Teaching Tolerance in Public and Private Schools

By Godwin, Kenneth; Ausbrooks, Carrie et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Teaching Tolerance in Public and Private Schools


Godwin, Kenneth, Ausbrooks, Carrie, Martinez, Valerie, Phi Delta Kappan


The authors describe their research findings, which suggest that private schools currently do a slightly better job than public schools of encouraging interethnic friendships and developing support for democratic norms, and they discuss some implications.

JOSHUA, an eighth-grader in New York, explains why he thinks the government should outlaw the American Nazis: "I am a Jew. Millions of Jewish people were killed in World War II, including most of my family. I think all people who believe in the Nazis should burn in hell." Melissa, a 14-year-old in Texas, argues that the Ku Klux Klan should not be allowed to hold rallies, because "if they held rallies, they could brainwash the citizens into believing racist thoughts." David, a professor at a large midwestern university, writes that, in order to obtain a minimal level of tolerance for world views and cultural practices different from one's own, people who have a comprehensive and single-minded world view, such as some fundamentalist Christians, should not be allowed to govern schools or to school their own children at home.1 Each of these individuals is willing to deny to certain groups the political and civil rights that they claim for themselves.

Despite the apparent reasonableness of their claims, they violate the two greatest insights of liberalism: first, there are many reasonable conceptions of what constitutes an ethically good life; second, government should remain neutral in the struggle among these competing conceptions as long as the competition remains peaceful. (We are using the words liberal and liberalism in their classic sense of standing for limited government, political equality, and tolerance of opposing views. Both political liberals and political conservatives in North America today would generally be considered liberals in this sense because they accept these ideals.)

Whether we look to thinkers of the past, such as Kant and Dewey, or to contemporary democratic philosophers, such as Amy Gutmann and John Rawls, we see the proposition that the willingness of citizens to tolerate conceptions of "The Good" that differ from their own is critical to a democratic society. Political tolerance requires that democratic citizens and their leaders grant full political rights of peaceful expression and participation to groups that many will find objectionable.2 This remains true even if we perceive that the ideas of these groups are threatening to our own culture, religion, or political ideology. Kathy, a middle school student in New York, captured this idea in her explanation of why she would allow Nazis to hold a political demonstration: "Our First Amendment rights say we can peacefully gather to hold demonstrations and rallies. We can never compromise that right. Once we compromise it for Nazis, then a precedent is set, and there is no turning back."

Learning Democratic Norms and Political Tolerance

Beginning in 1955 with Samuel Stouffer's ground-breaking Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties, researchers have conceived of tolerance as a willingness to grant political and civil rights to objectionable groups.3 Studies have shown that two variables are critical to whether a person is tolerant. First, more tolerant individuals perceive the threat from objectionable groups as low; second, more tolerant individuals express a high level of support for such abstract democratic norms as the four freedoms: speech, press, religion, and assembly.

Unfortunately, intolerance may be more natural for people than tolerance. The seemingly effortless way in which people acquire negative stereotypes and attribute danger to those who are stereotyped suggests that, in the absence of strong efforts to prevent it, intolerance is a natural and universal pattern in the human developmental process.4 How can liberal democracies discourage this process?

Research indicates that education is the best antidote for intolerance. …

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Teaching Tolerance in Public and Private Schools
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