Education or Indoctrination?

Why teachers confuse the two

3rd November 2022
Joanna Williams

Education and indoctrination have become blurred, argues Joanna Williams.

How do we know some teachers see themselves as political activists in the classroom?

They tell us! Repeatedly and publicly. Tik Tok seems to be their preferred method of communication and, thankfully, the Libs of Tik Tok account collates it all for us. There we find teacher after teacher explaining how they use their classroom to promote their own favourite political causes.

And they also show us that there are plenty of organisations more than happy to provide activist-aligned political content disguised as a curriculum for use in the classroom.

Libs of Tik Tok highlights extreme examples, of course. But there is no doubt that education has become politicised and the main reason for this is the confusion between education and indoctrination.

What is indoctrination?

I define indoctrination as instructing or coercing a person or a group of people to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.

We associate indoctrination with cults or fringe political sects. To indoctrinate someone is to manipulate them into believing ideas that are not popularly accepted within mainstream society and that cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny. Teachers who indoctrinate impose their own beliefs and views on children without encouraging them to think critically about what they have been taught.

What is education?

Education is different from indoctrination in two key ways. Most fundamentally, education is connected to knowledge, not beliefs. This means that teachers are instructing children in material that has already withstood adult scrutiny either explicitly, through scientific peer review processes, or through what we might colloquially call ‘the test of time’.

There may be times when children are expected to rote learn facts – for example, times tables in maths lessons, formulae in science or dates in history. But beyond this, pupils are able to ask questions about the content they have been taught. Sometimes, this is the aim of the lesson: to promote critical thinking or analytical reasoning.

The emphasis on knowledge rather than beliefs and criticality rather than acceptance make education and indoctrination exactly opposite goals. So why are the two confused?

What is socialisation?

Education generally takes place in schools. In leaving the private sphere of the home and entering the public sphere of the school, children encounter new and unfamiliar peers and adults and, with them, a different set of expectations. They learn to speak and act in ways that are considered publicly acceptable. Whether they like it or not, teachers are tied to a project of not just educating young people but of socialising them too.

Socialisation occurs formally and informally. Left to themselves, children will socialise each other through enforcing rules on play and ostracising those who transgress. School rules – stand in line, put your hand up in order to speak – are a formal mechanism of socialisation but implicit behaviour codes – do not volunteer an answer to every question, do not speak for too long – are also enforced by both teachers and pupils.

The role schools play in socialising children has long been subject to debate. In his 1977 book Learning to Labour, Paul Willis considers the formal and informal ways in which schools prepare working class children for manual work.

Historically, the project of socialisation in schools was not just an end in itself and neither was it driven by a set of values alien to parents and other adults beyond the school environment. Instead, it was driven by the school’s primary goal: education, or the transmission of knowledge. Children were expected to sit still and be quiet not just because this better prepared them for adulthood and the workplace – although it undoubtedly did; and not just because their parents and the rest of adult society expected children to behave in this way – although they undoubtedly did, but also because sitting still and being quiet is the best way to hear a teacher and to learn.

What has changed?

The distinction between education and indoctrination and the role of socialisation can be maintained while everyone involved in schooling – parents, children, teachers, support staff – knows that, of the three, education is the key goal and that education means imparting knowledge – humanity’s collective understanding and wisdom – to the next generation.

The end of knowledge

This understanding of education as primarily linked to the transmission of knowledge has been under attack for around 100 years. The philosopher John Dewey was influential in arguing for child-centred learning where schools became a site for democratic engagement and not just preparation for future citizenship.

Following the horrific events of World War Two, and the experience of the holocaust in particular, Enlightenment values of reason, rationality, logic, the significance of empirical truth and deference to the scientific method stood accused and discredited. Post-modernism gained ground within universities; scholarship taking place within the humanities and social sciences helped set the scene for the later dominance of Critical Theory. The end of the Cold War only accelerated this trend and we know with the benefit of hindsight that the so-called canon wars of the 1980s were won by the relativists and multiculturalists. A traditional school curriculum built around scientific knowledge and classic texts was not just out of fashion – it came to be seen as racist, sexist, colonialist and oppressive.

Today, this challenge to the curriculum is encapsulated in the drive to decolonise. On the surface, ‘decolonise’ is simply an argument for expanding what children are taught. It is a drive to ensure better representation of diverse authors, histories and knowledge. But each inclusion in the curriculum requires something else is jettisoned. The decolonise movement drives forward the idea that the merit of any book, theory, work of art or musical score is not determined by any intrinsic value but by the identity of the originator. It draws upon theories of intersectionality to create hierarchies of oppression. Work by white men, who have traditionally been over-represented, must be dropped and replaced with work by more diverse, and therefore more deserving, others.

The problem here is not that white men are being dumped but that the standards by which knowledge is judged worthy of a place on the curriculum have been fundamentally altered. It is identity not intellectual or artistic merit that now determines inclusion. This represents a fundamental attack not just on the values of the Enlightenment but on the nature of knowledge itself. I am sure we have all heard learning knowledge disparaged as a pointless exercise in an age when everything is readily Google-able. This not only confuses knowledge with information but ignores the fact that a search engine can only ever be as useful as the terms entered. If children do not know what to ask, or how to make sense of what they find, they can have all the smartphones in the world but not be any more knowledgeable.

When knowledge is no longer the primary goal of education we create a vacuum at the heart of schooling. Education becomes a project without a clear objective. What we have seen for the past three decades are various attempts to find a ‘content’ for education and to justify schooling. There is a need to fill the vacuum created by the abandonment of knowledge.

One form this has taken has been a focus on key skills – maths becomes ‘number’ and literature becomes ‘literacy’. Clearly some of this is necessary to compensate for lower standards in early years of schooling. But it also coincides with a relentless focus on employability. The aim of education shifts from teaching knowledge for its own sake to developing employability skills for future sale in the labour market, whatever they might be.

Crucially, key skills, employability skills, and all the other types of skills children might be offered lack the moral and intellectual authority of knowledge. To teach knowledge is to impart the collective wisdom of humanity. It is to induct children into the world of man. Teaching key skills carries no such weight.

Promoting a political perspective

Let’s go back to socialisation. At school, children and adults still come into contact with one another in a public space but as socialisation is no longer shaped towards the purpose of learning, other objectives must be found. Likewise, teachers can no longer rely on their subject knowledge as a source of authority and must find a new justification for their position in the classroom.

A loss of faith in knowledge creates a space for teachers to use schools to promote their own personal values and political views. Rather than this being seen as a problem it is endorsed at every turn, and rather than being a side hustle, promoting political values is at the heart of the curriculum.

In literature classes, teaching now begins with a topic or theme rather than works of literature or even a particular genre of writing. The topic might be gender and sexuality, black literature, women’s lives through time, the legacy of colonialism, identity, conflict, relationships, the natural world and so on. The point is not that it is wrong to discuss these topics, but that centering the issue rather than the literature paves the way for politics to enter the classroom and an understanding that there is just one correct interpretation of – or indeed one reason for reading – the text under discussion.

A similar situation occurs in geography classes. Knowing the names of countries, the water cycle and stages in the development of a river are replaced by topics such as sustainability, renewable energy and over-population. In history classes, the past is not a potentially unifying national story but a series of emotional experiences each designed to apportion blame or suffering and engender feelings of guilt or rage.

These new topics are more political and more values laden and yet without a body of knowledge to inform a critique, children come to imbibe what they are taught as facts. The danger is that there appears to be only one correct answer to contested issues such as climate change, the legacy of colonialism, or the history of the civil rights movement. This is when we begin moving from education to indoctrination.

Personal, Social and Health Education classes represent the purest form of teaching values and political views as fact. Topics covered include: relationships (a mandatory component of the curriculum that parents are not entitled to withdraw their children from) sex, sexuality and gender identity.

In the UK, Glebe primary school in Hillingdon provides a list of key words that Year Four children (8-years olds) will cover in their Health and Wellbeing Module. It includes: gender, gender identity, sexuality, (lesbian, gay, cisgender, transgender, sexual orientation, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, gender expression, biological sex, intersex, non-binary, gender fluid, pronouns, transition, gender dysphoria, questioning and queer). Benhurst primary school in Havering expects Year Six children (10-year olds) to ‘know about gender identities and have an awareness of transgender issues’. This includes understanding ‘the difference between being transgender and transvestite’. These schools are not unusual but typical.

When lessons like this dominate the school curriculum, activist teachers are legitimised. They are simply embodying the content of the curriculum and the broader ethos of the school.

The school culture becomes thoroughly politicised. We can see this in posters, door displays and also, more explicitly, in school rules. Castleman Academy Trust states that, ‘wherever possible, individuals should be given opportunities to say how they identify or describe themselves. This is called ‘self-identified gender’.’ The politicisation also seeps into extra-curricular activities such as sports. Pikes Lane primary school advises: ‘If a pupil is binding their chest, they should be monitored carefully during particularly physical activities and in hot weather. There is a chance that the binding could cause discomfort or even impair breathing. Short breaks from activity could be offered discretely.’ Upper Wharfedale, a secondary school in North Yorkshire, goes even further in its advice about binding. ‘It might make certain PE lessons difficult for them to participate in and could sometimes lead to breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, and fainting,’ the school notes, but nonetheless it is ‘very important to their psychological and emotional wellbeing.’

The upshot of this politicisation is that schools become places of social engineering rather than socialisation. Socialisation, inducting children into public life and preparing them for society, implies that teachers and parents are united behind a common set of expectations. They agree on the fundamental principles of what it means to be a good citizen and the role that schools should play in training children up to meet such expectations. Teachers and parents share the same values and they are on the same side. Social engineering, by complete contrast, implies that teachers are inducting children into a culture and way of life that is distinct from the home environment and not shared by parents. Rather than reinforcing existing social norms, they are attempting to bring new social norms into existence.

This conflict with parents is made explicit in relation to gender. At Hedon primary school in Hull, teachers are told what might happen if parents ‘express concern’. Under a heading ‘prejudice from parents’, the school’s gender identity policy says if parents speak out ‘over the schools’ actions in including trans young people, then this will not affect the schools’ actions regarding that young person – in a similar way in which a parent’s sexist or racist views would not influence school to change their equality policy.’

The same school speaks of the importance of ‘usualising’ transgender people by including their existence in other areas of the curriculum from geography to maths, even when gender identity is not the focus of the lesson. ‘The more trans young people are represented in the curriculum, and gender identity is covered in school, the more young people will feel that questioning their gender identity is not something negative or ‘different’’. the school notes.

Why do teachers go along with this?

The politicisation of schools occurs because teachers are prepared to take on a role in relation to imparting their own values and beliefs onto students. There are a number of reasons why they are willing to do this. We have already looked at the hollowing out of knowledge from education and noted that a values-agenda provides schools with a sense of purpose and teachers with a source of authority. We also have to bear in mind that teachers, particularly young, newly qualified teachers, are recent graduates and are more than likely to agree with the political outlook promoted in schools. In fact, this element of consensus may mean they do not see themselves as political actors at all.

Ideas associated with critical race theory and gender ideology have taken on the status of common sense among younger generations. Of course being a woman is a feeling and not a biological reality! Of course racism is structural and systemic! Only a bigot or a fool would disagree. Indeed, this fear of being assumed to be a bigot also ensures that teachers who do not see themselves as political activists, keep quiet about those who do. It is not just students but teachers too who are under pressure to conform in schools when the cost of speaking out is to risk jeopardising your career and your livelihood, the stakes are high indeed. This is reinforced through the teacher training courses on offer to new recruits to the profession and the continuing professional development given to those in post for several years. Teachers are taught that promoting certain ideas in the classroom is not a political act but simply the right way to be a teacher.

Finally, we need to keep in mind that schooling that substitutes political indoctrination for knowledge is not especially new. It may be more explicit now and more at odds with the expectations of parents, but many younger teachers may be modelling the way in which they, themselves, were taught.

For all these reasons, education and indoctrination have become blurred. And while some teachers are highly motivated political actors who see children as a captive audience, far more are content simply to go along with a politicised school culture.

What is to be done?

It is vital that parents shine a light on what is happening in schools and expose what children are being taught to the sunlight of democratic scrutiny. Schools cannot be allowed to use children as a stage army for re-engineering society in their own image. We need to stop the values of the school becoming detached from the values of parents.

Beyond this, we need a broader cultural debate about what education – and what schools – are for. The hollowing out of knowledge from education created the vacuum that politics filled – without putting knowledge back at the heart of education teachers will still be left without moral legitimacy for their authority in the classroom.

It is my belief that we can win this argument. All the parents I speak to share one expectation in common: that their children will come home from school knowing a little bit more than they did at the start of the day. That one question, “What did you learn at school today?”, must unite teachers and parents in a project that is far more worthwhile than political indoctrination.

Joanna Williams is Director of Cieo and author of How Woke Won. This is a transcript of a speech she made at the Parents Unite conference held in Boston, October 2022.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash
Photo by CDC on Unsplash