Tolerance is a standard promoted in schools to deal with differences between races, ethnicities, languages, sexual orientations, cultures, traditions, and religions. Tolerance has been described as both the least inclusive stance on difference that an individual or a community can take as well as the most inclusive due to the attitudes tolerance creates towards an open, ongoing dialogue about differences. The ideal of tolerance exists as the impetus for multicultural education in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. Tolerance in education claims to foster democratic ideals and encourage students to understand the multicultural world in which they live. Education for tolerance not only benefits students of the dominant culture, it also encourages equal access to the benefits of education for students of diverse backgrounds without requiring them to reject their culture.
Three views of tolerance are prominent in the educational literature: tolerance as cultural awareness; tolerance as a characteristic that guides action; and tolerance as a recognition of silencing and oppression. These views assume very different goals and challenges for educators working in a diverse society. Each position is examined below with prominent arguments highlighted.
Education for tolerance that advocates cultural awareness is sometimes described as liberal multiculturalism. In this view, students are expected to appreciate and understand other cultures apart from their own. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration of Principles of Tolerance (1995) is cited as adopting this approach and states: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the endless richness of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication and liberty of conscience. Tolerance is harmony in difference.” This concept of tolerance involves adding elements of difference to the knowledge base that students already have so they can understand and show respect for those from cultural backgrounds different than their own.
The goals for education in this concept of tolerance are to create citizens who can move with ease in many different cultures and to enable cross-cultural communication and understanding. For example, teachers may be encouraged to include material that reflects the different ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious groups in the school or city in their curriculum, to foster understanding in their classrooms. Teachers may also lead discussions of current events that depict issues of tolerance or acts of intolerance to persuade students that the appropriate response to difference is tolerance rather than discrimination. Students are presumed to have a foundation in the dominant culture. They are either introduced to other cultures through this curriculum if they are born in the dominant culture or shown that education is interesting and relevant to their lives if they come from a non-dominant group.
Many scholars see tolerance as cultural awareness as a limited concept. They assert that tolerance is a vague term that may mean enduring differences at worst and celebrating them at best. Criticisms to the approach state that it needs to be bolstered with concepts such as accepting, recognizing, and affirming differences. Scholars also criticize this approach for not providing a lens through which power differences between groups in society can be analyzed and reconceptualized. It leaves the centrality and dominance of White, middle-class, Euro American culture unchallenged, as well as the marginalized positions of other cultures. This approach to tolerance is sometimes viewed as a paternalistic acceptance of difference that does not value others’ ways of doing things. It is criticized for not having a representative inclusion of all others—additive models can only choose some of the many other groups so the local or least offensive are the focus. In this way, teachers and students can avoid confronting differences that would directly challenge their fundamental beliefs. On the other end of the political spectrum, this approach to tolerance is criticized as moral relativism. Those who support this belief suggest that promoting tolerance encourages the view that all cultures, beliefs, religions, and other demographic variables are equally good, they just happen to be different. These detractors claim that no moral judgments can be made about any belief or practice in this atmosphere, hence there is no way to judge experiences like racism, genital mutilation, or religious wars when they are described as cultural practices.
In response to some of the criticisms of the term tolerance as it falls under the cultural awareness approach, education philosophers have offered broader understandings. Tolerance is defined as inclusive of acceptance, recognition, affirmation, and other concepts that promote intercultural understanding. It is defined as a term with political, social, and moral meanings, in which each individual is charged with recognizing those with different beliefs and practices. Although true tolerance in this sense leaves room for moral disagreement, it advocates against violence that targets those with whom the majority disagree, or from whom the majority differ, as well as striving to avoid discrimination against the “different” others. Tolerance here should not be understood as coded language for surreptitiously homogenizing society to one cultural standard. Intolerance can by deployed by non-dominant groups toward assimilative efforts by the dominant community to maintain cultural difference and integrity.
Tolerance requires a critical understanding of difference. This is not a simple, unreflective acceptance of all differences, but a critical evaluation of differences for their value to the larger society and, in particular, for their value to education. Differences are affirmed where they provide a way to engage with students, and when they offer ground upon which educational goals can be scaffolded. There is evaluative capacity within tolerance to reject ideas or views that are deemed antithetical to the ethical views of the larger society. However, it is unclear how the hegemonic power of the majority could be prevented from attempting to eliminate views in marginal groups that could be framed as unpopular, unappealing or unpleasant, even if not unethical. The workings of power are not necessarily made clear in this view of tolerance, although it seeks to avoid succumbing to identity politics, where no unity is possible, and where each group breaks off into its own isolated community.
Another view of inclusive tolerance describes the term as one characteristic among many that makes a moral person. In this sense, tolerance, exhibited in conjunction with kindness, honesty, fairness, courage, and tenacity, may create in a person a propensity to work for social justice. No one of these characteristics is enough in itself, and in fact they may work against one another in some situations; however, including tolerance as one characteristic that should be instilled and nurtured by education will create the possibility for belief in social justice. Tolerance is not sufficient to create an atmosphere conducive to social justice; nor can the acceptance of new attitudes, ideas, and beliefs happen in someone who cannot first tolerate new attitudes, ideas, and beliefs. In essence, tolerance is a necessary first step toward an attitude of social justice.
In response to liberal, additive teaching of tolerance in education, some educators have proposed the more critical idea of anti-oppressive education. Anti-oppressive education embraces the postmodernist view that all social structures are human constructions rather than exemplars of natural or divine predetermined givens. This view of society supposes that social hierarchies are historically situated and discursively maintained, and attempts to show the hegemonic practices and ideas that support the maintenance of existing power structures. In this way, dominance by a class, race, nation, religion, sexuality, gender, culture, or language group can be shown to have been created in some way, enforced through certain manipulations of force or discursive measures, and maintained through allowing some expressions and ideas and suppressing others.
Those who espouse anti-oppressive education admit that it is difficult for both teachers and students. They all like certainty, and the familiarity of comfortable histories that reinforce what the dominant culture thinks about itself. In this framework everyone knows their place; even if it is an oppressed position, it is comfortable in the sense that it is reiterated both within and outside education. Changing how one thinks about marginalized groups requires questioning the dominant culture in ways that can be unsettling for teachers and students.
Anti-oppressive education also challenges notions of tolerance. In educating for tolerance, the desired open communication about values may not be achieved. If specified tolerant attitudes, taught by rote and enforced by policy, are the results of efforts to teach tolerance, what is learned is not ethical values of social justice and recognition of difference, but rather the new hegemonic order which allows only certain types of knowledge (or ignorance) but not others in public discourse. That is, the voicing of acceptance of certain groups becomes mandatory, whereas other groups still are not widely recognized or accepted, and expectations of “tolerance” may silence differences and work to suppress discussion of social justice. In an effort to support the social justice claims of one group, oppression of another group may be allowed or even actively supported.
Where tolerance is enforced as the standard, it has many positive goals. It aspires to create an atmosphere where all students are welcomed and treated with respect. It seeks to open a dialogue in which differences can be discussed. It hopes to counter discriminations that students may encounter in the larger society. For some scholars, however, tolerance is too vague a term, leaving open to interpretation whether one simply bears the differences or whether actual respect of difference is granted. The interpretation of tolerance and the promotion of education for social justice is a continuing conversation in the field of education.