Column on Teaching v. Indoctination

Indoctrination Temptation
Tibor R. Machan
For forty some years I have been a teacher in a field rife with
controversy, namely, philosophy. My specialty, political philosophy, is
notorious for constant disagreements. What is justice? What are rights?
What is more important, equality or liberty or order or peace, etc.? Since
the ancient Greeks and before, these issues have been debated and no
consensus has ever been reached. Maybe just one thing is at least widely
agreed to. That is that discussions of these ideas, provided they are
civil and intelligent, is very important.
Educators who take up these questions as part of their scholarship face
certain challenges. One of which is to remain reasonably fair-minded when
they face their students even if they are committed to certain views as
against all the others. It is one thing to conclude that certain views or
positions are sound, superior to others, and another to turn one’s
classroom into a platform for these views. The idea of a liberal education
isn’t that some expert will stand up and lay down the final word on a
topic which he or she will then impart authoritatively to a captive
audience in the class room. Education is more about helping or enabling,
intelligently and with sufficient knowledge, one’s students to come to
conclusions they themselves find reasonable, sensible, true. This,
roughly, is what has come to be called the Socratic method, although there
is plenty of debate about whether Socrates practiced it faithfully. (A
very good book dealing with that issue is Emily Wilson, The Death of
Socrates, Harvard University Press, 2007.)
But some teachers simply find it too tempting to resist become
indoctrinators. This is especially so because in some many forums outside
the classroom they are called upon to advocate, to promote, to defend or
argue for the positions they find most convincing. And in certain
disciplines, such as political philosophy, economy or theory, they are not
only convinced that they have the right answer–even if that’s some form
of skepticism–but of the urgency to spread these ideas, to convince
people of them. If you believe that some law is just or some public policy
advances a basic human value, you are likely to want to share this in the
hopes that the ideas will in time, sooner than later, come to influence
the world. But this is a belief that competes with the commitment to
refuse to use the classroom as a place where one is going to try to
influence students to follow one’s way.
I am very familiar with this challenge because I do have strong political
convictions and often take the podium outside school to defend them, to
argue for them. And I write many essays, articles, books and so forth
hoping to show readers that these ideas are worth their allegiance.
But I keep reminding myself every day that that is not why I became and
was hired to be a teacher. I am not a mouthpiece for even the truest of
ideas in my classrooms. Of course, now and then a student will ask about
my position on some topic we are covering and I will say, “OK, this is an
editorial comment, and here is where I stand. But that isn’t what we are
here to study, what I happen to believe.” If my students get interested in
my views, they need to find them mostly outside the classroom.
Sadly not everyone shares this commitment who takes up an academic
teaching career. I recall many years ago a discussion I had with a
colleague who defended his use of his classroom is a platform from which
to advocate his views. He said that failing to deliver the truth to one’s
students gives the impression that there is no truth and that they are
free to choose when, in fact, society forces them to believe one or
another thing that is wrong. And this is an attractive position. One who
holds it comes off as a savior.
But is one hired to be a savior–indoctrinator–or a teacher? Are one’s
students served better by being instructed to accept certain beliefs or by
being urged to take up a search for the best beliefs, the trust ones?
I have always thought the latter is the better idea. But just so you know,
not all of us holding teaching jobs at colleges and universities share it.

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