Take a random glance at school mission and values statements and you will find the following words cropping up again and again: ‘respect’, ‘tolerance, ‘non-judgmentalism’. ‘Respect’ and ‘tolerance’ are the most common, especially since DfE’s 2014 SMSC guidance identified them as ‘British values’ to be promoted. But it is far from clear what these words mean and whether the way we are currently interpreting them is in pupils’ interests or those of society.
‘Respect’ and ‘tolerance’ are often linked together as if they were the same thing. They are not. Traditionally ‘tolerance’ meant accepting the right of others to opinions and behaviours of which one did not approve. It has been a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But until recently it has never meant ‘respecting’ or refusing to pass judgment on opinions and behaviours of which one disapproved, let alone feeling obliged to ‘celebrate’ them.
If one elides ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’, and sends out the message that one should ‘respect’ and ‘celebrate’ opinions and behaviours of which one disapproves, instead of judging them, negative consequences are liable to ensue.
First, one is telling pupils what to think in areas where they should be exercising their own judgment. Faced with views and behaviours on which they have opinions, pupils are discouraged from formulating and exploring these in case another person or group might feel they are not being ‘respected or ‘celebrated’. This is both illiberal and limits opportunities for developing judgment and ‘discrimination’ (the making of distinctions), which is a key objective of education.
Second, it sends the message that other people’s opinions are not to be taken seriously. Just accepting them uncritically, in the name of ‘respect’ and ‘non-judgmentalism’, is failing to engage with them.
Third, it is sentimentalism to use language which encourages blanket ‘respect’ and ‘celebration’ in relation to individuals and groups. Pupils’ moral, emotional and intellectual development occurs in situations of challenge, not when they are immersed in a syrup of universal respect. It is also dangerous to brush under the carpet the fact that people disagree fundamentally about the kind of society they would like to live in. On many issues we neither ‘respect’ nor wish to ‘celebrate’ other people’s opinions and it is better to deal with this, in age-appropriate ways, frankly and without pretence.
Fourth, excessive attention to unqualified ‘respect’ and the celebration of identities can become an addiction, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out. It encourages a feeble view of the self. It may help to explain the worrying developments in universities we are currently seeing, both in the UK and the USA, where students, used to being cossetted and flattered in school, are refusing to read upsetting books, banning speakers who might ‘offend’ them, and demanding the creation of ‘safe spaces’. Where unqualified ‘respect’ extends to whole groups and cultures, it can also undermine personal autonomy. Pupils are individuals, not representatives of groups from which in some cases they may even wish to escape.
This is not to suggest that we abandon ‘respect’. Pupils need to learn to ‘respect’ other people’s rights. They need to argue their own case using ‘respectful’ language. They need to listen ‘respectfully’ to what everyone else has to say, even when they disagree. How one manages these kinds of discussions will of course vary hugely from one age group to another, and from school to school.
Above all, however, we need to get back to the idea of ‘tolerance’, with its ‘respect’ for the right to differ (even on things like ‘British values’), its connotation of open debate, and its robust and positive assumptions about human nature.
Dr Nick Tate is the author of What is Education For? (2015) and a NET Leading Thinker.