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The Indoctrination Thing (The Defense, Part 10)

with 6 comments

Let me see if I can start at the beginning here, and be coherent.

First, AB asks if I’m trying to prove that a liberal arts education makes some people good, or only if some people say it makes them good.

I’d say I’m trying to prove either.

I’ve said this now several times, but I’ll try again.

No system of education, no matter what its content or form, can make anybody good.

 Nothing and nobody can MAKE (caps now, in hopes I’m finally getting across) an individual good.

An individual must choose to be good–to want it and to work for it.

If he does not make that choice, no system of education in the world, no parental upraising, no mass media, no system of torture and indoctrination can get him there.

At best, a system of torture and indoctrination that is extreme enough can break down his mind and make him something on the order of a human robot–but at that point, discussions of good and evil become irrelevant.

What forms of education can do and do do is to provide a roadmap for virtue, and those roadmaps can be more or less accurate and more or less useful.

Every system of education provides such a roadmap on several levels.  And every system of education provides such a roadmap on an explicit level.  It’s not that Liberty University provides an explicit roadmap while Secular U down the road provides an open space for free thought and untrammeled discussion.  It’s the Liberty University is forthright about its intentions and Secular U is not.

If you don’t believe me, go into the dorms at Secular U and take a look at the Freshman Orientation week activities, the “diversity training seminars,” the “minority sensitivity” workshops and all the rest of it. Then take a look at the speech codes.  Then try saying–in a class, or on the dorm floor–that the Affirmative Action admits at your school have lower paper credentials than regular admits.   That last thing happens to be true, but it doesn’t matter.  Saying it outloud can get you hauled up before a disciplinary board at two thirds of the colleges in this country, it can get  you written up as a racist (a determination that will reach any employer who wants to hire you with the rest of your record), and could–if you refuse to recant–get you expelled.  Think of Gallileo in that emblematic Enlightenment narrative scene.

If that’s not “indoctrination,” I don’t know what is.

All systems of education aim deliberately at inculcating a certain set of moral standards whether they admit to it out front or not, and here’s the thing–that’s not “indoctrination,”

If it was, there would never have been anything but “indoctrination” on this earth.  And there couldn’t have been.   We don’t teach if we don’t think we know something worth passing on,  and up until this last century (the 20th, I mean), we never flinched at saying that part of our purpose in education was to produce morally better people. 

We were still saying that, explicity, in every institution, up until around 1968.  Then we kept on doing it, but started claiming we weren’t.

We’re still left with the question of whether or not a liberal arts education can be proved to result in morally better human beings. 

Because, as I said, although education can’t MAKE anybody moral, it can AFFECT whether or not we choose to be moral beings, and it can AFFECT what kind of morality we choose to follow.

 So, does it?  And does it affect those things better or worse than other forms of education, and other non-educational approaches to getting people to behave morally?

Michael is quite right in saying that all people everywhere exhibit moral behavior no matter how they were raised an educated, and that some nonhuman mammals (dolphins, dogs) exhibit behavior that seems to be moral, too.

I don’t think he’s right in saying that this indicates that we’re less free or in control–sorry, can’t remember the exact quote and I can’t seem to find it–than we think we are.

This sort of argument pops up a lot in secular circles these days, and as an argument against the existence of God, it’s weak beyond belief.  Both the ancients and the early-to-Renaissance Christians noticed this, too, and they took it as a proof that God did exist, because God implanted in the soul of every man the rudiments of his law. 

There is, in fact, no way to disprove that second formulation any more than there is a way to disprove the existence of God.  So I really wish secular people arguing for secularism would find another way to frame this subject.  This one actually loses you points with most audiences.

Okay–back on track.

I said yesterday that although we’d have a hard time showing whether any system of education had been the cause of any individual’s deciding to be good, that we might do better if we looked at populations.

In other words, we might be able to say that one society, having this kind of education, showed evidence of having a more widespread population of people choosing to be good than this other, over there, which used a different kind.

I used as an example the observable change in moral behavior–I should probably say publicly exhibited moral behavior–in the Catholic clergy after the widespread educational reforms instituted largely by Gregory the Great.

Robert suggested that those changes might have been the result of the increase in the rigorousness of the education offered, which increase would have resulted in an increase of observed moral behavior no matter what the content of the education.

And I think that I can, pretty much, dispense with that particular possibility.

There are three reasons.

The first is that the education that existed before Gregory’s reforms was not unrigorous, it was just of a certain kind.

It was, that is, devoted entirely to the study, recitation, memorization and interpretation of Scripture.

It was this narrow focus that Gregory was convinced was the cause of  the deficiencies Gregory saw in the Church he had taken control of, and those deficiencies were largely eradicated in the wake of those reforms.

But we don’t have to stop there–we have at least two other examples of educational systems with rigor that not only showed no signs of producing widespread moral improvement, but that seem to have resulted in widespread stagnation on any level you chose to look.

The first is the system that developed in the 7th Century in China and remained in place, expanded, for centuries. 

It had as its rationale something that usually does any society that adopts it a great deal of good–that is that talent and intelligence is not restricted by class and that society needs to find a way to indentify talented people no matter  how lowly their birth and put them to work.

The Chinese attempted to do this by instituting a system that was eerily like the early Christian one, except that its sacred texts were ostensibly secular.

I say ostensibly because the texts were treated as if they were sacred–memorized, recited, and given as Absolute Authority.

It was an odd thing, because the actual subjects on which candidate were texted were things like military strategy and agriculture as well as the works of Confucius. 

But you can treat anything as dogma, and the Chinese did.

That educational system lasted over 1000 years in one for or another, and what the Chinese got for it was stagnation on every level, the moral not the least of it. 

There’s another one of those civilizations that has a lot of “stuff,” but doesn’t develop scientifically or socially in any significant way.

The other example is, of course, the education offered right up to this day by the Muslim madrassahs. 

Before the 8th Century, Muslim countries had several seats of learning (in Cordoba, for one) that attempted to function on liberal arts principles, to the extent that that society was able to learn them from the Greek and Latin writings picked up in the conquests.

After that point, it returned to education as a course in the study, memorization, recitation and inculcation of the Koran.  And of the Koran exclusively.

I don’t care if what you’ve got hold of is the Principia Mathematica, if you treat it as a sacred text never to be questioned, you will not produce better people and you will not produce a better society.

Rigor is obviously not the issue.

That still doesn’t “prove” that a liberal arts education can give us the tools–can uniquely give us the tools–to become morally better people IF that is what we CHOOSE to do.

But it’s at least a start.

I’m going to go get something done.

Written by janeh

October 3rd, 2011 at 10:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Indoctrination Thing (The Defense, Part 10)'

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  1. I think the speech codes and so forth are more attempted indoctrination than actual. Most college students are bright enough to recognize that saying certain things in certain places is ill-advised, but that doesn’t mean they actually agree with them.

    As such, it’s not a bad lesson to learn, really. There are things that we don’t say in the workplace either – or we say them only to people we know well and trust, and behind closed doors. And it’s not censorship, either, it’s just that for any society (and a company is a society of a sort) to work, there have to be some agreed-upon conventions, and in most workplaces one of those is that you can’t call someone an idiot or an asshole even if they are.


    3 Oct 11 at 11:38 am

  2. There seem to be enough true believers, indoctrinated or not, in universities to carry out the usual demonstrations and protests against the expression of unpopular opinions – anti-abortion and pro-Israel are two perennial favourites. That’s going a bit farther than not mentioning someone’s political opinions or lack of academic achievement out of courtesy.

    I only just heard about the latest fad in protests in the US and Soon To Come To Canada – this taking back Wall Street thing. Google reveals that it seems to involve adbusters, who are said to be influenced in turn by Situationist International.

    It sounds like so many of these things – a handful of people claiming to speak for the rest of us and howling with delight if they can provoke someone in a postion of authority into saying or doing something ill-advised. At least the anarchist factions don’t seem to have moved in yet. I’m astonished it took me a week to realize that protestors had taken over Wall Street.


    3 Oct 11 at 12:26 pm

  3. I was mightily amused when my husband told me about the Berkeley Affirmative Action Mocking bake sale: http://tinyurl.com/4x3fbt9

    Perhaps what we ought to be educating people in is irony, sarcasm, and a sense of the ridiculous. Way too many in education seem to be relentlessly humorless and lacking in an appreciation of proportional response. From elementary education right through college, actually.


    3 Oct 11 at 12:35 pm

  4. Lymaree, trust me on this: anyone not a Movement true believer who has survived “higher education” on the bulk of the nation’s campuses in the past 40 years has learned more irony and sarcasm–and hypocrisy–than anyone should have to know, and his sense of the ridiculous is finely tuned. And I’ll thank you NOT to teach the faculty and administration to recognize irony and sarcasm when they hear or read them. We’re in a pre-revolutionary situation: relatively few believers in the existing system, but everyone afraid to speak out. This sort of thing tends not to last long, but the end can get ugly.

    On the main subject, the examples are on point. Best I can say for myself is that I meant by “rigor” other subjects taught in the same way–not reducing learning to memorization and set interpretations. But it could be the sweep of the LAE is so broad there isn’t room for another set.

    Also, we’re straying from the moral element. The madrassas and the Chinese examination system may not have promoted scientific inquiry, but did fewer Muslims or Chinese “choose to be good?” I can find–it would take a while; some of this is decades back–pagans and communists speaking highly of the morality of Christians, pirates believing the word of a Quaker sufficient and mutinous seamen and an Austrian Jew in praise of English gentlemen. I have yet to hear anyone say “you can trust her: she majored in English” or “of course his word is his bond: he’s a historian.”

    I would also keep in mind that a tightening-up of discipline need not involve a change in educational standards.


    3 Oct 11 at 3:43 pm

  5. 1. It is not a point of contention that education cannot “make” a person good. You and I may disagree over what it means to “make” a person do anything, but certainly the point is not that all educated persons become saints, but that a significant portion behave better than they otherwise would.

    2. Unlike some commenters, I am not terribly interested (at the moment) in discussing what constitutes “better” behavior. I suppose that, without having any “proof”, most people will accept /prima facie/ that someone who respects and tolerates others, who takes responsibility in her own life and does not take advantage of others, is /better/ than an irresponsible, dishonest, thoughtless bigot. Any argument against this point is a mere academic diversion, irrelevant to the present topic.

    3. Free will and “choice” are likewise academic distinctions. Philosophically, I am a determinist, but the fact is that “choice” is objectively meaningless. Whether a person subjectively /experiences/ a “choice” to be “better” is not presently relevant. The point is whether their choices, “free” or not, /are/ better.

    4. Supposing that a modern “liberal arts” education can provide a roadmap for virtue, where exactly does this map lead, and how?

    5. The early cathedral schools are the ones that (as I’ve noted before) taught Aristotle et al. as sanctified authorities. If you have some evidence that these schools encouraged critical thought, I’d like to see it (I mean this literally, not sarcastically). If not, then how was giving the Organon a position of revelatory authority different from the use of Scripture?

    6. What evidence is there of an “observable change in moral behavior” attributable to the cathedral schools?

    7. If there is any, can this be attributed to the cathedral schools themselves, as opposed to the overall leadership of Gregory the Great, which extended through other spheres?

    8. Concerning rigor, the early cathedral schools were certainly devoted to rigor – not to criticism. If you want a “liberal arts” education, as opposed to “recitation, memorization and interpretation,” you really need to look post-Aquinas. Gregory by no means abolished the veneration of received doctrine, he merely enlarged its scope, which only centuries later led to dispute.

    9. Regarding the Medieval Chinese system of education, we are here not concerned with whether it promoted science, but with whether it promoted the moral conduct of its students. You propose that there was moral “stagnation”, but I suggest that, to the extent that “moral stagnation” can be defined, it was equally as great among the pre-Renaissance learned classes of western Europe. The latter were also equally stagnant scientifically, although I think it’s important to distinguish between “morality” and “science.”

    10. There is no such thing as proof. Evidence – that “a liberal arts education can give us the tools–can uniquely give us the tools–to become morally better people” – will suffice. Evidence with clear relevance to the modern world would carry greater weight.


    4 Oct 11 at 10:52 pm

  6. Perhaps this is relevent. I can’t say as I last saw California in 1970.



    5 Oct 11 at 5:21 pm

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