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Schools and Tolerance

So much research is based on debatable definitions. A case in point is an essay by Jay P. Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas ("Vouching for Tolerance at Religious Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 12).

Greene attempts to support his contention that religious schools do not undermine social cohesion by citing 21 studies. Specifically, the studies look at the effect that public and private schools have on political tolerance. "Tolerance is typically measured by asking students to name their least-liked group and then determining whether students would allow members of that group to engage in political activities, such as running for elected office or holding a rally." Greene found that private school students are significantly more likely to be tolerant, and nine found no difference.

I'm always open to empirical evidence, but I think the definition of tolerance that forms the basis for the studies' conclusions is unconvincing. In my view, tolerance means much more than the way it is used therein. It's altogether possible for students to acknowledge that they would allow persons of other religions to, say, hold political office. It's quite another, for example, to admit them into their homes. Tolerance means accepting and respecting those who hold different values and opinions.

I'm not arguing that public schools are havens of tolerance. On the contrary, some of them are hotbeds of animosity between students of different religions and backgrounds. But public schools are also places where students learn about different cultures, including different religions. The public school I attended was racially and religiously homogeneous. It was not until I was an undergraduate at Penn that I came in daily contact with students from completely different backgrounds.

Greene ends his essay by admitting it is unclear why private schools do a better job of producing more tolerant students than public schools. He says that it may be because private schools are better at teaching civic values. But I maintain that tolerance, like so many values, is caught - not taught. That's where public schools are more successful.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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