In Defense of (Some) Indoctrination
After graduation, I landed a job teaching English to middle school and high school students at a private college preparatory school. It didn’t pay particularly well, but it did provide me with valuable experience I’ve since put to good use: forming hardened opinions about education. I wouldn’t call myself dogmatic about educational models and methods–I’m much too vague on the meaning of human nature to claim the seal of approval from on high–but I am opinionated, very much so. So, yesterday, when I came across a meme on Facebook claiming that students should be taught how to think, not what to think, my inner teacher gremlin jerked his little green knees. I’m sympathetic to its anti-indoctrination sentiment, but it’s an absurd imperative.
First, any instruction on how to think presupposes that something–some content, some “what”–should be thought and therefore taught. You can’t teach someone to think mathematically without imparting mathematical terms and principles. There’s no getting to the “how” of concrete historical thought without situating one’s methodology in history. Moral thought makes sense only in reference to real or imagined lived experience. In sum, there’s no how to think without what to think. The two are related and cannot be fundamentally opposed.
Second, teaching a student how to think can be just as indoctrinating as teaching a student what to think. A glance at the history of knowledge sufficiently shows that people throughout history have thought very differently, beginning from different premises and using different methodologies, even within the same fields. There’s no universal reason, no universal how to think, but that hasn’t stopped charlatans and propagandists and hubris-infected smartypants from believing or pretending they have the one true method in addition to claiming they possess the fullness of true knowledge. We saw both these fraudulent instructions on display in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master.
Education is a delicate and dangerous dance. To get anywhere, teachers have to tell their students what to think. Sometimes they can make arguments in support of what they say, but argumentation and evidence are not always possible, not only because of the practical limitations of the classroom, but also because, theoretically, all knowledge presupposes the acceptance of unprovable axioms and asserted first principles. Education necessitates some indoctrination. Belief cannot be entirely foreign to a place of learning. The key is not teaching students how to think instead of what to think, but rather instructing them on what to think, how to think, and the skills for thinking critically and otherwise about what and how they think.
I trust I make myself obscure.