Thomas Mullane: Indoctrination in higher education |
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Thomas Mullane: Indoctrination in higher education


During a career teaching social sciences — anthropology, psychology and sociology — at local colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh area, I have made it clear to students that what I was teaching was not my personal view. My aim was to introduce students to critical thinking, theories of history and society, and standards of objectivity in the social sciences. In general, I have wanted to increase their cultural capital — especially given that their financial capital is often not very substantial. It has been my operating premise that the more students know, the more autonomy and competence they will have when navigating a complex and sometimes hostile world.

Lately, however, what I have seen in institutions of higher learning is a trend in teaching methods where my approach — defined by emphasis on the transmission of objective, impersonal knowledge — is being replaced with what can be classified as techniques of indoctrination.

Methods of psychological manipulation, which we would all probably agree are incompatible with democracy, are now passed off as state-of-the-art educational methodologies.

These covertly introduced teaching styles follow the classic stages in the process of indoctrination. Emotional arousal is the first step. Students in such classrooms, which are organized like therapy sessions, have little choice but to identify with the values that professors and peers designate as moral and just. It is the personal identification with professor and peers that enables the culminating step: Students are obliged “to act.”

They are being guided into a mindset that compels them to embrace and serve causes that reflect their professor’s personal agenda. The emotional commitment of some students is often so intense that they speak openly of the “closeness” that they feel for their professor and of the “militant hope” that their professor has given them In this emotionally charged context, ambiguity is not tolerated; nor is another point of view. Yet the effect and the consequences of such an education are not made clear to the students.

As a parent and a professor, I see this development with alarm. In most cases this classic process of indoctrination is not disclosed or even discussed in the academy.

Neither students nor their parents know that they are paying for an “education” that is short on objective knowledge.

I suggest that three factors have helped to make this covert indoctrination of university students both possible and undetectable:

• In the culture at large there is an over-emphasis on the emotional uniqueness of the self. This is used to justify any topic or activity that appears to capture and “engage” the students’ passion. The shift away from the objectivity of the humanities and social sciences is thereby masked, and the difference between opinion and knowledge is not examined. Yes, each person’s opinion counts, but in a university, a court of law or a cancer clinic, one appreciates the value of theories, radiographic scans and DNA. Objective facts are important.

• In a competitive marketplace, it appears only natural for issues of recruitment and retention to take center stage. University administrators for this reason often back programs of dubious academic merit if they are convinced that these programs will help to recruit and retain students.

• An increasing number of professors support the new pedagogies. These professors address their students in positive-sounding terms (e.g., “awesome”). The flattery comes at a cost, however, since it gives students the impression that opportunities to espouse their subjective values are more important in the classroom than their ability to demonstrate logical reasoning and command of objective knowledge.

Perhaps parents and students should be alerted to the proliferation of these ideology-driven programs in our universities. Are they good for the lives and careers of those who are paying dearly for an education? Parents and students should have the opportunity to know and to judge for themselves.

Thomas Mullane, a former mental health professional, holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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