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The School: A Perfect Place for Brainwashing?

If our schools functioned as little democracies empowering the individuals who study there and giving them a sense of equality and security there would be no need for spoon-feeding students with dogma.

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We are living today in an era of ideological backlash. If the 1990s have been marked by an upsurge of optimism following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the first decade of the new century is coming to a close with some loud voices clamouring for the Cold War to be brought back. In the 1990s, the few politicians who urged a violent clampdown on immigration and viewed multiculturalism as a deadly sin were called right-wing radicals. Today, their number has increased and some of them are called Presidents and Prime Ministers.

And, as would be inevitable in such times, even in countries that are not known as theocratic regimes or dictatorships, the school is increasingly called to become a place of ideological indoctrination.

The term ‘indoctrination’ itself is seldom used. Instead, education policy makers speak of ‘national identity’ (France, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia), ‘patriotic upbringing’ (Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Serbia) and ‘value education’ (Latvia, Kazakhstan). What these policies, projected or in some cases even implemented by national education systems, have in common, is the element of dogma that the students are expected to imbibe without exercising their critical faculties – which they are otherwise invited to exercise by contemporary pedagogy. The dogma in this case concerns a certain view of the nation, of its past, its values and its culture, which is to be taken for granted by the younger generations. Some scholars have used the term ‘civil enculturation’,[1] but it does not distinguish between state-generated content and the effects of first-hand experiences of life in a community. Being taught that the state is equitable and just does not help if you see racial abuse in the streets, and no white middle-class people are prepared to live in your suburb. The experience of indifference, discrimination and inequality can completely undermine and transform the official message in the textbooks. It makes sense to distinguish between the actual result of ‘value education’ combined with life experience and between the intended, ‘ideal’ message that our states have again decided to project on younger generations. That message can be adequately described as indoctrination.

The history of universal school-based indoctrination is relatively short, as is the history of universal schooling. Before the days when states took it upon themselves to provide free education to all citizens, those who could afford it chose a school for their children from a range of privately organised education services. Those came with their own ideological package – Catholic schools (the oldest in the market, and strongest on indoctrination), English public schools with their unwritten ethos of physical stoicism (‘stiff upper lip’) for the boys who were to run the Empire, military schools for the career-minded in Russia and Prussia. The choice of school was a social choice, it conditioned a student’s future life. Within each country, the choice was limited. One could not aspire to a career in eighteenth-century Vienna if one had attended a Protestant school instead of a Jesuit college. Nor could one hope to find oneself at home in the British establishment before the middle of the twentieth century, unless one had attended a public school. Indoctrination was part of the education package. It was, however, class-based and tradition-based rather than nation-based.

The heyday of indoctrination through education in Europe came with the rise of nationalism which coincided with the advent of universal schooling. Even countries with a fairly decentralised and class-based school system had its share of patriotic indoctrination, while in the most centralised education systems it reigned supreme. Universal schooling was not only a means of creating a French nation out of a mosaic of regions and dialects, it was a mechanism of suppressing the historic variety of the regions and of imposing a single vision of the nations on generations of individuals who otherwise could have perceived it through their own experience.

The ultimate triumph and ultimate failure of school-based indoctrination, however, took place in the school systems of totalitarian states. The ideological content of schooling in Nazi Germany had a relatively brief life, but we have ample evidence from the Soviet school system. That experience attests to the fact that even a very established and formidable indoctrination machine is ultimately powerless when it comes up against social and political realities that disprove its message.

The new search for ‘updated’ formulae of instilling patriotic feelings and national loyalties does not stand up to critical examination even from the fairly conservative positions of republicanism. The new doctrine of ‘national identity’ disregards the distinction between a free patriotism based on attachment to individual political rights that the republic provides, and blind nationalism. As Maurizio Viroli puts it, “for the patriots, the primary value is the republic and the free way of life that the republic permits; for the nationalists, the primary values are the spiritual and cultural unity of the people.”[2]

If our schools had functioned as little democracies empowering the individuals who study there and giving them a sense of equality and security, as the prominent liberal thinker John Dewey had proposed many years ago,[3] there would be no need for spoon-feeding students with dogma. The current policy-makers seem to disregard the formative effect of first-hand experiences of citizenship, equality and participation out of hand. In their view, the return to a unified, state-generated content of ‘values’ is the antidote to globalisation, immigration, home-grown terrorism and moral relativism. Tens of thousands of young people leaving every year in search of a better life in more liberal societies demonstrate the fallacy of ‘patriotic upbringing’ in their home countries, from Kazakhstan to Latvia to Poland. West European policy makers would be wise to learn from this experience, rather than transpose the anxieties over ‘national identity’ to their own education systems and generate similarly meaningless ideological content that life will inevitably prove false.

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[1] W. Schiffauer et al., Civil enculturation: Nation-state, school, and ethnic difference in four European countries, Journal of International Migration and Integration, Volume 1, Number 3 (2000)

[2] Maurizio Viroli, For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995. 2. lp.

[3] Henry A. Giroux, Liberal Arts, Public Philosophy, and the Politics of Civic Courage. Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987). 331.-335.lpp.

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