Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Is our current educational system educating our children or is it indoctrinating? This is a very valid and highly important question to address. And yet, like most things in life, it is complex with a lot of muddy blurred lines.
The truth is there is no absolute truth to this question's answer. What is happening in one school may not be at another. For that matter, what is happening in one classroom may not be at another in the same school, in the same subject matter! So much for standardization, right? Standardization and the testing culture it created are in many ways at the heart of all that is wrong with our current system. Why? Well, lets think about that. To standardize something is to remove the unique qualities that distinguishes it from something else...it is to make it identical to another. It is the cookie-cutter of whatever field you are in. In education, it brings to mind Pink Floyd's song lyrics - "we don't need no education...just another brick in the wall". Floyd was referring to the foundation of so many schools across the world relying heavily on rules not procedures and removing all autonomy from the pupils. This of course results in behavioral compliance. But he was also referring, perhaps inadvertently, to the growing desire to make each classroom identical in content to the next. As an educator, I can certainly see the benefits of this. A child in classroom A sees and understands the same content as a child in classroom B and within the same period of time. On paper this is wonderfully practical and provides true equity between classrooms. In reality it is impossible to deliver without stifling the individual teacher or the individual student's needs.
Like most things that start out with great intentions the desire to standardize education to provide equitable instruction to all students has resulted in the indoctrination of many. What? How? Again, I say let's think about this. How can any school district verify the uniform teaching across classrooms is taking place if not through a standardized exam? For 16 of my 20 years as an educator I was primarily a Language Arts teacher in Title I schools or community colleges. This means that I saw how standardization directly affected every student since 2001. In 2001 George W Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Bill (NCLB)- on paper it seemed ideal. This education reform that would address the least among us being passed from grade to grade without the ability to read let alone comprehend simply so they could feel good about themselves or so they could play football or basketball or some other sport. Age-based compulsory grade level promotion had been considered necessary to avoid traumatizing a student, but it often meant that students were failing most subjects for the majority of their educations. NCLB said they HAD to pass the state test in reading and math in order to move on to the next level with their peers. On the one hand this took the dreaded task of failing a student away from the school, on the other hand it placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the school, the teacher, and the student to pass a state exam - an exam that is not written by grade level teachers and is often confusing and focuses too much on game theory and not enough on demonstration of subject area mastery.
By 2006 schools were being denied funding or worse- being given incentives to funding via the state tests results. As a result teachers teach to the test. Even the most well intentioned teacher does so. The Language Arts test, for example, does not place a great deal of importance on grammar and syntax with few questions being written on that topic and those that are are given low points; the essay portion for example only allots 2 total points (out of 10) for grammar and syntax. Teachers are expected to follow a pre-determined scope and sequence detailed with the common core standards being addressed that week and what readings they are to complete to do it. Very little time is ever given to grammar up to grade 7, after which it is practically non-existent. Teachers will complain that students can not write in Standard English, but they don't dare defy the scope and sequence as that, along with their student's test scores, is how they are observed and evaluated. So an A+ school can easily have students who are unable to truly write an age appropriate academic essay in Standard English.
Okay, we can agree most likely that this is not the true intention of education. But is it indoctrination? I say yes. All definitions of the word indoctrinate or indoctrination refer to the teaching of a topic or set of ideas in such a way as to negate or ignore opposing views. There is only one acceptable answer. While this is always the case in math class, it is not so in any other subject, but students today, and those that graduated in the past 25 years, do not realize this. They believe there is only one acceptable answer - only one truth- to all subject matter questions. So that anything that falls into a "grey area" from what they were taught to be correct is labeled conspiracy theory or religious extreme - or just untrue and wrong. Allow me to elaborate. Most schools across the country stopped teaching Animal Farm around the early 2000s. There are zero questions about any novel on any Language Arts state test so, reading novels in their entirety is pointless and can be considered a waste of time as novel analysis will never lead to one acceptable answer but rather open the door to personal interpretation and individual thought. New Jersey has questions regarding its Holocaust course that look at Night by Elie Wiesel, and in spite of it being a question about a novel, it has clearly adhered to this concept that no individual thought is possible. Standardized means everyone gets the same answer - there is no room for individual interpretation. In Animal Farm this is seen both figuratively through the story plot and literally through its demise as a go-to book in American high school English classes. Furthermore, this is not only happening in our English classes. Our History classes have had similar decline, in spite of not having an annual state test attached to the subject. Civics is taught in 7th grade and almost entirely via memorization in order to pass the state test. This of course negatively affects love and appreciation for our country's founding, governance, and history. This is later exacerbated in high schools where teachers have increasingly been trained to teach all history from the perspective of the "victim" or "other" in the room. This often leads to feelings of inadequacy and discomfort with the topic much less teaching it from a strictly facts based perspective affecting the teaching of everything from our founding to the "ugly" parts of history.
I am a Holocaust scholar, and I have seen how this very approach to teaching history from a feelings perspective instead of facts based perspective has resulted in 25% of America's young people not knowing words like Auschwitz or that 6 million Jews were murdered. In fact, the term murder is often considered too harsh (even for seniors in high school) and is changed to killed or most often died/perished. But as a Language Arts educator and author, I know words have power. When we say perished instead of murdered we change the reality of what took place. It is not surprising that 2/3 of America's young people think Hitler was democratically elected to office, that the Judenrat (the Jewish Council that worked for the Nazis) are a misunderstood group, and that the Jews caused the Holocaust to which they succumbed like sheep to the slaughter. In fact, most Holocaust courses barely deal with the Holocaust at all and instead focus in social justice and civil rights.
This approach has been adopted to the curriculum of most subjects, the extent to which it is prescribed rely entirely on the individual teacher. Some teachers are natural born rebels who genuinely entered the field of education to teach students How to think not What to think. If your child is lucky enough to have one of those teachers you will know it because your child will seek conversations with you in order to grow in what they understand and believe. They will seek to apply that knowledge everywhere. If your child is not lucky in this way, you will know it because when asked about school or anything else, your teenager will have the culturally expected response of "I don't know" or "nothing", or they will get quite agitated when you say something that differs from what was taught to them. That is the tale tell sign of indoctrination - there is only one true acceptable answer. All others are lies. All others are dangerous.
Whether or not it was the intention of test creators and textbook publishers and school districts to indoctrinate the children, much less to the point that an entire generation is quick to be child political warriors for complex topics they are far too young to fully comprehend or to breakdown emotionally when a different perspective is presented, is not what matters now. What matters is that it is happening more than most parents realize. A June 2017 Education Week article: Parsing the Difference Between Education and Indoctrination: For educators, politics in the schoolhouse is a narrow line to walk by Jonathan Zimmerman looks at this idea of indoctrination in New York schools. In the article he states that educators are individuals who should be allowed to express any belief they hold from political to religious, as long as they leave room for students to do the same. This is nearly impossible to do. teachers are adults and authority figures with the power of the almighty grade book. Students are children who, in the end, want to please and are therefore easily influenced. No educators do not have the right to influence children in that way. My students never knew what my opinions on such issues were and when they asked I always responded by saying: It doesn't matter what I believe/feel/think. What matters is how well you are able to express and defend what you believe/feel/think.
Today, the president signed an executive order regarding education vs indoctrination. Many are concerned that this itself is an act of indoctrination and are making it akin to Nazi education measures. This comparison is a misunderstanding of what took place in German schools under Hitler and the Nazi party. The Nazi measures were in fact indoctrination because they did not seek to teach about a common history based on facts, or to promote the ideals of individualism, but rather to teach children about Eugenics (a psuedo-science of racial theory) and other falsehoods in order to divide. These topics could only be learned by the "right" children and taught by the "right" teachers. The Nazi curriculum had only one set of acceptable truths - acceptable correct answers. No, today's proclamation as a counter to the 1619 Project (a fiction based forgery of historical facts expects its audience to walk away with only one set of acceptable answers - all others are lies, all others are racist) being adopted and taught in many school districts across America, is not indoctrination. It is an attempt to return to facts based teaching. After all, the well intentioned road of educational curriculum reform seeking to instill equality, equity, and empathy has led to a generation of young people often as ignorant on factual matters as the animals on Animal Farm and as sheepish in their bleeting of slogans.
In the end it is not enough to be able to read at your grade level lexile or to have studied about this point or that in history or science. That is not an education. An education is an enlightening experience. It is the process by which our inner passions is ignited and we see the world through the eyes of wonder seeking wisdom. It is the process through which we discover and honor our individual purpose. An educated person is the one who has their own personal thoughts based on their personal experiences, beliefs, and interpretations of the facts and is able to communicate these deeply held individual thoughts in a manner that is clear to all. Are you currently having your child educated or indoctrinated?