Ideology is Not a Bad Word Nor is it the Problem in Education

I recently read an article where an author argued that too many school leaders make their decisions based upon trends, fads, and ideology. I’m good with the first two items in that list, but I take issue with the third. About six months ago, I was at a small think tank of higher education leaders where an executive leader of one of the top ranked research Universities in the United States declared that the problem with too many of our institutions is that we make decisions based upon ideology. He went on to use the word ideology as interchangeable with superstition. I’ve come across this countless times in education, with any number of stakeholders declaring that the problem with education is ideology. If only we focused on scientific and evidence-based practice, then education would be in great shape. Only that statement represents an ideology! 

An ideology is simply a collection or series of beliefs, goals, claims, and theories that inform one’s thinking. Democracy, for example, is an ideology. Can you imagine people declaring that our education system should be free of the ideology of democracy? Concepts of equality and liberty are also ideological. With this in mind, I find it hard to see the wisdom in making our schools absent of ideology.

Or, perhaps this is not what the critics mean when they say that the problem with our schools is ideology. Maybe what they really mean is that certain ideologies are the problem. If only people embraced my ideology in school, then things would be better. In many cases, that is an ideology rooted in social scientific inquiry and evidence-based practice, a certain bias toward what should be learned, how it should be learned, and how learning is bets or most appropriately measured.

There are several limitations with this, of course. One is that people are forcing their ideology on others, arguing that their worldview should be the formative one for all who go to school, minimizing, muzzling, or disregarding other ideologies embraced by citizens with equal rights in society. A second limitation is that a narrowly scientific and evidence-based ideology can be wonderfully efficacious, but it is arguably limited in its ability to address matters of ethics and morality, even transcendent values in society that extend beyond simple scientific proofs. Advocates of evolutionary ethics, for example, might beg to differ, but the evolutionary ethical framework is not what shapes the founding documents in the United States or most any country today. They draw from any number of ideological foundations when founding documents address matters of human rights, the order of law, the role of government versus citizen, and so much more.

There is undoubtedly need for share beliefs, values, and goals in education. Yet, the idea of declaring a single ideology the sole and valid way of directing our educational endeavors is riddled with problems, enough to make it a largely unhelpful line of thinking. Instead of arguing that we must rid our schools of ideology, perhaps the more fruitful approach would be to have deeper, more ubiquitous, more candid conversations about the ideologies that inform what we do in education, as well as how we can nurture an education ecosystem that leaves room for a reasonable amount of ideological diversity. Ideology is not a bad word. More practically, it is unavoidable in education. After all, declaring that ideology is the problem in education is, in fact, an ideological statement.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.