Hard Indoctrination, Soft Indoctrination, and the Books that Change Us

Indoctrination is not just about a radical professor abusing the classroom.

There are few problems as misrepresented or misunderstood as that of indoctrination in American schools. I went through my own schooling as a “progressive” undergraduate and wrote a 90-page thesis on indoctrination blasting David Horowitz for his claims about professorial practices at my alma mater, Ball State University (BSU.) I am writing about it now, after having had second thoughts and joining the Freedom Center’s Academic Freedom Campaign.

Looking back at my own education from the vantage point of four post-graduate years in the university of the Real World, I must re-ask myself: Did I experience indoctrination as an undergraduate political science and English double-major at BSU? Once, my answer would have been an adamant “No.” My professors were professional. None subordinated their teaching to their politics or attempted in a blatant fashion to impose their prejudices on their students. Many went out of their way to argue contrary views and even preface their remarks with,“Now understand that just because I argue a point it does not mean I believe it.” I was never assigned neo-communist propagandist Howard Zinn’s obscene A People’s History of the United States or instructed to study it as though it were the Bible.

And it’s partially because of this that when I first met Horowitz I took such issue with what I regarded as a wild caricature of what had been my college experience.

My answer now is different, though. Because after debating the question of what constitutes indoctrination for years, it’s clear that “indoctrination”does not just include the extreme examples that Horowitz frequently used in The Professors, Indoctrination U and One-Party Classroom. (Horowitz’s reason for emphasizing these outrageous cases is not because he ignores the more general problem but because if one cannot grasp the harsh as detestable then the subtle will be all but invisible.) Indoctrination is not just about a radical professor consciously setting out to use (and abuse) the classroom as a platform for changing the world.

There are two kinds of indoctrination students, parents, and everyone concerned with high education should consider, which I will call “hard” and “soft.”

In One-Party Classroom Horowitz defines “indoctrination” in this fashion: “Indoctrination takes place when professors teach a point of view that is contested within the spectrum of scholarly or intellectually responsible opinion as though it were scientific fact.” He then admonishes: “Professors should make their students aware that such opinions are contested, and must not teach their point of view as though it were fact. Students should be provided with materials that would allow them to draw their own conclusions about contested positions.”

This is a definition I embrace and would have accepted if it had been put in front of me when I was an undergraduate. (Unfortunately, Horowitz was presented by people I trusted then as a McCarthyite trying to control academic thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.) Now lets refine it to understand the differences in varieties of indoctrination.

In cases of hard indoctrination the professor himself is a willing abuser of the academic classroom and traducer of students’ academic freedom. He sets out to indoctrinate students and to recruit them to his political cause. He takes a page from Italian Stalinist Antonio Gramsci’s playbook and sees the university as a “means of cultural production” that must be captured for the revolutionary agenda. He decides that he will utilize his classroom as a political tool. The purpose of his teaching is not to promote an academic inquiry and inculcate an intellectual curiosity and scholarly skepticism. His goal is to to fix the world by instilling a “progressive” sensibility and perspective in his captive student audience.  Hard indoctrination is an entirely conscious choice. It is indoctrination by malice.

By contrast, in cases of soft indoctrination the fault is one of omission and the academic culture itself is the main instigator of the trend, the very absence of conservatives on university faculties is a dramatic symptom of the problem. Professors who practice soft indoctrination do so largely unconsciously and would never think of forcing their students to make their political views match their own. The professor’s fault is to weight his course with leftist or “liberal” texts and either fail to give adequate time to conservative views or treat them with a comparable respect as a legitimate point of view with which he may not agree. Horowitz has discussed the case of one such professor in a recent article, “How Bad is the Indoctrination in our Colleges?” This professor discussed the liberal Warren Court’s transformative decisions without adequately presenting the conservative and libertarian objections. By and large this is indoctrination by ignorance and misdirection.

Looking back at my own education, the syndrome that Horowitz discusses in this article is entirely common. Yesterday I pulled one of my English major textbooks off my bookshelf – Falling IntoTheory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature by David H. Richter – and flipped through the table of contents. I noticed several names stood out with fading yellow highlighter behind them: Helen Vendler, Gerald Graff, Terry Eagleton, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Janice Radway, Alan Purves. In other words: mostly Marxists and neo-Marxist radicals. Himmelfarb, a well-known neoconservative, is the single exception.

Did my professor consciously victimize me and my classmates by assigning us this series of texts? I don’t think so. But that does not mean he could not have provided a much better educational experience if he had not been burdened by the pieties of the Left and its dominance of his discipline. Is bell hooks with her mantras about America’s alleged white supremacist capitalist patriarchy really a vital voice for undergraduate English majors to be exposed to in order to learn how to analyze texts? Is she really consequential? Or is she actually there because she’s a black woman expressing chic, leftist dogmas?

In assigning this book and these readings my professor was pretty accurately introducing me to the culture of literary studies at the collegiate level. This is what he had to work with. Gramsci has triumphed: Marxism has thoroughly embedded itself within the discipline, as it has virtually all of the liberal arts in Academia. Thus, a soft indoctrination is an inevitability. One cannot prepare to become a professor of English without reading a lot of Marxist texts. That’s what the field has been transformed into over the course of the last 40 years.

So what’s to be done about it?

Dealing with soft indoctrination is in many ways easier than the hard variety. And here’s why: in the university the student has tremendous freedom in shaping his education. In the writing of papers and the selection of texts to read the student is able to introduce authors of his own choosing into the discussion. Professors who fall into the soft indoctrination category might not bring conservative texts into the discussion on their own but given their commitment to scholarly inquiry most are unlikely to aggressively oppose them as a hard indoctrinating instructor might.

In fact under the canonical documents of academic freedom, professors are obligated to require  texts presenting “divergent opionions” that challenge the classroom orthodoxy. Here’s what  the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure – the most important statement of academic freedom principles – has to say on the subject:

“The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.”

So my advice to students: if the reading list is one-sided or excludes views that dissent from the leftwing orthodoxy bring this statement to the attention of your professor and ask him to introduce intellectual diversity into his curriculum. If he refuses, take it upon yourselves to widen the range of the classroom debate.

This is the first step in what will be a generational struggle to restore educational values to the academic curriculum. If students can open the curriculum to diverse views now they will do it when they’re the professors and administrators decades hence. The goal is not to make the liberal arts conservative, but to make them truly liberal, again – apolitical, skeptical, and non-ideological. This is a task that may take a long time, but in the process of attempting it you may just get yourself a quality education.

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this article, I will discuss my transformation from a college leftist to a postmodern conservative working for the Freedom Center. I will also provide a summary of  the books that were instrumental in driving this change that has so baffled my friends, family, and former professors. Hopefully some of these texts might prove useful suggestions for conservative students looking to brighten the debate in classrooms darkened by the shadow of soft indoctrination.