Viruses in Academe: Indoctrination and Intellectuals

Roderick Hindery

A photo of a microscope

Propaganda spreads like viruses

Why have intellectuals been characterized, both inside and beyond academe, as uniquely vulnerable to ideology and its transmission by indoctrination and propaganda? From nazi, stalinist, and maoist chains of command to contemporary terrorist networks, intellectuals have played their own roles, not only in the final fury of ideology and indoctrination, but in their radical genesis, right, left, and in-between.

Not all political and religious radicals, of course, are prone equally either to making ideological claims; or, in a quite separate matter, to promoting them with strategies tantamount to indoctrination. With tongues variously in cheek, we begin by pretending that those radical and other intellectuals who are most infected with the viruses of ideology and indoctrination, include neither radical nor mainstream academics like you or me. Secondly, we shall delineate how we use the terms, ideology and indoctrination. Then, we can resume our opening question about why intellectuals have been so readily co-opted by ideologies and indoctrination.

Ideologists and fundamentalists compared

Considering ideological content apart from methods of indoctrination, Marx identified ideologies with theories and movements, which are excessively focused on their own self-interests and which lack sufficient interaction with the viewpoints of others. In a positive sense, ideologies are called radical, insofar as they search for economic, political, and other cultural roots (radices) of issues. But in a derogatory Marxian interpretation, ideologies refer to theories and movements, which, all too certain of themselves, fail to recognize their coexistence with other perspectives. In equivalent measures, they fall short of gathering and analyzing sufficient evidence for their claims.

Ideologists become suspect, not because they probe issues at extreme roots, but whenever they draw from their own hypotheses, as if they were absolutes. In parallel fashion, political, religious, and other cultural fundamentalists are regarded as problematic, not merely because of their simplistic preoccupation with fundamentals, even with negativistic assumptions, but chiefly because their premises take on the mantle of infallibility. With hubris difficult to envision, because it is too close to see, ideologists and fundamentalists resemble each other. Both types are often admirably motivated. But they resist the limited and provisional measures and qualities of certitude, which most individuals find sufficient for daily living and scientific endeavor. They spill over into unwarranted absolutes and the doctrinaire literalism with which absolutism is sometimes associated.

Literalism is itself a genre of interpretation, which borders on the ideological. Literalists read traditions and texts in isolation from their initial and historical contexts. Figures of speech are translated as prose. The universe, for example, is construed to have been created literally in “six days,” or women “from the ribs of men.” Markets are imagined literally to produce fair allocations by some “invisible hand.” Within academe, models and matrices of other disciplines and fields of research are transferred and misplaced with corresponding literalism into one’s own areas and methods. Antithetical Marxist and capitalist “inevitabilities” of class violence and trickle-down economic benefits, for example, are heralded, as if they embodied the certitude of mathematical propositions.

Together with literalistic fundamentalists, ideologists share positive as well as negative qualities. Positively, they focus on key matters of substance, as in fairer distribution of wealth, “the five fundamentals” or “the ten commandments.” Models of sincerity, enthusiasm, and apparent fervor, both ideologists and fundamentalists display commitment to actions as well as words. They avoid facile compromise. Negatively, however, both types may participate in other mind-sets and traits, such as, exclusiveness towards outsiders, feigned outrage, and authoritarian aggression interlaced with self-doubt.

Ideological and fundamentalist strategies: shared patterns

In the framework of ideological and fundamentalist strategies, if not substance, therefore, a pattern of relations emerges: ideology; insular focus on self-interests; lack of interaction with competing viewpoints; authoritarian dogmatism; infallibleness; absolutism; and cultural fundamentalism, in the negative sense of a literalism, riddled with over-simplification. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s taunting phrase, ideology’s mantra becomes: “Better orderly error than complex truth.”

Incidentally, to whatever extent some adherents of religions, such as Islam or Christianity, claim infallibility, some of their critics discern comparable ideology and absolutism, in which predication by fiat replaces logic and evidence. These critics challenge neither the core of these religions, nor their teaching that God or Allah is infallible. Instead, they fault those religious leaders and prophets, who allege circularly that they speak, and even act, infallibly, on their own self-declared authority, and with no need for further verification or accountability.

Strategies of propaganda

Distinct, but not separate, from authoritarian content of ideology and fundamentalism are the indoctrinating dispositions and methods with which ideologies are promoted. In contrast to the term indoctrination, propaganda refers to processes of misinformation and emotional manipulation, which are more strategically organized. Whenever both terms are used interchangeably, as they are here, they signify coercive influence on minds and feelings. At the radical right and radical left, as well as in-between, strategies of propaganda and indoctrination encompass self-deception, exclusiveness, the paralysis of thought with excessive information, and the exploitation of emotions. Such devices both exceed and stand distinct from robust advocacy. Vigorous persuasion comprises both more and less than indoctrination. More, because persuasion appeals to minds as well as hearts; and less, because by deception, indoctrination tends not to integrate thoughts and feelings, but to confuse and substitute them for one another. Since self-deception, in particular, is so basically linked to the success and failure of indoctrination and propaganda, we shall underline its presence among intellectuals in and beyond academe. First, we reprise the opening question.

How is it possible that intellectuals, who are professionally dedicated to scientific precision and verification, succumb to ideological claims? How can they yield to ideological assertions, which both assume their own conclusions and lock out any possibilities for falsification? How, in addition, can they submit to indoctrinations, which deceive minds and exploit emotions? How can learned academics in particular grow nearsighted about obvious assaults against critical thought and feeling?

Intellectuals enjoy no special immunity

To begin, we may ask “why not?” Why should gullibility towards ideologies and weakness toward ideological tactics be respecters of persons? If critical thought functions distinctly, yet never separately, from feelings, such as fear, rage, greed, and hubris (cognitive pride), and hunger for power, intellectuals as such are no more immune to deception and manipulation, than they are to the replication of cancer cells. To borrow Ian McFadyen’s metaphors about Mind Wars, ideology and indoctrination tend to proliferate like viruses within computer programs.

Perhaps intellectuals are additionally vulnerable, to the extent that they have become accustomed to working with malleable ideas, rather than with concrete and steel. Concepts can be altered, separated, or jammed together more easily than concrete entities, such as bricks or limited financial resources. To accommodate fatigue, haste, and other practical pressures, ideas can be bent and plied more easily, especially when “infallible” systems of thought disclaim any requirement for verification or falsification. For those who function in the realm of mental constructs, yielding becomes as much an occupational hazard, as the hubris, which degrades just pride about ideas and accomplishments into condescension and arrogance. Recognizing such occupational hazards among intellectuals may also concede that they are uniquely submissive to indoctrination and subject to ideological hubris. It acknowledges intellectuals’ equal opportunity to share with other human beings corresponding emotional challenges and limitations. In this democratic hypothesis, viruses among intellectuals are neither better nor worse, even if in fact they are more readily contagious. If you agree with this hypothesis, perhaps you can explicate reasons for such contagion.

The coequal vulnerability of academic and other intellectuals to ideology and indoctrination can be illustrated with three examples. In the first example, some academics remain oblivious to the inroads of corporate and managerial thinking within colleges and universities. Shortsighted about obvious pressures from external corporations and foundations, which often fund programs, institutes, or chairs, they operate as if none of these forces could ever influence objective judgments among themselves or their students, however subliminally. In schools of business, medicine, or the business of recreation and athletic activities, some professors presuppose that the assimilation of external sponsorships or advertising will never become invasive. They forget that gifts often imply expectations for reciprocity, whatever is written or stated publicly. The protests and resolves of media viewers and academics notwithstanding, commercials penetrate their values and behavior. In parallel fashion, corporate advertising and thought-patterns penetrate academic objectivity through filtered perspectives about sales, profits, managerial efficiency, and students perceived as consumers (Academe, September-October 2001).

A second example of ideology and indoctrination emerges from some, not all, socialist and anti-corporate realms. There, everything corporate is evil and oppressive. To rectify gross inequities in global impoverishment, reform is insufficient. Everything must be demolished and then rebuilt. Tearing down existing capitalist economic and governmental structures is more important than fashioning or creating alternatives. Within leading corporations, nations, and international structures, evil is personified. Like corporations, the World Bank and the IMF are incorrigible and incapable of reform. All of these claims are infallibly and politically correct, as parts of closely intertwined systems of thought, which presuppose their own conclusions.

A third kind of ideology and indoctrination is modeled in the performance of professors who forget that, both as professionals and as persons, they remain figures of authority within and beyond their disciplines. If they disregard their enormous potential impact on students, not only in what they profess, but also in their styles of presentation, they may transmit infected cells of ideology and indoctrination, which grow more active in their mushrooming contagion. As unassuming guides, not indoctrinators, what academics hope to avoid and to accomplish does not transpire within a one-time decision. It amounts to sustained efforts to replace ideology and indoctrination with free and critical thought. Four of these efforts, we address here: honesty about assumptions, competence in research and presentation, fairness toward opposing positions, and the courage to think for oneself.

The difficulty of acknowledging assumptions

Honesty about assumptions comprises not a given, but a goal to be approximated. Ideally, it begins with a Copernican recognition that no single field or subject is the center around which others orbit. It continues by dedicating equitable amounts of time and energy to research and publication, without grand theft from other collegial responsibilities or from class preparation. Full throttle is reached to the degree that instructors clearly acknowledge relevant assumptions, say, their certitude or agnosticism about which questions, methods, and authorities are most paramount within their disciplines. Openness about presuppositions protects both professors and students from ideologies and indoctrinations, which are cloaked beneath hidden agendas: political, religious, or other.

Professors can model scientific honesty at its heights by acknowledging premises and conclusions, which they find paradoxical, if not contradictory. Determinists who deny the existence of free will, for example, might acknowledge that they often postulate it in practice or presume it from their experience. Socialists and capitalists alike might admit that while discrete insights may ground tentative theories, they do not erect ideologies from which all truths can be deduced. In any field, why should it be presumed that the latest theoretical constructs operate with inerrancy, when histories of ideas demonstrate that theories are commonly succeeded by alternative theses and antitheses? At bottom, without honesty about assumptions, what survives contains both ideological dogmatism and the likelihood of spiraling indoctrinations.

Competence in research and presentation refers to fact as well as logic; and to organization as well as performance. Its immediate allies consist in class preparation and the capacity to illustrate as well as to clarify, even with analogies from other fields. Broad-based analogies, however, can threaten competence, to the extent that they are uninformed and unduly digressive or irrelevant. Respect for interdisciplinary methods granted, the more specialists digress from their own disciplines, the more care they must exercise that their competence is not compromised. Incompetence differs from other conditions for indoctrination, chiefly in that its agents go on indoctrinating themselves, without their own awareness. With apparent innocence, they grow all the more entrenched in both ideology and in indoctrination by omission and ignorance.

The importance of openness to adverse viewpoints

Fairness toward opposing positions stems from sound pedagogy, as much as it expresses democratic openness. Even harder disciplines, such as physics, can be approached from contrary paradigms. Tolerance for models and theories, which conflict with their own, rewards both instructors and students, by disposing them to grasp their own positions more fully. Sometimes, with gratitude, they may also adjust or replace their initial premises. Openness to adverse viewpoints functions as the most immediate antidote against ideological infallibleness and methods of indoctrination and propaganda. As students feel free to express contrary positions, they begin to realize that without intervention by themselves as well as their instructors, some of their peers will monopolize discussions. Effective academic dialogue depends on brevity, clarity, and relevance among all students and instructors, but especially among those who tend to hijack discussion time from their peers. Productive exchanges can be spontaneous, if they remain informed. They can proceed freely, without resorting to randomness. To the degree that openness and fairness prevail, so will free and critical thought immunize against ideology and indoctrination.

The courage to think for oneself, both within and beyond the classroom, entails conditions, such as, creative imagination, critical dialogue with others, elemental fortitude (guts euphemized), and the avoidance of self-deception. Although all four requisites are necessary; none of them suffices without the others, as their isolated presence among ideologues and indoctrinators attests.

First, creative imagination in critical thinking is not pulled out of a hat. Intuitive recognitions are rarely cost-free. They are earned, sometimes at the cost of bucking popular trends. Resisting collective group-think, imaginative professors help students search beyond, as well as within, the paradigms of elites, who control their disciplines and who teach them what to look for (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). If creative vision within specific fields sometimes occurs randomly or in tandem with life experiences, it is also cultivated with sweat and blood, repeated experiments, and relentless exertion. It is stretched by daring to think “out of the box.”

Second, critical dialogue with others entails respectful silence, listening, and empathy among both students and professors. Silence is both precondition and component for critical thought and creative imagination. Departing from one-way ideological communiques and propagandas, silence makes possible the two-way exchanges of critical conversation and the adventure of authentically thinking for oneself.

Third, elemental fortitude about a subject connotes a visceral courage, which is not only cognitive, but also affective. It integrates openness to adventure and passion for exploration with standing up for ideas and their consequences. The cost of critical imagination and dialogue in some cases means the courage to risk being marginalized by ones colleagues and peers, or excluded by family and friends, who prefer ideological group-think and trends in indoctrination.

A fourth precondition for both ideology and indoctrination is self-deception. Propaganda operates more productively in the measure that it is internalized by its victims. Economic or racial bondage has succeeded in the measure that subjects inflict it upon themselves. The cultural subjection of women to men has been nourished more effectively, when it has also been self-imposed. The growing subordination of faculty to administration gains credibility, if faculty and students no longer perceive themselves as component members of the college or university. No one is immune to self-deception, academic intellectuals included. One of its most deceptive forms occurs when instructors and students hide behind excesses of information, which stifle critical thought.


In summary, creative imagination, critical dialogue, elemental fortitude, and control over self-deception all comprise aspects of the courage to think for oneself. Ideally, this bravery needs to be integrated with honesty about assumptions, competence in research and presentation, and fairness toward opposing positions. These qualities are vital for the abolition of ideology and indoctrination among intellectuals in and beyond academe.

The primary challenge to academic and other intellectuals, however, is not merely negative, but positive. It is to model critical thinking as well as to share expertise in special fields. If intellectuals, academic ones included, are uniquely vulnerable to the viruses of ideology and indoctrination, they possess easily forgotten defenses and weapons against such contamination. These include not only their special expertise in sourcing and analysis, but also their equally important role as skilled models of critical thinking. Academe represents a critical source, if not the front lines, of defense against ideology and indoctrination, by doing much better what it should be doing already. Intellectuals need to educate students not only in specialized fields, but as human beings, stretching their skills to examine all life’s issues, thinking critically for themselves, and growing increasingly liberated from poisonous clouds of ideology and indoctrination.

Roderick Hindery is
a retired professor in religious studies and social ethics, Temple University,
and was adjunct professor at
State University until 2008.

This paper elaborates ideas developed in his recent book, Indoctrination
and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought?
The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001). It was presented to faculty and students
in the Dept. of Religious Studies, ASU, November 2001, some of whose
questions for discussion are listed below. Its ideas about intellectuals are
developed in the paper which will follow: “Facing Up to Indoctrination
and Self-deception in Religious Groups, New and Traditional.”

Discussion questions

  1. At the same time as honesty about our own assumptions protects others
    from our hidden agenda, it may also conflict with our right to privacy. Like
    conversation partners in general, are instructors and students obliged in
    every case to disclose their assumptions and perspectives? Why or why not?
  2. Under what limits to freedom, if at all, may children be politically or
    religiously indoctrinated? How about individuals who live within cultures which are “less
  3. How may the preceding analyses of academic or religious indoctrination
    be applied politically, economically, or within the world of commercial
  4. Whether or not indoctrination should proliferate culturally as far as “critical mass,” would convictions for or against “free
    choice” make a difference? Or is freedom itself a matter of
    indoctrination? What do you think, on your own, about such issues?

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