Toleration, the Cracking Stone


In my teens and twenties, I didn’t think much of the concept of toleration. It seemed condescending, grudging, arcane. Along with many others, I thought: Don’t give me toleration, give me love and acceptance. It took me decades to understand what toleration really was. I now see it as fundamental to government, basic relationships, and intellectual life; take it away, and you have factions trying to destroy each other.

Toleration is complex, contradictory, and fraught, and it can take a variety of forms. For now, I will focus on what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls the “respect component” of toleration: the idea that “even though they differ fundamentally in their ethical beliefs about the good and true way of life and in their cultural practices, citizens recognize one another as moral-political equals in the sense that their common framework of social life should—as far as fundamental questions of rights and liberties and the distribution of resources are concerned—be guided by norms that all parties can equally accept and that do not favor one specific ethical or cultural community.” In other words, to live together in a country or other entity, all parties respect each other as equals within a common ethical framework. This framework typically involves an idea of personal liberty.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty works with this conception of toleration. According to Mill, to tolerate is to recognize each individual’s liberty to live as he or she pleases, as long as this does not impinge on the liberty of others. Such liberty benefits not only the individual, but society, which can learn and benefit from the range of opinions and ways of life. In Mill’s view, one can go far in one’s own choices before truly interfering with others; for instance, in his view, a person should not be punished for drinking, only for harmful actions that the drinking has induced. This is one of the most controversial aspects of his argument (and of toleration itself): at what point are you hurting others, and at what point are you not?

But such considerations come later. First, let us look at the merits of toleration as a basic principle. To do this, we must discard the idea that toleration is sufficient for human life. Few people, if any, can live on tolerance alone. Most of us need more than that: not only love and affection, but instruction, correction, and challenge. Treated as the sole principle of life (“live the way you wish, but leave me alone”), it condemns us to isolation. But take it away, and you have something even more dangerous. You have Trump firing those who dared to testify in the impeachment hearings; you have people “cancelling” each other online (and in some cases wrecking their careers and lives).

Toleration comes to this: You may not love me, or even like me. I may not love you, or even like you. We may not agree on all things. We may have profound differences in our beliefs and ways of life. But while we may try to persuade each other, we also recognize each other’s right to exist as we are. We will not bully each other, willfully hurt each other, or try to overpower each other. This agreement is mutual, full, and unconditional (within this framework). It is not contingent on one person being converted to the other’s way.

It is difficult in that most of us believe (at least at times) that we are right and others are wrong. Not only that, but this is often the case. How can you tolerate someone whom you see as wrong? Aren’t you under obligation to show this person the light and demand some kind of awakening?

No. “Awakening” loses all meaning if it is demanded. Moreover, even when we are right, we have things to learn, and the lessons can come from surprising places.

In my freshman year in college, in the spring of 1982 (when I had just turned 18–I was a year younger than most of the others), a friend came out to me and others as gay. His roommates decided that they did not want to room with him the following year. I felt terrible for him and decided I would try to help. So one evening I walked over to their quad and knocked on the door. One of his roommates was home. I began to talk to him, thinking I was doing something good and brave.

We talked for two or three hours; it was late when I left. The roommate explained to me that he didn’t have anything against my friend but that he had been taught, all his life, that homosexuality was wrong, and he could not get rid of that feeling overnight. Maybe he would change over time, he said, but rooming with my friend at this point would be too much. He talked about his religious upbringing, his understanding of relationships, and his awareness that his views might change. I found, to my surprise, a principled and open person, a person who was questioning himself while also staying true to who he was. Some might scoff at that. But I look back on this conversation as one of the great lessons of my life.

I have had similar lessons in politics and religion. The person who seems to be on the bad or wrong side (from your perspective) may be one of the most trustworthy people you will ever meet. The person may even become your ally or friend. Sometimes the best of friends–like Gilgamesh and Enkidu–are the ones who have battled each other, because they see each other’s strength, they are not trying to reduce the other to a version of themselves.

There are famous histories and stories of friends who disagreed about everything, for whom the disagreement was itself a sign of respect. G. K. Chesterton’s exuberant novel The Ball and the Cross is in part about two men, a Catholic and an atheist Socialist, who, after dueling each other at great length and risk, realize that they have something in common: their belief in the importance of these questions.

This kind of toleration is not grudging, haughty, or hypocritical; to the contrary, it requires a willingness to set grudges, haughtiness and superiority aside. The people involved do not have to be friends; they do not even have to know each other. Toleration can exist among strangers.

So why is it in such disrepair? Part of the reason is that it isn’t taught adequately. People are encouraged instead to take positions and stick to them. One terrible disadvantage of the debate format–which is taught all around the world, and which I include in some of my lessons–is that it turns into an exercise in proving oneself right, instead of coming closer to truth. It often doesn’t allow for a middle ground or for a subtle view, unless this is deliberately worked in. It tends to reinforce the belief that those people on the other side of the room are wrong. Debate has its place as a skill and exercise, but it cannot be the prevailing form of conversation.

Another reason is that social media has made it easy for people to join up with others who share their views. Then attacking the other side becomes a matter of course. When you can’t see the other person, you forget that this actually is a person. People get some kind of instant satisfaction from putting down people whom they will never have to face.

Yet another reason (related to the second) is that the people making the most noise appear to represent more people than they actually do; many quieter views go ignored, and many people resist speaking up because they know they will just be flailed.

But the fourth (and most important) reason for the disrepair is that toleration does not come easily. It is not immediately understood. It is never a fully settled matter, since what one person considers personal choice, another sees as an imposition or violation. The lines of liberty necessarily shift; it is on us to determine when an action is going too far, but to tend, as much as possible, toward generosity. Toleration is not something that one “has” or doesn’t have. It must be built, repaired, renovated, and inhabited, and the work does not end.

Teacher Ratings and Rubric Reverence

Some seven years ago, when I was taking education courses as a New York City Teaching Fellow, we had to hand in “double-entry journals”—that is, two-column pages with a quotation or situation on one side and our response on the right. On one occasion, I needed far more room for my response than for the quotations, so I adjusted the format: instead of using columns, I simply provided the quotations and my comments below each one.

The instructor chided me in front of the class. She said that this was a masters program and that I should learn to produce masters-level work. (She wasn’t aware that I already had a Ph.D. from Yale.) If the instructions specified a double-entry journal, well, then I was supposed to provide a double-entry journal. She had no quibbles with my commentary itself, which she found insightful. She just took issue with my flouting of the instructions. I have no grudges against the instructor, who meant well and knew her stuff. But it was an eye-opener.

Up to this point, I had not encountered such rigidity regarding instructions. In high school, college, and graduate school, we were expected to use certain formats for term papers, publishable work, and dissertations. But on everyday assignments, it was substance and clarity that mattered most. The teacher or professor even appreciated it when I departed from the usual format for a good reason. I did so judiciously and rarely.

The double-entry-journal incident was part of my induction into New York City public schools. There, the rubric (which usually emphasized appearance and format) ruled supreme; if you did everything just so, you could get a good score, while if you diverged from the instructions but had a compelling idea, you could be penalized. I saw rubrics applied to student work, teachers’ lessons, bulletin boards, classroom layout, group activities, and standardized tests. I will comment on the last of these—rubrics on standardized tests—and their bearing on the recent publication of New York City teachers’ value-added ratings (their rankings based on student test score growth).

A New York Daily News editorial asserts that teachers with consistently high value-added ratings are clearly doing something right. (This is the argument put forth by many value-added proponents.) But that’s not necessarily so; all we really know is that their students are making test score gains.

In New York State, on the written portion of the English Language Arts examinations, it matters little what the students actually say or how well they argue it. What matters is that they address the question in the prompt and follow the instructions to the letter. A student may make erroneous or illogical statements and still receive a high score; a student may make subtle observations and lose points for failing to do everything exactly as specified.

Here’s an essay prompt from the 2009 grade 8 ELA exam. (For an example at the high school level, see my blog “A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay.”)

Bill Watterson in “Drawing Calvin and Hobbes” and Roald Dahl in “Lucky Break” discuss their approaches to their work. Write an essay in which you describe the similarities and differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl. Explain how their work habits contribute to their success. Use details from both passages to support your answer.  In your essay, be sure to include

  • a description of the similarities between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • a description of the differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • an explanation of how their work habits contribute to their success
  • details from both passages to support your answer 

To get a good score, a student would only have to write one paragraph about similarities, one paragraph about differences, and one paragraph about how their work habits led to their success. By contrast, a student who began by considering definitions of “success” (as G.  K. Chesterton does) would not fare so well, even though that might be the more thoughtful essay. Likewise, a student who questioned the direct link between work habits and success (as Mark Twain does) would be at a disadvantage. Students are better off if they write a predictable essay, even a bland one, that meets the criteria. Their teachers are better off, too; every point counts when it comes to value-added scores. 

I have scored ELA exams. Human judgment has little place in those scoring rooms. To maintain consistency, everyone is supposed to follow the rubric, and, if there’s any doubt, the state’s own interpretation of the rubric. It comes down, in the end, to following instructions rather than judgment. On the one hand, this is fair and justified. If teachers were to use their own judgment when scoring, two essays of similar quality could receive wildly different scores. On the other, it means that there’s no way to acknowledge the student who struggles with the question becausethe question is tricky or problematic—that is, the student who pushes beyond the obvious response. 

Now let’s consider the consequences in the classroom. Teachers A and B teach at a relatively high-performing school. Teacher A tells students that to write well, you should have something to say and should take care with words. Her students read G. K. Chesterton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and others. They discuss these essays, look at their structures, respond to favorite passages in them, and write essays inspired by them. Teacher B, within the same school, has a different approach. She brings in reading passages like those on the tests. She teaches students how to read essay prompts and produce the expected responses. She has them do this every day. Now, arguably, one can teach students to write thoughtfully and follow directions precisely. But the latter has the greater test score payoff.

So, teacher B’s students make more test score gains than Teacher A’s students. Teacher B gets rated “high”; teacher A, “below average.” (This is a plausible scenario in an unusually high- or low-performing school, where a slight difference in points can account for a large difference in ratings.) Then the ratings appear in the New York Times and elsewhere. Many readers will assume, even with caveats galore, that teacher B does better work than teacher A. Teacher A then finds herself under pressure to do what teacher B is doing. That means ensuring that her students follow directions.

How do you get teachers to teach in this manner? Train them in education school. Impress upon them the sacrosanctity of instructions. Teach them that if the assignment is a double-entry journal, then that is what they must produce, period.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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