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Educational Indoctrination

Dr. Sowell: "intelligentsia have changed the role of education from equipping students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to weigh issues and make up their own minds into a process of indoctrination."

August 23, 2023

From Dr. Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, Revised and Enlarged Edition (2012)

“In the schools and colleges, the intelligentsia have changed the role of education from equipping students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to weigh issues and make up their own minds into a process of indoctrination with the conclusions already reached by the anointed.”

“School teachers are one of the elements of the intelligentsia in the penumbra surrounding the inner core of intellectuals. Like many others, the school teachers’ role is quite modest and little noticed, and their influence on the course of national policy virtually nil, so long as they remain within the confines of their competence in their assigned role as transmitters of the cultural achievements of the past to the younger generation. Only by stepping outside that role to take on responsibilities for which they have neither qualifications nor accountability do they greatly expand their influence—whether by ideological indoctrination of students or by psychological manipulation of students in order to change the values which those students received from their parents. In either case, the teachers are unaccountable for the consequences, either to the students or to the society.”

“The education of the young has long been a battleground between adherents of the two visions of the nature of human beings and the nature of knowledge and wisdom. William Godwin’s notion that the young ‘are a sort of raw material put into our hands’ remains, after two centuries, a powerful temptation to classroom indoctrination in schools and colleges. In the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson wrote of his years as an academic administrator when he felt ‘I should like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.’

“This indoctrination can start as early as elementary school, where students are encouraged or required to write about controversial issues, sometimes in letters to public officials. More fundamentally, the indoctrination process habituates them to taking sides on weighty and complex issues after hearing just one side of those issues. Moreover, they are habituated to venting their emotions instead of analyzing conflicting evidence and dissecting conflicting arguments. In short, they are led to prepackaged conclusions, instead of being equipped with the intellectual tools to reach their own conclusions, including conclusions different from those of their teachers. In colleges and universities, whole academic departments are devoted to particular prepackaged conclusions—whether on race, the environment or other subjects, under such names as black, women’s or environmental ‘studies.’ Few, if any, of these ‘studies’ include conflicting visions and conflicting evidence, as educational rather than ideological criteria might require.”

“Not only do the intelligentsia themselves have incentives to venture far beyond any special expertise they may have, in order to influence public policy, their example and—in the case of teachers —their practice encourages similar venturesomeness and even zealotry among their students. In these cases as well, there are few, if any, constraints."

“As early as elementary school, students have been encouraged or recruited to take stands on complex policy issues ranging up to and including policies concerning nuclear weapons, on which whole classes have been assigned to write to members of Congress or to the President of the United States. College admissions committees may give weight to various forms of environmentalism or other activism in considering which applicants to admit.”

“By encouraging or even requiring students to take stands when they have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual training to seriously examine complex issues, teachers promote the expression of unsubstantiated opinions, the venting of uninformed emotions, and the habit of acting on those opinions and emotions while ignoring or dismissing opposing views, without having either the intellectual equipment or the personal experience to weigh one view against another in any serious way. In short, at all levels of the intelligentsia, and in a wide range of specialties, the incentives tend to reward going beyond whatever expertise the particular members of the intelligentsia may have, and the constraints against falsity are few or non-existent.”

“One of the remarkable self-indulgences of contemporary educators in the public schools has been the introduction into classrooms of programs which systematically undermine moral principles that have come down over the centuries, and which children have been taught by their parents. These programs have usually been developed by intellectuals outside the field of education, extensively marketed by both commercial firms and non-profit organizations, and are often eagerly embraced by educators who have been taught in schools of education that their role is to be that of agents of social ‘change,’ not simply transmitters of a heritage of knowledge. These programs have a remarkable variety of names and ostensible goals, one of the earliest names being ‘values clarification,’ though other names have proliferated after parents and others discovered what ‘values clarification’ really meant in practice and raised objections. The phrase ‘values clarification’ is very misleading. When parents tell their children not to steal or lie, or engage in violence, there is no ambiguity as to what they mean. Ambiguity is introduced by programs which confront students with carefully crafted moral dilemmas, such as a situation where a ship is sinking and there are more people than the lifeboats can hold, so that decisions have to be made as to who is to be left to drown, perhaps beaten off when they try to climb out of the water onto a lifeboat that is already so full that it will capsize if another person climbs in. Because received moral principles do not always apply, the implication is that each individual should develop his or her own situational ethics to replace traditional morality—not only where traditional moral principles fail but in the vast range of more ordinary situations where there are no such dilemmas as those in contrived examples.”

“Writing in the early twentieth century, however, Dewey’s notion that education should be a means to ‘eliminate obvious social evils’ through its ‘development of children and youth but also of the future society of which they will be the constituents’ was a fundamental change in the role of schools. The notion that the school should be run as a microcosm of society—’a miniature community, an embryonic society’—and as a place for conditioning students to want a very different kind of society, unlike the current society, was not something likely to find approval or perhaps even toleration. In the early twentieth century especially, parents were not sending their children to school to become guinea pigs in someone else’s social experiments to use education as a means of subverting existing values in order to create a new society based on new values, those of a self-anointed elite, more or less behind the backs of parents, voters and taxpayers.


[1] Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society, Revised and Enlarged Edition (2012). Basic Books, Kindle Edition.

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