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What is tolerance?

In many of the lectures I do with teacher-trainees around the country, the issue of tolerance comes up regularly.

As a teacher, you will know that the Teachers’ Standards in England require teachers to:

show tolerance of and respect for the rights of others,and

not undermine fundamental British values, including… tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

That seems a reasonable thing to accept surely?

But no, I regularly get people who take issue with the word ‘tolerance’.

They say things like: “To tolerate something sounds like you have to put up with it… that you don’t really want it, but you have to tolerate it… it’s so negative…”Others will say: “Why doesn’t the wording say something more positive like: celebrate, include or embrace different faiths and beliefs?”

I accept that the world would be a much nicer place if we all got along with each other, but to ‘celebrate, include or embrace’ everybody else’s faith and belief sounds to me both unrealistic and undesirable even totalitarian taken to its logical extension.

For example, there are beliefs I simply don’t agree with and I am fundamentally opposed to. White supremacy for one. Totalitarian dictatorship for another. To take a couple of examples closer to home…

Let’s say I am a devout Christian. I believe Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour. You might be an atheist. As an atheist you don’t want to ‘celebrate, include or embrace’ my faith. You might even think religious faith is stupid and deluded – the ‘opium of the people’. You even have a right to tell me that (as long as you don’t abuse, threaten or incite violence against me) – you’re entitled to opinion and to express it. However offensive I might find it.

On the other hand. as a devout Christian, I might be opposed to abortion, for example. I don’t want to ‘celebrate, include or embrace’ that notion, even though I know and accept that it’s legal (under certain circumstances). I might even think abortion is tantamount to murder, and as long as I don’t abuse, threaten or incite violence against you, I can express that view (rather extreme and offensive it might be).

Neither of us want to ‘celebrate, include or embrace’each other’s faith or belief but we have a duty to toleratethem.

Putting up with someone’s faith or belief that you do not like – and that you might even be fundamentally opposed to – should not be seen as a negative thing. Tolerance is a virtue and we should value it.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. 

You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.


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