Back when he was vowing never to drop out of the Republican presidential primary race, but before he conceded he would not be the rock upon which the Republican nomination was built and dropped out anyway, Rick Santorum claimed that American colleges were “indoctrination mills.”
This sort of accusation is often made by right-wing critics of higher education. The argument, such as it is, seems to be: 1) most college professors are leftists; 2) those leftist professors are teaching students; therefore 3) the leftist professors are teaching students to be leftists.
The accusation led one conservative academic to point out there’s no evidence to support the accusation that colleges are indoctrinating students into leftism, but it’s possible that the right-wing critics of higher education aren’t interested in evidence. The conservative academic responded to Santorum as if he were merely parroting the conventional right-wing wisdom regarding colleges and their hostility to conservatives. However, he conflated religion with politics. Santorum wasn’t just talking about politics. He was talking about religion.
Santorum claimed that colleges are mills to indoctrinate students into a secular world view, and he was right, despite all the pundits’ smirking ridicule. They are, and so are the libraries that support them. Though not indoctrinating students into a set of beliefs about the world, they are indoctrinating them into methods for how they should form beliefs about the world, and those methods are indifferent at best to religious belief. These methods form a doctrine (from the Latin for “teaching”), and it is one of the byproducts of a liberal education.
The motivation for scholarship and teaching is to investigate any topic of interest and follow the investigation wherever the evidence leads. It doesn’t matter if the evidence contradicts some religious authority. In the battle between reasoned argument and the unsupported claims of a religious text, reason wins, at least in the academy. One goal of a college education is to indoctrinate students to believe that this method of scholarship is a good thing.
The indoctrination sometimes plays itself out in college writing courses, which have recently been described as a “well-organized, systematic, and dedicated … to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity.” They are also places where students learn that religious texts have no more authority than any other texts, religious leaders have less authority than rigorous scholars, and all are subject to reasoned analysis and interpretation.
Libraries also play their part. Traditionally, academic libraries collected, organized, preserved, and disseminated the results of research, but as research instruction has increased, academic librarians also participate in the educational goal of helping students evaluate the information available through the library.
Academic library collections are designed to support critical thinking, skepticism about the known, and curiosity about the unknown. We develop collections that allow interested students to explore a topic from every perspective, and then we encourage them to use a method of critical analysis to detect bias. However, the one bias that method can’t detect is the bias towards critical thinking and skepticism.
According to the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, among other things “an information literate individual is able to:
- Determine the extent of information needed
- Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
- Evaluate information and its sources critically
- Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base”
Evaluating information and its sources critically and incorporating selected information into one’s knowledge base—who could possibly find fault with that? We undermine cultish indoctrination by challenging students to think critically about what they read and see, to ask hard questions: Who claims that? How do they know? What do others say? What are the arguments and evidence on every side? These seem like harmless questions designed to provoke skepticism and critical thinking, harmless, that is, until you realize skepticism and critical thinking are not the foundations upon which religions are built.
This is not to say that religious faith can’t survive a regime of critical thinking and skepticism, only that critical thinking and skepticism are rarely the paths to religious faith. That’s why the traditional definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding,” with philosophy as the “handmaiden of theology.” Faith, as the Bible tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Belief comes first, reason after.
But that’s not how academic scholarship works (at least not ideally). Hoping something exists doesn’t make it so; not seeing something isn’t proof it exists. Quite the contrary. Having no publicly available evidence to support a statement is prima facie proof that statement is false. The burden of proof is on the person without evidence, not the skeptic.
Every time professors refuse to accept religious proclamation or faith as suitable academic evidence on topics having nothing to do with religion, and every time librarians challenge students to critically examine the information they have found, they are indoctrinating students, not to a substance, but to a method.
Thus, alongside the institutions they serve, academic libraries are also indoctrination mills, their mission to indoctrinate students into a mode of thinking that challenges unproven assertions, examines evidence in the light of reason, and changes beliefs depending on where the evidence leads. This should be the result of a liberal education, but it’s not exclusive to the education of liberals. It might not undermine religious faith (though it might), but it is indifferent to faith.
Instead of resisting popular right-wing criticism regarding indoctrination, we should embrace it, while making it very clear what doctrines are being taught. Reason, analysis, evidence, critical thinking, and temperate debate: these are all good things indifferent to political or religious beliefs. Left or right, faithful or agnostic, the reasoned method of academic discourse allows us to communicate with each other peacefully and to further human knowledge. If those are bad things, there’s little purpose to universities or academic libraries.