INDOCTRINATION OR EDUCATION: some non standard considerations
Professor Emeritus, La Salle University
Recently a worried Israeli émigré asked me if it was proper for her daughter’s Middle East history professor — who is Jewish — to consistently condemn Israel. The mother worries that her daughter, who was born and raised in Israel, will come to despise the land of her birth.
I advised her not to worry. Students of college age long ago learned to discount disagreeable instruction no matter how forceful or prolonged. I know a woman, for instance, who experienced 8 years of Catholic schooling that was conducted by old style, no-nonsense nuns. Yet to this day she remains remarkably ignorant of Catholic doctrine. I asked how this happened? She replied, “I disagreed and tuned them out. They taught us, for instance, that it was a grave sin to save the life of the mother if it required sacrificing the life of her unborn child. But the mother might have other children who love and need her. And what about her husband? Might he not love and need her too? I also remember the nuns teaching that the souls of newborns are infected with original sin. What a terrible thing to say about innocent babies! These sorts of things are why I quit listening.”
This is not a one-off kind of thing. Indoctrination frequently fails misreably. It can even provoke obdurate opposition. When I was eleven or twelve, for example, I remember asking my Sunday school teacher what happens when people die without ever having even heard of Jesus? (I was thinking of remote areas, like New Guinea.) She replied: “They go to hell.” I said that this didn’t seem fair. She responded by reciting John 14:6 where Jesus reportedly says: “No man cometh unto the father but by me.”
Unconvinced by this Biblical tidbit, I guardedly reiterated that it was unfair to damn people to the eternal fires of hell simply because they had never heard of Jesus. It was then that she informed me that Sunday school is not a debating society. Adding crossly: “If you are unhappy with the Bible’s answer, perhaps you should leave.”
Reprimanded but resolute, I followed her suggestion. My Sunday school offering bought me 10 pinball games at a near-bye corner store. I played Sabbath pinball for several more Sundays until my mother found me out. It looked like I was in serious trouble. But when she heard the full story she granted me absolution. It turned out she too thought it unfair to spend an eternity in hell on an ignorance rap. Eventually we both quit going to church. One-sided instruction often backfires.
And here is another thing. Professors, teachers, parents and the general public all tend to overestimate the durability of instruction. In my 46 years as a professor I taught thousands of undergraduates and was repeatedly astonished by how little of what they had “learned” they actually remembered — much less could use, I must add. Many found it impossible to convert their raw test score, say, 29 correct out of 35, to a percentage. Most could not identify the principle combatants in World Wars I or II. Only a handful knew the decade of the Great Depression. Most could not find China on an outline map. One thought that France was our northern neighbor because, “people speak French up there.” Another opined that Heinrich Himmler must be the chap who invented that life saving maneuver for people choking on food.
These kids were middle of the pack freshmen and sophomores who could easily master complex social media applications and identify every single Kardashian. Yet most of them manifested only transitory interest in what typically is taught in school. And trying to transform their purely instrumental interest in passing tests into an intrinsic interest in knowledge was like trying to make a dog happy by manually wagging its tail. These typical undergraduates were not the type of people who could be easily influenced by a biased lecture.
I doubt my 46-years of experience with academic amnesia and disinterest is unusual. In fact I’ll wager student ignorance of past instruction is utterly commonplace. That is why university administrators would rather fight a pack of rabid pit bulls barehanded than require students to pass core subject tests before granting them a degree.
How is any of this pertinent to our émigré mother’s worries? Given the perishable nature of most school taught knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that any preachy pedagogue is going to convert her daughter to an anti-Israel stance. In fact, you can bet that this proselytizing professor’s reportedly impassioned denunciation of Israel's behavior has not motivated one single student to admire Yasser Arafat. Although they will want to know: “Is he going to be on the test?”
Is it proper for professors to conduct class in a one-sided manner? Not when the issue is multi-faceted. And they certainly should not ask biased test questions and require the “right” answers. But it’s not like these students are living in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. And it is only in this kind of situation, where only one point of view is permitted, that indoctrination is likely to succeed. These students have other professors, each with a different opinion and popular culture offers still more. Moreover, by the time they get to college these youngsters will have spent years learning not to take instruction all that seriously.