By Kevin Mott-Thornton
Before examining whether faith schools are indoctrinatory we need firstly to take a closer look at what the charge of ‘indoctrination’ is typically taken to mean.
Indoctrination is the concept used to identify teaching methods that undermine critical openness and autonomy. If a child is trained, encouraged or forced to see the natural world and their corner of that world wrongly then real possibilities are closed off and their ability to reason, gather evidence, and thereby generate new possibilities for themselves, is weakened. If we need a label to make this sound as serious as it certainly is then we can say that the child suffers ‘epistemological harm’ when schooling becomes indoctrinatory. When challenged to say what the wrongness of indoctrination amounts to, educational philosophers typically focus on the status of the beliefs that are promoted, their rational justification and the epistemological status of the methods used to generate them. I will argue that this positivist approach, despite its central role in scientific justification, will throw up unnecessary and illiberal hurdles when it is applied to areas of the school curriculum that impact on personal and moral development.
Consider, for example, this characterisation of indoctrination:
‘Teaching propositions as true, or standards as justified, when there is reasonable disagreement about them is indoctrinatory’ (Hand, 2018, p76)
This would seem insufficient to identify indoctrinatory teaching as the following statements, for example, might very reasonably be taught ‘as true’ in any school:
‘The universe started with a big bang and the universe will expand and then contract’
‘Parliamentary Democracy is the best form of government for Britain’
Yet, a follower of the rival steady state theory might rationally disagree with the first, while followers of Plato would rationally disagree with the second. The reasoning on all sides could be impeccable and the disagreement very real but the charge of indoctrination would probably arise only if a school attempted to teach the minority rival views ‘as true’.
The two cases are interestingly different. In the case of any straightforward scientific disagreement, as in the debate between creationists and the Darwinian evolutionary mainstream, the indoctrination question can be settled fully once decisive research evidence is amassed in support of one side or the other. It would then be non-rational for those on the other side to continue to present their theory with all its associated beliefs, as true and justified. As I understand it, there is now overwhelming evidence against scientific creationism and for the theory of evolution. At this stage, the path to rational belief is clear, and some other non-rational means of persuasion would have to be used to ensure, at the very least, that valid reasons and evidence for the successful theory are ignored or dismissed. In this domain, there can be no reasons for dismissing the established view precisely because all reasons to believe otherwise have been rationally dismissed. It follows from this that,
‘To indoctrinate someone is to impart beliefs in such a way that she comes to hold them non-rationally, on some other basis than the force of relevant evidence and argument.’ (Hand, 2018,p6)
A definition of indoctrination of this kind, emphasising the rationality of the belief promoted, and focussing on the epistemological surety of the methods and outcomes used, is sufficient to identify cases of indoctrination where the beliefs at issue are propositions about the nature and workings of the material world since these are matters which can be resolved exclusively and to the satisfaction of all by the agreed standards of science and rationality. On that basis, any school promoting creationism as a rival scientific theory (i.e. evolution denial) as true and justified, rather than just a rather unsuccessful theoretical challenger would be indoctrinating its students. However, it should be noted that this does not preclude the teaching of scientific creationism in a faith school or any other school as part of the science curriculum since this might be used precisely to demonstrate its fallibility.
Indoctrination, Justification and Context
Consider the following proposition taken from a programme of civic or political education: ‘Parliamentary democracy is the best system of government for the UK’. This and its platonic rival are both clearly beyond the scope of scientific justification but neither is irrational or incompatible with a scientific understanding of the material world. In addition, reason, evidence and argument could be amassed on either side without any prospect of the kind of final rational agreement achieved by a successful scientific theory.
And yet, teaching the platonic view or any other non-democratic theory of good governance ‘as true’ would, I suggest, be regarded as indoctrinatory while teaching the reverse, as true, would not. This relates to a characteristic of the domain of politics: the possibility of permanent rational disagreement because its propositions and the reasons for believing them relate intrinsically to persons and societies situated within a world of material objects.
This suggests that political indoctrination is less to do with the epistemological status of the content of the propositions concerned (or the methods used to inculcate them, rational or non-rational) and rather more with the existing personal, social and political context in which the proposition is believed. Here, the question of indoctrination is more attuned to the equally rational but practical question of which beliefs and attitudes are authorised and appropriate for a particular set of students. In particular, any charge of indoctrination will turn on which beliefs serve their interests as citizens of a liberal democracy and the interests of the liberal democracy in which they live. In contrast to the science example, indoctrination will be less about whether the belief is rationally justified beyond doubt or whether it is open to rational disagreement. Given that the political beliefs in question are neither irrational nor incompatible with the established laws of science, avoiding the charge of indoctrination will require only a justificatory rationale, practical and context dependent. It will be built on a reference to the child’s identity as a future individual citizen of a liberal democracy, what beliefs the child needs to flourish as such a citizen in the future and it will refer also to the characteristics of the society and its mode of government. In summary, it will refer to an ideal form of political life, its associated beliefs, linking those back to the child’s identity and resultant interests. The charge of indoctrination levelled at a UK school teaching the rival platonic theory as true will relate to the inappropriateness of this view for any particular child, given who they are and the political context in which they live.
In the next part I will attempt show that the kinds of beliefs promoted in faith schools are closer to these political propositions than they are to the propositions of science and that we need to apply a similarly sensitive concept of indoctrination to them.
Hand, M (2002) Religious upbringing reconsidered in Journal of Philosophy of Education, 36:4
Hand, M (2018), A Theory of Moral Education, London: Routledge