How One Private School Teaches "Equality"

as a Positive Way of Life

Not " Tolerance" But Understanding


One day, at the end of what I thought had been a successful parent interview, the mother explained how wonderful it was that at our school we were teaching our youngsters "tolerance." Thus I knew that I had been misunderstood or had not made my point. We were not and we are not teaching "tolerance"; we are trying to in still in our youngsters a sense of equality among people.

The difference between tolerance and equality is great. The former implies variation in evaluation and condescension toward the "inferior" group or person. Equality acknowledges that there may be differences, but that they are nonetheless of comparable value.

Enrich One Another

Unfortunately, in our anxiety to create understanding among human beings, we tend to stress the similarities and try to find points of identity, with the result that we are prone to accept the similarities and identicalness but only tolerate the differences. Yet it is the differences among people that make life interesting and allow us to enrich one another.

There are the differences of the more obvious kind&emdash;the color of the skin, the facial expressions, the accent of the language and the mode of dress. But there are also religious, cultural, and environmental differences which though perhaps not too obvious right away, often keep us apart as much as the others do.

Education for world understanding, or for that matter for understanding of people, must focus upon these differences. Instinctively we fear the unknown, the un familiar. These differences tend to breed distrust, dislike, and misunderstanding. By analyzing the differences, however, we can help people overcome these fears and misunderstandings.

Changed Viewpoint

In my work with children and young people all over the world, I always stress the differences among people. I begin with a very simple evaluation of the group with which I am working at just that moment It is interesting to note then that young sters suddenly find differences even among their best friends.

Until that moment, because they have the same ideas as their friends, share games with each other, root for their popular heroes, collect the same stamps and often share the same religious beliefs, it has never occurred to them that their friends might be different in any way from them selves. Until then they have only noticed the differences of those contemporaries whom they do not particularly like.

The young people are genuinely surprised to find so many differences between themselves and their friends. When I lead them further to discover the differences within their own families, even between identical twins, the children reach the conclusion that actually there are no two identical people in this world, though they may be alike in some or many ways.

We then find common points of depar ture and from there continue by reevalu ating our original impressions of people. In such discussions it is interesting to note how deeply rooted at times the dislikes of other people are. However, by openly bringing out these dislikes and by dis mantling the fears, we open the way for a new approach.

Whose Responsibility?

In one of such discussions at our school, it became obvious that the dislike for one particular member of our group was based on his noisy and "objectionable" behavior. Following this train of thought we soon realized that often whole groups of people, especially when they are a minority, behave similarly, and we began to under stand the need for this behavior to com pensate for a feeling (whether or not justified) of inferiority, of "not belonging."

Then the question arose: How could one overcome this behavior? The students observed that it was not the job Or the minority group to do so but of the majority which had driven the others into this kind of behavior. It was generally agreed that to overcome one's own prejudices, it is necessary to develop the facility for looking for the good points in the other person. Then we must try to understand "the different one." Only then are we ready to accept him as an equal.

The same principles hold for differences in religion. Certainly a comparison of various faiths is a part of the history and humanities curriculum in any good private school. But does that automatically develop an acceptance of other religions? After a public meeting at our school during which the lecturer had repeatedly stressed that he was addressing himself to "Christians" of this world, some of the students were quite upset. They felt that the speaker had not sufficiently been aware of the mixed group to which he spoke. (We have students from Mohammedan and other lands.)

We then discussed and carefully examined what the speaker had said. The result was interesting. The man really had spoken to all people. He made it clear, however, that he believed that his own co-religionists were not living up to their obligations and, as a Christian, he therefore was addressing himself to them in particular. This careful analysis of the speech and of the speaker brought forth the realization that quite a number of the students had developed a latent dislike of the man. Now that they understood him, their dislike for him faded away.

Much Patience

One cannot learn to accept differences overnight. Some students arc so emotionally fraught that it takes much patience to remove the underlying fear. Last year we had at our school a group of students from the Near East, both Jewish and Arabic. It wasn't always easy for them to learn mutual respect for the other person's right to be and to think the way he wants. The Israel Arab controversy gave ample opportunity for discussion, yet the .Arab students. particularly, seemed often afraid to express themselves openly.

On several occasions we consciously tried to draw the boys out of their shells and in private consultation as well as in group meetings challenged them. At one of our school assemblies, which are conducted like New England Town Meetings, they were openly asked about a particular point of view. It was the question how much people could and should accept the differences among people. One of the Arab boys very politely told w, that since all people are two faced, one face could readily accept while the other did not have to commit itself.

The reaction to this point of view was an interesting one, in that it showed very deep and moral resentment in most youngsters and a heated discussion arose as to the ethics of "two facedness." During this discussion the western students&emdash;and I guess some of the adults as well&emdash;learned to understand more about the meaning of "saving face" or "two facedness," as it had been expressed. They saw that it was not just a negative approach, but that the Eastern concept of being "friendly" to your friend or acquaintance actually was born from a deep desire not to hurt the other's feelings.

I cannot truthfully say that at the end of that meeting we had convinced our Eastern friends to accept U9 with only one face, but we all had learned a great deal and were more ready to accept the others afterward.

The Right To Be Different

A discussion and evaluation of people's eating habits and their various clothing, of their facial expressions and of the color of their skin bring the most astonishing results, and I have never yet seen such a discussion held without a realization that the hidden fears have somehow been alleviated. But not only are these meetings of value to remove fears (which might be considered a negative result). Their real value lies in the positive approach by the young people to one another and in their consideration for the other person's right and their own obligation to preserve these rights.

The core of our work is to enable young people to accept instead of reject and dislike one another. I have observed that they are more ready to do so w hen they do not "tolerate" the other persons but, instead, respect their right to be different.

 reprinted from The Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1954