Critical Thinking Note 29: Is Education Indoctrination?

This charge is being leveled at higher education frequently. The idea that colleges are in the business of indoctrination is a standard trope in attacks on higher education. Foes of education aren’t just preaching to the choir with this indictment. The appeal of the indoctrination charge is significantly wider, since many of our students aren’t in a good position to tell the difference between education and indoctrination. This is worrisome. Educators face a bind in responding. Some of the conclusions we argue for in disciplines like biology (evolution, vaccines), earth science (climate change) and several of the social sciences (racism and sexism are real) have become sites of culture war conflict. How do we defend those disciplines and the uncomfortable truths they reveal without appearing partisan, taking sides and thereby confirming the assessment of colleges as indoctrination centers?

Consider the issue from the perspectives of students. Many of our students lack well developed reasoning skills. Their education in critical thinking has many gaps and leaves much to be desired. A student who has never really been taught how to track and process reasoning for themselves is not in a good position to tell the difference between good arguments for conclusions they may find uncomfortable and mere indoctrination. In the absence of robust education in critical thinking, the best we can hope to do with many of our students is preach to the already converted. And to whatever degree we are successful at that, we will at the same time affirm in other students the false appearance that indoctrination is all we are up to.

It’s hard to say how many students will quietly be put off due to lacking the reasoning skill needed to appreciate how evidence and argument lead to conclusions they find uncomfortable. But I’d suggest the uncertainty here is cause for more concern, not less. Students who fail to appreciate the strength of good arguments bearing on culturally sensitive topics aren’t just missing an educational opportunity. These are students who will emerge into the broader world vulnerable to the disingenuous manipulation of forces that would very much like to refashion institutions like ours into indoctrination centers. How better than to suggest that we already are, just not the right sort of indoctrination center.

Students need a robust education in critical thinking if we want them to recognize the difference between reasoning based on good evidence, and merely telling them what to think. Granted some of our students, those with high cultural capital, those who grew up around the highly educated or were educationally fortunate themselves, those students may arrive in our classrooms well-prepared to respond to reasons. We face an equity gap between these few and the rest of our students. What shall we do to close it?

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking Note 29: Is Education Indoctrination?”

  1. Is education indoctrination? No, but not for the reasons I wish. I wish I could say it’s not because education is motivated by something like truth and supported by hard evidence. These remain the typical rebuttals—and good ones at that—to accusations that entire education system is nothing but a left-wing pyramid scheme or whatever it is they say on Fox. The real question is more complicated, I think. As you point out, Russ, most students have already self-selected by the time they get to us, irrespective of their critical thinking skills, and so there is little opportunity for actual indoctrination, even if such an aim were part of the agenda. I believe in the ability of logic and reason to save us, but at the same time I understand that critical thinking enters this drama late. Beliefs. Feelings. Emotions. These always beat reason to the punch. And I think that’s mostly fine. Maybe I trust in millions of years of evolution, that our minds evolved to process perplexing environments in this way. Perhaps add this to the pile of uncomfortable truths our higher education system has to offer. Here’s another uncomfortable truth: higher education IS a form of indoctrination. Of course it is! The root of the word simply means “to be taught.” What we are really fighting against is the irradiation of that term by those who wish to preserve current power structures and have zero tolerance for inconvenient realities. Ironic that this mentality comes from a side of the political divide that openly advocates for certain types of fundamentalism which are much more obvious examples of indoctrination, but that is another conversation.

  2. Hi Dan,

    I’d hope people aren’t as stubborn as you suggest in worrying that beliefs, feelings and emotions always beat reasoning to the punch. You are right in pointing out that beliefs are often not the product of reasoning, but neither are they static or immune to the influence for better or worse. Emotions and feelings aren’t independent either. What I feel has a great deal to do with what I think I have reason to believe.

    In a certain sense I suspect all our mental categories, beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. are artificial. They are helpful theoretical constructs for making sense out of processes that are much more organic. And for the critical thinker, these and assorted other concepts contribute to effective ways of self-regulating our thinking. Critical thinking affords a kind of self-control that frees us from impulsive reactivity on our own part and the manipulative interference on the part of others. Not entirely, of course. But what effective critical thinking skills do is build a degree of personal autonomy in thought and feeling. And if this sounds overly individualistic, it’s worth noting that this kind autonomy is a good part of what makes us sociable.

    There is plenty of dismaying evidence that suggest people just can’t free themselves of their habits of thought. But then this is just what we should expect to see in a society that hasn’t made any serious effort to instill effective reasonings skills. Meanwhile, the few who have developed good critical thinking skills know from their own experience what it is like to change their own minds in response to good evidence and argument.

    We won’t unwind all the dogmatic stubbornness or narrow-minded bigotry in our society, but if we could just free up a few more minds, things could go much better.

Leave a Reply