How ‘Tolerance’ Undermines Writing Skill

It is sometimes surprising how genuinely modern, even Existential, most students are.  When asked to support an opinion, they fall to that most current of defenses: You can’t judge my belief.  What they believe is what they believe, unassailable because it is belief, from the sacred heart, the pure soul, unique and holy.  Of course, this what we want, what we’ve asked for.  Schools have made it their mission to teach acceptance, to counter prejudice, to expose those isolated lives to the vast world of difference.  We have made it a mission to eliminate prejudism, the cornerstone of that belief being more than tolerance, but accommodation.  

And we have succeeded.

Our youth are now Religious Existentialists.  A glut of cultural difference and a deep penetration of relativism – in movies and t.v. and music and, especially, school – has had the desired effect.  Prejudice is low.  Tolerance, of a sort, is high.  Awareness and acceptance of other religion, ritual, and lifestyle is widespread.  But asking people to tolerate difference does not mean students will question their own belief systems, much less other’s.  Nor should they.  After all, the goal is tolerance and acceptance, not questioning.  It is, in fact, hypocritical to ask students to tolerate everyone who is not like them and simultaneously critically question religious or cultural traditions.  (And if there is one sin that teenagers are sensitive to it is hypocrisy.)  Thus the urge to create tolerance and peace has undermined our desire to create reflective and analytical students.  It’s pretty clear which trait we favor more.

Belief itself demands conviction.  It demands at least an approach to an answer of yes or no, right or wrong.  Belief without grip doesn’t really accomplish what we need it for: among other things, a sense of purpose, an answer to the question of death, rules of behavior in an uncertain moral universe.  The conviction of opinion demands a response.  The stronger the opinion, the more immediate the response.  You can see the dilemma.  If no opinion is more correct than any other, then even reacting to an opinion is divisive; is, in fact, morally wrong, since the only real moral demand is to not judge at all.  But what do you do if powerful opinion demands a reaction you aren’t allowed to have?  One easy solution is to not have powerful opinions.   

What we get from our students are essays whose thesis statements are so bland, so hesitant to make a claim, that they are not thesis statements at all.  They are obvious statements of fact attempting to be ‘opinion’.  When writing about literary technique, for example, students will write: “The author of so-and-so uses literary devices to create mood.’  I used to write, all too boldly I fear, ‘DUH!’ next to such statements on essays, but I stopped because it hurt my students’ feelings.  It also seemed to confuse them, and try as I might, teasing from them an opinion that actually had any bite at all seemed more than simply frustrating.  Students react with more than ignorant confusion – they respond with moral resistance.  How, they ask, can I make a strong statement about ART?  It’s my opinion whether the poem works or not; it’s my opinion what the meaning of the story is.  (The only real opinions they willingly sink their teeth into are those that criticize or point out prejudice.)

Belief also demands support – at least if one has to defend it – which leaves students in another curious quandary.  First, their opinions – being opinions – don’t require support. Culture doesn’t require justification, or excuse.  Who we are, what we believe: nobody is obligated to explain themselves, to justify who they are, what they are.  A person should not be required to support their beliefs, since support implies justification.  Second, and perhaps more impactful, support undermines the primary, unassailable authority of opinion, by actually forcing upon the opinion evidence, by grounding the opinion in reality.  As soon as one does this, the opinion is no longer unquestioningly true.  It has effect, a place, connections to actions and other ideas.   Support makes opinion vulnerable.

As an English teacher, one of the more difficult skills I struggle to teach is Support.  What’s so vexing and perplexing to me is how obvious the skill seems.  Any idea, no matter how insignificant, requires some sort of evidence.  A simple statement of mood, ‘I am sad’ for example, must be followed by specific detail.  In fact, if I should tell someone I am sad and they don’t ask why – don’t seek the support – I would be insulted, since clearly they don’t really care.  Every judgment, good or bad, requires proof.  She is lovely, he is mean, that is terrible – all these demand some form of specific detail for meaning.  This is a basic element to communication, to storytelling and human interaction and gossip and business.   Yet nearly  every weak essay I grade lacks support.  It’s as if students are deliberately averse to supporting their statements with evidence or support.  We often call this, simply, ‘laziness’, but I find even the best and brightest and hardest-working students often struggle with the fundamental concept of support.  

The irony is not lost.  It’s English teachers who push the tolerance maxim, through the literature, the class discussions, the reading selections and essay topics.  English class is where students analyze advertising for bias and propaganda.  English class is where students read and discuss stories that humanize the marginalized, spotlight the bullies, give voice to the hiding and hidden.  Tolerance – and an intolerance of intolerance – is learned in English class.  But English class is also where students are supposed to learn and practice the skill of argument, where they are supposed to strengthen their writing skills, skills that are fundamentally constructed on the use of evidence and support. Forced to make a choice between the sanctity of opinion and the authority of supporting evidence, it’s clear which opinion they choose to follow.  

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