13 December 2009

Inculcate, Not Indoctrinate

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Here's one possible definition of parenting: a process of imparting knowledge and values, from parent to child, culminating in a point of departure from which the child will make decisions for his/herselfhopefully informed by what the parents have taught, but with a folding in of the child’s own experiences. I think my parents approached parenting this way. And although I certainly couldn’t have articulated it as clearly before becoming a parent myself, it is generally the process I try to follow, too.

A few weeks ago, sitting in children's services at synagogue with my daughter, all of this flew at me in a completely different way. I was watching my child learn (and mimic) the behaviors of others, learn the songs and memorize the prayers, andyearninglytry to grasp the concept of being Jewish. She sat in front of me in a navy blue dress and her “synagogue shoes,” legs crossed on the floor, following along with the flow of the service, and eagerly awaiting the chance to go up front at the end of the "grown-up" services to join other kids in singing Adon Olam.

It made me acutely aware of the fine line that exists between inculcating and indoctrinating, and how easy it must be to cross that line.


I come by my Jewishness honestly, and where Jewish education was concerned, my parents (particularly my father) followed the same model as with most other things. As a result, my level of observance has evolved and changed over the years, from a foundation established long ago. Adulthood, marriage, childrenall play a part in this ongoing process, and I think this is all to the good. Indeed, I cannot imagine having a genuinely static set of beliefs or observances (in religion or much else) because that would inhibit true intellect from playing the appropriate role in my life. I believe firmly in the importance of doubt, and doubt often leads to change.

I want similar things for my children as my parents surely want(ed) for me. I want them to find their place in the world, to contribute meaningfully, to be “good citizens,” and to see happiness as something to be pursued (not as a right to instant gratification). I also want them to know and love Judaism, as I do. I want them to learn from it, to find meaning in its traditions and guidance from its values and teachings, and to engage with it as a framework for helping their growth into intelligent and insightful people.


Which brings me back to that scene in services with my daughter, and the distinction between teaching and indoctrinating. With inculcating comes an acceptance that the outcome cannot be controlledbut to my mind, this makes it more likely that the outcomes will be better and more evenly and effectively distributed. I am fairly sure my parents do not approve of every decision I have ever made, but hopefully even those decisions they did not understand were acceptable because they were mine.

Indoctrination, on the other hand, may achieve the near-term desired resultobedience to a particular cause or way of lifebut it will make any divergence of views a schism rather than a mere difference of opinion. Nor is this an issue limited to religion, formally defined: almost any set of opinions or values can acquire the characteristics of religious doctrine, and the heavy handedness that “doctrine” implies.

No question, I am aiming to teach, and not just in religious matters; watching my daughter, I hope I am pursuing all this properly. She’s still young; there are many questions to come, far more than she is capable of asking now, at 2.5 years of age. But it is easy to see—and terrifyingly easy to understandhow some communities and societies have functioned over the years, replacing inculcation with indoctrination, and not to anyone’s betterment, individually or collectively. That’s not why I take her to services. I want her to learn, to question, to think, to embrace and to reject. To love, to live righteously but not self-righteously, and to let others live, too. That’s what I’m aiming to teach, and hopefully that’s the path we are on.

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Blogger Katherine said...

Well said, Sascha! KW

6:30 AM  

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