here is a splendid scene in John le Carre's most recent novel, Absolute Friends, in which the central character, Mundy, is offered the chance of a leading role in the establishment of a Counter-University, an organisation ostensibly committed to the kind of free intellectual enquiry which, it is claimed, is no longer possible in higher education.
Dimitri, the shadowy figure who holds out this prospect, argues that the combined forces of state and corporate power bring about "the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage". Lies, manipulation and deception ensure that the truth behind state and corporate responsibility for war, tyranny, poverty and injustice cannot be told.
How is this achieved? "Corporations . . . buy good minds . . . They create false orthodoxies under the sham of political correctness. They build university facilities, dictate university courses, over-promote the professors who kiss ass and they bully the shit out of heretics." Soon, Dimitri suggests, there won't be a university in the western hemisphere that hasn't sold its soul to the highest bidder and abandoned any real commitment to the pursuit of truth.
Now, of course, as you would expect with le Carre, Dimitri turns out to be a fraud, just another player in the world of espionage, in which the techniques used by global capitalists and international terrorists have much in common. But there is enough appeal in his account to tempt Mundy who, in any case, is running out of options.
We should all feel a bit uncomfortable about the ease with which it is possible to subvert the real aims of education and learning. At what point, for example, does sensible preparation for the world of work become forced acceptance of the logic of the dominant economic system? To what extent does the funding of research, whether by government or business, serve to compromise the work of academics? Is the current focus on education for citizenship entirely benign in its intentions? Where does education end and indoctrination begin?
Skilful indoctrinators do not proceed using oppressive Soviet-style methods. They flatter the intelligence of their subjects, appeal to their social conscience, invoke the notion of freedom and offer "incentives" as the just rewards of hard work. They exploit the idealism of the young and present their version of the new social order as the only possible way of proceeding. This process of socialisation is slow, subtle and seductive.
Contrary voices are marginalised as cranks, troublemakers, mavericks or simply "losers".
One of the main differences between education and indoctrination is the intended outcome. With indoctrination, the only permitted result is that the subject will come to adopt the desired views in a way that will make them unshakeable. Success involves reaching a point of intellectual closure, so that nothing will shift the favoured ideology (whether religious, political, economic, or some combination of these).
With genuine education, on the other hand, there can be no point of final closure. New information or evidence always makes it possible to explore alternative views, reinterpret the current state of knowledge and come to different conclusions. Acceptance of the provisional state of human understanding also means that respect is given to other readings and insights which challenge prevailing orthodoxies.
In the post-modern world, truth is a highly contested concept and Dimitri's vision of a Counter-University "untainted by vested, religious, State or corporate interest" is exposed as a dangerous illusion. In raising the issue, however, le Carre encourages all of us involved in education, at whatever stage, to reflect seriously on the precise nature of our engagement with learners.
Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.