Indoctrination

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.

Education and Virtue

Socrates famously suggested that virtue is knowledge. This implies that if one knows what is the right thing to do she will do it. It also implies that virtue can be taught. Socrates’ style was ironic and one never knew whether he meant what he said. In addition, he was being quoted by an adoring pupil. But in any event, I think Socrates might have been wrong on both counts, especially since we now know a bit more about human motivation and human frailty than even Socrates knew.

This is all by way of introducing a discussion of the relationship between virtue and education. And while knowledge is not the same thing as education I want to talk a bit about the two and the supposed teachability of virtue. Education certainly involves both teaching and knowledge, even though it is not the same thing as either. But that doesn’t tell us much. To know more about what education is we need to ask what other things it is not.

Education is not schooling. There are many people who spent 20 or more years in school who are not well educated. It all depends on what they did while they were there. Furthermore, there are many well educated people who never spent much time in school — like Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer. And education is certainly not vocational training either, since this focuses attention on the how to? and not they why for? Education involves the conveying of information, which is at least part of what happens in school, and what we can be done online. But it also involves the ability to assimilate that information and bring it to bear on problems and issues that need to be thought through and perhaps solved. This is seldom taught in the schools, and it certainly cannot be taught on the internet. In fact, education is more about process than it is about information. As Robert Hutchins was fond of saying, education is what is left after we have forgotten all we learned in school. An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.

Virtue, on the other hand, is about character. It is molded in youth and refined as one grows older. It is largely a matter of imitation: if the parents are honest people, it doesn’t matter what they say, the child will find truth-telling perfectly natural: she will become honest as well.  Strictly speaking, virtue is not taught. And since education is all about teaching and learning, it follows that virtue has nothing to do with education either. They are two separate capacities, if you will. Just because a person is well educated it does not follow that she will be virtuous. A well educated person who can think for herself will know what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, but she may not to it. Doing the right thing is a function of character, it’s about who you are. No matter how bright and well educated a person is, they may still do the wrong thing. There’s no necessary connection between intelligence and virtue whatever.

Torquemada, according to all accounts, was a very intelligent person, perhaps even well educated. But he was a monster because he couldn’t control his fanaticism. And virtue is, above all else, a matter of self-control. History is full of examples of well-intentioned people who nevertheless do the wrong thing. The road to Hell, I have heard it said, is paved with good intentions. And an education can make clear our good intentions, but it can only lead the way. Whether or not we choose to do the right thing depends on character.

As suggested above, virtue cannot be taught, in the sense that arithmetic or grammar can be taught. It is not a function of intelligence or a good education. It is a matter of following the example of good people and having our good inclinations reinforced by parents and grandparents. Teachers can teach arithmetic and correct grammar; they cannot teach virtue. Neither can coaches, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. But these people can certainly reinforce the lessons learned in the home — which is where virtue is learned, where the child becomes the good person — or the bad person. The most we can ask of  well-educated people is that they know what is the right thing to do; whether or not they choose to do it depends on what kind of person they are, whether they are virtuous.