Beyond Tolerance

By Rahima Wad

It is said that if we take one thing to be the truth and cling to it, even if truth itself comes in person and knocks at our door, we won’t open it. For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.1

—Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen philosopher

The concept of tolerance is often touted as a key goal in education policy, a quality we should encourage in our children and in our schools. But do we really want to promote tolerance as our final goal? What are the limitations of this concept?

To begin with, in most cases tolerance is better than intolerance. It is a step in the right direction, away from racist comments or sexist behaviors and towards respect. Yet a closer look reveals that the concept falls short of the ideal of embracing cultural diversity.

The dictionary and thesaurus offer a compendium of meanings for tolerate and tolerance. Some of them are decidedly positive, such as “open-minded” and “broad-minded.” More have a negative tone, including “bear with,” “put up with,” “endure,” “undergo,” and even “stomach.”

Tolerance is also interpreted in a softer way: to “indulge” or “humor”; to be “easy- going,” “lenient,” or “permissive.”

As educator Martha Minow has written: “Tolerance means ‘inclusion,’ but actually that is not enough. To many people who have been made marginal in the past, inclusion sounds like, ‘come on in, but don’t change anything.’ Inclusion sounds like, ‘you’re welcome to join what we do, but we’re not going to change what we do.’”2

Educator Richard Pratt, meanwhile, notes: “We are honestly tolerant when we allow something to occur that we sincerely regard as wrong, and we could prevent it, but we allow it because a higher order principle overrides our disapproval.”3

Both authors zero in on one of the problems with tolerance. Tolerance often implies a distaste for the actions of the other. Tolerating an action I regard as wrong is an unpleasant and difficult experience. It may also imply a power differential. If I tolerate you it is likely that, in my judgement of your actions, I also feel better than you.

Part of getting beyond tolerance is accepting our equality. To begin with, I must understand that I have a perspective, rather than a viewpoint believed to be “the truth.” I need to talk to other people to learn about their perspectives and to help me rethink my own. Though some might see this awareness and dialoguing as the practice of tolerance, in fact, they are just beginning steps to going beyond “tolerating” people who may be different to actually connecting with them as equals.

When I let go of having to be right and making you wrong, I can begin to see you for who you are. Then there is an opportunity for real connection and deeper under- standing. Educator Sonia Nieto calls this level of experience “affirmation” and “solidarity.”4 Differences are no longer just tolerated, or even respected, they are embraced. The bond at this level goes beyond principled attitudes and perceptions and reaches into caring. It is the recognition of our common humanity.

In reality, human beings are far more similar than different. We are social and moral beings. We all think, feel, love, sorrow, live, and die. And our bonds with each other are not just cultural connections, but scientific fact as well.

When we recognize our unity it makes no sense to strive to create a world that is less than true community, defined by essayist Parker Palmer, as “a capacity for related- ness within individuals.”5 And yet conflict is often generated in relating closely, in part because differing values and power relation- ships inevitably lead to conflict. A true community, then, would be concerned with equity and social justice for all people.

Willingness to Critique

Going beyond tolerance means more than embracing diversity. It also involves a willingness to analyze and critique. An essential element of my living in community with you is to carefully review my own and others’ actions as a means toward supporting those behaviors which create more justice and solidarity among us all. It is important to remember that not all acts of refusal to tolerate are examples of intolerance. People are not considered intolerant if they resist putting up with sexual harassment, racist joking, or other oppressive actions. Going beyond tolerance in this sense means that I will only accept so much, that there are some differences which will be too far from my standard or norm and therefore intolerable. This is as it should be; violations of another’s human rights would be intolerable.

The key here is that the critiquing can only be legitimate from a position which also is basically affirming. If I criticize you from less than a place of deep understand- ing and connection, it is likely that I will judge you inappropriately, based on some superficial dislike or unexamined bias. I must seek a balance between fostering solidarity and engaging in critique.

Part of the process of confronting racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of oppression is to examine the unstated norms we usually rely on and that form the foundation of our institutional practices. Going beyond tolerance means that rather than just inviting people from other cultural groups to join my “club” with my “rules,” I need to ask them what it would take for them to feel included and listen to their ideas, feelings, and perspectives.

With this ideal in mind, the mission of “tolerance” seems an inadequate goal in our educational policies. Instead, I believe we must go beyond tolerance and use words such as understanding, valuing, respect, or better yet, solidarity and affirmation. In our efforts to confront oppression in our schools, we may also include a statement which stresses the importance of “social action,” “critical thought,” or “upholding everyone’s rights.” Ultimately, change will only occur if we follow those words with educational practices which encourage self- awareness, dialogue, and actions aimed at developing a caring and critical community.


  1. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987): 42.
  2. Martha Minow, “On Neutrality, Equality, and Tolerance: New Norms for a Decade of Distinction,” Change (January/ February, 1990): 24.
  3. Richard Pratt, “Tolerance, Permissiveness, and Education,” Teachers College Record (Fall 1985): 108.
  4. Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1992).
  5. Parker Palmer, “Community, Conflict, and Ways of Knowing,” Change, (September/ October 1986): 24.

Rahima Wade is Assistant Professor of Elementary School Studies at the University of Iowa and author of Joining Hands: From Personal to Planetary Friendship in the Primary Classroom (Tucson: Zephyr Press, 1991).