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Education is Not Indoctrination

There are some who argue that education is virtually always synonymous  with indoctrination, and those who hold this position certainly have  evidence to support it. The U.S. government removed native children from  their homes, put them in boarding schools, forbade them from speaking  their own languages, and indoctrinated them with very specific values  and beliefs. These practices continue today with children from  indigenous families around the world who lose their languages and  cultures as they head off to boarding schools that aim to help prepare  them for a very different future than village living. The Dairy Council  has been producing “educational materials” for schools and  indoctrinating several generations with the belief that we need dairy  products for our health, which is patently false. Corporations in general utilize schools to indoctrinate students and influence them to prefer their products over others and to become productive workers  within a global, corporate culture.

But this does not mean that  education is by its very nature indoctrination. We mustn’t confuse  education with schooling, because they are not synonymous. Education  happens all the time, through interactions, mentoring, reading,  apprenticeships, observation, and simply living. Of course it also  happens in school where specific subjects are taught and we gain new  skills and knowledge. Schools can be places where indoctrination takes  place in a wholesale fashion, as when it serves a specific ideology and  seeks to produce graduates who have specific beliefs, rather than simply  a breadth of knowledge and skills. And schools can also be places where  indoctrination is subtle but still pervasive. But schools do not have  to be places of indoctrination. Certainly, we are all enculturated in  school, but this is not the same.

The definition of indoctrinate  is this:

in·doc·tri·nate vt
to teach somebody a belief, doctrine, or ideology thoroughly and  systematically, especially with the goal of discouraging independent  thought or the acceptance of  other opinions

School can and should be one of the  very best places to encourage independent thought, critical and creative  thinking, and broad understanding of and appreciation for a multitude  of perspectives. I believe that we need to be developing and promoting schools that are  committed wholeheartedly to exposing students to a variety of viewpoints  and providing them with the most important tools for their future:  problem-solving, and critical and creative thinking, along with a deep  commitment to living lives that contribute to a healthy world.

Zoe  Weil
President, Institute for Humane Education

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


10 thoughts on “Education is Not Indoctrination

  1. Well said!
    Still, I’d say that so long as the school makes adults responsible for children’s education, some ideology or another is bound to leak in, even unconsciously.

    The best way to encourage independent, critical and creative thought it to avoid making adults into the ultimate authority and source of knowledge. Acknowledge they are just people with opinions who like all humans make mistakes at times, let the children drive their own education, and indoctrination will find no home in your school.

    Posted by Michael Sappir | September 9, 2010, 6:59 am
    • I’m ambivalent about children being completely responsible for driving their own education. Much depends on the child. Not every child would thrive in a Summerhill environment or unschooling. Some do best with the structure of Waldorf; others with the the freedom of Montessori. In every species where there are years of child-rearing, the adults “teach” the young; ours is much more systematic and complex, but there is a reason to impart certain knowledge to youth, and I don’t think children have the experience or wisdom to necessarily pursue all the knowledge they will need. Adults don’t need to be the ultimate source of knowledge to recognize that with age and experience comes – hopefully! – wisdom. I also think that indoctrination could happen among kids who drove their own education if a group of powerful, influential teens developed or adopted an ideology that became powerful in a particular setting. Still, I appreciate this perspective, and I’m glad you voiced it! Thank you!

      Posted by Zoe Weil | September 10, 2010, 12:28 pm
      • In my experience, and in the collective experience of Sudbury schools everywhere, children are naturally very adept at getting to the knowledge they need when they are entrusted with doing so and given the time and space to do it. And they get better at it by being allowed to, and responsible for, doing it.

        As for a group of teens driving indoctrination, I see how that can be a problem in theory, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening in such a school. The atmosphere of free discussion and the fact people have time to have deep discussions are usually a good antidote for that kind of thing, and don’t let it happen in the first place. In my experience teenagers are busier arguing with one another than weaving closed belief systems. And the adults being simply individuals with their opinions (and eloquence) are in a very good position to have honest discussions with students if such a situation should arise; they tend to be highly respected for their experience and insight rather than feared as authority figures, and most students will have a staff member or two with whom they are close and talk very honestly about things.

        Besides, it seems to me far likelier for indoctrination to take place when you actually put someone in the position of being officially the source of knowledge than when you don’t. What you describe is still just a possibility, and not a systemic danger like the power teachers have to indoctrinate.

        All that said, I still agree with your post. I just think having teachers in the traditional sense is very problematic. But if you’re going to have teachers, it’s a very good thing for them to work against indoctrination rather than drive it. I’m glad to see that much put in writing! 🙂

        Posted by Michael Sappir | September 10, 2010, 12:55 pm
  2. Thanks for the great ideas on this blog. I’m excited to follow the conversation here in the next few months! I think it parallels many of the conversations we hope to be having at Thanks!

    Posted by Jim Knight | September 9, 2010, 8:27 am
  3. Zoe, in my new book I am working with the ideas of hospitality, cosmopolitanism and the creation of works of beauty as the new story for schooling. In the marvelous post (below), by a professor at the University of Wisconsin who grew up, “a malnourished child in a one-room school in war-torn China,” the author describes how he received a cosmopolitan education, and its necessity in our new world.

    I think this is exactly what you are talking about?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 9, 2010, 8:56 am
  4. Hi Zoe,
    Are you familiar with the film, “Schooling the World–The White Man’s Last Burden?” It speaks to the issues you describe at the beginning of your post. The film was made by a neighbor of mine and she screened it at the AERO conference in June.


    Posted by jengroves | September 9, 2010, 11:49 pm

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