How Propaganda Transforms Young Minds
If we can put aside millennial-old inquiries into the nature of Truth, assuming such a thing exists, we can agree that propaganda, which is less concerned with veracity than with delivering a particular message, is a kind of prevarication. A lie. A tendentious assertion that’s antithetical to our notion of Truth.
I was reminded of this uncomfortable tension when my family informed me that my nephew and nieces, ages 8-10, were being inculcated at school with a “zero tolerance” policy toward drugs. The children, I was told, were alarmed to learn that their Uncle Mike, who has written an honest book about marijuana, was, according to what they were being taught in public school, breaking the law and ruining his brain.
Their parents warned that when I next saw the kids they would have many questions and would want explanations.
My answers, however, couldn’t contradict the messaging the school system was using to mold their young minds, just as mine had been molded. (I didn’t try marijuana until my late-Thirties; I had been taught all the plausible-sounding “facts” and was effectively scared straight.) My answers, I was forewarned, had to support the idea that marijuana is Bad. Otherwise, the children would be terribly confused, for school was where they went to learn, to learn the truth.
Now, I’m on the record as discouraging marijuana-use among teenagers, and maybe even college-age adults. I’m delighted to tell children that marijuana (and other mind-altering substances) is for adults only. But if forced to choose blanket labels for cannabis, I lean strongly toward Good. To portray one of nature’s great gifts to the human mind as Bad is, to my way of thinking, a lie. State-sanctioned Propaganda.
The subject of drug use is only one notable area where “education” really means “conditioning.” So much of what we teach our children – and what we were taught in our childhood – is not in the service of Truth, Knowledge or Wisdom. It’s in the service of an agenda. So long as that agenda conforms to what parents, communities, republics want their youngsters to believe, we’re OK with that. But teach evolution in a creationist school district and you’re in trouble; teach the Civil Rights Movement in a place where they still rue the “War of Northern Aggression” and you’ll be interrogated and reprimanded. Teach kids that marijuana is less dangerous and more beneficial than legal drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical pills and you’ll be summarily terminated.
We would probably all be better off if our primary educational initiative was to teach every citizen to think critically, solve problems, and use her imagination. But our system really can’t support everyone being better off, because then who would do the labor all us coddled smarties don’t want to do? And who would enlist with the killing forces and die for our oil? Who would protect us from terrorists who hate our way of life, especially our infatuation with this silly concept of freedom?
Instead, we recognize that our role is to promulgate and clarify the rules of the game, the ones that help young minds decide how they shall live their one and only life. Even if we know (or sense intuitively) that what we’re teaching each other is a badly compromised version of the Truth, we pass along the misinformation like a virus, infecting whole populations.
I’m still not sure exactly what the parents of my nieces and nephew want me to tell them. But the more closely I can hew to what I understand to be Truth, the less pernicious propaganda my young relatives will have to spend a lifetime unraveling.