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.
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).