I’m a public school teacher, and as we all know, that means that I’m in the business of indoctrinating children. By the time those kids leave my class for the last time in June, I can assure you that they’re all thinking exactly the way that I want them to think. No matter what their political/religious/ideological positions beforehand, come that last day they have all succumbed to my will. I get a particular ghoulish delight when I know that they have thrown out all of the values that their parents have given them. Oh, and I should probably point out that I get my Marxist/Socialist/Nazi/Communist/Sith marching orders from a secret cabal of liberal elites, which includes Jimmy Carter, Bill Ayers, Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Fonda, and Colonel Sanders.
Okay, actually, no, I don’t do that. However, I’ve been accused of “indoctrinating” kids before. No, not by my actual students or their parents, but by people who assume that since I’m a teacher that I must be doing that. Also, whenever the entire system is indicted as being a “propaganda machine”, then I kinda feel like I’m being attacked as well, albeit indirectly.
Before I continue, all I can really speak of is where I work and what I have experienced. At my school, which is in the East Bay (of the San Francisco Bay Area, that is) I personally know that we have teachers of various political and ideological persuasions. For some classes, like math, P.E., foreign languages, etc., it really doesn’t play much of a factor in what goes on in the classroom. In other classes, like Social Studies, Language Arts/English, Sociology, etc. a teacher’s beliefs can play more of a factor in what’s being taught.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is this: even if we teachers were all on the exact same page as far as our beliefs were concerned, and even if every one of us wanted to “indoctrinate” the kids into thinking the way we do, there would still be a little problem with that. Do you really think that kids come into the class and listen to us like we’re Yahweh delivering the 10 Commandments to Moses? Do we really have such little faith in our kids that we think that they’re just mindless automatons waiting for us to deliver them their marching orders? Trust me, they’re not. If I tried getting all of these kids to think what I think, they’d resent me more than anything – even the ones who were already inclined to agree with me in the first place would see through such a thing, and any indoctrination would be more likely to backfire.
Have I had students tell me that my class changed the way they think? A few times. A freshman commented in her journal that she was no longer sure if she believed in Catholicism after learning about mythology, as she wondered if she had just been taught myths the same way those Medieval Vikings had. Obviously, the reason why she said that is because I constantly tell my students that Christianity is stupid and just a bunch of myths. Whenever I see a kid with a crucifix, I stop what I’m doing, point at it, and say, “That’s dumb!” Also, whenever they write about their personal beliefs, I have a big “WTF” stamp for those who express religious faith.
No, I don’t do any of that stuff at all. I just taught them about Greek and Norse myths. I also point out that if they are of European ancestry that these were the religious beliefs of their great-great-great-etc. grandparents. It’s important to me that they know that these weren’t simply stories but part of a religious tradition. I say that because, well, it’s TRUE. As far as my personal beliefs regarding religion and faith, I don’t even bring it up with the freshmen. I’ve been asked before, and I answer honestly that I’m an atheist, but I don’t go into it beyond that. And no, I wouldn’t begrudge a Christian answering that question truthfully either. I figure in the case of this one student, if it wasn’t what I taught her, it would have been something else. She was no doubt already pointing in that direction, and my lessons just gave her one more reason to reject her faith. I’m certain that there are plenty of kids who walk in Catholic in August and are just as Catholic in June.
I do tell my seniors what my personal beliefs are regarding religion, and I always debate with myself as to whether I should. The reason why I do is that by the nature of the literature that we read (including a section on The Bible) we cover a lot of religious topics. When I tell them where I stand, I tell them it’s because it’ll help them suss out any bias in what I’m saying just in case they detect it. Beyond that, I don’t go into my reasons for believing what I do, and on the few occasions when I’m asked, I tell the student that we can have a conversation after school if he or she wants, but I wasn’t going to take up class time going into all of my issues with religion. So, I try to keep it as respectful and balanced as possible, and I’ve had Christian students tell me that they appreciated that. Not only that, but I’ve heard more than one Christian tell me that my lessons strengthened their faith and they appreciated the lessons for that. I guess what I’m saying is that if I’m trying to indoctrinate my seniors into rejecting religion, I really SUCK at it!
Of course, there’s more than just religious beliefs, but I figure that I’d focus on that since it’s obviously a topic for which I have some passion. There is also politics, of course. When I teach my propaganda lessons, I try to pick on both the right and the left equally. When I tell them that it’s ridiculous to compare Obama to Hitler, I quickly follow it up by saying it’s equally ridiculous to compare Bush to Hitler.
I have also assigned papers to students where they could write on controversial political topics. I tell them from the get-go that it’s about how they support their points and not whether they agree with me or not. For instance, I happen to consider myself pro-choice when it comes to abortion. Still, I’ve given D’s to pro-choice papers and A’s to pro-life papers (and vice-versa).
Okay, so that’s just me. What about all the rest. Well, I think it’s safe to say that my friends and colleagues handle things pretty much the same way. We all have our beliefs, but we realize that forcing them on anybody is counter-productive and a disservice to what we believe. Do we sometimes give an opinion? Yes. But we’re sure to let the kids know that it’s just our opinions and that they should make up their own minds. I realize that this is hardly a scientific analysis, but I think I’d be safe in reckoning that we’re not too different from other schools.
So, what are we really talking about here? I think that a lot of these people who yell “indoctrination” so loudly are really just afraid of their kids being exposed to new ideas. A colleague of mine was once contacted by an angry parent for “teaching Marxism”. The thing is, he was just teaching about it as an introduction to Animal Farm, and he was being entirely neutral about it and not just using the word like a pejorative. This parent just didn’t want his kid to even know about it. That’s ridiculous. Am I teaching the kids to support regicide when I teach Macbeth? Of course not. I doubt a single kid has become a Marxist simply because he or she learned what it was.
I remember when I was young hearing that kids were “brainwashed” when they went to college into accepting homosexuals. Well, if I compare my attitudes towards gay people before and after college, I guess I was “brainwashed” too. How did that happen? It probably had something to do with how my professors would tie me to a chair, force my eyes open, and listen to Cher records. (Apologies to gay people out there who don’t actually like Cher and resent being the expense of that joke.) No, what happened was that I met gay people. I had gay teachers, and they didn’t begin every day by telling us about how sinful they were and how they were freaks. They just wanted to be treated like people, and funny enough, all the gay people I met turned out to be just that…people. So, brainwashed? No. Exposed to new ideas? Yes.
Of course, we can get even more extreme with this. Some people think that teaching basic science is indoctrination. They feel like they’re being persecuted for not having “Intelligent Design” taught in a place where it doesn’t belong. We could go on and on with that type of thing.
Let’s face it. Parents are the first teachers of a child. If I were to put the shoe on the other foot, and imagine my son with a conservative social studies teacher, and let’s say that this teacher didn’t even make an effort to respect other viewpoints in his classroom, how would I feel? (It’s easy for me to picture this, as my school once had a teacher like this – and no, I don’t think that all conservative teachers are like this, mainly because I know some who aren’t like that at all.) I’ll admit that I wouldn’t be happy with it, but I wouldn’t be afraid that this guy would completely change my son’s way of thinking. I plan on teaching my son some critical thinking skills. I’ll teach him to pay attention to that teacher and apply those skills to what he’s hearing – that way he can suss out the facts from the propaganda.
Wouldn’t things be interesting if every student was that actively engaged in a classroom?