Education, Not Indoctrination

Should We “Just Teach the Facts”?

Every day or so I encounter a conservative (sometimes even an exasperated moderate on the left) bemoaning the capture of America’s educational system by woke zealots; 2+2=5 and related nonsense. I bemoan the capture of this system too. Although my children are home-schooled I know how bad it is going to be when today’s publicly-schooled children grow up and land in positions of power and influence in government, business, and culture. We’ve got plenty of signs already for what that will mean. However, what I can’t do is join in the refrain of well-meaning conservatives: “Just teach the facts. Education, not indoctrination. Etc.” Such slogans are not only impossible; they are undesirable, even if attainable. They arise out of the same mentality that has left conservatives unable to respond adequately to transgenderism and other social maladies. Instead of addressing the root problem, they address a symptom. We get opposition to men in women’s sports and locker rooms, when the real problem is that transgenderism is a perverse rebellion against the created order that must be opposed in its totality. Likewise, timid conservatives think that the only way to remove harmful ideologies from the nation’s schools is to require schools to teach nothing but supposedly neutral facts, the basics of math, grammar, writing, and so on.

But education cannot avoid moral formation. That is the point of education. Schools exist (they should anyway) to form hearts and minds, to provide students with facts and the moral framework in which to understand those facts. “Education, not indoctrination,” if pressed to its logical conclusion, would produce mindless repositories of random facts, perhaps capable of performing tasks in the marketplace and making money, but little more.

No subject can be adequately taught in a moral vacuum. Consider history. Is the study of history simply the memorization of names, places, and dates? I suppose one could attempt to approach it in that way. In addition to being intensely boring, however, such a study would be utterly pointless. The reason we study history is to learn from the past, not in a superficial “history repeats itself” way in which we think we can predict the future based on historical parallels, but in the sense that we see in our study that people, despite many technological advances, tend to act in certain ways. We learn that certain kinds of situations tend to produce certain kinds of outcomes; “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” Benjamin Franklin warned; “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” And so on (all quotations in this column are from Thomas West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, chapters 8-9). What about literature? Is literature of value only as a diversion and time-waster? Or is it not beneficial because it enables us to peer into the human soul in its manifold diversity? Can math facts, or physics facts, or grammar facts, be learned without considering the use to which those facts should be put?

With a little reflection I think most people can see that an amoral approach is not only impossible, it is undesirable. While I share the dismay of my fellow citizens as they watch leftist ideologies destroy America’s schools, what is needed is moral formation in what is good, true, and beautiful, rather than an attempt to reject moral formation completely. American conservatives would do well to return to the founders of our nation to see what they thought about education. Doing so would reveal how thoroughly out of step the “neutral” approach to education is with the founding spirit. This was particularly impressed upon me recently as I was reading West’s book. In a section on public education (pp. 192-98) West makes it clear just how essential the founders believed moral formation to be to the education of the nation’s youth, to form them, in fact, to be “the happy, resilient, free-thinking, educated citizens every democracy needs” (the very goal of one non-profit championing “ideology-free” education).

For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the purpose of pre-university education was “to instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests, and duties, as men and citizens.” All of these things are the realm of moral truths. George Washington insisted in his first annual message to Congress that “knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.” Washington argued that such knowledge (which had an indispensably moral component to it) was necessary “to the security of a free constitution.” To ensure that Americans were formed in such knowledge Washington proposed that Congress create an adequate educational system for the whole country. James Madison concurred: “Learned institutions ought to be the favorite object of every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” The post-Revolution Massachusetts Constitution established “public schools and grammar schools in the towns” in order to inculcate “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue,” all of which are “necessary for the preservation of [citizens’] rights and liberties.” The Northwest Ordinance (1785) maintained that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged” so that “religion, morality, and knowledge” would flourish. In his report prepared for the founding of the University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson wrote that it was imperative that the school’s students “develop their reasoning faculties” so as to “enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.” That education must include moral formation was a basic assumption shared by nearly everyone at the founding.

West also shows how at the founding, and for most of America’s history, the moral formation at America’s schools and universities included instruction in religion. George Washington warned, for example, in his Farewell Address that we must not “indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” Massachusetts’ Constitution speaks similarly: “The happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depends upon piety, religion, and morality.” John Adams’ comments on the necessity of religion for true virtue show that it was Christianity, not some nebulous sense of the divine, that must be promoted:

One great advantage of the Christian religion is that it brings the great principle of the law of nature and nations, love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you, to the knowledge, belief and veneration of the whole people. . . . The duties and rights of the man and the citizen are thus taught from early infancy to every creature.

The statute creating Georgia’s first university put things similarly:

A free government . . . can only be happy where the public principles and opinions are properly directed and their manners regulated. This is an influence beyond the stretch of laws and punishments and can be claimed only by religion and education. It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of religion and morality.

Christians recognize, or should do so, that education independent of moral formation is not only impossible, it is undesirable. “You shall teach [God’s commandments] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:7). “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6). “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Yes, children need to know the facts of math, science, history, and the rest, but that is precisely so those facts can be set within an overarching framework of truth and virtue. Facts are useless otherwise; they are simply blips of noise echoing across a cold, meaningless void.

It was not until the 1960s that the Supreme Court “discovered” in the Constitution that public schools and universities could not include basic Christian moral teaching, Bible reading and prayer as part of their instruction. Because of the state of our schools, school boards, accrediting agencies, and all the other institutions that contribute to what is taught in our schools, the introduction of religious and moral formation into these schools today would be disastrous. All right-thinking individuals should support attempts to remove woke ideology from our schools. However, the slogans so often voiced by conservatives about fact-based education, apart from moral formation, are just as harmful, if followed through consistently. The battle for our nation’s schools and universities cannot be waged—without dire consequences—by abandoning the quest for virtue, nor by ceding the ground of moral formation to nihilists and psychopaths. It took a long time to get to where we are today. It will take a long time to find our way out of this mess.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

7 thoughts on “Education, Not Indoctrination

  1. Thanks for the article, Ben. And I do think your position is right. To the conservative who desires the removal of woke ideology from the classroom the most logical question to follow would be: “And replace it with what?” I do not think pluralism as an ideal can offer a satisfactory answer to that question. I would, however, be interested to hear from others of that persuasion if they think otherwise.

    Chesterton has a pithy little remark somewhere (perhaps Orthodoxy?) that runs something like this: The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth; to eventually come down on something solid. The same is true of the schoolhouse and our curricula. What the (historic) conservative and the leftist share in common here is the teleological view of education. Where they differ, of course, is in the telos. Pluralism seems to advocate a mouth that is perpetually open, never coming down on something solid.

  2. Wokism must have replaced a self-flattering, patriotic idealism in capturing the schools, if indeed they have been captured. But facts and morality have never been a strong point in American education.

    If morality had been so important and the Christian religion had been so influential in the past, would our nation have been so strongly based on white supremacy and the subjugation of women–see what was cited from Jefferson–for most of our history? As for facts, some regard only flattery as facts while others regard only criticisms as facts. Considering that overreactions tend to displace indoctrination, is it surprising that wokism is currently thriving while others want a return to the past that never was?

    I taught computer science, information technology, math and world religions for 19 and 1/2 years at a few colleges. I saw the quality of students coming into college drop and their preparedness to handle college material fade as time went on. And that is in technology and math, not in their learning of humanities or history. My experiences tell me that because of the collective effort, or apathy, of public school administrators, teachers, parents, and the students themselves that too many students, certainly not the above average ones, want a college education that requires minimal effort on their part. They prefer distance learning where the distance refers to their engagement with the subject so that they only have to memorize brute facts without having to understand how facts work together. And that is because too many students find more significance in consuming–that is enjoying entertainment, learning how to use the newest gadgets, and playful socialization–rather than in learning how to make a living by contributing to others. In short, our consumer culture has caught up with and is subjugating our secondary and collegiate education systems.

    As for Dunson’s article, he wants to demonize wokism so that it is shut out of the schools. But what if the current control by wokism is a mere overreaction to the past, why silence wokism? Why not seek a balanced wokism or include other perspectives in addition to wokism instead of removing it? After all, it was only some woke educators who want to teach 2+2=5 according to the article cited.

    The demonization of wokism is just another example of the all-or-nothing thinking practiced and promoted by authoritarian conservatives where everything about wokism must be replaced. In addition, all-or-nothing thinking produce overly simplistic approaches to problem analysis and solving. And though there is authoritarianism being pushed by some who are woke, the replacement of pluralism with a privileged place for Christianity, even though there are other religions that also stress morals, in a nation where where we have freedom of religion and an ever growing disillusionment with the past and/or present is drawing more and more people away from Christianity is even more authoritarian. Dunson’s demonization of wokism and a call to return Christianity to its past position of privilege sounds most like the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying in Luke 18:9-14.

    1. Thoughtful response, Curt. I have been teaching for the better part of 10 years now and have noticed similar trends you mention re student disposition toward learning.

      Regarding wokism in the classroom: If I follow the position you’re espousing, the prescription is not to do away with wokism, but rather include other views in addition to a ‘balanced’ wokism. This position is naive in my view. Perhaps a helpful analogue for consideration would be that of religion and religious toleration.

      It is not uncommon to hear religious liberty praised as a virtue. But is religious liberty a virtue without reservation? Further, is religious (total) liberty even possible? Certainly not. And this is easily demonstrated if one were content to observe the conflict between the West and Islam for the last millennium. Islamic violence toward the West could be explained away by pointing to the West’s intolerance, perhaps. But the advent of liberalism in the Enlightenment, and its coming to fruition over the couple of centuries in the form of secularism, makes for an interesting social laboratory. There is still Muslim violence against the West and given the cultural shift toward tolerance/pluralism over the last two centuries, it is no longer possible to posit that it is provoked by western intolerance. So what gives? Perhaps there is something essential, in this case, to Muslim theology the prohibits it from contenting itself with a mere ‘seat at the table’ as it were. Jihad is not interested in a seat at the table; but rather the table itself.

      And this is the fundamental problem of pluralism and why the position you’ve articulated is not plausible. Pluralism is predicated on a degree of philosophical and cultural homogeneity: Yes, in an ideal world Mill’s marketplace of ideas would hold where various ideas could be put forward and evaluated by the consumer for lack of a better word. But we must all agree on the rules of the marketplace. And wokism is not interested in the rules of the marketplace in the same way that Islam is not interested in a peaceful coexistence. Both are, to use your word, authoritarian, and, if I might add, totalizing. There is no room for neutrality. You’re either an ‘ally’ or an enemy in the same way that you are either doing jihad or you are an infidel.

      1. Clint,
        Thank you for your thoughtful response.

        What I wrote about wokism is that we have two choices, we can promote a balanced wokism or we can teach wokism as one of the ways to interpret the past and present along with other perspectives. If we say that we cannot include wokism, then we are saying that there is nothing we can learn from wokism. And so we need to look at those who are considered to woke to examine if we can accept some or must reject all of what wokism is saying.

        Let’s go to one of the institutional parts of wokism, Critical Race Theory (CRT). When one views Xander Vanocur’s 1967 interview with Martin Luther King Jr., it becomes easy to see that a significant part of CRT is a continuation of King’s mission and work. And here we should note that King not only worked against racism, he worked against economic exploitation and militarism and he saw all three and as being inextricably connected. Now was everything that King said false? Were there things that King said which are included in CRT? And in addition, is wokism monolithic or are there diverse opinions. Citing a part of Dunson’s article, does everyone who is woke believe that 2+2=5?

        The rejection of pluralism is a rejection of equality and tolerance. Such is an embrace of hierarchy and group authoritarianism based on ethnicities–btw, religion is an ethnic category. If you want to see the effects of the lack of pluralism, then look at European History up through WW II. In fact, in WW I, each of the main participants were Christian nations in terms of their demographics, and each of those nations claimed that God was on their side. Since WW II, Europe has been in the process of embracing pluralism. Now look at European History since then. It is those nations or groups that reject pluralism that have initiated wars.

        America started off as rejecting pluralism. It did so based on the delusional beliefs in the superiority of the white man, especially those from England. America was based on white supremacy. Its belief in white supremacy was subtly existent in The Constitution, but it was explicitly stated in the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795 where only free whites could become American citizens. And what did America do? It fought a Civil War to free the slaves but not necessarily to declare that blacks and whites were equal–many white abolitionists, despite their opposition to slavery, believed in white supremacy. Jim Crow followed a brief respite. White supremacy, slavery, and Jim Crow were passionately defended by many Christians. Beginning in the late 1800s to early 1900s, America’s imperial dreams crossed the oceans as it began to seek the wealth of other nations. BTW, before our overseas imperial efforts, Christian America was ethnically cleansing Native Americans from the land.

        When did America begin to embrace pluralism? That started with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s and was continued with the Anti-War protests. Other groups, such as women and gays joined in because they saw their opportunity to gain equality. And guess who was their biggest religious opponent? That would be American conservative Christians.

        Consider Islam, why doesn’t it get along with the West? Did you consider that the history of European imperialism and colonialism might have played a significant role in Islam’s current opposition to the West. And that most of that imperialism and colonialism occurred when Europe embraced ethnic rule instead of pluralism. Look at Israel and Palestine. Why the conflict? It is because both European Jews who migrated there and the indigenous and wanted the land as an exclusive homeland. The Arab population there wanted their own almost exclusive homeland–remember that Modern Day Zionism started as and largely continues to be a European venture.

        Now, will a given nation that is ethnically ruled and thus rejects the equality that is inherent in pluralism, recognize the equality of other nations whose ethnic composition is different and have resources and wealth that a given nation wants? Or will it go to war to get those resources and wealth?

        The battle on this website is this, should we define America by its Constitution, which has begun to embrace pluralism, or will we define America by its demographics from the past? Acceptance of The Constitution provides a basis for the necessary homogeneity a nation needs and is based more on the present. Historical demographics means that an ethnic group, in this case fellow believers in Christ, claim the right to rule the nation in which they have become a minority because of their self-proclaimed religious and moral superiority–obviously, some have forgotten to read Romans 2. What could go wrong with their plan?

        BTW, regarding religious liberty, liberty – equality = privilege. What those who are seeking a Christian nation want is religious privilege over others, not liberty.

        1. Thanks, Curt. I think to explore the several things you’ve brought up would be a long article itself, if not a book. So I’ll not try. I do think we are operating with different histories, however, which is a significant shame and likely creates an impasse. For example, there is little in the historical examples you’ve supplied that I would accept on factual grounds much less how they’ve been presented.

          One other thought: Are there boundaries to pluralism in your mind? If so, what are they? And wouldn’t admitting to boundaries be tantamount to intolerance by definition? I mean, if there are some things that aren’t tolerable (like authoritarianism, for example), this would be intolerant, no?

          1. Clint,
            You can disagree with the historical points I made but they is plenty of documentation supporting that history. The problem I see with many fellow believers regarding history and the state of things is that as time has gone on, many of us Christians have become more and insular and thus less receptive to histories that are less than flattering to ourselves and to the West. Knowing how pervasive sin is, we should not be surprised by history when it doesn’t flatter our heroes or our own groups. Perhaps a good place to start regarding history is Martin Luther King’s Jr. speech against the Vietnam War. Or you can listen to the interview that I mentioned. It is on YouTube.

            Limits to Pluralism? Pluralism cannot accept injustices being visited on people. The injustices themselves are demonstrations of intolerance. Call it an intolerance to unjust expressions of intolerance. We can’t control how people feel about others, but we can protect those others from unjust actions based on fear and/or hate.

            We live in a world where the proliferation of WMDs is inevitable because of access to technology. What follows that is that the continued reliance on war spells our doom. Where you have a nation where power centers in an ethnic group, there might be a forced peace domestically, but war is often the result when that nation wants resources from another nation–James wrote about that between individuals and it applies to nations. And as with any nation where power centers in an ethnic group, feelings of entitlement based on beliefs in ones own group’s superiority is common. And you can see where that leads.

  3. I’d like to thank both of you for your cogent arguments. I was raised in a catholic school grades 1-8, and during that time also learned about dinosaurs and plate tectonics. Not all Christians are bigots (probably not the right term here). I am no fan of the “christian” right, nor a fan of the “woke”. Frankly, both sides scare me. What the 2 of you have done is engage in reasoned debate, and that is something one almost never sees online anymore. Thank you for your arguments and enlightenment. It was a true pleasure reading this thread.

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