How do the UAE’s educators plan to integrate the Year of Tolerance into schools and why is this such an important value for today’s youth?
Living in a multi-cultural society where one classroom may have over ten nationalities represented, children in the UAE are arguably already more tolerant than their global counterparts, or at least more aware of people who have different backgrounds and beliefs to themselves.
But knowing that the future is in our children’s hands, tolerance is a key value that every educator no doubt agrees should be part of a youngster’s education to set them up for the future.
What is tolerance?
But what tolerance really stands for is peaceful co-existence, open-mindedness and respect for others, regardless of differences in ethnicity, social standing, beliefs or ability.
“Tolerance is not just a buzzword exploited by the media in today’s society, but is a core social value that brings people of all races, religions and ideals into one place,” Dr Fatima Al Shamsi, deputy executive director for administrative affairs at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, begins. “The UAE is the perfect example: It’s a place of diversity and therefore a place for tolerance.”
Dr Kate Plumb, Aspen Heights British School’s head of secondary, agrees, adding that tolerance is about accepting others to the extent that everyone is seen as equals: “Tolerance, to me, means the acceptance of all, so that we can happily coexist with one another in our school, the UAE and the world.
“Acceptance of all people is essential in order to create a peaceful, harmonious environment. No matter what a person’s age, race, gender, culture or beliefs, we should treat everybody with equity. By respecting one another and embracing and appreciating our rich cultural diversity, we hope to help nurture a peaceful future generation.”
For Brighton College’s headmaster, Simon Corns, celebrating tolerance goes hand-in-hand with highlighting the theme of inclusion: “It means mutual respect, accepting differences and treating people as human beings, first and foremost, whose differences are productive and mean we all bring different attitudes to problems. In that way, better solutions are achieved for all.
“The key value is mutual respect,” Simon continues. “Whether one agrees with another person’s view or not, let’s consider it and listen to each other rather than dismissing that which does not immediately accord with our own cultural values. This does not entail abandoning our values, merely taking the opportunity, when someone presents a different view, to reassess them and to be respectful of other perspectives. In doing so, we learn a lot about ourselves and this can strengthen and deepen our own values.”
In today’s world, where migrants face challenges with integration and countries are locking their borders, the topic of tolerance perhaps couldn’t come at a better time as we teach the younger generation about being open to and accepting of others.
“I think that when we reflect on tolerance, it is very important to distinguish this notion from mere indifference,” explains Dr Claude Vishnu Spaak, head of Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi’s philosophy and sociology department. “More and more societies in our contemporary globalized world are becoming increasingly multicultural. In light of this fact, you could think, too easily perhaps, that each society should aim merely at having its communities not interact with each other and only take care of themselves without really showing interest for the way people from other communities live and think. This, I believe, is not enough. Tolerance must have a more positive aspect to it: tolerance is not just about peaceful non-interference with others, it is about living side by side with a stronger sense of integration.
“Tolerance implies being curious about others, wanting to learn from them and also to share with them what we are and our own outlook, values and beliefs,” Dr Claude continues. “So tolerance is about both curiosity and generosity, and it is through this positive outlook on tolerance (which makes it much more than just a form of polite indifference), that we can promote a truly pluralist society, where people not only live peacefully, but also in political friendship and harmony.”
Tolerance in the UAE
With so many of Abu Dhabi’s institutes – from nurseries to schools and universities – enrolling children from various nationalities and a horde of languages being spoken on campus, it’s no wonder our students are already learning to accept people who are different from them.
“I strongly believe that students in the UAE are naturally more tolerant given that we live in such a multi-cultural society,” Dr Fatima says. “They learn that some values are not as bad as they thought they were. They become culture-conscious and learn to be flexible. Furthermore, a more diverse culture means individual differences are better tolerated. They learn that it is acceptable not to like the same things, believe the same things or even celebrate the same things, but it is also expected in return that they accept and respect the other.
“The influx of ideas and different ways of doing things is just interesting and stimulating,” she continues. “In the UAE, people celebrate their differences and are eager to learn more about the different cultures around them. From my experience, students value this diversity and take this as a great opportunity to make friends from all over the world.”
This cross-cultural atmosphere isn’t only beneficial to helping youngsters grow into tolerant adults, it’s setting them up for a better future, according to Simon: “We live in an international city here and so much of life and work nowadays has a global dimension. For our young people today, we don’t know what their future will look like, but we do know that tolerance and mutual respect are likely to make for a better world.
“When today’s youngsters become tomorrow’s leaders, it is vital that they have clear moral values – a sense of what is right and wrong, what does damage and what is beneficial, and they will need sufficient self-esteem to be confident in promoting their values but listening to the views of others. That way, we can be hopeful of peace and prosperity for the maximum number of people, wherever they live in the world.”
Tolerance, according to educators, is about more than simply accepting something – it’s about instilling certain values. When it comes to integrating tolerance into the education system, it’s about helping students think differently.
“In my opinion, the greatest gift we can give to our students is to teach them ways to develop critical thinking, a capacity for creativity and risk-taking, tolerance and acceptance for those different from themselves,” Dr Fatima notes.
“Teaching tolerance should start from the early school years. The curriculum should be developed in the best way to provide children with opportunities to explore, recognise and accept that people are different. It is our differences that make this world a better place to live in. This is what differentiates us from robots and makes every person unique,” she continues.
“Schools and universities play a major role in teaching tolerance; education can be a powerful tool to instil the values of tolerance from an early age. Our role as educators is to empower the new generation with skills for living ethical and productive lives in an increasingly diverse and complex world.”
Dr Claude agrees: “Tolerance is an essential pedagogical value because it helps students learn how to think in an open-minded way while overcoming all kinds of prejudices and preconceived ideas; through tolerance they learn the virtues of critical thinking and creativity, which are essential assets on the road to intellectual freedom.”
He continues: “While it is never too late to learn the values of tolerance, we should not forget that our identity starts to take shape at an early age. This is why it is necessary to teach tolerance to students at a young age, when children are at the maximum of their learning abilities, full of curiosity and desire to know, and while they are themselves
The year ahead
Just one month into the year, schools are already jumping on board to support the Year of Tolerance and spread its message, with new and recurring activities being organised.
Brighton College will host Global Awareness Day, an annual initiative where over 60 nationalities are represented, on 7th February. Sorbonne Abu Dhabi is set to host the Argumentation and Society: For a Constructive Dialogue, a Speech Without Violence conference on 12th and 13th February. Gems Cambridge International School will host the Week of Tolerance in February, which includes a talk from a person of determination who will provide insight into the challenges special needs people face on a daily basis. At Aspen Heights British School, the Year of Tolerance will be celebrated through various programmes including Moral Education and My Identity where activities in and outside of the classroom will spread the message leading up to the International Day of Tolerance on 16th November.
While each school will host its own programmes, some hope to see institutes work together to embody the spirit of tolerance and community by partnering on projects in the wider community.
Dr Fatima explains, “I would be happy to see collaborations on different initiatives and major events between different universities under the same theme. Having students as well as employees from different universities and educational institutions work hand-in-hand towards organising a major event, campaign or common project will be the greatest example of tolerance. It could be a media campaign directed by students from the different universities from all seven emirates or a common artistic project that can then be transformed into a memorial marking 2019 as the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. I would also be happy to see students volunteering and supporting the 2019 Special Olympics World Games as a way to convey tolerance and unity.”
Dr Kate Plumb agrees: “I hope that there will be many opportunities to participate in activities with other schools during the year, in order to promote learning in our multi-cultural society. Ideally, pupils will share their thoughts and feelings through literacy and film projects. I also hope that there will be a special celebration to mark the International Day of Tolerance.”
For Simon, the Year of Tolerance is simply a platform, one that goes beyond a day, week or year dedicated to the values of mutual respect and understanding: “Pupils here learn all about tolerance of difference and respect for each other’s values and customs and, of course, we enjoy this all in the context of the UAE, which has its own culture that permeates our teaching and learning.”
He continues, “I will emphasise to our pupils, as I did with the Year of Zayed, that tolerance does not just exist for a year because that is what we are focusing on. What really counts is whether we are embedding tolerance in all that we do, and are becoming better human beings because of it, not for one year but for every year.”