Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Myth of Indoctrination

Indoctrination is a powerful word. It evokes the Hitler Youth and Chairman Mao, Orwell's Big Brother, Jim Jones and the tragic men and women who willingly put cup to lip and then rotted away in the unforgiving Guyanese sun. Indoctrination robs people of their agency and makes them instruments of their captors' will.

It is no accident, then, that this word, indoctrination, has been adopted by conservative critics of American higher education. These are not people who traffic in ideas. Their arguments appeal to the primitive regions of the brain, where friend and foe are distinguished and fear dominates reason. It is not enough simply to assert that liberals and leftists control the curriculum. Instead, the culture warriors must convince frightened parents that professors have the power to undo eighteen years of faith, family, and national loyalty.

Anyone who has ever stood on the salaried side of a podium already knows that this position is laughable. On our best day, we college professors manage to persuade students to refrain from text messaging during lecture. If we are successful, we send our alumni into the world with an ability—perhaps even a willingness—to entertain ideas that would previously have been dismissed out of hand. And some of those ideas will no doubt be political and perhaps even controversial. But only the most arrogant academics are under any illusion that they have the power to reshape minds with their eloquence and charisma.

So let's start, then, with the worst case scenario, the sum of all right-wing fears. Impressionable young Americans may be compelled to endure four years of courses taught by people who question God and country, perhaps even champion equality and socialism. For the moment, let's leave aside the obvious point that this would probably be good preparation for the challenges of life outside the parochial cocoon of family and neighborhood. Instead, consider just one statistic that should, in a world ruled by logic, end the entire conversation: citizens with college degrees are far more likely to vote Republican than those without. That this most likely results from factors unrelated to higher education doesn't change the fact that the university experience, though it may be liberalizing, is apparently not Liberalizing.

Conservatives, however, are not only mistaken in the conclusions that they draw. In fact, the fundamental premise of their entire argument is without merit. The American college experience is anything but a four-year immersion into leftist propaganda.

For one thing, there are relatively few courses in any university curriculum that actually lend themselves to ideological warfare. To my knowledge, the graying counterculture has yet to develop a postmodern take on integrals and derivatives. The inside of a dissected frog looks the same whether you voted for Kerry or Bush. Sure, your o-chem prof may decide to open a lecture or two with a passionate critique of U.S. militarism (alternatively, she might bore you with stories of her precocious grandchildren), but surely that's no reason to rouse David Horowitz from the Batty-Cave.

Thus, we've narrowed our search for the red peril to just a small handful of departments, but we're not done yet. Nobody—not even Horowitz—is suggesting that every college professor shills for the Communist conspiracy. Many, if not most, pride themselves on their classroom neutrality. Quite a few would rather boast of the breathtaking theoretical significance of their own research than dirty themselves with mere current events. Still others are burnouts who allow the textbook and its power point ancillaries to teach the class for them. Oh yeah, and some of them (perhaps as many as twenty percent) are actually conservatives and libertarians. Sure, some proselytizing lefties are likely included in the mix, but they are clearly a small subset of a small subset.

But let's be careful here. Teaching from a point of view is not the same thing as proselytizing, much less indoctrinating. There is a long and honored tradition of college professors who approach their courses as a semester-long argument, in the academic—rather than confrontational—sense. A professor of international relations, for example, might structure his lectures around the premise that U.S. imperialism undermines national security and violates human rights, or, conversely, that America is engaged in an existential clash of civilizations with the Muslim world. So long as students are free to question and challenge, so long as their grades do not depend on parroting anyone's viewpoint, then this sort of pedagogy is not only acceptable, it is often highly effective in promoting student learning. Our job is to make students think, not to make them comfortable.

OK, so where does that leave us? It leaves us with the very, very tiny minority of professors who abuse their mandate by browbeating students into confessing agreement with certain causes and principles. We've all had one or two in our day, and not all of them worked the left side of the arena. Where offenses can be proven, they should be adjudicated. Nevertheless, even if a few of these cretins continue to walk among us—and they do—smart students will know enough either to give them what they want or to avoid them altogether.

That some people propose to deal with this trivial matter by eliminating tenure and neutering academic freedom only reveals the naked partisanship and shameless disingenuity of their agenda. The right-wing culture warriors do not want ideological balance; they want liberal capitulation. They almost never aim their invective at conservative professors or, indeed, entire universities that require adherence to a narrow set of religious and sociopolitical tenets (that these schools are private is irrelevant; the culture warriors claim to act on principle). Groups like ACTA and NAS have manufactured a problem where none exists and now they are busy trying to sell it to gullible parents and extremist lawmakers.

We owe it to our students to stop them.

1 comment:

redbarb said...

Does this mean we profs are part of the cabal that has declared war on Christmas? Please, no. I just bought a new musical Snoopy for my office decorations.