Deliberating through group differences in education for trust and respect.

Author:Fraser-Burgess, Sheron


In an educational setting with students from a variety of cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds, there is the abiding challenge of fostering mutual respect in spite of conflicting beliefs. The extent of the disagreement falls along a continuum. A limited kind can be sub-cultural differences among members of the same culture. For example, some Caucasian students from one geographical region or socioeconomic status hold one view, relative to their culture, about appropriate forms of cultural expression that differs from Caucasians in the other regions. Another form of cultural difference would be the broader definition of family held by cultures from South and Latin American countries compared with a definition of family, as primarily nuclear, that characterizes the American middle-class ideal. In the American context, the competition among cultural groups (e.g., Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, those of so-called "Hispanic" descent from the Caribbean, South and Latin America) over whose narrative will be socially and politically determinant constitutes a form of cultural conflict. The Jewish and Palestinian cultures, which have differing religious beliefs and political views regarding Jerusalem, are exemplars of extreme cultural differences.

In Nicholas Appleton's (1983) view, "cultural conflict" occurs when there is disagreement "between different cultural groups; when culturally, ethnically, or racially identifiable groups clash over material rewards, status, power or values" (p. 157). The most significant aspect of Appleton's definition of cultural conflict for the purpose of this article is that the conflict is based on the cultural, ethnic, or racial distinctiveness of the contending parties. The question I am addressing is: In the context of differing conceptions of the good life in a democracy, on what basis can education encourage mutual respect for the beliefs of others without illiberally imposing a particular moral or political view? Or, relatedly, how should respect be fostered in a democracy given the differences among ways of life?

As a proponent of democratic deliberation, Amy Gutmann maintains that schools can promote respect through implementing the principles and procedures of deliberative democracy in a "politics of recognition" or public acknowledgement of minority cultural beliefs and their significance for political, social, and educational policy. For Gutmann (2004), this approach recognizes "the role that cultural differences have played in shaping society and the world in which children live" (p. 71). I argue that despite Gutmann's cogent efforts to accommodate a plurality of cultural views in the politics of recognition within a deliberative democratic framework, for a multicultural democratic society, Gutmann's form of deliberation falls short of the moral ideal of civic equality that fosters mutual respect. I develop and elaborate upon this critique of Gutmann below.

Democratic Deliberation, Gutmann, and Respect

The body of Gutman's work on democratic deliberation fits within a fairly recent discourse on morally legitimate forms of government in society. Over the last 30 years, democratic deliberation theory emerged in the political philosophy literature as participatory politics has gained prominence on the political front. It has done so as a counter reaction to liberalism and its institutions, in the 1950s and 1960s, that were intended to promote and preserve human flourishing but instead were exposed as failed bureaucracies (e.g., military, education, Congress). As Bohman and Rehg (1996) explain in their seminal text on deliberative democracy, two central tenets characterize deliberative democracy. The first is "that deliberation constrains citizens to cast their proposals in relation to the common good" and the second is that "deliberation should improve decision-making" (p. xiv). (1) Gutman's work is particularly concerned with the second claim, particularly given the fact of pluralism in society.

On the face of it, Gutmann (1987/1999) appears to be offering a plausible basis for respect of cultures in democratic deliberation. Culture "roughly speaking, consists of patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that are associated with a human community larger than a few families" (p. 304). (2) Gutmann (1999) believes that respect is "the most basic premise of democratic education and further that an ideal democracy is a "deliberative democracy, offering opportunities for its citizens to deliberate about the content of democratic justice and to defend their best understanding of justice at any given time" (p. 306) To promote respect, one way to approach cultural difference is through a "politics of recognition." Gutmann (1999) believes that Democratic education supports a politics of recognition based on respect for individuals and their equal rights as citizens" (p. 306). In education, this approach involves for example, acknowledging a diversity of beliefs in schooling curriculum, and the inclusion of women's lives and contributions.

The politics of recognition is only one component of Gutmann's ideal of fostering respect. One other aspect is the demand that cultural beliefs should be challengeable in a nod to the political preeminence of deliberative democracy. Gutmann believes that parties exhibit respect when they approach deliberative discourse with willingness to alter their beliefs in face of contravening evidence. In education, according to Gutmann (1999), "Open-minded learning in a multicultural setting--to which students bring competing presuppositions and convictions--is a prelude to democratic deliberation" (p. 307). Students are to be deliberatively engaged in the critical scrutiny of their beliefs as well as those of others. The upshot of Gutmann's form of deliberation is that equitable treatment of cultural beliefs is procedurally engendered in that all cultural claims are given prima facie equal consideration in coming to the deliberation table, but beliefs are weighed on their merits in a manner consistent with the shared interests of the entire community and implicitly on the basis of norms of values and reasoning. Gutmann (2003) calls this framework of evaluating beliefs a matter of granting civic equality (p. 57).

Civic equality, Gutmann (2003) holds, is a demand for fairness, which supports claims that are "shared with and pertain to us as members of the community" (p. 57). Civic equality can "only be jointly held by individuals; it cannot be held in isolation" (p. 58). In Gutmann's view, it is the appropriate work of schools to develop deliberative skills in children so that they can be better future citizens. The section below discusses the moral and epistemological challenges to promoting respect for cultural identity in Gutmann's account. I show how trading recognition for a disposition to revise cultural beliefs in deliberation can raises issue of hegemony and oppression in a school setting.

Culture, Identity, and Group Beliefs

The shortcomings in Gutmann's basis for mutual respect, as I view them, stem from the ways that Gutmann's politics of recognition navigates the political value it places on cultures. One component, the normative and liberal basis of the social contract, obliges the state to treat everyone equally. Contemporary liberalism fundamentally asserts that the liberal state is committed to a narrow set of universal rights for all of its citizens. As citizens, this freedom and equality,

Refer only to our common characteristics--our universal needs, regardless of our particular cultural identities, for "primary goods" such as income, health care, education, religious freedom, freedom of conscience, speech, press, and association, due process, the right to vote, and the right to hold public office. These are the interests shared by almost all people regardless of our particular race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. (Gutmann, 1994, p.4)

In a second aspect, Gutmann goes beyond contemporary liberalism to argue that citizenship entitles individuals to the additional primary good of a "secure cultural context" within which to realize their aspirations. However this right obtains only when the "content" of the culture does not violate the rights of others (1994, p. 5).

Navigating liberal democratic constraints upon the acknowledgement of cultural difference runs into difficulty at this point. On one hand the politics of recognition meets the ideological constraints of liberalism by granting members of cultural groups the allowances that their identities demand. On the other hand, Gutmann argues for limits on protecting cultural expression. For example in the area of free speech rights, permissible cultural practices or beliefs are to be respected while impermissible ones are to be merely tolerated.

Toleration extends to the widest range of views, as long as they stop short of threats and other direct and discernible harms to individuals. Respect is far more discriminating. Although we need not agree with a position to respect it, we must understand it as reflecting a moral point of view...A multicultural society is bound to include a wide range of such respectable moral disagreements, which offers us the opportunity to defend our views before morally serious people with whom we disagree and thereby learn from our differences. In this way we make a virtue out of the necessity of our moral disagreements. (Gutmann, 1994, p. 22)

Having to distinguish between those beliefs worthy of toleration and those of respect burdens the...

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