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Is indoctrination always bad?

All the synonyms for indoctrinate aren’t negative. There’s coach, teach and train. I like those.

But then there's brainwash, program and propagandize. I don't like those.

For the most part, indoctrinate has a bad rep. Its connotation is negative. I know that at my high school, students will fight it as if it’s the Zika virus. They consider themselves too “educated” to be indoctrinated.

Which is good because there is little danger that they’ll end up being one of those bafflingly gullible teenagers whose lives must be so inconceivably hopeless that they’ll submit to the indoctrination of planet poisoning cliques such as ISIS.

But it’s not 100% great. When kids reject all coaching, teaching and training grounded in subjective principles and morals (as opposed to scientific fact), well, that sucks, too.

It sucks because it means no stand is taken. There’s no good or bad. There’s no right or wrong. Everything is acceptable. Anything goes. Everyone’s opinion is valid.

When I have my students make a list of positive universal values, they don’t have a hard time completing the assignment. They come up with compassion, empathy, wisdom, freedom, peace, honesty, forgiveness, work-ethic and love. It’s equally easy for them to compile a list of universal negatives, including cruelty, selfishness, ignorance, slavery, violence, dishonesty, hardheartedness, laziness and hate.

All religions indoctrinate. Is all religious indoctrination bad?

Resistance to indoctrination is understandable given that, worldwide, there are terrible teachers “teaching” (preaching?) destructive lessons. The hateful vile spewed in some Middle-Eastern madrassas is an obvious example.

But does this mean teachers should resist the urge to teach anything with hint of subjectivity? Should we avoid all kinds of inculcation? If we can agree that there are terrible lessons, can we also agree that there are terrific ones?

I understand the con argument. Who gets to decide what’s terrible or terrific? Who am I (Who is anyone?) to say that the universal values are “good” and universal negatives are “bad”? Is the golden rule right? Is human sex trafficking wrong? Is saving an endangered species right? Is killing elephants and rhinos for sport wrong?

Who’s to say?

Me! I’ll say! It’s not OK to sell women. It’s not OK to murder innocent animals for pleasure. There is a wrong way to live. There is a right way to live.

Bob Marley said, “The people who are trying to make the world worse are not taking the day off. Why should I?”

The legendary Bob Marley

So where do we draw the line? What about the shades between obviously right and clearly wrong?

Here’s one I’m struggling with: Many of my students are like Internet trolls. They hunt for the negative. Their urge to criticize (and be “smart”) trumps my lessons’ primary points. It’s an elitist arrogance that troubles me.

After the Paris shootings, instead of wanting to discuss why young people would join a cult that advocates the slaughter of innocents, they wanted to talk about why the Western press gave the Paris massacre more attention than a similar bloodbath in Lebanon. It was a valid issue to discuss, for sure, but not as critical as exploring why kids their age are joining radical hate groups.

When a student sent me this video to share with the class, the class didn’t want to discuss its content or its point. They wanted to criticize the guy who made it. Instead of talking about the issues the videographer raised, they focused on his video’s weaknesses.

After we read Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters (the story behind Toms Shoes), the only student-initiated discussion that came up was a criticism of how Toms is “destroying the African economy.” (A premise that may include a sliver of truth but, again, not the reason I asked students to read the book.) Mycoskie wrote a book about how he and many others who started companies and organizations, warts and all, are out there trying to improve the world. He invites his readers to start something that matters. But, because my students were so intent on ripping the messenger, they missed the message.

I shouldn’t take it personally, though. It’s not just me. And it’s not just my students. They’re an unattractive reflection of today’s world where, as legendary sportscaster Al Michaels put it, “Everybody is looking for the underbelly.”

In his TED talk viewed by close to six million people, esteemed Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, Robert Waldinger shares the story of a 75-year-old Harvard study that leaves us with a simple but (what should be) transformative takeaway: Make friends. Strong social connections = happy and healthy lives. Therefore, Waldinger suggests we make nurturing our relationships our primary priority. Of course, his point and recommendation are derided in the comment section.

Poorly prioritizing – overlooking the important in favor of the petty – isn’t clearly wrong. But it isn’t obviously right, either. And finding fault shouldn’t be the default behavior, but in today’s world it is.

If I point this out to students, if I try to change (improve) their behavior and thinking, am I indoctrinating?

Perhaps. Probably. But so what? A teacher’s job isn’t to accept students as they are. It’s to make them better. Even when – especially when – they don’t think they need to improve.

Just watch, though. In the unlikely event that this post is read by many, more than a few will write that I’m an overzealous martinet, aiming to infiltrate innocent minds with my tyrannical views.

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