Mirrors and Windows: When Education Becomes Indoctrination
By: Amy Lutz
Journalist Sydney J. Harris once said, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” In this case, “windows” implies a complete, varied worldview filled with solid facts and conflicting opinions. The role of teachers is to provide the frame of reference for children to use for intellectual exploration and individual deliberation. A good education teaches a child how to think not what to think. However, a metaphorical “mirror” education is one in which critical thinking and individual discovery are not nurtured. Students merely “reflect” the words and opinions of their teachers. This type of instruction is particularly harmful when the words of the teacher are based far more on opinion than on fact. In other words, this happens when the instructor crosses the fine line between education and indoctrination.
Recently, cries of “indoctrination” rose from angered parents and teachers in America’s heartland. . A bill was introduced in the Missouri House of Representative that would require “the equal treatment of science instruction regarding evolution and intelligent design” in the classroom. Should this measure pass, instructors will no longer be able to choose between creationism and evolution; they must give both equal time in the classroom. Many people on the left were immediately in an uproar over the bill. An opinion piece in The Huffington Post even labeled Missouri as “The Stupefy State” for the “wrong” and “uncaring” legislation.
Meanwhile, across the country in Virginia, cries of indoctrination were raised from the opposite site of the political spectrum. In early January, it was reported that a group of third graders in Virginia were instructed to sing a song praising the ideas of Occupy Wall Street. Kid Pan Alley, a national organization designed to bring music to schools and communities, helped the children “co-write” a song titled “Part of the 99,” which glorified the supposed “99%” while demonizing the wealthy “1%.” The organization initially claimed that the lyrics were solely the product of the children’s’ minds, but it was later revealed that the youngsters did not actually write the Occupy-favorable lyrics.
Although both the Missouri and Virginia cases are reported under the umbrella of “indoctrination,” the situations could not be more opposite. A complete understanding of the two stories requires a full acceptance of the difference between education and indoctrination. In regards to the purpose of education, Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Education promotes intellectual curiosity and a critical assessment of conflicting opinions. Remember, for a “windowed” education, the teacher merely provides the frame. It’s up to the child to examine all of the facts within the scope of their worldview.
Indoctrination is defined as “instructing in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., especially to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view.” This “biased” instructional model implies that one side of an issue is given favor over another, often at the expense of the facts themselves. Intellectual curiosity is stifled and students are not given a deep understanding from all points of view. In short, with education comes depth and debate; indoctrination, shallowness and bias.
The cries of “indoctrination” in the case of the Occupy Wall Street song in Virginia are; therefore, justified. The ideology of the Occupy movement merely represents one opinion among hundreds in the sphere of public, political debate. The third graders; however, were only subject to the ideas of this one movement. How is intellectual curiosity and critical thinking possible when they are only given one side of the story? Further, I’m sure that many of the children in that classroom could probably not even define what the “99%” represents. They were merely taught to “reflect” the words and blatant opinion of their instructors.
In the case of Missouri’s proposed curriculum, the definition of education could not be clearer. The debate between creationism and evolution is perhaps one of the most controversial battles in public schools today. No matter what side an instructor chooses to teach, they will face cries of indoctrination. However, when you present both sides, children are allowed to make up their own minds. To say that this is a case of indoctrination denies the fact that children will be allowed to make their own choices about what to believe.
To deny a child the opportunity to critique all sides of the debate is not only wrong, it’s also an attempt to impose a form of intellectual servitude. In the words of James Madison, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Knowledge is not only power, it is freedom and the eventual means to self-government. This perhaps expresses the core perversion of aspects of our education system today. Ignorance begets external control. Keeping children ignorant to the “window” of society filled with multiple, conflicting points of view may be an indoctrinator’s attempt at control. Students are to be nurtured, not controlled and kept intellectually ignorant. Education produces freedom, but ignorance creates servitude and makes our nation’s foundation principle of self-governance unattainable. Perhaps James Madison said it best when he stated, “…and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”