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Educators vs. indoctrinators

More image than reality is involved in spelling out the difference between the two

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

Having spent the last 50 years as a student, a teacher, an administrator, and a board member in a variety of schools at all levels, I can tell you that I have yet to meet a professional educator who will stand up and say unambiguously: "We're here not to educate but to indoctrinate your child."

But why is it that the one term gets such good press and the other one such a bad rap? Why is it that in most people's minds education is a high and lofty thing while indoctrination is the work of Puritans and Nazis? Why is it, in contemporary parlance, that liberals are portrayed as the educators while conservatives get consigned to the role of indoctrinators?

Why, as a result, does almost everyone want his or her children educated, while almost no one wants them indoctrinated?

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In fact, the dictionary definitions of the two words highlight no radical distinctions. "Teaching," "training," and "instruction" are part of both education and indoctrination, according to my trusty desk dictionary.

Yet the two are different in modern usage, and only a fool would deny it. Part of the difference has to do with 20th-century distaste for doctrine itself. For most people today, the word has a harsh, narrow-minded, and intolerant sound. When evangelical ministers, youth leaders, professors, and other leaders can go around saying-as they regularly do-that they don't want to get hung up on doctrine, it shouldn't be surprising that the population at large has a negative view of the word. To call someone "doctrinaire" is rarely a compliment.

Modern people, in fact, have been taught that it's arrogant to assert very much at all to be true. The becoming posture is not to affirm, but to question. Especially within education, we are told (and especially within the context of higher education), the assignment is to examine, explore, and evaluate, rather than to assert, proclaim, or indoctrinate.

There's just enough truth in those assertions (but weren't we doing away with assertions? Is somebody trying to indoctrinate us about the nature of education?) to be believable.

You have to be a pretty clumsy and amateurish communicator not to have discovered that a frontal approach is rarely the best means of being persuasive. Far better to walk tentatively about the subject, probing cautiously here, poking hesitantly there, and joining everyone else in a certain air of detachment before saying what you maybe believe. Even the parent of a teenager knows that such a roundabout approach is typically the best way to make a point.

But let's all stop pretending that the disjunct is between the truly objective folks on the one hand (the educators) and the sneaky, opinionated people on the other hand (the indoctrinators). In fact what we're really talking about are effective indoctrinators on the one hand and blunderbuss indoctrinators on the other. Some are deft at their work (they're the really good educators), and some are awkward and transparent in their efforts to win the hearts and minds of their students.

Where is the effective educator who has no mission? Where is the master teacher who hasn't got a list of goals and aspirations for every student? What does it mean to instill those values and those standards in the thinking process of another human being?

No matter how it's done, isn't it indoctrination?

Modern state education, pretending to be valueless, is of course one of the greatest-and most monolithic-purveyors of a value system in all of human history. As such, while pretending to be open-minded, it is also one of the greatest indoctrinators in all of history. That's what education does.

But christians have also often tended to get especially gun-shy on these issues. We've become scared to admit that we are indoctrinators. Instead, we should admit it right up front. And then we should explain quite openly how we go about the task of indoctrinating our young people and anyone else who will listen.

We do it by saying crisply, clearly, and winsomely what we believe. And then we say: Now let's take all that apart. Let's see whether what we've affirmed can withstand the light of day and the arguments of our opponents. Let's explore whether we've left out some criticisms and counter-opinions, which, if we had included them, would have prompted us to make our assertions in a different way.

Do you call such a process "education" or "indoctrination"? I suggest it's the best of both.

A few days ago, I found myself following a station wagon down the street. It was, of course, a Volvo. The back end was plastered with a predictable array of bumper stickers, including a pro-abortion slogan, a "Support Greenpeace" encouragement, and a call for "Free Needles for All." The sticker that really got my attention, though, in the middle of the mess, was one that said: "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Clutter Up."


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