Ethical Realism

December 27, 2010

Raising Children, Education, and Indoctrination

Are we educating and raising children properly or indoctrinating them? Most people seem to assume that children are educated pretty well, and they assume that they raise their own children pretty well—but almost everyone admits that at least some people indoctrinate their children by using manipulative or disrespectful tactics. Many people worry that parents or educators pass on their beliefs to children no matter how horrible the beliefs are. Many people think it’s wrong for racists to teach their children to be racists, communists to teach their children to be communists, and even religious people to teach their children to have a particular religion.

I will describe indoctrination, argue that indoctrination exists, and argue that indoctrination is wrong.

What is Indoctrination?

Indoctrination is a manipulative method of education (belief creation) imparted by the educator. Indoctrination (or the same manipulative forms of persuasion) is found in propaganda, advertising, so-called “political debates,” and spin. There are different degrees of indoctrination and perfectly good reasoning (and perfectly rational education) is very rare if not impossible. We simply don’t fully understand good reasoning at this time.

Two misconceptions about indoctrination.

There are at least two common misconceptions about indoctrination.

First, indoctrination need not be intentionally manipulative. What one person believes to be a rational argument for a belief (and therefore a non-manipulative form of education) can actually be irrational and disrespectful. A poor education could be the result of good intentions or intentional manipulation. The results are the same either way.

Second, indoctrination has to do with how people are being educated and not the actual content (beliefs and conclusions) being endorsed by the educators. Some people seem to think that indoctrination is imparting false beliefs (socialism, a certain religion, etc.). However, indoctrination is actually about teaching people by using irrational arguments, deception, or ignorance. The result of indoctrination is the formation of irrational or unjustified beliefs rather than “false” ones. It is possible to have true beliefs based on poor reasoning. The fact that people don’t know the difference between good and poor reasoning—or justified and true beliefs—is evidence that people are being indoctrinated because they don’t even have the tools that enable them to know what it takes to have a good belief.

What is poor reasoning?

It’s unreliable methods of belief acquisition, which tends to be reasoning that uses unjustified assumptions. (It can be that we know the assumption(s) are false, but the conclusion reached by the questionable argument could still be true.) Philosophers have long known about poor reasoning and they have cataloged types of poor reasoning as various “fallacies” (errors in reasoning). Another word for poor reasoning is “fallacious reasoning.” The fact that our philosophical and logical education is highly lacking would explain why people tend not to know the difference between good and poor reasoning, and it could explain why indoctrination is so common. The use of “good reasoning” is sometimes called “philosophical thinking” as opposed to “sophistic reasoning” (i.e. poor reasoning). If people can’t think like a philosopher, then we shouldn’t expect them to use good reasoning—and in that case we can’t expect anything other than indoctrination.

Examples of poor reasoning being used to indoctrinate and manipulate include suppressed evidence, appealing to an unqualified authority, appealing to ignorance, anecdotal evidence, and irrational emotional influence.

Suppressed evidence – When we come to a conclusion, we need to make sure that all the viable options are less likely true than the conclusion we reach. For example, creationists must compare their own “scientific theory” to evolution. We should only be creationists if creationism is more likely true than evolution. However, it is common for creationists to reject evolution because of its flaws despite the fact that creationism also has flaws.

Quoting out of context is a form of suppressed evidence because the quote has a different meaning in the context rather than outside of it. For example, if I argue against creationism and say “Suppose creationism is true. In that case there are no transitional animals between humans and other apes, but there seem to be transitional animals of that sort after all.” Someone could quote me out of context as saying, “There are no transitional animals between humans and other apes.”

Quote mining is when someone attempts to find favorable quotes to a conclusion while ignoring unfavorable quotes. The fact that many people—or experts—favor a conclusion could be irrelevant to the conclusion that we believe it when they often disagree.

Quote mining is a version of cherry picking—a biased appeal to “evidence” that appears to confirm a belief while simultaneously excluding all counter-evidence. Cherry picking is a very common form of suppressed evidence because the excluded evidence is being marginalized or ignored.

Even parents and educators who present “arguments” are likely to “indoctrinate” their students when they know little about the relevant alternatives. A parent who teaches their child to be a creationist can’t rationally do so unless they know enough about evolution to know that creationism is a “better theory” than evolution. Arguments against evolution are often based on ignorance of evolution rather than a fair and “charitable” understanding of evolution.

One of the most powerful forms of suppressed evidence is seen in the news media. What the media shows is a statement about what’s important, and what it ignores is a statement about what isn’t. The media has an effect on our thinking and values based on what it chooses to expose and ignore. Often during a war a nation’s news media concentrates on the failings of the “enemy” while ignoring its own failings. I suspect that the media has been inundating us with the failings of our enemies (“Islamic fanatics”) while ignoring the failings of our own people (and military in particular).

Appeal to unqualified authority – If the experts unanimously (or almost unanimously) agree on a topic we are unfamiliar with, then it seems reasonable enough to trust their expertise and believe their conclusions. However, an authority is not qualified to tell us what to believe when the conclusion in question is controversial among the experts (or the authority in question does not have the relevant expertise).

It is common for parents and educators to impart beliefs based on their power or “authority” but this is often a fallacious and deceptive form of reasoning. Parents know enough to teach their children that “1+1=2” and that “hitting is wrong” based on their “expertise” but parents don’t know that their particular religion or ideology is true.

Appeal to ignorance – If we don’t know something, that doesn’t mean that something is true or false. For example, if we don’t know that God doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that believing in God is rational (or the opposite). It can be that there are reasons to believe or disbelieve in God even if we don’t know for certain what the truth is of the matter.

Although superstitious people often use the appeal to ignorance to justify their superstitions (“but you don’t know lots of things are true that you believe!”), even scientifically minded people often use the appeal to ignorance fallacy (“philosophy should be rejected because it encourages people to have beliefs without empirical evidence!”)

Anecdotal evidence – Also called “testimonial evidence.” Anecdotal evidence is when we have an experience that “confirms” a hypothesis or belief. The problem is that there could be alternative beliefs that are being confirmed and other people can have experiences that “disprove” or “falsify” our belief. For example, racists will often take negative experiences involving the immoral behavior of black people to “confirm” their belief that more black people are inherently immoral. This ignores the fact that nonblack people are immoral, many black people are moral, and there can be explanations to immoral behavior other than race.

Anecdotal evidence makes use of suppressed evidence and is taken to be an appeal to “expert testimony” without true expertise being involved.

Irrational emotional influence – Irrational emotional influence and other poor reasoning need not be given in the form of an argument. A parent who is “disgusted” with opposing views has a chance of persuading their child to share a belief based on the “conviction” displayed. A parent who is irritated by questions is likely to get their child to ask less questions. A parent who acts angry with their child’s belief (or acts more withdrawn in response to such a belief) is likely to cause their child to stay silent rather than oppose their parent. And so on.

But we don’t indoctrinate!

Although people tend to accuse others of indoctrination, they rarely admit that they might indoctrinate their own children. Atheists often accuse theists of indoctrinating1, but argue that atheists don’t. Theists often accuse atheists of indoctrinating2, but argue that theists don’t.

Some parents argue that they don’t indoctrinate their own children because their children seem to “think for themselves.” This seems to be based on the ignorant belief that all forms of reasoning are equal. However, not all forms of reasoning are equal. Some beliefs are based on ignorance and prejudice. Parents who teach their children to be racists could use arguments and let their children “think for themselves,” but the child might lack the tools of good reasoning to effectively think for themselves based on good reasoning. Sure, a kid might disagree with their parents sometimes, but that doesn’t prove that they know what good reasoning is. They might disagree with their parents for the wrong reasons.

People are able to think using good reasoning at least sometimes, but not all the time. They might not understand the difference between good and poor reasoning. They might not know when their own beliefs are “well justified.” This is why philosophy and logic are important to learn. We need to know how to differentiate good from poor reasoning so we can use good reasoning on purpose and have a higher chance of discovering when poor reasoning is used.

Some parents argue that they don’t indoctrinate their kids because they just teach their kids “what they think to be true.” However, indoctrination isn’t just about the truth. It’s about reasoning. Parents who don’t care about using “good reasoning” to teach their children don’t know what indoctrination even means. They don’t know what philosophy or logic are. The fact that they don’t know about good reasoning, philosophy, or logic gives us a good reason to be concerned.

Indoctrination Exists

Now that we know what indoctrination is I don’t think much needs to be said to prove it exists because it seems so obvious—but something should be said nonetheless. I will present two arguments that indoctrination exists.

First, people really do use the poor reasoning (fallacies) discussed by philosophers and logicians. The more poor reasoning that a child will face in his or her education, the more that child is being indoctrinated. We should be shocked if a child’s education totally lacks poor reasoning. Such “poor reasoning” does not have to be intentional and simply ignoring contrary evidence or being uncharitable to opposing views is a form of “suppressed evidence.”

That people really do use poor reasoning should be obvious, but consider the following examples:

  • I have detailed poorly reasoned arguments given against fantasy, Muslims, homosexuals, and atheists.
  • Richard Dawkins found out that a Muslim “faith school” convinced “all 60 students” that evolution is false. One student thought that it was obvious that evolution is false because the other apes would no longer exist (if we evolved from apes).
  • Noam Chomsky argued that the media has been used for propaganda to encourage capitalism, oppose communism, suppress evidence of our military’s immoral acts, vilify our enemies, and suppress evidence of the immoral acts of corporations in the movie (based on his theory) Manufacturing Consent.
  • The movie PsiWar defends Chomsky’s theory and attempts to describe the history of propaganda (public relations).
  • Many people have argued that advertising not only employs manipulation, but also that advertising on a massive scale has given people the impression that we can buy love and happiness, which has caused massive consumerism.

Second, we simply don’t know enough about good reasoning to avoid indoctrinating children—and what philosophers (and logicians) do know is not taught. Education in logic and philosophy (good reasoning) is marginalized and ignored to the point that we should be shocked at the fact that indoctrination isn’t more destructive and widespread than it already is. We can state this argument as the following:

  1. Indoctrination is education that lacks good reasoning.
  2. People tend to know very little about good reasoning.
  3. If people know little about good reasoning, then education lacks good reasoning.
  4. If education lacks good reasoning, then children are being indoctrinated.
  5. Therefore, children are being indoctrinated.

Indoctrination is Wrong

It seems more obvious that indoctrination is wrong than that it exists, but I will present two arguments that indoctrination is wrong.

First, indoctrination is disrespectful to people. To educate people by using poor reasoning is to treat people as idiots—and it’s to treat people as unimportant. It treats them as idiots because the poor reasoning wouldn’t “trick” a rational person. It treats them as unimportant because knowing about good reasoning is always (or almost always) vital for people to live the best life possible. Knowing about good reasoning helps people avoid manipulation and find the truth. Knowing the truth is important for our safety and to know how to accomplish our goals. Helping people understand good reasoning is important for anyone worthy of living a good life.

Second, it is necessary (or very helpful) for people to understand good reasoning to become morally responsible. Morality requires that we know right from wrong and there is no more reliable way to attain such knowledge than through good reasoning.

Although some forms of indoctrination can be highly malicious and harmful, most indoctrination is merely an inevitable result of irrationality. Insofar as indoctrination is inevitable and relatively harmless due to the fact that people tend to know so little about “good reasoning” and “proper education,” it might be inappropriate to blame everyone for indoctrinating their children. I don’t think all indoctrination is done on purpose and I don’t think it’s totally avoidable. At the same time I think it is something worth avoiding when possible—something everyone needs to know about. The alternative to indoctrination is to use good reasoning and have education in good reasoning (philosophy and logic). That is something that can be done. This isn’t a totally hopeless situation.


Society is arrogant about its power to educate and at least some indoctrination is unavoidable. Not only do parents and educators tend to know little about good reasoning, but they irrationally assume that they can avoid indoctrinating the children they educate. People tend to think, “I‘m logical. I know good reasoning when I see it. It’s other people who have a problem.” But when we realize that almost everyone thinks this and that we would like other people to learn more about logic and good reasoning we can realize that everyone—including ourselves—probably have more to learn.

Our enemies think that Americans are corrupt and are learning the wrong beliefs, and we think the same of our enemies. Christians often think Muslims are greatly deceived and corrupted, but Muslims often think the same of Christians. How do we know who is right? How do we know we are rational but other people aren’t? The best way to know is to learn what good reasoning is and examine our own beliefs. This is best done with some education in logic and philosophy.




  1. I prefer to give my students the tools and information to come to their own conclusions. All opinions can be turned into doctrine, yet uncovering all sides to an issue and encouraging robust debate is the way to go imo.

    Comment by Michael G. — December 27, 2010 @ 7:43 am | Reply

    • I’m not sure how much philosophy we can teach at the elementary school level, but certainly we can do our best to use good arguments and teach the different possibilities. You teach 4th grade if I am not mistaken.

      I’m glad that you are interested in giving the “tools” to your students to have independent thought. What exactly can you teach your students about “good thinking” at this stage in their life? Have you ever hit a wall where their capacities are found to be limited?

      Comment by James Gray — December 27, 2010 @ 8:14 am | Reply

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