Teaching around the Paradox of Indoctrination

In the latest issue of Educational Theory, 58(2), Chris Hanks examines the “paradox of indoctrination” faced by educators in their efforts at teaching.

…if indoctrination means instilling beliefs without reasons, and if children lack the rational capacity to evaluate reasons, how can that capacity be cultivated without indoctrination? Some educational theorists have relied on a transcendental justification of rational autonomy that avoids indoctrination, while others have accepted that some indoctrination is inevitable, focusing instead on defending acceptable forms of indoctrination. In this essay, Chris Hanks draws on a conception of rationality, mind, and nature developed by John McDowell to suggest an alternative understanding of the relation between indoctrination and autonomy. He argues that McDowell’s notion of the “space of reasons” defuses standard debates about indoctrination. Here, rationality is understood in both a naturalistic sense, whereby the development of autonomy is the process of being awakened to the space of reasons, and in a sui generis sense, whereby reason cannot be reduced to mechanistic principles or relations. The implications of this view for education point us to the notion of Bildung as the process that cultivates rational autonomy.

If we rephrase the problem — altering it from one of overcoming our students’ “lack of rational capacity to evaluate reasons” (i.e., filling empty heads) to one of instilling an aesthetic among those who have not yet developed their palate (i.e., unveiling hidden beauty) — then it seems Hanks’ argument can be generalized. Adopting a developmental perspective, in which understanding is accepted to emerge gradually, may encourage teachers to celebrate their students’ autonomous approach of whatever they find most interesting. Instead of demanding indoctrination, the goal would rather be to support and sustain active immersion. From this, a critical historical perspective would then emerge as a result of reading beyond the received position.

See also:

  • Burman, J. T. (in press). Experimenting in relation to Piaget: Education is a chaperoned process of adaptation. Perspectives on Science, 16(2). This essay takes – as its point of departure – Cavicchi’s (2006) argument that knowledge develops through experimentation, both in science and in educational settings. In attempting to support and extend her conclusions, which are drawn in part from the replication of some early tasks in the history of developmental psychology, the late realist-constructivist theory of Jean Piaget is presented and summarized. This is then turned back on the subjects of Cavicchi’s larger enquiry (education and science) to offer a firmer foundation for future debate. Several of Piaget’s “forgotten works” are discussed; their theoretical contributions synthesized to form a single interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating narrative describing how it is that both children and scientists grow into the world. (In addition, translated excerpts from two related historical documents have been provided in an appendix, while detailed footnotes add further context and integrate the discussion with current advances in related fields.)

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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