Indoctrination—What Is It, Really?

As her first official act on January 10, 2023, Arkansas governor Sarah Sanders signed an order targeted at Critical Race Theory (CRT). It promises to prevent “the indoctrination of Arkansas school children.” In doing so, she joined  Republican peers seeking to curb the teaching of current issues in the schools.

In 2021, Oklahoma senator Rob Standridge (R) filed a bill addressing “the indoctrination of children in school classrooms and on college campuses.”

In 2022, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill (HB)7, “to give businesses, employees, children and families tools to stand up against discrimination and woke indoctrination.”

The word “indoctrination”

What does indoctrination mean? And what do these politicians mean by it?

The words doctrine, indoctrinate, and indoctrination descend from the Latin verb docere, which means, “to teach.” The word came into English in the seventeenth century as a synonym for teach.

The negative meaning modern speakers associate with the word appears two hundred years later: “to imbue with a doctrine, idea, or opinion.”

Both indoctrination and education have to do with imparting information.

Indoctrination presents a belief as if it were a universal truth, not to be disputed.

Teaching presents information in a context of knowable evidence, open to discussion.

What do politicians mean by “indoctrination.”

The many “anti-indoctrination” bills do not, in fact, target indoctrination. Politicians are just fine with indoctrination in some contexts.

The purpose of “anti-indoctrination” bills is to prevent young people from exposure to ideas that disturb the status quo—what Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954) referred to as “things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

The twenty-first century has ushered in new ideas about things that those of us who grew up in the twentieth century had believed to be fixed forever.

Learning about new scientific discoveries and untraditional theories of gender and human behavior can be unsettling, even scary. The anti-indoctrination faction is not against indoctrination, but education.

Education is related to the Latin verb educere: “to lead out from.” By means of education, one is led out from a state of not knowing.

Politicians are not against indoctrination

The clearest evidence that state legislators have nothing against indoctrination is their enthusiasm for school vouchers. Thanks to the current make-up of the US Supreme Court, tax money may be now used to support religious schools (Carson v Makin).

As Karl Richter points out in the Texarkana Gazette (25 February 2023), Governor Sanders’s assault on public education includes “Freedom Accounts” that will give tax money to parents to pay tuition to religious schools.

Observes Richter:

Private Christian schools are free to indoctrinate students with religious ideologies that the public-school standard would prohibit.

He also points out that of the 64 private schools accredited by the Arkansas Board of Education, 94% are Christian schools.

Public-school students are protected against discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This protection does not apply to private schools eligible to receive Freedom Account money. They must certify only that they will not discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.

History will prevail

State legislators can pass all the laws they like in an effort to limit what children are allowed to learn about in school, but they are fighting a losing battle. In Tennyson’s words, The old order changeth, yielding place to new.

History shows the futility of efforts to force conformity to ideas not held by everyone in a society.

Diocletian failed to halt the spread of Christianity.

The Inquisition failed to kill all the Jews and heretics.

All this current legislation will be unable to prevent American young people from learning about the issues shaping the world in which they will spend their lives.