Brainwashing vs. Advocating an Agenda - A Very Fine Line
Posted by Kristan Morrison on Mar 09, 2011 - 11:44 AM
Back in September, I blogged
about how I had trouble hiding my viewpoints when teaching. This topic has arisen again lately for both myself and colleagues in my department and so I have more to say on the issue.
This past fall, I was fortunate to have a number of students in my classes who felt comfortable enough to openly engage me in debate on various issues. They challenged my choices of readings and my all-too-obvious philosophical leanings toward a more democratic and socially just form of education. Some of the students just plain disagreed with me, while others, one of whom had just completed law school and was thoroughly trained in Socratic discussion, mainly wanted to raise opposition points to deepen our discussion. I valued both sets of students for the depth they brought to our classes. One of the former set, though, at numerous times over the semester, somewhat jokingly argued that I was trying to brainwash my students to agree with me and my views on education. That stung, but also gave me pause. Do I ultimately set out to make students believe certain things about our education system?
I was speaking with a colleague about this issue recently, and he indicated that he is struggling with some of the same issues in his multicultural education class. Some of his students (of Caucasian descent) recently alleged that he made them feel uncomfortable for seeming to agree more with some African-American students who argued that mistreatment of white people by people of color is not the same as racism directed toward minority populations (e.g. the question was raised, "Why is it seemingly OK for people of color to call a white person a 'cracker' but not OK when a white person calls a black person the 'n-word'?") The African-American students argued that while the former is certainly not nice, it simply isn't the same as the latter. My colleague agreed, and the Caucasian students were upset that their view of it being essentially the same (that calling a white person a "cracker" is, in fact, "reverse racism" or "reverse discrimination") was not validated in any way. Like me, my colleague has essentially been accused by his students of trying to brainwash them to believe in certain values, such as equity, cultural reponsiveness, etc.
Are our students right? Are we trying to "brainwash" them to believe as we do? While I indicated in my September blog
that I have been working harder at being more even-handed in my teaching (bringing in more readings and film clips that run counter to my views, tweaking my discussion leadership assignment to now being called VOODL - Voice of Opposition Discussion Leadership and really super-emphasizing the importance of poking holes in the arguments of our authors and of me), with the recent raising of these issues again, I think I must finally admit that I do have an agenda. But is having an agenda tantamount to brainwashing? I somehow think not. Maybe I am rationalizing, I don't know.
This I know and strongly assert: there is great value in working to develop students' critical thinking skills and, in my teaching, I will continue to work towards this goal. I also definitely want all my students to feel comfortable in voicing their thoughts and opinions in class because doing so creates a safe environment/community of learners as well as deeper discussions. But I also will try to convince - through choice of teaching materials and through questions and activities- my students that it is the work of educators to not only teach academic content, but to also work to create democratic citizens (that means people who value equality, justice, fairness, and pursuit of truth through rational discussion and empirical evidence). That quite clearly is
an agenda. But is it brainwashing? I looked up the definition of brainwashing
to see how it might be different and found these two meanings: "1) a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas; 2) persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship."
Well, if we go by the first definition, then my agenda is not
the same as brainwashing - for I am using no forcible means to indoctrinate my students to accept my views on the purpose of education (although some could point out that the use of grades in classes might create an environment where students feel like they are being forced to agree with the professor in order to get a good grade; but that is a blog posting topic for another day!). If we go by the second definition and then furthermore define propaganda
as "the spreading of ideas, and information... for the purpose of helping ...an institution, a cause, or a person," then perhaps what I am doing is
As I mentioned above, when my student accused me of brainwashing him, I was stung for I do not like to characterize what I do as such; however, his words also gave me pause and have required me to reflect on my intentions. If I assert a personal agenda, but, AT THE SAME TIME, also work to develop my students' critical thinking skills, am I canceling out the negative effects of pushing an agenda with the positive effects of helping equip my students with the tools needed to challenge that agenda? I sure hope so, but could be wrong. Would appreciate others' thoughts on this for I sure am struggling with it!