Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Deal With Propaganda

The other day, if you recall, I taught about bias, product placement, and propaganda.  I've been trying to show both how North Korea uses this to their advantage, and how even here people are trying to sell us philosophies and ideas as well as products.

At the end of the day yesterday, a student gave me this letter:

I'll transcribe it, in case you can't read it in the image.

Dear Mr. Habecker,

     I have a question, aren't us students being brain washed?  I was thinking, maybe all History teachers brain wash students.  Is there a way that is fake about history?  Are you telling students to lie?  Is someone telling you what to teach, and what to hide?  If so, why?  Why can't you tell the truth?  Do you know anything about changing history?  Isn't Israel connected to Africa?  As I look at the map, it connects to Egypt.  Which connects to Africa.  I don't understand.  Anybody could say, "oh its connected to Africa," or "oh, it's connected to something else."  Is there something the history teachers are lying about?
     Also, you say Gandhi is Indian.  Well how come in the movie about him, when he is on the bus, the man tells Gandhi there are no colored people allowed on the bus.  Well what did they call black people?  They called them colored people.  Is Gandhi black?

...Ok, so there's a lot in there.  A lot, right?  I won't have time to address every question, but let me address the first couple.

Are students being brain washed?  Maybe.  But I'm not intentionally brain washing you.  There's a big difference in how I am educating you here, and how you would be educated in North Korea.  You can go to a library.  You can search the internet.  Anything you want to look up, look it up.  Find out if I'm lying to you: I'm not.  At least, not intentionally.

It is true - I have my own biases and prejudices.  One thing I love about social studies is that I'm forced to come to grips with what my own biases are  - to address them, and not teach to them.  That is why I'm teaching you about bias and propaganda - so that you can identify it in yourself and in others.

Next question/series of questions:  Is there a way that is fake about history?  Are you telling students to lie?  I'm not sure what you mean about "a way that is fake about history..."  Sometime people invent histories, or embellish histories to make themselves look better.  This is true of people throughout history that we generally categorize as "good" as well as those we categorize as "bad."

For instance, Hitler and Stalin both revised their histories to make them look better, to scapegoat others, and to make their opponents look bad.  Most of us would agree that neither Hitler nor Stalin were "stand-up guys."  In fact, most people categorize them as evil.

But take our very own George Washington.  Maybe you heard the story of him chopping down the cherry tree.  His father came home and asked if he did it, and his response was, "I cannot tell a lie, for it was I."  Yeah... that whole story is probably a lie.

And this isn't a new thing...  Most historians believe that the entire Xia dynasty of China is fictionalized to give the Shang dynasty some legitimacy.

So, I suppose yes.  There is a way that is fake about history.  But I'm not telling my students to lie.  I'm telling (or asking, if you prefer) them to think.  Here in the United States (is this US propaganda?...?) you can go to the library and look up whatever you want.

True, there may be a lie that is so deeply ingrained into our society that the truth is no longer there - but if that's the case, I guess there's nothing we can do about it - except continually try to find the truth.

Next question: Is someone telling you what to teach?  Yes.  Yes and yes.  I took the picture with the camera angled so you can see the Indiana State Standards for 7th Grade Social Studies in the background.  The state of Indiana tells me what to teach.  I can't teach whatever I want.  This makes sense: I'm not qualified to be your math teacher.  So, if you came in to my class and I said: "Alright, lets learn us some fractions..." You would probably have a weird/annoyed look on your face.

The state (and school) give me quite a bit of freedom on how I approach and teach what they ask me to teach.  For that, I'm grateful.

They're not asking me to hide anything - but they do ask me to stick to 7th grade social studies standards.  If you prefer to think of me not teaching math as "hiding something," that's ok.  But I'm not.  It's just that Mrs. Gowdy is a WAAAAAAYYYYYYYYY better math teacher than me.

The next really new question is, "Isn't Israel connected to Africa?..."  And then the assumed question, "Why isn't Israel considered part of Africa?"

You're right: the Middle East is tricky.  Most people in the United States qualify the Middle East as part of Asia, but it's tricky.  Just like at the beginning of the year we discussed whether or not the "Southern Ocean" should be considered an ocean.  We break the world into continents to make it easier to categorize them in our minds.  So when somebody says, "it's in South America" we know the general area they're talking about.  That doesn't mean the system is perfect, or that there aren't other proposed systems.

Since we have a very limited amount of time in here, I try to teach you the basics.  Hopefully at some point, you get a chance to look into it more.

As for Gandhi, he considered himself Indian, so that's what I'm going with as well.

If I didn't answer the questions well enough - or if you have additional input, let me know in the comments or in your note for extra credit.

If you want extra credit for reading and discussing the blog, write a short paragraph telling about your discussion, then have the adult you read it with sign the paper and turn it in tomorrow.


  1. Hello again Mr. H! I wanted to piggyback on your explanation here. You mention that Gandhi considered himself Indian. But that didn't explain why the man in the movie called Gandhi "colored," which I think was the underlying question. The student is probably thinking of the American civil rights era, and a lot of the discussion of that era focuses on the relationship between white people and black people in our country. However, "colored" has been used as a racist way to refer to anybody who isn't white - even if they're not black, either! If you have a chance (ha, ha - in your spare time, right?) you might want to encourage your students to find out what they can about the "paper bag test."

    It sounds like your student has made some great connections - I can't help wondering if the bit about "brainwashing" comes from a comparison between what life (and school!) is like here and what your class learned about North Korea, and a concern about what we perceive to be our freedoms and what they actually are. (You've heard about the Princeton study?)

    I didn't mean to be so wordy, but I guess I just had a lot to say!

    PS: Don't sell yourself short; I think you'd do a great job teaching fractions!
    PS #2: Of course if I ever find out that you told anybody that 1/16 was more than 1/8 because 16 is more than 8, I'm going to have to haul you in for a remedial detention...

    1. Thanks, Clix. I'd been working on this post for far too long, and had to get home. Now that I'm home - and everybody else is gone, I'll spare a couple minutes to look up some of what you mentioned: "the paper bag test" and "the Princeton study." (I've heard about a lot of different Princeton studies, so hopefully I can find the one you're referencing.)

      I'm pretty sure you're wrong about that fractions stuff. I'm pretty sure 16 IS bigger than 8, but what do I know, right?

      ...Hopefully my students know I'm joking about that last part.

      ...Hopefully some of my students even bother reading this post. :)

  2. Good morning Mr. H! If your students are nervous about finals, let them know that they're not the only ones. I just woke up from a stress-dream about the robotics team our school doesn't even have! Ugh. Hopefully I can get back to sleep again after a bit here.

    The Princeton study I'm talking about is the one that concluded that America is NOT actually a democracy any more, but an oligarchy.