Education is a formative process. At school, we learn not just what to think but how to think, and those two kinds of learning are, famously, not always pulling in the same direction. The better the students are at critical thinking, the better those students are at resisting your attempts to indoctrinate them. This is why you had better be selective in your choice of what to get them to believe. Basically, you want to make sure you get them to rationally think what you want them to think ideologically. If you don’t respect their (correct) reasoning, you are going to do more harm than good, even if the end result is that they believe what you tell them, and even if what you tell them is true. It’s the process by which they arrived at the conclusion that matters.
Now, at each level, there are some truths that, as ends, seem to justify the means. Most curricula have a body of “doctrine” that it is deemed very important for students to learn. This is the legitimate content of, precisely, “indoctrination”. At the beginning, you don’t just want to teach them how to add, you do actually want them to think that two plus two is four. Later on, you don’t just want them to be able to read the classics, you want them to know that it was Polonius, not Hamlet, who said “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The point, however, is that you can, hopefully, get them to believe these things by reference to the evidence of their senses. You can put two apples next to two other apples and count. You read scene 3 of act 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with your students and note the speaker of line 564. That is, you can persuade the students of the rightness of the doctrine without offending their sense of reason.
I wonder if we respect this principle as much as we should. Do we confine ourselves, at each level, to expect students to believe us only about those things that we can defend with reasons? Do we sometimes say things that, though true, and though we do have reasons to believe them, we are unable, given the level of the students, to get them to truly understand? Do we sometimes expect them to believe things they can’t reasonably understand?
Let me take a perhaps controversial example, namely, the teaching of evolution in schools. There is a certain percentage of students, most famously in the United States, whose parents tell them that evolution is not true, and that God instead created them and made them the way they are. They would rather have their children believe that they are loved by God than that their dispositions are the result of a long, more or less random, process of mutation and selection. And their children arrive at school prepared to learn with that belief pretty firmly entrenched. We can say it’s not a “rational” belief, but it is one of the things they believe because the people they love most of all, namely, their parents, told them so. Believing what their parents tell them has, on the whole, proven to be a good strategy of belief formation for them. It has served them, so far, as a reliable “method”.
Then they arrive in school. Here they learn how to (better) read and write, add and subtract, observe and inquire. In the science classroom, these skills are then increasingly brought together as they learn how nature works. They see how dye diffuses in water, how larvae turn into moths, how full of life the water in the local pond is under a microscope. And they are told about a number of “theories” that explain these observations. They are told, for example, that a glass of water is really full of “molecules”, which are too small to see, but really are what the water is. (For fun, they go home and label the kitchen faucet H2O.) They learn the important concept of metamorphosis (if not the word) and get an insight into the life cycle, including, of course, the rudiments of an understanding their own progress from a single cell to the child they are. (For fun, they come home and announce they’d like to be butterflies when they grow up!) They come to understand that “life” belongs not just to cats and dogs and trees, but also to very tiny things they can’t see with the naked eye. In other words, that life begins with something very small, and that there is, perhaps, some sort of connection between life and matter, between the smallest cell and the biggest molecule. (For fun, they imagine that God has a giant microscope he sees them through.)
In other words, they are learning some very basic things that they will need in order to assimilate the modern theory of evolution. There is still a lot to learn, both about natural history and about biological cultures, but they are well on their way. Given time, they may one day be able to understand how life on Earth might have started with simple proteins and progressed, through millions and millions of years, and dinosaurs and mammoths and neanderthals, to us. But it’s a really big idea. It was only first really proposed less than 200 years ago, and the pivotal “neo-Darwinian synthesis” has only about seven decades behind it. It’s a difficult theory to learn, both for the culture and the individual. It took us about 200,000 years of being human to get there. It took Darwin about fifty years of being alive to come up with it. And it took Darwinians about another century to get it firmly established and integrated into our theories about life.
All along some parents were telling their children that they should be grateful for the life that their loving God (or Great Spirit or what have you) had given them. I think many people who talk about the importance of “teaching evolution” (and not teaching creation) forget what an amazing scientific accomplishment the theory of evolution is, and what an amazing intellectual accomplishment it is to understand it. The idea is literally as amazing as the idea that we’re here because some higher being loves us. And the thought that we descended from apes that in turn descended from bacteria is as profound as the feeling of being loved by an omniscient being. I think we do great harm to our children by rushing them into a “belief in evolution” at an early age, and certainly by denouncing a theory of life that they have been given by parents who love them. What we should be doing is forming their ability to observe nature and inquire into its working. We should be helping them to formulate the question, “Why am I here?” Not giving them the answer.
In time, as they grow into mature thinkers, they will come up with their own “great synthesis” of God’s love and nature’s wonder. Maybe some of them will have to abandon their faith in order to keep their heads straight. Others will decide that the scientific view of life is not for them. Why should anyone mind? If we teach them how to think, they won’t need us to do it for them. If we help them become reasonable people, we won’t need them to think anything in particular.