Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The damaging effects of the “indoctrination” accusation

Someone I love dearly told me recently that I indoctrinate students when I teach Native American rhetorics. That, in fact, every time I talk about it, post about it, publicly proclaim about it, that I am indoctrinating people.

Let’s take a look at this word, “indoctrination.”

I’m going to take a page from the college student handbook and include a dictionary definition here:

Indoctrinate: “to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/indoctrinate)

So, my profession has been conveniently boiled down to this negative assumption; an accusation oft thrown around by conservatives and anti-education folks. I am fascinated to know that I teach my students to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of Native Americans without any consideration of others’ ideas, opinions, and beliefs. (And ignoring the fact that, as a group, “Native Americans” are a varied bunch with many diverse opinions on a wide variety of subjects.) Of course, that’s not at all what I do, but let’s just go with that for now.

Where exactly does this accusation come from? A simple Google search for “college professors indoctrinate students” had 974,000 results, some of which are linked here:

One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy. http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/library/books/one-party-classroom-how-radical-professors-america%E2%80%99s-top-colleges-indoctrinate-students-and-undermin

How California's Colleges Indoctrinate Students
A new report on the UC system documents the plague of politicized classrooms. The problem is national in scope. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303816504577312361540817878

College Professor Tells Students Republicans Are Stupid, White Old Racists- Indoctrination. (And this author takes the official dictionary definition a step further. Her definition of indoctrination: “To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view.”) http://beforeitsnews.com/opinion-conservative/2013/04/college-professor-tells-students-republicans-are-stupid-white-old-racists-indoctrination-2618916.html

Clearly, this accusation of indoctrinating students is coming from the political Right. My personal opinion as to why this is the case has to do with the Right’s persistent refusal to accept that students are capable of making up their own minds and thinking for themselves when it comes to fraught political or social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, and in my case, Native American sovereignty, history, cultures, contemporary issues. Okay then.

So, we know this accusation exists in the national conversation. We also know that this assumption exists in the personal spectrum when people who believe that we indoctrinate become personally involved with us as friends, colleagues, partners. Let’s take a look at the damaging effects of this accusation.

First, being accused of indoctrinating students undermines my professionalism, my goals as a professor, and dismisses the import of what I actually do in a classroom. Like most simplifications, it renders a complex and sometimes difficult task down to a very negative and easy process. It also makes huge assumptions about the gullibility and malleability of college-aged students. How quaint to think that my room full of 18 – 21 year olds are so easily swayed to my perspective, my point of view, my opinion; that they, in fact, have no opinions or perspectives of their own. Hence, this accusation not only undermines my professionalism, it also assumes that people in college are empty vessels waiting to be told what to think. And in my professional experience, that assumption is quite far from reality.

Second, accusations of indoctrination evidence a deep disrespect for my profession and for me personally. This accusation, in one simplistic swoop, tells me that the subject I care about deeply enough to invest money, time, and energy into learning about in order to teach students the wide variety of issues inherent in that subject, does not matter, is not worth my time or my students’ time, and is certainly the wrong thing to be teaching.

Third, the accusation of indoctrination puts professors on the defensive. It certainly put me on the defensive. I take what I do very seriously – and personally because of all the time, money, and energy I’ve expended to get here. Putting people who have worked so hard and care so much about a subject on the defensive is an effective strategy because it shifts the focus away from the real problem: that students need to be exposed to a multitude of opinions and information in order to form their own opinions about the world.

And here’s my final word on this for now: If students come away from college with different opinions than yours? That doesn’t mean they have been indoctrinated. It means they were presented with a broad spectrum of information and opinion that you may have never seen, and they decided for themselves what to think. The process of college is scary to some people because it does influence how people think about subjects and realities in the world. But I am tired of being on the defensive – it is exhausting. I know what I do in my classroom and most people have no idea. I invite any of my readers to come to my classrooms and observe for a day. Just a day should be enough to demonstrate how misguided this indoctrination accusation really is.

1 comment:

A. Hab. said...

Perhaps this is based on my own personal area of interest, too, but I would add to the second point. In addition to suggesting that our areas are not worth teaching, when we are accused of indoctrinating our students we are also told (albeit silently), "You are to understand that X is the wrong thing to teach, but Y is fine." And "Y" tends to be something in-line with cultural (read: hegemonic) ideology. (I'm sure the historian from my defense just screamed somewhere--she hated when I used the word "hegemonic.") But here's my point: I'm not entirely certain a hegemony actually exists. But I am certain people exist who wish a hegemony exists (or who are delusional enough to believe it absolutely does). And I do believe those wishful thinkers tend to be the ones who proclaim that we are indoctrinating our students.

I had a student complain on an evaluation once that I was a "preacher, not a teacher." Fine. Whatever. Maybe I can come off as preachy when lecturing on the virtues of a cleverly crafted thesis statement. But I have never, not once, told a student that he or she could not ascribe to a different belief set from mine.

The good teachers are passionate people. We care about our subject matter, and we care that our students get it. Some people interpret passion as indoctrination, and frankly I believe those are the people who are in desperate need of an English lesson.