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What Good is Tolerance?

Richard Obenauf, obenauf@unm.edu

Course Description

From heresy to hate crimes, humans have a long and tortured history of subjecting one another to persecution. 

In this course, we will be asking under what circumstances intolerance might be justified in the modern world, and in what cases we might prefer something beyond toleration such as the enthusiastic endorsement of difference. We will survey justifications for intolerance in the Western tradition, spanning the Middle Ages through the present day, with a particular interest in the rise of toleration as a founding and guiding principle of the United States. We will examine the dangers associated with difference in homogeneous societies while also exploring some ways that diversity is understood to enrich our culture and our political process. We will read a variety of highly canonical texts dealing implicitly and explicitly with our topic of tolerance, and we will discuss them in their literary, social, historical, and political contexts.

Readings and Texts

Our dynamic reading list will include recent works on tolerance by political philosophers including Preston King and Michael Walzer; medieval and Renaissance handbooks offering advice to rulers by John of Salisbury, Machiavelli, and Erasmus; documents from the American Revolution; essays by Emerson, Thoreau, and E.M. Forster; a variety of works by authors including Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Chaucer, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Marx, Swift, Hawthorne, and others.

Films and Other Course Materials

None

Course Fee

None

Student Requirements

Consistent attendance and active participation are required. Students will be expected to keep a reading journal which will form the basis for a series of short reaction papers. There will be one shorter analytical essay and a longer seminar paper, plus a concise presentation summarizing your research. Depending on enrollment, each student may be expected either to lead class discussion for approximately thirty minutes at some point during the semester or to offer a series of three-minute "leads" to stimulate our discussion throughout the semester.

About the Instructor

Richard Obenauf earned his BA at the University of New Mexico and his MA and PhD in Medieval and Renaissance English Language and Literature at Loyola University Chicago. He has argued that the roots of formal print censorship in England are to be found in earlier forms of intolerance which sought to enforce conformity, and that censorship is not distinct from intolerance, but rather is another form of intolerance.