This is my last post, at least for a while, on indoctrination. Commenter Sabio has challenged me to think more deeply about what indoctrination means, for which I am greatly thankful (please see our exchange in the comments of my first post on indoctrination).
As a result of my rethink, I’m focusing my efforts on children, and on a particular type of indoctrination. Indeed, I’d like to begin by getting rid of the word “indoctrination” altogether. Instead, I’m going to use the word “habituation” which, in the context of raising children, I define as follows:
Habituation is the teaching of a belief in such a way that it will be incorporated unquestioningly into the child’s worldview.
When habituation is in the best interests of the child
There are some practices we all need to employ in order to thrive in modern social settings. In particular, we need to
1. Uphold certain basic moral principles (for example, murder, theft, and rape are wrong).
2. Have a reasonable grasp of social etiquette.
The beliefs we hold in addition to these fundamental practices are less critical to our well-being. These include religious and political beliefs. Any of a diverse range of often conflicting religious and political beliefs can be held by thriving members of society. Conversely, the range of etiquettes and basic moral outlooks that permit a person to thrive in a particular society are much narrower.
We can therefore conclude that there is much greater danger to the well-being of those individuals who modify or abandon their basic moral beliefs and social etiquette than there is to those individuals who modify or abandon their political or religious beliefs.
This is not, of course, the case everywhere in the world. In the west, it is possible for someone to modify her stance on certain rules of social etiquette without any serious repercussions, while in parts of the Arab world, someone who changes her religious beliefs may do so at great personal peril.
In the discussion that follows, then, I will direct my attention to the west, where a person’s well-being is put in much greater danger by a modification or rejection of basic moral principles (especially those upheld by her legal system) than by a modification or rejection of religious or political beliefs. Social etiquette probably lies between these extremes.
Let us now consider a parent faced with raising a child in western society. One of the primary duties of the parent is to ensure that her child grows up reasonably happy and well adjusted. Given the above discussion, this requires, at minimum, that the child have a solid appreciation of basic morality, and to be reasonably well skilled in social etiquette. No child will be happy for long if he believes that murder is a good thing or that defecating on the sidewalk is socially acceptable.
It also follows that it is much less important for a child to grow up holding any particular religious or political worldview.
The point of this part of the post, then, is that there are certain beliefs which a parent is justified in habituating her children to. Put differently, there are certain beliefs which, if abandoned by the child at any stage of his young or adult life, would put him in real physical or psychological danger. As argued above, these critical beliefs are restricted to basic morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, aspects of social etiquette.
Now, I believe I’m being quite lenient toward the concept of habituation here. It should not strictly be necessary to prevent a child from questioning a belief if suitable answers to those questions are available. In other words, there is no harm in allowing a child to question basic moral principles or habits of social etiquette provided convincing answers in favor of those beliefs are at hand. What this really boils down to is whether the parent (1) has a good grasp of the arguments in favor of these beliefs and (2) trusts her child to respond to those arguments. It seems to me that any good parent should meet the first requirement. The second requirement depends more on the age and personality of the child.
But let us proceed under the assumption that habituation is acceptable when it comes to basic moral beliefs and social etiquette, the two areas which pose the greatest risk to the child who chooses to modify or reject them.
When habituation is in the best interests of the parent
If I am correct in claiming that a diverse range of religious and political worldviews can be held by individuals in western society with relatively little chance of negative repercussions to their well-being, then it follows that habituating a child to any particular religious or political worldview is mostly unnecessary.
Indeed, it may be argued that the freedom to determine one’s own religious and political views is something that contributes positively to a person’s well-being, implying that the use of this freedom ought to be encouraged in any child who is capable of it.
This points to an important skill that the parent interested in her child’s well-being should teach. If a child is to become independent, and therefore make his own decisions about religion, politics, and other aspects of life, he must have the appropriate critical thinking skills.
I would even go so far as to say that a person will remain a child as long as he lacks critical thinking skills, no matter his biological age. The life of a child is the life of someone under the thrall of authority, whose decisions are made, or at least strongly limited, by someone else. This is why life under dictatorship can be so demoralizing: adult citizens are treated by their government as children. The theme of parent and child has occurred in several authoritarian situations in history. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il comes to mind, as does the parent-child language in various religious traditions.
Now I must emphasize that critical thinking skills are not necessary for a basic level of well-being, at least not to the extent that basic moral behavior is. Children can be very happy without critical thinking skills.
The point I’m making here is that it is not usually in the best interests of the child to habituate him to any particular religious or political worldview (given that he has already been habituated to basic moral behavior and social etiquette). Instead, it is in the child’s best interests to train him to make religious and political decisions for himself.
Thus, for example, a parent might be justified in habituating her child to the idea that stealing is wrong, and that we must be polite to other people, but she is not justified in habituating her child to the idea that Jesus is the son of God and died for our sins.
How, then, should parents proceed?
In the light of the above discussion, is it wrong for parents to favor one religious or political worldview over another when raising their children? I don’t think so. What’s more important is how exactly parents go about it. It is only wrong, I believe, for parents to habituate their children to one particular religious or political viewpoint. To instill that viewpoint in such a way that the child is almost certain to incorporate it into his worldview without question.
At this point, I return to the list of criteria for indoctrination that I gave in my first post on the subject. I’d like to tailor this list to the more focused subject of habituation in children.
Habituation is not likely to succeed if time is short. The following two criteria must therefore be met:
1a. Start reinforcing the desired worldview as early as possible. The younger the child, the more impressionable he is likely to be.
1b. Reinforce the desired worldview over as long a period as possible, preferably over several years.
Habituation cannot take place if the child has doubts and questions. To prevent these from arising, or to put an end to them when they do arise, the following techniques might work:
2a. Characterize doubt and questioning as weaknesses.
2b. Take a pejorative attitude toward alternative worldviews and the people who hold them. A child is less likely to doubt her own worldview if the alternatives are unattractive.
2c. Conversely, lavish praise on the desired worldview and the people who hold it. Don’t simply present arguments in favor of the worldview, but actively praise it and its various components. Suggest to the child that people who hold the worldview are better than other people.
2d. Suggest to the child that if she does not uphold the desired worldview, her role models will be ashamed of her.
2e. If possible, ensure that the child mixes socially only with people who hold the desired worldview.
Keep in mind that this list applies to the habituation of basic morals, social etiquette, and religious and political beliefs. Thus far, I have argued that habituation of basic morals and social etiquette are, at least to some extent, in the best interests of the child, and therefore morally permissible. Criteria 1a and 1b, for instance, may be necessary to instill in a child a basic sense of morality and good social etiquette.
However, I find it hard to put my support behind all of the remaining criteria – those whose intent is to quell questioning and doubt. Most of them are either dishonest or unnecessarily manipulative. The only clear exception is 2e: when it comes to basic morals and social etiquette, it is in the child’s best interests to mix with like-minded individuals. As Sabio points out, no parent wants his child mixing with drug addicts. Criterion 2d might also be marginally acceptable, but it still smacks of emotional manipulation.
Habituation – we all do it
My conclusion, as it has been all along, is that certain (not all) religious traditions encourage parents to employ many of the above habituation methodologies. Often, basic morality is wrapped up within the religious tradition itself. This means that justified habituation (i.e. the habituation of basic morality) often provides a piggy-back ride to unjustified habituation (the inculcation of particular religious beliefs). Many religious parents, because of their mistaken belief in the religious origins of morality, fail to see the distinction between the two.
But many atheists undoubtedly habituate their children too. There are probably atheist parents out there who belittle Christianity in front of their children, or who discourage their kids from mixing with Christian friends. On the other hand, I doubt that many atheist parents discourage doubt and questions, whereas many religious traditions preach just such a message (I’m reminded of the song I was taught in Sunday School as a young lad many, many years ago: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”)
My closing remark, then, is to encourage all parents to avoid the tools of habituation wherever possible. They may be warranted in some cases, but I think we’re better off encouraging – and honestly answering – questions, than suppressing them altogether. And if we don’t have suitable answers to our child’s questions, then perhaps we need to take a second look at what we’re teaching them.