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The Teaching of Tolerance

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They first came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a German opponent of Nazism

When asked what it means to be an American, many people associate their country with individual freedoms and rights. This is particularly true of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, and the right to a trial by a jury of peers. Clearly, no rights are absolute – you are not protected from falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for example.

The United States has placed limitations on civil liberties in the past. The internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s are just two examples of this. Looking back, many citizens view these events with regret and the belief that the government exceeded its authority.

Political tolerance involves extending civil liberties to those whose views you find objectionable. You do not demonstrate tolerance to groups or individuals whose ideas you support, agree with, or don’t care about. It is only when you find a group or individual’s view objectionable that you can truly demonstrate tolerance.

There are few people who don’t have a group whose views they oppose. Pro-life and pro-choice groups are among those that frequently impinge on our beliefs. It is not easy to grant those with views that are in direct opposition to yours a forum for expressing their views, but it is essential to do so.

For decades, researchers have studied the levels of political tolerance among adults. Generally, demographic characteristics, such as age and gender do not predict levels of tolerance. Psychological characteristics do. Things like dogmatism, authoritarianism, and self-esteem are far better predictors of tolerance. Those who demonstrate high levels of dogmatism and authoritarianism and low levels of self-esteem are likely to be more intolerant.

A college education is one of the most powerful predictors of tolerance. College experiences seem to decrease authoritarianism and dogmatism, and increase self-esteem. This combination increases levels of tolerance. The college environment exposes students to diverse points of view and interactions with many types of people. Even at schools with a relatively homogeneous student population, most students learn that it is sometimes helpful to consider alternative points of view. They learn that opposing viewpoints are not threatening. They also learn to take a deeper look at their own views.

The difference between high school students and college student’s viewpoints on political tolerance is vast. Fewer than 20% of high school students viewed tolerance as a citizen’s duty. 25% saw no relationship between tolerance and U.S. citizenship. Some of this is due to the differences in maturity between high school and college students, but curriculum and classroom climate at the high school level plays an important role in a students’ level of political tolerance.

The environments of a high school classroom and a college classroom are very different. The college classroom is expected to be a forum for diverse viewpoints. High school classrooms are vulnerable to public pressure. Because of this they are often unable to seriously examine the role of dissent and dissenters. High school teachers may not want to jeopardize their careers by being controversial. There is also the pressure to focus on the basics and use standardized tests rather than teach a student to think for themselves.

Unfortunately, not enough is being done in the classroom to foster tolerance. If a teacher creates an open classroom climate, they demonstrate that they value differing viewpoints. When students listen to these differing viewpoints, they may come to appreciate how this may increase their understanding of an issue. This may lead to regular discussions about controversial issues. These discussions can make them feel less threatened by differing viewpoints.


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