Know Your Propaganda

We are built to rationalize.  That is, our minds often unfairly defend our most deeply held beliefs; when we sense such beliefs being threatened, our minds distract us, refuse to comprehend alternatives, and grab onto weak excuses as if they were timber.  La-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you.

This makes it especially hard for those of us who want to overcome our biases to identify and question such beliefs.  But like many parasites, our unfairly held beliefs are most vulnerable when they are young, i.e., when we first acquire them, and when they must come up to a surface, rather than staying buried deep.

For our deeply held beliefs that are passed down via genes, it can be very hard to even notice them, much less see when they are integrated into our other thoughts.  But beliefs that are passed down culturally are more vulnerable – there must be some visible social process whereby new generations learn these beliefs from older generations.

Now beliefs that we learn implicitly, from gestures and expressions of others, can still be a lot of work to identify; you may have to watch a lot of behavior up close to notice the belief transmission.  Fortunately, many deeply held beliefs are transmitted out in the open, in explicit words, and even written down in books.

Case in point: most of us attended public instead of private schools because our governments wanted to indoctrinate us into certain beliefs (and acts).  And to keep control, such schools make teachers stick to textbooks.  So one way to explicitly identify our possibly-unfair deeply held beliefs is to study the textbooks we learned from as kids.  If we could collect lists of important non-obvious beliefs we were taught as kids, and the supporting arguments we were given at the time, we could force ourselves to more directly confront the propaganda that formed us.

Yes our minds might still unconsciously bias us in their favor, but we’d have a much better chance to apply more neutral standards we’ve learned over the years.  In this confrontation, we’d know to rely less on unarticulated intuitions that might just reflect teachings from when our minds were weak and vulnerable.

When propaganda is written down, saved, and organized, we have a better chance to confront and overcome it.  It is sad and suspicious that we are not in the habit of knowing and confronting our propaganda in this way.  Many say such confrontation is dangerous and harmful, that we gain important advantages from our self-deceptive acceptance of inaccurate propaganda.  But what evidence do we have that we are better off believing the lies we were told as kids?  That belief sure sounds like the sort of self-serving propaganda we expect to have been told.

Surely as adults, at least some of us should face facts, know our propaganda, and ask how well supported it is.  Perhaps we will decide others are better off not knowing what we have learned.  But some should confront the beasts that lie within us.

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  • bcg

    Do you have an example of the kind of belief you’re looking for?

    • See HallQ’s praise of “a knee-jerk `yay American democracy’ reflex.

      • Jimmy

        Do you have any more subtle examples for those who never bought into stuff like “yay democracy” ?

        I think it would be useful to come up with a list of things to reconsider.

        I did buy into the “drugs are bad, mmkay?” bit until I happened to do my own research, so I’m curious what’s left.

        The thing is that the list of beliefs is long and hard to dig up, so it’d be helpful to share data with other people that have managed to do it.

      • Grant

        I’ve always wondered if this was the result of a genetically-influenced bias supporting and rationalizing people and organizations with the power of violence over others. In the past when dissenters were killed and/or tortured, such a bias may have kept people alive. It would certainly explain many people’s obsession with patriotism, although I’m aware there are other explanations for it as well.

    • Matthew C.

      Do you have an example of the kind of belief you’re looking for?

      For the OB / LW crowd, reductionistic materialism. . . 😉

  • Brilliant post.

  • The best formulation of this I’ve heard is “Don’t be a prisoner of your own myth” -I don’t know the original source.

    Also, I recommend you police yourself to try not to use words or mental crutches like “Surely” and “certainly” -which themselves are more the tools of propagandists than empiricists. I try to follow that advice myself.

  • retired phlebotomist

    Laudable sentiments.

    How’d you handle this issue when the stakes were about as high as they get: your genetic heritage?

    Scotch that disagree book. We need a Robin Hanson parenting manual. Or at the least, a post.

    • If you think your genetic heritage is as important as it gets, please do not become an existential-risks activist.

  • Friedrich_on_the_mic

    “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

    “How much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare? that became for me more and more the real measure of value.”

  • I hope you’ve read Paul Graham’s Lies We Tell Kids: and What You Can’t Say: .

  • You should look at the process by which textbooks are approved.

    If you have members of a school board picking, say, the 100 textbooks that will be used by their district and each board member reads less than 1% of any given book before making his decision then your thesis doesn’t hold.

    • Granite26

      Interesting point, but compare it to legislators failing to read the full text of laws they are signing.

      There are people SOMEWHERE reading the full books, and if they spot issues, it’s likely to be widely advertised in reviews (which the locals would read)

      • James D. Miller

        Yes but the people who read the book are probably not the people who make the book buying decision.

        The stakes are much high with law making than textbook buying so we can assume that laws better reflect the views of lawmakers than textbooks do textbook pickers.

    • For a horrible example, see “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” chapter “Judging Books by Their Covers”.

  • michael vassar

    In my experience school provides wildly misleading information but almost no-one retains it anyway. Even relatively well informed people would typically know a more detailed and accurate version of history if they added to their current knowledge the content of their youthful textbooks.

    Very often, the content of the textbooks is accurate but the conventional wisdom is not, or the facts are accurate but the connotations incoherent. For instance, the textbooks are very clear in my childhood textbooks that the founders wanted a decentralized government, that we should, for some reason, care what they wanted, and that every step towards centralization in our history is to be praised. More generally, as my wife described Soviet history education, “I never believed anything because everything that happened was praised”. I suppose that implicitly, the myth that is supported by all that praise is the belief in progress, but I have argued that question extensively with Robin. My central claim remains price and wage data for a given level of education across American history and comparisons of household spending data over the course of American history.

    • josh


      I think people retain a fairly general warm and fuzzy vs. cold and prickly feeling about historical subjects. Most people accept these impressions and use them to guide their judgment. The underlying prickly/fuzzy factor, never explicitly stated is that the American left is always warm and fuzzy, and the right is always cold and prickly. It’s difficult to think of an exception to this rule.

      • michael vassar

        I don’t understand this claim at all. Sorry.

      • nazgulnarsil

        people are more likely to accept ideas that agree with what they already believe with a much looser standard of rrigor applied than to ideas that they dislike.

      • josh

        If it isn’t obvious, warm and fuzzy means generally positive, cold and prickly means generally negative. Most people of around average intelligence tend to maintain these basic sentiments about historical events while losing the details. The general feeling comes from how this material is portrayed in history books. Who writes history books? Historians! Historians in this day and age are almost left-wing by definition thanks to their connection with the American University system. Hence, details/tone/language are all selected to present the left ie progress positively. Very little attempt is made to explain the virtues of the opposition. Some examples:

        American revolution: good
        Aristocracy: bad
        Universal Manhood Suffrage: good
        Monarchy: bad
        Labor movement: good
        Putting down strikes: bad
        Abolitionists: good
        Confederacy: bad
        Vietnam War: bad
        WWII: good
        FDR: good
        Laissez faire: bad
        19th Amendment: good
        McCarthy: bad

        etc., etc., etc.

        Do you disagree with any of my characterizations of how these topics are presented to children or with my assertion that the “good” side tends to be to the political left in that debate, while the “bad” side tends to be to the political right?

    • Elizabeth

      I’m going to be homeschooling my daughter and am looking for some sort of history curriculum / textbooks that don’t have the propaganda and politically correct junk. Where would you recommend me looking? I’ve found alot of history curriculum for homeschooling but it’s hard to tell whether its truth or not even with those… Help? Any ideas? And how would I verify whether it’s true or not? My only clue is to compare it to documents/literature/logic that I KNOW to be true and proven etc… Not that I’m really all too sure what to compare it to. As in all things, some of it is just going to have to be discernment on my part. Any answers please email me if you can or just reply to this post. Thanks…

  • Perhaps we will decide others are better off not knowing what we have learned. But some should confront the beasts that lie within us.

    Are you sure that our deepest believes can be tackled by rationalization or rational introspection? In this manner, I find the zen – koans very interesting. I don`t know, if they impart “truth”, but they are a great help for spotting one`s own believes.

  • david mazzotta

    What if we were to determine (somehow) that our self-deceptions were net positive for the quality of life? Should we then maintain the acknowledged deceptions as a concious strategy?

    Would Overcoming Bias turn into Optimizing Bias?

  • josh

    I happen to be thumbing through a Textbook at this exact moment to create questions for a game of Jeopardy. Allow me to share with you some sub-chapter titles:

    Wilson Fights for Peace
    Wilson Refuses to Compromise
    Attacks on Civil Liberties Increase
    The Twilight of Progressivism
    A Superficial Prosperity (my favorite in this chapter)

    Allow me to quote from the “The Twilight of Progressivism:

    “Meanwhile, distracted Americans and their legislators allowed reform efforts to stall. As the pacifists and reformer Jane Addams mournfully reflected, ‘The spirit of fighting burns aways all those impulses…which foster the will to justice.’

    “International conflict was destined to be part of the Wilson presidency. During the early years of his administration, Wilson had dealt with issues of imperialism that had roots in the late 19th century. However, WWI dominated most of his second term as Presidency. The Progressive Era had come to an end.”

    End of Chapter. Subtle, no?

  • Psychohistorian

    “For our deeply held beliefs that are passed down via genes”

    Funny, I always thought genes coded for polypeptide chains.

    Also, out of curiosity, do you have any reliable method for distinguishing such beliefs from beliefs held through other causes, or, indeed, evidence that such beliefs unequivocally exist?

    • Grant

      I am thinking he meant genetic traits that bias an individual towards holding certain beliefs?

    • Here are some genetically influenced beliefs.

  • Jackson

    If it gets you laid…

    Alcohol, helping people get laid since…

    That’s all the propaganda you need, co opt that, and you rule the world.

    • Jackson

      Unless that is, we run out of food, then gardening skills will trump sex.

  • Granite26

    I like the post, but can’t help but feel it that it only whetted the appetite. I see the democracy comment above, and am aware of quite a few American History examples.

    Anything else, or do we just have to go find our old textbooks?

  • Bill

    My nephew has a Ph.D in education, teaches, but more importantly, works on an area called moral education.

    What he does is travel to Latvia, Romania and eastern block countries to work on how they teach history–of such things as the holocaust, communism, etc. These are also former command and control economies, so the public education system is also trying to train kids to think for themselves, use democratic processes in school, study ways people resolve conflicts, etc. There is also some work on ethics. He has also done work in Japan on how Japanese history is taught re WWII, and in Korea regarding Japanese issues.

    Now, this all occurs in the context of public education with the assistance of the US and other countries.

    But, let’s take a different example: would you like private education in Bosnia taught by Serb nationalists; private education in Pakistan taught by the immam; how about private education along Sunni and Shia lines taught in Iraq. Wouldn’t that be a pretty sight in a few more years.

    The question is not whether there is moral education being taught in public schools; the question is not whether you consider teaching kids about how societies can resolve problems without resort to weapons is propaganda; the question is not whether teaching kids ethical principals is propaganda; the question is not whether teaching kids how to resolve disputes using representative government rather than weapons is propagand….THE question is what you teach them, and whether you isolate them in immiscible conflicting and contentious enclaves that will fight each other rather than living together in a community.

    Calling something propaganda is propaganda if you stop thinking as a result of a label.

    • Chuck

      I thought this was a good reply in opposition to the premise of the post.

    • You can consider whatever questions you want, but my point in this post was that we should each try to confront and question the propaganda that formed us. If you don’t like the word “propaganda”, fine.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      “But, let’s take a different example: would you like private education in Bosnia taught by Serb nationalists; private education in Pakistan taught by the immam; how about private education along Sunni and Shia lines taught in Iraq. Wouldn’t that be a pretty sight in a few more years.”

      Why is having a single kind of propaganda taught to an entire nation in public schools better than having multiple kinds of propaganda taught in private schools throughout the nation?

  • lemmy caution

    Some types of school propaganda are useful. The united states has stronger first amendment rights than most other first world democracies. This is pretty much due to school propaganda. People have an unthinking belief in first amendment rights that helps prevent an erosion of these rights.

    This guy makes a case for catholic schools being a useful tool of propaganda and control in the 19th century:

    Other types of school propaganda are not so useful. America’s foreign policy as described in school textbooks is pretty whitewashed and this makes people succeptable to bad arguments like this:

    Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny— in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

    • Peter Twieg

      Do Americans who attend public schools have more respect for American political institutions than those who don’t?

      • Jayson Virissimo

        I second that. This seems like a good candidate for something that could be settled with the right data set and a simple regression.

  • Chuck

    Especially in grade schools where there is a component of useful skills being taught (reading, writing) but perhaps not the mental skill to read or write subtle understandings of issues, you’ve still got to read and write about something. So, why not read and write things that instill some common context or a common point of departure for re-examination later in life. (It seems to have served you well, Robin… ;^)

    At one point I started to believe, “If you don’t believe something that you choose explicitly, you will believe something someone else chose for you by necessity – one can’t make choices without having a values to base them on.”

    Thinking about it more, you have to recognize that people aren’t just born rational with a pile of experience to start judging value systems with – we have to grow up – our brains have to develop and we have to gain experience. During that time, the people raising/educating children have no choice but to indoctrinate them in something – hopefully something constructive that hangs together…

    • I didn’t claim we could do without teaching things to kids; I said that as adults we should try to go back and question what we were taught.

      • Chuck

        Sorry for missing the point, I quite agree with it…

        Eric Fromm: “Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is.”

  • Vladimir

    Robin Hanson:

    Many say such confrontation is dangerous and harmful, that we gain important advantages from our self-deceptive acceptance of inaccurate propaganda. But what evidence do we have that we are better off believing the lies we were told as kids?

    I know at least one very good reason. In every society, there are beliefs that respectable people are supposed to profess, and denying them can have very bad consequences for one’s social status and life prospects. Some of these beliefs always happen to be false. Someone who reverses some such belief after considering the evidence will, whenever the issue is brought up afterwards, be faced with the choice between speaking honestly and suffering because of it or lying and evasion about his honest beliefs. Unless one is a person with talent and inclination for duplicity (and few people really are), neither option seems attractive at all — especially considering that in both private and professional life, one is very likely to occasionally find oneself in situations where acknowledgment of respectable beliefs is expected.

    Even worse, if your confidence in the respectable beliefs is eroded beyond a certain point, it can become difficult to avoid accidentally manifesting dangerous incorrect thoughts in one’s everyday speech and behavior — you will have to consciously restrain yourself instead of being able to comfortably rely on your intuitive sense of what’s proper, like people who adhere to the respectable beliefs with honest innocence do. Though I guess you might argue that the presently reigning respectable beliefs are close enough to reality that this is not a realistic possibility if you discard only false beliefs. (With which I would disagree.)

    I don’t think anyone would deny that there are situations in practice where one is genuinely better off not knowing the truth — for example, if the discovery of an unpleasant truth would pit one’s different affections and loyalties against one another. Incorrect beliefs that are firmly held by the respectable opinion are another such example.

    • Do you really believe this risk is so great that you are better off not questioning what you were taught as a kid? Might there at least be some professions or personality types where this risk is low enough to make this digging not too risky?

      • Vladimir

        Well, as I already mentioned, for people for whom effective duplicitous behavior is easy and natural, this is obviously not a problem. Also, if you live in a jurisdiction with strong legal free speech protections, and you’re either rich or good-for-nothing so that you don’t care about a career, there isn’t much to worry about except people’s personal scorn you might arouse. Tenured professors are also mostly shielded against consequences of expressing disreputable views, but I can’t think of many other people who are.

        Even more importantly, I’ve noticed that it also depends on how you react to public and private displays of what you believe to be false beliefs inculcated by propaganda, especially when you find yourself in a situation where you have to acknowledge them at least implicitly. Some people are inclined to just shrug it off as another silly human imperfection that is a part of everyday life, without feeling any impulse to express disagreement unless specifically asked for their opinion. Others, however, feel much more strongly about it, and the devil will be pricking them to speak up, or at least refuse implicit acknowledgment, even in situations when it might be risky. I don’t know if these particular personality traits have ever been studied in a systematic manner, but I’ve definitely noticed such differences among people. For those in the latter category, it is definitely not advisable to question their respectable beliefs too much.

        Another danger is that by questioning respectable views, you might also fall victim to biases that convince you of beliefs that are both false and disreputable. People who get rid of some false respectable opinions are often prone to develop biases due to awakening of rebellious impulses, perhaps even resulting in a terrible feedback loop that leads them far into crackpot territory (you’ve probably thought about this phenomenon more than me). It might even be that the presented evidence for the respectable belief is wrong, but the evidence that leads you to the opposite belief is also false, only more subtly, and that in a final correct analysis, the respectable view would be vindicated after all. The area of approved respectable opinions is surrounded with a very dangerous intellectual minefield where nobody is there to hold your hand reliably — though many seductive false voices will offer it, eager to mislead you.

      • Vladimir, surely reading this blog is as risky as questioning platitudes you learned in grade school. Why risk that?

      • Vladimir

        When it comes to me personally, the platitudes I learned in grade school have lost relevance, because the country and the political regime they were praising have fallen apart. (As you might surmise from my name.) Subsequently, I never really synchronized with the present Western respectable ideological mainstream, so as far as I’m concerned, the damage has already been done and I might as well enjoy it. However, when I see people who live happy and productive lives in tacit agreement with all the major respectable beliefs that are (to the best of my honest knowledge) false, I do think that most of them would be on the net harmed if they were convinced of highly disreputable opinions that are closer to reality.

        As for this blog, I wouldn’t say that it’s dangerous by itself, for the following reason. Your approach based on identifying biases and signaling is indeed a powerful dissolvent of all sorts of false beliefs, but I expect that most of your readers, even the smartest and most knowledgeable ones, won’t apply it to their respectable beliefs that it would be dangerous to discard. People do have a certain natural instinct for what Orwell called “crimestop”; it may well be the most pervasive and most powerful of all human biases, and we are all subject to it to at least some extent. (One could even argue that organized human society would be impossible without the mechanisms of social cohesion that are critically guarded by this instinct.) To make people actually rethink issues beyond their crimestop limits, they usually must be guided through it explicitly by someone highly trusted. (Which is of course difficult in a catch-22 way, since disreputable beliefs signal untrustworthiness.)

        Of course, it is a non-trivial question whether there actually are any beliefs that are both true and extremely disreputable nowadays. I’m intentionally avoiding concrete examples because they tend to derail discussion, but, again, to the best of my honest knowledge and insight, it seems to me that there are in fact quite a few of them. Others might disagree, in which case my points would obviously have no relevance.

      • Nick Tarleton

        Of course, it is a non-trivial question whether there actually are any beliefs that are both true and extremely disreputable nowadays.

        Now I’m very curious: does anyone here think there aren’t?

  • “But what evidence do we have that we are better off believing the lies we were told as kids?”

    None. If we did, how would we know it was not propaganda? My best guess is we will just have to keep on living life and see what happens.

    “apply more neutral standards”

    Good luck.

    “For our deeply held beliefs that are passed down via genes, it can be very hard to even notice them, much less see when they are integrated into our other thoughts.”

    Nice disclosure. Glad to see someone else feels the same thing.

    “Surely as adults, at least some of us should face facts, know our propaganda, and ask how well supported it is. Perhaps we will decide others are better off not knowing what we have learned. But some should confront the beasts that lie within us.”

    Those able must confront the beasts.
    I would suggest, that depending on which way the propaganda is flowing, to you or from you, would determine the “facts”
    What is propaganda but our likes and dislikes? We protect our likes (beasts) by surrounding them with our dislikes. We must feed the beasts. To feed our beasts we need to bind our likes to something that is likeable in our dislikes. It is the experience of novelty that allows us to grow a robust intuition. The better your intuition, the better your bull…. , er, propaganda detector.

  • tgrass

    ‘Propaganda’ is intentional. What we experience in school (any school) is acculturation. It is Galbraith’s Convenient Social Virtue. The distinction is important and that you don’t make it reveals your own bias in spreading information.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Which bias is he falling prey to and how can he correct for it?

      • tgrass

        His bias: that markets are a better solution to any problem.
        Correcting it? It’s normative. There’s no ‘correction’.

        My point is merely that ‘propaganda’ is not what’s occurring in public education, and a Hayekian free-marketer should understand this first and foremost. Why is it presumed spontaneous order doesn’t occur in public schools? These are complicated systems. To think that public school systems are susceptible to the machinations of a single group is ahistorical.

  • Thomas M. Hermann

    The point of this post, that we should engage in critical review of our beliefs, was not obvious to me until I read the comments. Critical review/thinking is something that I would like to see applied to more than just our system of beliefs. Unfortunately, I see little anecdotal evidence that the general populace is interested in engaging in critical thinking of any sort. Part of the problem with critical thinking is that you first have to acknowledge a certain level of ignorance in yourself. People generally seem to find this to be too uncomfortable. Furthermore, critical review of one’s system of beliefs might reveal inconsistencies. For example, it seems inconsistent for a person to want to achieve immortality if that person believes that we are headed for a Malthusian equilibrium in the long run.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Or to propose moving resources from a medical intervention that they view as 20% successful to one that they view as 6% successful.

  • wesley

    Great post.

    An anecdote: I looked at an 8th grader’s social studies textbook (in NY) a month ago and was surprised to see how much of the information was not purely descriptive. Not that all history is descriptive, but the authors rarely identified ambiguities or alternative explanations, particularly when it came to the stuff that really needed such additions (e.g. the Constitution).

  • It would overcome more expected bias for me to revisit the TV shows, movies and songs of my youth than the school textbooks of my youth.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      I agree. I think Ninja Turtles and Star Wars probably had a larger effect on my beliefs and values than elementary school did.

    • nazgulnarsil

      this is a great point that possibly reveals biased thought leading to the original premise: robin is looking for bias in what we learned as children in the institution that ostensibly we learned from. what evidence is there that school is the largest influence on adult beliefs?

    • Doing a similar same exercise with TV movies and song sounds fine, but most of the beliefs transmitted there will be less explicit, making it more work to dig them out.

  • This reminds me of a mass communications textbook I looked at recently that had a long list of forms of mass communication –but ommitted textbooks.

  • etc

    Historically, there have been significant costs associated with belief in an unpopular truth. What has changed since then? Not enough.

  • A lot of the most effective propaganda from school is about the process of education, not the content.

    In particular, conventional schooling teaches that you can’t tell for yourself whether you’ve learned something, your interest or lack of interest in learning something is irrelevant, and what you learn is irrelevant to anything you’re doing.

    It’s teaching as though consciousness doesn’t matter.

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  • lxm

    I think most adults try to examine what they were taught and how it helped or failed them and to adjust their lives as best they can. We probably wouldn’t call it overcoming our biases as much as learning to live satisfying lives. We learn from our mistakes and we learn from what was mistaken in our educations as well as what was correct.

    We learn from schools, churches, family, friends, community, the street, the marine corp, the corporation, the baseball team. We learn, over time, that each has positives; each has negatives.

    Where is the learning in public schools most suspect? Probably history. English (reading and writing), math(through calculus), basic science (biology, physics, chemistry) is not suspect. The propaganda we get in the public schools through history studies is on a par with the same propaganda we get through other public institutions — you know the rockets red glare…gave truth through the night that our flag was still there. This propaganda is part of our culture. Why should schools not teach it?

    So why single out public schools as an example? I suspect that it is not so much what is taught, as just the fact that public schools exist. Their existence, and their success for over half a century, provides an example of government working. That’s what probably really galls.

  • tgrass

    I don’t think there is sufficient evidence of a mechanism for propaganda in public schools.

    Where is the concerted effort to bias the information being transmitted?

    Textbook selection alone is a complicated process that involves many stakeholders, including professional educators from the state to the local level, principals, curriculum guides, teachers, parents and community representatives (the Board). To call the product of such a varied group ‘propaganda’ is to abuse the word.

    Yet the acculturation does not come from the textbook, and as a teacher, Hanson should realize this. The teacher, whether competent or not, imparts more interpretive analysis to the material than the text alone could. To claim that the teacher is the mechanism of propaganda is even more problematic.

    • tgrass

      To claim that the teacher is the mechanism of propaganda is even more problematic than claiming textbooks are: though written by a team of writers, the textbook is a static product at the very least. It is what it is. A single teacher is unpredictable. A school of teachers? What principal could keep teachers on message to sufficiently control the ‘propaganda’. What board or supervisor could keep principals on message?

      There is no reasonable causal link between the source of the purported ‘propaganda’ and the ultimate means of conveyance: the texts and the teachers.

      • I think you’re reading too much into the use of the word “propaganda.”

        An objective study on the history of public schooling in the US shows a very clear and obvious effort to shape the minds of school children so that they would be good citizens.

        This doesn’t mean that there have ever been “secretive” teams of nefarious writers composing a standardized message of “propaganda” and I don’t believe Robin is trying to imply that this is the case.

        Read up on John Dewey, his views on public education and how very influential he was. Then look at the current state of our public school system and you’ll see that Mr. Dewey (among others) has been wildly successful.

      • tgrass

        Propaganda is consistently used as a term to denote involuntary acculturation. I cannot think of any use of the term in which it is a neutral description of the natural process of transferring values intergenerationaly.

        I presume as Robin has used this very precise word in the title of this post and the one previous that it was not without a fair amount of thought. He is an intelligent man and hopefully expects us to read at least that much into his words. Else we must dismiss with a great deal of this.

        The use of the term ‘propaganda’ is itself a normative assessment of the educational system. I’m all for exploring the subtle and likely unconscious modes of acculturation in elementary education. But that’s not what is intended with this exercise. This exercise seeks to see how a pupil is subjugated by state run education.

        Exploring ‘propaganda’ presupposes a conscious effort of disseminating some set of values. Not necessarily secretive or nefarious, but by definition and common use of the word with intent. I’m suggesting that the system is far too chaotic for intent and that no mechanism has been presented that might overcome that.

        The lessons of any one teacher reflect such a great diversity of influences, and the differences between any two teachers likely being infinite, to call their common product ‘propaganda’ is reductionist.

        What’s more, the use of the word ‘propaganda’ speaks of it’s own bias: as an irrational description of the state (irrational because it does not seek truth in complex causes) it reveals the speaker’s opposition to government (good or bad).

  • What immediately comes to mind is the government run schools emphasis on serving the state, and the efforts they go to paint established religion in a negative light.
    Umberto Eco has a nice essay pointing out the myth of Columbus’ trip to the Orient being withstood by a Church who believed he would sail off a planetary cliff. The wise men of Salamanca also believed in a round Earth, but warned Columbus against the length of the trip. (Not knowing about the New World of course.)
    Religion is taught to be mythology itself, and it is replaced – or attempted to be replaced – by the state.
    The Left’s version is a more collective vision of serving the state, and the Right’s is more patriotic, but both sides really are anti-faith.

    • fburnaby

      With high such religiosity in the US — as compared to other nations of comparable standards of living — this hypothesis could actually be testable. How do European and American school systems differ, and which of these differences has a plausible connection to religiosity?

      Having been schooled in Canada, my experience contained absolutely no negative statement or innuendo about any major religion. I recall finding it funny at the time that we would learn so much about Greek and Roman mythology, as well as native American heritage, while leaving out any mention of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, especially as they relate to politics.

  • Vladimir

    Nick Tarleton:

    Now I’m very curious: does anyone here think there aren’t [any beliefs that are both true and extremely disreputable nowadays]?

    Which beliefs qualify as “extremely disreputable” is a somewhat subjective judgment, but the relative disreputability of different beliefs would be relatively easy to agree upon at least in broad terms. Thus, a more precise alternative to the above question would be: what are the most disreputable beliefs that you think are true or at least could be true with a significant probability? Now that would be an awkward question for many people! On the other hand, imagine the peace of mind of someone who can answer this question honestly in a way that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in polite company.

  • Kevin K

    “Many say such confrontation is dangerous and harmful, that we gain important advantages from our self-deceptive acceptance of inaccurate propaganda. But what evidence do we have that we are better off believing the lies we were told as kids?”

    Being better off from believing them comes from the fact that we stay in sync with those around us. By confronting our self-deceptions we become out of sync with those around us and become vulnerable to social censure. The person who finally breaks down his self-deceptions will very likely become bitter about the fact that he was taught false things, confused about who to trust, lose the sense of sureness and rightness of his own judgment, and all this is only the beginning! As he interacts with others, unless he is very careful to conceal his new perspective (a path which has its own dangers – ie. “living a lie”), he will also likely be jarring to those who are still deceived, create conflict and have negative judgments cast upon him. The pains of these social pressures can be overwhelming, and this in turn could cause him to become even more embittered, getting into a negative feedback loop from which escape is difficult. This is the why it is dangerous and harmful to confront the deep lies at our cores.

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