What’s the difference between education and indoctrination?
We have been arguing about this question since the emergence of public schooling in the mid-nineteenth century. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that charges of indoctrination are essential ammunition in the culture wars currently rending our public schools. “We need to be educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them with ideology.” So said Ron DeSantis when the Florida Board of Education voted to ban critical race theory from K-12 schools last year. In a separate statement, touting the benefits of the Stop WOKE Act, DeSantis declared, “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”
The late educational philosopher Kieran Egan observed that we use the term indoctrination whenever children are taught ideas, beliefs and values that conflict with our own. It’s a pattern with a long history, reaching back to the emergence of “common schools” in the 1840s. Horace Mann—first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education—and other leaders of the common school movement were terrified by the prospect of sectarian religious divides and partisan politics blowing up what was a fragile new experiment in universal education at public expense.
“If parents find that their children are indoctrinated into what they call political heresies, will they not withdraw them from the school?” Mann fretted in 1848. “And, if they withdraw them from the school, will they not resist all appropriations to support a school from which they derive no benefit?”
Mann’s solution to the problem of indoctrination was for teachers and schools to remain scrupulously nonpartisan and nonsectarian. Students would receive instruction in the “great essentials of political knowledge,” including the Constitution, the three branches of government and elections, but any and all “political proselytism” would be forbidden.
In terms of religion, Mann affirmed the public school system “earnestly inculcates all Christian morals.” “[The] Bible,” he said, “is in our Common Schools, by common consent.” At the same time, Mann declared schools are not “Theological Seminaries,” nor should they “act as an umpire between hostile religious opinions.” On the dangers of injecting doctrinal disputes into public schools, Mann explained:
This year, the ordinance of baptism is inefficacious without immersion; next year one drop of water will be as good as forty fathoms. … the fiercest party spirit will rage and all the contemplations of heaven be poisoned by the passions of the earth.
Rather than wade into esoteric theological debates, the Common School would convey “universal” religious truths such as “the existence of God, the Creator of all things” and the “immortality of the soul.” Public schools likewise instilled “Christian virtues,” including piety, industry, frugality and temperance. Popular textbooks such as the McGuffey Readers contained nondenominational religious lessons and prayers such as “Creation of the World,” “Praise to God” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” They also featured homespun parables with titles like “An Early Riser,” “Honesty Rewarded” and “Waste Not, Want Not.”
Mann’s lowest-common-denominator approach to religion in public schools may have been informed by his own religious upbringing and his shift away from the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of his parents to a kinder, gentler Unitarianism. When Mann was fourteen, his older brother Stephen drowned after skipping a Sunday church service to swim in a local pond. The family minister devoted his eulogy to castigating Stephen for profaning the Sabbath, proclaiming that his future life would be one of eternal damnation.
It was harsh, uncompromising views like these that Mann wanted to keep out of public schools. Controversial topics—the “hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that agitate our community,” in his words—were to be avoided at all costs. Mann worried that if “the tempest of political strife were to be let loose upon our Common Schools,” public education would devolve into “gladiatorial contests” among “hostile partisans.” Everything from the election of school board members to the selection of textbooks would be contentious. Town meetings would become tinderboxes, prone to “fierce combustion” with intense, devouring flames. When Mann wrote these words in 1848, he would have already witnessed tremendous upheaval and controversy in public schools across the northeast, including a deadly riot in Philadelphia. He may not have wanted to admit it, but the tempest was already raging.
Even before the 1845 potato blight spurred massive migration from Ireland, the Irish made up a significant proportion of the foreign-born population in the United States. From 1820 to 1840, about one in three immigrants to the United States hailed from Ireland. They were greeted with fierce anti-Irish sentiment fomented by the Protestant establishment. The genteel version referred to Irish immigrants as degraded, ignorant and in thrall to Catholic bishops in Rome. The popular press, meanwhile, presented vicious caricatures of the Irish “Paddy” who looked like, in the words of one historian, “a cross between monstrous ape and primitive man.”
For the chattering classes of the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish presented an existential threat to American democracy. They saw a basic conflict between the centralized, supreme authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the practice of republican government. As historian Kevin Kenny posed the question: “Would these new Americans be loyal to the United States or to Rome?” (Some beliefs die hard. When JFK ran for president more than a century later, there were fears that he would be taking orders from the Vatican.)
In the fledgling public schools of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Catholics found that the ostensibly nonsectarian common-school curriculum was in fact steeped in Protestantism. Students recited Protestant prayers, sang Protestant hymns and read the King James Bible. (The Douay-Rheims Bible, preferred by Catholics, was nowhere to be found.) Moreover, textbooks consistently denounced “popery,” a synonym for Roman Catholicism, which Catholics themselves viewed as a term of “insult and contempt.”
What Mann had perceived as a safely nondenominational pedagogy was not seen that way by all who were subjected to it. In 1840, the influential bishop John Hughes, nicknamed “Dagger John” for his sharp-elbowed temperament, made the following announcement in an open letter to the City of New York: “We are unwilling to pay taxes for the purpose of destroying our religion in the minds of our children.” In a petition written to the New York Board of Aldermen that same year, New York’s Catholic community lamented that the Catholic children who attended public schools “become intractable, disobedient, and even contemptuous towards their parents.” Petitioners drew attention to a particular passage from one popular textbook that matter-of-factly reported on “deceitful Catholics.” With this kind of “matter prejudicial to the Catholic name and character” pervading the school curriculum, the petitioners could not in good conscience entrust their children to the public schools.
A group of New York Methodists responded in short order to the Catholic petition, arguing that it would be a grave mistake to invest the city’s Roman Catholics with the power to select school textbooks, as they would look to bishops abroad, even the Pope himself, to weigh in on which books were appropriate. “We were content,” the Methodists wrote about the Catholics, “with their having excluded us, ‘ex cathedra,’ from all claim to heaven, for we were sure they did not possess the keys.” But investing them with the power to determine the public-school curriculum—subject to the “censorship of a foreign potentate”—was wholly unacceptable.
This war of words between Catholics and Protestants on the subject of public schools exploded into real violence in Philadelphia in the spring of 1844. Allegations that Catholic residents wanted to remove the King James Bible from the city’s schools led to widespread rioting, with pitched battles between Protestants and Irish Catholics on the streets of Philadelphia featuring stones, torches, sabers and muskets. At least fifteen Philadelphia residents died in the fighting. Dozens of homes and two Catholic churches were razed to the ground. Two months later, at the Fourth of July parade, Protestants marched with banners proclaiming “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of a Republican Government” and “The Bible is the basis of Education.”
Religion was not the only divisive topic in public education during this period. In Southern schools, abolitionism was also a massive bugaboo. Politicians and public school leaders in the South alleged that teachers and schoolmasters from the North were poisoning the minds of their children with abolitionist teachings. These “itinerant ignoramuses” were so full of “guile, fraud, and deceit,” according to the Richmond Examiner, that “the deliberate shooting of one of them … should always be deemed perfectly justifiable.” Why, a commentator wrote in DeBow’s Review, should the next generation be “taught doctrines which are in direct conflict with what we now believe?”
This question—why parents and taxpayers should support public schools that teach content that conflicts with their most cherished beliefs—has reverberated across the decades, sometimes registering only as a faint echo and sometimes, such as today, resounding at top volume.
In different times and places, parents and citizens of all backgrounds and political orientations have accused public schools of indoctrinating their children. In the past century, however, white religious conservatives have been the loudest, most well-organized contingent. You can track this conservative culture wars movement from opposition to the teaching of evolution in the 1920s and campaigns against “Un-American” textbooks in the 1950s to crusades against sex education in the 1970s and today’s anti-CRT campaigns.
This rolling conservative backlash to a public education system that supposedly undermines “traditional” values and beliefs has always been informed by a parents-know-best orientation. The architect of the most recent backlash, Christopher Rufo, has cannily framed today’s fight to take back the schools around parents’ rights. At a Forsyth County, Georgia school board meeting last year, one parent testified: “If you have materials that you’re providing where it says if you were born a white male, you were born an oppressor, you are abusing our children.”
Emphatic claims like this are the stock-in-trade for conservative culture warriors, and it is true that grandstanding media personalities, politicians and right-wing activists have manufactured most of the controversy surrounding “critical race theory” in schools over the past year. That’s how you end up with someone filing a complaint about a “Civil Rights Heroes” reading unit in Tennessee, under the auspices of the state’s new anti-CRT law. (The complaint alleges that books about the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruby Bridges cause elementary school students to “hate their country, each other, and/or themselves.”) Indeed, it is tempting to simply dismiss all such concerns as being products of residual ignorance or bigotry; and that is what most of us liberals and progressives have done.
And yet, beyond all of the noise, there is a signal that is worth paying attention to. It pertains to a discomfort with the model of antiracism most closely associated with Ibram Kendi, or what I call Antiracism, Inc. The bible of the Antiracism, Inc. enterprise is Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, a runaway bestseller that has shaped DEI and antiracist initiatives in nonprofits, corporations and schools across the country. From my own research on American educational trends, it is clear that Antiracism, Inc. has been embraced by schools of education and is quickly gaining traction in public K-12 schools through trainings, teacher professional development and the implementation of antiracist curricular materials.
The debate about whether CRT is taught in schools has been maddening—and is ultimately a red herring. Schoolchildren are as likely to know the names of Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda as they are to know the names of Earl Warren, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter. But many of them will have been introduced to Antiracism, Inc., which is like a cheap, knockoff brand of critical race theory. It’s Antiracism, Inc. that has popularized—and diluted—key CRT concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism. Kendi himself noted that he has “been inspired by critical race theory” and that Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework is “foundational” to his own work.
Conservatives and other skeptics have portrayed antiracism in the Kendi mold as ideological, dogmatic nonsense. They are—alas—spot-on.
According to the Antiracism, Inc. model, people, policies and institutions can always be neatly divided into “racist” and “antiracist” camps. The whole saga of race in the United States is like an epic Marvel movie, with the forces of justice on one side battling the forces of injustice on the other. All you need to do is join the good guys.
This academic year, let’s imagine that my son’s seventh-grade math teacher will be following “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” a recently published antiracist toolkit for teachers, funded in part by the Gates Foundation. Embarking on her “antiracist journey,” my son’s teacher will have learned that standard mathematics instruction is plagued by “the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture” such as “perfectionism,” “worship of the written word” and “objectivity.” In math classrooms, the workbook explains, white supremacy culture manifests whenever “math is taught in a linear fashion,” “rigor is expressed only in difficulty” and grading practices “center what students don’t understand rather than what they do.” To “dismantle” white supremacy in collaboration with her students, my son’s teacher must “identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views”; and “expose students to people who have used math as resistance.”
Or consider Courageous Conversations About Race, a highly influential book for promoting racial equity in schools (now expanded to a consulting company with a much broader purview). Author Glenn Singleton maintains that white folks use “white talk,” which is “task-oriented” and “intellectual,” whereas people of color use “color commentary,” which is “process-oriented” and “emotional.” Like most frameworks under the Antiracism, Inc. umbrella, Courageous Conversations conflates race with culture. In a chapter called “Let’s Talk About Whiteness,” Singleton declares that “Whiteness represents a culture and consciousness that is shared by White people.” The variation within my own extended white family invalidates this absurd, quasi-mystical claim. With all due respect to my evangelical Christian, Trump-supporting relatives in rural Texas, we share neither a culture nor a consciousness.
If standard antiracism training and curricular initiatives were open to any real scrutiny or criticism, their shortcomings and excesses wouldn’t be so concerning. But from what I’ve observed, the basic assumptions that undergird Antiracism, Inc. are rarely up for debate. Antiracism, Inc. lesson plans are highly scripted and proceed as if there are obvious “right” and “wrong” answers for everything from what to call people of Hispanic or Latin American descent (Latinx) to whether affirmative action is wise public policy (it is). In this way, they aren’t so different from the Protestant catechisms taught in the nation’s first common schools.
Kieran Egan, the educational philosopher I mentioned before, said that what distinguishes education from indoctrination is “openness of inquiry.” So here is the diagnostic test: when teachers present ideas, beliefs and values as unquestionable truths, that’s a good sign indoctrination is at work.
By these lights, Antiracism, Inc. bears a stronger resemblance to indoctrination than education. The problem is not, as many on the right contend, that schools “make everything about race.” As I’ve written elsewhere, any social studies or U.S. history curriculum that doesn’t address race and racism is like a biology class that doesn’t include carbon. The problem is that Antiracism, Inc. only approves of one way of thinking and talking about race in the United States. I wouldn’t want my own sons in Antiracism, Inc. classrooms. As racially mixed kids (white father, mother of Asian descent), they wouldn’t even fit into any of the prescribed Antiracism, Inc. identity boxes.
Returning to culture-wars territory, the claim that “our public schools are full of … teachers who abuse their positions of trust to engage in political activism and political indoctrination,” as Kevin Williamson wrote earlier this year in the National Review, strikes me as an insulting exaggeration. Based on my personal experience and professional knowledge as an educational-studies scholar, the overwhelming majority of public-school teachers are much more interested in helping students develop their critical thinking skills than in brainwashing them. Even so, to the extent that Antiracism, Inc. takes hold in schools, it makes classroom indoctrination more likely. Liberals and progressives shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge this.
Conservative politicians have hit dizzying heights of hypocrisy in responding to indoctrination—real or perceived—in public schools. While railing against cancel culture, nineteen red states have passed anti-CRT laws or regulations that directly restrict what can be said in a classroom. As outlined in a report published by UCLA earlier this year, these laws are creating a “newly hostile environment for discussing issues of race, racism, and racial inequality.” How can public schools possibly serve as training grounds for citizenship if teachers have to avoid “controversial” questions about public policies and current events?
An especially corrosive feature of these bills is how they erode trust in public education itself. The bills introduced this year, as PEN America documents, have been “strikingly more punitive,” including “heavy fines or loss of state funding for institutions” and “termination or even criminal charges for teachers.” This is bad news, to put it mildly, for those of us who see public education as the cornerstone of our democracy. The assault on public education by some on the right only reinforces my belief that liberal critiques of public schooling must be constructive—we can air our concerns, while simultaneously supporting teachers and championing public education as an essential public good.
Horace Mann got it dreadfully wrong that public schools could somehow avoid getting caught up in partisan politics. In our pluralistic, democratic society, there will always be fierce battles about public schools, from how they are funded to what they teach. But I think Mann was onto something when he stressed that teachers should not act as proselytizers. Students, and here I’m paraphrasing former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, should be encouraged not just to answer every question but also to question every answer. Public education, at its best, gives students the foundation of knowledge and skills to make up their own minds.
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