it in such a way that tends to promote congruence or compatibility between these deeply felt religious energies and the political values of the society.

P: Do you think tracking students based on educational ability hinders the debate and discussion you want to foster in schools?


M: The Catholic schools seem to do a better job for many kids by putting everybody in the same academic track together. It has a special advantage for the kids in the lower tracks. They seem to benefit from an institution where everyone is expected to succeed. The Catholic school system seems to have an advantage for those kids that would otherwise be put in the lower track of the public school system.

P: How do you feel Princeton University meets the goals of a civic education?

M: The values of a great university are ones that are closely supportive of this political project because critical and respectful engagements between people with basic differences are crucial. This is a place where students come from a variety of backgrounds. I had a class this past semester . . . with students from conservative southern religious backgrounds, orthodox Jews and even some evangelicals. As I was able to see in my class, the commitment to respectful disagreement and the sense that we can engage in inquiry despite these differences is absolutely crucial to both the University and society.

P: Is there anything the University could do to improve on achieving these goals?

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M: I think we should try to do more to bring to campus speakers with provocative points of view and stimulate debate on campus. I'm involved in a new law program, law and public affairs. We may try to bring to campus some speakers to debate various sides of issues such as abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty and things like that.

P: If you had five minutes with a student or administrator to talk about the American education system, what would you tell him he could do to improve it?

M: My guess is that the inner city schools are more of where the problems are. The one thing I might say . . . is if somehow school districts would become more integrated by class and race. School choice might contribute to that and break down some of the differences between suburb and city, like Westchester and New York. I think the fact is that this model of common schooling where people come together and everyone leaves with equal opportunity has been undermined by patterns of residential segregation. Even if that could be broken down it would make a big difference. Somehow ways should be found in the early stages of education to break down the divides that have gone up around many metropolitan areas . . . there are a lot of people in the suburbs that are just not in contact with the experience of people in the cities. I think it leads to a more politically divided society where people just aren't aware of conditions of in the cities.