David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

What Is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

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When I was a kid, my father used to tell me that most politics came down to the rich turning the poor against the smart. I was reminded once again that he was probably right when I read Kim Phillips-Fein’s recent essay in The Chronicleon the history of right-wing attacks on higher education. She details a century’s worth of accusations and scapegoating, showing that today’s right-wing provocateurs are carrying on a tradition nearly as old as the American university itself.

One of the most persistent accusations against academics is that we are guilty of indoctrination. Phillips-Fein quotes Jordan Peterson accusing professors of "indoctrinating young minds with their resentment-laden ideology." Last year in her book The Diversity Delusion, Heather Mac Donald accused colleges and universities of producing graduates who "bring their high-theory indoctrination with them into the federal and state bureaucracies and into newsrooms." A Google search of "indoctrination universities" brings up countless right-wing sites pushing similar claims.

I quote those critics not because I think they paint an accurate picture — on the contrary, I think it’s a fanciful caricature — but because the accusation reflects the fact that seemingly everyone, of all political persuasions, agrees that instructors should avoid indoctrinating their students. But what exactly is indoctrination? And how do we avoid it?

Indoctrination and education used to be synonymous. Webster’s 1913 dictionary defines indoctrination as "instruction in the rudiments and principles of any science or system of belief." It was well into the 20th century before the word widely took on negative connotations. Today, although we know that indoctrination is bad, the concept is often fuzzily defined.

Back in 2017, seeking to better define the instructor’s mission, I drew some guidelines for handling political issues in the classroom. "It’s not our job to change our students’ beliefs," I wrote. But it’s clear that we do try to influence our students’ beliefs, all the time — and quite rightly. What if they believe gravity doesn’t apply to short people? Or that electrons weigh more than protons? Surely one goal of education is to help students’ beliefs conform better to reality.

Writing in 2009, the philosophers Eamonn Callan and Dylan Arena noted that indoctrination "as the name for a species of morally objectionable teaching, has no more than rough conceptual boundaries." Since then, a number of philosophers of education have attempted to draw those boundaries more sharply and a broad consensus has emerged. To indoctrinate students in a classroom, Rebecca M. Taylor writes, requires two essential conditions:

  • First, that we use our authority.
  • And second, that we promote closed-minded adoption of a belief.

As professors, we have both intellectual authority (students’ perception that we are experts) and practical authority (the power — by virtue of our position — to set grades, enforce rules, etc.). There is no question that we have that power, to varying degrees. We cannot escape the fact of our authority; we can only choose how to use it. To avoid indoctrination requires that we remain aware of our authority over students, lest we abuse our power and infringe upon their autonomy.

Indoctrination is not just the promotion of certain beliefs in our students; it’s an effort to change their beliefs and instill a fear or reluctance to consider conflicting evidence. Indoctrination, Taylor writes, produces students who lack the motivation to pursue knowledge for themselves. They become "closed-minded agents," either because they’re intellectually arrogant (they downplay the potential that they could ever be wrong) or intellectually servile (they distrust their own intellectual capacities, and therefore defer to and rely on another authority).

Clearly, either outcome is bad. As instructors, we are looking to help students be more confident, competent, and informed. Arrogance and servility work against those goals.

So how do we guard against indoctrination? How do we make sure we are not encouraging closed-mindedness?

By focusing on its opposite — open-mindedness and intellectual humility — and modelingthose intellectual virtues ourselves. If we admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something, we can guard against closed-mindedness in two ways:

  • First, by modeling the kind of humility that we hope students will adopt, we encourage them to aspire to be something other than intellectually arrogant. We show that the best way to approach any academic activity is with an open mind.
  • Second, by knocking ourselves down a peg or two, we discourage students from seeing us as an all-knowing authority, someone to defer to at all times. As the Loyola Marymount philosophy professor Jason Baehr writes in his guide to teaching the intellectual virtues, "The ‘stronger’ we are, the weaker they can feel, and therefore the more reluctant they can be to take the kinds of intellectual risks or to engage in ways that are crucial to their own intellectual development." Instead, by admitting in the classroom that we don’t have all the answers, we can help students develop the confidence to admit when they are unsure, and the autonomy to do something about that uncertainty.

The next step: Provide opportunities in class for students to practice open-mindedness. Regularly expose them to multiple perspectives, even those with which you disagree. In that vein, Baehr organizes class debates in which students argue, as convincingly as possible, against the view they actually hold. That kind of role-playing exercise shows students that their own view is just one of many, and that everyone has reasons for believing what they do.

But isn’t that kind of exposure to multiple perspectives a recipe for bothsidesism — the idea that all sides of a debate are equally viable? Doesn’t it teach students that there’s no way to sort out the truth? That some people think this way, and others think that way, and that’s as much as we can establish?

I don’t think it has to. We’re not looking to teach students that every possible perspective on an issue is equally true. Rather we need to teach them how to base their conclusions on argument and evidence — even if that evidence conflicts with their prior beliefs.

Teaching inductively — that is, by having students engage in problem-solving or case studies and asking them to induce general principles from what they learn — can help them practice this crucial skill. If you teach argumentative writing, stress that a thesis statement should change as the evidence does. If you teach the history of science, highlight those moments when our understanding of the world shifted because the evidence did.

The opposite of closed-mindedness is not a postmodern void in which there’s no such thing as truth. No, the opposite of closed-mindedness is open-mindedness — in which we seek the truth yet recognize that we could be wrong.

Emphasizing open-mindedness and intellectual humility can help ensure you won’t indoctrinate students, even on subjects you feel strongly about. Of course you have political views, and students know that. You can tell your students, as I do mine, that you will work to ensure that your views do not influence your evaluation of their progress in the course.

But it’s also important to tell them — and show them — that the content of their beliefs is far less important to you than the process they took to arrive at those beliefs. I tell my students that, technically, I don’t care what they think; I just care how they think.

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