DIVERSITY AND DISTRUST: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy

DIVERSITY AND DISTRUST: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy

William A. Galston

By Stephen Macedo. Harvard Univ. Press. 343 pp. $45

Read Time:
3m 29sec

DIVERSITY AND DISTRUST: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy.

By Stephen Macedo. Harvard Univ. Press. 343 pp. $45

Macedo believes that America’s recent emphasis on diversity, especially in education policy and the law, does not go far enough toward promoting the shared beliefs and virtues needed to sustain a liberal democratic order. He proposes instead "civic liberalism," a "tough-minded" liberalism with "spine." A professor of political science at Princeton University, Macedo has written a blunt, provocative book that significantly clarifies important issues but is unlikely to foster the thoroughgoing civic agreement he seeks.

Liberal democracy, Macedo insists, is not and cannot be a neutral arena, equally hospitable to all ways of life. Rather, it must employ its formative powers to produce citizens deeply committed to liberal democratic principles and institutions. In particular, liberal public education must challenge the particularist views of parents and insular communities in the name of forming good liberal citizens. At the same time, civic liberalism must avoid becoming what Macedo calls "civic totalism," the kind of comprehensive vision of a democratic order (John Dewey’s, for example) that runs roughshod over all particular attachments in the name of science, progress, or national unity.

In the abstract, it is hard to disagree with Macedo’s case. Like every other form of political regime, liberal democracy rests on certain moral propositions. The artful arrangement of public institutions—divided powers, checks and balances, federalism—is necessary but not sufficient. Liberal democratic citizens must also have a core of shared beliefs and traits of character. Not all ways of life will be equally conducive to liberal democracy, and some pose such grave challenges that they must be directly confronted. Respect for the free exercise of religion, for example, does not encompass human sacrifice.

In moving from the general to the particular, the difficulties with Macedo’s thesis emerge. To begin with, "liberal democracy" names a family of conceptions, not a single uncontested view. For example, Macedo regards participation in public life as an end in itself; other liberals disagree. So certain kinds of liberals could embrace schools that Macedo deems defective.

Second, liberals can agree on the ends of education while disagreeing on the means. Macedo describes the common school "ideal" as an institution that contains society’s diversity in a context of tolerance and mutual respect. Unfortunately, relatively few public schools qualify. In many urban areas, in fact, the Catholic schools are more "common" than the public schools. Macedo offers almost no evidence that students attending sectarian schools emerge less tolerant or as inferior citizens overall.

Third, it is possible for liberals to disagree about the priority that should be attached to different components of their creed. While Macedo regards the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as a "disaster," for example, other liberals saw it as safeguarding the central place that religious freedom occupies in liberal morality and constitutionalism.

Finally, many liberals believe that liberalism’s public principles need not govern the totality of one’s private life. Despite his critique of civic totalism, Macedo’s brand of liberalism comes close to effacing the public-private distinction. He speaks repeatedly of civic liberalism’s "transformative aims," by which he means (among other things) reshaping civil associations and even religious institutions to be consonant with liberal public principles. At one point he says that "liberal citizens should be committed to honoring the public demands of liberal justice in all departments of their lives," from which it would seem to follow that American Catholics are obligated to apply public laws against gender discrimination to the recruitment of their priests.

When public norms and religious commitments come into conflict, which should prevail? Macedo’s brand of liberalism accords "supreme importance" to maintaining political institutions. Other, no less authentic understandings see freedom of religious expression as a liberal end to which liberal institutions are simply means. No verbal formula can dissolve the tension between basic liberties and the requirements of the institutions that protect them.

—William A. Galston


More From This Issue