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Earle, Chris S. Habermas and Religion in Public Life. CE, Nov. 2018. Posted 12/21/2018.

Earle, Chris S. “Religion, Democracy, and Public Writing: Habermas on the Role of Religion in Public Life.” College English 81.2 (2018): 133-54. Print.

Chris S. Earle discusses the issue of students’ inclusion of religion-based argument in writing classrooms. He links this concern to the problem of democratic deliberation in a diverse society in which religion plays an important role for many citizens.

He notes scholarship in composition regarding non-religious students’ resistance to argument drawn from religious belief and the concomitant problem of religious students’ need to bring their deep convictions to bear on questions of policy (134). He finds two often-used pedagogical approaches: encouraging critical thinking by asking students to recognize the existence of multiple viewpoints, and a focus on audience by developing reasons that would be persuasive to people who lack a religious commitment (134-35). In Earle’s view, these approaches do not address aspects of the problem that he considers additional “obligation[s] of democratic citizenship” (135).

To explore these obligations and suggest fruitful approaches to them, Earle proposes the “translation proviso” of Jürgen Habermas (135). In Earle’s reading, this theory recognizes the possible contradictions underlying “Value pluralism.” Habermas finds religious conviction important in democratic life because it can provide “a counterweight to forces . . . that threaten to instrumentalize human life” (135). But, Earle writes, Habermas also contends that reasons given in public debate must ultimately find expression in “terms acceptable to all involved” (135). These tenets set up a tension between “inclusion and reciprocity,” concepts Earle presents as central to “translation” (136-37).

Inclusion, in this view, means that all voices are heard. Reciprocity requires all interlocutors to express these views in ways that audiences will accept. Paradoxically, Earle argues, the need for inclusion requires religious views to be honored, yet reciprocity requires religious views to be subject to “validity claims” that they may not be able to accommodate. The result can be that arguers end up bringing “private reason” to decision-making, resulting in an “irreducible moral pluralism” in which stakeholders’ insistence on being included clashes with the refusal to subject their viewpoints to full debate (137).

Earle presents John Rawls’s solution as the elimination of “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” from “public debate” (137). Citizens would be limited to arguing for their positions through “the public use of reason” (137). For Rawls, public reason is founded on widely shared democratic and constitutional principles, whereas for Habermas, public reason can include “any reason that can be ‘defended as being in the best interest of all considered as equal moral and political beings’” (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in Earle 137).

According to Earle, both Rawls and Habermas offer the “translation proviso” as a means to overcome this problem. For Rawls, religion can enter public debate, but religion per se does not provide the kind of reasons that can be accepted across the broad audiences engaged in such debate. Religious arguers must, “over time,” produce “a public translation” that will lay out their claims in terms accessible to all (139). Earle draws on the example of Jeffrey Ringer’s student who linked his religious convictions to “the democratic principle of free will” (139).

For Habermas, Earle contends, this version of the proviso means that religious arguers often may find the need for their positions to be “watered down”: was the student forced to “background his core beliefs in order to satisfy an audience or assignment requirements” (139)? If so, translation burdens religious arguers more than non-religious ones.

Earle writes that Habermas tackles this limitation of translation, first, by adding “an institutional filter” that would require public translation only in specific public settings like “courts, legislative bodies, and the discourse of elected officials and candidates” (1140). Earle claims that for Habermas, this adjustment allows religion to work as a moral force in the larger public while being converted to what Habermas called “generally acceptable language” in formal policy-making environments (qtd. in Earle 141). Working with this distinction can encourage students to distinguish between claims based on doctrinaire religious authority and those appealing to a broader “moral insight” (142).

Earle recommends setting this process in motion by encouraging students to write for many different audiences, assessing how reasons may need to be translated for different contexts and genres (142-43). Still, he contends, excluding religious claims from formal decision-making contexts may cause religious students to be constrained in ways that non-religious students are not (143). As an approach to addressing this problem, Earle presents Habermas’s depiction of translation as “a cooperative task” (144). In this view, a process of “reciprocal-perspective taking” in which respondents “listen to each other, reflect upon the limits of faith and reason, and [are] willing to modify their proposals and commitments” can result in more equitable exchanges across divisions (144).

Earle cites the critique of Maeve Cooke that generating broadly accessible reasons, even through reciprocity, may prevent students from accepting reasons that do not match “what sounds familiar” or is “compatible with what they already know” (145). Reasons that embody difference, Earle notes, may often be those of “less powerful groups” (145). He posits that, responding to Habermas’s proviso, students working together to generate diverse claims may learn to hear a fuller range of voices. Instructors should especially help students locate “real opposing voices” rather than generating their arguments prior to engaging specific points of view (150; emphasis original).

To reinforce the emphasis on listening inherent in reciprocity, Earle examines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” used by both Rawls and Habermas to illustrate translation (147-49). Earle illustrates the ways in which King articulated his understanding of the views of those who opposed his practice of civil disobedience before “drawing connections and identifying shared premises between God’s law and, when just, constitutional law” (148). Earle contrasts this act of translation with the rhetoric of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses on the grounds of religious freedom. Paramount for Earle is the refusal of Davis and her supporters to listen to and examine in good faith the views of those she opposes, with the result that she did not try to justify her positions to those audiences as true translation and reciprocity would require (149).

In Earle’s view, Habermas’s understanding of translation would move writers away from seeking out opposing views simply to recognize or rebut them (150). He acknowledges that hoping students, regardless of their religious commitments, will truly hear views that they find unacceptable and, in the process, “critically reflect upon the partiality of their perspectives” (150) is an “ideal” rather than a common result (152). He urges accepting the role of religious as well as non-religious points of view as a crucial component of “accepting as unavoidable what Habermas refers to as the democratic confusion of voices” (152). In such an ideal, Earle writes, members of a democratic society “might find a basis for agreement and even consubstantiality on something other than the content of our beliefs” (152).


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DeStigter, Todd. Critique of Argumentative Writing as Dominant Academic Mode. RTE, August 2015. Posted 09/02/2015.

DeStigter, Todd. “On the Ascendance of Argument: A Critique of the Assumptions of Academe’s Dominant Form.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.1 (2015): 11-34. Print.

Todd DeStigter raises concerns about the predominant focus on argumentative writing in college and increasingly in high school, as the authors of the Common Core State Standards join composition scholars in declaring argumentation an essential skill.

DeStigter’s response to the emphasis on argument grew out of his experiences at a high school in a Mexican/Mexican-American area in Chicago. An English teacher/assistant principal there enlisted DeStigter’s help in an initiative to require all students to take AP English and Composition; in the teacher’s view, this curriculum revision would address the inequity faced by students who historically had not had adequate preparation for college. DeStigter’s involvement developed into “three semesters of ethnographic research,” including observations and tutoring in two AP classes (12).

DeStigter recounts that the high school’s effort to better prepare the students for college and careers reflected national trends in emphasizing argumentative writing. He quotes the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, authors of the Common Core State Standards, as they urge attention to “students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues” (qtd. in DeStigter 12). Research by James Warren supports DeStigter’s claim that argument is becoming “the dominant mode” in both high school and college (qtd. in DeStigter 12). DeStigter argues for a shift from asking how to teach argument more effectively to asking why argument is given such prominence and what follows from this emphasis (13).

Although agreeing that compositionists recognize the diverse forms argument can take, that argumentative writing is not per se “harmful,” and that no “either/or choice” is called for (13; emphasis original), he reports detecting three assumptions about such writing: that it “promotes clear and critical thinking,” that it develops skill in the “rational deliberation . . . essential for a democratic citizenry,” and that it provides “a form of cultural capital that facilitates [students’] upward academic and socioeconomic mobility” (13). Though noting the “irony” that he is using the conventions of argument to challenge the “overemphasis on argumentative writing” (31n3), he critiques these assumptions.

In his view, the idea that reasoned argument reflects the clearest thinking derives from Descartes and Kant and their contentions that it is possible to arrive at knowable truth outside of context and contingency via evidence and logical connections. DeStigter links this belief in the efficacy of formally structured argument to lead to best decisions to the “coherence theory of truth,” which valorizes discourse that meets agreed-upon standards of self-consistency and integration, and to the “correspondence theory of truth,” in which a well-formed discursive product is assumed to mirror an autonomous entity out in the world. DeStigter argues that decisions as to what counts as reason and effective structure are themselves discursive products, Foucauldian “regimes of truth” (18) created and valorized by people “who are in a position to make and enforce such designations” (19).

He again cites Kant as a source for the view that “rational deliberation” is the ideal process to further democracy. He reviews philosophers and critics like Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas (22) who posit that a society in which individual interests can be bracketed and all stakeholders can participate as equals results in the “egalitarian reciprocity” necessary for democracy (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in DeStigter 22). DeStigter responds that people do not have equal access to the public sphere and that even “overwhelming evidence” routinely surrenders to the “values and prejudices” through which people filter claims (22).

Moreover, DeStigter maintains, true change seldom follows from deliberative discussions but from activism and solidarity. He introduces the concept of “democracy’s edges proposed by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón (23): This concept attempts to identify those forced to the margins of the democratic process, but for DeStigter, it also refers to what kinds of action and speech get defined out of the process. He gives examples of actions that approach “a line” that, if rational deliberation is the standard, renders them “irrational, and therefore illegitimate,” like refusing to move to the back of the bus or occupying government buildings. “[M]ore agonistic or even revolutionary models” of interaction, he contends, may be necessary to bring about changes that will truly foster democracy.

Finally, he challenges the contention that learning to write arguments will promote students’ social mobility. He details two students at the high school who, although excellent argumentative writers, find college costs daunting and the job market unresponsive (25). These examples and others illustrate DeStigter’s resistance to the long-lived idea that more and better education will spur a stronger economy (25-26). While acknowledging that individual students may escape poverty through education, he argues that for most students like those he studied, “being prepared for higher education is not the same as having a realistic opportunity to attend college” (26). But even if cost were no issue, he maintains, the possibility that a college education will provide the “cultural capital” necessary for socioeconomic mobility is based on “educators’ widespread misappropriation” of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (26).

According to DeStigter, Bourdieu recognized three kinds of “capital”: cultural (knowing how to behave), social (having access to opportunities for advancement), and economic (having money) (26-27). Central to DeStigter’s critique is Bourdieu’s clear assertion that “economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital” (qtd. in DeStigter 27), and thus that possession of economic capital determines people’s ability to acquire the other kinds. In contrast to the idea that providing students with literacy will open the door to the “culture of power” (Lisa Delpit, qtd. in DeStigter 28), DeStigter cites Bourdieu’s claim that hope for a more egalitarian society depends on subverting dominant power structures rather than emulating them (28).

Accepting the view that schools can influence “systemic” economic dysfunction, DeStigter contends, feeds a tendency to “blame schools” during downturns and invites privatization (29). Further, assigning such power to education encourages the meritocratic view that economic hardship results from a lack of individual intelligence or effort in school (29).

Finally, DeStigter concludes that

the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy. . . . [W]e writing teachers must safeguard opportunities in our curricula and pedagogy to gather ourselves and our students into conversations in which we seek not just to scrutinize, critique, and refute, but to share and be receptively present with others. (30-31)