Andrew Fiala

Far from liberal indoctrination, schools today inspire learning across the spectrum

Students cross in front of the Madden Library at Fresno State when school began in 2017.
Students cross in front of the Madden Library at Fresno State when school began in 2017. Fresno Bee file

Someone recently complained to me that public schools are failing because they lack religion and morality. He called public universities “liberal indoctrination centers.” This kind of criticism is disheartening.

Democratic education is not indoctrination. It has a moral core that respects liberty and other values that are essential for self-governance.

There are other models of education. Authoritarian education aims for obedience and conformity. It fears freedom and discourages diversity.

But democratic education is different. It aims to create free human beings. It encourages innovation, individuality and idiosyncrasy. This means that students with a variety of perspectives — liberal or conservative, religious or nonreligious — should be encouraged to explore and defend their ideas.

And yet, my complaining friend might object that liberals outnumber conservatives among college professors. He might cite a survey of K-12 teachers published last year that showed that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the teaching profession.

But this does not mean that schools and universities are liberal indoctrination centers unless we presuppose that teachers are manipulative, closed-minded partisans. A few may be. But hardly anyone becomes an educator in order to advance a partisan agenda.

Most teachers are passionate about ideas, truth, and rationality. They love kids and learning. They want to share that love with others.

The solution is not, then, to replace liberal indoctrination with some other form of brainwashing. Rather, we need to support the values that makes education inclusive and democratic. We need more rationality, honesty and integrity, as well as more liberty and diversity of viewpoints.

The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy. The solution to the problems of education is better education.

The great American philosopher of democracy and education, John Dewey, once said, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” This metaphor is an old one. Socrates also described education as a kind of midwifery.

A midwife is a supportive companion. She is a facilitator, not a director or dictator. She does not control the process or prejudge the result. She helps birth happen.

But the birthing — and the learning — is up to those who are undergoing it.

Human beings are not stamped out like widgets or trained like dogs. Rather, humanity is cultivated by caring teachers who help us develop our natural tendencies as reasonable beings.

Democratic education has a moral core that respects and includes religious diversity. Democratic virtues are needed by all of our religiously diverse citizens.

Rationality is a key value along with toleration. Democratic citizens ought to value liberty enough to want everyone to remain free from indoctrination, even those with whom they disagree.

The fact of diversity cannot be avoided. This is a modern problem. In the ancient world, education was reserved for the elite. The masses conformed to what the masters decreed. Nonconformists like Socrates were killed. Ancient religious and political authorities did not bother to educate women, slaves, or foreigners. The vast majority were kept ignorant and required to submit in silence.

In the modern democratic world, silent submission has given way to boisterous self-assertion. Ignorance has been transformed into enlightenment. Blind obedience has become rational argument. But liberty discloses differences.

The challenge is to learn to live together with a shared vision of education that tolerates these differences. We do this by celebrating democratic values that are tolerant, inclusive, and reasonable. Free people should agree that there should be no establishment of religion, that citizens should be allowed to freely practice their own religion, and that free speech is fundamental.

Those First Amendment ideals help explain why religious dogma should not be taught in public schools. They also form the basis of civil discourse. Free inquiry is essential for democratic education. Rather than indoctrination, we want future citizens to explore all ideas. If some feel excluded, we ought to reach out them and encourage them. We learn best by putting lots of ideas and arguments on the table.

The magical midwifery of democratic education occurs when minds are opened by rational debate and self-examination. We will never agree about the details of morality. But we should agree that future citizens must learn to value liberty, toleration, and the process of open inquiry.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala