Brexit, Donald Trump and the global rise of populist political movements have prompted academics and teachers to reflect on education’s role in the formation of societies tolerant of diversity. One outcome is that institutions celebrate biological and cultural differences between people but, at the same time, can be intolerant of views that challenge the narrative of inclusion.
In this way, promoting tolerance of diversity can, ironically, lead to an intolerance of political and intellectual dissent. In practice, this means that policies to widen participation might sit alongside speech codes dictating acceptable language use. Dissent comes to be interpreted as a threat to the very purpose of schools and universities and, as a result, expressions of dissent are occasionally formally prevented or, more often, tacitly vetoed.
The meaning and practice of tolerance in education is at the heart of Tolerance and Dissent within Education, by South African scholars Nuraan Davids and Yusef Waghid. It draws on philosophy and educational theory to expound the concept of tolerance and its role in teaching. Work by, among others, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida informs this wide-ranging and insightful study.
Significantly, Davids and Waghid firmly link their analysis of tolerance to a discussion of dissent in the classroom. Throughout, readers are asked to consider the tension between free expression and inclusion. Rather than seeking to avoid politically unpalatable views in the classroom, the authors position dissent as intrinsic to both education and tolerance.
Tolerance and Dissent within Education makes the case for a nuanced view of tolerance that is tightly bound to scholarship. A starting point is the Socratic notion of the pursuit of truth as “necessarily tied to a willingness to consider other ways of thinking”, requiring students and teachers alike “to acknowledge the untruth in the self”. In this way, tolerance is fundamental for human flourishing. In the classroom, Davids and Waghid link tolerance to non-coercion: “when teachers coerce students to accept their [teachers’] viewpoints on a subject matter uncritically, then educational encounters cease to exist”.
The authors argue that “showing tolerance does not mean we avoid disagreement and confrontation”; rather, crucially, “disagreement is necessary for the articulation of tolerance”. Bringing an issue into controversy, they suggest, “implies a willingness to deliberate on the matter” and allows for the pursuit of critical judgements. Although celebrating the practices of agreeing to disagree, indecision, pursuing truth and exercising criticality in the classroom, Tolerance and Dissent within Education does not argue for unbridled free expression, nor is it an exposition of moral relativism. Davids and Waghid are clear that “tolerance is possible on condition that coercion and alienation of others are not enacted”.
The authors make a sophisticated and rigorous case for responsible and conditional tolerance. Some will no doubt criticise all teacher-imposed limits on expression as censorious. At present, the temptation is for the risk-averse to curtail dissent in the name of protecting vulnerable students. In arguing for tolerance of dissent in relation to liberty, autonomy, conscience and judgement, this is a timely and radical book.
Joanna Williams is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.
Tolerance and Dissent within Education: On Cultivating Debate and Understanding
By Nuraan Davids and Yusef Waghid
Palgrave Macmillan, 204pp, £66.99
Published 22 August 2017