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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

We Don’t Do Propaganda

By Rick Hess — July 12, 2010 3 min read
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Epstein: “We don’t do propaganda. Our enemies disseminate propaganda. We provide information.”

Spenser: “It’s good to be us.”

-exchange from Robert Parker’s Rough Weather.

In the last two or three months, I think I’ve been invited to a dozen or more screenings of The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, and their kin. As I’ve been a hard-core enthusiast of charter schooling, accountability, merit pay, and such since before it was cool, I like the story these movies tell. I’m well aware that public debates are argued via public messages, meaning there is an important place for emotional appeals. And, since the teachers unions and their allies play the “it’s for the kids” card with abandon, no one should expect would-be reformers to play with one hand tied behind their back.

Now, all that said, I’m getting queasy from all these screenings and the fevered chattering and media coverage. No doubt it’s due to me being old and cranky, but I find myself wondering about the fact that my side seems to be spending so much time and money dressing its arguments in public relations garb and the same painfully sentimental “it’s for the kids” rhetoric. What am I worried about? Three things.

First, there’s a studied disingenuousness about it all. Those championing these flicks tend to present the images as a revelation. The tone tends to suggest that the world is being discovered anew--which matters because it can easily lead folks to ignore the fact that heralded new solutions have a troubled record or blind them to important nuances.

Second, I’m not crazy about the rush to deputize these filmmakers as spokespeople and gurus. If you’re trying to rile up twenty-somethings to buy a Prius or forsake red meat, I can see the value of frontmen who work in absolutes. But I worry about the impact on efforts to drive smart, thoughtful change. It does put folks whose great gift is the ability to manipulate emotions through visuals and sound in a position where they have the ability to discredit the larger effort by saying inaccurate, simple-minded, or dubious things.

I got a first-hand view of how this can play out at the Education Writers Association meeting this spring in San Francisco. There, several of the nation’s leading education reporters walked out of a session with Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for Superman, ridiculing some of Guggenheim’s factual claims and “guess what I just discovered” tone. Overselling feels good in the moment and can help win this campaign or the passage of that bill, but compromised credibility is a huge millstone for reformers pursuing sustained, structural change.

Third, propaganda tends to clarify and simplify, which is all well and good and is terrific for messaging. But it’s not a great way to push smart solutions or to keep hubris in check. For one thing, it encourages the tendency to speak in absolutes, demonize opponents, and imagine that tackling complex problems and fixing obdurate bureaucracies is a simple matter of the quiet masses rising up to unseat the corrupt villains. I’m very willing to argue that Fahrenheit 9/11 or Bowling for Columbine did more to polarize popular feeling (and make a celebrity of Michael Moore) than to contribute to the popular debate. And I don’t think that either John Kerry or gun control much benefited from Moore’s exertions.

Movies that sell charter schools as a salvation are peddling a simple-minded remedy that takes us back to the worst charter puffery of a decade ago, is at odds with the evidence, and can blind viewers to what it takes to launch and grow truly great charters. These flicks accelerate the troubling trend of turning every good idea into a moral crusade, so that retooling K-12 becomes a question of moral rectitude in which we choose sides and “reformers” are supposed to smother questions about policy or practice. They also wildly romanticize charters, charter school teachers, and the kids and families, making it harder to speak honestly or bluntly.

So, I’m torn. I think these movies have a valuable and constructive role to play, so long as advocates don’t deem it a substitute for reasoned argument. I guess I’m for edu-agitprop so long as its practitioners evince good nature and a bit of humility, and so long as cheerleaders retain enough sense of irony to not believe their own hype.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.