We all changed on September 11, 2001; that day's events forced us all to rethink who we are and how we relate to the rest of the world. I believe we will emerge from these personal reconsiderations with certain of our principles strengthened. One of these principles is tolerance.

I believe tolerance to be more than the absence of prejudice, more than a benign attitude towards ideas or practices, and more than simple acceptance of groups. That kind of tolerance is learned from slogans of a knee-jerk variety, and is of little use as guidance when we encounter people, ideas, or practices markedly different from our own. Tolerance can certainly lead to an absence of prejudice, to a willingness to entertain ideas, and to an acceptance of others — but these actions should not be taken in a jingoistic, unexamined manner.

Critical Thinking and Change

The tolerance I have in mind is an active appreciation of diversity. Tolerance, in simple language, is a serious adult responsibility with the potential to change our views of the world and of ourselves. This kind of tolerance also requires both action on our part and reflection on those actions and the results they produce.

From the perspective of adult learning, tolerance requires critical thinking skills, so the ideas and the people who present them can be put in perspective and understood. These critical thinking skills include being able to evaluate the evidence offered in support of propositions, the logic relating the propositions to one another, and the logic relating the propositions to the conclusions reached — regardless of whether the logic is Aristotelian or probabilistic.

A Sense of Self

This kind of tolerance also requires a sense of self. We must have a good idea of who we are and what values guide us in our daily lives, because it is against the backdrop of our beliefs that we interpret what it is we encounter.

This sense of self must be the variety that seeks out information when information is lacking, and second, it must demand explanations when the logic presented is unclear. Most interesting: Our sense of self must allow us to change when we encounter ideas that are both compelling and not part of what we believe. Our sense of self must allow us to assimilate new ideas of sufficient quality into what we believe or, on rare occasions, accommodate what we believe so these new ideas can be incorporated into who we are.

Inquire About Islam

Tolerance is also capable of rejecting ideas — and even people — when that is appropriate.We must encourage all health care providers to be actively tolerant when trying to understand their patients. It is only through this kind of activity that they can understand how best to care for patients who hold views different from their own, without rejecting them as human beings.

I hope that health care providers will exercise the active kind of tolerance described here in engaging with and learning about Islam and its followers. If they do, I anticipate that they will see the religion as a blessing to those who believe in it. And I think they will critically consider, and then reject, the views of those who see it as giving them the authority to kill others who disagree with their theology — though health care providers will offer these people the same quality of care as their other patients.

Note: The author wishes to thank Mary Lou Fuller, Professor Emeritus, Rose Isabel Kelly Fisher Chair of Education, University of North Dakota, for her help in preparing this month's column. Those who know Professor Fuller will surely see her convictions shining through the prose.

Henry B. Slotnick, PhD, PhD, visiting professor, University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, conducts research on how physicians learn. Send ideas for topics or questions to him at hbslotnick@facstaff.wisc.edu.