Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

James’s Second Presentation


The paper James presented was about how to make sense of the idea that indoctrination is, generally speaking, morally wrong.

The authors consider three factors thought to be central to indoctrination: one concerns the method of communicating beliefs and values, the other concerns the content of what is conveyed, and the third concerns the intentions of the person who is doing the conveying. They maintain that indoctrination is wrong because it is incompatible with understanding and with autonomy. Here’s how they put it.

The powerful intuition at the root of the autonomy argument is the idea that people should be free to determine their own lives within wide boundaries set by the rights of others, and that intellectual self-determination (which entails open-mindedness) is intrinsic to that freedom. When someone exploits the asymmetry of power between teacher and learner by instilling close-minded belief, the intellectual self-rule that befits rational beings has been violated. (Callan and Arena 2009, 118)

Our Discussion

Callan and Arena understand indoctrination as involving “some kind of distortion in teaching that produces belief, a distortion liable to induce some corresponding failure in students’ understanding of the relevant subject matter, and the practice is prompted, at least characteristically, by a misplaced or excessive concern on the part of the teacher to inculcate particular beliefs” (2009, 105).

Coleman asked whether that meant that nearly all religious education would have to count as indoctrination. Paskalina said she didn’t think that was an accurate characterization of the thinking of many religious people: their beliefs aren’t systematically distorted and they think that questioning is an important part of their faith.

Paskalina also pointed out the role that beliefs and values play in forming groups. There is a lot of pressure to conform with the beliefs and values of the groups to which you belong and that surely explains a lot of what we think and do. It’s not exactly indoctrination but it can have a similar effect.

Oscar thought that there should be something about action in the definition of indoctrination. The aim of indoctrination, as he sees it, isn’t just to get people to believe things, it’s to get them to act on their beliefs. I think that’s a good point. I suspect that they think they have accommodated it by virtue of the fact that beliefs and actions are closely related. We had some discussion of oddball cases where belief and action could be separated: you have a belief about a rock on Venus that won’t ever impinge on your life on Earth. But I’m not sure how valuable that was for understanding the phenomena James is interested in.

James had a question about the breadth of what is affected by indoctrination. Does indoctrination have to cover a lot of beliefs or just beliefs that are tightly connected to other ones, such as those that concern how we interpret social phenomena? That was his question. I don’t think the group made much headway in answering it. Maybe the answer is “either one!”


Callan, Eamonn, and Dylan Arena. 2009. “Indoctrination.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education, edited by Harvey Siegel, 105–19. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195312881.003.0007.