We are often asked: “What determines a person’s ideology?” The established answer (so far as anything about systematic ideology is established at all) has been that so far as each individual person was concerned it was a matter of chance. The relative size of the different ideological groups are determinate, but it is a matter of chance which person gets into which group.
Another answer to this question, equally valid and perhaps more widely acceptable, is that the ideology of a person is determined by his or her education. There is (as usual) a catch. In that sentence “education” is not to be read as “schooling.” Nor is it to be read as “what they are intentionally taught.” The word “education” is used without qualification and is to be taken so. It means everything that a person has learnt. Everything. No exceptions. Everything that a person learns goes to determine his or her ideology. In normal usage “education” does mean “schooling.” It refers only to those things in which a person has been intentionally instructed, the things that appear in the educational curriculum. But most of what we learn we learn outside of school. Before a child goes to school it has learnt to control its eliminations, to feed itself, to walk and to talk. These activities are vastly more complex, more difficult and more demanding than anything that appears in the official syllabus. And even during lesson time the information that is officially being conveyed to the child forms only a small part of the total input. Every tone of the teacher’s voice, every shade of colour in the textbook illustrations, every movement in the room, every breath of air from outside, every internal sensation and every recollection of previous experience are included in the total of what the child is learning even while the teacher is instructing it in the history of Kind Alfred.
This extra-curricular learning, this informal education, is not confined to facts and details. It includes also those broad general assumptions that are implied by the facts of immediate experience, the assumptions that form the bases of the different major ideologies. So far as children are concerned these assumptions are those of the protostatic ideology. Economic individualism: my food, my clothes, my mother, my father, my toys. The child has no choice in the matter, it has to develop this assumption. If it does not do so, if it displays economic collectivism, refusing to devote its clothes and food to its own personal needs, it will not survive to continue the process very far. And it also has to practice political collectivism, it has to emulate the people around it. It is, indeed, largely by means of this assumption, by using the child’s willingness to emulate adults, that its formal education is conducted.
The child has no choice and its instructors have no choice. They are compelled to confirm the child in these assumptions, in the protostatic ideology. The protostatic ideology is a life-and-death necessity for every child.
As the child moves into the adult world there arises the possibility of developing the more sophisticated ideologies. The protostatic is never eliminated, but it can be repressed, another ideology developed which becomes dominant.
Whether this happens or not depends upon education in our extended use of that term, upon the totality of what is learnt. Here, as with the child, perhaps even more so, the overwhelming bulk of what is learnt comes under the head of informal education. As children or as adults, what we are formally taught or what we intentionally learn forms only a minute part of our total education. We learn from all our experience, and the part of experience which can be intentionally controlled, by ourselves or by others, is very small indeed.
One can conceive of an experiment in which the total education of a few people might be intentionally controlled, controlled to an extent sufficient to determine their ideology. It would mean maintaining them in a specially constructed environment form birth until death, inflicting a degree of sensory deprivation beside which “brain-washing” would look like the tender care of a loving mother. And the necessary conditions for the experiment would in any case defeat its object. The subjects would have to be removed, for their whole lives, from ordinary society, and it is just the effect of ideology on or in society that we are concerned with.
No. Our concern is with human beings living active lives as members of a community, and for people living under these conditions intentional control of ideology is not possible. We can say that the ideological group to which each one of us belongs is determined by his or her education, but only on the condition that “education” can be read to mean not merely intentional schooling but total education, the totality of all that is learnt. We learn from all our experience, and the overwhelming greater part of that experience cannot be controlled.
from Ideological Commentary 2, November 1979.