Philosophers have long thought of knowledge as a special case of belief. The idea is that in order to know something you have to believe that something is the case. It also has to actually be the case, which is just to say that the belief has to be true. Finally, you have to understand why it is true; you have to have a justification for believing what you believe. While many issues can still be raised, this definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief” offers a nice heuristic for deciding whether you, as an individual, know something. In this post, however, I want talk about what we can call “epistemic institutions”, i.e., social arrangements that support knowing and believing.
I’m thinking especially of the institutions* of journalism and education. These institutions shape what we think, they direct our “epistemic” states. But it recently occurred to me that we do well to distinguish between institutions that help us to know the truth of things and institutions that aim merely to get us to believe that particular things are true. The difference, it seems to me, is that which exists between journalism and propaganda, education and indoctrination.
Now, it should be obvious that no organization* would identify itself as a propaganda machine or indoctrination center if its aim was to actually get us to believe something. It would say it was engaged in journalism or education. So it is on us to make the necessary distinction, i.e., to exercise critical judgment. What then are the criteria for deciding whether or not an organization is engaged in journalism or propaganda, education or indoctrination? When we open a newspaper or enter a classroom, how do we know whether we are being supported in our search for knowledge, or being manipulated into believing something? From the other side, when we sit down to write an article or stand up to begin a lecture, how do we know what we’re doing? Are we journalists or propagandists? Are we educators or indoctrinators?
More instrumentally, suppose we wanted to become good at any of these things. (I may find it distasteful, but is it really my place to say that propaganda and indoctrination are always bad things?) I think it would be good not to kid ourselves that we are doing one thing when we’re really doing another.
Obviously, from the point of view of immediate action, a belief is as good as knowledge. If I falsely believe that a threat is imminent or that a reward awaits I will be guided to the same action that I would take if I were right. The difference lies in what the consequences of that action will be, how successful it will be. (This is why pragmatists sometimes tell us that “the truth is what works”; a true belief is simply one that guides action towards its desired outcome.) Since knowledge is a species of belief, an educator’s immediate effect on me may be indistinguishable from an indoctrinor’s. Both will get me to believe something. How can I tell the difference between the processes that got me into this state of belief? Or can I, perhaps, tell the difference between the states of belief themselves?
I think the most important clue is the role that criticism played in the formation of your belief. Another is whether the soi-disant journalist or educator cares very much what you end up believing. Was the belief you formed at any point challenged? Were you afforded a means to make up your own mind?
It’s relatively easy to decide whether your situation is a “critical” occasion. Try asking some questions. “How do you know?” is a classic question. If your instructor immediately takes this as though it’s a polemical one, you might be dealing with an ideologue (which we can take as a covering term for propagandists and indoctrinators). Also, you should be skeptical (i.e., less disposed to believe them) if they answer this question by invoking their authority rather than telling you what their evidence is and how they got it. My favorite example of this is a professor I once heard answer a sincere question from a student about his method by explaining where he got his millions in funding from. Education and indoctrination have very different “foundations”. If drawing attention to them immediately causes a crisis, you’re not going to be able to do much in the way of critical thinking.
The other question is whether your instructor leaves you a dignified place of disagreement. Do they imply that you are either stupid or evil if you don’t believe what they are trying to tell you? Or are they content to lay out a set of arguments and let you draw one of several conclusions, including (as per the previous paragraph) the possibility that some of those arguments are unfounded? Someone who truly knows something will be patient with your attempts to learn it; they know themselves how difficult it is to understand. Someone who has merely been instructed that something is “true” will be distressed (and perhaps disgusted) when you do not process the instruction to “Believe!” as easily as they did. An ideologue is someone who thinks you should believe things even if you don’t understand them. A teacher is someone whose primary aim is to get you to understand something. Only that way can you also know when you finally come to believe.
*A quick terminological note. We sometimes use the word “institution” to denote what is really an organisation. As I use this distinction (I’m sure imperfectly at times), journalism is the institution of bringing news of current events to the population and CNN, for example, is a news organization. When we say that the New York Times is an “institution” we mean that in an honorific sense. Really it’s just another organization; it’s just that it is so powerful that it has a formative influence on what we think journalism is. A particular university is an organization; higher education is an institution.