On Indoctrination

KYLE DUGDALE (Critic, Yale School of Architecture)

Indoctrination. The very word seems to lend itself to being pronounced with a tone of contempt. It’s a pejorative, the naming of an act of pedagogical violence, an accusation of abuse at the hands of a conspiring regime. The victim is typically understood to be ignorant or helpless, unwitting or unwilling. After all, what student in his right mind would readily subject himself to indoctrination—let alone pay tuition? Is indoctrination not understood to be sharply distinguished from legitimate education by its despicable motives, its pernicious determination to inculcate ideas without leaving room for questions? Is indoctrination not the antithesis of critical thought?

And the indoctrination of architects? Not at Yale. For us, at least, it’s unconscionable. For them, on the other hand . . . maybe not. Indoctrination is, perhaps, precisely what they do. They tell you what to think and how to think. But here, at Yale School of Architecture, we don’t indoctrinate. We create space for exploration. We think things through for ourselves, and we think critically. As we insist in our Open House programs, “The School does not seek to impose any single design philosophy, but rather encourages in each student the development of discernment and an individual approach to design.” By way of guarantee, we wear our pluralism on our sleeve. This is our distinctive identity.

It all seems quite straightforward.

And yet the contemporary use of the word indoctrination has its critics. The public grows suspicious. More interesting than the entry for indoctrination on Wikipedia, that de facto bastion of popular instruction, is the “talk page” for that same entry, where, alongside raging arguments on science, religion, and politics, it is asserted that as a descriptor the term indoctrination is dysfunctional precisely because it merely registers disapproval of what is being taught. It is noted that we do not speak of indoctrinating our children to wash their hands, whether or not we are willing to entertain their doubts on the validity of the practice; we speak, rather, of teaching them. But those who teach their children to reject our politics, or, say, the capitalist or socialist ethos of our culture, as the case may be—it is they who are in the business of indoctrination. Such language is ultimately a tool for political defamation, as illustrated during the Cold War by accusations of indoctrination on all sides. More recent examples are at hand also. And again, parallels could be drawn to architecture.

Curiously, indoctrination is a word that has changed its meaning radically over a relatively short period of time. Indoctrination was once a good thing. Not only was it a good thing, it was a necessary thing. To indoctrinate was simply to imbue with doctrine, or learning. The Latin word doctrina is synonymous with teaching, and by extension, with learning—no more, no less. The Latin root is the word docere: to show, prove, or teach. Hence the medical doctor is one who is learned in medicine, and a PhD is the recipient of a doctorate more generally. I myself, on this count, have been indoctrinated by Yale. To put it more generally, any school worth its salt was once in the business of indoctrination. To fail to indoctrinate was an abdication of pedagogical responsibility.

This was as obviously true in architecture as in other disciplines. Accordingly, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pedagogical texts speak readily not only of church doctrine, but also of the doctrine of projection, the doctrine of construction, the doctrine of proportion, the doctrine of aesthetics, the doctrine of light and shadow, the doctrine of acoustics, the doctrine of the orders, the doctrine of intercolumniation, the doctrine of the use of arches, and so forth. The vocabulary has been preserved in certain specific applications—thus Mario Carpo writes, in Architecture in the Age of Printing, not only of Tridentine doctrine, in its sixteenth-century articulation by the Roman Catholic Church, but also, extending the appeal to Rome, of Vitruvian doctrine—a doctrine today perhaps more honored in the breach than the observance.

But, learned exceptions aside, such language is today rarely invoked within the discourse of architecture. We do not, as often as we might, discuss the doctrine of formal analysis, the doctrinal implications of Revit, or the indoctrination inherent to design studio pedagogy. On the whole the word indoctrination is now associated with politics and, especially, with religion, or, worse still, with the combination of the two. To be precise, it has come to be associated with the transmission of ideas that are held to maintain their authority only insofar as they remain unquestioned. In this regard indoctrination is understood as the antithesis to the modern scientific method and, more absolutely, to science itself—scientia, a word synonymous with knowledge.

This too represents a shift from an earlier understanding of doctrine as something amenable to accuracy and to inaccuracy—a distinction to be established by questioning and by vigorous debate within the context of a conversation spread across space and time. And this shift is part of a larger movement for which religion offers a useful, if discouraging, illustration. Substantive debate on doctrine is today largely absent from the public sphere, replaced instead by vapid and vicious invective delivered in short bursts designed for rapid consumption. The absence of substantive debate is closely correlated to a general incapacity to engage in such debate, an incapacity that is the product of what can safely be characterized as an underlying public ignorance about and ambivalence to matters doctrinal, an ignorance and ambivalence that can in turn be tied to a conviction that substantive debate on doctrine is both impossible and destructive. That conviction is amply reinforced by the insults traded in the public realm.

It is a vicious cycle. If the subject is deemed unamenable to objective public debate, such debate is less likely to occur. The less such debate occurs, the more the public loses its capacity to debate the subject with objectivity. As the public loses its capacity to debate with objectivity, what remains is the assertion of personal preference, the reinforcing of prejudice, the trading of insults, and the resort to violence. Recent political developments might suggest that the collapse of robust public debate on matters of doctrine is regrettable, to say the least.

But a similar argument can also be applied to architecture. Here too there is a palpable absence of substantive public debate—an absence largely taken for granted, as Blair Kamin himself noted last semester. Here too the contemporary observer may encounter blissful ambivalence alternating with untainted ignorance. Here too the vicious cycle obtains. Except that the path from architecture to violence is less clearly recognized.

Might we wish to reconsider our attitudes to doctrine?

Indoctrination, after all, is potentially a subject of some fascination. Not only might we pay closer attention to how our attitudes to architecture are shaped by larger and not strictly architectural ideas about the nature of the world and our place in it—ideas that are often unquestioned, untaught, unstudied—we might also, quite specifically, take a closer look at Christian doctrine and its claims on architecture. Here we find a very carefully articulated set of ideas continually discussed, debated, and refined by councils, congregations, and communities: doctrines that offer nothing less than a complete assessment of lived experience—with implications for everything from the nature of the universe to the “chief end of man,” from attitudes on the role of the architect to arguments about materiality.

In a world that—taken as a whole—is ostensibly becoming more, not less, religious, this is evidently a global issue. And given that the divisive capacities of religion are all too evident, the ability to address matters of doctrine and their materialization in the world is increasingly critical. After all, this is a subject that is of interest not only to orthodox Christians. How does a set of deeply held convictions about the nature of reality, of meaning, and of humanity translate into the material of architecture? How do our convictions, for that matter, translate into our architectures? Do we translate with elegance or grace? Can we talk about such things with any precision? How do we deal with disagreements? Can we—should we—aspire to a discipline that represents more than an assortment of individual approaches to design? And are we equipped to engage these questions with substance and rigor?

Or are we right to renounce indoctrination?