Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Education, Indoctrination, and Subversion

How dangerous are educators?

Recently, there has been concern floating around about the role of education in either "indoctrination" or "subversion". In the US, some parents worried that a speech by the President, aimed at school children, might indoctrinate the kids into a socialist ideology. In Venezuela, protestors claim that recent changes to education, made at the behest of the Chavez government, will amount to indoctrination. In Iran, the government has demanded that universities not only crack down on subversion, but turn in their students who oppose the new regime. And reading around the Internet, I find that a lot of people believe that American academics are indoctrinating university students into left-wing ideologies. Personally, I'd rather start with brainwashing them into doing the required reading.

Of course, this isn't exactly a new charge. Socrates, after all, was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens, a charge that stemmed, at least according to Plato, from his asking uncomfortable questions about a great Athenian war hero. Basically, he asked, if the man was so great, why did his son turn out to be such a shitbird? Eventually, Socrates was held responsible for casting aspersions on the local gods as well, the lesson being that societies need their gods and heroes, while philosophers tend to ask uncomfortable questions.

The Renaissance students of the studia humanitatis were not called subversives, as far as I know, but there were occasional tensions between town & gown. I've read a few accounts of students and townies getting into physical altercations; the students were seen as unproductive snobs, if that sounds at all familiar! Back then, the advantage for students was that they paid their own way, so at least, nobody was griping about subsidizing the deadbeats.

Education becomes a state imperative in the nineteenth century, so often the universities aimed at indoctrination- Prussian schools were known for it actually! In Europe, you start reading complaints about subversive academics in the early twentieth century, when nationalism was at a high point. In the US, of course, the complaints start with the Cold War, and indeed, there were professors in the 1950s, who found that they could not be both Red and tenured. Much of the language about "indoctrination" and "subversion" originates at this time. The campus protests of the 1960s, which occurred around the globe, solidified the image of the university as a place that turns good kids into bomb-throwing anarchists. Sometimes, it's true.

I would imagine it's actually pretty hard to indoctrinate anyone. From what I understand, it's a bit like boot camp: you isolate them, yell at them frequently in order to break down their resistance, repeat the same ideas over and over, and make it clear that their acceptance and happiness depends on their absorbing those ideas. This might be possible in an elementary school classroom (and it actually reminds me of summer camp!), but I can't see how you could easily brainwash university students, who are there, among other reasons, because they want to get away from their parents and start thinking for themselves.

But, it is easy to ask questions or say things that are "inappropriate" or "subversive" while lecturing in a classroom. This comes down to two different ideas of what lecturers actually do. One idea, which is quite popular with university administrators, is that lecturing is information delivery: you have a body of facts to get across and you deliver it by a lecture. Theoretically, therefore, an actor could be hired to lecture. Some universities have actually started getting copies of lecture notes from older professors so that TAs can deliver the lectures too, and thus there would be more classes offered.

What you find, when you try to memorize a set of lecture notes and recite them, is that it's actually pretty boring. So, the other idea of lecturing is that you're thinking aloud. In this case, you have points that you want to get to, but you allow for digressions, interesting examples, sudden inspirations, jokes, etc. It is more fun to watch, I think, but it's also easier for the lecturer to let slip something that offends someone in the class. I think it's worth it, if only to allow students and lecturers to think together; but I notice that many accounts of "tenured radicals" making the students uncomfortable revolve around incidents like a history professor letting slip that he hates Bush, or something. They sound more like a breach of "decorum" than a program of indoctrination to me. I think the concern with decorum comes from a general bureacratic notion of civility, and should be ignored as much as possible.

If people are concerned about "indoctination" or "subversion" in universities, what they should probably do is to encourage more people with a larger pool of opinions to go to work in academia. I'm a big advocate of intellectual diversity in colleges. But we don't even see much variety in our grad school applicants. Oh, our department has a handful of conservatives, but we've only seen one doctoral applicant from a religious university in three years, and we did everything we could to court her, unsuccessfully. If anything, more variety would make conferences a lot more interesting. It probably doesn't help to encourage the conservative or religious students to aim for academia, when people are telling them that other academics are all a bunch of atheistic Maoists. Most of us aren't nearly that exciting. I'm militantly boring myself.

And, maybe just thinking your way around questions is a subversive act. Ideologies are attempts to impose intellectual certainty on a chaotic and contingent universe. None of them can explain everything, and so they all have questions that they can't tolerate. Maybe just thinking aloud goes against political, religious, or philosophical ideologies. For myself, I've pretty much come out of a decade in higher ed unsure of what I think about anything! Maybe uncertainty is the condition of intellectual freedom. If so, we should embrace it.

But, it's probably a good idea to keep an eye on the back door if the authorities come knocking!


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