Higher Education Can Lead the Way Toward a More Tolerant Society

By Lorelle L. Espinosa

January 18, 2017

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By Lorelle Espinosa

Regardless of your politics, President Obama’s farewell address was a poignant reminder of the strength of American democracy. It pointed to our need as a nation to vigilantly protect our great system, which as Mr. Obama put it, is in part achieved through solidarity.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this concept of solidarity lately. Long before the outgoing president’s speech, even before last November’s election, I and so many others around me and around the world wrestled with solidarity’s rivals: division and intolerance. Last January, my center started a series on this blog to address the varying dimensions of the climate on college campuses and the intolerance many students have experienced and observed, as well as the strategies that campuses are taking to strengthen inclusion.

It got me thinking: We spend so much time examining the so-called private or individual benefits of higher education that we often overlook the societal benefits. To the former, research shows that college graduates earn a full $1 million more in their lifetime than high school graduates. And college graduates have fared far better in the face of the recent economic recession. They enjoy better health, live longer and are more likely to have retirement benefits and feel good about their life decisions. Yet as significant as these individual benefits are, the societal benefits far outweigh them.

Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, articulates well the societal benefits of higher education, citing research that shows college graduates are more engaged citizens, more involved in their communities, and more likely to understand the issues of the day and vote. She notes that college graduates contribute far more in taxes, require less government assistance and health care, and spend more time with their children—all of which in turn strengthens America’s economy and citizenry.

Tolerance as the Ultimate Good

Beyond these clear advantages, higher education contributes something else that is so tangible, so fundamental to our nation and world, so necessary to our advancement as a people. Higher education can lead the way to a more tolerant society; in fact, it may very well be the number one societal good higher education has to offer.

In the year 2017, in the midst of a century of great technological and scientific advancement, Americans are woefully underperforming in the practice of tolerance. We need only look to the 2016 presidential election. To a new Congress (still) not willing to compromise. To pushback against social movements seeking equality for the most marginalized in our country. To the unwillingness to see another point of view or label anything deemed conservative or liberal as an unworthy idea. To the fierce resistance of the “other.”

These are not just anecdotes or headlines. According to a recent national poll by the Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute, only 24 percent of adults and 16 percent of college students say that Americans do a good job of seeking out and listening to views other than their own. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.

Of all the communities in the country, tolerance is perhaps most within the reach of colleges and universities. Not just because they are microcosms and perhaps thus a bit more manageable, but because they first and foremost provide an educational environment. The foundations of tolerance run deep in the college classroom, where students learn and confront new ideas, issues and experiences at times vastly different than their own. A diverse college (or K-12) classroom—filled with people of different races, religions, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds—is especially powerful given the paramount role of peer-to-peer interaction to student learning.

The Power of Higher Education

Eli Saslow’s remarkable profile of Derek Black in a Washington Post piece last October is a moving reminder of this power. Black was an heir apparent to the white nationalist movement—a proponent of the concept of “white genocide” who spoke at white nationalist conferences and had his own radio show. His father, Don Black, founded the white nationalist website Stormfront. His godfather is David Duke.

After graduating from high school, Black enrolled in community college and ran for a seat on the Republican committee, beating an incumbent with 60 percent of the vote. He decided he wanted to study medieval European history, so he applied and was accepted to New College of Florida, a top-ranked liberal arts school. And then everything changed.

Saslow chronicles how Black moved from prominent young white nationalist leader to a supporter of multiculturalism and a proponent of the benefits that immigrants bring to the country, with help from an orthodox Jewish classmate and other friends at New College. It’s an incredible testimony to the formidable impact of education and the benefits of diversity on college campuses.

Decades of research bears out this anecdotal evidence of Derek Black. Education opens minds. Research further shows that the most productive and successful teams—whether they are in the college classroom or the corporate boardroom—are diverse teams.

And right before our eyes, over the last year-plus, we’re seeing the makings of tolerance play out as college students across the country march, sit in and make demands of their campus leadership. Some might say that this is further evidence of divisiveness, but I see it the other way. This is the college campus as a reflection of larger societal discourse. It is, as it has always been, a space for discourse, disagreement, and yes, of division. But it’s also a space for free expression, constructive dialogue and the sharing of ideas and identities.

The Seeds of Tolerance

Tolerance does not come easy. But from division comes opportunity for debate, engagement and openness by students, faculty, alumni and administrators—the very seeds of tolerance.

No one knows this better than the very faculty and professionals who are on the front lines, instructing, engaging, supporting and counseling students as they navigate the tricky and at times unclear waters of tolerance. Who better to guide individuals on this journey?

What is more, the makings of tolerance do not flow one direction. Students themselves are guiding each other and the communities around them. It is not lost on college leaders that the millennial generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse, community-minded and self-expressive group we’ve ever seen. Many have observed that this diversity is driving the discourse.

Students are demanding and colleges and universities are responding. Not because they have all the answers, but because they are a community of educators. And part of providing that education is to also confront, debate and wrestle with the major challenges of the day.

Leading the Way

College presidents and other senior leaders, like their students, are grappling with the division playing out before them. As stewards, these leaders are seeking constructive paths and are eager to find proactive solutions. Some are getting it right, while others are still finding their way. A number of campuses are forming high-profile campus-wide committees and working groups, attending to inclusion, investing resources, making bold moves to address histories of exclusion and calling out prejudice while affirming free expression.

According to researchers Liliana Garces and Uma Jayakumar, when colleges take such steps—when they assess climate, are deliberate in constructing environments that break down barriers and promote engagement across difference, and acknowledge institutional histories and contexts—they are in the best position to reap the benefits of their diversity. I would further maintain that they are in the best position to promote tolerance.

While at times seemingly divisive, the whole of the experiences that students, faculty, administrators and alumni are living nonetheless contain the makings of tolerance. As a report by PEN America points out (among a host of related issues), student protests and other forms of engagement are amplifying new and important voices. While the unrest on campuses and the fallout it often produces can cause serious pain points for all involved, these points are part of our evolution as educators and as a society. It is part of the evolution of tolerance both on- and off-campus.

As Americans, we are privileged to have the world’s premier system of higher education. Life outcomes of postsecondary graduates show this, as do the economic and societal benefits of an educated workforce and engaged citizenry. As a laboratory for ideas and exchange, higher education can further lead the way to a more tolerant society through the actions of its leaders and the engagement of its whole community of learners. Only then will we truly reap its full benefit.


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About the Author

Lorelle L. Espinosa


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