Sunday, May 13, 2012

There is no good indoctrination

Well, I didn’t have much luck getting the panelists on bullying to respond to my concerns about the potential for anti-bullying interventions to be counterproductive and to model some of the same traits they are trying to discourage. The goal of reducing bullying is a good one, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every proposal to address it is a good one. Discussions about bullying are always well-meaning, but they often seem to proceed from an unexamined and very questionable premise: that we can mold kids’ values to order simply by telling them, in a sufficiently elaborate and pervasive way, what to think.

At some level, I think everyone perceives the word “indoctrination” to have a negative connotation – that it’s something a free society shouldn’t do, and that it’s the opposite of real education. But many people seem to make an exception when the message that is being indoctrinated is a commendable one (for example, that bullying is bad). That exception, of course, would entirely swallow the rule: people never think the message they are pushing on others is a bad one. The idea is similar to the idea that freedom of speech is great as long the speech isn’t really offensive.

There are good reasons to think that indoctrinatory approaches to behavior and bullying are likely to backfire. First, people naturally resist being told what to think. Second, indoctrination models a dehumanizing way of interacting with people. Our school’s approach to behavior, for example, treats kids as if they are incapable of reaching their own moral conclusions – as if they’re not fully people. I’d be worried about using an approach like that to discourage bullying, which is also a form of dehumanizing people.

I don’t think I’m saying anything very radical. A school can have rules about conduct, and can enforce them. Its administrators and teachers can explain to the students why they have those rules, and they can explain what the school’s values are and why. They can insist that the children follow the rules, but they should stop short of insisting that the children agree with the school on what are, ultimately, value questions. That’s where they cross the line from enforcing rules to indoctrinating minds. And any system of behavioral rules should be accompanied by an effort to get the kids thinking for themselves about right and wrong, without the school dictating right answers, so that the kids aren’t simply learning mindless obedience. (For a thumbnail sketch of what such an approach might look like, see this post.)

If school officials think they can just tell kids what to think about right and wrong, they don’t understand what a conscience is. Unless people are given the freedom to reach their own conclusions about what’s right and wrong, they can’t possibly develop real consciences, since a conscience sometimes requires you to do what’s right even when no one else thinks it’s right. That’s why herding kids into agreeing with the school’s rules and values by subjecting them to pep-rally-like behavior assemblies or having them chant memorized slogans couldn’t be more misguided. If you want people to develop their own moral compasses and to resist peer pressure, you don’t achieve that by appealing to their desire to please authority figures and conform to the crowd.

Bullying is real and has many causes, but many behavior crusaders seem eager to look for sources of bullying everywhere but in their own techniques for addressing it.

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