Education and Brainwashing


Rick Santorum’s recent claim that college brainwashes students got me thinking about home schooling. I realized after his remarks why I viscerally oppose it: not just because I wouldn’t have been able to get my kids to do math problems at the kitchen table all day, but because home schooling is an extreme form of–there’s no other good word for it—brainwashing. When parents home school their children, they become the principal providers of knowledge, and no matter how educated they are, what they teach is bound to reflect a distinct and consistent bias. Santorum would argue that the practice helps instill parental values, but values are flexible, while bias resists exposure to what is new. Home schooling reinforces the tendency toward smug satisfaction with pre-existing beliefs that seems increasingly pervasive across the political spectrum.

Information introduced in early childhood has a tendency to stick. I know a number of people who were raised in strict Catholic and Jewish households who went on to reject some of the edicts of their religious training. But their conditioning runs deep and, for good or ill, is hard to shake. A lapsed Catholic friend, for example, will speak about the ridiculous superstitions of other religions, but he places the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection in a different category—though, of course, he doesn’t believe in them, he hurries to add.

Young children are far more impressionable than 17-year-olds. Whatever goes on in college is only an addendum to that earlier conditioning.  As a professor for 30 years, I acknowledge that many of my peers are liberals and bring their views into the classroom. Still, it is only the most compliant students–those who have been conditioned by their parents not to question authority—who will uncritically accept a professor’s position. Most college classrooms, moreover, are open forums, sites of debate. Ideas are proffered, but also countered. Opinions learned in childhood are put forward for review and critique.

Santorum’s lament is that college threatens to undo the brainwashing that came before. But that is the point. Woodrow Wilson who, prior to White House, was president of Princeton University, said it best: “The use of Universities is to make young gentlemen[sic] as unlike their parents as possible.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up