In my most recent shul hopping article I brought up the tension between indoctrination and education. In this blog post I want to expand on some of the points I attempted to make. I believe we must grapple with two issues. The first, the question of what is the difference between education and indoctrination generally, and the second, where does religious education fall in the spectrum between education and indoctrination. The second question rests upon our ability to distinguish between education and indoctrination so let’s start there.
Before that, let’s get one point out of the way. All education on some level entails indoctrination, but we usually refer to this process as socialization. We don’t ask children if they want to learn how to count, or how to do math, or if they believe that hitting isn’t right etc we just teach it to them without providing any tools to question these facts of life. So yes, all education on some level entails enforced teaching, but that is just a fact of society. You cannot live otherwise, but this does not nullify a real difference between education and indoctrination, our initial question.
The answer seems obvious, but at first glance, if I just asked you to tell me the difference between education and indoctrination it wouldn’t be so easy to answer. We might initially assume the difference to lie in the content of what gets taught. Education entails the teaching of truth while indoctrination entails the teaching of falsities. For example, teaching the Revolutionary war is educating, but denying the holocaust is indoctrinating. This handy definition/delineation falls apart at the seams when we start to get into questions that we cannot easily answer. We know facts of history, we know mathematical facts, but do we know facts about religion, metaphysics, or morality in the same way we know facts about math? Some people believe in Jesus as their lord and savior, some do not. If I then choose to teach my student about the greatness of Jesus, or Moses, or Mohamed or any religious figure did I just encroach upon the territory of indoctrination? Can we distinguish between knowledge and belief? Maybe education entails the teaching of knowledge while indoctrination entails the teaching of beliefs. Maybe though, we cannot qualify anything as indoctrination if the teacher presents it as a belief instead of knowledge. That makes sense, it seems. However, if we accept this definition then much of religious education (question 2) falls under the category of indoctrination, unless the teacher qualifies each statement as I believe etc, which most teachers do not do. Additionally, we must account for the relativity of knowledge. Not that I believe in moral relativism, or skepticism as a way of life, but each society believes in different cultural norms, in different versions of history to a certain extent, and in different moral codes. Some might level the claim against Western societies that we indoctrinate our children with the belief that selfishness is good, the oil of a capitalized society etc. while we claim that socialists indoctrinate their students against certain ideas etc. If so, then we fall into the trap of blurring the lines between indoctrination and education.
Perhaps the line between indoctrination and education rests not upon the difference in content alone, but also in the method of teaching. Perhaps education entails offering all knowledge as tentative, all knowledge as up to the student to accept as true or false while indoctrination entails the assertion that what the teacher says is always correct. Hence, even the teaching of truths like gravity, or 2+2=4 can be indoctrination if not explained why we believe these facts to be true, or if there is not room for questioning. But maybe not, maybe you need both untrue statements and forced upon statements. Still according to this definition, much of the religious education in our midst performs indoctrination because it does not at the same time offer critical analysis of its dogma. Its central stance is the correctness of its outlook and hence all questions are most likely answered with apologetics, at best, or not even asked. (For me, I am thinking mostly of Biblical criticism, a discipline that is not even taught at Yeshiva University’s master’s program in Biblical Studies.)
Others might define indoctrination as coercive education that involves coercive action. Under this definition, religious education only borders on indoctrination because we don’t necessarily force people to act in ways they do not want to. Though most schools I know of do “force” their students to pray, but not all, and this definition seems extreme.
Besides these more conceptual questions, the question of education vs. indoctrination touches upon numerous practical, moral, and religious questions. For example, the American ideal of education is to teach how to make analytic decisions about life and knowledge i.e. we to how to think, we teach the value of freedom for each person to have the ability to make their own decisions in life. Religious education teaches the opposite both in content and in manner of education. It teaches one path, the path of that denomination, and while it provides room for questioning it does not provide room for choosing another path. (You can decide to leave a right wing school and go to a less right wing school, but the school forces your hand to leave or accept what we have to teach. Additionally, teaching all the different religions would allow for the best choice to be made, not simply giving the right tools to analyze one religion…) This sounds anti-American and slightly nefarious, but I think part of our discomfort with this issue stems from our the implications of the word indoctrination.
When we think of the word indoctrination we think of evil people forcing people to learn idiocy or to do stupid and even harmful actions. We think of indoctrinating people to hate, indoctrinating stereotypes. To then put religious education in this group smacks of blasphemy. But maybe indoctrination gets a bad rap because it has been misused. Originally, the term was innocuous not pejorative as it simply meant the teaching of doctrine, and perhaps, there is no way around the need for indoctrination in a traditional society (In the military, as per Wikipedia, the military calls the first stage of psychological training indoctrination, in a non-pejorative manner. One of the main purposes and goals of a traditional society is self-perpetuation. The question then is how best to accomplish this goal, but we cannot get around that if your goal is to pass on certain values then an effective way of doing that is presenting that value as the only value, and providing the experiences that rest on that value. If I grew up all my life thinking in creationism it will be hard to convince me otherwise. The tradition will survive in me, most likely.
Let us say you believe in the value and values of Judaism. Let’s say you think they allow a person to self-actualize, and they provide a path of happiness. You want your child to continue in this path. Now, it would seem that the only way to do that is to provide a strong foundation, both intellectually and experientially in Judaism. Without either component then the student will lack what to connect with or to. Yet, on the other hand, the American in you knows the value of choice and of exposure, yet the danger, a danger we’ve seen come to fruition time and time again since the enlightenment is that this openness allows for assimilation and acculturation. (This isn’t a judgment of either of these phenomenon, but rather a description of its process.) What are our options? Either we take the right wing approach, which appears to border on indoctrination, or the left wing approach which will create tenuous bonds to any one form of living, or the middle approach, some sort of amalgam of both. What would that look like? That's a question for a different day. Here I would just like to point out the tension.
Part of the reason we seem to chafe at religious education is that religion to many of us has become so personalized that to give over any tradition robs a person of their right to choose their own path in life. If more people felt that religion was like science, as many used to think, ages ago, then we would not feel such distress at the question of indoctrination.Where does this leave us? It appears that according to the American value against indoctrination we feel biased towards certain types of religious education, but perhaps we simply need to rethink our stance and feelings towards indoctrination. Perhaps.