You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A word cloud featuring the words "indoctrination" and related words, with "indoctrination" in the largest text, following by words including "propaganda," "concept," "control," and many other words.

As a leader in higher education, I have obviously been following the growing discussion related to the impact of what is taught at our institutions on student beliefs. There are two statements in this discussion I find particularly interesting. First, in a number of places, including legislation in Texas and a letter signed by the presidents of the Florida College System, it is stated universities should not be “compelling” students to believe certain theories or adopt certain beliefs.

I must admit that I am lost on how we could “compel” anyone to believe anything. Even if we could somehow force a person to say they believe something, or even if a student might say something for a grade, that does not mean they really believe it. In fact, we know the act of forcing someone to say they believe something they do not is much more likely to result in them becoming more committed to their current beliefs than it is to result in any change in beliefs. Compelling students to believe something is simply impossible for universities to do.

The second common statement in this discussion argues universities must stop “indoctrinating” students. This also completely misunderstands both human beings and the educational process, particularly in higher education. While many of us would argue faculty do not actually have the goal of indoctrinating students, even if you believe university faculty are trying to do this, it would be extremely difficult. As a faculty member, I only have 37.5 contact hours with students in each of my classes, and frankly that is not anywhere close to enough time to indoctrinate a group of diverse-minded students. Many students likely spend as much time on social media and watching television in just a week or two.

In fact, societies that have been effective in using educational systems to indoctrinate people have had to significantly limit or completely eliminate access to these other sources of information. Students also spend far more time talking with friends and family during the academic year. As you look closely at the life of the typical college student, it is easy to see we are unlikely to have the most influence on their beliefs simply because our time with these students is very limited compared to other influencers.

Even if we had more time, it is important to recognize people are generally highly resistant to changing previously held beliefs. For example, in my class on intercollegiate athletics, I discuss that, contrary to popular belief, most college athletic programs do not make money for the university and actually lose money. This is not my opinion or theory but is a fact that comes directly from National Collegiate Athletic Association data. For many years, I had a true/false question on my midterm that said, “Most athletic departments are profitable and directly provide money to support their universities.” This is clearly false, but most students would get it wrong. When going over the midterm, I would tell the students that most got it wrong, why it was wrong (again) and that the question would be back on the final. And, you guessed it, a large percentage would still get it wrong on the final.

This did not occur because my students were lacking intelligence. They have generally been quite successful after leaving my classroom. Instead, this demonstrates how once a belief is entrenched in an individual’s mind, it is very hard to change even when they are presented with indisputable facts. So, you can imagine how hard it is to get them to believe any new opinion or theory. In fact, surveys have found most students change their core beliefs very little, if at all, during their time in college.

Not surprisingly, we have plenty of evidence U.S. educational institutions have never been successful at indoctrinating students. My friends from high school and college prove this to me on social media every day. While there are certainly some with whom I agree, there are many whose beliefs on a wide range of issues could not be more different than mine even though we sat in the same classrooms with the same faculty. If U.S. educational institutions were effective at indoctrinating students, this should not have happened.

In most cases, our beliefs are much more impacted by our families, which, if you think about the amount of time we spend with them, is not very surprising. For those who have different views from their family, we often find close friends and peers have the strongest influence on beliefs, which for the same reasons is not that surprising. So, if a student comes back from college with new or different beliefs, it is often peer interactions (which total far more than 37.5 hours), not a faculty member’s class, which had the largest impact. I have seen this with my own children, and it is also consistent with recent surveys indicating students care much more about their peers’ perspectives of their beliefs than they do about the views of faculty.

This is not to say nothing that happens in a classroom can influence someone’s beliefs. In those 37.5 hours in my class, students are presented with a wide range of facts, reasoned opinions and theories—and there are times when this information may modify or change their beliefs. Even though we are generally resistant to it, we can all probably think of at least one time we have changed our beliefs when we learned new information. However, this is not indoctrination. Students can determine for themselves which information should cause them to change their beliefs, which reinforces current beliefs and which should not impact those beliefs at all.

Again, based on approximately 30 years as a faculty member and the surveys cited earlier, the first of these is the least likely to happen. However, when a change does occur, it is because the student changed their beliefs willingly based on their own assessment of the information provided in class, not because we had the power to compel this change or to indoctrinate them.

Finally, it is important to note that arguing for a position that is the opposite of what you believe is a common and useful educational exercise. I frequently had this experience many years ago when I was a student and always found it valuable. One of the most important things a student can learn is to understand the arguments of the other side; in fact, the best way to make an intelligent argument against the beliefs of others is to fully understand their beliefs. So, asking students to make an argument in support of any theory or position on an issue is not indoctrinating them. It is a long-valued educational exercise and—while it is possible it will result in students changing or modifying their beliefs—experience suggests it often does not and may actually harden the beliefs they started with.

In conclusion, people are arguing across the United States that we must stop compelling beliefs and indoctrinating students, even though these have never been the goals of U.S. higher education institutions—and certainly have never been achievable even if they were the goals. Teaching students to think critically and to understand both sides of any issue is, as it should be, the goal.

However, the only way for this to happen is to discuss with students different theories and views on a wide range of issues. I know I am not alone in fearing we are in danger of limiting what is presented and discussed with students, thereby taking away from them the opportunity to decide for themselves what they believe. What is particularly frustrating is we may lose a valuable aspect of higher education in the U.S. to stop something from happening that is not actually happening—and could not happen in any case.

Dan Mahony is president of Southern Illinois University System and a professor with expertise in college sports and athletics administration.

Next Story

Written By

More from Views