Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

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Indoctrination and the Un-growth of Morality

  • Rauno HuttunenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_419-1


Critical Thinking Communicative Action Teaching Content Communicative Teaching Mature Person 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The concept of indoctrination means unethical influencing in a teaching or learning situation imposed by teacher, teaching content, or educational institution (see Snook 1972; Hare 1964; Cuypers and Haji 2006; Kilpatric 1972; Puolimatka 2001). When successful indoctrination causes infiltrating (drilling, inculcating, etc.) concepts, attitudes, beliefs, and theories into an individual’s mind by passing his or her free and critical deliberation (Huttunen 2003). When on a general level we define indoctrination in this pejorative way, it is easy to reject indoctrination. Its rejection means that we condemn the indoctrinative as teaching morally wrong and demand that teachers, parents, textbooks, or educational institutions should not endorse it. One major reason for indoctrination being reprehensible is that indoctrination prevents moral growth or it represents moral un-growth. According to Richard Mervyn Hare, the aim of indoctrination is to keep children perpetually children, aka keep them in the state of moral immaturity. “Indoctrination only begins when we are trying to stop the growth in… capacity to think for themselves about moral questions” (Hare 1964, 64). Indoctrinative teaching prevents those learning processes that facilitate critical thinking and moral maturity. If the context is adult education, the aim of indoctrination is to turn morally mature person into morally immature person. Indoctrinative education thus contributes a kind of moral unlearning or un-growth of morality.

One can claim that indoctrination tends to cause un-independent thinking and moral immaturity. In his famous text An Answer to the Question – What Is Enlightenment, Kant (2015a) defines immaturity as follows: “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding.” In the case of indoctrination, this immaturity is not self-incurred, but it is production of indoctrinative teaching, indoctrinative teaching contents, or indoctrinative teaching institutions.

Indoctrination in Habermasian Sense

Jürgen Habermas (1991, 169) criticizes Hans-Georg Gadamer’s view on education being indoctrinative, although Habermas does not explicitly use the term indoctrination but instead Habermas speaks of legitimieren mit Autorität (legitimation with authority): “Gadamer has in mind the type of educational process through which what is handed down is translated into individual learning activities and appropriated as tradition. Here the person of the educator legitimates prejudgments that are inculcated (legitimieren mit Autorität) into learner with authority – and this means, however we want to look at it, under the potential threat of sanctions and with a view to gratifications. Identification with the role model creates the authority through which an internalization of norms, and thus sedimentation of prejudgments, is possible. The prejudgments in turn are the preconditions of possible knowledge. This knowledge is raised to the status of reflection when it makes transparent the normative framework within it moves… Made transparent, the prejudgment structure can no longer function as prejudgment. But that is precisely what Gadamer seems to imply. For authority to converge with knowledge would mean that tradition, working behind the back of educator, so to speak, legitimates the prejudgments inculcated into the person growing up; these prejudgments could then be confirmed only in the reflection of that person. As the person, having become mature, confirmed the structure of prejudgments, he would transfer, in reflected form, the once involuntary acknowledgment of the personal authority of the guardian to the objective authority of a context of tradition. Yet it would remain authority, for reflection would be able to move only within the limits of the facticity of what was handed down. The act of recognition, mediated by reflection, would not have altered the fact that tradition as such remained the only basis for the validity of prejudgments.” In this supposedly Gadamerian model of education – for the sake of clearness I rely on Habermas interpretation – the formation of Kantian autonomous moral subjectivity is impossible. In this model the individual is unable to critically reflect on internalized norms and prejudgments until he or she has learned to follow them blindly.

If Habermas accusation is correct, Gadamer’s view on education is vulnerable to indoctrination accusation. For Gadamer only when the person has become mature, then he or she can critically reflect prejudgments he or she has received from the tradition. This reminds Jack Mezirow’s (1991) concept of critical adult education. Mezirow thinks that school education is always indoctrinative and only adult education could be emancipator and non-indoctrinative. Habermas’s counterclaim is that once individual has internalized norms and prejudgments of tradition, his or her mature reflection would be able to move only within the limits of the facticity of what was handed down by tradition. In the Gadamerian model, the individual is unable to critically reflect on internalized norms and prejudgments until he or she has learned to follow them blindly. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics which demands us to be open to the authority of tradition makes rejection of indoctrination impossible because pupils and students have to first adopt the tradition before they can critically reflect the content of tradition (for Gadamer-Habermas debate, see Hoy 1978; Holub 1991; Misgeld 1991; Jay 1982; Vattimo 1989; Ricoeur 1990; Giddens 1977; McCarthy 1978).

It is a very difficult task to reconstruct a model of education which provides a faculty of critical reflection that makes possible for the learner to transcend the context of tradition and be a Kantian autonomous moral thinker. How can an individual and more precisely a child transcend the context of tradition? Without this ability to transcend tradition, a person is not an autonomous moral thinker and his or her competence for moral reflection remains in undeveloped phase.

Stefaan E. Cuypers and Ishtiyaque Haji (2006) have very interesting proposal for this dilemma. They name this dilemma with phrase “indoctrination objection” which “calls into question whether education, aimed at cultivating autonomous critical thinkers, is possible” (Cuypers and Haji 2006, 273–274). Cuypers and Haji propose that before autonomous critical thinking, there is nonautonomous “proto critical thinking” which lacks the autonomy but forms foundation for later autonomous critical thinking (Cuypers and Haji 2006). Habermasian model of emancipator learning also presupposes some kind of capacity for critical thinking before mature critical thinking. We might call this as preliminary communicative and moral competence. Before proper Kantian moral maturity, there must be some sort of moral maturity which makes moral development and moral growth possible.

The Kantian idea moral maturity is itself a content of tradition. The problem is that a child must learn essential content of tradition and at the same time she or he must learn to critically reflect this content. Any other form of learning is indoctrinative and represents “a moral unlearning” or un-growth of morality. Gadamer’s hermeneutics implies that learning is always indoctrinative. For Gadamer, Bildung (education) is socialization into tradition and its values. Gadamer thinks that we must first understand the tradition and open up to the tradition before we can evaluate and renew it. Habermas wants us to have a critical and reflective attitude to begin with and demands us to trust our own power of judgment. In the Habermasian model of critical learning, the enlightened Cartesian and Kantian autonomic subject postpones prejudices and authority until she has decided which part of the tradition is worth saving. In some sense Gadamer himself acknowledges that his philosophical hermeneutics does not show the possibility for critique of tradition or breaking free from tradition and thus it is one-sided (Gadamer 1998, xxxvii):

This raises a final question, which concerns less the method than the contents of the hermeneutic universalism I have outlined. Does not the universality of understanding involve a one-sidedness in its contents, since it lacks a critical principle in relation to tradition and, as it were, espouses a universal optimism? However much it is the nature of tradition to exist only through being appropriated, it still is part of the nature of man to be able to break with tradition, to criticize and dissolve it, and is not what takes place in remaking the real into an instrument of human purpose something far more basic in our relationship to being? To this extent, does not the ontological universality of understanding result in a certain one-sidedness? Understanding certainly does not mean merely appropriating customary opinions or acknowledging what tradition has sanctified. Heidegger, who first described the concept of understanding as the universal determinateness of Dasein [“human being,” RH], means by this the very projectiveness of understanding – i.e., the futurality of Dasein. I shall not deny, however, that – among all the elements of understanding – I have emphasized the assimilation of what is past and of tradition. Like many of my critics, Heidegger too would probably feel a lack of ultimate radicality in the conclusions I draw.

On the other hand, Gadamer has a point when he is claiming that there is no escape from tradition. Everything that we have learned about moral behavior, we have learned from tradition. The problem here is this: Where does this Kantian autonomic subject come from if not from the process of education itself? How can a student or a pupil exercise her Kantian autonomy toward tradition in the process of education, if Kantian moral autonomy is an outcome of education? This situation is called the pedagogical paradox (see Kant 2015b; Løvlie 2007), or it is one aspect of this paradox. Both Gadamer and Emil Durkheim try to avoid the pedagogical paradox by identifying education with socialization. For Gadamer education is the process through which an individual adopts the content of a tradition and becomes a mature member of a community. An individual must first grow into a tradition before she can evaluate the content of the tradition. Durkheim’s view is more or less the same, though he lays more emphasis on the socially functionalistic role of educational institutions. Durkheim defines education in the following way (Durkheim 1956, 71):

Education is the influence exercised by adult generations on those that are not yet ready for social life. Its object is to arouse and to develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual and moral states which are demanded of him by both the political society as a whole and the special milieu for which he is specifically destined.

According to Paul Fauconnet’s interpretation of Durkheim, “autonomy is the attitude of a Will that accepts rules because the Will recognizes their rational ground. First a child receives rules from society. The child is not able to evaluate which rules are valid and which need to be either rejected or renewed. Only autonomic attitude is capable of this evaluation, and autonomy grows gradually in the process of education” (Fauconnet in Durkheim 1956, 45). Habermas, on the other hand, claims that evaluation of rules and norms, which happens afterward, is bound to tradition. Habermas claims that if the only basis for validity of norms is tradition (like legal positivism states), then no one possesses true autonomy. Nevertheless, the Habermasian model of education cannot escape the pedagogical paradox. Where does autonomy come from if young pupils are not communicatively competent to critically evaluate the content of tradition? If critical learning requires critical evaluation and reflection of the tradition, a communicatively incompetent learner is unable to learn critically which in turn prevents the moral growth or causes moral un-growth. Through what kind of learning process is a critical and communicatively competent subject formed? Asking this question is the same as asking how Bildung is possible, because Bildung means formation of a Kantian morally mature (Mündigkeit) subjectivity.

For this purpose, I have constructed a model of communicative teaching which tries to preserve the idea of critical learning while recognizing the authority of the teacher and tradition. This model is based on Habermas’s theory of communicative action (1984) and discourse ethics (Habermas 1990, 1992). Communicative teaching is close to the ideals of collaborative learning, peer interaction, and non-teacher-directed communication (see Littleton 2000; Light and Littleton 1999). Empirical studies by Karen Littleton and others show that pupils in schools have better capacities for independent and critical thinking that is generally believed even among the professionals of education. Cuypers’s and Haji’s (2006) notion of proto critical thinking is well in accordance with this line of thinking. My model of communicative teaching does not totally solve the problem of pedagogical paradox, but it shows the principles that contribute to the formation of conditions for peer learning, the practical intersubjectivity in teaching (see Biesta 1994), and for situation where a teacher and her pupils can cooperatively participate in the formation of meanings and new meaning perspectives.

Communicative Teaching as Facilitator of Critical Thinking and Moral Growth

As I said before, Habermas has not directly dealt with the theory of indoctrination, but there are two versions of Habermasian criteria for indoctrination: Robert Young (1989) Habermasian theory of indoctrination and my own (Huttunen 2003, 2009). Robert Young was first to apply Habermas to the theory of indoctrination, but Young’s concept of indoctrination has its own inherent problems. Young’s theory concentrates solely on the speech acts of the teacher, which should not be the point in the theory of indoctrination. This is why I presented a revised version of the Habermasian concept of indoctrination. I have to say that my critique toward Young concerns only a small portion of his larger critical theory of education. With the exception of this concept of indoctrination, I am very much in agreement with Young’s critical theory of education.

I understand communicative teaching to include value orientations in which the teacher commits herself or himself to “universal” presuppositions of argumentation and acts in accordance with these maxims as to the best of her or his ability (Mollenhauer 1972, 42). Pedagogical communication is a kind of simulated communicative action (see Masschelein 1991, 145), and it is more simulated in early stage of education. When a teacher teaches 7-year-old pupils, the words “to the best of her or his ability” have different practical consequence than in the case of a teacher teaching 20-year-old students. The value orientation is the same, but the practice or application of presuppositions of argumentation is different. When we understand communicative teaching in this way, as an exceptional form of communicative action, the concept of communicative teaching is looser than the concept of communicative action itself. I think that communicative teaching as an exceptional application of communicative action still remains within the realm of communicative action, although teachers sometimes use language in strategic ways. I could imagine that the amount of strategic use of language is higher in elementary school than in institutes of higher education, but the value orientation of teaching is still the same in both cases. Because teaching situation is asymmetric situation, teaching cannot fully satisfy rigorous requirements of communicative action. At best teaching could be simulated communicative action where pupils can practice their preliminary communicative competence (Masschelein 1991, 145).

In dealing with the dilemma of indoctrination, we should refrain from focusing specific attention on the singular speech acts of a teacher. When the aim of education is to produce mature and communicatively competent people and the content of teaching provides materials for independent and critical thinking, then the teacher may use methods that, when taken out of context, may resemble strategic action and the perlocutive use of language.

In this respect, I have set two parallel criteria for indoctrinative teaching: (1) the communicative method and intention criterion and (2) the empowering content and consequence criterion (Huttunen 2003, 2009).
  1. 1.

    The most important element in the non-indoctrinative teaching is the respect for other persons. Habermas defines the communicative action as a kind of linguistic interaction in which one’s fellow man is considered as a genuine person and in which aims and ends of action are decided in an environment free and equal discussion. Opposing to this communicative action, there is the strategic action in which one treats others as a natural object, solely as a means to an end. I define the strategic teaching as the kind of teaching in which the teacher treats her students solely as objects, as objects of series of didactical maneuvers. This strategic teaching is a form of indoctrination (strategic teaching is not same as indoctrination), when a teacher tries to transfer teaching content to the students’ minds, treating them merely as passive objects, not as active co-subjects of the learning process. Then the teaching is in no sense the simulation of the communicative action but the pure strategic action.

    I define the communicative teaching as contradictory to the strategic teaching. The aim is a communicatively competent person who does not need to rely on the teacher or any other authority for that matter. In the communicative teaching, students are not treated as passive objects but as active learners. In the communicative teaching, a teacher and her students cooperatively participate in the formation of meanings and new perspectives. In the communicative teaching, the teacher does not impose her ideas on the students but rather they make a joint effort to find a meaningful insight regarding the issues at hand. What I refer to as the communicative teaching very closely corresponds with Biesta’s “the practical intersubjectivity in teaching.” Biesta does not understand education “as a one way process in which culture is transferred from one (already accultured) organism to another (not yet accultured), but as a co-constructive process, a process in which both participating organisms play active role and in which meaning is not transferred but produced” (Biesta 1994, 312). Unlike Biesta, I do not consider teaching (no matter how good a teacher is) as a symmetrical communicative action.

    The communicative teaching is nearest to the ideal of communicative action that it can get in a real teaching situation. The communicative teaching is a simulation of communicative action, a simulation of a free and equal discourse. It is also a simulation of democracy and democratic mode of action. This means that there could be no communicative teaching in the school, if there exists no kind of practice of a school democracy. Nevertheless, pedagogical action essentially remains as an asymmetrical relationship, because the teacher and her students do not share a common level of communicative competence. Only after a person has completed her education (Bildung) is she prepared to engage in the proper communicative action.

    However, even my revised version of the method and intention criterion does not recognize the unintentionally or structurally caused indoctrination. In some teaching situations, no matter what a teacher’s intentions and methods were, the outcome was still an uneducated morally immature indoctrinated person. Thus, it is clear that we need aspects of the content and the consequence of teaching.

  2. 2.

    The starting point in the empowerment content criterion is the constructivist view of knowledge. Nowadays, teaching cannot be based on the notion that there exists a group of objective facts, which are deposited into students’ minds like money is deposited in a bank. According to the constructivist view, knowledge is constructed through social processes. Knowledge does not imitate outer reality but rather the system of knowledge is a construction of the reality. When the constructivist nature of knowledge is recognized, higher demands with regard to the teaching content are directed. The teaching content should provide students with opportunities to construct their own creative and multidimensional view of reality. The teaching content should also promote students to engage critical self-reflection. Thus, if we want the teaching content to be non-indoctrinative, the teaching content should contribute to students’ reflectivity toward those meaning perspectives that they have already adopted, as well as toward those that are taught (see Mezirow 1991). The teaching content should not provide any easy answers but rather should improve students’ own power of judgment and capacity for mature deliberation. I consider content that limits students’ meaning perspectives and minimizes as opposed to increases students’ own power of judgment as indoctrinative. In the case of indoctrination, the teaching content tends to keep students at an immature stage. The non-indoctrinative teaching content gives students both the freedom and faculty to determine their own differentiated identity, worldview, and conduct of life.

    The consequence criterion of empowerment is related to the theories of modern identity and reflective modernity (Beck et al. 1994). The idea of this criterion is to promote such kind of education that contributes to the formation of reflective and relatively open identities. In modern societies, identities are open to a certain extent. I would call this as modern person or modern personality to contrast traditional personality. In every society, some part of identity is solid as a result of primary socialization, but, in modern societies, the individual tends to remain somewhat “incomplete.” The modern person is conscious of her capacity to change her own identity, and she possesses the perspective of many possible identities. This relatively open form of identity produces the pluralization of life worlds and meaning perspectives. People tend to grow up differently in modern societies. This corresponds with the situation that Emile Durkheim called organic solidarity (Durkheim 1984). In the stage of organic solidarity, society needs autonomous, independent, critical, and professional individual personalities. My claim is that if educational institutions tend to systematically produce closed identities (traditional personalities), we can presume that these institutions impose some form of indoctrination. In modern or postmodern society, educational institutions should encourage a reflective attitude toward one’s own identity. Without this kind of reflectivity, moral growth is difficult or even impossible. Modern educational institutions should contribute to the formation of a modern personality which corresponds Kantian notion of enlightened morally mature person.



Indoctrinative teaching, indoctrinative teaching contents, and indoctrinative educational institutions tend to produce uncritical and morally immature person which is opposite to the Kantian enlightened morally mature person. Indoctrination does not facilitate moral learning and it tends to produce moral unlearning or un-growth. In modern times we appreciate moral maturity and enlightenment; that is why we disapprove indoctrination. We want education contribute to the formation of morally autonomous mature person, but this is easier said than done. We encounter the pedagogical paradox. How can we teach anything, e.g., independent moral thinking, without unintentionally indoctrinating individual to some moral system or tradition of moral behavior? This issue touches the essence of the so-called Gadamer-Habermas debate. I admit that Gadamer has a point when he is defending the authority of (moral) tradition, but nevertheless (supposedly) Gadamerian model of education does not facilitate the Kantian notion of enlightened morally mature person. Habermas’ critique of Gadamer hermeneutics is effective, but Habermas’s theory lacks the proper educational theory which could show how pedagogical paradox can be avoided or at least mitigated. That is why I have reconstructed a Habermasian model of communicative teaching which aims at overcoming indoctrination and moral un-growth.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TurkuTurkuFinland