What is Indoctrination?

By Olivia Abernathy

Olivia Abernathy is a current Challenge III student in Classical Conversations®. She has been a part of CC for over a decade. Olivia enjoys books, writing fiction and nonfiction, theatre, and the mountains. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her community newsletter. Olivia hopes to own and run her own creative arts magazine. Ultimately, she will go where the Lord leads her.

People often use the word “indoctrination” in our culture today. Democrats say that Republicans are indoctrinating children with conservative beliefs, and the Republicans throw it right back at them. What do we mean when we say somebody’s “indoctrinating” someone else? What makes us dislike the idea of indoctrination?

Where did the word “indoctrination” come from?

According to the American Enterprise Institute, when the verb “indoctrinate” first appeared in 17th-century writings, it merely meant “to teach.” Its meaning came from the Latin “docēre,” “to teach” or “to instruct.” It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that the modern connotation entered our language. “During the early part of the 20th century, the word’s pejorative meaning entered common parlance as a synonym for ‘brainwashing,’ especially regarding the inculcation of sectarian and partisan doctrines,” 1 says the aforementioned article.

Today’s meaning of indoctrination

Indoctrination, defined by the Random House College Dictionary, means “to instruct in a doctrine or ideology” or “to imbue a person with learning.” This definition intends to instill in someone certain principles or beliefs, specifically those that are not universally held. Imbue” is also interesting because “imbue” means inspiring someone with knowledge or saturating them with feelings.

Today, indoctrination has a negative connotation. CNN says, “…there’s a growing political argument on the right that children must be protected from ‘indoctrination’ by the government in schools…2 In this example, people usually use the word about children in the public school system. We say children are being “indoctrinated” with things we disagree with as part of a plot, that they’re being “conditioned” to accept certain things as fact whether or not they are factual. Is this true? Possibly. Is this a bad thing? Yes, but not for the reason you think I’m about to say.

The consequences of indoctrination

To indoctrinate someone is to instill in them the beliefs of your religion or social group. When you firmly believe something is true, it’s reasonable to want others to come to know the truth (or what you believe the truth is). However, if we genuinely want to have an open mind and exercise critical thinking—if we want that for our children as well—we must expose our children to all sides of an issue, even the parts we might disagree with.

In his book Why ProLife?: Caring for the Unborn and Their Mothers, Randy Alcorn shares how he once presented the pro-life case to a class of high school students. After Alcorn’s presentation, the teacher admitted that he had never actually heard the pro-life case. His exposure had only been to the pro-choice point of view. Alcorn states that the teacher “had uncritically accepted the pro-choice position from others, and his students had done the same.3 Is this the kind of nation we want to live in? I’m not even talking about pro-life versus pro-choice. I’m talking about a nation where a 55-year-old social studies teacher was only exposed to ONE point of view on a very controversial topic.

Another possible consequence of indoctrination is that children may not learn to question perspectives. In indoctrinating children, educators often teach them to accept a perspective as fact. Students need to develop the skills of thinking through what they see and hear and conducting more in-depth research to discover the truth. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you don’t want to accept things unquestioningly without thought or research.

Did someone make the moon out of cheese?

Children are naturally very trusting. When I was a child, it would never occur to me to question anything my parents said was fact. If my mother had told me the moon was made of cheese, I would probably have believed her. As I’ve moved forward in my classical education, I’ve been taught to look at all sides of an issue, to question the things I’m taught, and encouraged to do research. I’m grateful for the education I’ve received, which regularly involves engaging in difficult conversations and researching many points of view. But only some children have this opportunity.

“Teach” vs. “Indoctrinate”

The definition of “teach” is “to impart knowledge or skill.” What is the difference between “teach” and “indoctrinate?”. The difference is that “indoctrinate” means you only present the thoughts and ideas of a specific group or system. In contrast, the word “teach” imposes no limit on the type or amount of ideas that one can teach.

In essence, we don’t want to merely indoctrinate our children. We want to teach them, give them the freedom to think their thoughts, and use critical thinking skills to carefully ponder both sides of an issue. People should think freely. They should not feel wrong for challenging previous teachings. In a recent podcast, Robert Bortins discussed the results of a survey showing how Gen Z males are fighting indoctrination.

In Conclusion

Indoctrination is filling a child’s mind with a specific belief system or ideology—almost always while condemning other points of view. Are we called to raise our children this way? It may be easy to teach them only what we believe, but it is far better to expose them to all sides of an issue and how to think about it for themselves. Let us be teachers, teachers of critical thinking, teachers of open-mindedness, teachers of brilliant young minds, and let us not be advocates of indoctrination. The American Enterprise Institute says it best: “The educational system is key to the modern state’s human and social infrastructure, and schools must fulfill their responsibility…”4

Olivian Abernathy

Olivia Abernathy is seventeen years old and a current Challenge 3 student in Classical Conversations. She enjoys books, writing fiction and nonfiction, theatre, and the mountains. Olivia is the founder and editor-in-chief of her campus newsletter. She hopes to one day own and run her own creative arts magazine, but in the end, she will go where the Lord leads her.


  1. Ben-Chaim, Micheal. “How Schools Indoctrinate and How They Can Educate.” American Enterprise Institute, Accessed 22 February 2024. ↩︎
  2. Wolf, Zachary B. “The growing movement to protect children from their government.” CNN, 9 March 2023, Accessed 22 February 2024. ↩︎
  3. Alcorn, Randy. Why ProLife? Sandy, OR. Eternal Perspective Ministries, 2004. ↩︎
  4. Ben-Chaim, Micheal. “How Schools Indoctrinate and How They Can Educate.” American Enterprise Institute, Accessed 22 February 2024. ↩︎