Teaching Tolerance and thinking critically about teaching tolerance.

30 May


Continuing the theme from the last post…

Several years ago, while working for the public school system, I read an article in the magazine “Teaching Tolerance” about teaching religion in public schools.  It was called “Because I had a turbin”.  Here is the email I sent to the author (the pictures and the bold print were not in the message…)


I wanted to write to you and tell you that I enjoyed your article “Because I had a Turban” in “Teaching Tolerance”.   It certainly makes one think twice about what non-Christian students may experience.  Thank you (I am a  Christian by the way).

If you would not mind, I would be interested in engaging you in a bit of vigorous thinking about this issue.  Please know that I won’t be offended if I don’t hear from you again.  We only have so much time in a day.  In any case, your comments at the very least have been helpful for me in organizing my thought – so thank you. 🙂

You say: “Religions influence the behavior of individuals and nations and have inspired some of the world’s most beautiful art, architecture, literature, music and form of government.  When discussing these subjects, it’s okay to acknowledge religion and its impact.  Discuss how different religions deal with the concept at hand”.

I really like what you say here, but I wonder how far people really want to take this kind of thinking.  For instance, I imagine that you might not approve of making the teaching of ethical values – which are often related to one’s religious beliefs – explicit in public schools [I regret putting this in my letter to her, even if the magazine as a whole generally seems to take this line].  I must admit that I for one have greatly appreciated what philosophers like John Dewey, Richard Rorty and Michael Polanyi say about the importance of the tacit dimension of life – stuff like “performative knowledge”, “operational logic”, etc (in other words, “show” – but don’t “tell”).   This, initially, is the best way for people to pick up stuff, I think.  Culture powerfully forms us.

And yet – I wonder how long we can continue to do this in this increasingly multicultural, permissive, and consumer-driven society.  Incidents do, and will come up.  Analogous to the dentist telling us we have a cavity after the fact, we *can’t not explicitly correct* people from time to time (i.e., we don’t have “discussion” about and continued tolerance for the activity – we just say “no”…) – even if we don’t have an explicit “moral education curricula”.  After all, despite all of the radical secularists’ claims to the contrary, and in spite of the varieties of thought regarding moral issues, it seems all of us really do believe there is something akin to moral *knowledge*.  Even if we can come to  a consensus on how to fairly handle religious holidays and dress  –  we still need to get into the moral issues of life.

Let me make this more concrete.

Even if a young straight-A Harvard student believes the Golden Rule in its positive form, this won’t necessarily stop him from bluntly asking the young, cute cleaning women for sex (after all, he’d want her to ask him).  Should she just get over it?  (I get this example from a 1995 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Ed).  Or should we uphold a moral code for our students and say this is not tolerable?

Or –  let’s get a little bit more controversial (after all, people from most world religions might say “yes” to our situation above).  Let’s assume *for the sake of argument* that a person – a teacher –  believes that infanticide, polygamy, sati (widow-burning in India), female circumcision, marriage to seven-year old girls, pedophilia, and the sex-slave industry, for example, are all tolerable (at least some of these issues above would be approved by some religions [in general, that is – traditionally] and not others)  Let’s say her basis for this is a fuzzy idea that what’s ultimately important is that we love and respect each other’s individuality and cultures – honoring the differences and various worldviews we encounter (so she emphasizes the importance of learning “cultural competence”, i.e. the ability to form “authentic” and “effective” relationships – perhaps at the expense of spending her time educating others about the traditional concepts of human rights, self-governance, and personal liberty, I might add…).  After all, when she really listened to these folks, they convinced her that they really were attempting to “love their neighbor” in this or that sense.  It seemed that their worldview really did “respect and build relationships” – although not in a sense that she had been familiar with before.  Nevertheless, in this case, would she still not need to exclude cannibals, for instance?  Perhaps not.  After all, after consulting with some lawyer :), they might even convincingly and emotionally argue that *they are all about “respecting”* their neighbor – for example, by cleaning their plates.  Given these kinds of realities about how people use language to their particular advantage, it would be prudent to get deeper with the definitions of these concepts – *and get to the point* – before we wind up at the point of a spear!


The last example with cannibals may be extreme, but in all seriousness I want to make a logical point.  When someone says schools should be more or less “values neutral” or “religiously neutral” – part of me wants to agree, but on the other hand, I have huge intellectual – and practical – difficulties with this.  One may be in the knee-jerk habit of slapping down what one perceives to be the exclusive values of relatively non-violent, meek Christian fundamentalists, but what about this other stuff?  (incidently, many of the democratic values themselves – tolerance, human rights and dignity, equality, etc. – when compared with the rest of the history of the world, begin to look themselves suspiciously like “bourgeois” Judeo-Christian values – Nietschze certainly thought so [NOTE: see last post]).

So, if one is to counter such moral ideas, I think one must do more than just discussing texts or literature which touches on moral themes – even though one certainly does implicitly teach morality even in this way.  I would argue in fact that every judgment – whether by body language or words – that we make in communicating about a text (or other) is a “moral judgment”.  In truth, I don’t see how we can avoid “naming names” (eventually) – by which I mean positively identifying not only morals and laws, but whole “worldviews” – religions – that will need to be seriously dealt with.

Many say: “one has to learn to evaluate the behavior of other people, not just blindly copy them”, and I agree, but I wonder *when* this process should start.  I have to say as a father, that in a child’s early years at least, children really don’t seem to need much explanation for why you believe something is right – and explicitly introducing them to alternative viewpoints to “evaluate” would seem to only breed unnecessary confusion.  I suppose I tend to be quite “traditional” and “intolerant” in my values.  For example, even if I myself might enjoy sharing a beer with a NAMBLA member, listening sympathetically to him about the merits of his case, hell would have to freeze over before I gave him access to my seven-year old son (he’s actually about 5 right now) so that he could convince him of the richness and beauty of man-boy love.  “Eight is too late” indeed!  

In short, it is certainly true that different cultures and societies have embraced general concepts like truth, love, honor and justice (as opposed to lies, hatred, dishonor, and injustice) – but they may view many of the same certain behaviors quite oppositely (suicide, for instance).  Unfortunately, people just don’t agree on what is “the good and the beautiful” (more traditional concepts [I think naïve] of this of course say that we have a free will to seek the “true, the good, and the beautiful”, that we can train our wills to do this, and that it is our human liberty / right to be able to seek these things, to embrace them, and to express them [Alexander Hamilton, I think]…)  Therefore, I think for any moral discourse to be effective, we need to use practical, experiential language and examples that all parties can understand – again, not automatically presuming either the validity or “human consensus” of traditional, Greek philosophical (metaphysical) principles and categories, for instance… In other words, persuasion – in a *free and open encounter with undistorted communication* – with *practical effects figuring in prominently in the debate* – is in the forefront here.  I think people who believe in true freedom will be content to call “fair” whatever the outcome of such a fair debate is (I say: we get the government we deserve).  I cite Richard Rorty here.  Of course, this becomes increasingly difficult as we become less word and more image-centered.


Also, I suppose one could argue that when considering the concept of human evolution, as well as social engineering and new technologies, perhaps behaviors that were psychologically and socially harmful in the past may not be so in the future.  I think this would be a tough sell, frankly (I don’t buy it).  Therefore, what I’ve said above seems to me the way forward – that is, if we are going to try to live together.

…Unless we just want to pitch words, meaning, logic, etc. altogether.  If so, we get what we deserve then too, I think.

So again, Khyati, I appreciate your insights and what you are trying to do here in promoting sensitivity.  I want to do this as well – but what about these deeper issues – does your book deal with these things?


Nathan Rinne

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Posted by on May 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


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