Thursday, November 12, 2015

Modern Educayshun: The Problem with Tolerance

A friend and fellow Christian educator shared this with me last night. It's a short film entitled "Modern Educayshun." I can't decide if it's a parody or a documentary; a horror film or a comedy. What I do know is that it is a look into the culture of education today. Perhaps it doesn't accurately describe your school setting, but I encourage you to watch it and think about if this is where education is headed in the Western World today. (And perhaps we've already arrived here?)

I have thoughts about this film, but I encourage you to watch it for yourself before reading on. It's only 7 minutes long.

Back when I was a freshman in college sitting in a large lecture hall--with a hundred or more other freshmen--taking a Western Civ course, our professor said something that has stuck with me through the intervening decades: "The arts are the mirror of a culture." I would say that this rings true in my life and experience. And this film seems to be holding up the mirror to contemporary education culture. There are several things in here that I think are perhaps hyperbole or satire...but hyperbole and satire can be ways of bringing the truth into focus. If you've viewed the film, I hope you'll take a moment to comment about your perceptions of the truth--or falsehood--this film portrays. (I won't be offended either way; I'm in no way connected to this film.)

As I viewed, I was reminded of several things I've read in the past month or two about colleges and universities making sure that "school is a safe place for all to learn"...which, in this case, seems to be a euphemism for "don't make anyone too uncomfortable by requiring them to think critically about hard things." Now that might be a little nasty of me, but I do think this is something we need to think about and talk about. What is the purpose of school anyway? Are they places where learning is to happen? Because learning is often uncomfortable as we are stretched to understand new things.

Or is school merely a place for acculturation and credentialing?

Our society is increasingly postmodern and pluralistic. In this setting, all beliefs are set up to be equal, and the only virtue left is "tolerance" of the views and feelings of others. And if my Western Civ prof was right, this film is mirroring this back to us: the protagonist is castigated and punished for his role as an "intolerant sinner."

I may hold different beliefs than some of my fellow postmodern North Americans, but I want more than just tolerance. I want to understand them, and have them understand me. We may disagree with each other--because reasonable people will sometimes disagree--but that does not mean we have to disrespect each other. And, really, that is what I see as the issue here: culturally, we seem to be equating tolerance of the other with agreement. Do you see the problem with that?

The honest truth: I think setting the bar at "tolerance" actually breeds contempt.

Just one example: I can "tolerate" people who have very different political views than I hold without agreeing with them. (I picked politics as one easy example; it might happen with anyone who holds a different perspective on a whole range of issues, from religious beliefs, to the value of scientific discoveries, to the football team you support, to your view of education.) I may be seething under the surface every time they post something on social media or make a comment in conversation about what "we believe." Over time, these comments add up, and while I can "tolerate" them...I grow angry every time, and eventually that anger gives way to bitterness, and bitterness to contempt. And then, I start to wonder: am I really "tolerating" them at all? I have pigeonholed them into a particular category that is "other" than me, and I at least roll my eyes internally with every comment they make; I have moved from outward tolerance to inward contempt.

Tolerance is not enough. We need to strive for understanding. And, while seeking understanding, we also need to recognize that understanding is still not the same as agreeing. I believe that school should be a place where we encounter the "other"--other perspectives, other philosophies, other practices. But I believe we should be fostering more than just a "tolerance" of the other. We should welcome thinking, discernment, and--dare I say it?--care for people, things, and ideas that are "other" to us.

What do you think?


  1. I'm speaking as a white male.

    In all of my education and learning, I was rarely challenged in my perspective. In fact, the world taught to me reinforced that it was my viewpoint that was standard operating procedure, and other viewpoints we taken to supplement how we interpreted the world. We started from white men, and filled in the gaps.

    As social media has broadened access to public speech, those viewpoints on the outside - women, people of color, and people along the spectrum of gender - have not only begun to promote their viewpoint outside of the spaces managed by the traditional view, but have directly challenged the justification for the existence of the traditional view.

    I wish I was in college now. I want to be in an environment where I am challenged about my preconceptions and to actually debate with the people whose existence in the debate space is the subject of the video.

    The video is a bit silly. Yes its hyperbolic, but it also is reductionist. It doesn't respect that the reason white men are being challenged today is that for the run of modern education they held the field unchecked and unopposed.

    White men had run of the field in Western culture since Aristotle, and now that there are competing voices forceful in their arguments we are in a state of panic. Our centuries on top have not prepared us at all to defend ourselves in any sense of style or critical thinking. We are being pressed to back up our claims that the world is the way we say it is, and we turn and make videos like this that treat these new interpretations without dignity.

    I'm embarrassed by those who hide behind the term "political correctness" as if treating people with respect and dignity in an academic space is somehow burden. We have a lot of growing up to do in this regard. We should be better than this. We are being challenged, and rightly so, by those who have to deal the most of the consequences of our academic choices and policies. If there are so many people, who for the first time have real access to speech and the debate floor, that are getting right up in our faces, maybe it is because they have a real claim.

    If we we are so confident that people need to hear "hard truths," then we must have the backbone to hear theirs without shrieking. I no longer should expect to stride this Earth as a master of all knowledge. I should expect women, people of color, and those on the gender spectrum to express the world as they see it and interpret it and accept that they are as valid as I. This isn't political correctness. This isn't tolerance. Its respect and integrity.

    I am going to be pressed. I am going to be challenged. Someone is going to call me out for seeing the world only slightly and the real consequences in policy and action that slim view can have. This will make me a better person and a better academic. I am grateful for it.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful, articulate response. I love your statement, "This isn't political correctness. This isn't tolerance. Its respect and integrity."--this is very much my thinking as well.

      Thanks too for pointing out the "silliness" of the film. While I found it thought-provoking (as you did too, by your response here--is that fair?) I agree that it is silly, and hyperbolic, and--as you mention--reductionistic. And really, I think we all have reductionistic tendencies in our own personal philosophies; none of us has all the knowledge, all the experience, and as a result, we only see part of the truth. We all reduce the whole to a part.

      Thanks again for sharing your thinking so forthrightly and modeling what you are expressing: a willingness to have the conversation in respectful terms in the aim of understanding.

  2. A couple of lines really struck a chord for me:
    1. "is school merely a place for acculturation and credentialing?"
    I think school really is merely a place for acculturation and credentialing. At least for me, it seems like all my years of engineering education didn't matter in the kinds of work I did at internships, just the fact that I got that work at all. The engineering internships I've had didn't really ask me to use my knowledge as an engineer (though I applied it anyway), but if I did not have the degree, I would not have been able to get the internship. In fact, though I am proud of my engineering degree from Dordt, it doesn't really hold weight to the rest of the world. The only thing it does is limit the kinds of jobs I'm allowed to get according to society (since everyone needs a college degree now). This summer, I worked at an engineering firm under a man who probably doesn't even have a high school education (although he probably has a Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks), yet he questioned why I was working there instead of somewhere else. In one sense, industry doesn't care about the power of my degree, and in another sense, if I don't have a degree, I can't get a job in the industry.

    But I kindof understand where they're coming from. A bachelor's degree doesn't mean much because students can cheat or, "do homework together" as they call it, their way through school and get Cs. I'm working with grad students that barely remember their core engineering classes because somebody told them that you're never going to use that in the real world. Engineering employers (at least in Iowa) seem to prefer students that got their degree from Iowa State or University of Iowa because they know what they're getting (whether it's better or worse than what I'm offering as an employee), whereas the only thing I have to stand on for them is that I got an ABET accredited degree (which is surprisingly lax) and passed the FE exam (which changes standards depending on the year). The name of the university seems to carry more weight than the knowledge I can demonstrate.

    2. "setting the bar at "tolerance" actually breeds contempt"
    Imagine this conversation:
    "How's your relationship with your wife?"
    Any alarm bells ringing yet?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Kim! I appreciate this thoughtful articulation about accrediting. I have been wrestling a bit with this myself lately (since I teach, you know?) so it was great to hear the perspective of a student--and a recent grad from this institution at that. I am grateful you are willing to share your thoughts.

      (Also, your example of tolerance is a really, really good one.) :-)