Education and Indoctrination

Today I ran across a post called “Welcoming Doubt to Christian Education” on the Christianity Today blog. The author discusses the pitfalls and failures of Christian education, and then differentiates between education and indoctrination as follows:

Human history is a series of pendulum swings from one extreme to another. This can be as true of individual growth as it is of culture, and some swings should not be prevented. But in the faith journey, perhaps such severe swings point to a systemic problem more than a personal one. Perhaps the deepest systemic weakness in conservative Christian education is the failure to distinguish between education and indoctrination.

To educate means to bring out or lead forth. Education opens up. It frees as only truth can.

To indoctrinate means to imbue with an idea or opinion. Indoctrination closes in. It debilitates like a sweet poison drunk deeply.

In the pursuit of truth, education leaves no stone unturned. It sallies forth bravely, unafraid to encounter or examine notions, politics, facts, and beliefs that might challenge previous learning. Education is a gentleman who recognizes that all truth is God’s truth, and that truth is to be held dear no matter what stone it might be found under or what star might illuminate it.

Indoctrination — which need not be intentional in order to be indoctrination; in fact, indoctrination might be most nefarious when it goes unrecognized — pursues dogma not truth. Indoctrination is a bully who cowers or bristles before contradiction, pummeling it when possible, fleeing when it proves too great to fling off easily.

Several educational “blind spots” identified in a recent article in a homeschooling magazine illustrate powerfully the differences between education and indoctrination. These include emphasizing outward form, depending on authority and control, relying on formulas, and sheltering students. Such an approach to education, among its other dangers, discourages young people from healthy exploration of doubt.

And it appears that doubt is a key to lasting faith. According to a fascinating study by Fuller Theological Seminary, young people who are allowed to express and explore doubt are more likely to keep the faith as adults. It seems like a no-brainer (although apparently, it’s not), but, as one of the study’s authors explained, “If all we’re doing is preaching at them and telling them what to believe, their faith doesn’t become their own.”

The students I know who have been disillusioned by their once unblinking faith represent an array of faith backgrounds and experiences. But they all feel that doubt was an aspect of faith that dare not speak its name.

But if it’s true, as “Jesusy” Anne Lamott has observed, that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty, then perhaps it’s certainty, not doubt, that’s the real enemy of both faith and Christ-centered education.

Education embraces doubt in an awkward dance that grows ever more graceful with each step in time; indoctrination, a shrinking wallflower, shuns doubt until the ball is over and goes home.

This article is an excellent intervention. I love the distinction made between education -opening the mind – and indoctrination – closing the mind. But the thing is, when it comes to educating children rather than indoctrinating them, you have to do more than just play lip service. You have to mean it. My parents had always said they wanted to educate me, not indoctrinate me. They told me that I should follow truth wherever it led, to always ask questions. But in practice, they didn’t mean it. In practice, they were so certain that they were right, that they had Truth, that if I questioned it or felt led in a different direction, I was automatically wrong. If you’re going to educate your children rather than indoctrinating them, you have to be aware that they may come to different conclusions than you have, and you have to be able to accept that. I also like the point that doubt is not a bad thing. Because it’s not. I would argue that parents – even devoutly religious Christian parents – should encourage their children to explore doubt and ask questions. Why? Because how can you ever be sure of what you believe if you don’t question it, don’t turn it inside out, don’t think even the difficult parts of it through? The idea that doubt is the enemy seems so backward to me. If you believe something simply because you have never questioned it or thought it through, your faith is fragile indeed.

My parents saw doubt as something that should be stamped out in the face of certainty. When I first started questioning some of their beliefs it was like they suddenly, overnight, ceased to be the supportive parents I had always known and became my opposition. If parents don’t leave room for their children to have express doubt and have questions, they risk pushing their children away and alienating them. The result is that children must choose between pleasing their parents (by parroting their views) and being intellectually honest (exploring doubts and questions and deciding for themselves what they believe).

The goal should not be indoctrinating your children – passing on your beliefs without question – but educating them – giving them the tools to search for truth themselves. Expressing doubt and asking questions does not necessarily lead to an abandonment of faith; rather, it can also lead to a stronger and more mature faith. However, if you educate your children, you do run the risk that they may choose different beliefs from yours, and you need to be prepared for that. This is likely why some parents feel that it is safer to indoctrinate their children than to educate them. Yet while indoctrination may work well in the short run, it involves imprinting your ideas on your children rather than letting your children form their own beliefs, and beliefs that are imprinted on a person rather than formed by that person are naturally weaker and more shaky.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Exrelayman

    But of course, Libby Ann, if I believed their eternal destiny was at stake (which I don't), I would do all in my power to lead them to believe unto salvation. So that to some extent, those who most need to hear the good that you are elaborating are least able to hear it (or even stand the thought of it).Of course the unexamined faith, like the unexamined life, is of dubious value. The Buddha said correctly, "Don't believe it because I said it. Test everything."

  • Libby Anne

    Yes, I am aware of that, and I agree – if I thought there was potential for my daughter to be tortured for eternity, I'd do whatever I could do to keep her from that. But I think that those who need to hear this might listen to the argument that indoctrination leads to shallow and shaky beliefs. Then again, since education includes a possibility that the child will choose another path, perhaps they'd see that as too great a risk.

  • Exrelayman

    Sorry to be hogging the comment space, will shut up after this one. But your last sentence of the above comment triggers this thought: the fear that the 'fallen world' will lead their child astray seems to be a tacit admission that 1) the 'fallen world' is stronger than their God given truth, and 2) their truth will not withstand competition with ideas from the world at large. They might not articulate this like I did, but it seems implicit in the sheltering. So much fear! Reflecting at some unacknowledged level not only fear of God, fear of the worldly culture, fear of Hell, but fear of being wrong. For if you truly knew you for sure you had truth, you would trust truth to prevail against all comers.

  • Andrew G.

    But of course, Libby Ann, if I believed their eternal destiny was at stake (which I don't), I would do all in my power to lead them to believe unto salvation.Of course, the belief in the primacy of eternal salvation is possibly the most unequivocally dangerous of all Christian beliefs – if you really, honestly, believe it, you can justify anything up to and including torturing people to death to "save" them.

  • Gina B

    As someone who has been told that I'm going to Hell (in total contradiction to the accuser's belief in "once saved, always saved") I realized that telling me I'm a heretic, that I'm going to Hell, or that I'm brainwashed, accomplishes nothing. It doesn't make me agree with you, it doesn't change my mind on the issue in question. The only thing that will do that are facts, evidence, reason, and logic, and if you have that in your arsenal, THEN a real discussion can happen and perhaps real change can be seen, although sometimes intelligent people agree to disagree.

  • Gina B

    Reading this also leads me to a question for you Libby Anne…when you began questioning your faith and the ideas therein, did you go through a period of confusion where you didn't know who you were/what you believed? How did you find some stability? Perhaps you've addressed this in your blog previously, if so, forgive me, and I'll gladly read that post.

  • Danae

    Regarding eternal destiny, my perspective is a little different, I suppose. I believe in God. I believe in salvation. I want my children to know Him. But I believe in a God who recognizes life, journeys, differences, and what people have been through. I believe in a God who sees a heart seeking what is right, not a mind accepting certain facts. I don't feel pressure for my children to believe what I believe. I want them to seek truth. I believe God values seeking most of all. It is far more important to me that they honestly seek out what they believe than to accept my own worldview.This is what I love about this post (and the article quoted). It's not about putting answers into my children's minds. It is about helping them become critical thinkers and seek out answers for themselves. I want to prepare them for life as creative, individual human beings with dreams and ideas and lives to live apart from me.

  • okiehawk64

    I am a Christian home schooling mom, and I'm finding some good points here. I also believe in our children making faith in Christ something they own for themselves–not believing it just because they have been told by their parents it is right. Therefore, their education involves Christian apologetics, and when they're older, formal debate where they will be encouraged to research and debate other viewpoints.It seems there is a consensus among all the posters here that people must be allowed to find the truth for themselves. I wholeheartedly agree, but that begs the question, "What is truth?" Therein lies the heart of the matter. One must start with deciding for themselves whether there is truth or not. If anyone believes there is "right" and "wrong," that certainty must come from somewhere. I don't believe there are many true relativists in the world. Christians believe Jesus is the Truth because He said He is. He also accompanied His power with many signs, which are recorded in the Bible and in nature, but if one does not believe the Bible is true, then His testimony of Himself is not taken into consideration. He didn't mean for us to arrive at Himself as Truth using a purely empirical, scientific method. A couple of verses come to mind: "Without faith, it is impossible to please God," and "blessed are those who do not see and yet believe."Does the fact that I believe this make me want my children to believe this? Of course! We all want our children to believe what we consider to be truth. Does it mean I will force them to believe it? No. Jesus didn't force anyone to believe in Him. He left it for them to choose. But He did boldly declare the truth, and He grieves over those who do not accept it. I teach my children that Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, but I want them to own it for themselves.

  • Anonymous

    Okiehawk64's comment raises the question of who Jesus is. I agree with her that Jesus is the Son of God. The Bible exists chiefly to point to Him: "in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." Jesus is the Word John speaks of here.It's a bit off-topic, but Libby Anne, who is Jesus to you? Where does He fit in a secular humanist outlook?

  • S_Morlowe

    @anon: I can't answer for Libby Anne, but I'm also a secular humanist– Jesus, for me, is a historical figure (whose existence is debated) and I think his basic premise of 'love one another' was a good one, but I don't believe his teachings any further than that.

  • Libby Anne

    Okiehawk64 – You say that we're not supposed to arrive at Christ using an empirical, scientific method, but rather that we have to start by believing that the Bible is true. The problem I have with this is, how are we supposed to know that the Bible is true in the first place? We just assume it? Why the Bible, why not assume the truth of some other book, like the Koran? You can't start searching for truth with an assumption like that. Also, why would God make it impossible to find him using empirical, scientific evidence? Does he want to keep people in the dark about his existence, so he can send them to hell or something? This makes no sense. Anonymous – Jesus was simply one of many apocalyptic preachers who wandered Palestine preaching during the first century CE. He probably fell afoul of the authorities and was crucified, though we don't know that for sure. Jesus is no more to me than, say, Joseph Smith (who started Mormonism). For more on my take on Jesus, see this post.

  • Libby Anne

    Okiehawk64 – One more thing I would say. You are certain that you have found truth. If your children disagree with you, you will tell them that they are wrong. They will have to choose between pleasing you and following truth for themselves. I am not saying there are many truths – I don't think there are – but rather that people have freedom of belief, and that we can never be completely sure that we are right. Children should not be forced to either fit our mold or face anger or even rejection, and my fear is that that is what you are setting your children up for. Yes, you are having them explore apologetics, and yes, you are going to encourage them to examine other viewpoints, but will you be comfortable with them having real questions or even doubts? Will you be okay with them honestly exploring other beliefs and viewpoints? I fear not. If you can't let them explore and form their own views, independent from you, you risk stifling and alienating them. You have to allow room for difference or you put belief before family. Gina – Yes, my journey from my parents' beliefs to my beliefs today took time and was often convoluted. You can read about it here. Danae – You say "I believe in God. I believe in salvation. I want my children to know Him." Thus far you sound just like my parents. It's what follows this that makes the difference "But I believe in a God who recognizes life, journeys, differences, and what people have been through. I believe in a God who sees a heart seeking what is right, not a mind accepting certain facts. I don't feel pressure for my children to believe what I believe. I want them to seek truth. I believe God values seeking most of all. It is far more important to me that they honestly seek out what they believe than to accept my own worldview." If you really mean all this, your children are lucky indeed. :-)

  • boomSLANG

    "If anyone believes there is 'right' and 'wrong'' that certainty must come from somewhere." ~ Okiehawk64Yes, it does come from somewhere—it comes from us. You might say that that is subjective(vs objective), and if so, please consider this: If "God" determines the difference between "right" and "wrong", and if that determination isn't based on an external concept of "right" and "wrong", then what you're ultimately left with is God's opinion. In which case, you would be in the same subjective boat that you (might) say that we are in, if we determine the difference between "right" and "wrong". IOW, there is no objective morality found in "The Body of Christ", or any other religious philosophy. "Christians believe Jesus is the Truth because He said He is." ~ Okiehawk64And is that good reasoning, or bad? In any case, it is blatantly circular. Thus, when you ask, "What is truth?", *I can't help but think that teaching children such reasoning is to do them a disservice. Seriously, would anyone want their child to believe that Scientology it true, simply because Tom Cruise says so? I hope not. *This is my opinion—I'm not trying to be combative or one-up anyone.

  • boomSLANG

    "[....]we can never be completely sure that we are right." ~ L. Anne.True; agreed. But we can be reasonably sure. IOW, not all conceivable propositions are equally plausible(and I think I have a pretty good idea that you'd agree). I'm not positively, 100% sure that biological life evolved from simpler life-forms. But based on the available evidence, it seems more plausible than the hypothesis that a self-existing, invisible, conscious being "created" all biological life "as is". Moreover, the former is at least testable/falsifiable, whereas, the latter is not. So, despite that I am not 100% sure that my beliefs are true, I am reasonably sure.

  • jose

    I'm confused. Critical thinking is an essential part of education, and critical thinking is absolutely incompatible with faith. I can't see why a Christian would ever be in favor of education.

  • Cherí

    My thought when I read the post (and confirmed by Okiehawk64's comment) was that many Christians, besides paying lip service to education vs. indoctrination, also pay lip service to the concept of "doubt" and of children "owning their faith instead of their parents' faith." I heard those things over and over growing up, about how doubting was okay and how it would help me to end up with a faith that was my own. Turns out all that was just another layer of the indoctrination, an insulation against true questioning by accepting the semblance of questioning. I think this was so because, even though the word doubt was used, there was never any acknowledgement that doubt could actually lead one away from Christianity. I always heard about athiests-turned-Christians, I NEVER heard about Christians-turned-athiests, of whom I'm discovering there are more than I ever imagined :-). Anyway, whenever a pastor or youth leader talked about doubt, it was always in the context of "it's okay, because it will make your faith stronger." Leaving Christianity entirely was still never accepted as a viable option…those who did so had "fallen away" or "walked away" or "been deceived." No one ever talked about their doubt being the same as the doubt that was encouraged with the understanding that one would never actually abandon Christianity entirely.In summary, just like indoctrinating the phrase "It's not indoctrination!" into one's children, saying doubt is a good thing is not the same as actually believing doubt is a good thing. Doubt is a very limited concept within Christianity.

  • Libby Anne

    Jose – There are lots of Christians who don't think critical thinking is incompatible with faith. Cheri – I agree with you. I never heard that doubt was acceptable, but I was taught to question everything. It was just like actually questioning the core of Christianity was not ever even considered. The problem was a combination of my parents' absolute certainty that they were right and their belief in hell. These things make it hard to be okay with having your child choose different beliefs.

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  • Anonymous

    "I heard those things over and over growing up, about how doubting was okay and how it would help me to end up with a faith that was my own. Turns out all that was just another layer of the indoctrination, an insulation against true questioning by accepting the semblance of questioning."Oh Cheri, that is so, so true. And I got more of this from the Christian college I went to. And I doubted away, and ended up with something far different than all those people who encouraged questioning imagined. At which point I fell into the category of "fool," with all the emotional baggage that attends that "Biblical" notion.

  • jose

    Libby Anne, that's fine, but the are nevertheless.

  • Cherí

    Libby, Yes, my parents believed the pretty much the same about their possession of truth and the reality of hell for everyone who didn't see it like they did. More so my dad than my mom, though. My mom and I are beginning to be able to communicate, which has been difficult, but also very good.Anonymous, My Christian college pushed the same thing, especially in chapel. Luckily I usually used the mandatory chapel time for homework or napping, and spent most of my academic time (well, my free time too, lol) in the more "liberal" (read: open-minded and sane) religion department. :)

  • Anonymous

    To put it an other way: the prerequisite for any dialogue is to accept the notion that there is a slight chance that you may be the one who's wrong. Which is rather hard for the type of believer who is absolutely sure their way is the right one.