There is a video on the PragerU website called “Dangerous People Are Teaching Your Kids.”
The title is spot-on, but not for the reasons presenter Jordan Peterson thinks. In fact, by appearing in one of the website’s 5-minute videos, Peterson has become one of those dangerous people. He’s part of the problem.
The danger is this: Conservative high school teachers, fearing what they believe to be an overly left-leaning curriculum, have begun to assign videos from PragerU as if they’re a factual source for educators rather than a right-wing propaganda outlet. And students, without the context to identify the source as biased, can easily come away from the site believing things that simply aren’t true.
The misleadingly named PragerU — it’s not a university — is a right-wing outlet co-founded by conservative commentator Dennis Prager that hosts hot takes from other conservative pundits like Candace Owens, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Christina Hoff Sommers.
Facts may not care about your feelings, but PragerU doesn’t care about facts.
For a lot of readers, seeing Lila Rose’s name on a video about abortion is an instantaneous red flag that the contents of the video will not be credible. But even a politically informed teenager probably hasn’t been paying attention long enough to remember what someone like Rose was up to a decade ago.
Consider the case of Ohio student Avery Lewis, whose mother describes her as politically savvy, according to Huffington Post writer Rebecca Klein. When Lewis began an extra credit assignment, hoping to boost her history grade, she trusted her teacher to provide her with reasonably unbiased sources. Instead, she was confronted with titles like “Build the Wall” and “The Left Ruins Everything” — videos so filled with lies and distortions, she decided she ultimately couldn’t complete the assignment, which involved “questions about how the videos challenged her beliefs.”
Lewis brought her concerns about the assignment to her mother, Andrea Cutway, who was similarly horrified by the blatant propaganda being peddled as factual. She pulled her daughter from the class and brought her concerns before the school’s administration, identifying the content as “alt-right propaganda.”
School administrators agreed on a compromise allowing students to include opposing viewpoints in their response to the PragerU videos, and later decided to remove them from the syllabus altogether. But Cutway told HuffPo she doesn’t feel like they fully understood her objection:
When I talked to the principal and vice principal, they acted like this was just another assignment… I don’t know what you have allowed to bring into your public school. This really is some scary stuff. I do feel like they [PragerU] have found a way to get into the public school system.
And Lewis is right. PragerU is explicitly targeting parents and teachers of public school students with their new PragerU Resources for Educators and Parents (PREP) project. In a classic case of DARVO, they argue that a left-leaning education system is teaching children “half-truths or lies to make them feel ashamed of being American” and that their resources — including study guides, essay contests, a quarterly newsletter, and a “pro-American” online forum — provide the antidote.
PragerU is explicit and unapologetic about its desire to propagandize children with conservative talking points:
PragerU Resources for Educators & Parents (PREP) is a community committed to teaching youth about America’s blessings and limitless opportunities. If you want your children to share your conservative values — and don’t want to do it alone — please join us as a member of the PREP community.
Rebecca Klein reports that Lewis’ classroom assignment was unrelated to the PREP program. But an e-mail exchange with PragerU’s Chief Marketing Officer, Craig Strazzeri, hinted that the problem of right-wing propaganda in the classroom is poised to get a whole lot worse:
2,000 parents and educators have already signed up for PREP… We constantly hear from educators and teachers who use our videos in the classroom. Ideally every school in America would show PragerU videos in the classroom on a regular basis to help educate the next generation.
There’s no way of knowing what percentage of those 2,000 participants are educators (short of disclosure from PragerU, which Strazzeri declined to provide). Schools would do well to get in front of this by creating explicit policies about propaganda in the classroom — especially the kind of right-wing propaganda that leads to racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred.
But even the Ohio district where Lewis’ teacher assigned the PragerU videos, district Superintendent Todd Cramer is dragging his feet, unwilling to outright condemn the use of propaganda sites in the education of the students under his aegis:
We believe that students deserve a balanced presentation of content. We support our educators in using a variety of instructional tools and materials. We expect our educators to exercise good judgment and trust our students, parents, and community to engage our staff in conversations about our instructional methods and the materials being used if they feel the need to do so.
But clearly, Dr. Cramer, you’ve seen that you cannot assume your educators will use good judgment. And putting the onus on students and their parents to call out instances of bad-faith, biased, and inaccurate resources is an unacceptable abdication of responsibility.
There’s arguably a place for the study of propaganda in schools, as a lesson in critical thinking and an illustration of why context matters and how to tell the difference between valid and invalid sources. In high schools, where students are still learning the information needed to place their knowledge in that broader context, that use of propaganda needs to be handled very carefully.
But that’s not what’s happening here. PragerU is selling itself as balanced information while providing facile 5-minute answers that dismiss the complexities of real life in favor of a Nationalistic narrative that lulls students into thoughtless, complacent acceptance of the status quo.
And thoughtlessness is the exact opposite of what education should inspire.