We’re hearing a lot about indoctrination in the schools these days. “We believe in education, not indoctrination,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said early this year, as he defended his move to ban an Advanced Placement African American studies course. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds talked about “indoctrination” in the schools as she backed a bill that would remove a book from every school district in the state if one district removed it.
It’s all part of a concerted attack on both public education and the very existence of LGBTQ+ people. Or the recognition of Black people’s role in U.S. history. Or anything else that Republicans see as stepping too far away from Republican orthodoxy about who matters. It’s one of those things that’s so obviously fraudulent that it would be funny … if it wasn’t so dangerous. Exposing how ridiculous these charges are—as many teachers took to social media to do this week—is easy. But when Republican lawmakers are writing these attacks into law, it’s still dangerous.
A case in Florida showed what’s really going on here, when a teacher had to defend herself against charges of indoctrination for showing her fifth grade class a Disney movie with a gay character. The movie, Strange World, focuses on environmental and clean energy issues and, as a side plot, has a gay character. That was enough to prompt a complaint that led to a state investigation of the teacher’s decision to show the movie. It’s not a big LGBTQ+ rights movie. The simple existence of a character among many other characters was enough.
Teachers often point out that if they were able to indoctrinate their students, they’d have a really long wish list. And they’ll tell you about it if you ask: Twitter user Melissa Johnson, PhD (@Lady_Historian) got hundreds of replies and quote tweets when she asked, “Teachers and professors: If you actually had the power to indoctrinate students, what would you indoctrinate them to do?”
Many of the responses focused on the importance of students treating themselves and others with kindness and respect—which Republicans would probably see as indoctrination. But more of them were basic teacher stuff:
The point is, teachers are trying to get students to do things and learn things all the time. It’s literally their job description! But they’re often unsuccessful at indoctrinating students into the most basic practices endorsed by every single teacher they have through their years of school. They don’t have the power of mind control. The nefarious practices Republicans are labeling “indoctrination” wouldn’t work if students weren’t open to them. The fear Republicans are expressing is that their own efforts to indoctrinate their kids won’t succeed—that their kids will be LGBTQ+ or will call out racism when they see or hear it. They want the schools to actively participate in keeping their kids in line by denying them knowledge.
There is real indoctrination out there. But it’s not about Disney movies or which books school libraries make available.
“People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated,” Aaron Beall, a man raised in a conservative Christian homeschooling family, told The Washington Post. “It’s not even comparable.” What he was indoctrinated into was this:
Aaron had grown up believing Christians could out-populate atheists and Muslims by scorning birth control; Christina had been taught the Bible-based arithmetic necessary to calculate the age of a universe less than 8,000 years old. Their education was one in which dinosaurs were herded aboard Noah’s ark — and in which the penalty for doubt or disobedience was swift. Sometimes they still flinched when they remembered their parents’ literal adherence to the words of the Old Testament: “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.”
As Beall’s story makes clear, public school, with its relatively diverse students and teachers and a curriculum designed for the public good rather than religious education, looks scary to some people because they are trying to keep their kids’ world small: small and white and straight and conservative.
To be indoctrinated is to be taught to accept a set of beliefs uncritically, without considering other points of view or bodies of evidence. Where have you seen that in your life? In school? At home? In church? In a political group?
We have Rural Organizing’s Aftyn Behn. Markos and Aftyn talk about what has been happening in rural communities across the country and progressives’ efforts to engage those voters. Behn also gives the podcast a breakdown of which issues will make the difference in the coming elections.