An earlier version of this article appears in educational Horizons 86,1 Fall 2007

Is Education Merely Indoctrination?
by Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

Self-respecting educators would object if they were accused of engaging in indoctrination. But can they be sure they are not? How is the education they practice different? Can they even be certain there is a difference?

We can get clearer on this if we think about a real-world example. Consider the abstinence-only approach to sex education being pushed by the Bush administration. In this one-size-fits-all method, there is no comprehensive weighing of options. The only course of action educators are permitted to prescribe to kids with boiling adolescent hormones is self-denial—learning to forgo. Indeed, in some public school abstinence programs kids are pressured by their classmates to sign a pledge that they will remain virgin until marriage.

How is this relevant to any possible difference between education and indoctrination? Because the example calls some key principles to the fore.

The Centrality of Doctrine

Let's begin with this. Clearly indoctrination propagates a particular point of view—a doctrine. That's why one dictionary definition describes indoctrination as "the process of teaching a partisan or sectarian point of view."1 Another dictionary explains it more pointedly as "teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically."2

The abstinence-only approach to sex "education" does in fact push a particular point of view. Is there any other way? Sure there is. In deciding what to do about their emerging sexuality, students could, for example, be encouraged to consider abstinence as well as its opposite—what we might call the "practice makes perfect" approach. After all, one possible benefit of engaging in premarital intercourse is that it affords individuals the opportunity to learn though experience, thus minimizing the sometimes-damaging fumbling that troubles rank beginners. But this approach, or any other of the numerous less-extreme approaches, is out of bounds so far as the abstinence-only approach is concerned. Instead, there is a party line, a doctrine if you will, that is held to be final truth. Abstinence is the only reasonable option prior to marriage, and that's that.

At first glance this approach might seem objectionable—too much like brainwashing. But how is it different from the way socialization is generally accomplished in school—the way kids are taught society's mores? Educators seldom lead a consideration of all options when they're dealing with bullying, or race relations, or "bad" manners, and so forth. Typically, when youngsters violate one social rule or another, they are simply told that their behavior is improper, rude, inconsiderate, or what have you, and that "we" don't do that. Typically there is no discussion of different options or points of view. Is socialization of this type indoctrination? Yes it is, if indoctrination is defined in the ways with which we began this essay. So it follows that a good deal of what educators do is indoctrination, particularly when it comes to teaching "proper'' behavior, and even more particularly when it comes to teaching that to younger children.

Developmental Considerations

No doubt a student's stage of development plays a key role in all of this. It seems odd to respect the student's sense of reason regarding moral issues, for instance, if he or she hasn't reached what Piaget calls the formal operational stage of reasoning. If particular children are developmentally incapable of considering a number of possibilities for a given condition, if they do not have the ability to think abstractly, if they can't recognize a problem, how much sense does it make to respect their sense of reason?

On the other hand, truly capable instruction sets up situations where children in the immediately preceding concrete operational stage (seven to eleven years) can practice developing their reason by ordering objects, combining them in classes, and so forth. In other words, far from disrespecting the child's sense of reason, the teacher fosters it and helps it grow. Shall we call that indoctrination or education?

Of course, it is true that, say, a first-grade teacher would be unwise to have extended discussions with six-year-olds concerning why they should behave in a certain way. But that's because it is developmentally inappropriate and not necessarily because the teacher wants to stifle their future personal authority or sense of reason. It's because of their immaturity.

The Student's Sense of Reason

What about the student whose sense of reason has reached the formal operational stage? Indoctrination devalues that. Typically it amounts to a "because I said so" kind of thing. Now, imagine a twelve-year-old in a Bible-believing church's Sunday school class. She has just been told that unsaved people go to hell, so she asks what happens to people living in remote regions who never had the opportunity to learn about Jesus. The teacher says that they go to hell too. The girl observes that this doesn't seem fair. The teacher tells her that she must never question the word of God—end of discussion.

It would be a quite different sort of transaction had the teacher permitted further discussion. And it would have been particularly different had the teacher eventually concluded that the girl's reasoning had merit and that such an arrangement might, in fact, be unfair.

A Matter of Authority

Note that in the situation above, the teacher recognizes only one source authority—the Bible. In addition, only the teacher's interpretation of that authority is permitted. Are those hallmarks of indoctrination?

Take notice that only one source authority is recognized as valid in that Sunday school. All competing source authorities are dismissed out of hand. Had the girl brought up a broadly recognized source authority other than the Bible, say the teachings of Buddha, she would risk being labeled a potential apostate or heretic. Shall we call this education or indoctrination?

It is also important to observe how interpretive authority is functioning in our imaginary situation. Only one interpretation of the Bible is permitted, that of the teacher. Now, suppose the girl accepts the Bible as a source authority but comes up with a different interpretation of what happens to people who, because of their isolation, never even heard of Jesus. She reasons that since Jesus emphasizes forgiveness and tending to your own sins, some other fate must await these people. In this class her interpretation does not matter. Indeed, in this class her sense of reason doesn't matter. She is to lay that aside as a dangerous inconvenience. Is this a hallmark of indoctrination?

Competing Views

One thing is clear about our Sunday school teacher. His instruction does not include any consideration of competing points of view. For him, there is one source authority, one proper interpretation, and one correct point of view. And when that is said, it's all said. Shall we call this education?

But maybe the example leads us astray. Let's consider a science class instead. Perhaps it fits all the criteria of our Bible-believing Sunday school class. Consider the matter of source authority, for instance. Are youngsters familiarized with the views of competing source authorities when scientific consensus is lacking? Does the teacher consider different interpretations other than her own? And does the student's sense of reason merit recognition, or is "because I said so" sufficient?

The fact is that a properly taught science class is the antithesis of our hypothetical Sunday school class. When scientific consensus is lacking, it is imperative that students be made aware of competing points of view. And to emulate the values in doing science, students are properly encouraged to develop different interpretations, because that sort of reasoning is central to science. Now, it certainly is true that science is often not taught that way. I recall my own high school chemistry class. It was taught more like a catechism than anything else. Periodic tables had to be memorized, equations had to balance, recipe-type "experiments" had to be carried out in a manner roughly equivalent to attending mass: but there was no science involved. Is that education or, more properly, indoctrination?

What do you think of these criteria? It's indoctrination if the instruction:

Devalues the student's sense of reason

Stifles the student's personal authority

Acknowledges only one source authority

Permits only one interpretation of that source authority

Treats reasoned disagreement as heresy, treason, insubordination,

Presents truth as final

Instruction isn't indoctrination if it:

Respects (and seeks to develop) the student's sense of reason

Fosters development of the student's personal authority

Recognizes (and presents for consideration) multiple authorities

Welcomes reasoned disagreement

Presents truth as tentative

So is indoctrination altogether different from education? That's a complicated question that can't be fully answered in this limited space. But in summary, it can be said that to the extent that education is involved in cultivating wisdom, indoctrination is utterly incompatible.



2. Wordnet Search 3.0, indoctrination.

See, also, EG Rozycki. Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development? .