Propaganda in Social Studies Curriculum


Social Studies is political in nature. It is not the same as Mathematics or Science. Two hydrogen molecules and oxygen will always make water. No two ways about it. History, on the other hand is subject to bias and interpretation. Mainstream education is far from objective; there are certain lies, omissions, interpretations that support the status quo. Michael Parenti used the term “unanimity of bias” to describe what is often mistaken as objectivity, but is really giving a pass to the agreed upon bullshit perpetuated by ruling class interests. To really be objective is to detach oneself from the evidence and view it on its own merit and come to a conclusion. The problem is, the texts that are used as the backbone of most social studies curriculum are full of loaded language and propaganda, particularly in regards to our quasi state religion, anti- communism and towards radical social movements. There are many examples but there are a couple that demonstrate the problem clearly. One is the democracy vs. Communism dichotomy to explain the Cold War. Another is the selective use of terms like ‘aggression’ and ‘violence’. True objectivity includes unpacking all the nonsense and propaganda packaged as education. Though objectivity is paramount, it is also necessary to encourage our youth to take a stand based on their objective and subjective conclusions. They have to find their place in history and know what traditions they are continuing and what side of history they want to stand on. We, as educators must do the same.

The Cold War was basically the capitalist world, led by the American ruling class, attempting to maintain their newfound power in the post WWII world by containing the spread of communism or any radical idea or notion that threatens capitalist interests. Of course the capitalist world, was dubbed the ‘free world’, regardless of how free the people actually were. What makes them ‘free’ is their domination by capitalist interests. The point is for us to assume that whatever the US or its allies is doing is in the interests of freedom, no matter how gruesome the results.

This era is defined in mainstream US education as a competition between competing ideologies, Capitalism vs. Communism. The term capitalism is often swapped out for democracy. Democracy vs. Communism is a false dichotomy. Democracy is a vague term to describe a system in which people have some say so over policy either directly or indirectly through elections. Democracy has nothing to do with capitalism, a system in which, the means of production are owned by private interests for profit. In fact, their only correlation is a negative one. Objectively speaking, the more capitalist a society is, the less democracy there is, because power and wealth is concentrated, giving the ruling class more power and control over institutions and leaving masses with less. This is the case of many of the societies the US supported during the Cold War. The point of this ideological manipulation was for people to associate whatever the US was doing at the time with defending, supporting democracy, when in fact it was capitalism they were defending, most times against the actual democratic forces who were threatening capitalism.

Communism is a political, economic, social movement, ideology and method to understanding the world primarily through a class analysis. It goals are to create a society with no classes, public ownership of the means of production and the dissolution of the state, using socialism or the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transition from capitalism to communism. This process can be democratic or not, but capitalism, cannot be democratic by its very nature. The goal of the whole Democracy vs. Communism framework is to paint this episode in history as some battle between good and evil. Who are the good guys? Us, of course. This persuades people to associate communism with the opposite of democracy, tyranny. If the US is fighting for democracy, Communism must represent tyranny, this is especially important if the communist forces represent the democratic interests of the people in that society. Even if the movements were not communist, the very fact that they sought to change or reform the social, political, economic order can alone put them in the crosshairs of Washington’s deadly foreign policy.

Language is used to mystify the nature of American institutions and to distort history. In the current textbook used at my school site, there is a subtitle labeled, “Axis Aggression Goes Unchecked” in the chapter covering the buildup to WWII. This in itself is no cause for alarm. The problem is that no textbook would ever refer to anything done by America or its allies as ‘aggression’, no matter how aggressive it actually is. Indian wars, imperialist expansion, slavery, invasion, none of these crimes is described as aggression in educational resources. The term ‘communist aggression’ surfaces as well, however there is no such thing as ‘capitalist aggression’, not because it doesn’t exist, it is simply not acknowledged by mainstream doctrine. The term does not fit the ideological framework quietly being forced upon students and teachers alike. Only ‘enemies’ of America can be labeled aggressive.

This was done domestically as well, painting any movement that sought to empower the poor as socialist or communist, thus demonizing them and positioning the ruling interests as democratic and giving them a pretext to repress popular movements. The term ‘violent’ was used to discredit freedom movements as well. Groups like the Black Panther Party and figures like Malcolm X and Robert Williams were deemed violent simply for advocating-self defense. The police would never be described using such language, even though it is much more fittingly applied to them than any radical social movement. I’ve brought up the Black Panther Party in class and had students ask if they were racist, or killed white people? This has systematically been planted in people’s minds, because the actual history is so different. We are meant to view freedom fighters as violent and the agents of repression as somehow on the defense. We have to flip the script.

All this serves to legitimize the illegitimate, to give cover to crimes against humanity perpetrated by this system that we are educating our youth to fit into. It is crucial that we help our students point out propaganda techniques and model how to challenge them. As educators we are in part, expected to transmit the values of this society to the youth. This is collaboration with a system based on lies. If we want to help students develop a tolerably accurate view of the world, we actually have to teach against our textbooks and other educational resources, meaning we have to actually know our shit and teach with some political clarity. We must position ourselves against the dominant narrative being advocated by the system we work in. We must model how to challenge mind numbing, manufactured consent and encourage students to do the same. A historian has no country, and it is best that we reject building a simple historical narrative that fits into a narrow nationalist, patriotic framework. Our students should think like human beings, not Americans.