OPINION: 2021 is “1984” – America’s education system as propaganda

Maria Ferrato Opinion Writer

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell wrote in1984,” his novel about a totalitarian government that retains its power by controlling the masses with propaganda.

The American education system has control over the past and thus the future. It distorts historical information rather than teaching the country’s past sins, yielding stagnation in social progress.

The American education system’s utilization of propaganda — regardless of its intention — hinders our nation’s progress.

This is particularly evident regarding this nation’s education of Black history — mainly the lack thereof — and how this aids in the continuation of racism. 

To understand how our education system’s usage of propaganda helps in the propagation of racism, we must first understand what propaganda is, a concept that is conveniently taught in a very narrow scope so that we are not always able to recognize it in our everyday lives. 

If Americans are familiar with propaganda at all, they likely understand it through the lens of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. We understand it as grand public relations stunts. We understand it as the manipulation of beliefs and the attempt to convince someone to adhere to an outlandish ideology. 

However, according to Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist and philosopher, modern propaganda now “operate[s] on the individual at the level of the unconscious. He must not know that he is being shaped by outside forces” if propaganda is going to be successful. 

Ellul also introduces the concept of “pre-propaganda,” explaining that “it proceeds by psychological manipulations, by character modifications, by the creation of feelings or stereotypes useful when the time comes.”

Americans are taught dangerous stereotypes through psychological manipulations without even realizing it, creating subconscious feelings of distrust of certain citizens.

Next, we need to understand how our education system partakes in this sly version of propaganda. 

45 states in America have opted to follow the Common Core, setting a universal standard for what Americans are taught in grades K-12. It provides a list of “high-quality texts” for English literature and history teachers to reference before choosing which texts to teach, creating a similar educational experience for all.

This means that history is often taught from the perspective of a few wealthy white men, embedding a culture of pre-propaganda in the education system and thus propagating a colorblind society.

Black history is taught through this contemporary-propaganda lens. Most elementary and high school English teachers teach only slave narratives as their examples of Black literature. 

Americans’ understanding of an entire subculture is limited to one story.

Moreover, these slave stories are told from the white perspective, often downplaying the horrors of slavery. As recently as 2018, students in Texas were asked to list the positives and negatives of slavery, presenting slavery as a debatable business option.

While we do teach our children about slavery, it is not always presented as objectively and morally wrong, allowing students to develop racist beliefs.

We also don’t teach our youth that Black people have more stories to share than being an enslaved person. By limiting the Black experience to slavery, the education system turns a blind eye to modern-day discrimination and ongoing systemic racism.

Black students are thus forced to fill in the gaps of the American education system, both burdening them and distracting from their education. Lauryn Donovan, a young Black advocate from St. Louis, explains that Black students in the education system are forced to “[give] the Black perspective or [have] to advocate for people of color” in their classes, causing discomfort in their learning environments.

Unfortunately, Black students’ attempts to educate their peers are not enough to remedy the overwhelming propaganda in the education system. The results of this miseducation are staggering. A 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center report found that only 8% of high schoolers surveyed understood slavery was the central cause for the Civil War, and only 22% knew how the Constitution benefited slave owners.  

The propaganda in our literature and history classes dismisses and thus excuses our past. Because of our miseducation, many white Americans do not understand the complexities and diversity of our nation, perpetuating racism.

This has caused incredible turmoil. We need only look at the past election when 74.2 million Americans voted for a man desperate to “Make America Great Again.”

Our history shows that America was never great to begin with, but the education system doesn’t allow most Americans to learn about this true version of history.

By misrepresenting our history, the education system allows our future generations to persistently maintain dangerous ideologies. 

Just like society in Orwell’s1984,” Americans are left in the dark. Racism will continue if we keep permitting ignorance. It’s time to revise our education system, updating the texts we teach to properly educate our youth about America’s actual history — not the propaganda-infused version that glorifies America. 

It doesn’t mean that America is entirely bad; it just means that there is a slew of ways that America can do better. Why would we ever get in the way of our own progress?

Maria Ferrato is an opinion writer. Contact her at [email protected].