Why Teaching Tolerance Is Not Enough
by Fiona Tapp
Inhaling the sweet mix of earthy scents, I enjoyed the silence as thirty sets of eyes focused intently on the ritual I was presenting. The children needed little instruction. The spice box moved around the class slowly, reverently, as it was passed from one curious little nose to the next, it was handled carefully, they understood it was a special object.
To learn about Havdalah and how Jews mark the end of Shabbat, the children were able to make their own spice boxes. I explained how the smell of the sweet besamim comforted people at the end of this special time, almost like taking a slice of birthday cake home from a party, a little sweet reminder of the celebrations now completed.
These children were too young to understand much of the intricacies of religious behavior and belief, but they could recognize ritual and had an appreciation of the sacred. My role wasn’t to teach them to tolerate someone different, it was to illuminate all the variance of human expression and allow them a front row seat to an experiential event. When we know more about a person’s religion and see their fervent devotion in action, we can’t help but appreciate their passion, even if we don’t share their beliefs.
As a “World Religions” teacher for 13 years, I was responsible for designing curriculum documents and teaching elementary school children. Each year I would settle down with the course expectations and bristle at the word “tolerance.” My aim through my lessons was to teach respect, empathy, and awe so that my students could see this beautiful world through someone else’s eyes rather than just begrudgingly tolerating difference.
To “tolerate” implies that you will accept something but not that you will delight in it. I tolerate my husband’s occasional sneaky smoke. I am not actively trying to stop him, but I don’t like it. I tolerate the long winters in my Canadian city, I am powerless to change them, so I put up with them.
I won’t teach children to “put up” with other people, I can’t tell them to tolerate because I need to tell them to celebrate.
Tolerance is the lowest acceptable standard, if we don’t tolerate others who may think and behave in different ways to us, then we are actively trying to change or destroy them. Tolerance isn’t enough, we need to encourage so much more.
When, as a class, my students and I shared a meal inside a Sikh Gurdwara, or when we sketched the beautiful colors on a Catholic cathedrals stained glass windows, we were not taking part in an act of tolerance. We were participants in a group learning event. We were involved in a mass spiritual experience. For education is, in essence, spiritual.
Whenever we learn, we delve into our own thoughts and feelings about a topic, the more we learn about others, the more we learn about ourselves.
In all other areas of the curriculum, educators seek to do so much more than the bare minimum. We don’t tell students simply to learn the alphabet, we encourage them to read and imagine, write and create. We don’t instruct children to learn just to count but to compute, experiment and investigate numbers, values, shapes, and spaces.
When we simply “tolerate” we cannot connect with someone else or their experience of the world because tolerance suggests a judgment, an absence of appreciation and a grumbling acceptance.
One day a student’s mother in the second grade brought her prayer mat into show the class. I gathered the class together into a circle. Two little white girls at the front of the class sat cross legged so close to me they were practically squashing my toes. One tapped the other on the shoulder and whispered: “This is gonna be something special.” It never ceases to amaze me that children will universally stop and listen and be still when they witness someone displaying an aspect of their culture or religious belief. You could argue that the novelty renders them silent, but I believe it’s something more than that. I believe they recognize the significance the event or the object or the place has in the life of someone else and that scaredness is awe inspiring.
So whether I am speaking with my own son about Ramadan, leading a group of children on a tour of a Buddhist temple, or designing a curriculum unit on the new testament, I won’t be teaching tolerance, I’ll be celebrating diversity.
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