This I Believe

Tom - Poughkeepsie, New York
Entered on November 6, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: tolerance

I work as a reference librarian at a community college in Eastern New York State and one thing that’s struck me in the seven years I’ve held this job is the diversity of our campus. Naturally, you’ll find such the case at many college campuses but, for a community college, we are especially diverse, both amongst our student population and our faculty and staff.

I was teaching one of our information literacy classes for a professor who had assigned her students an assignment in critical thinking. The students were required to pick a social issue and report on both sides of the subject.

My part in this involved showing the students how to make use of one of our full-text databases to find articles and essays on their subjects. As an example, I chose one of my favorite topics, the separation of church and state. I asked the class if anyone knew what that issue meant and I got a very well-thought out answer from a young lady sitting in the back. One of her classmates then spoke up about the crux of the matter: that the 1st Amendment to our constitution guarantees that religion will neither write the laws or will be bound by laws governing its practice. I also mentioned that the religious diversity of our society spoke to this right. As a further reinforcement of the concept, I asked how many students were Catholic. A few hands raised. (More than I expected, really!) How many were Protestant, (Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian…), a few more hands. I then asked if there were any Muslim students and got one hand. Maybe a few didn’t care to answer, but that was their right too.

What struck me first was the honesty of enough students to help me make my point. I consider that a very generous gesture on their part. The second, and more profound aspect of my impromptu survey, was the diversity exhibited right there in a class of less than 10 students.

What seems to be the modus operandi of religious organizations and religious-minded political leaders today is intolerance for this diversity and for the instilling of critical thinking skills in today’s younger students. Many media pundits are shamelessly stoking the fire by ridiculing religions that are not their own. Add to that wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, where the debate is actually emotional than societal, and the efforts by religious leaders to force their belief systems on the general public, even if they have their own beliefs already in place, and you have a culture where intolerance is gaining strength and respect for differences is being eroded. I believe we can all be tolerant of each other, respect our cultural differences and still have a functioning democracy that tries to solve its problems rather than creating newer ones or makes existing ones worse.