Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP