Wednesday, June 07, 2023

"So, What Have You Been Up To All Day? Indoctrinating Kids?"

Not long ago, my wife an I were introduced to a new couple. They were from Toronto and mentioned that they really didn't know anyone around here, so in the spirit of neighborliness, we invited them to join us for happy hour with some other friends of ours the following evening.

When they arrived all the chairs at our table were full, but we managed to squeeze in a couple more seats, with the man's right next to mine. The only thing I knew about him was that he was a real estate attorney of some sort and the only thing he knew about me was that I was a preschool teacher, which is the shortcut way I often introduce myself when I don't want to take the time going into the details. As he sat down, he asked, "So, what have you been up to all day? Indoctrinating kids?" In hindsight, I expect he meant it as jocularity, but it hit me as fighting words.

I paused for a moment to let it sink in. Had he really said that? His smile looked like a sneer to me.

Recently, a Florida teacher was investigated and her job threatened because she showed her class a Disney film that includes, as a side plot, a gay character. She was accused of "indoctrinating" the kids. This was hardly an outlier. Every day, right across the country, educators are being charged with nefarious indoctrination of children for simply having books about race or gender or sexual orientation on their shelves. We are accused of sexually "grooming" the children, or of teaching them to hate their own race, or of trying to infect them with our "woke mind virus." In Miami, a single parent who admittedly had not even read the book, successfully petitioned to have our first National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman's book The Hill We Climb, removed from the school library simply because the forward was written by Oprah Winfrey. This parent apparently feels that Winfrey indoctrinates people into hating one another and themselves, which is the exact opposite of my take on her. It's not an accident that an overwhelming number of the books being banned are written by people of color or that feature non-traditional families.

Florida is ground zero, but teachers and librarians right across the country are finding themselves labelled as "indoctrinators," and their careers threatened, for having a rainbow flag in their classroom during Pride Week, or for mentioning racism, or even for acknowledging that someone might have two mommies or two daddies. Even classic and award-winning children's picture books are being challenged and banned, and teachers are being called to the carpet, if they make any reference at all to our history of racism or the reality of anything to do with the existence of LGBTQIA+.  Needless to say, this paranoia (it's either that or outright bigotry) over "porn and indoctrination" is leading to teachers receiving death threats and otherwise making their difficult jobs more difficult. Our profession is already struggling to recruit and retain teachers and this is only making it worse.

I finally replied to my new acquaintance, smiling firmly, "I resent you accusing me of indoctrinating children." I went on to tell him that I was proud of the work I do supporting children and their families to learn. And I finished by saying, "When people accuse me of indoctrinating children, it makes me want to punch them in the nose." Still smiling firmly.

Delightfully, people are pushing back. In Utah, the Bible was recently banned in schools based on a parent complaint due to its vulgarity and violence. People are counter-accusing families of indoctrinating their children to become gun fetishists and mass murderers because of their embrace of guns and the 2nd Amendment. Others are saying that they resent their children being indoctrinated into heterosexuality or Christianity or bigotry. In other words, the blade cuts in both directions.

We have not yet developed a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. ~Doris Lessing

I'm outraged by the current push to ban discussions of historic and systemic racism or gender identity or sexual orientation, but Lessing is not wrong. Although, I would expand her remark in saying that we have not yet developed a system of civilization that is not a system of indoctrination. Personally, I hate and fear guns, but when we ban gun-play in the classroom, for instance, I can't ignore the fact that this is anti-gun indoctrination, or anti-gun grooming if you will. I know many families who are raising their children in the best traditions of their faith and culture, but it's still religious indoctrination. When we expect children to obey rules, to walk in lines, to take turns, to share, to be polite; isn't that also a kind of indoctrination? The current book-banners say they are worried about their children being exposed to pornography, a legitimate concern, even if I disagree with their definition of what that is. I decry the easy access young children today have, through the internet, to the most degrading, dehumanizing, objectifying, and violent forms of porn. Isn't that, ultimately, no different than a pedophile grooming young children?

In other words, one person's indoctrination is another person's teaching. And maybe, looked at that way, teaching and indoctrination are the same thing.

For most of human existence individual civilizations tended to be fairly homogeneous. Everyone in a particular village, for instance, worshipped the same gods, agreed to the same values, and raised their children with the same expectations. Sure there were exceptions, but the historical record shows that heretics were generally treated quite severely and if one was to survive as an alien in those societies, one had to at least adopt the local customs, to at least appear indoctrinated in the name of survival. 

Today, however, those of us in Westernized nations live in multi-cultural societies that include, and attempt to embrace, competing and contradictory ideas about pretty much everything. Scholar and author Charles Taylor writes in his book A Secular Age that for the first time in history "a purely self-sufficient humanism" has become a widely available option. Our experiment in democratic governance of a multi-cultural society is truly an experiment. We've been at it for centuries, but it's still a recent and unproven theory about how humans can live together in freedom and equality. The jury is still clearly still out on whether or not we can make it work. We remain far from a perfect union.

I've spent my "teaching" career as a play-based educator. What that has always meant to me is that I don't have the right to actually teach anything to anyone. I've always seen my role as a facilitator of environments in which children and their parents are free to explore, create, think, and discover, which is to say, to learn. I've always tried to leave my agenda at the door, all the while knowing the impossibility of fully doing that. My opinions and views will inevitably leak into the classroom even if it's just through the simple act of living my own truth. The same could be said of the children's families and the wider community in which we all live. Of course, I will always answer children's specific questions, but I also strive to make sure I state the answers as honestly as possible, which typically involves some version of: "This is what I think, but others think differently."

A boy once asked me about the planet Pluto. In my response, I mentioned that some people don't think it's an actual planet, to which he responded, "Some picky scientists don't think it's a planet, but I do." The specific words he used told me that someone in his life (actually I knew it was his grandfather) had taught him, or rather indoctrinated him, into this opinion. 

Many of us are justifiably outraged by the attacks on our profession, on us personally, around this whole idea of indoctrination, but like with Lessing, they are not entirely wrong: it is, looked at one way, all indoctrination. So is teaching that 1 + 1 = 2. So is saying "please" and "thank you." So is the whole concept of race or gender. We temper it with the word "teaching," we excuse ourselves with the idea that "it's for their own good" or because we know, in our hearts, it is the right thing to teach them. But at the end of the day, we are all attempting to indoctrinate one another all the time. It is, in fact, one of the things that makes us human.

I have little doubt that this current indoctrination craze will finally fall apart of its own absurdity, but in the meantime, blood will boil, including my own. We will never awaken to a day in which we all agree -- on anything -- yet we still must seek to live together. As an educator, I don't see my role as overtly teaching any specific code or creed, but at the same time I know that even the choices I make as to what toys I'll provide will in some way be an indoctrination, even if I wish it wasn't so.

All this said, the vast majority of our attempts to indoctrinate fail, just as most of what traditional teachers try to teach is forgotten after the test. If indoctrination worked, we would have a world of children, and adults, who were uncompromisingly polite, physically fit, industrious, and agreeable. If indoctrination worked, the words of our gods, governments, and parents would be strictly followed. If indoctrination actually worked, we would be living in someone's version of paradise.

Our imperfect system, our grand experiment, seems to be successful in creating a society in which there is always an alternative when the one being presented doesn't serve us. That is, I think, the legacy of Taylor's "self-sufficient humanism." For better or worse, there will always be someone, intentionally or not, who will show you that there may be another way to look at things, and ultimately that is the antidote to indocrination.

Of course, that's just my opinion today. You likely feel differently. Let's talk. Let's listen. Let's agree. Let's disagree.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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