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Teaching (In)tolerance In Schools

07/06/2017 12:37 | Updated 07 June 2017
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Speaking after the London Bridge attack on Saturday, Theresa May stated that there is "far too much tolerance" of extremism in Britain. Given the strong sense of unity and resistance that has followed the Westminster and Manchester attacks, alongside reports of growing Islamophobia over the last decade, you might wonder what motivated this comment.

Yet just last week, concerns were raised over a new educational resource that (according to the Express) teaches young children to "respect killers". The offending book 'Talking About Terrorism', published last month, seeks to help children understand terrorism. It explains that terrorists may feel like "second-class citizens", believing that "wrong or very unfair things have been done and not put right". One activity teaches about the Suffragettes, "a group of very brave women" who at the time "were called terrorists".

Another activity suggests that children write letters to terrorists. Speaking to the Express last week, Chris McGovern, Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, described this as a "crackpot idea" that is potentially dangerous. Social media comments described the book as "vile propaganda", with some suggesting the necessity of home schooling in order to avoid such "indoctrination".

These criticisms are largely misguided. Trying to get children to understand is not the same as asking them to respect. We can acknowledge that there are reasons for an action, without saying that the action is justified. And if we are able to even partially understand the reasons behind terrorist acts, this puts us in a better position to do all within our power to prevent future atrocities.

Nor should we be put off by the concern that these conversations are "potentially dangerous". This is just part and parcel of discussing controversial issues. Having spent eight years in the classroom discussing topics like these with children, I'm well aware of how easy it is for discussions to end in tears and parental complaints. But better this than events like those of Saturday. In any case, try as we might, we can't shield our kids from the reality of terror, and they are going to keep asking us questions about what's going on. These issues need confronting head-on, and this book goes some way to preparing teachers and parents for these difficult conversations.

There is, however, an element of truth in the complaints of the critics. Although the authors never suggest that we should "respect killers", they talk a great deal about 'tolerance' and 'respect', without making explicit that there should be limits to tolerance and that not all views are deserving of respect. Nor is diversity always "something we should celebrate". A classroom with no bullies is better than a classroom with some bullies, and a society with no terrorists is better than a society with terrorists.

The solution lies in promoting open, critical discussion of what tolerance is and how it should be applied. Tolerance need teaching, not preaching. We shouldn't preach that children must respect all views, but neither should we simply preach that terrorism is wrong.

Classroom discussion over what makes recent terrorist acts wrong, and what distinguishes such acts from those of the Suffragettes, is exactly what needs to happen if students are to develop the values we hope for in our future citizens. And this isn't just about character education. Such discussions help produce the sorts of critical thinkers we want as tomorrow's citizens. These are the sorts of people who will be more immune to radicalisation, as well as better able to resist the irrational generalisations that lead to Islamophobia.

Resources such as this book will never be perfect. But they do give us a much-needed platform to get us going on the "difficult and often embarrassing conversations" that Theresa May alluded to. If we can make these conversations critical and intelligent, so that the next generation of citizens are able to exercise tolerance wisely, then this will be a safer society than the one we're living in now.

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