Confronting Intolerance Today: Combating Prejudice

By Martin Sleeper, Associate Executive Director at Facing History and Ourselves, Adam Strom, Chief Content Officer, Facing History and Ourselves, and Margot Strom, Executive Director Facing History and Ourselves.

The 21st century was marked at it’s opening, by events of incredible violence and horror. Racism, antisemitism and genocide continue to devastate our world. The impact of extremist and absolutist thinking, dogma and state-sanctioned hatred has been made painfully and tragically clear. The echoes of history continue to resound in the ongoing inclination of leaders and followers to define groups that are different as “other,” making them vulnerable to ethnic, religious and racial prejudice, de-humanization, hatred and violence.

The past century provided extraordinary evidence of how leaders could use ancient myths and misinformation in conjunction with propaganda techniques to unleash ethnic hatred and cause neighbor to turn against neighbor and to see “difference” as alien and threatening.  Its legacies  - humiliation, dehumanization, discrimination, and mass murder, fuel confrontations among people all over the world; just as other pieces of those legacies, embodying courage, compassion, dissent and resilience, offer hope for cooperation and understanding.

Civic education must include learning from history and asking how its lessons and legacy can lead to a sustained and preserved democracy.  The challenge for democracies is to instill  civil society within a global context.  More than anything else, and especially as we engage emerging educational systems in countries like South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland which are confronting legacies of collective violence, we need to teach our students to grapple with complexity and uncertainty.  And we must do so in ways that not only recognize an ethical imperative to make informed choices but also reject polemics that pit choosing absolutist dogma against becoming mired in helpless relativism.

For our democracy to thrive and for it to be truly compassionate, equitable, and just, young people need help developing their burgeoning moral philosophy – their unique voices – in complex, academically rigorous, and personal ways. Therefore education of high quality for all children should be framed within the perspective of what Facing History and Ourselves have called “head and heart”. It is an education which balances cognitive understanding and acquisition of the skills to learn the lessons of the past with the capacity for empathy, courage and compassion that marks the determination to stand up for human rights in the present and future.

Students come to us with already formed notions of prejudice and tolerance.  As they move through childhood and adolescence; their issues take deep hold: overarching interest in individual and group identity; and concern with   acceptance or rejection, conformity or non-conformity, labeling, ostracism, loyalty, fairness and peer group pressure.  So our pedagogy must speak to newly discovered ideas of subjectivity, competing truths and differing perspectives, along with a growing capacity to think hypothetically and an inclination to find personal meaning in newly introduced phenomena.  We must teach students to make distinctions among events and to grasp similar issues without making facile comparisons and imperfect parallels. In order to make sense of the present and future, students need an opportunity to find meaning in the past. 

Our hope is for a world dedicated to civil and human rights, justice, compassion, and equality. Our goal must be for every one of the inhabitants of that world to have the skills, knowledge, and resources to make him or her obliged and able to listen and respond to others.   It starts at home, in the local community – even in the school itself. But that is not enough. The world we envision demands that every person feels obligated to their neighbor and to the stranger, alike. One must not merely mind one’s own garden. 

This article is adapted from commentary submitted by Facing History and Ourselves for a workshop at American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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