Book Excerpt: Civility, Democratic Education, and Public Reason

Reprinted with permission from Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy and the American Public School by Benjamin Justice and Colin Macleod, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos to head the US Department of Education raises important questions about the place of religion in public education. In this excerpt we explore one facet of these questions: how to balance free expression with civility in the process of public reason making in the classroom. More religion in public education could be beneficial for learning the habits of democracy and critical thinking, we argue, but only if its presence comports with the safety of all students.


“Islam is of the Devil.” That is what the T-shirts said on the back. And that is why Alachua County, Florida, school district administrators asked the kids wearing them in class and at an after-school football game to cover up or go home. But it did not end there. While Muslim parents gathered at a school board meeting to thank the administrators for protecting their children from hate speech, the ACLU joined the T-shirt parents in a suit against the district for violating their children’s First Amendment rights to freely express their religious beliefs.

The issue of student free speech within school, first engaged by the US Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), raises important questions for religion and democratic education. Some of these questions cut to the heart of the Constitution: Are schools public forums where students, as citizens, may express their beliefs regardless of whether other people approve of them? Or are public schools government-sponsored learning sites where the rights of religious minorities to feel safe and welcomed must be protected? Are all forms of speech in the name of religion equally protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and is religious speech more protected than regular speech under the other part of the First Amendment?

Thinking about schools as sites of democratic education, and not battlegrounds for constitutional principles, requires us to ask a slightly different question: What ingredients are necessary for public schools to best achieve their mission of preparing children to become democratically capable adults? In his decision in favor of the school district and against the ACLU, US District Judge Stephan P. Mickle addressed the educational issue in two ways: “‘Islam is of the Devil’ presents a highly confrontational message. It is akin to saying that the religion of Islam is evil and that all of its followers will go to hell,” he wrote. “The message is not conducive to civil discourse on religious issues; nor is it appropriate for school generally.”[1]

While the ACLU contended that public school was a public forum for children to say virtually anything, the judge saw schools as special sites where some forms of speech that are protected in the general public cannot be permitted. Civil discourse must prevail. So too must the psychological safety of all students—particularly groups like Muslim Americans, who already face physical and emotional threats in the broader society. Traditionally, federal courts have held that positive expressions of personal religious faith are not only permissible, but healthy for civil discourse about religion. But negative or hostile speech is threatening, and cannot be protected at the expense of other students’ right to feel safe.

The judge’s reasoning squared with the democratic purposes of public schooling, but did not settle the issue. Outrageous expressions like that in Florida are uncommon. The children in question came from families belonging to the Dove World Outreach Center, a tiny, fringe fundamentalist Christian group who, like the better-known Westboro Baptists, engaged in provocative public theater to draw attention to their extreme views. Both have been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and by no means represent the mainstream of fundamentalist Christian thought.

But other forms of free student expression of religious views raise more difficult questions, and can create excellent opportunities for learning or lead to subtle forms of antidemocratic behavior—attacks on public reason or microaggression toward students whose religious views or sexual orientation are viewed as evil. There are no easy answers to these questions, because at heart, America is a religiously diverse, democratic society; nevertheless, the claims of particular groups can run counter to fundamental democratic values.

The need for public reason, for example, requires that citizens find ways to engage each other in recognition of neutrally ascertained facts and standards of argument making. As George Orwell’s 1984 character Winston wrote desperately in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”[2] Orwell worried about a world where despots had seized control of knowledge itself, so that two plus two equaled whatever the ruling party said it equaled. In a democracy, public reason depends on two plus two equaling four and not what one’s cleric, or favorite news network, or state senator says it equals. Democracy requires a shared discursive space where the truth will out—and this requires well-trained and well-informed citizens who have the tools to make smart choices about who and what to believe.

Any meaningful public education requires right and wrong answers where such are called for, as well as strong and weak forms of reasoning, logic, and rules of evidence. Democracy does not include the right to have whatever you want to be true to actually be true. It is the job of the public school to train citizens with accurate information, habits of mind, and skills necessary for democratic life, even if this means that such information, habits of mind, and skills may challenge a student’s misconceptions or inabilities.

Nevertheless, democratic theory suggests that it’s beneficial to the individual and the community for students to voice their religiously based truth claims. In order for schools to be perceived as legitimate, students must experience them as inclusive spaces, where subjects important to them personally (race, religion, gender, etc.) enjoy equal status as forms of identity and topics of discussion. When teachers and administrators exclude certain forms of speech, it must be for good reason—protecting the psychological and physical safety of other students being an obvious example. What fair reason is there to exclude a student’s positive and good-faith expressions of their religious identity in school? Moreover, how can a school effectively meet its goals of training engaged citizens if it does not provide them with exposure to diverse identities and worldviews?

Even in subjects such as science, education can be enhanced by allowing students to bring their religious ideas into the classroom. Student religious expression can make learning stronger. How People Learn, a classic series sponsored by the National Research Council in 2005, drew on a large body of research to suggest that there are three vital dimensions to learning: engaging student preconceptions; a balance of deep factual knowledge, conceptual frameworks, and methods for facilitating retrieval and application; and a “metacognitive” approach to instruction.[3] While How People Learn does not engage religious issues, we argue that shutting out religious experience and perspective from the learning process can have detrimental effects, while finding an appropriate space for religious expression can bring great benefits. The point is neither to uncritically endorse the religious views of students nor to subject them to withering criticism, but rather to encourage a reflective stance toward one’s own beliefs and the beliefs of others. For some faiths, scientific knowledge may seem to be in tension with important religious convictions. A democratic education cannot magically eliminate such a tension, but it can provide students with the opportunity to reflect on the tension and its relevance to a politics of mutual justification.

[1] As quoted in Cindy Swirko, “Judge backs schools in suit over ‘Islam is of the Devil’ shirts,” Gainesville Sun, Sept 30, 2011.

[2] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949), 81.

[3] M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Blansford, eds., How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005), 1–2.