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Excerpt from my Dissertation : Constructive Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief (Chapter 5, Sec 2) Ó 1994 University of British Columbia

5.2 The Problem of Indoctrination

"For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of brainwashing under freedom to which we are subjected and which all too often we are as willing or unwitting instruments." - Noam Chomsky

                 If education is concerned only with the transmission of basic skills, "factual" information and the accepted cultural dogmas of our age, then perhaps we should indoctrinate, not "educate" our children. The Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines "indoctrinate" thus: (1)"to instruct; to teach," and (2)"to instruct in doctrines, theories, beliefs, or principles." These definitions are not very helpful. Definition (1) is, if not clearly false, at least an anachronism and (2) does not reveal the pejorative connotation associated with indoctrination. Presently, we think of indoctrination as a particular instructional technique involving the severance of rational, reflective assessment and the logical and moral criteria for teaching. More precisely, indoctrination entails the acceptance of unverifiable and/or contentious premises, the acquiescence to authority and suspension of doubt, and an acceptance of the absolute certainty of the beliefs or doctrines with the objective of giving the "true believer" an unshakeable faith in total solutions and ultimate objective reality. Eric Hoffer asserts that the true believer claims

                                the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ... To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason... it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him. Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truth that it embodies, but how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.[1]


Although Hoffer is referring to the doctrinaire nature of mass movements and their ideologies, these authoritative, deceptive, non-evidential, uncritical means by which the true believer adopts and maintains his beliefs are salient features of indoctrination.

                When one is presented with and adopts a set of beliefs which can explain away obvious inconsistencies (e.g., "It is God's will" , "It's an act of God", or "My astrology charts predicted the outcome.") and maintains that experience and evidence is irrelevant, then our beliefs become fixed and permanent. This is the essence of dogmatism. A person who is dogmatic is one who is disposed to indoctrinate - the indoctrinator and the dogmatist are cut from the same cloth. The dogmatic temperament "tends to search for certainty" and dogmatism is "the inability to seriously entertain the possibility that one might be wrong"[2] - it is the attitude that no information, evidence, argument, or experience will ever be seriously entertained and that further inquiry has come to an end. It is a view that sees human existence at the end of some sort of telos, a path that has led to the necessary truth of our own system of beliefs thus disengaging the truth of our own views and beliefs from the interplay of time and social practice. But if history has taught us anything, it is that the world is strewn with people who were certain and wrong.

                The real problem we face is not the rationality of most of our beliefs, but the possibility of criticizing particular beliefs, values and institutions, particularly if we accept the postmoderist assertion that there are no foundations, system-independent criteria, or external frameworks on which to rest rational critique. I have already argued against this position at some length and I do not mean to suggest that, since there is no Archimedean point of ultimate appeal, all forms of knowledge are on an equal footing. Important factors such as plausibility, conceptual clarity, explanatory value, evidence, verifiability, falsifiability and cohe­rence are accepted means of adjudicating knowledge claims which are generally ignored by those who maintain that Creationism is as much a science as Evolutionary Theory and further contend that Evolution and Secular Humanism are themselves religious dogmas. There are also those who, in spite of the paradoxes of self-reference, argue that rationality and critical thinking are indoctrinated dogmas.

Bertrand Russell has many times pointed out the fact that the beliefs people hold most intensely are those that lack the most evidential support. Unfortunately, the truth of a belief is not commensurate with the degree of passion or zeal with which it is held. Christians and other religious persons, for example, are often highly sensitive and defensive when their beliefs are questioned. They hold their beliefs as though they are congruent with their very being or personhood and any query regarding these beliefs is taken as a threat to this personhood. The defense of these beliefs often amounts to an appeal to irrelevant external factors, dubious premises, circuitous argument, and when they are unable to rationally justify their position, resort to ad hominem attacks or even violence. One of the principal reasons that religious conflicts have been so ferocious and brutal over the last several centuries is because the adherents, generally having very little factual evidence to use against each other, must ultimately resort to persuasion by intimidation and violence. The assassinations of physicians at abortion clinics by the “Right to Life” movement are a more recent case in point. As Bertrand Russell never tired of pointing out, "the most savage controversies are those for which there is very little evidence either way."                            

The school, ideally, is an environment in which values, beliefs, and opinions can be exposed to critical reflective scrutiny. It is a vital task of education to help students gather evidence, assess arguments, discriminate among authorities, construct counter-arguments, and challenge claims. But why do so many feel that religious beliefs are sacrosanct and immune from classroom discussion? It is an oddity and a paradox that we live in a society that shrugs off the influence of violence, gratuitous sex, crass materialism and greed displayed daily on television, and worries, instead, that its children will be corrupted by the free discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. One of the deficiencies of our educational system is that it produces graduates who are rarely, if ever, exposed to any serious criticism of the cosmological or teleological arguments for the existence of God and are unable to conceive of the possibility of a secular morality. It is hard to think of any topic on which there has been so little change in the level of its treatment in educational institutions in the last century. With "political correctness" the order of the day, there is clearly a taboo on open-minded inquiry at least as strong as the resistance in Darwin's day to questioning the authority of the Bible or the rationality of particular religious beliefs. The fear arises, I suppose, from the fact that children will be induced to question and possibly reject the beliefs of their parents or church. Religious fundamentalism persists not because of inadequacies in our arguments using reason and science; it persists because it is taboo in society - indeed, in most places in the world - to promulgate the arguments of reason and science in refutation of most religious beliefs (The Satanic Verses and  Salman Rushdie's plight is a case in point). I cannot remember when I last encountered a rousing refutation of any of the thousands of preposterous religious dogmas on prime-time television nor have I seen a disclaimer by a major newspaper regarding the astrology column. We need to learn somewhere how to discuss sensitive issues without taking up cudgels. These issues can be sensitively handled in the classroom by avoiding the ad hominem vilification and character assassination that are so common to religious and political argumentation. It seems clear to me that if a particular set of beliefs is so fragile that they cannot withstand intellectual examination and critical scrutiny, they should, indeed, be rejected.

                Eamon Callan[3] asks whether parents are entitled to view their children as chattels by indoctrinating them. This includes "the right to send one's children to denominational schools which instill one's own faith."[4] Callan's answer is "no", maintaining, "indoctrination is at least prima facie the same evil whether it is perpetuated by Big Brother or one's dear parents."[5]­­­­ The inculcation of religious doctrine is a paradigm case of indoctrination in that the majority of the beliefs are accepted certainties and held on the basis of faith, i.e., held non-evidentially and "immune to criticism and rational evaluation."[6] Harvey Siegel has argued that children should be protected from indoctrination, regardless of its source, maintaining that it is "undemocratic and immoral."[7]

                                Fundamentalist education, in fact, offers us a classic example of indoctrination. For the aim of such education is to inculcate a set of beliefs in such a way that students never question or inquire into the legitimacy of those beliefs. Indeed, the mark of success of a fundamentalist education is the student's unswerving commitment to the set of basic beliefs inculcated, and a teacher or schoolmaster whose students did not exhibit such a commitment could not be judged successful... It is...disconcerting to hear leaders of the Moral Majority and allied proponents of creationism and fundamentalism claim that parents own their children and should be free to determine their children's education. Such a view denies that children are morally entitled to grow into autonomous thinkers, capable of making independent judgments as to the worth of particular beliefs. This view is both morally repugnant in its flagrant disregard for the rights of children as persons, and anti-American in virtue of its antidemocratic thrust.[8]

     For very young children, indoctrination of some sort is probably unavoidable for both moral and prudential reasons. However, the authority of the parent or teacher is probably invoked more often to bring about acceptable behavior in a child than it is to inculcate beliefs. Is to tell a child that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world indoctrinary? Not if the child is encouraged to ask how or why the teacher "knows" this. It might be argued from this example that indoctrination is not logically bound to any particular content in the sense that a teacher could quite conceivably convince her students that Mount Robson is the highest mountain in the world by suppressing all counter-evidence and inquiry concerning her claim.

      It seems clear that if one is to teach, and not indoctrinate, then as soon as a child reaches an appropriate level of intellectual sophistication (perhaps at the Junior High School level), opposing sides of controversial issues must be entertained and reasons provided based on the weight of the evidence and argument for or against either side. For example, skeptics never seem to appear on shameful television programs such as Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and  Geraldo Rivera in which the proliferation of absurdities and credulities appear endless. We would likely have no reason to fear indoctrination or television programs such as these if we fostered in our children the appropriate cognitive styles and intellectual dispositions such as the propensity to question, to doubt and to ask "Why?" We cannot, as Callan argues, undermine our children's "capacity for self-determnation" since there "rights as adults may be violated by what happens to them as children."[9] Appealing to the Kantian notion of respect for persons and Joel Feinberg's notion of "anticipatory autonomy rights," he states that we, as parents, do not have the right to obstruct our child's future capacity for open-minded inquiry and their ability to evaluate evidence and argument.

                 Richard Dawkins, the eminent Oxford evolutionary biologist argues that young minds are "pre-programmed to absorb useful information at a high rate" but at the same time find it difficult to "shut out pernicious or damaging information." Young minds, Dawkins asserts, are "open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion" and "friendly environments to parasitic, self-replicating ideas or information." He likens a child's mind to an "immune-deficient patient" which is "wide open to mental infection" and the incoming deleterious, malignant information as a computer virus.[10] Dawkins refers to these infectious ideas as memes,[11] ideational organisms generally having great psychological appeal, spreading from one receptive mind to the next. The survival value of a meme depends upon its ability to provide us with emotionally satisfying answers to our deepest disturbing existential concerns and dissolve our anxiety about the injustices of an indifferent universe. Dawkins cites "belief in the afterlife" and "belief in a supreme being" as having high survival value, capable of being passed on from one culture and generation to the next.       

                It can be argued, for example, that telling children Santa Claus is a real person; we are not really engaging their active imagination. We are propagating a deception, an illusion – in short, a lie. Belief in Santa Claus is convenient and perhaps also charming and enchanting up to a point; but is such charm and convenience worth the price of lying to one's children and discouraging their intellectual curiosity and their respect for truth and honesty? It is no different with critiques of organized religion. Truth is not determined by reflections on social convenience. On the contrary, social expediency depends upon whether a belief is true! To encourage false beliefs and to protect them by discouraging, if not prohibiting, honest discussion and free inquiry may well be expedient in the extreme. Those who assume some beliefs, even if false, are necessary to preserve morality have a peculiar notion of morality and imply that dishonesty and rigorous discrimination against honesty are moral. However, parents who teach their children about God, the Devil, Heaven and Hell, Angels and other metaphysical phenomena are not knowingly deceiving their children since, in most cases, they are inclined to believe these things themselves. The fact that children in their "preoperational stage" of development, to use Piaget's phrase,[12] have difficulty in differentiating between fact and fiction, we, as parents and teachers, have a responsibility not to take advantage of their cognitive immaturity, vulnerability, credulity, and reliance on us for accurate information and correct undistorted descriptions of the world. Do we need these myths and deceptions to teach children about love, good will, and the spirit of goodness and generosity? I think not.

                One of the dilemmas that humanist liberal educators face is the conflict between their desire for a school environment embracing a purely secular open-minded, autonomous, critical and rational pursuit of the examined life and the freedom of the individual to, on the other hand, choose and commit himself to what ultimately may be an unreflective life of religious faith and unreason. As Eamon Callan has stated,

                                the moral problems of religious upbringing may grow out of a radical conflict between the twin ideals of educational liberalism. For if the examined life requires something approaching strict fidelity to the rational-critical principle, coming to live that life would make the option of religious practice virtually ineligible; and where that option does more or less disappear, it is not clear that one enjoys an ampler range of choice than the indoctrinated zealot who cannot seriously consider alternatives to his faith.[13]


Moreover, in a liberal democracy there are serious practical and moral difficulties in any government taking a strong paternalistic stand on the problem of indoctrination by closely scrutinizing whether or not parents are causing irreversible harm to their children's future ability to make autonomous rational choices. The essential tension between religious faith and the Socratic ideal of the examined life must, however, be "made vividly apparent to children and adolescents as they grow in understanding, even if this obstructs parental efforts to elicit faith in many instances."[14] As Callan has so clearly pointed out,

                                The experience of examining religious propositions in the often harsh light of reason will sometimes, perhaps commonly, lead to their rejection, but without that experience our children remain ignorant of the reality that confronts them in accepting or rejecting lives grounded on such propositions. Those whose faith can survive the experience will not be entirely at home in either Athens or Jerusalem, but if there is faith worth having, they are the ones who have it.[15]



References:     Callan, Eamon (1988b) "Indoctrination and Parental Rights." In W. Hare & J.P. Portelli, eds., Philosophy of  Education, Calgary, Alta.: Detselig, 1988, pp. 133-142.

                             Callan, Eamon (1988a) "Faith, Worship and Reason in Religious Upbring­ing." Journal of Philosophy of Education,  Vol   2, no. 2.

                             Dawkins, Richard (1976) The Selfish Gene. (New ed.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1992

                            Dawkins, Richard (1993) "Viruses of the Mind", Free Inquiry, Vol. 13, no 3, pp. 34-41.

                             Hoffer, Eric (1951) The True Believer. New York: Time Inc., 1963.

                             Piaget, Jean (1965) The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: The Free Press.

                             Rauch, Jonathan (1993) Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago  Press    

                            Siegel, Harvey (1984) "Response to Creationism", Educational Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, Winter, 1984.                                            

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    [1] Eric Hoffer (1951), pp. 82-83.

    [2] Jonathan Rauch (1993), p. 94, 28.

    [3] Eamon Callan (1988b), pp. 133-142.

    [4] Callan (1988b), p. 136.

    [5] Callan (1988b), p. 136.

    [6] Harvey Siegel (1984), p. 361.

    [7] Siegel (1984), p. 361.

    [8] Siegel (1984), p. 360-61.

    [9] Eamon Callan (1988b), p. 141.

    [10] Richard Dawkins (1993), pp. 34, 37.

    [11] Richard Dawkins (1976), Chapter 11.

    [12] Jean Piaget (1965), pp. 141-142, 164-166.

    [13] Eamon Callan (1988a), p. 192.

    [14] Callan (1988a), p. 193-194.

    [15] Callan (1988a), p. 193.




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