Teaching Understanding in a Time of Intolerance

College professors are often accused of inculcating young people with liberal values. Although I don’t think it is right to jam your political views down a student’s throat, I do think it is a good idea to teach understanding and tolerance. I want my students to recognize that they can vehemently disagree with one another on issues but that they don’t have to do so with anger and hate.

Over the years, I’ve stood up for all kinds of students in my classes: the woman who liked Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate, the man who disagreed with homosexuality on religious grounds, the student who was an evangelical Christian and didn’t feel free to express her views to her peers, the student who had his sexuality “outed” by another, the Asian student who was ignored by the other students when she talked, and many others. My courses are filled with a diverse group of students and because I teach about American history, issues of race, class, religion, gender, and sexuality surface nearly every class. The United States is a country of difference and its history brings these complex issues to the surface.

Despite occasional pushback for teaching in an inclusive way (some students are not used to reading about anything but White America), I am glad that I teach the way I do. I try to make sure that students leave my classes with a deeper understanding of how we are all interconnected regardless of the issues that make us different. I want them to learn to argue without insults and threats. If students don’t learn these skills early on, they do not know how to function in reasonable ways in society.

I fear that the political discourse as of late is a result of adults not learning to argue in reasonable ways and disagree respectfully with each other. These are skills that we need to instill in young people beginning in elementary school through their college experience. Although math, science, and history are important to an individual’s education, it is also essential that children and young people learn how to build relationships, solve problems, and adapt to the differences and complexities of life. If we don’t put the time and energy into these aspects of learning, we will continue to experience the incivilities that we are currently witnessing—both in rhetoric and deed.

For those who wonder if it is too late to change the demeanor of adults who can’t manage their anger, frustrations, and misunderstandings, it’s not. We can all be teachers, demonstrating to others that one can disagree without hate. And, we can show others that although people may hold different beliefs and may have diverse lifestyles and cultures, we can still get along with each other and respect each other. The trick is that we have to demonstrate it for each other, for our children, and for those whose beliefs we oppose. Bad behavior should not be tolerated on our part or that of others.

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