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Understanding the Propaganda Campaign Against Public Education

(Photo: Shutterstock)A few years ago, when I was blogging at Education Week with Deborah Meier, a reader introduced the term FUD. I had never heard of it. It is a marketing technique used in business and politics to harm your competition. The term and its history can be found on Wikipedia. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The reader said that those who were trying to create a market-based system to replace public education were using FUD to undermine public confidence in public education. They were selling the false narrative that our public schools are obsolete and failing.

This insight inspired me to write Reign of Error to show that the "reform" narrative is a fraud. Test scores on NAEP are at their highest point in history for white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students. Graduation rates are the highest in history for these groups. The dropout rate is at an historic low point.

Why the FUD campaign against one of our nation's most treasured democratic institutions? It helps the competition. It makes people so desperate that they will seek out unproven alternatives. It makes the public gullible when they hear phony claims about miracle schools, where everyone graduates and everyone gets high test scores, and everyone goes to a four-year college. No such school exists. The "miracle school" usually has a high suspension rate, a high expulsion rate, a high attrition rate, and such schools usually do not replace the kids they somehow got rid of. Some "miracle schools" have never graduated anyone because they have only elementary schools, but that doesn't stop the claims and boasting.

It turns out that there is actually a scholar studying the phenomenon of the "the cultural production of ignorance."

He hasn't looked at the attack on public schools, but his work shows how propaganda may be skillfully deployed to confuse and mislead the public. Michael Hiltzik of theLos Angeles Times writes about the work of Robert Proctor of Stanford University:

Robert Proctor doesn't think ignorance is bliss. He thinks that what you don't know can hurt you. And that there's more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense.

Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, "Doubt is our product." Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a "controversy."

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco's program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

FUD was pioneered decades ago. Now public education is the target, and privatizing it is the goal. I hope Professor Proctor turns his attention to this issue, where a well-funded propaganda campaign seeks to spread enough doubt to destroy an essential Democratic institution.

There is no evidence from any other nation that replacing a public system with a privatized choice system produces anything but social, economic, and racial segregation.