Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Indoctrination Revisited, by Way of Supporting the Troops

Yesterday, my friend Josh Bellin posted a great essay to his blog about why he doesn’t “support” the troops.  (http://bellsyells.blogspot.com/His essay was inspired by a troubling encounter with the principal of his daughter’s elementary school.  Josh’s daughter’s class had been required to write “letters of support to the troops in Iraq.”  Josh objected—and quite rightly in my view—to requiring children to take a moral position they are not “qualified to take.”  Josh’s position reminded me of one of my favorite essays, William G. Perry’s “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts.”  Perry reminds us that “too early a moral judgment is precisely what stands between many an able student and a liberal education.”
     The best way to “support the troops,” in my view, is to demand a clear and cogent explanation for why putting them in harm’s way is absolutely necessary.  I think Josh would agree. 
     But Josh also got me thinking of how conservatives take it as a given that liberal professors indoctrinate their students.  Having been one of those bête noires, a liberal professor, myself, I don’t think we indoctrinate.  But, in a subsequent reply to my comment on his piece, Josh supplied le mot juste.  We may not indoctrinate, but we certainly “proselytize.”  And it happens in high school and in college. 
     The teenage daughter of a young friend, for instance, used to come to us full of received opinions and instant outrage about the dangers of global warming, worker exploitation by Walmart, and the unwholesome nature of McDonald's food.  In the words of the poet, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  She clearly wasn’t ready to engage in the complexity of these issues.  But the well-meaning high school teachers who attempted to raise her consciousness were just taking their cues from those of us in higher education.  How many freshman composition courses these days are built around sustainability and other green issues?  Personally, I agree with all those positions. But as a former professor and dean, I know how easily students are intimidated by a teacher or professor who seems really well-versed in a topic, and I question whether classes built around such topics really give a fair hearing to divergent points of view. 
      I say this having long ago taught a course of my own design called "Vietnam in Fact, Fiction, and Film." The course was very much one-sided. Having studied the history of our involvement, I knew all about the cultural and historical misapprehensions, as well as the cynical Realpolitik, responsible for that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." And I fervently believe that the revisionists who have come along since, trying to justify that war as in our strategic best interests or even as a “noble cause,” are wrong. But the fact remains that, having only so much time, I did not give much time and attention to other points of view. And some students were probably afraid to challenge me. I may not have been indoctrinating, but I was proselytizing. 
     I'll add something that may at least serve to prime the controversy pump. Counting my Naval Academy time, I was a full-time academic for 16 years, and if there is one thing I have learned about the academic profession, it is this: Academics are no more open-minded than anyone else. They're just better at articulating and defending their prejudices." Hence, I side with Stanley Fish, who once admonished us all to "save the world on your own time." --EFP


J. David Bell said...

Good thoughts, Ed. The only caveat I would introduce is this: indoctrination (or proselytizing) is not only or always a matter of overt preaching; it can reside in so simple and seemingly natural a vehicle as one's selected texts in the course syllabus. And this being the case, I believe there can be value in taking strong positions in front of students--IF one makes it clear that one does not necessarily expect them to accept one's positions, and IF one not only provides them the opportunity but actually builds into the class structure the mechanisms for them to develop informed opinions of their own. Gerald Graff has a great essay about this, "Taking Cover in Coverage," in which he points out that we academics are too reluctant to utilize our own theoretical conflicts to the students' advantage; we act as if these conflicts don't exist, and then we're surprised when students aren't prepared to wrestle with them. Far better, I say, to make one's own position manifest--as a subject of discussion and critique, NOT as a loyalty oath.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I think global warming is indoctrination by the left wing liberal teachers and the media. In fact I have heard reports we are actually in a cooling down period now. This Summer here in Michigan was beautiful. I fact I remember Summers as a kid on the farm being hotter. I think it is just weather cycles and we should stick to that policy. Just do not raise my taxes on the global warming myth. I am liberal on somethings like when it comes to national health care paid for by the tax payers. This was a great read. Semper Fi Sarge

Larry Scroggs said...

Good points as always Ed. During my academic career as an elementary school teacher I spent a couple of years teaching a general GED class to adults. When teaching such topics as history, science, and literature I had occasion to inject my thoughts on the subjects. I strongly agree with an earlier comment by J. David Bell: "Far better, I say, to make one's own position manifest--as a subject of discussion and critique, NOT as a loyalty oath."

At age 62 I have experienced a lot of life's ups and downs. I have worked many different jobs and traveled to many parts of the world. As a result of my experiences, education, and personal research I have formed opinions about various topics. Some of my opinions have evolved and changed over the years as I acquire additional experience and information. In my opinion, the characteristic of being open to new ideas and having a willingness to revise your opinions is the mark of being a mature adult. On the other hand, a person who changes with the winds, based on the current hot topic of the day or who constantly shifts his opinions based on the what latest self appointed experts or talking heads are saying is immature. I strongly emphasized to my students that my opinions were just that, my opinions. That they, as independent adults, had a responsibility to investigate and question my opinions before forming their own. In academia we call this "critical thinking" although I had some professors who weren't to happy when "critical thinking" was applied to their teaching. (grin)