Beyond Tolerance: Opportunities for Teaching and Learning Compassion in the HBCU Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

As classrooms become more and more diverse, faculty at Xavier University of Louisiana are increasingly aware of difficulties associated with meeting the challenge of millennial learners who are socialized into an individualistic political culture but are simultaneously confronted by a demand for leadership in a diverse local and global community. Given the media’s relentless marketing and the plethora of messages students need to decode in order to understand their place in the world, intolerance to difference has become the elephant in the classroom. In order to divert this obstacle, faculty seize every opportunity to promote tolerance, understanding, and compassion in the classroom by teaching students about the injustices in the political, economic and social spheres. By introducing students to new methodologies of learning (e.g. oral histories) and by developing innovative programs of study (e.g. issues in social justice), faculty in the humanities and social sciences have devised useful strategies for converting a diverse classroom into an open and fruitful learning environment.

Students at historically black institutions are often thought to be more homogeneous than students at majority institutions. However, faculty at Xavier University see their classrooms changing in dramatic ways. Xavier students come from a wide range of class backgrounds and regional upbringings. They are ethnically and racially diverse: joining the majority African American population are students of Asian descent, White students, veiled female Muslim students, and students from the Caribbean and Africa. Many of our students were educated in the New Orleans public school system, while others come from public schools outside of Louisiana. Some students arrive at Xavier with a private or parochial school education. Some are mainstream learners, and others are learning-disabled. Some students excelled in high school, having earned honors credits and graduating at the top of their class, or scoring very high on college entrance exams. Others begin their college careers with a different set of challenges and need the extra support of tutoring services and developmental courses. Some students are first generation Americans and others have recently arrived in the United States.

Two areas that are particularly challenging in terms of tolerance, understanding and compassion in the classroom are: (a) difference based on nationality, and (b) difference based on learning ability.

With the emergence of global communication and culture and the intellectual impact of a global culture on students, one would not expect students to isolate themselves from others who spoke or dressed differently from their perception of the norm. Nor would one expect so little empathy for the slower development features of other states. Scholars have long argued (Sullivan et al, 1982) that in a free market of ideas, nonconformity is not a bad thing. But finding students unsympathetic to the plight of the Global South arouses in faculty a commitment to breaking down barriers of intolerance among them. Through pluralistic learning styles, a tenet of the Xavier mission, faculty take the opportunity to promote tolerance in the classroom by teaching students about the injustices in the political, cultural, economic and social spheres.

>In addition to a culturally and nationally diverse classroom, students and faculty are immersed in a learning environment that is populated by students who learn in dramatically different ways. Research has shown that students with learning disabilities are often stigmatized, made fun of, and sometimes ignored by both their peers and their instructors. Indeed, a recent study (Gething, 1994) suggests that students and teachers possess somewhat negative attitudes toward students with learning disabilities, often viewing them as academically inferior. Entering college and facing the same challenges that shaped their K-12 years, students who learn differently often have low self-esteem and as a result, their self-perception is greatly influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of others. In some instances, those who learn differently become intolerant of those they see as “different” from them, which creates a cycle of double intolerance. Given the individual modification and accommodations that must be made for this particular population of students, faculty must become “change agents” to ensure equal success for all students. This is not a dismal situation for college instructors. Instead, it is another opportunity to promote learning and sharing among faculty and students.

Faced with the changing and dynamic HBCU classroom, how, then, can faculty develop a culture of tolerance, understanding, and compassion? Through a number of strategies, we have learned that when students encounter those they see as “different” and when they gain an understanding of others’ circumstances, they see a reflection of themselves and they feel compassion, which is in turn transformed into tolerance.

One strategy used in an International Relations class involves allowing students to “switch” their citizenship. Students are invited at the beginning of the semester to adopt a country that is unfamiliar to them. They are then encouraged to study the themes of the course as they relate to the adopted country. For example, if the class is studying economic development in the Global South, the student representing Nigeria would be expected to represent the positions of a Nigerian rather than that of an American. This student is challenged to be convincing, and is required to learn about colonialism, trade partners, currency values, foreign exchange rates and a host of related information in order to make realistic policy recommendations. Moreover, at the end of the semester, that student is required to participate in a mock United Nations forum and present the adopted nation’s position on the topic of development. Usually, by the end of the semester, that student is ready to fiercely defend Nigeria’s right to environmental security, sustainable development and basic human rights. Thus, the intolerance for the other has been replaced by an understanding of the other and a willingness to secure equal rights for the adopted homeland.

Another strategy at Xavier is the use of diverse instructional methods to incorporate both mainstream learners and those who learn differently. For example, in a collaborative problem-solving activity, faculty deliberately pair students who learn differently with higher achieving students. This positive interaction helps students appreciate each other’s differences; it also demonstrates to higher achieving students that they can learn from those they may have previously dismissed or disparaged. Another method is to simply arrange the classroom in a circle, which promotes inclusion. Furthermore, the circle arrangement provides an opportunity for the faculty member to encourage participation among students who learn differently. While incorporating the topic of tolerance into a class assignment, instructors allow students who learn differently to tell their story. This is one of the most powerful ways to break down intolerance. Not only is the faculty member demonstrating an understanding and appreciation of students who learn differently, but he or she is also modeling a behavior of tolerance that is adopted by all of the students in the classroom.

A final strategy involves incorporating oral history in the classroom curriculum. Oral history considers the memories of marginalized people and seeks to incorporate those stories and memories into dominant historical narratives. The deep exchange of the interview is an act of humanization – through a specific method of inquiring about the past through living subjects, the interviewee and the interviewer are bound to see each other as human beings who learn that they are more alike than they are different. This is of huge value to undergraduate students.

When using oral history in the classroom, students are paired-up and instructed to interview each other. Each student is to spend no less than 30 minutes interviewing his or her peer. By means of the peer interview, students have an opportunity to experience each other’s lives through active listening. They have the opportunity, in a focused and structured way, to see each other beyond appearances. When using oral history outside of the classroom, students interview all kinds of historical actors. Students spend time with the subjects of their interviews – they see their lives, and hopefully they hear and feel their struggles through the practice of active listening. Completing these assignments, students have a deeper, more engaged, and more human-centered understanding of history. Students consistently report that they have more compassion for each other after they conduct the peer interview. Out of that compassion emerges a greater openness in the classroom.

Learning about “the other” in the classroom from a purely theoretical approach can be a boring experience for a millennial learner. The opportunity to utilize strategies such as the above transforms a diverse, less energized classroom into a tolerant, active learning environment. Embedded in the face-to-face interaction – whether one is of another nationality or another kind of learner – are two unavoidable questions: “Who are you?” and “Who am I?” Our students are changed in the process of answering these questions.


Gething, L. (1994). The Interaction with Disabled Persons scale. In D. S. Dunn (Ed.), Psychosocial perspectives on disability (Special issue). Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. 9: 23-42

Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: Oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sullivan, J. L., Piereson, J. E., & Marcus, G.E. (1982). Political tolerance and American democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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