It’s a term that’s so unfamiliar to the public that news organizations placed it in single quotes. Speaking at the National Archives, President Donald Trump called for ‘patriotic education’ and proposed the formation of a new commission to restore it to our schools. On the political stump, less than 2 months before the election, Trump was speaking on the topic of historic monuments that have been dismantled. In classic attack mode, Trump pointed out that his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, did not object when officials in his home state of Delaware removed statues of Christopher Columbus and Caesar Rodney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner.
In his speech, Trump singled out critical race theory for special disdain and attacked the ‘far-left mobs’ who had been indoctrinated by educators and scholars. He said that historians and scholars have “rewritten history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” President Trump’s new commission on patriotic education would be designed to celebrate “the miracle of American history.” Conservatives have long been angry that the topic of civil rights gets so much attention in American history textbooks. Critics promptly responded by noting the similarities between how the president treats historians and how he treats scientists, by disregarding their expertise if it clashes with his own opinions.
Trump’s argument on behalf of patriotic education is carefully designed as political propaganda. By denouncing education that tries to “make students ashamed of their own history,” President Trump suggests that contemporary education is already a form of indoctrination. And by arousing strong emotions, simplifying ideas and information, appealing to people’s deepest hopes, fears and dreams, he reminds people that ideas can be dangerous.
Of course, philosophers, scholars, artists and educators have debated the dangers of educational indoctrination since the Enlightenment. Education propaganda delivers its messages under the radar, when people are not really expecting it. For this reason, social theorists like Jacques Ellul have conceptualized education as the most powerful propaganda genre of all. Ellul used the term sociological propaganda to refer to “the penetration of an ideology by means of its sociological context.”
A wide range of seemingly ordinary cultural practices reinforce ideology in subtle ways, which is why sociological propaganda is woven into the fabric of everyday life, often by means of stories about the past. Indoctrination may occur when educators promote the uncritical, universal acceptance of ideas and shun all evidence that does not align with those ideas.
In many parts of the world, patriotic education is embedded in the teaching of history, which inevitably reproduces the ideas favored by the current ruling party. In Turkey, only months after President Erdogan strengthened his power after the attempted coup in Istanbul in 2016, the ministers of education hastily re-wrote the textbooks. They shortened the history of Ataturk, the founder of the modern nation of Turkey, to just one paragraph and they added the story of the 2016 attempted coup and its aftermath, giving it a full three pages. Turkish education ministers used the school textbook to tell students and teachers what to think and what to believe.
Educational propaganda can also be intentionally designed to produce obedient citizens who will not protest or engage in activities deemed dangerous to the state. When the leaders of Human Rights Watch in China found evidence of political indoctrination in detainee camps for Uighur Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang in 2019, they described it as ‘brainwashing’ because an entire ethnic community was forced to repent and confess their past beliefs in an effort to change their identity.
In China, students have been required to learn about the philosophy of dialectical materialism for decades in a course called Moral Education. Recently, President Xi Jinping has stepped up the levels of indoctrination, describing his desire for students to absorb the doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party by explaining, “Children should memorize the core socialist values by heart, have them melt in their hearts, and carve them into their brains.” The Ministry of Education has established 10 Centers of Xi Jingping Thought on college campuses as well as an ideological team of missionaries to spread these ideas “to the very nerve endings” of students. By equating love of country with the love for Chinese Chinese socialism, this type of patriotic education is a classic form of political indoctrination.
Although some might consider President Trump’s speech on patriotic education to be merely political theater, he provides educators with a fine teachable moment to address the similarities and differences between indoctrination and education. Because propaganda is in the eye of the beholder, educators must rely on the power of multiperspectival thinking to support learner autonomy. By encountering diverse and conflicting perspectives on the topic of indoctrination and education, intellectual curiosity can be accelerated as students learn to think for themselves.
Educators can own up to the fact that academic authority can be used to promote uncritical acceptance of a particular belief. But it can also be used to promote critical thinking, where through discussion, questioning and the use of reasoning and evidence, learners explore diverse views and come to their own understanding of a complex topic or set of ideas.
There’s never been a more important time to help students learn to critically analyze contemporary propaganda in all its many forms. Although often overlooked or localized to the historical past, propaganda education is at the heart of the real mission of education and civic learning in American schools. If schools are to fulfill their social purpose of preparing people for life in a democratic society, learners need plentiful opportunities to make sense of contemporary propaganda and use the power of inquiry to explore it.