Per the Oxford English Dictionary, indoctrination is “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” The key word here is “uncritically.”
If I were to use that word to describe any part of my educational career, it would not apply to my time at Sartell High School. If anything, it applies to my time – especially the first two months – at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), a location where future Navy and Marine Corps officers are trained. Indoctrination is a basic premise of military training – learning to take orders without hesitation so one can do what needs to be done in a timely manner. When taken in that context, I view indoctrination less as a negative and more as a trust-building exercise – learning to trust your chain of command to be making the right choice and learning to trust the people around you to be performing the right action at the right time so you can take the right action yourself effectively. Thus, I view indoctrination in the military as an acceptable mode of learning in certain scenarios despite the word’s negative connotations.
Now if someone were to insinuate that what I went through at Sartell High School was the same kind of uncritical teaching that I went through during “Plebe Summer” at USNA, I would be slightly dumbfounded. I find it hard to think of a time where we were told to accept things uncritically at Sartell. If anything, the opposite issue may have occasionally been true – we students being forced to discuss topics in ever-increasing detail with tiresome amounts of scrutiny when everyone in the class clearly saw and understood the causes behind the concept in question.
I am not going to deny that teachers and education staff lean heavily liberal, as reported by a study conducted by Verdant Labs (in case you did not find that fact already obvious). But to assume that liberalism is all there is to their identity is at best reductionist and at worst insulting. The same way I was told to bracket out my political opinions while carrying out orders (something that I had little problem with despite my disdain for the then-commander-in-chief), we underestimate teachers’ ability to bracket out their opinions, or even better, present both sides of an argument or debate. Now of course, someone who falls on one side of the political aisle may forget to include the other side now and again.
However, to say that such individuals uncritically force their ideology on their students is another accusation, and in my experience could not be further from the truth. If they did, my predominantly conservative and politically neutral friends from high school would have moved further to the left on issues discussed in class. However, they rarely did. Even if they did, who is to say that change is the result of uncritical indoctrination as opposed to critical evaluation and consideration? Outsiders would certainly not be the best judge of that. They would merely be viewing the effects rather than the cause.
My previous column on Critical Race Theory was inspired by many things, including a segment from “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, political science courses I have taken in college, excerpts from books I have read by boring legal scholars and conversations I have had with friends of many ethnicities and races. The teachers at Sartell High School formed a base of knowledge upon which those experiences rested.
What the Sartell High School staff did not do was indoctrinate me. If that was any of my teachers’ intentions, they were bad at it, because I critically thought about everything I learned from human geography to comparative politics. Furthermore, if my “indoctrinated” arguments can compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas, then I certainly am not the one failing to critically analyze the issues at hand.
Janagan Ramanathan is a Sartell High School alum, former U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and current aerospace engineering major at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.