Social Studies

PragerU, Creator of Controversial Social Studies Videos, Now Has a Toehold in Schools

By Sarah Schwartz — August 31, 2023 8 min read
Dennis Prager attends Politicon at The Pasadena Convention Center on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif.
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As the school year starts, a controversial set of social studies materials are making headlines: videos from the conservative media company PragerU.

The company, which describes itself as an “educational media platform dedicated to promoting pro-American values,” creates free, online videos for children that cover a range of history, civics, and science topics. Some have hundreds of thousands of views.

The materials came under fire after the Florida Department of Education approved them in July for use in classrooms as supplemental resources. PragerU leaders say that the channel provides an alternative perspective to what they see as liberal biases in schools and universities.

But historians and researchers who study right-wing media say that the videos spread misinformation—and are qualitatively different from other social studies materials that teachers might use in schools.

“PragerU is not a university,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “It is a political propaganda machine, and it promotes mistruths about climate change, slavery, and a whole host of other things.”

PragerU didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Education Week. On its website, the company says that it plans to expand into more states as an approved resource for K-12 schools.

How widespread are the videos?

The state board of education in New Hampshire planned to vote on approving PragerU’s financial literacy content; the board tabled the vote after vocal pushback from educators.

In Texas, state board member Julie Pickren appeared in a video alongside PragerU CEO Marissa Streit, announcing that the materials had been approved for use in that state. But board chair Keven Ellis told the Dallas Morning News that the organization hadn’t submitted materials for review, and that the board hadn’t taken any vote on the issue.

The company reports that more than 700,000 parents, grandparents, and educators have subscribed to PragerU kids’ content, but it’s not clear how common it is for teachers to use the videos in classrooms. Florida approved the materials only as supplemental resources—not for the core curriculum teachers work with.

It’s virtually impossible to know at what scale the nation’s more than 3 million teachers are using PragerU—or any other curriculum materials, for that matter. There are no national gauges of curriculum use, and even most states don’t collect this information.

But there are some documented instances of schools using PragerU. In 2021, The American Prospect reported that high school students in California and Idaho had seen the videos in their classrooms, played by their teachers. In 2020, an Ohio school assigned PragerU videos for extra credit. Conversely, at least one local news outlet has reported that some Florida districts won’t allow the resources to be used in classrooms.

The kids’ videos are slickly produced with child-friendly language and lots of humor, said Catherine Tebaldi, a postdoctoral researcher in digital and linguistic anthropology at the University of Luxembourg who has studied the discussion of gender in PragerU materials. “This kind of familiar, avuncular style makes parents and teachers feel comfortable using this stuff,” she said.

Read on for more about the company, its kids’ content, and why some experts are wary about its use in the classroom.

What is PragerU, anyway?

Despite having “U” in the name, PragerU is not a university.

It’s a media company founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager, aimed at reaching Gen Z audiences with videos that present, in its words, “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.”

PragerU has become best-known for its “5-Minute Videos,” a series of shorts on political and social issues, geared toward teenagers and college-aged students. The clips—which include titles such as “Social Justice Isn’t Justice,” “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?,” “Make Men Masculine Again,” and “Income Inequality Is Good”—often feature prominent conservative pundits and media personalities. Those include both establishment conservative voices and those associated with the party’s more extreme wing. Robert George, George Will, Candace Owens, Christopher Rufo, and Dinesh D’Souza all make appearances.

Fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks have donated millions to the media group, which also publishes videos denying the reality of climate change. PragerU has also received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has supported conservative education policy priorities, including the “teaching of American exceptionalism.”

The platform has come under fire repeatedly for spreading misinformation. News organizations and prominent historians have fact-checked the videos on their claims about United States history and the science of climate change.

What kind of content do the kids’ videos cover?

PragerU’s kids’ content is separate from its 5-Minute Videos, but covers many of the same themes: American history, civics, financial literacy, social issues, and religion.

The organization expanded its children’s programming in 2023, adding seven new online shows for K-12 for a total of 14 programs. The new offerings, according to PragerU’s biannual report, “are created to inoculate children against the woke and anti-American leftist narrative taught in most schools, while enriching students with a fun, engaging education.”

One video in particular has drawn strong backlash. In it, two children go back in time to meet the abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass. Douglass—who escaped slavery and famously spoke about the painful irony of a nation founded on liberty that holds people in bondage—in the video describes slavery as a necessary evil for the founding of the country.

“I’m certainly not OK with slavery, but the founding fathers made a compromise to achieve something great—the making of the United States,” the Douglass character says. He goes on to say, “sometimes things are more complicated than they might seem.”

The video is an “appalling” misuse of Frederick Douglass, and a mischaracterization of his role in U.S. history, said Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University.

Other videos, he said, flatten the subject matter in order to inculcate certain values. He referenced one video about Booker T. Washington, the educator and intellectual who advocated for economic and educational opportunities for Black Americans after the Civil War.

Rather than exploring the arguments of Washington, Hartman said, the video has didactic aims. It conveys the lesson that children need to be independent so that they will be prepared to take on life’s challenges, and compares having a difficult boss to living through segregation. “There’s a lot of very explicit conservative pedagogy and morality tales going on,” he said.

Using historical figures to impart civic lessons for today’s children isn’t unique to PragerU, Hartman noted.

“You could argue that the basic history textbooks that were used in schools for a long time did this—maybe in a less explicit way, but something similar,” he said. “A lot of the curriculum revision in the last 50 years has been an effort to go against the grain of that.”

But PragerU is different from many curriculum providers, he said, in that the organization has “no pretense about following historical scholarship.”

“I think, in part, that’s because they view historians as being part of this liberal or ‘woke’ agenda,” Hartman said.

How does PragerU differ from other social studies materials?

PragerU presents its videos as a way to introduce young people to alternative opinions.

In 2020, Dennis Prager told the New York Times that young people are “open” to hearing a different perspective than what he sees as the dominant liberal narrative in colleges and universities. “Many suspect they have been given only one view, and suspect that view may often be absurd,” he said.

The idea of multiple perspectives is a cornerstone of social studies teaching practice in K-12 schools. Teachers often provide students with different primary sources that chronicle the same event, or ask students to compare the historical interpretation in two different secondary sources. The goal is to encourage children to evaluate the sources critically, guide them on how to ask good historical questions, and teach children that different people have different points of view, which influence how they understand and evaluate the world around them.

But Zimmerman says PragerU videos are not a vehicle for achieving those goals.

“The things I’ve seen, both about slavery and climate science, are radically distorted and not based in evidence the way that universities understand that term,” he said. If teachers want to counter what they see as left-leaning bias in the curriculum, “there are any number of much more credible sources that one could use to balance the equation,” he said.

“This isn’t a solution; it’s cynicism. It is distressing and destructive. And I say that as someone who has sometimes been critical of liberal bias in schools and universities,” Zimmerman said.

All social studies sources come with some kind of perspective, said Hartman. “The difference [with PragerU] is the explicit right-wing political agenda, but selling that as kind of neutral or objective,” he said.

PragerU positions their videos as a gateway to free thought, said Tebaldi, the University of Luxembourg researcher.

“There’s this register of saying, ‘We’re speaking back to what you’re learning in school. We’re telling you the real truth,” Tebaldi said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as PragerU, Creator of Controversial Social Studies Videos, Now Has a Toehold in Schools

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