Sugata Mitra’s Doctrine of “Outdoctrination”
According to Professor Sugata Mitra, outdoctrination is what should counteract the dreaded indoctrination. It involves what Sugata Mitra calls a “minimally invasive” form of education. A school (it could be an old-fashioned maximally invasive school) sets aside some space and time for a “self-organising learning environment” (SOLE). The crucial tools in the room are PCs connected to the internet – enough PCs for the students to use them in small groups. The students are given the freedom to surf the web to pursue their educational interests. The outdoctrination then occurs when students find information and opinions or value judgments that conflict with those they have acquired during their earlier indoctrination. Inevitably doubts emerge about the truth of what they had previously been led to believe, and so the liberating process of outdoctrination begins.
Isn’t this great? Surely it is a good idea if the old dogmatic systems are loosened up. I agree, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see a reversion to a system where students are frog-marched around the yard at the start of the school day, then lined up in front of the national flag to sing the national anthem before being taught a historical narrative according to which their ancestors are always the good guys and the enemies are always ignorant brutes. Sugata Mitra’s approach is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. In short it is too half-hearted. If we really think indoctrination should be challenged, something more is needed.
Part of the problem with outdoctrination is that the end result, as far as the mentality of the students is concerned, is likely to be a sort of soft semi-nihilism – a quiet confusion about values (assuming the students don’t come across some sect or other online and decide that it has grasped the Absolute Truth, signing up for a maximally invasive course in scientology, for instance).
The outcome is likely to bear a striking resemblance to that of the maximally invasive multicultural education we have had in Europe for a few decades now. Multiculturalism meant tolerance, and that was cultivated by doing a few lessons about one dogma, then a few more about another, then another, and so on until it became obvious to the students that there were numerous names for the Supreme Being, with no way of deciding which was right and which was wrong. Tolerance might be gained, but at the expense of a firm belief in anything in particular – a quiet, liberal semi-nihilism.
What’s the alternative? To see what this might be, we need to think a little more about why we became interested in outdoctrination in the first place. Why do we think it is a good thing if the old dogmatic ways are slowly undermined? This is something educationalists need to debate, but let me suggest two main reasons to get the ball rolling.
One reason has to do with the value of individuality. We want all young people to have the right to develop fully as individuals, and in school that has to involve students beginning to take some control of their education. Hence the importance of students questioning received wisdom, and also participating in the organisation of their learning environment.
The other reason has to do with epistemology (our understanding of what can be said to be true). Part of our reluctance to carry on imposing the old dogmas is that we no longer believe that they have any Absolute Truth. This might be called a post-modernist epistemology – the sort of social self-understanding expressed so well by Nietzsche when he described all our ideological frameworks as “human, all too human.” In other words, we have the profound understanding that whenever we make a claim to know something, we always rely on a conceptual framework that is the product of an all-too-human history. If we climb to the top of a mountain and find something carved in stone, we will only be able to know what it says if we can translate it into our language and understand it in terms of things that are familiar to us. At the same time, we realise that there is no way to step outside of this conceptual framework to somehow judge whether it corresponds to the Supreme Being that might lie beyond it.
The alternative to outdoctrination then involves seeing that this concern with individuality and this new epistemology belong to a cluster of very specific historical traditions. If we are serious about those values, then we ought to be serious about those traditions. They don’t boil down to a single dogma. On the contrary, they comprise a history of emerging ideas about dogma, truth, humanity, history, society and individuality. It is a history that we can identify with and believe in so that we no longer feel that we are lost in the no-man’s land in some apparently senseless war of ideas.
If this is the history that makes sense of our concerns about child-centredness and anti-dogmatism, surely there is a good reason here for introducing students to it, instead of just sitting in the corridor outside the self-organising learning environment with crossed fingers hoping that the students will somehow find the relevant web pages among the billions listed by the search engines. How can we possibly believe it is right to create a situation in which the children’s acquired dogmas will be undermined, without helping them understand why it makes sense to move beyond dogma? How can we believe that we have done our job as educationalists if the end result for the students is confusion rather than understanding?
But let’s assume that one group of students manages to drag themselves away from the website where they can cartoonify photos of themselves, and, quite by chance, they find an online copy of Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” (one of the key texts marking the beginning of the modern intellectual epoch – available for free download on gutenberg.org). Here is the man who said that henceforth all knowledge must begin from doubt. What a great way to begin to understand how we came to bid adieu to dogmatism. But the book (written in 1637) isn’t exactly an easy read. The students are going to find it tough going. It will also not be easy to find good secondary texts online that connect what Descartes had to say in northern Europe in the early 17th century with what the children believe now. The chances are that the struggling students will go out into the hallway (where we are sitting so as not to be invasive) and ask us for help. That help is called teaching. Let’s teach (in a non-dogmatic way) the tradition that has given us our current understanding of truth, our aversion to dogmatism and our concern for the freedom of the individual. If we are serious about the need to undermine dogma, then let’s organise its undermining. Let’s organise class discussions about the issues of belief, tradition, religion, truth and individuality. And when the students seem ready and willing to learn more about how we came to be anti-dogma and pro-individual, let’s point them in the right direction and help them make sense of the tradition.