Respect, Acceptance, and Pluralism At Faribault High School

Through our interviews with the students of Faribault High School, we found that many students recognize that tensions between religions, ethnicities, cultures, and other groups exist in the school. As mentioned in other parts of this site, many students described divisions that are clearly present in the school. The vast majority of these same students, however, also voiced wishes that these tensions could be resolved.

“You can’t just go up to a person and judge them.”

In particular, many religious students touched on the theme of acceptance and how it related to their beliefs. When we asked these students what they wished people knew about their faith traditions, many themes arose in their answers. Most students mentioned the concepts of judgment and acceptance, and they voiced their wishes that their religions would not be perceived as judgmental. Students of a variety of religious beliefs held this view, and they were quick to refute this belief by distancing themselves and their beliefs from the act of judging. Some, such as the student quoted below, emphasized the personal aspects of their faith. In their eyes, focusing on their beliefs internally was more important than worrying about how other people were doing it.

“I think that you’re going to church because you want to praise God, you pray, and it’s your own self, your own spiritual life. You’re not worrying about anyone else.”

These hopes for acceptance relate well to many of the students’ reports about discussing religion in school. Some of our interviewees described encounters they had had with their peers of different beliefs, and nearly all these students thought of these experiences as rewarding ones. One student said:

“I love comparing with my Muslim friends, the Muslim faith and the Catholic faith, because we’re a lot alike. It’s really not that different. I was just curious one day and I was like, ‘Can you tell me all about your religion?’ After they were done, I was like, that sounds a lot like the Catholic faith!”

As evidenced by this quote, the students who have reached out across boundaries often find more similarities than they had ever thought possible. This is not to say that as a result of these meetings, difference was not remembered or appreciated. Many students have been happy to discover similarities between themselves and their peers, but they have also noted positively the things they have learned from people of different backgrounds. It seems that learning about other cultures is something students have really valued about Faribault High School. In many cases, students were able to learn about differences and use that to build their understanding of respect and acceptance:

“It’s really kind of opened up my eyes a little bit because I’ve learned a lot about everybody’s different beliefs and how that kind of like impacts their personality and just your core everything.”

“I actually sat down a couple times last year and this year with a whole bunch of Muslims, and I asked them questions and they asked me questions. Which kind of became really interesting. And they have a humanities class they offer here, and it kind of talks about all the different religions and stuff, which I thought was neat because you got to learn more about other things and not just what you know…and I thought that was really interesting, because it let me see that there are other people that do have different views, and where they’re coming from on the whole thing.”

“I talked to some of my friends in my English class one time. We were doing research papers, and this girl’s paper was on Muhammad. But like, I talked to her…you know, it’s really cool learning about other religions. It was…it was awesome. It was really cool. And the girl that I was talking to, she had the same kind of perspective where like, it was cool to talk about other religions. Like it wasn’t judgmental, it wasn’t…you know? It was just…talk.”

Students are not only excited to learn about other cultures, but they are also more than willing to explain their own values and beliefs to their friends and classmates. One student explained:

“Some people wonder why do I wear this? The scarf and the hijab. Some people, they already know what’s going on and why do we wear this, but some people might have a question…I get those questions all the time, but it seems okay. I answer the questions all the time…I don’t mind the questions”

I hope they just understand that, you know, who I really am. I wish they could ask more questions so that they could understand me. —Anonymous student

These quotes, along with others, show that many of these young people understand that a more accepting community is built from understanding between different groups. They hope for a culture in which everyone respects one another, and they seem willing to participate in dialogue to achieve this goal. We found that we can relate much of what the students said regarding acceptance and pluralism to ideas about the establishment and evolution of pluralism in America. Pluralism is defined as the ideology with which we approach diversity. It is a constant work in progress that seeks to reach a place of acceptance while encouraging diversity.1 The quotes from the students indicate that this work-in-progress aspect resonates with them. It is by having one-on-one conversations and learning bit by bit that these students are able to work toward a larger attitude of acceptance.

One of the commonly voiced concerns about pluralism is the idea that by accepting other beliefs and backgrounds, one’s own moral consensus and social cohesion will be lost.  A couple students seemed to struggle with this concept, as they tried to find a balance between loving their peers and accepting them as people while still explicitly disagreeing with their views. One student whom I interviewed tried to explain this balance to me:

“Some people believe that if someone’s a Christian…that they should like hate other religions, you know? But that’s…foolish. I view other people’s religions…I don’t hate them, I love them. And I’ll, I won’t like back off from them, but I do view their religion as…false? I’d reach out to them, but I don’t agree with other religions, basically.”

This quote is interesting, because it conveys the student’s strong opinions about his own religion while also making sure to bring up the disagreement. Another student I talked with had a similar dilemma. She had mentioned earlier in the interview that she disliked the negative comments that often fly between different cultural groups, but she also said that she struggled to understand religious beliefs that are different from hers:

“I try not to judge them for what they believe, but at the same time…I believe that God is the reason we are all here, and it’s just hard for me to think any other way.”

Clearly, there is a spectrum of pluralism and acceptance at Faribault High School. While I didn’t talk to any students who explicitly disapproved of the school’s diversity, there were some students who were more comfortable with different backgrounds from their own. FHS students come from all different sorts of places, families, faith traditions, and backgrounds, and they all have their own worldviews. It makes sense, therefore, that they would differ in opinion on how exactly diversity and pluralism should be present in the high school.

“Everybody has different religions, different beliefs, different backgrounds, and I think if you acknowledge that, it’s a really big step in your life to acknowledge everybody’s different.”

  1. William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 1-2.