Just what is indoctrination anyway?

I have been hesitant to use words like “brainwash” or “indoctrinate” here because of their negative connotations. However, a recent commenter made stop and think about these terms.

I don’t think you can educate a child, live with a child, raise a child – without indoctrinating them to your world-views.

This commenter essentially argues that however you educate your child, you are indoctrinating her into your world view. You can’t help it. The argument then essentially goes “sure your parents indoctrinated you into their views, but so does everyone else, and you will do the same to your child.” I don’t think this is either helpful or accurate. Let’s start out with some definitions of “indoctrination.”

Merriam Webster:
1: to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments : teach
2: to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle

The American Heritage Dictionary:
1. To instruct in a body of doctrine or principles.
2. To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view.

Collins English Dictionary:
1. to teach (a person or group of people) systematically to accept doctrines, esp uncritically
2. Rare to impart learning to; instruct

1. to instruct in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., especially to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view.
2. to teach or inculcate.
3. to imbue with learning.

Are you seeing a pattern here? There appear to be two basic definitions of indoctrinate. The first is simply “to teach.” The second is “to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view” or “to teach sustematically to accept doctrines, especially uncritically.” The Collins English Dictionary stated that the simple definition – “to teach” – is to day rare, and I think that is correct. When most people hear the word “indoctrinate” what they think of is systematically and uncritically teaching partisan and biased beliefs. While indoctrination originally simply meant teaching, it has come to mean something different in common usage today.

I find that the following introduction to the Wikipedia article on indoctrination makes this distinction very clear:

Indoctrination is the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology (see doctrine). It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine. As such it is used pejoratively, often in the context of education, political opinions, theology or religious dogma. Instruction in the basic principles of science, in particular, can not properly be called indoctrination, in the sense that the fundamental principles of science call for critical self-evaluation and skeptical scrutiny of one’s own ideas, a stance outside any doctrine. In practice, however, a certain level of non-rational indoctrination, usually seen as miseducative, is invariably present. The term is closely linked to socialization; in common discourse, indoctrination is often associated with negative connotations, while socialization refers to cultural or educational learning they have learned.

While I know that Wikipedia is written and edited by laypeople, I think this paragraph highlights an important point. Teaching someone a set of doctrines or ideas and telling them not to ever question or critically examine it is indoctrination. Teaching someone to think for themselves and be critical and skeptical of all ideas including their own is not indoctrination.

Did my parents indoctrinate me? You could argue yes and you could argue no. On the one hand, they did seek “to imbue” me “with a partisan or ideological point of view.” They taught me their views as gospel truth, only gave me one side of the information for every argument, and sheltered me from alternative viewpoints and lifestyles. On the other hand, they never taught me to accept what they told me uncritically. They taught me to be a critical thinker, to always question everything and never accept anything just because someone says it. So, did my parents indoctrinate me? It’s tough to say. Regardless, some children who grow up in Christain Patriarchy are indoctrinated, taught to accept authority and not ask questions.

This discussion makes it clear, though, that it is absolutely not true that every parent indoctrinates their children. Teaching your child to uncritically accept your beliefs would be indoctrination; teaching your child to think for herself is not. I won’t be indoctrinating my daughter. I plan to teach her to be a critical thinker, to question everything and never accept anything just because someone says it. I won’t shelter her from other views, or portray those who don’t share my particular beliefs in a negative light. I won’t teach her that the world is black and white, but rather that it is complicated and filled with shades of gray. I plan to encourage her to seek out information for herself, to read, learn, and think, and to question and evaluate even her own beliefs and values. Finally, and most importantly, I will expect her to form her own views, not to simply echo mine.

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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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16979912092987681396 Sandra

    Every parent teaches their children their worldview simply by living it out. The difference between modeling a worldview and indoctrinating a child is the conscious intention of setting up one worldview as exclusionary: "My worldview is so right and everyone else's is so wrong that I'm not even gonna let you experience anyone else's. I'm gonna ridicule and belittle and teach you to hate any worldview but mine."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 Anne

    I come from a family where my dad proudly proclaims he brainwashes his children. lol

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16558722229054714449 Maria

    This post is so excellent for the sheer fact that the "all parents indoctrinate their kids" argument is SO popular among Fundies!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08252374623355509404 Kristen

    I agree. The only caveat I myself would make is that sometimes the idea of being critical and skeptical of everything, is the only idea we are not critical and skeptical of. In other words, we need to question our own assumption that being skeptical is a universal good– otherwise, we may slide into merely being suspicious, pre-disposed to disbelieve everything– which can result in not giving a point of view its fair chance for a hearing. A critical mind should still be an open mind. :)

  • http://lukeplant.me.uk/ Luke Plant

    “I plan to teach her to be a critical thinker, to question everything and never accept anything just because someone says it.”

    This is, at least in part, indoctrination!

    You are wanting your child to accept, uncritically, the idea that every idea can be challenged, and that your child is capable, intellectually and morally, of doing so, and in fact morally obliged to do so.

    This idea is part of your world view, and is not one I share. I do not think any human being is capable, intellectually or morally, of questioning *everything* they are told, or that they have a duty to do so.

    Further, it is self-contradictory indoctrination. If you tell your child “question everything”, do you want her to accept that principle? According to everything you have written above, you do. But if she actually does, then she is quite free to reject that command, and instead come to the conclusion that she should accept anything or everything uncritically. You would categorically be disappointed if she did though, and try to persuade that she was wrong! Especially if she grew up and taught her children according to her philosophy which was now diametrically opposed to yours.

    “I won’t teach her that the world is black and white, but rather that it is complicated and filled with shades of gray”

    This is again, more indoctrination. You are teaching a very specific moral/philosophical view. What if there are some things in the world that really are black and white? Then you have trained your child not to recognise these.

    In reality, what you teach your child is that *some* things are black and white, and *some* things are shades of grey. You have decided which are which, and you will pass on the same boundaries to your children. You will, almost certainly, tell your children that punching each other in the face when they get annoyed is categorically wrong. You won’t let them make their own mind up about it! But there are other moral categories where they might be free to make their own minds up, especially as they get older.

    This is what everybody does, and it’s essentially impossible to avoid it. Some people might have a larger set of black and white vs shades of grey, and some people might have a smaller set of black and whites, but everyone has them.

    There are no “unbiased” or “non-partisan” view points, and the definitions and Wikipedia articles that assume they exist are themselves written from a specific view point – probably, the “positivism” school of philosophy which assumes that we as humans are able to work out all truth that matters for ourselves, possibly using science.

    I generally find that people who think they have not been indoctrinated are the most indoctrinated of all, because they believe themselves to be free thinkers (and somehow, magically, just happen to end up with extremely similar views to all the other “free thinkers” who surround them). Those who *know* that they have been taught a certain set of ideas, and even deliberately keep themselves under the influence of those ideas, at least know who is influencing them, and so can have much better self-awareness.