Tolerance has long been regarded as essential to liberal democratic life as well as to educational theory and practice. In educational policy and research, the school is seen as an important sphere where interpersonal tolerance can be studied and learned, and within schools, teachers and students are frequently asked to embody and practice tolerance. Whereas the need and value of tolerance may be evident in everyday life, the concept of tolerance is regarded as puzzling or even counterintuitive within the fields of philosophy and philosophy of education. Despite its overall harmonious connotation, tolerance seems to require two contradictory yet interdependent responses: in order to be tolerant (open-minded, accepting, welcoming) toward the tolerable, we also need to be intolerant (narrow-minded, resisting, hostile) toward the intolerable. In the philosophical debate, much work has been done to discuss the reasons and justifications for extending tolerance, while less attention has been paid to what determines the way in which an encounter becomes an issue of tolerance in the first place. In relation to the latter, three enduring questions can be identified. Is tolerance to be understood as a symmetrical or a hierarchal relation between the one who tolerates and the one being tolerated (the dilemma of welcoming)? What are the limits of tolerance and how are they to be drawn and justified (the dilemma of drawing boundaries)? And how much “unwanted otherness” can one suffer and bear before tolerance passes into intolerance or converts into pure acceptance (the dilemma of enduring)? In responding to the dilemmas of tolerance, different competing but coexisting discourses or conceptions on tolerance have developed historically over time. Within philosophy of education, two main conceptions can be traced, each of them implying a different way of responding to the dilemmas of interpersonal tolerance: tolerance as permission and tolerance as mutual respect. Besides these more traditional conceptions, a third conception of tolerance as an embodied and lived practice is identified. Taken together, the different coexisting conceptions of tolerance can be seen as an invitation to an ongoing conversation about the meaning and value of promoting tolerance in education, between and within different schools of philosophy of education.
Scholars in diverse democratic societies have theorized tolerance in various ways. Classical liberal tolerance can best be understood as non-interference with forms of behavior or expression one finds objectionable. It has been criticized for being too permissive of hate speech and not demanding enough as a theoretical guide to civic education. Alternatively, robust respect is characterized by open-mindedness and respect for diversity. Critics have suggested that it is too relativistic and overly ambitious as a guide to civic education. Discriminating (in)tolerance suggests that tolerance should only be extended to individuals and groups who support the advancement of egalitarian politics and the interests of historically marginalized groups. It has been criticized for being overly authoritarian and dogmatic. Mutuality emphasizes reciprocity and sustained engagement across difference. Critics argue that it is not revolutionary enough to address past injustices and persistent inequality.
Rampage school gun violence elicits strong public reaction but often results in stop-gap policies that do little to address the violence. Such policies include but are not limited to zero-tolerance discipline, employing school resource officers, installing metal detectors, arming teachers, and active shooter drills. What nearly all of these post-rampage policies share is a desire to secure the school by making the school impenetrable to would be assailants. These policies have an effect on the democratic education in the United States. To this end, the educational and democratic significance of post-rampage policies “harden” schools. Post-rampage schooling of this sort turns children into soldiers and schools into bunkers at the expense of democratic education for the renewal of a democratic society. Thus it is critical to introduce methods and practices that “soften” schools and sustain education for democratic citizenship.