How Not To Indoctrinate Students

Excellent advice from David Gooblar’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “What is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

His answer. . . by modeling open-mindedness and intellectual humility.

Gooblar thinks we can guard against closed-mindedness if we:

“. . . admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something.”

When researching my doctoral dissertation, I spent two months closely studying a master high school teacher with a PhD in Mesopotamian history. Most PhD’s in Mesopotamian history would fall FLAT on their face if required to teach high school, but not this one because he never flaunted his intellect. One time, I recall, he started a story about something he had recently read about Egyptian pyramids. “I recently read in a book, but I don’t know if it’s true, . . . ” With one simple phrase, he demystified textual authority. The take-away, reader beware, authors are flawed.

However, there’s more to the “indoctrination story” than Gooblar reveals. A year ago, I was teaching an interdisciplinary International Honors course to a dozen whip smart juniors and seniors at my liberal arts university. One session, when discussing economics, a winsome but exasperated senior said, “I’ve never had a single professor here say anything positive about capitalism.” And on a scale of “1 to 10” in terms of liberal, liberal arts campus cultures, I’d rate my university a 4.

I thought long and hard about that statement, but also the student’s seeming resistance to critically question obvious, albeit unintended, negative consequences of unfettered free-market capitalism. As a conservative surrounded mostly by liberal faculty and peers, did he feel compelled to overcompensate? “I’m planting my flag on the hill of free-market capitalism come hell or high water!”

No, I don’t think that’s what was happening. I also taught the same student writing four years earlier in a seminar where we got to know one another well. I was reminded in the Honors course of how close he was to his mother whom he talked about affectionately. When I probed a little about how he came to his pro-capitalism views, he talked about his mother’s passion for it and their numerous conversations about it from when he was little. His hesitance to question capitalism as an economic system didn’t have anything to do with peer relationships, it had everything to do with his love for his mother. To even question capitalism, let alone reject it like an increasing number of his peers, would’ve required him to reject his mother. Far too high a cost to pay.

When teaching anything remotely political, that is the educator’s dilemma—how to honor each student’s familial context while also challenging them to expand their worldview. Or more specifically, given our example, how to celebrate the beauty of a loving child-parent relationship, while simultaneously cultivating critical thinking about closely held, unquestioned assumptions learned from birth.

How do educators challenge students to thoughtfully confront their families ideological blindspots knowing their intellectual awakening will disrupt those cherished relationships?

 

1 thought on “How Not To Indoctrinate Students

  1. Many thoughts embedded here. For now, I’ll just comment on this one.

    You wrote about the modest mentor teacher you observed who had a PhD in Mesopotamian history. I can second that. After getting grounded (indoctrinated?) in historiography, I never treat historical accounts as ‘truth’ but as agendas promoting the writer’s viewpoint. One of these days I can tell you an anecdote involving Robert Bellah’s over-promotion of a 18th century Japanese merchant philosopher named Ishida Baigan ending with this phrase, “Let Baigan be Baigan”.

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