clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ask an Expert: What's more important – teaching the basics or tolerance?

Q. Should teachers focus on teaching the basics or should they focus on teaching tolerance?

A. I want to start by suggesting that we stop trying to tolerate people and shift toward a desire to understand and accept others, and teach our kids to do the same.

A.G. Johnson (2001), in his article, “The Trouble We’re In: Privilege, Power and Difference,” explains that, “The trouble around diversity, isn’t just that people are different from one another. The trouble is produced by a world organized in ways that encourage people to use difference to include and exclude, reward or punish, credit or discredit, elevate or oppress, value or devalue, leave alone or harass.”

Schools and classrooms are often organized in the same way. I can name a number of mandated, institutionalized ways in which schools teach our students who is better, who is valued, who is worthy, who is deserving, who is entitled – creating spaces that breed “intolerance” and divisiveness – but that is for a different post. My focus here is on the question about whether teachers should focus on teaching “the basics” OR on “tolerance.”

This question, unfortunately, is one that is considered too often in the minds of too many people who believe that these goals are mutually exclusive. Without each, we would be failing our students, and in many cases, we are. Teaching kids to be compassionate, to wonder rather than to judge, to listen to each other’s stories, to give the benefit of the doubt… teaching acceptance can and should be modeled in a classroom environment that demands acceptance and respect for others, as well as through the curriculum, utilizing and refining skills. Themes that run through the humanities, for example, such as conflict, peace, discrimination, freedom, change– can be used to engage students in reflecting on their own relationships, on the ways that they see others and on the ways that they understand the world around them.

A few years ago, I taught a middle school class that was ridiculously petty, often cruel to one another and very judgmental. As a teacher, my job was not just to make sure that their skills were refined, though this, of course, was a definite goal. Equally as important was my job to engage them in self-growth, encourage them to question the ways in which they considered and treated others, and to think more deeply about community and their place and intentions in a connected world.

Through an interdisciplinary curriculum, I used short stories and historical events to create essay prompts that challenged my students to think about such themes, for instance, as alienation and power. They were not only asked to engage with these themes as they related to the historical or literary context from which they were derived, but also to question their own experiences of each. Assignments like this one, assessed for content, structure, organization, grammar and mechanics, prompted in-class discussions about “tolerance” – about the difference between tolerance and acceptance and about seeing people’s whole stories – and not just focusing on each other’s differences.

Making a distinction between schooling for the good of humankind and schooling to develop a certain skill set is a mistake, though this question is a necessary one. As with many issues in our country right now, different camps seem to perpetuate these divisions, propagating an us versus them mentality. This is a mistake; it’s hurting our kids.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.