Should adults be allowed to indoctrinate children in any way they choose?

February 28, 1997

Should adults be allowed to indoctrinate children in any way they choose? Nicholas Humphrey argues that society has a duty to protect the young from bad ideas by teaching them science

98% of the United States population say they believe in God, 50% do not know the earth goes round the sun once every year, 20% believe they are at risk of being abducted by aliens

In the United States it sometimes seems that almost everyone is a religious fundamentalist or a New Age mystic or both. Opinion polls confirm that 98 per cent of the American people say they believe in God, 70 per cent believe in life after death, 50 per cent believe in human psychic powers, 30 per cent believe their lives are directly influenced by the position of the stars and 20 per cent believe they are at risk of being abducted by aliens.

We live in a society where most adults - not just a few crazies, but most adults - subscribe to a variety of weird and nonsensical beliefs that in one way or another they shamelessly impose on their children. At home, parents are allowed, even expected, to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Parents have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they choose; children have a human right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from exposure to bad ideas.

The problem is not just that so many adults positively believe in things that flatly contradict the modern scientific world, but that so many do not believe in things that are absolutely central to the scientific view. A survey published last year showed that half the American people do not know that the earth goes round the sun once a year. Fewer than one in ten know what a molecule is. More than half do not accept that human beings have evolved from animal ancestors; and fewer than one in ten believe that evolution - if it has occurred - can have taken place without some kind of external intervention. Not only do people not know the results of science, they do not even know what science is. When asked what they think distinguishes the scientific method, only 2 per cent realised it involved putting theories to the test, 34 per cent vaguely knew it had something to do with experiments and measurement, but 66 per cent did not have a clue.

Nor do these figures, worrying as they are, give the full picture of what children are up against. There are small but significant communities where the situation is arguably very much worse; communities where not only are superstition and ignorance even more firmly entrenched, but where they go hand in hand with the imposition of repressive regimes of social and interpersonal conduct - in relation to hygiene, diet, dress, sex, gender roles, marriage arrangements and so on. All sects that are serious about their survival do indeed make every attempt to flood the child's mind with their own propaganda, and to deny the child access to alternative viewpoints.

In the United States this kind of restricted education has continually received the blessing of the law. Parents have the legal right to educate their children entirely at home, and nearly one million families do so. But many more who wish to limit what their children learn can rely on the thousands of sectarian schools that are permitted to function subject to only minimal state supervision.

Perhaps I am being too alarmist about what all this means. We do live - even in our advanced, democratic, western nations - in an environment of spiritual oppression where our children are daily exposed to the attempts of adults to annexe their minds. Yet, you may still want to point out that there is a big difference between what adults want and what transpires. All right, so children do frequently get saddled with adult nonsense. But so what. Maybe it is just something the child has to put up with until he or she is able to leave home and learn better.

The question is, does childhood indoctrination matter? And the answer is that it matters more than you might guess. Though human beings are remarkably resilient, the truth is that the effects of well-designed indoctrination may still prove irreversible, because one of the effects of indoctrination will be precisely to move the means and the motivation to reverse it.

I would like to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

It is a cornerstone of every decent moral system, stated explicitly by Immanuel Kant but already implicit in most people's very idea of morality, that human individuals have an absolute right to be treated as ends in themselves - and never as means to achieving other people's ends. It goes without saying that this right applies no less to children than to anybody else. And since, in so many situations, children are in no position to look after themselves, it is morally obvious that the rest of us have a particular duty to watch out for them.

So in every case where we come across examples of children's lives being manipulated to serve other ends, we have a duty to protest. But how? Suppose we as a society do not like what is happening when the education of a child has been left to parents or priests. Suppose we fear for the child's mind and want to take remedial action. Suppose indeed we want to take pre-emptive action with all children to protect them from being hurt by bad ideas and to give them the best possible start as thoughtful human beings. What should we be doing about it? What should our birthday present be to them from the grown-up world?

My suggestion is science - universal scientific education. That is to say, education in learning from observation, experiment, hypothesis testing, constructive doubt, critical thinking - and the truths that flow from it. But what is so special about science? Why these truths? Why should it be morally right to teach this to everybody, when it is apparently so morally wrong to teach all those other things? Science stands apart from and is superior to all other systems for the reason that it alone of all the systems in contention meets the criterion I laid above: namely, that it represents a set of beliefs that any reasonable person would, if given the chance, choose for him or herself. There is a fundamental asymmetry between science and everything else.

The reason for this asymmetry between science and non-science is not only that science provides so much better - so much more economical, elegant, beautiful - explanations of the world than non-science. The still stronger reason is that science is by its very nature a participatory process and non-science is not. In learning science we learn why we should believe this or that. Science does not cajole, it does not dictate, it lays out the factual and theoretical arguments as to why something is so - and invites us to assent to them, to see them for ourselves. Hence by the time someone has understood a scientific explanation they have in an important sense already chosen it as theirs.

And because people will so choose if they have the opportunity of scientific education, then we as a society are entitled with good conscience to insist on their being given that opportunity. That is, we are entitled in effect to choose this way of thinking for them. Indeed we are not just entitled: in the case of children we are morally obliged to do so - so as to protect them from being early victims of other ways of thinking that would remove them from the field. Teaching science is not about teaching someone else's beliefs, it is about encouraging the child to exercise her powers of understanding to arrive at her own beliefs.

It matters what we tell children. They can be hurt by words. They may go on to hurt themselves still further, and in turn become the kind of people that hurt others. But they can be given life by words as well. In the words of Deuteronomy: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." There should be no limit to our duty to help the world's children to choose life.

Nicholas Humphrey is professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York. This article is based on the Amnesty lecture he delivered last Friday in Oxford.

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