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.