Education or Indoctrination?

February 28, 2012

On at least two occasions in recent weeks, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has charged that U.S. colleges and universities “indoctrinate” students.  He said it once in a long interview with Glen Beck on February 23, and he had said it in October in an interview with Shane Vander Hart, who blogs at

To Beck, Santorum charged that the reason President Obama wants to send every young person to college is because they are “indoctrination mills.”  To Vander Hart, Santorum suggested that even though he believed there should be less federal regulation of education that he would support a requirement, enforced by accreditors, that colleges have equal numbers of liberal and conservative professors as a condition of receiving federal financial aid.  You can read a transcript of that conversation here.

Laugh, cry, but certainly shake your head at the sheer madness of imagining such a regulatory apparatus.

Conor Friedersdorf, a conservative blogger for the Atlantic, writes an interesting response “Admit It, American Colleges Do Indoctrinate Students.”  After praising much about American higher education, he says, “It is nevertheless true that institutions of higher education generally value reason more than faith; they value intellectual achievement more than moral achievement; they’re implicated in America’s careerism; they advance a whole host of value judgments under the banner of diversity, some of them uncontroversial, others deeply contested; and if the typical American college was more like Hillsdale or Notre Dame or Bob Jones than Harvard in its value judgments, I cannot believe President Obama would be equally enthusiastic about subsidizing them.”

In today’s New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni pushes back, arguing “It’s a College, Not a Cloister.”  He acknowledges “that many universities skew more politically progressive than the general population. They’re dominated by people in their late teens and 20s, the age range that represents a particularly experimental chapter in life. And over the last half century, when it comes to issues of, say, race and sexual orientation, younger generations have often demonstrated more acceptance and open-mindedness than older ones.” And he adds,  “That, fortunately, is the arc of social change, distilled on campuses.”

Bruni goes to to say that a college education “does what it’s supposed to do, encouraging young adults to survey a broader field of perspectives, exhorting them to tap into a deeper well of information, inviting them to draw their own conclusions, and allowing them to figure out for themselves what they believe and who they are.”

Reading about this controversy I grew curious about the origins and etymology of “indoctrinate.” tells us this about the words: “indoctrinate” and “doctrine:”

indoctrinate (v.) Look up indoctrinate at
1620s, “to teach,” from in- (2) “in” + L. doctrina “teaching” (see doctrine). Meaning “to imbue with an idea or opinion” first recorded 1832. Related: Indoctrinated; indoctrinating. The earlier verb was indoctrine (c.1500).
doctrine Look up doctrine at
late 14c., from O.Fr. doctrine (12c.) “teaching, doctrine,” and directly from L. doctrina “teaching, body of teachings, learning,” from doctor “teacher” (see doctor).

I am intrigued that the words originally had a positive valence having to do with teaching and learning.  But much like “politically correct” (who wouldn’t want to be “correct” in thinking or acting?) the words come to take on a sense of being told what to think instead of thinking for oneself.

I am for education that helps students to think and learn for themselves, and I believe we all need .

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to Education or Indoctrination?

  1. Igor says:

    I think that Rick Santorum was close to the mark but missed the point. I think however that you are much closer to the nub of the question by checking the etymology of the words:

    In Doctrina: to imbue with a set of pre-existing teachings
    Ex Ducere: to lead or draw out of someone something that is already within

    I think that the school system has been making this basic schoolboy error (and compounding it!) for many, many years! Back in the Victorian era the German schoolmasters even fantasised about a “Nuremberger Funnel” (in German “Nueremberger Drichter”) – a fictional device that would allow a schoolmaster to merely pour their knowledge directly into the minds of their students without the inconvenience of having to make them think ANYTHING!

    I think this is a horrifying fantasy. To put a new twist on a very wise old idea: indoctrination may teach us how to make a living, but only education can teach us how to LIVE!

    The REAL idea behind education is NOT a Quixotic quest to amass more facts and figures. That is, in my opinion a gross mistake that is made when we confuse correlation for causality. An educated person (in the above sense) may amass a wealth of facts and figures, however that was NOT the purpose of his education. The education part was to teach him how to think. The facts and figures where merely the whet stone that scraped against the intellect in order to sharpen it.

    In my opinion education really harks back to Socrates. It is characterised by QUESTIONS. These are (and I believe OUGHT to be) given more importance than ANSWERS. You see Questions START the thinking process. They force us to investigate. Answers on the other hand HALT the thinking process and cause us to preen at what we know.

    If you look at the Zeigarnik effect in psychology it shows us why people that are Questions oriented always find better solutions: the mind keeps THINKING. Thus they scale mountains, one questioning step at a time. Those that are Answers oriented, get satisfied easily and then move on to the next easy answer. These people tend to only scale molehills, because molehills are easier to climb and the view from the top is mistaken for a mountain just because it is more elevated than the place they started at.

    I think that THIS is the real danger behind indoctrination – and a culture based on indoctrination rather than education. It causes people to accept things as true without question.

    This is not a new phenomenon. Galileo Galilei burned with questions – which led him to QUESTION the leading demi-god of the day: Aristotle. He questioned (among other things) Aristotle’s assertion that objects of different densities would fall at different rates. He proved it too. To this day we can see this logical fallacy in action when we drop a led ball bearing and a feather inside of a vacuum tube (to remove the effects of friction). It is a dramatic and fun way to challenge our assumptions about the nature of things.

    In America one price exacted by the indoctrination obsession is that people believe in the constitution and freedom as high level abstractions, but have no idea what these things really mean. So when someone starts to erode key principles that support the experience of freedom (like limiting the writ of habeas corpus, or attempting to make exceptions to the Rule of Law – leading to the intolerable Rule of Man that the founding fathers of America rebelled against) they don’t know to question these actions, and in some cases even cheer them on as “progressive”. This is sets the scene for a gently sloping path to tyranny. Like boiling a frog, as long as you heat the water slowly enough, it will sit happily in it’s own execution chamber until death approaches*(1)

    So I sympathise with Mr Santorum’s position, though I think laying the blame on political affiliation as the source of the danger is blame misplaced. Education goes far beyond the petty confines of political thought. It is a way of life that traps those that are ignorant of its true nature (look up premature cognitive commitment for some food for thought!) and liberates those that are willing to invest the time and energy to sharpen their minds with more than mere facts.

    *(1) The question of whether or not a frog will actually stay in a gently heated pot is still contentious. Modern biologists claim that this is incorrect. Older biologists like Heinzmann claim to have successfully boiled the frog. It appears that modern scientists may not have tried to replicate the original experiments. Heinzmann heated his water at the rate of 0.2C/min. Hutchinson from the University of Oklahoma tried to replicate the experiment heating the water at 1.1C/min and proved that the frogs would escape at 25C using his methodology. It appears that Hutchinson, however, did not replicate the experiment properly and heated the water too quickly, hence his assertion is suspect.

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