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Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools

reviewed by Lucille Eckrich - July 05, 2006

coverTitle: Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools
Author(s): Robert Kunzman
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791466868, Pages: 168, Year: 2006
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Four years of teaching foundations of education courses led me to realize that many preservice teachers struggle to understand and mediate between their dual identities as religious persons and (soon-to-be) public school teachers. Our classroom discussions on topics such as gay issues in schools, multicultural diversity, and the distinctions among socialization, education, and indoctrination would raise the antennae of some religious students, and yet religion seemed to remain between the lines, a subtext that none of us quite knew how to broach in the classroom. Thus last year, instead of leaving religion on the periphery, I decided it was time to work with it as an explicit part of my foundations of education curriculum. I knew that teachers who had not had the opportunity to grapple with their own religious or ethical frameworks in the classroom would be hard pressed to know whether and how to help their own pupils to do so.

My initial perusal of the available literature on religion and schooling in the U.S. led me to select Kent Greenawalt’s (2005) Does God Belong in Public Schools? as a course text. Informed by both constitutional law and educational principles, Greenawalt describes and critically examines the history of Supreme Court cases that have applied the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses to wide-ranging curricular and non-curricular disputes related to religion in U.S. public schools. He concludes that teaching about religion(s) is not only constitutionally permissible but also educationally necessary, provided teachers are well prepared to do so, remain neutral and open in the process, and do not teach religious propositions as true or false.

While Greenawalt’s text is invaluable reading for teachers and teacher educators who need to know the terrain of church/state relations with respect to public education, much more is needed by those among us who want to learn to do what Greenawalt advocates and not shy away from the controversial matters that will inevitably arise. Robert Kunzman’s (2006) Grappling with the Good takes us a long way toward achieving this goal. Although these two books share a common focus and agree on the educational grounds for grappling with religion in public schools, Kunzman’s project is fundamentally different from Greenawalt’s. Whereas Greenawalt makes a legal argument that, to maintain constitutionally mandated neutrality, public schools should teach about religion and other metaphysical frameworks, Kunzman makes a moral case for attending to religious and ethical perspectives across the curriculum. Furthermore, while Kunzman also addresses his text to public school educators, I find it refreshingly relevant for educators and students in private or home school contexts as well, at least for those who espouse democracy. Finally, while well grounded in philosophy, Kunzman conceives what he calls Ethical Dialogue as part of multicultural education (see pp. 44, 46-7, 60, 128).

So what does Kunzman do and how does he do it? Grappling with the Good describes and justifies “Ethical Dialogue” as a difficult and, on its own, insufficient but necessary approach to ethical education in a liberal democracy. He writes:  “Ethical Dialogue involves cultivating empathic understanding of unfamiliar ethical perspectives and then engaging in thoughtful, civic deliberation in light of this understanding” (p. 6). It entails learning to practice what he calls “imaginative engagement” and “civic deliberation” across the curriculum, especially in the face of disagreement. The body of the book—chapters 3-6—develops the moral justifications for and pedagogical processes of such engagement and deliberation. Preceded by an Introduction, chapter 2 presents a brief social and constitutional history of how U.S. public schools have come to “evade the ethical.” Followed by a Conclusion, chapter 7 explores our need to prepare teachers to have the capacity, commitment, and collaboration conducive for Ethical Dialogue.

One weakness at the outset of Kunzman’s moral justification for Ethical Dialogue is his claim that our public schools, their curricula, our liberal democracy, and any good society are founded on the principle of mutual respect (pp. 34, 36; see also pp. 45, 59, 61, 114). While he quickly admits this is a “starting assumption” or “foundational premise” for his argument (p. 36), two pages earlier it appeared more as an empirical claim, though one made without citing a single school code, constitutional clause, or other founding document as its source. Because of the pithy case he makes for respectful mutual understanding as a self-sufficient moral claim about how human beings should live together (36-43), and because of the adversarial or agonistic approach to democracy that we can witness in the public square today (as he discusses in pp. 92-93), I do not think he is justified in assuming mutual respect from the outset. Doing so allows all who do not buy this starting point to discount everything that follows and to excuse themselves from the conversation. The fact that some among us refuse to honor reciprocity and instead rely solely on tactical politics (as he notes in pp. 112-118) means mutual respect is not something we can afford to presume. Fortunately, we need not because, as I said, Kunzman makes a strong case for mutual respect and understanding as moral norms for how we should live together.

Kunzman’s conception of Ethical Dialogue—and the mutual respect, imaginative engagement, and civic deliberation it comprises—is rooted in a neo-Kantian combination of the universal and the particular, a Rawlsian understanding of reasonableness, and the civic virtues of deliberative democracy. Although he holds (pp. 86, 127, 129) that neither K–12 students nor their teachers need to know the technical terms philosophers use to make important distinctions and develop key concepts in order to engage in Ethical Dialogue, he spends much of chapters 3-6 laying these terms out in a manner that is very readable and accessible for teachers, graduate students, and motivated upperclassmen. While reading his text without ever engaging in Ethical Dialogue in the classroom would fall far short of equipping students to facilitate such dialogue in their own classrooms, I believe reading this philosophical text will vastly enhance the abilities and motivation of teachers who have engaged in Ethical Dialogue to facilitate it themselves.

One contribution Kunzman makes to the moral/political philosophy he lays out is to show that understanding is vital for respect whenever disagreement or conflict is encountered and that understanding entails appraisal (pp. 38-41). While the requirements of respect in everyday interactions with strangers, colleagues, and associates are often not very demanding, when we experience conflict, “we will need to understand each other’s ethical projects more fully if mutual respect is to be maintained” (p. 39). Such respect and understanding is the reason for and goal of imaginative engagement, which is the first element of Ethical Dialogue. “Respectful engagement with different ethical frameworks needs to include critical evaluation (lest it be empty patronizing), but this evaluation must first rest on an ongoing effort toward imaginative understanding of those diverse frameworks” (p. 59). “The goal of imaginative engagement is to lay the groundwork that enables students to recognize the reasonableness of differing points of view” (p. 62). In addition to his insightful fleshing out of what such deep appreciation entails (pp. 60-68), Kunzman discusses first-person accounts, role-plays, field experiences, and the use of art and stories as pedagogical techniques for encouraging fuller imaginative understanding among our students (pp. 66-72).

Kunzman also contributes key conceptual distinctions. One of these distinguishes among private, civic, and political. These are terms used in a variety of ways both in ordinary language and by political theorists. Thus, it is necessary for Kunzman to stipulate how he uses them. He explains:

The private refers to the realm in which our own ethical perspectives, our own ideas about the good life, hold sway and are most often shared by others—the areas of family, religious groups, communal associations, and so on. The civic is the setting where our various ethical frameworks interact with those who do not necessarily share our ethical outlook, where we work out how we are going to live together in society. Public schools are one of the key elements of this civic realm. Within this civic sphere we must identify an extremely important subset, the political realm. The broader civic realm is where we seek to express and explore the diversity of viewpoints in our society—the emphasis here is on understanding and evaluation rather than on making decisions that invoke the power of the state. This latter element is the purview of the political realm, which involves the use of state power in determining how we will live together. (pp. 80-81)

While it is possible to quibble about these conceptions (for instance, is not the political also at play in contexts other than governmental, where it invokes powers of other authorities such as the pope, bishops, elders and priests, principals, deans and presidents, bosses and owners?), what is most important for grasping the value of the book is to understand what the author means and why he means it. Kunzman emphasizes these distinctions to stress that the civic realm and civic speech are far broader than simply political. “That is, decisions about the use of state power (perhaps to coerce those who disagree) are only a small part of the larger civic dialogue where we share our various ethical perspectives and seek ways to live together in mutual respect” (p. 82). And, he continues, public schools are a prime setting for this civic dialogue to occur, for “to expect respectful engagement by citizens who have not had the opportunity to develop the skills and virtues of Ethical Dialogue in the public educational realm seems unrealistic” (p. 139).

Another of Kunzman’s conceptual distinctions that I find heuristically useful is between two types of believers: seekers and rooted adherents (pp. 54-55). Without providing precise definitions, he describes seekers as believers for whom “having some sort of spiritual faith is far more important than the doctrinal details or legacy of a tradition,” and adherents as believers whose sense of self is “inextricably linked” with their religion (or belief system), the roots of which “extend deep within a community of belief and practice” (p. 54). The fact that both are well represented in our society—in both religious and secular versions, with countless instances of each—contributes greatly to the challenge of Ethical Dialogue. Yet, understanding whether one’s discussion partner is a religious or spiritual seeker, a deeply rooted adherent of a particular faith, a firm atheist, a thoughtful agnostic, or a spiritual humanist, for example, will take one a long way toward achieving respectful understanding by recognizing that each of these ethical frameworks is reasonable and may influence that person’s stance on a particular issue.

Kunzman pays particular attention in this book to religion in part because he thinks much ethical education in public schools is “unhelpfully tilted toward a seeker mentality,” in effect devaluing rooted religious identity (p. 54; see also pp. 109-112). To the extent that public schools present students with more ethical alternatives than they encounter outside their schools, teachers who want to foster Ethical Dialogue need to recognize that this exposure may be confusing if not threatening to at least some of them and their parents. Sensitivity to this reality, Kunzman holds, includes understanding that “revision of one’s ethical framework is not an inherent good” (p. 57). He continues:

The rooted adherent, whose ethical sources often rely on tradition and community beyond her own individuality, must have these commitments respected as well. While a certain willingness to engage with ethical diversity is essential for true dialogue, this need not presume that ethical revision should always emerge from it. In many cases, the wiser outcome may well be to adhere to one’s prior ethical framework. (p. 57; see also pp. 62, 110-116)

In like manner, to the extent that private and home schools present their children with fewer ethical alternatives than they encounter outside their schools, teachers in those contexts who espouse democracy have just as much reason and responsibility to prepare their children for citizenship amidst that diversity.

One of the minor shortcomings of the book, which deserves rectification in any revised edition, is its inadequate depiction of the Rawlsian concept of “burdens of judgment.” In portraying the second element of Ethical Dialogue—namely, civic deliberation—Kunzman draws on John Rawls’ (1993) conception of reasonableness, which involves accepting what Rawls calls reciprocity and the burdens of judgment. Kunzman explains that the latter “does not mean that all perspectives will be equally valid, but rather that the limits of human reason often prevent a singular answer that is clear to all reasonable parties” (p. 85). But he never makes clear what these “limits of human reason” are. One has to turn to Rawls himself to discern that they are the sources, or causes, of reasonable disagreement (Rawls, 1993, p. 55). They include (a) that pertinent evidence may be conflicting or complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate; (b) that we may agree about which matters are relevant, but disagree about their relative weights; (c) that our concepts are to some degree vague or indeterminate and, thus, we must rely on interpretation and judgment upon which reasonable persons may differ; (d) that to some extent how we each notice and assess evidence and weigh values is shaped by the totality of our experience, which is different for each of us; (e) that we sometimes see multiple sides of an issue and find it difficult ourselves to make an overall assessment; and (f) that we exist within particular social and historical systems that circumscribe the values that can be admitted and the decisions there are to make at a given moment, our lament for yesteryear or untested feasibilities notwithstanding (ibid., pp. 56-57). Given burdens of judgment such as these, it only makes sense that people’s opinions may vary even without factoring in unreasonable sources of disagreement, such as prejudice, self- or group-interest, ignorance, or willful malice. Because of the important role that the concept of burdens of judgment plays in Kunzman’s formulation of Ethical Dialogue, it warrants fuller development in his text. Until that happens in a revised edition, the reader wisely supplements Kunzman’s text with that of Rawls on this point.

While reading Grappling with the Good I found myself wondering about the accuracy of Kunzman’s image of our ethical identities. He claims we each have an underlying framework that reflects what we value, orients and guides our lives, and shapes our identities (p. 35; see also pp. 43, 46-47). Here, he appropriately cites Charles Taylor’s (1989) notion of “narrative to describe the way our identities are shaped over time by a range of experiences and beliefs” (p. 43). He also properly points out we are not as unattached as some of us might think, and that the ethical frameworks of many are connected to broader social communities (p. 44). But I feel he is mistaken to imply that most of us, especially as young adults, are clear about what our own ethical frameworks are, not to mention how they inform our stance on issues. Only once does he note that students might not voice ethical viewpoints informed by religious commitments (p. 50), develop thoughtful positions on particular issues, or realize how their ethical framework informs their positions and others’ theirs (p. 75). For the most part, the book implies students know where they stand, why they stand there, and need Ethical Dialogue to enable them first to understand where their classmates stand, and then to deliberate with them to reasonable decisions on matters that affect us all. Whether or not his image is correct, I wholeheartedly agree it should be by the time they graduate from high school or college, and I think Ethical Dialogue is a prime way to help students come to know themselves as well as their peers.

In Grappling with the Good, Robert Kunzman bequeaths us the gift of insight and wisdom distilled through his 16 years of teaching high school English and studying widely and deeply the philosophical and social foundations of education. He even courageously bears witness in the text to his own learning process by sharing four vignettes that reveal his efforts to facilitate Ethical Dialogue in his own classroom. These real world conversations benefit his book crucially by bringing the theory to life, even if ethnographic research on religion and morality in the classroom—such as Katherine Simon’s (2001) Moral Questions in the Classroom and Sam Intrator’s (2003) Tuned In and Fired Up—is a better vehicle for mining teaching experience than autobiography. But such teacher research was not the primary purpose of Kunzman’s book. Rather, Kunzman offers us an historically informed and pedagogically rich philosophical account of U.S. educators’ professional, moral, and civic responsibility to help their students to engage with religious and other deep ethical sources in order to foster their capacity to hold informed, respectful dialogue across ethical difference. This is a book that all teachers and preservice teachers should read. Combined with Greenawalt’s (2005) text, from which they can grasp the religious and educational value of the U.S. Constitution’s Religion Clauses, Grappling with the Good will enable and encourage teachers to facilitate Ethical Dialogue in their own classrooms.


Greenawalt, K. (2005). Does God belong in public schools? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Intrator, S. M. (2003). Tuned in and fired up: How teaching can inspire real learning in the classroom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Simon, K. G. (2001). Moral questions in the classroom: How to get kids to think deeply about real life and their schoolwork. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12578, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:04:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Lucille Eckrich
    Illinois State University
    LUCILLE ECKRICH is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations at Illinois State University. Recently, she published: "The Inefficiency of the 'Cult of Efficiency': Implications for Public Schooling and Education" in Values and Ethics in Educational Administration, 2(4), 1-8. Her work focuses on value in economics, ethics, and education, especially on our existing monetary relations and the conditions of the possibility of public education.
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