Sunday, June 19, 2011

Instead of Current Events, schools should teach Current Propaganda

Our nation's grade school and high school teachers are paid, ostensibly, to instill honesty, respect for writing, and respect for adults. But what happens when the writing of adults is a calculated lie?

My favorite class in grade school was Current Events, which if I remember correctly took the form of everyone bringing in a newspaper article one day per week and the class discussing a half dozen issues until the bell rang. Unfortunately, we took those newspaper articles at face value, and so we (including the teachers) were all duped.

What if we instead taught students how to spot hit pieces, and how propaganda often masquerades as general news?

Below I have marked up an anti-rail piece that appeared in the June 1, 2011 edition of USA Today. Yellow designates typical anti-rail dialogue, magenta marks the four appearances of the word "safety", and green marks instances in which the supposed debt of Chinese rail projects portends similar problems in the United States:

[Click Here for a larger version of this graphic]

Unlike China, our founding documents and laws permit teachers to introduce propaganda detection lessons -- after all, developing "critical thinking skills" is another supposed central task of our schools. But they don't do it.


First of all, most Americans seem to think that there isn't much propaganda here, think that they can spot it when it does appear, and quickly dismiss anything they don't agree with as "bias". It never occurs to them that what they perceive to be "common sense" is actually a pile of concocted junk. Second, if such a program were introduced, parents would never admit it to each other or to themselves, but they'd fear the loss of credibility in the eyes of their children.

But a central dilema of our time is that parents, and especially grandparents, are losing credibility. Young adults routinely fact-check news items against trusted internet sources and post contradictions on sites like this. Old people still take newspaper and television reports at face value. They keep believing the same old crap that was never true and often never even existed. They might use the internet a little, but it's mostly to email folksy chain letters that I suspect are planted by party operatives.

As high unemployment continues, and as retirees (who often didn't go to college) keep taking church van trips to the casinos while their college-educated children and grandchildren reluctantly take part-time jobs at Home Depot, we are headed for a showdown.


  1. "Media Literacy" may be the most important class that should be taught in high school but isn't.

  2. Great points Jake. I think the Fox news demographic is largely 60 and over.

  3. Some of us teachers do teach this. I specifically spend an entire class period during the unit on WWI in my U.S. History class on evaluating propaganda posters. I make connections to today by having them look at current examples - from political to advertisements. TV ad are the hook I use to get them in the mind set. I follow this up with assignment over the next few days.

    A key problem you fail to mention. Students today, and society in general, fail to see the benefit in retaining information. The class after we do the day on propaganda - I ask them to create their own piece of propaganda. Most common question that day - "what is propaganda?". Just because someone doesn't know something, don't assume they weren't taught it.