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Their indoctrination and ours

“I believe I should be allowed to indoctrinate in a way that gets students thinking.” Tyler Thier, an adjunct professor at Hofstra, urges an aggressive response to right-wing attempts to sanitize education.

I’m glad I checked for similar articles before writing this because it led me to a very recent piece by Dan Mahony, where he argues that educators cannot necessarily force students to believe anything, even if they flat-out tell us so for the sake of a better grade or getting on an instructor’s good side. Instead, Mahony acknowledges that what happens in the classroom can certainly influence a student’s beliefs, but only when they willingly deliberate for themselves based on the information provided. I’m not here to refute any of this, except one thing: Indoctrination can be accomplished in education, just not in the way Mahony is referencing. What’s more: It can be a good thing.

Indoctrination will always be a buzzword. It raises eyebrows from both the Left and the right. No matter who you are, it is a scary phenomenon; despite its Latin root being “to teach,” it has come to mean “forcibly teach.” This practice might look like conversion therapy that targets the LGBTQ+ community; military programs that discipline recruits until they absorb the mentality of war; teachers evaluating students based on how closely they align with their own political views; extremist cells training their prospective martyrs in how to die (and kill) for a fundamentalist cause; and pretty much anything that cults are up to at any point in time (the recent docuseries Shiny Happy People covers the indoctrination of the Duggar family with piercing insight).

There’s no doubt indoctrination continues to be carried out under malicious pretenses. In fact, the most recent example of this purports to be a form of anti-indoctrination, while hiding a motivation steeped in an especially aggressive form of indoctrination; this would be none other than Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor has, as Eric Maroney wrote for this publication, signed legislation that targets queer and trans citizens, suppresses gender-affirming and reproductive health care, and generally infringes upon human rights. Additionally, the Individual Freedom (aka Stop WOKE) Act enforces a revisionist educational curriculum that attempts to bury the more uncomfortable, racially charged facts about our nation’s history, in favor of a jingoistic, white-supremacist narrative. This is all being done under the excuse of “ensur[ing] that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideologies.” It’s OK, Ron, you can just say that you want to ignore longstanding, life-threatening structural issues—no need to dress it up in all that fancy, meaningless jargon. Leave the jargon to academics like me.

But it’s not just Florida doing this. It’s becoming a widespread practice among red states, and it reeks of indoctrination. The worst part? These legally enshrined (or soon-to-be) principles directly threaten and harm entire demographics of people because they undermine valid information and resources that have contributed to so much progress. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs work to proliferate opportunities for historically marginalized communities.

Reproductive health and bodily autonomy should not be politicized, and Planned Parenthood should be allowed to operate as usual, if not with even more protection—it’s people’s health and free will that we’re talking about here. Critical Race Theory (CRT, *gasp*) is informed by reputable research into legal systems and other race-based hierarchies that permeate U.S. institutions, and have for centuries. Climate change is indeed not a hoax, and recent spikes in extreme weather can attest to that. Capitalism, furthermore, is woven into all of this and only exacerbates the issues to an uncontrollable extent. These are high-stakes problems that are more important than white fragility and anti-woke sentiment, certainly more pressing than the “aching” need to be patriotic, whatever that means for a nation that is deeply fractured. I absolutely stand by the idea that these so-called “trendy ideologies” are not conspiracy theories or liberal propaganda, but rather that they bring awareness to tangible obstacles that enact violence every single day.

What I propose, then, is that educators fight back, fiercely. Indoctrination as a form of resistance is a form of survival. The university should be an incubator of ideas, not a vessel for politically motivated beliefs, and so I should be allowed to indoctrinate students far and wide to combat these injustices. I’m not talking indoctrination in terms of threatening their GPA so they adhere to my politics, but instead to introduce them to extreme, radical, unorthodox texts that they have no choice but to grapple with, to dissect, to question, and to maybe be inspired towards change by. Literature not written by empty provocateurs or by complacent scholars, but by risk-takers and visionaries, intellectuals and journalists, artists and activists, those ambitious voices who lay it all out for us, who aren’t afraid to flirt with subversive solutions that many would rather pretend don’t exist.

Nighttime photo of tall coniferous trees on fire. Two trees in the foreground, which don’t seem to be on fire yet, appear as black silhouettes against the orange flames of a forest on fire. Huge billows of smoke, lit up orange by the flames, rise into the night sky.
Consequences of climate change: not a hoax. Wildfire image by Bureau of Land Management.

As the Writing Proficiency Exam Coordinator at Hofstra University, I’ve “soft-launched” this idea by simply incorporating texts that discuss white-centric, elitist language standards and interrogate the notion of “academic English” on exams. This topic has been analyzed for years by academics and others who argue that English-language teaching norms have remained stagnant since the colonial period and continually marginalized students with non-standard dialects, working-class backgrounds, ethnic difference, and much more. It’s not necessarily radical, but note that the exam I oversee is a graduation requirement for all undergraduate students at the institution; the texts I choose (with the help of my colleagues) are read, annotated, and engaged with by thousands of students and dozens of faculty each semester. Usually, the scholarly readings tackle composition and revision theory—what it means to be a writer—but something a little more significant happens when a student is met with writings that insist the way they’ve been taught to write is rooted in racism and classism. Whether or not they agree, they suddenly have to wrestle with this incendiary claim. It’s an important first step.

But what if we went a bit further and had them write essays (or experimental/hybrid/multimedia texts) that engage with startlingly public matters? Climate change is a solid point of contention. It shouldn’t be, because it’s the objective truth that we should all be uniting against, but here we are. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been a favorite reading on past iterations of the exam I coordinate, and it’s a groundbreaking piece, but it’s not attention-grabbing enough for such an ephemeral writing assessment. Carson’s work is essential reading for a more focused and intimate class setting; it’s not the kind of environmental science writing that will shred seams and get into every fiber of a student’s being so as to signal the approach of the so-called “real world,” in all its contradictions and dangers unhinged from most hermetic university settings.

Students should be passing an exit exam that leaves them with difficult, unnerving questions to take with them into whatever professional sphere they enter. Take ecotage, for example, a fascinating philosophy that advocates for the sabotage of property in hopes of catalyzing climate reform. Why not introduce a text like How to Blow Up a Pipeline and see what students write from there. I guarantee it will be more exciting to read than anything else the exam has produced. Even more, the student will (if they haven’t already) start to think of climate change in a much more urgent light than if they were analyzing a straightforward article on ocean pollutants or pesticides. They may agree with Andreas Malm’s plea for physical destruction of industrial machinery, they may disagree, they might weigh the pros and cons, but generally they will start to develop a stance for themselves and see even a sliver of the truth in such an extreme argument. This is something they will take with them into civic life, whereas academic writing theory gets thrown in the trash immediately after the passing grade is met.

For issues of CRT and DEI, an essay like Laurence Ralph’s “An Open Letter to All the Future Mayors of Chicago” is assertive yet grounded in research. The author reckons with the city’s rampant state violence, police brutality, racial profiling, and torture, likening this web of suffering to a firmly rooted tree. But I would argue that even this is too safe for the kind of indoctrination we want to see. Ralph’s diction is poetic and measured, but perhaps too posturing for students to really interrogate their own views of the factual issue at hand. I’ve taught it in semester-long classes where we have the time to break it down, contextualize, and discuss, but for an exit examination that decides whether they are “proficient” enough to succeed in the world beyond academia? No, we need something more punchy.

Enter Chester Himes, the late crime novelist whose posthumous work Plan Bexamines the same issues as Ralph, but wraps them up in a fiery manifesto of a novel. Two Black detectives investigate a case in Harlem where low-income households of color are receiving packages in the mail that contain loaded assault rifles. It is accompanied by a letter that declares a race war, and that they must take this rifle and shoot officers in the streets. This fictional work is visceral, acidic in its satire, and downright angry, but it goes straight for the jugular on systemic abuses that cannot be ignored. Let’s excerpt from this and see what students absorb, discard, refute, and ponder.

We could take this even further still and incorporate texts with not just provocative ideas, but ways in which they communicate them. Activist movements boast a trove of visually and textually dynamic pamphlets and other materials that could easily be used as readings on the exam; they may not be up to the standards of research and composition that the academy strives for, but they offer a hell of a conversation to be had between author and reader. Zines and other DIY texts are direct, primary sources through which to access an issue of public interest, to learn from those on the front lines of it all. Let’s toss these, and other multimedia creations, into the mix and the resulting writing should prove kinetic and right on the pulse of something societally significant. It won’t be compositionally sound, as far as writing instruction is concerned, but I assure you it will be sufficient evidence that the student is ready to assert themselves, to develop their unique voices, to contribute to conversations on and off the page in valuable ways.

There are all kinds of texts, ones that confront the oppressive mechanisms of private property, or the empowerment of the body in all forms, or animal liberation, or guerrilla art-making under capitalism, but I cannot sit here and propose them all. That is for another day, perhaps when I am fully designing a curriculum or in a leadership role where I’m not just the spokesperson for an exam that is actually in the hands of the institution.

The point here is the principle of indoctrination. Yes, I believe I should be allowed to indoctrinate in a way that gets students thinking. Even if it doesn’t push them to completely change their mind on an issue, at least they’re met with a viewpoint that is so radically different (or just more extreme) than their own that they are jolted out of complacency for a moment, forced to see the urgency in something. The environment is so damaged that some people think we have to destroy corporate property to get them to stop polluting? Hm, maybe I should look into this more. White supremacy is so deeply embedded in our nation’s institutions that some consider slavery to have never really ended? You know, that makes sense, but let me do some more research before I fully agree.

In a post-Roe America, where civil and basic human rights are under threat at the state and federal levels, and where conspiracy theory and obfuscated information are readily available and influential to an extent beyond regulation, it is imperative that we counter-indoctrinate. The next generations of motivated, educated, and critical-minded students should be exposed to radical texts and dangerous ideas. The writing proficiency exam is a great laboratory for testing this argument because students are required to write an essay within such a tight period of time, and without retrospective discussion, that what gets put in front of them as mandatory reading should really make an impact (with blunt force, I would argue) and prompt challenging, messy, but otherwise productive response. Let’s just make a conscious effort to ensure these texts are ultimately noble and rooted in factual causes. No lizard people or pedophilic overlords, please.

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Tyler Thier View All

Tyler Thier is an adjunct professor and writing administrator based in Queens, NY. His film criticism, poetry, academic scholarship, and (weirdly enough) reality TV journalism can be found in various places.