Why I Am Not a Fan of Teaching Tolerance

I am not a fan of the whole idea of "tolerance". I mean, I get the spirit of the campaign but as an English teacher and as a writer, I am just not a fan of the word choice at all.

To me, to "tolerate" someone connotes that I should endure them. That I should "bear" them. That I should recognize that I am superior to that person but, for the sake of not creating conflict, I should shut my trap, bite my tongue and suffer the shortcomings of this person's inferiority and differences and just take the high road.

Tolerating black people sounds condescending if not racist.
Tolerating jews sounds bigoted and belittling.
Tolerating Asians, tolerating Hispanics, tolerating YOU... I mean really, who in the world wants to walk in the room and be made to feel as if everyone else is "tolerating" you?

And teaching kids to "tolerate" other kids seems as though we are missing a chance at striving for, if not ascertaining, more lofty goals.

Maybe we could teach recognition or validation or acceptance or empathy? I am not sure. But of all the words chosen, "tolerance" seems to me to have an Achilles heel.

As a teacher, should I "tolerate" my special needs students? Should I "tolerate" my low-income, minority parents? Should my students "tolerate" me because I am white?

Like I said, I completely get the spirit of the campaign and trust me, eradicating hate and intolerance would be a major step for my city, this country and out world.

But teaching people to merely tolerate others sounds, well... it sounds mere to me. When it comes to fractious ethnic and racial strife, asking folks to merely be tolerant of one another seems as if tolerance is a bar set too low.

Views: 28

Comment by Alan Sitomer on October 20, 2009 at 3:50pm
I just got a really thoughtful email from a fellow named Tim at the Teaching Tolerance Project. (And I agree with his points). Worth a share...

You know, I had a lot of the same opinions when I interviewed for my job here at the Teaching Tolerance Project.

But if the name "Teaching Tolerance" can generate this kind of response, there must be something good about it.

Alan, you and both I know that a warm acceptance of difference is the real goal. We know that "bearing"other people is not enough. But there are lots of other folks who don't make that distinction -- people who feel that if they are merely "putting up with" people of different backgrounds, they're doing their duty to the human race. The bar is indeed set higher than that.

This topic -- the difference between acceptance and "bearing" someone -- is not discussed often enough, but when it is discussed, the result is usually constructive. When the meaning of tolerance is discussed, people think more about what it really takes to make a welcoming society for everyone. So I'm really glad you spoke out about this. I hope the name "Teaching Tolerance" continues to generate discussions like the one we're having now.

For what it's worth, the Teaching Tolerance Project uses the definition found in UNESCO's Declaration of the Principles of Tolerance: "Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference."
Comment by Andrew Pass on October 20, 2009 at 6:10pm
What a great blog post. I often use the phrase "teaching tolerance" and truthfully I have never considered the limitations of this phrase. However, your post is absolutely correct. But I wonder if teaching tolerance is a good first step in the process of ultimately teaching "universal welcoming." Personally, I don't think that I like the phrase "acceptance" within the constraints of your post. Because don't we want to teach more than acceptance?

Andrew Pass
Comment by Alan Sitomer on October 20, 2009 at 7:42pm
Here's another email I just got, one well worth sharing. (NOTE: in my post, I wasn't meaning to include or exclude anyone -- I was simply citing a few random examples.)

I do share your concern about the word, though. Nobody wants to be tolerated. I also notice that you don't mention the group of students *most* likely to encounter from many at school (at best) tolerance: gay, lesbian, bi and trans teens. Gay students are also much more likely to encounter ignorance, misinformation, isolation, hostility and even violence in school than any other identifiable group. They are more likely to drop out, to flunk out, to be depressed or suicidal than any other group. (Stats at www.GLSEN.org.) Even some teachers will exhibit dismissal, judgment, or ridicule about being gay. Yet, "You may teach a class that is all male or all female. You may teach a class that is all white, all Black, or all Chicano. But you will probably never teach a class that is all straight." -- Joseph De Vito, educator

A call for something better than tolerance that doesn't include orientation as well as ethnicity and race ignores 2 to ten percent of our students (depending on whom you count), and of their GLBT family members and friends. I'm sure your omission was unintentional, but in my experience, many student and educators who believe themselves to be unprejudiced will nevertheless repeat stereotypes, tell belittling jokes and behave with thinly veiled pity or contempt about orientation.Therefore, it needs to be included specifically (as does gender) in all of our conversations about making learning communities welcoming and inclusive.

GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliance) at thousands of middle and high schools across the country work to challenge prejudices and promote "recognition, validation, acceptance and empathy" for every student. You are right. Tolerance is not enough.

Barb Clark (GSA advisor, 8 years)
West High
Anchorage, AK
Comment by Alan Sitomer on October 20, 2009 at 7:44pm
I think it might be easier to identify what we don' want to teach (bigotry, racism, hate, and so on) than it is to find the "exact" word to teach... but it's an interesting conversation.


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