Teaching tolerance: what research tells us. (Research and Practice)

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Date: Sept. 2002
From: Social Education(Vol. 66, Issue 5)
Publisher: National Council for the Social Studies
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,061 words

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They first came for the Communists and I didn't speak up became I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. (1)

Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a German opponent of Nazism

WHEN U.S. CITIZENS ARE ASKED WHAT America means to them, they are most likely to talk about freedoms, liberties, and individual rights. In one study, in answer to the question what it means to be American, the typical response was "Being an American is to be free, to speak up for yourself, to fight for your freedom." (2) Regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. U.S. citizens tend to associate their country with individual freedoms and rights, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, and the right to a trial by a jury of peers. Yet in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, polls indicate that many U.S. citizens are willing to accept restrictions on their freedoms in exchange for greater security. One month after the terrorist attack, 42 percent of those polled did not feel it was "okay" to criticize President George W. Bush on domestic or economic issues. (3)

Clearly, no rights are absolute. In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic." (4) But the abnegation of civil liberties in a democracy is a very serious proposition and deserves no less than our full attention. The internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s are just two of the periods in recent history during which limitations were placed on civil liberties. Today, many U.S. citizens view these events, with regret, and believe that the government exceeded its authority.

Political tolerance is the willingness to extend civil liberties to those, whose views you find objectionable. (5) You do not demonstrate "tolerance" toward groups whose ideas you support or about which you don't care. For example, if you are sympathetic to the views of a pro-life group, or are neutral toward their stance, then you should not describe yourself as "tolerant" toward the group. It is when you find a group's views quite objectionable that you can truly demonstrate tolerance toward the group.

Each of us has groups whose views ignite our passionate opposition: some examples at different ends of the political spectrum are the Aryan Nation, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Pro-life and pro-choice groups are among those that frequently impinge upon core beliefs. It is not easy to grant groups forums for expressing their views when these ideas are in direct opposition to your own.

For more than fifty years, political scientists and psychologists have examined levels of political tolerance among adults and adolescents. (6) In general, the role of demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status in predicting levels of tolerance is minimal at best. Psychological characteristics, such as level of dogmatism, authoritarianism, and self-esteem are much better predictors of tolerance. Individuals who demonstrate high levels of dogmatism and authoritarianism and low levels of self-esteem are likely to be more intolerant than are their counterparts.

College education is one of the most powerful predictors of tolerance. (7) College experiences seem to decrease authoritarianism and dogmatism, and increase self-esteem, thereby increasing levels of tolerance. It is thought that the college environment exposes students to diverse points of view, either through course readings or interaction with people who hold views in opposition to their own. Even in colleges with a relatively homogeneous student population, young adults learn that it is sometimes helpful to consider alternative perspectives (if only to reflect deeper on one's own position), and that opposing viewpoints need not be threatening.

Secondary school experiences are far less likely to have an impact on students' level of political tolerance than are college experiences. In their interviews with four hundred high school students from four communities throughout the country, Conover and Searing found that fewer than 20 percent of the students viewed tolerance as a citizen's duty. One-quarter of the students saw no relationship between tolerance and U.S. citizenship. (8) What accounts for the positive impact of college experiences on students' level of tolerance, and the substantially diminished impact of secondary school experiences? Of course, college students are older and generally more mature. Simply by virtue of their being in college, they also probably represent a more sophisticated and capable group and are more likely than are their secondary school counterparts to be cognitively capable of understanding complex democratic principles, and of seeing the connection between abstract principles and concrete situations. This accounts for some of the difference in the effects of secondary and college experiences on students' level of political tolerance. But, as we shall see, there is more to the story. Curriculum and classroom climate at the secondary level also play an important role in shaping students' level of political tolerance.

Researchers note that, in general, secondary and college classrooms are very different environments. While the college classroom is expected to be a forum for diverse viewpoints, the secondary classroom is too vulnerable to public pressure to render a serious examination of the role of dissent and dissenters in a democracy. Political scientist Paul Vogt notes that "[precollegiate] educators are unlikely to enhance their careers by courting controversy and discussing the rights of unpopular minorities, to say nothing of advocating those rights." (9) In addition, the pressure for content coverage, the focus on the "basics," and the use of standardized tests all mitigate against secondary teachers examining divergent viewpoints and their role in a democracy.

Traditional secondary texts and classroom practices are also unlikely to foster tolerance because they tend to avoid controversy, but research suggests that curricula specifically designed to teach young people about the role of tolerance in a democracy can have an impact on levels of tolerance. An early study by Goldenson examined the effects of a three-week civil liberties unit on high school students' level of tolerance. (10) As part of the unit, students conducted in-depth investigations of how the abstract "slogans of democracy" are applied in concrete situations. Students interviewed community members such as police, court officials, and staff at the local American Civil Liberties Union to gain a sense of the complexity of civil liberties issues, as well as the range of perspectives on such issues. Students who took part in the unit demonstrated greater levels of tolerance at the end of the unit, when they were compared to a control group. Goldenson also found that students' perception of the teacher's credibility affected the degree to which tolerance scores improved as a result of the unit. Students who saw their teacher as more credible (e.g., fair, knowledgeable) showed greater increases than did those who perceived the teacher as less credible.

In 1993, political scientist Richard Brody examined the effects of the high school level We the People program on students' level of political tolerance. Teachers using the program were randomly selected from across the country, and asked to survey their students upon completion of the program. A comparison group was randomly drawn from a list of National Council for the Social Studies teachers; high school teachers who were teaching classes in American history or government, but not using the We the People materials, were asked to administer the survey to their students. Students were asked to respond to items that measured their support for freedom of speech and assembly, due-process laws, and freedom of the press. Students were presented with various scenarios in which they were asked whether they would support civil liberties for a range of traditional "outgroups" (e.g., atheists, gay liberation organizations, American Nazis, advocates of the violent overthrow of the government); items also measured the degree to which students thought criminals should be accorded rights such as the right to a public trial and the right to be treated humanely by law enforcement officials. Brody compared students' responses with responses collected in a previous study from the general public. Overall, the high school students (both those using and those not using the We the People material) demonstrated higher levels of tolerance than did the mass public. However, two exceptions were evident: (1) students were less likely than was the general public to support the rights of the accused, and (2) students were more willing than was the general public to allow law enforcement officials to "bend" the rules a bit when dealing with suspected or convicted criminals. (11)

In addition, generally speaking, students who were using the We the People materials demonstrated greater levels of tolerance than did students not using the materials. (12) For example, when students were asked whether a community should allow its civic auditorium to be used by atheists who want to preach against God and religion, 40 percent of the We the People students and 30 percent of the comparison group responded affirmatively (only 18 percent of the general public responded affirmatively). When asked the same question about members of the Gay Liberation Movement, 53 percent of the We the People students, 46 percent of their peers, and 26 percent of the general public gave a tolerant response.

Why did the We the People program have a more significant impact on students' level of tolerance than did the traditional American history or government curriculum? Brody suggests that both the content and the process associated with the We the People program act to promote tolerance. The program emphasizes the study of constitutional principles, the norms of democracy, and the contemporary relevance of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The more involved students were in the We the People program through local, state, and national congressional hearing competitions, the more tolerant their responses. The competitions required students to apply historical lessons to contemporary issues. The more active students were in the competitions, the more likely they were to internalize the norms of democracy.

In the early 1990s, my colleagues and I conducted two studies of the impact of a four-week curriculum unit, titled Tolerance for Diversity of Beliefs, (13) on ninth graders' level of political tolerance. We designed the unit to reflect the research on political tolerance, pedagogy, and developmental psychology. For example, the research on political tolerance suggests that many people do not make the connection between the abstract principles of democracy, such as freedom of expression, and concrete situations of violations of civil liberties. Thus, the curriculum includes many case studies of civil liberties issues. The case studies include historical and contemporary situations at the national and international levels. The primary goal of the curriculum is to help students examine how respect for minority rights is embedded in our Constitutional framework Using role-plays and simulations, students consider what a society run by the principle of "majority rules" might look like. For example, would it be all right if the majority of citizens decided that a particular religious group, say Baptists, should not be allowed to gather together for worship services? As part of the curriculum, students learn that inherent in the U.S. Constitution is a system of checks and balances designed to prevent the majority from denying the minority certain inalienable rights.

So that we could evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum, we had 274 students complete a pretest, the four-week curriculum, and immediately thereafter the posttest. (14) The measure of political tolerance required students to identify their least liked social or political group, and then to respond to the following questions on a five-point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

1. Members of [the least liked group] should not be able to run for president or other elected offices.

2. Members of [the least liked group] should be allowed to teach in public schools.

3. The [least liked group] should be against the law.

4. Members of [the least liked group] should be allowed to make a public speech.

5. The government should be able to tap the phones of members of [the least liked group]

6. The [least liked group] should be able to hold public demonstrations or rallies.

We gathered information on other factors, most of which had been shown to be related to tolerance in previous studies: support for democratic norms, perceived threat, authoritarianism, self-esteem, knowledge of curriculum content, attitude toward the curriculum, race/ethnicity, gender, and achievement level. Appropriate control groups and a delayed posttest (to see if any effects endured) were part of the research design.

Findings indicated that the students who studied the curriculum developed significantly higher levels of tolerance at the conclusion of the unit in comparison to the control groups, and that the effects diminished only slightly after one month. Good predictors of a high level of political tolerance included perceived threat (low), authoritarianism (low), support for democratic norms (high), self-esteem (high), and knowledge of the curriculum (high). Gender, previous academic grades, and enjoyment of the curriculum did not predict levels of tolerance.

Both tolerant and intolerant individuals felt threatened by their least liked group. Why did these two groups of students choose different responses? When we asked students to explain their choices, tolerant students were likely to make frequent references to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and values such as "freedom of expression." Conversely, when intolerant students were asked to explain their views, they were likely to describe expectations of violence, such as, "The [least liked group] would hurt, torture, and kill many people in their demonstration. There would be a lot of deaths or arrests." Tolerant students were more likely to believe that democratic institutions could withstand the challenges associated with diverse--and sometimes hateful--viewpoints, whereas intolerant students' concern for violence guided their thinking.

The second study, based on the same research design and involving 301 ninth grade students, produced results generally similar to those from the first study. (15) We found, however, that tolerant students' commitment to democratic principles is limited. When asked whether they would take action to support their least liked group if it were denied freedom of expression, most said no. Most intolerant students, however, reported that they would take action if their least liked group were allowed certain civil liberties. Demonstrating tolerance in the face of a disliked group is difficult enough for most people. Taking action to defend the rights of that group against the majority of the public requires a firm commitment to democratic principles.

In the second study, we also looked more closely at the individuals whose tolerance score significantly decreased or increased. (16) We found that students who demonstrated low levels of self-esteem and high levels of authoritarianism were most likely to react against the goals of the curriculum, and those who had high levels of self-esteem and low levels of authoritarianism were most likely to show significant increases in tolerance. Why would levels of self-esteem and authoritarianism affect political tolerance? We reasoned as follows:

   Authoritarians with low self-esteem may have interpreted much of what they
   read as threatening, and they apparently responded by narrowing their focus
   to the threat perceptions and failing to learn about the important role of
   democratic norms and values. They were not reassured ... that the
   principles of democracy would help bolster society's strength in the face
   of challenge. (17)

Authoritarians also tend to view the world in terms of absolutes--right and wrong, good and bad. The inherent "messiness" of democratic practices may be overwhelming to persons with rigid personality structures. The findings are a reminder that instructional materials and activities are not passively accepted by students, but that the experiences, personalities, and attitudes students bring to the school shape the way in which they interpret the curriculum.

There is some evidence to suggest that students' level of political tolerance is related to their perception of the classroom and school environment. First, teachers who actively create an "open classroom climate" demonstrate that they value divergent viewpoints. Second, when students practice listening to different perspectives, they may come to appreciate how such discussions may increase their understanding of an issue. Finally, when students regularly engage in discussions about controversial issues, they are less likely to feel threatened by views that are opposed to their own.

Goldenson's study, previously mentioned, indicated that a curriculum designed to increase students' level of political tolerance had the greatest impact on students who saw their teacher as credible. In the first IEA study conducted in 1971, researchers found that student perceptions of teacher encouragement to express their own opinions was positively related to their support for democratic values. (18) Nielsen's secondary analysis of the first IEA civic education data for the United States and West Germany indicated that the best predictors for tolerance of dissent were reports by students that their instruction emphasized causes or explanations of events as opposed to memorizing names or dates, and students' reports that they often talked about current events in class. In the most recent IEA study, the only four countries whose students' attitudes toward women's and immigrants' rights were significantly above the international mean were also among those countries whose students reported a more open classroom climate. (19) Hahn's five-nation study, however, suggested that the relationship between political tolerance and an open classroom climate was insignificant. (20) I suspect that the explanation lies in the interaction between an open classroom climate and a curriculum specifically devoted to civil liberties issues. That is, neither an open classroom climate nor a civil liberties curriculum alone increases students' level of political tolerance, but the combination of the two is likely to promote tolerance. That hypothesis, however, remains to be tested.

Some may argue that adolescents are too young and too self-absorbed to engage in a sophisticated discussion of civil liberties issues. To be sure, such discussions require a great deal of skill on the part of teachers. But I suggest that adolescence is an ideal time for grappling with civil liberties issues. Young people are beginning to test their rights and consider their responsibilities, they have the ability to link abstract principles ("freedom of speech") with concrete situations, and they are concerned with "in-groups" and "out-groups." In a classroom climate that is supportive of their efforts to make sense of complex public issues, these students can, with practice, come to understand how tolerance is one of the central tenets of a democracy.

It is unclear whether the majority of U.S. citizens will support or protest any government curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of September 11, 2001. But it is hoped that the citizenry will understand the import of their sentiments. Unfortunately, the time to teach about tolerance for diversity of belief is not when citizens feel their security is threatened; rather, it is in times that afford thoughtful deliberation. Those students who develop an appreciation of tolerance and minority rights in quieter times are more likely to recognize the gravity of limiting civil liberties in times of crisis.


(1.) The quotation is attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller, one of the earliest German Protestants to criticize the Nazi regime. His wife later said his remark was in response to a question posed by a student: "How could it happen?" (www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/Niemoller_quote.html).

(2.) P.J. Conover, I.M. Crewe, and D.D. Searing, "The Nature of Citizenship in the United States and Great Britain: Empirical Comments on Theoretical Themes," Journal of Politics 53, no. 3 (1991): 800-832.

(3.) R. Toner and J. Elder, "Public Is Wary but Supportive on Rights Curbs," The New York Times (December 12, 2001): 1A.

(4.) Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47.

(5.) J.L. Sullivan, J.E. Piereson, and G.E. Marcus, Political Tolerance and American Democracy (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1982). There is some disagreement among political scientists about the definition of political tolerance and how it should be measured. Sullivan and his colleagues define tolerance as the willingness to extend civil liberties to those whose views you find objectionable, and they measure it by having individuals identify their "least-liked group," and then asking them whether they would be willing to accord that group specific civil liberties. Prior to Sullivan et al.s' work, political scientists had asked people whether they would be willing to extend civil liberties to groups that the majority of society would find extremist or objectionable, regardless of a particular individual's attitudes toward the group (e.g., indifference, support). The definition used by Sullivan et al. requires a very high level of forbearance.

(6.) The first systematic study of adult political tolerance was conducted by S. Stouffer, Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (New York: Doubleday, 1955). One of the earliest studies of political tolerance among adolescents was conducted by G.L. Zellman and D.O. Sears, "Childhood Origins of Tolerance for Dissent," Journal of Social Issues 27 (1971): 109-135.

(7.) Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus.

(8.) P.J. Conover and D.D. Searing, "A Political Socialization Perspective," in L.M. McDonnell, P.M. Timpane, and R. Benjamin, eds., Rediscovering the Democratic Purposes of Education (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 91-124.

(9.) P.W. Vogt, Tolerance and Education: Learning to Live with Diversity and Difference (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1997), 179.

(10.) D. Goldenson, "An Alternative View about the Role of the Secondary School in Political Socialization: A Field-Experimental Study of the Development of Civil Liberties Attitudes," Theory and Research in Social Education 6 (1978): 44-72.

(11). The higher levels of tolerance among high school students may be attributed to the time period in which the surveys were administered (McCloskey and Brill's study was completed more than ten years before the Brody research), a genuine generational shift toward greater tolerance, or, as Brody suggests, the recency of students' exposure to democratic norms and principles.

(12.) Student achievement and/or ability apparently does not account for the results; the reading ability of the students in the We the People program was judged by teachers to be slightly lower than that of students not using the program.

(13.) Patricia Avery, D. Hoffman, J. Sullivan, E. Theiss-Morse, A. Fried, K. Bird, S. Johnstone, and K. Thalhammer, Tolerance for Diversity of Beliefs: A Secondary Curriculum Unit (Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Education Consortium, 1993).

(14.) Patricia G. Avery, K. Bird, S. Johnstone, J.L. Sullivan, and K. Thalhammer, "Exploring Political Tolerance with Adolescents: Do All of the People Have All of the Rights All of the Time?" Theory and Research in Social Education 20 (1992): 386420.

(15.) K. Bird, J.L. Sullivan, Patricia G. Avery, K. Thalhammer, and S. Wood, "Not Just Lip-Synching Anymore: Education and Tolerance Revisited," Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 16 (1994): 373-386; J.L. Sullivan, Patricia G. Avery, K. Thalhammer, S. Wood, and K. Bird, "Education and Political Tolerance in the United States: The Mediating Role of Cognitive Sophistication, Personality, and Democratic Norms," Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies (16) (1994): 315-324; K. Thalhammer, S. Wood, K. Bird, Patricia G. Avery, and J.L. Sullivan, "Adolescents and Political Tolerance: Lip-Synching to the Tune of Democracy," Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 16 (1994): 325-347; S. Wood, K. Thalhammer, J.L. Sullivan, K. Bird, Patricia G. Avery, and K. Klein, "Tolerance for Diversity of Beliefs: Learning about Tolerance and Liking It Too," Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 16 (1994): 349-372.

(16). "Significant" was defined as a change of one standard deviation.

(17.) Bird et al., 382.

(18.) Tolerance and Support for Civil Liberties was one of four democratic values; the other democratic values were Anti-Authoritarianism, Support for Women's Rights, and Support for Equality. See J.V. Torney, A.N. Oppenheim, and R.F. Farnen, Civic Education in Ten Countries (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), 204, 206.

(19.) The four countries are Cyprus, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. See J. Torney-Purta, R. Lehmann, H. Oswald, and W. Schulz, Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 2001), 105, 109, 139.

(20.) The five nations included Denmark, England, Germany, The Netherlands, and the United States. See C.L. Hahn, Becoming Political (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 196.

Research and Practice, established early in 2001, features educational research that is directly relevant to the work of classroom teachers. Here, I invited Dr. Patricia Avery to consider a question of great importance to civic education: "What do we know about teaching for tolerance of diverse beliefs?"

Walter C. Parker, Department Editor
University of Washington, Seattle

Patricia G. Avery is a professor of curriculum and instruction in the University of Minnesota's Department of Curriculum and Instruction in Minneapolis.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A92081394