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Grappling with the Good

Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools

Robert Kunzman

Publication Year: 2006

Weaving together history, philosophy, and curriculum, Grappling with the Good offers a vision of public education in which students learn to engage respectfully with the diversity of beliefs about how to live together in society. Robert Kunzman argues that we can and should help students learn how to talk about religion and morality, and bring together our differing visions of life. He describes how such an approach might work in the K–12 setting, explores central philosophical principles, and shares his ongoing experiences and insights in helping students to “grapple with the good.”

Published by: State University of New York Press

Grappling with the Good

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pp. iii-

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword

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pp. ix-x

Americans have become accustomed to hearing that public education is in a state of crisis. Unfortunately, agreement about the nature of the crisis is in short supply. On the left of the political spectrum, chronic under-funding for schools, especially the schools of the urban poor, is the prime grievance, with the failures of desegregation coming in a distant...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

What I have to say in this book has emerged in part from my ongoing experiences teaching in public schools, nowhere more importantly than Champlain Valley Union High School in Vermont. I will always be indebted to my friends and colleagues there. Even now, the best part of my day is often the time I spend teaching in the local high school, and..

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1. Introduction

It was early in my high school teaching career, in the middle of a discussion about human cloning. Cheryl had been arguing for limits on scientific research, and her hand shot up again from the back of the classroom. “We shouldn’t play God,” she insisted...

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A DEFINITION OF “ETHICAL EDUCATION”: MORE THAN MORALS

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pp. 2-6

While the subtitle of this book mentions “talking about religion and morality,” some greater precision is necessary as we move forward. Throughout this book, I will use the key term ethical education to represent a much broader realm than is usually meant by the more familiar labels of moral, civic, or character education. This is a crucial distinction...

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THE FOCUS OF THIS BOOK

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pp. 6-8

This book describes and justifies a partial approach to ethical education that I call Ethical Dialogue. I use this label as a shorthand throughout the book, but it does not signify a formal program or technique. Ethical Dialogue involves cultivating empathic understanding of unfamiliar ethical...

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THE STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK

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pp. 8-9

My approach involves an interplay of sorts between theory and practice. Chapter 2 describes the historical and legal terrain of ethical education, arguing that U.S. public schools have moved from a reliance on a single dominant ethical source (pan-Protestantism) to an almost complete...

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A LEARNING PROCESS

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pp. 9-10

It has been sixteen years since I began teaching in public schools, and in this time I’ve thought a great deal about these issues, both from the perspective of a classroom practitioner and an educational theorist. Even now as a university professor, I still teach an eleventh-grade English class in the local public high school, and so am regularly reminded that the challenges...

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2. Evading the Ethical: How We Got Here

The opening pages of this book described one of my own public school teaching experiences when ethical issues arose during discussion, and my hesitation and uncertainty in how to proceed. If I had followed the ethical thread, we could have explored a variety of perspectives about genetic...

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TRACING THE PATH TO AMBIVALENCE

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pp. 12-14

So observed the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and the distinction between neutrality and separation remains a constant negotiation in our national life, nowhere more powerfully and importantly than in our schools. What also seems clear is our continued ambivalence about the...

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COLONIAL ORIGINS AND ETHICAL ASSUMPTIONS

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pp. 15-17

This conviction of Thomas Jefferson, expressed during a presidential letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, has served as a cornerstone legal image of the appropriate role of religion in American society, and nowhere more than public education. While this metaphor has become a familiar one, our understanding...

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COMMON SCHOOLS IN SEARCH OF COMMON ETHICS

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pp. 17-21

The common school movement of the mid-nineteenth century emerged from a political conviction that the growing diversity of the American population— with all the ethical and civic concerns such a phenomenon raised in some citizens—required a strong acculturative mechanism. Of particular concern to educators and politicians alike were the growing number of...

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THE GRADUAL SHIFT TOWARD CIVIL RELIGION

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pp. 21-25

The first U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Bible reading didn’t occur until 1963, but twenty-one states heard cases prior to that, and most ruled the practice constitutional. In the first such case, fifteen-year-old Bridget Donahoe was expelled from her Maine public school for refusing to read the Protestant version of the Bible, and she took her case to court in 1854...

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THE EMERGING WALL OF SEPARATION

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pp. 25-28

This image of “a wall of separation between church and state” has become a classic metaphor and legal concept in American judicial history, but the reality is far more complicated and compromised. As Ronald Thiemann observes with no small irony, “The day Justice Black penned those fateful words, the U.S. Supreme Court was convened with the invocation, ‘God...

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ETHICAL EDUCATION ON THE SECULAR SIDE OF THE WALL

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pp. 28-31

While post-World War II America expressed strong support for ethical education, this commitment began to wane in the 1960s, as a concern for maintaining moral neutrality gained priority along with stronger distinctions between the public and private realms. Added to this was an increasing focus on technological and scientific...

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FROM ENTANGLEMENT TO ENGAGEMENT

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pp. 32-34

Ethical education in the United States prior to the 1960s was a legal, political, and moral failure. On a legal level, judicial challenges resulted in courts affirming a view of disestablishment that justly criticized the dominance of a pan-Protestant ethos in public schools. On a political level, schools and governments...

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3. Why Religion Belongsin Ethical Dialogue

Let’s return for a moment to the Brave New World classroom discussion I described in the book’s opening pages. Cheryl’s assertion that “we shouldn’t play God” was not merely a newly developing opinion or the result of a contrary mood—rather, it emerged from an ethical framework. As I will explain in more detail later in the chapter, we all have an...

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MUTUAL RESPECT AS A FOUNDATION FOR ETHICAL DIALOGUE

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pp. 36-38

The starting assumption for this chapter is that a good society depends in part on people living in mutual respect. The argument for Ethical Dialogue also rests on this foundational premise that we owe respect to others as persons. If we endorse this idea, it naturally raises the question, “Well, what then does respect for others entail?” In order to answer this...

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UNDERSTANDING AS VITAL FOR RESPECT

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pp. 38-40

So far I have made the case that respect requires that we strive to understand other people’s projects, what guides and gives shape to their lives. This requirement, however, is dependent upon context. Here, Lomasky’s notion of humans as project pursuers can help illuminate the contextual...

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UNDERSTANDING PROJECTS INVOLVES EVALUATING THEM

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pp. 40-41

Here it is important to point out that seeking to understand someone’s project pursuit—the appraisal side of respect—necessarily involves a level of evaluation. In this sense, I cannot adequately respect someone’s projects without evaluating them. In fact, an attitude of unexamined acceptance can often indicate a lack of respect—I don’t care enough to do the hard...

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RESPECTFUL UNDERSTANDING AS A MORAL, NOT INSTRUMENTAL, CLAIM

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pp. 41-43

My goal so far in this chapter has been to develop the idea that Ethical Dialogue, as a matter of mutual respect, will frequently need to involve efforts toward understanding conflicting ethical frameworks. But why do we even need a moral theory of respect to undergird a case for Ethical...

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THE LINK BETWEEN PROJECT PURSUIT AND BROADER ETHICAL FRAMEWORKS

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pp. 43-44

At the beginning of this chapter, I suggested that behind Cheryl’s assertion that “we shouldn’t play God” was an ethical framework, a broad notion of the good life that informed her values, her commitments, and—in this chapter’s terminology—her projects. In many cases, then...

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THE IMPLICATIONS FOR CURRICULA AND PEDAGOGY

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pp. 44-47

The educational implications of these requirements for respect are clearly significant. The importance of offering universal respect to others, while seeking to understand and accommodate their ethical particularities, is a central theme here as well as in broader multicultural theory and curricula. With these expectations in mind, the cognitive...

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RELIGIOUS FRAMEWORKS AND SECULAR WORLDVIEWS: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?

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pp. 47-50

Is there something about religion that sets it apart from other ethical frameworks? Besides the rare occasion when religion is a direct topic of study in public schools, religion seems most likely to enter classroom dialogue around broad ethical questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to...

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AMERICA’S RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE

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pp. 50-53

Even if students themselves don’t voice ethical perspectives informed by religious commitments, it is still vital that they learn how to engage thoughtfully with religious-ethical disagreement. Religion is a central concern in American life, public and private; it contributes mightily to the vast diversity of ethical projects in our society. The requirements of...

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ETHICAL DIALOGUE AND ROOTED RELIGIOUS IDENTITY

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pp. 53-58

An understanding of religious diversity is necessary if we are to account for the richness and variety of both religious and broader cultural influences in our students, and if we are to enable them to engage with questions of deep ethical import. The ways in which individuals understand their ethical and personal identities have certainly become more complex...

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4. Imaginative Engagementwith Ethical Difference

As chapter 1 explained, the central question of this project is “How can we learn to talk and make decisions about living together in the face of our divergent convictions about the best ways to live?” Chapter 3 began with the assertion that mutual respect must serve as a foundation for any good society and argued that this respect requires understanding what is...

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A DEEPER SENSE OF APPRECIATION

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pp. 60-64

Ethical reflection requires, at its core, the ability to imagine beyond ourselves. The type of imagination required here in fact embodies what a true liberal education should be about, enabling students to engage with the rich diversity of human development and understanding of the world. In particular, imaginative engagement is a crucial element of multicultural...

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OUR CAPACITY FOR EMPATHIC UNDERSTANDING

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pp. 64-68

The idea of imaginative engagement and, in particular, empathic understanding will likely prompt objections from some that we can never really understand the perspectives of others from the inside, and it is dangerous to assume that we can. While there is much validity to this concern, we should avoid the opposite extreme as well. As Clifford Geertz observes...

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STIRRING THE ETHICAL IMAGINATION

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pp. 68-72

If student understanding is to extend beyond a merely informational level about ethical difference to the kind of substantive appreciation described earlier, it must include a broader, affective component. Imaginative engagement is more than simply an intellectual exercise, just as empathy involves an emotional recognition of another perspective. This...

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COMBINING HEAD AND HEART

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pp. 72-74

I have used the term imaginative in this chapter to emphasize that efforts to understand unfamiliar ethical perspectives must be more than cognitive- analytical exercises of factual comprehension and dispassionate comparison. In this sense it disputes vulgar Kantian interpretations that conceive of rationality...

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IMAGINATIVE ENGAGEMENT: THE GROUNDWORK OF DELIBERATION

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pp. 74-78

If we think of civic deliberation—wherein we decide how to live together in society—as a sort of societal construction project, then imaginative engagement serves as the underlying foundation. Informed, appreciative understanding of other ethical perspectives enables our decisions to involve more than uninformed tolerance or strategic bargaining. Granted...

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5. Grappling in the Classroom I: Civic Deliberation

The preceding chapter explored the ways in which public school classrooms can help students understand the variety of ethical frameworks in our society through the process of imaginative engagement. While understanding ethical difference is a crucial element in Ethical Dialogue, our role as citizens in a liberal democracy also involves deliberating about...

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THE BIG(GER) TENT OF THE CIVIC SPHERE

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pp. 80-84

To better appreciate the challenge of learning how to deliberate amidst wide ethical diversity, we need to take a brief step back into political theory. As a liberal democratic society, the United States places strong emphasis on both individual rights and collective decision making, and the balance between these two priorities is under constant negotiation...

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QUALITIES OF DELIBERATIVE REASON

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pp. 84-89

Ethical Dialogue holds that—as a matter of civic virtue6—arguments made involving political decisions should adhere to standards of deliberative reason. When considering the qualities of deliberative reason, the notion of what counts as “reasonable” is obviously paramount. As a starting point, I will rely on John Rawls’s conception of reasonableness...

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ALTERNATIVES TO DELIBERATIVE REASONING

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pp. 89-94

Models of deliberative democracy are not without their critics, of course. Proponents of “communicative democracy,” such as Iris Young, argue that the Rawlsian conception of the reasonable is too narrow and creates a process in which participation is surreptitiously limited and formal argumentation unjustifiably privileged. There is much to heed...

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DELIBERATIVE REASONING IN THE CLASSROOM

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pp. 94-97

Ethical Dialogue, and even its deliberative component, involves more than debate or even formal argument. It is about reason-giving in its broadest sense, and this sometimes runs counter to the intuitions and practices of teachers, particularly involving the use of students’ personal experience in classroom discussion. Veteran teachers know too well the...

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A PORTRAIT OF ETHICAL DIALOGUE

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pp. 97-102

I opened this book by describing a classroom moment early in my career when I sidestepped a discussion of religion, science, and the public square. Here and in the chapter to follow I recount episodes of more successful forays into Ethical Dialogue. My intent in doing so is not to suggest that my pedagogical efforts always...

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6. Grappling in the Classroom II: The Role of Religion

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pp. 102-104

While acknowledging reasonable disagreement is a central virtue of democratic citizenship, Ethical Dialogue also seeks to help participants identify common ground and potential for compromise. Americans appear increasingly unwilling to seek common ground, however, especially with issues informed by religious perspectives. When asked in 2004...

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RELIGION IN THE CIVIC REALM

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pp. 104-109

When discussing and making decisions about how people will live together amidst inevitable disagreement about “the good life,” what role should religion play? In his recent book Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship, Paul Weithman makes a compelling case that churches and other religious organizations play a vital and under-recognized role in the...

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CAN RELIGION BE REASONABLE?

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pp. 109-112

The preceding chapter, in describing the qualities of deliberative reason, suggested that virtuous political deliberation needs to be regulated. Here the nature of this regulation receives closer scrutiny: to what extent does this place limits on the justifications offered by many religious-ethical frameworks?...

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FALLIBILISM AND ETHICAL ADHERENCE

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pp. 112-116

Acceptance of the burdens of judgment—as a necessary component of political deliberation—involves the acknowledgment that one’s ethical framework is one of multiple reasonable possibilities. Here, religious believers who hold a strongly exclusivist, fundamentalist perspective toward matters of belief and interpretation will likely object...

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CIVIC VIRTUE: BEYOND PROCEDURALISM

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pp. 117-120

Because the notion of reasonableness—with its animating principles of reciprocity and acceptance of the burdens of judgment—involves evaluative judgments, its effectiveness as a central criterion for political deliberation requires more than a series of procedural steps whose fulfillment can be objectively determined. A strictly proceduralist approach cannot...

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A FINAL PORTRAIT OF CLASSROOM DELIBERATION

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pp. 120-126

To close this chapter on the role of religion in civic deliberation, I will share the second half of the classroom episode I recounted earlier in the chapter. If you recall, the starting point for this discussion had been the question of fate and destiny in Oedipus Rex. We had moved from this into a conversation about the role of religion in making laws...

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7. Preparing Teachers for Ethical Dialogue

I have emphasized repeatedly in these pages that Ethical Dialogue is within the reach of most students. While the goal of imaginative engagement and the principles of reasonableness (reciprocity and acceptance of the burdens of judgment) are vital concepts, students do not need a philosophical understanding of them in order to engage in Ethical Dialogue...

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TEACHER CAPACITY FOR ETHICAL DIALOGUE

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pp. 129-131

Teachers need to develop both a conceptual understanding of the principles embedded in Ethical Dialogue as well as pedagogical skill in guiding students through a process of imaginative engagement and civic deliberation. In addition, teachers need to appreciate the importance of pedagogical even-handedness...

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PROFESSIONAL COMMITMENT TO ETHICAL DIALOGUE

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pp. 131-133

Because the demands of Ethical Dialogue are substantial—in terms of curricular attention, pedagogical complexity, and emotional weight—it cannot be sustained unless teachers (and the administrators who support them) are convinced of its vital importance. In particular, teachers need...

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COLLABORATION AS CENTRALTO PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

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pp. 134-138

Most teachers I know are not fans of in-service days. They typically see these as time-consuming impositions with little relevance to their actual practice or specific needs as a professional. The gap between typical in-service foci and the improvement of teacher practice is obviously problematic. But even teacher development opportunities that deal directly with...

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8. Conclusion

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pp. 139-143

“One of the greatest normative problems with which we must deal is the existence of deep and apparently irresolvable moral disagreements,” David Wong observes. “We must know how to act when no single side in a disagreement can show that it has the best arguments.” The increasing diversity of our society shouldn’t lead us to shy away from in-depth...

Notes

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pp. 145-164

Index

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pp. 165-168


E-ISBN-13: 9780791482056
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791466858
Print-ISBN-10: 079146685X

Page Count: 182
Illustrations: 2 figures
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series, The Philosophy of Education
Series Editor Byline: Philip L. Smith

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Subject Headings

  • Religion in the public schools -- United States.
  • Moral education -- United States.
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