I’ve been indoctrinated, and so have you.

I am the son of an atheist scientist and a Unitarian painter. Both of my parents are Ivy-league educated, I was born in New England, and grew up in the northeast. My upbringing was so stereotypically deep-blue that when I was a child I actually thought most people liked President Carter.

This is one of the reasons I don’t like it when I hear liberals refer to people who grew up in conservative states as being “indoctrinated” with religion or with conservative values. They certainly are no more (and no less) “indoctrinated” than I was.

The word “indoctrination” gets tossed around a lot in partisan politics. It’s become a synonym for “teaching people something that I don’t agree with.” In some cases, it is even stretched to mean simply, “telling people something that I don’t agree with.” Which makes me start to consider: what does the word “indoctrination” really mean? Which is to say: what is it supposed to mean, when it isn’t being used as a bludgeon against political opponents?

First, let’s have a little fun and look at some of the definitions available on the web. The verb “indoctrinate” means….

  • (indoctrinate) teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically
  • (indoctrinate) to teach uncritically
  • Indoctrination is the process of ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology (see doctrine). It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned. …
  • Instruction in the rudiments and principles of any science or belief system; information
  • (indoctrinate) To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view.
  • The initial security instructions/briefing given a person prior to granting access to classified information.
  • Teach or persuade (a person or group) to accept certain ideas or beliefs without questioning them in any way.

Now of course, this is just the internet. The internet might be a good way to sample anecdotes about how a word is actually used, but it’s certainly not an authority on what a word “should” mean or “properly” means.

Nonetheless, the above list of definitions is interesting to reflect on. If nothing else, it shows that the word is used in a diverse range of ways. In some contexts, it is almost judgement-free: “instruction in the rudiments of a belief system.” In other contexts, it is clearly a term with a more slanted connotation: “To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view.” The one thread of commonality that seems to tie all of these uses together is the idea of education without the explicit encouragement to question the information given, or entertain opposing opinions or points of view.

When we look at the etymology of the word, it seems like it originated from roots that are relatively judgment-free: a combination of the Latin prefix in-, which is used to indicate a formative or causal force, and Medieval Latin doctrīnātus, the  past participle of doctrīnāre, which means to teach.  Thus, indoctrīnātus is “the cause of being taught.” This seems pretty straight-forward. Indoctrination is the thing that causes things to be taught. Or as we would say in today’s simplistic times: the act of teaching.

Yet in common usage today, “indoctrination” and “teaching” are not used as synonyms.

Indoctrination implies a force of a particular perspective or opinion without question or alternative. Most people would say that we are not indoctrinated to believe that 2+2=4, even though it’s undoubtedly rare that math teachers explicitly encourage students to question it, or entertain alternative points of view. But that is because 2+2=4 is considered by most to be a fact, not an opinion.  The term indoctrination is used when the thing being taught is an opinion, but it is nonetheless being taught in the same manner as one teaches something like 2+2=4: as a raw fact, unquestionable, and without doubt.

The problem, of course, is that people disagree about what types of knowledge count as “facts” and what types of knowledge count as “opinions.” When an opinion is held strongly enough and felt deeply enough, many people treat it as a fact. Many people actually believe their most strongly-held opinions to be facts. In most cases, the question doesn’t even arise in their minds to consider that what is a “fact” to them could just be an “opinion” that they believe very strongly.

“Here is how we human beings are: we question all of our beliefs, except for those that we really believe, and those we never even think to question.” —Orson Scott Card, Xenocide

The problem is recursive, too, leading to meta-disagreement about meta-opinions. People have differing opinions about what assertions are “opinions” and what assertions are “facts.” Whenever someone says “The statement XYZ is a fact,” there are two possibilities: the speaker might think that the statement “The statement XYZ is a fact” is a fact, and the speaker might think that the statement “The statement XYZ is a fact” is an opinion. And there might be two speakers who disagree on this matter. (This recursion could be continued on ad infinitum.)

But even setting aside the problem of deciding what beliefs are facts and what beliefs are opinions, there is another point of ambiguity that causes problems for the word “indoctrination”: what specifically does it mean to teach something “uncritically”?

Let’s suppose I am teaching a class on the neural representation of behavioral action plans. Let’s suppose further that I believe that the brain uses the relative phase of neural firing patterns in different parts of the brain to coordinate responses to stimuli that are planned but have never been executed before. There are lots of people who disagree, and think that this theory is false. But, I’m absolutely convinced that it’s true.

(By the way, I’ve picked a topic that is obscenely obscure on purpose. My goal is to use an example that you don’t have any opinion about one way of the other, because you’ve probably never heard of it. In fact, my goal is to pick an example that is so obscure that you probably wouldn’t even know where to begin with trying to form an opinion. That way, you aren’t approaching the question with any kind of personal bias.)

So that’s the scenario: “The brain uses neural phase in coordinating action plans” is something that I completely believe, to my very core, is a fact; but there are many other scientists who disagree. How can I “teach” it without “indoctrinating”?

This is an incredibly gray area.

What if I simply state my opinion as fact: “The brain uses neural phase in coordinating action plans.” What if I don’t mention that there are people who disagree. Am I indoctrinating?

What if these are graduate students? If I can reasonably be sure that they will come across people with the opposing opinion on their own (if they haven’t already), does that mean I’m not indoctrinating??

What if at the beginning of the course, I said something like this: “I’m teaching certain theories here, but of course there are always opposing theories. You can research those on your own, but I think they are wrong so I’m not going to waste time in this class on them.”

With that blanket disclaimer, have I covered myself? Is that good enough to make it “teaching” instead of “indoctrination”?

What if I said, “The brain uses neural phase in coordinating action plans. Some people still doubt this, but they are behind the times and stupid and there is plenty of research that proves them wrong.”

That sounds pretty biased. That’s got to be indoctrination, right?

Well, if we assume that students are blindly worshipful of professors and will simply absorb any opinion the professor has, then this might still be indoctrination.  But let me tell you: I’ve taught University undergraduates, and I can assure you that that is just not the case. The moment I say “some people doubt this,” there are some students who will immediately be motivated to find out more about that “opposition” viewpoint. Students are an independent lot.

But suppose you think that my biased “those people are wrong” announcement is still indoctrination….. how far do I have to go?

Do I have to spend equal time on the theory that I disagree with as I do on the theory I agree with?

Do I have to utter the words, “They might be right, I might be wrong, who knows?”

Am I even allowed to express an opinion at all? Are teachers not allowed to include opinions in their teaching?

How far do I have to go to not be accused to “indoctrination”? What do I have to do, to make sure that I’m “teaching” when the topic itself is controversial?

For some people, the bar seems to be set at the most extreme level: If you express an opinion at all, if you don’t spend equal time on every single possible theory, you are indoctrinating.  If you want to “teach,” then it doesn’t matter which theory you (as the educated professional teaching the class) think is more substantiated.

Maybe that’s where some people want the bar to be.

But if that is the case, then I will tell you this: it is actually impossible to teach.

If you set the bar that high, then once you get past the level of education where you are covering addition and subtraction and the start and end dates of important wars, it becomes literally impossible to teach without “indoctrinating.” If you are going to spend an equal amount of time on every theory ever proposed and not express an opinion about anything, no higher education will ever happen. Education will be addition and subtraction and memorizing names in history, and nothing else.

Anyone who disagrees has never actually taught.

So you might as well give in: you’ve been indoctrinated. I’ve been indoctrinated. Everyone has been indoctrinated, because in a world where different people think different things, it’s the only way to teach.

It’s time to stop using it as a scare-word. Somehow, we’ve managed to survive.