Freedom and Tolerance

Reforming Education coverIn his 1987 essay entitled “The Three Columns Revisited,”[1] Mortimer Adler has a prophetic word for today about the misconceptions regarding the meaning of the words freedom and tolerance and how they apply to education.

Adler writes:

“The cultural or intellectual malaise of which I speak can be described as phony tolerance. It denounces as dogmatic and authoritarian anyone who regards one person’s opinion as better than another’s. It translates everyone’s right to hold whatever opinions can be espoused into an acquiescence in the view that all opinions are equally tenable, no one better, sounder, truer than another.

Freedom of thought and expression includes the freedom to be wrong as well as to be right; it does not abolish the distinction between right and wrong. It also involves the freedom to change your mind when contrary evidence advanced and reasons given should cause you to change your mind when you are wrong. Your right to hold whatever opinion you happen to espouse in no way guarantees that the opinion you happen to hold is right, nor does it mean that you should not yield to correction and not change your mind if it can be shown that you are wrong.

Teachers who, in conducting seminars, fail to correct students when they are wrong, because they misunderstand the meaning of freedom of thought and discussion, do not discharge their obligation as teachers. Students who resist being corrected or cry out that they are being intimidated by their teachers who correct them do not discharge their obligation as students” (306-307).

In an age where technology allows all opinions widespread distribution, this reminder remains as timely as ever. Likewise, in a culture that defines “tolerance” as an inherent human right to not have my feelings hurt, this reminder remains as timely as ever. I would recommend not only the rest of his discussion on this topic, but the entirety of this essay as it provides helpful discussion on a number of areas (see for example my previous discussion on this essay in “The Choice of Things to Be Read”).

[1]All references to this article are taken from Mortimer Adler, “The Three Columns Revisited (1987),” Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine Van Doren (New York: MacMillan, 1988).

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