What Tolerance Is—and What It Shouldn't Be—in Practice | Opinion

Pedro Noguera and I see eye-to-eye on the importance of tolerance, in principle. Schools should indeed strive to cultivate understanding and mutual respect. Students certainly need to learn that reasonable people can disagree and that it's vital we be able to hash out those differences constructively and respectfully. Our differences emerge, I think, when it comes to what "tolerance" can mean in practice.

For instance, there's been an admirable push to broaden American history beyond the "generals and presidents" narrative that once predominated and to make history and civics more inclusive, engaging and accurate. This effort to expand the American story in a way that's consistent with a spirit of tolerance and inclusion has much to recommend it, and I broadly support it. At the same time, I'm concerned that, in practice, too many who encourage this approach are less interested in a richer, more complete narrative than in a new orthodoxy erected atop a caricature of American perfidy.

For example, when I contemplate the problematic legacy of Howard Zinn and his imitators, such as the "1619 Project," I see factually suspect, ideological campaigns to depict American history as an unbroken litany of graft, hypocrisy and oppression. Portraying the American tale as an endless parade of horribles isn't any more honest than cartoonish accounts of American wonderfulness; worse, it strikes me as remarkably destructive if the goal is to raise engaged, responsible citizens.

After all, for all of our nation's failings, Americans have been bequeathed a priceless gift. Our shared history is a messy but empowering and inspiring tale of a people struggling to live up to our founding ideals. That tension is the beating heart of the American story. Students need to understand how unique our land really is: a sprawling, multiethnic society that's stable, democratic, free and immensely prosperous. They need to learn to work together, despite our differences, to help more fully realize America's promise. That seems like true tolerance to me.

And, in practice, I've too often seen my progressive friends try to silence ideas they dislike in the name of "tolerance." For instance, the agents of "tolerance" have made clear that the wrong kinds of thoughts regarding school discipline or history instruction can be deemed "problematic." In doing so, they've reserved for themselves the right to determine just what the boundaries of tolerance entail. And I'm no longer even surprised when I see self-professed paragons of open-mindedness in academe who want a scholar investigated or sanctioned for having the "wrong" views on Title IX enforcement, gender identity or the causes of poverty.

Tolerance can't be a matter of creating safe spaces for those who hold certain views. Robust debate is fundamental to democratic government, and civics instruction must prepare students accordingly. Tolerance means accepting that we may disagree with our fellow citizens on all manner of issues, and that they have as much right to their views and values as we do to ours.

Heck, Thomas Jefferson regarded it as a badge of honor that the young nation was willing to tolerate royalists in its midst. As Jefferson would argue in his First Inaugural Address, even those who wanted to dissolve the new Union should be allowed to "stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it." That's part of the American creed.

One-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa
One-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa Mario Tama/Getty Image

But today, in a disquieting twist, Jefferson—along with other undesirables, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and even Senator Dianne Feinstein—are among those whose names the school board in famously "tolerant" San Francisco has sought to strip from the city's schools for various alleged misdeeds. Whatever that kind of Stalinist purge may be, it's surely not tolerant. But we see similar efforts underway on purportedly "tolerant" college campuses and communities across the land.

"Tolerance" must amount to more than a rhetorical or partisan ploy—a duty that takes on particular force when it comes to civics education and charged issues like race, religious freedom or immigration. Pedro poignantly notes, for instance, the threat posed by racism and white supremacy. We agree. Period. These are profoundly concerning and deserve to be squarely confronted.

At the same time, I should say that I suspect one reason the incidences of "racism" and "white supremacy" appear to be growing is that advocates have developed a troubling habit of wantonly labeling any view they find objectionable as "racist" and "white supremacist," and therefore not to be tolerated.

It can seem that this kind of labeling is designed not to facilitate crucial conversations, but to stifle those who might push back or raise inconvenient questions. This fall, for instance, the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education issued a "Joint Statement in Support of Anti-Racist Education," endorsed by 16 scientific societies, which instructed that researchers "must stand against the notion that systemic racism does not exist." Issue settled, discussion over. Rather than envision higher education as a refuge for inquiry and debate, these organizations appear more interested in arguing that debate should be shut down.

At the end of the day, "tolerance" shouldn't serve as an excuse to coddle a student's sensibilities, or to stymie the exploration of complicated truths. Rather, it should fortify our commitment to a civics education that asks students to wrestle with hard questions, whether that involves the legacy of slavery, attempts to circumscribe religious freedom or the evidence for Republican claims that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" (or similar Democratic claims about 2016).

For self-government to work, students must be prepared to master facts, judge arguments, engage respectfully and operate as responsible citizens. Teaching students to wrestle with values, competing perspectives and contested evidence is central to that sort of vigorous civic education. Tolerance rooted in listening, curiosity and a search for understanding is an essential part of that endeavor.

But tolerance can't be a one-way street. Schools must help all students feel welcome, valued and heard, but "tolerance" must not become a convenient vehicle for ideological crusades or silencing nonbelievers. Unfortunately, in 2021, I fear we must not work solely to better infuse the true spirit of tolerance into civics education, but to also keep a wary eye on those who would hijack tolerance for more troubling, politicized ends.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He and Pedro Noguera are authors of the new book, "A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.