Readers of my blog are fully aware that I am somewhat fixated on the topic of education — what it is and what it is not. In reading Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notions about education (an author who wrote Emile, one of the supposed great works in education) I found myself disturbed by his confusion between education and indoctrination. It made me reflect on the fact that we tend to make the same confusion — though we would be reluctant to admit it. After all, who would agree to pay teachers to indoctrinate their children rather than educate them? The answer should be obvious: most of us do (to a degree).

But, back to Rousseau for a moment who, among other things, did not believe that the children of the poor and disenfranchised should be educated. In his words:

“The poor man does not need to be educated. His station gives him a compulsory education. He could have no other. . . .Those who are destined to live in country simplicity have no need to develop their faculties in order to be happy. . . . Do not at all instruct the villagers child, for it is not fitting that he be instructed; do not instruct the city dweller’s children, for you do not know yet what instruction is fitting for him.”

The sort of “education” that Rousseau recommends for the remaining few is most interesting:

“It is education which must give souls the national form, and so direct their opinions and their tastes that they are patriots by inclination, by passion, by necessity. A child, on opening his eyes, should see his country, and until he dies he should see nothing but his country.”

These two comments are worth considerable reflection. They both raise red flags, for different reasons. The first quote focuses on Rousseau’s conviction that some people (most people?) cannot be educated. The hero of his book, Emile, was a privileged son of a wealthy father and was privately tutored. Rousseau simply took for granted that the children of poor villagers could not be educated and that any attempt would fail. This is interesting because we are, as a society, committed to the notion of universal education, the notion that all are educable and “no child should be left behind.” Unfortunately, as it happens, this is not true. To an extent Rousseau is correct. Not all children are educable. Take it from me! But it is impossible to state a priori who is and who is not educable and therefore the opportunity should be made available to all. But the notion that all children can be taught something by good teachers is a stronger position, because teaching children “something” does not necessarily mean they are educable.

This leads to the notion of indoctrination which is clearly implied in Rousseau’s second comment above. So much of our teaching is directed toward teaching children “something” rather than teaching them how to use their own minds to determine what “somethings” are worth knowing and which are only worth ignoring altogether. In point of fact, much of what passes for education in this culture is really job training, teaching the young those skills that will enable them to make a living. This is assuredly not education; it is indoctrination by another name. And there are those among us who would insist that the sorts of flag-waiving that Rousseau recommends should be taught as well. In a word, we ignore the fundamental distinction between education, training, and indoctrination. These are not at all alike, and while training may be advantageous to all, education ought to be but, as Robert Hutchins said long ago, we have never really made the effort. We are satisfied if the kids can get a job after they graduate, whether they are able to use their own minds or not. And were the schools to buy into the sort of brain-washing that Rousseau recommends it is fairly certain that a great many parents would rejoice.

In brief, we need to be clear in our minds just what it is we are talking about when we talk about “universal education.” If we really believe in it, we should embrace the concept fully and make it available to all — and not settle for indoctrination or job training. A democracy, as I have said on numerous occasions, requires an educated citizenry. It was the assumption of the Founders that all who voted would be aware of and concerned about the common good and also they would be “schooled” to the point where they could distinguish the worthy candidates for public office from the frauds. Recent experience has proven that a great many of our citizens do not exhibit “social virtue” and cannot vote intelligently and this should make us even more determined than ever to insist that teachers focus on enabling all of their students to use their own minds and not settle for anything less.


7 thoughts on “Indoctrination

  1. Hugh, Rousseau’s belief is so arrogant and out of touch with human possibility. The question I would ask him if I could is “how do you know where transformational ideas come from?” Per Rousseau, the Intel second place prize winner in Science of a few years ago who was homeless, should not receive an education. Nor should folks who grew up in poverty or in an agrarian setting, who went on to be doctors/ lawyers/ scientists/ leaders.

    In Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” he shows numerous examples of the families of piece goods workers who migrated from Europe to New York City. From less educated parents, the children read like a Who’s Who list – doctor, lawyer, doctor, etc. We must educate and teach people to think. Otherwise, we are hamstringing our growth as a country. Keith

    • I have worked with “marginal students” for years and have seen numerous examples of the surprises in store for us if we keep the approaches open to a good education. But I sometimes wonder if we do more harm by directing kids to dead-end jobs than we would to deny them an education in the first place! This is not to say that Rousseau was spot on — on the contrary — it’s just that we show ourselves just as blind when it comes to the true meaning of education.

      • Agreed. We all need to learn how to learn and analyze. Deciding early reminds me of Gladwell’s example about which kids are elite Canadian hockey players. It turns out they were picking the kids who were six months older on their age group. In essence, they picked from only 1/2 of the talent pool.

  2. Good post! Two thoughts: a) granted that some people, not only poor, are ineducable, but if we do not try, then how do we know? The next Albert Einstein could well be living in the projects in Chicago for all we know. and b) in all my years of higher education, the thing I came away with that had … still has … the highest value is the ability to think, to reason, and to ask the questions and find the answers. Sure, I learned how to be an accountant, and that enabled me to provide for my family, but the ability to think and understand is of so much more value. I could have dug ditches and provided for my family, but if I couldn’t think, today I would be sitting around watching Duck Dynasty and scarfing down potato chips! 🙂

    • I tried to make the same point that you mention in #1 above. We cannot say a prior who is and who is not educable. There are such things as “late bloomers.” And in my experience accounting is excellent preparation for critical thinking about issues not necessarily connected with the major. Accounting majors score high in the LSAT, for example.

      • Accounting has its place, for certain. But … it never quite stirred my passion. What did, however, was international relations, which is why I chose it for my still un-finished Ph.D.

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