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.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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6 Responses

  1. GordonHide says:

    I think I would agree that all teaching is indoctrination when the pupils have no critical thinking skills and no knowledge base against which to parse incoming information. But I don’t see that as teaching them what to think. Perhaps you could enlarge on what you mean by “what to think”.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Let me try an example: students are routinely taught to value their education and study, implicitly if not explicitly. This lesson imparts a doctrine, one the students are not supposed to question (even though they often do!). We don’t think of this as “indoctrination” in the pejorative sense, but indoctrination is what is happening here, and here you have students told or formed in what to think. You can’t do education without inculcating some basic doctrines.

      • GordonHide says:

        Yes, I completely accept that values are indoctrinated as well as facts although a lot of that is done by the kids being sensitive to what adults think is important rather than by direct intentional indoctrination.

  2. Kazzy says:

    Every thing we do in the classroom is indoctrination. If I teach my kids to wait patiently for a turn, I am indoctrinating them in the value of patience. I won’t get much push back because pretty much everyone agrees this is a good thing. “Indoctrination” only becomes an evil word when folks think kids are being indoctrinated with stuff THEY DON’T LIKE BOOHISS!

    • Morat20 says:

      Take English class — the book list selection is indoctrination. Even though most offer a number of choices “pick from these books, if you want to do another get my approval first” — there are a huge number of ‘must-reads’ that you are required to digest.

      Your English teacher is telling you what’s good English literature, by his or her selections. Guiding you towards a specific understanding of “good” writing, “good” storytelling.

      Of course, that’s the point. If you’re 14 and studying English, it’s not like you have the time to read a zillion books and decide what’s good and classic. Your teacher is supposed to pick those for you.

      Yet it’s an issue that’s constantly in the news — book lists being one of those flashpoints of criticism.

  3. Such an interesting discussion.

    I’ve been trying to figure this one out myself. It seems, on one hand, that every time I hand a piece of information to my daughter and say “This is fact,” I’m indoctrinating her. On the other hand, according to Wikipedia (!), there’s a difference between indoctrination and socialization. The latter is considered beneficial, even required, to live in our society, while the former carries a rather negative connotation.

    I think so much comes down to definition. If I define indoctrination as inculcating someone into one specific doctrine, set of beliefs or point of view, then I’m not indoctrinating when I simply share, say, one single political belief with my kid. Also, doesn’t indoctrination suggest that there is no other “right” or “good” way to behave or to think or to believe? And doesn’t it sort of require repetition (weekly church attendance, for instance, or constant reminders). I don’t think indoctrination need to be intentional, but I do think it requires some strong point of view shared regularly over a period of time, and it requires an attitude of “What I’m telling you is the truth, and if you question it or choose not to believe me, I won’t love/respect/understand/tolerate you anymore.”

    I haven’t seen this meme, but I wonder if the idea isn’t aimed more at getting parents to move away from the authoritative approach to parenting and instead help children develop critical thinking skills: Present children with a problem or uncertainty, talk to them about different ways to approach the issue, and then ultimately let them make their own decisions or come to their own conclusions. (As opposed to just telling them how to solve the problem or what to do, which is the ultimate short-cut in parenting — and, frankly, a major pillar of indoctrination.)

    Could telling kids education is important be considered indoctrination? Sure, absolutely. But in that case, I’d argue that at the heart of this brand of “indoctrination” is an anti-indoctrination agenda. After all, the more we know, the more equipped we are to make up our own minds.