I started this blog series last month following the surfaced video of the SAE fraternity and their racist chant which they had been taught. In Part I, I described one of my own indoctrination experiences from my time at the Naval Academy to show the mechanics of indoctrination. In Part II, I discussed how indoctrination is related to race.

After reading the initial post, a good friend sent me an email asking this question: Can indoctrination ever be good? Also an alumna of the Naval Academy, she brought up several excellent lessons that our time by the Bay taught us. Below, I respond to my friend’s question.

So, can indoctrination be good?

I tried to answer this question several times and found myself, instead, generating more questions. Are systems inherently good or evil in and of themselves? Are systems inherently moral? Is capitalism more moral than communism? Capitalism (or any system), for example, can be good or bad depending upon where you fall in the system. I’m sure it looks much different from a rich American banker’s perspective than it does to a developing world teenager who makes said banker’s tennis shoes. Additionally, a system often appears “good” to those who are privileged by it. But this is all a very different debate and didn’t answer the question.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this wasn’t the question that she was asking. What my friend wanted to know (forgive me if I’ve gotten this wrong, Peppa) was: can good things result from indoctrination?

Yes, but then I wouldn’t call it indoctrination anymore. It would be called maturity or learning or something else.** The difference being, not whether what is being taught is necessarily good or bad, but whether the person being taught is questioning it or not.

Let me explain. Another example of an indoctrination event from the Naval Academy would be the Five Basic Responses. Every incoming Plebe (freshmen) learns that there are only 5 acceptable responses to any question that they are asked:

1. Yes, Sir/Ma’am
2. No, Sir/Ma’am
3. No Excuse, Sir/Ma’am
4. I’ll Find out, Sir/Ma’am
5. Aye Aye, Sir/Ma’am

No matter what questions an upperclassmen asks, one can only use one of the above responses to answer the question. Did you shave today? Where is your roommate? Why are you all jacked up?

This is straight forward indoctrination into the Naval Academy culture and, to some extent, the military at large. This was one of the rules that we followed to be successful in that particular environment:

However, if from this particular indoctrination event, my friend eventually learns not to makes excuses regarding her personal shortcomings and then goes on to apply this lesson successfully to her career in business then I would consider that aspect “learning.” The distinction here is that the person being indoctrinated questions what they are being taught and accepts or rejects it for themselves. See the difference?

Conversely, I could have an indoctrination experience where I was taught something that was “bad” (see “Goodnight Jane Fonda” tradition or racist SAE chant) but at the end of my own analysis of the teaching, come to the conclusion that these were not events that I cared to participate in. But, there are plenty of Naval Academy Alumnae who thought nothing of the Goodnight Jane Fonda tradition and who did pass it on to the classes behind them (same with the SAE chanters).

So the exact same indoctrination experience can result in different responses from the people being indoctrinated. For instance, not everyone went along with the Nazification of Germany, but a large portion of the German population (and some of Europe writ large) did. Why is that?

Indoctrination has a negative connotation because it is initiating into or ingraining a certain worldview or perspective onto someone else without presenting some alternative side. You are presenting this particular way of being and/or thinking as reality. I would add to this definition that the person receiving the indoctrination is not reflecting on the training they are receiving or questioning it in any way – they are simply going with the flow.

In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere refers to this concept (that I am calling indoctrination) as “bankable knowledge” (though he discusses it within the confines of the education system). You are a passive receptacle and someone else is “depositing knowledge” into your account. The “process of bankable knowledge teaches a standard curriculum as a narrative of “fixed” truth that often requires rote memorization with little relation to reality” (hello Reef Points).

It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I said in my previous post that indoctrination doesn’t so much make robots out of people as much as it creates paper doll cutouts — people who will adhere and uphold whatever that society values without questioning it. They are status quo maintainers, people who, in the end, will claim that they were “only doing what they were told” (see prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the guards at the Nazi concentration camps).

The majority of Americans think of racism in this paper doll cutout mentality. They are inarticulate with regards to race because they cannot venture outside of the indoctrination framework of racism – their “bankable knowledge”. They literally only have 5 or 6 rote responses which is why every conversation about racism devolves into the same emotive script: everything’s not about race, you’re playing the race card, black people are racist too, what about black on black crime?

Does any of this sound familiar?

What I am saying here is that most people have knowledge that is barely gym-shower stall deep about any given topic — racism is no different.  Dr. Robin DiAngelo drives this point home in her excellent work regarding White Fragility.

This is what I have learned: Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture. But mainstream sources—schools, textbooks, media—don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need….Yes, we will develop strong emotionally laden opinions, but they will not be informed opinions. Our socialization renders us racially illiterate. (emphasis mine)

Replace socialization with indoctrination and you’ll understand what I am talking about. Though I would add that the majority of Americans (of all races) are racially illiterate because we all drink from the same stream of  “bankable knowledge.” (See Charles Barkley or Raven Symone or any “New Black” celebrity for examples).

In the final post of this series, I’ll discuss what to do when your indoctrination breaks through the surface to your consciousness and how to resist your training. Stay tuned….

* Many of my ideas were solidified in discussions with my friend SDW.

** Education is the word that I would like to use here, but I want to eliminate any confusion that may result from the discussion of Paulo Freire’s “bankable education” concept discussed in this post.

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