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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25 April 2009

Still Faking After All These Years

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Holland Cotter, the New York Times art critic who recently won a Pulitzer Prize, pulled out another terrific review last week, for an exhibition titled “I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery” at New York's Apexart gallery. It's a measure of Cotter's qualifications for journalism's highest honor that a review of an exhibition so potentially off-putting can be, instead, so intellectually intriguing.


I have to admit: reading that exhibition review, the first thing I thought of was something I wrote a few years ago. (Don’t worry, I'm not comparing myself to Cotter.) In my piece titled "Smooth, Firm, But Not Subtle," I explored a question that was nagging at me: how does our society treat authenticity—and fakery? As I wrote then:

Two of the most obvious and hifalutin subjects in which authenticity factors significantly are religion and art. ... Likewise in the arts, the 'real' is prized (whether in painting, sculpture, or other fine handicrafts) and an entire network of 'temples' has been constructed around the world to house art objects. Much like religion, art also relies on a broad pool of people who respond with devotion—a devotion bordering on the religious, and epitomized in the form of gifts, much as a religious establishment might receive—to those objects which the clergy comprised of museum directors, curators, and collectors has deemed to be authentic.

I then continued on to suggest that our cultural affection for authenticity is often fairly weak, and used breast enhancement surgery as an example of the point. Broadly speaking, if some 300,000 women per year (according to USA Today, although those are pre-recession numbers) are having their breasts "enhanced"—many presumably without a separate medical need for breast reconstruction—that says something about our collective need for the authentic.

That is not an expression of judgment; it is an observation. Certainly we all, at times, find some form of happiness in fakes of one kind or another, just as we can also find a kind of pleasure in the authentic. Extending the analysis into a very present-day context—the Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes—one might even say that we seek out people and situations we likely know cannot possibly be authentic and yet desperately hope that they are.


Still, an exhibition that explores, artistically, this very subject has got to have some real mettle attached to it. It does not sound like this is “Nip/Tuck,” a show that glorifies the whole premise of our physical artificiality (or, our artificial edifice). Nor does it sound like the photographic version of “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People,” which categorically mixed up and confused so many of the issues that relate to our collective body image (if we can be said to have one, and I think we can).

Cotter’s review makes the exhibition sound much smarter than that, and more compelling. At the same time, the question of authenticity that nagged me then remains, and I feel I am no closer to an answer.

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