Media Literacy: Argument, Persuasion, and Propaganda in English Education

English educators are generally familiar with the topic of propaganda, as it is a theme of much of the literature that is emphasized in courses for high school and college students. For many teachers, it may seem as if dystopian young adult novels have become the default genre of a generation. Dystopian literature like Huxley’s Brave New World and other works critique mindless consumption, instant gratification, reliance on technology, and the resulting atrophy of language and critical thinking. When reading this novel, one teacher asks her students to reflect on these questions: “Is life easy for us today? Is it too easy? How do people escape from everyday life? Is it necessary to do so? Why or why not?” (Wilkinson, 2010, p. 24).

M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed is a popular work that considers the ubiquitous nature of advertising as propaganda. The novel uses satire, humor, and exaggeration to depict the world of the future, where the Internet is implanted into your brain as the Feed. As people grow up, their brains cannot function without the Feed. They attend a classroom run by corporations where students learn how to use technology, find bargains and decorate a bedroom. Through education, in this dystopic world, students are trained to be consumers.

Books and movies like The Hunger Games series explicitly address the power of propaganda in relation to the anxieties of the current age. After all, learners are growing up in a time period marked by multiple wars, economic crisis, environmental degradation and the dehumanization of the other. In this popular trilogy, readers encounter an oppressive society in which the teenagers are selected to participate in annual televised competitions to the death. These brutal spectacles are required viewing. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has been immersed in propaganda her whole life. But as she struggles and survives in the games, she also begins to understand and appreciate the usefulness of the media as a tool for revolution. In discovering the value of propaganda to shape public opinion as part of the revolution, the book demonstrates how information and media literacy competencies are “powerful tools of resistance for people oppressed by totalitarian governments” (Latham & Hollister, 2014, p. 34).

Despite the relevance of the subject and a wealth of literary resources on the topic of propaganda, propaganda education in English language arts education is not as common in 2020 as it was in 1940. In fact, since the rise of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts, the study of propaganda has virtually disappeared in English. These standards call for students to be able to:

  • Determine the central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone;
  • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole;
  • Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words;
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence;
  • Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

The framing offered by these standards may explain why many English teachers focus exclusively on argumentation and do not pay much attention to persuasion and propaganda. Notice that none of these bullet points includes any attention to how language activates feelings and emotions. An intense focus on argumentation by teachers of writing seems to have displaced the study of persuasion and propaganda, which requires respect for and attention to the cultivation of attention and emotion. 

What is the relationship between an argument, persuasion and propaganda? An English teacher may go to great lengths to point out that argumentative writing activates logic and reasoning to prove a point; from this perspective, persuasion merely appeals to the reader’s emotions and propaganda is seen as downright evil (Taithe & Thornton, 1999).

In the real world, labelling content with such bright lines is not so simple, because argumentation, persuasion and propaganda are woven into a seamless mix of expression and advocacy. By using a rigid set of definitions, students end up with the false message that propaganda is always negative. As we will see in the pages that follow, propaganda’s ethical dimensions, social value and utility can only be evaluated in context.  Clearly, the study of propaganda calls upon practices that involve considerable nuance, including the consideration of content, form, context, interpretation, meaning, impact, and the consequences of expression and communication for both authors and audiences.

Some critics may argue that the study of propaganda has disappeared from English education because the skills involved in analyzing it are not on the SAT test. While analyzing propaganda may be a valuable life skill, it is not yet considered a central component of college readiness. Instead, high-stakes tests measure reading comprehension by asking high school students to find evidence in an informational passage that best supports the answer to a question. When informational texts were given special status by Common Core and the testing companies, many media literacy educators cheered. Finally, students could read and analyze a New York Times news story and apply media literacy concepts as part of the reading comprehension process. Optimists hoped that this would increase the likelihood that students would get exposed to media literacy concepts and instructional practices.

But when concerns about students’ ability to express ideas in academic language are narrowly positioned in the context of college readiness, reading and writing for the real world may get short shrift. To do well in college, competence in reading and writing academic texts is considered a requirement for success. As Catherine Snow and colleagues note, “assessments requiring written essays in persuasive or analytic genres are often graded using criteria that refer implicitly to academic-language forms” (Snow & Uccelli, 2008, p. 111). According to these authors, a focus on academic prose is valued because it is authoritative, detached, and dense with formal language. In an argument, authority is constructed by acknowledging an imaginary non-interactive academic audience. Authors present a neutral, dispassionate stance, using reasoning and evidence to make knowledge claims.

Against this background, it’s no surprise that propaganda analysis has disappeared from contemporary English education. If argument is seen as high culture, then propaganda is seen as low culture. If argumentation is seen as academic and sophisticated, propaganda can be seen as simple and inferior.

 Propaganda may well be the absolute opposite of academic prose. Propaganda is subjective and emotional: It responds to the needs of readers and viewers and it relies on familiar symbols accessible to all. The analysis of propaganda is unlikely to meet rigid Common Core guidelines about the required complexity of texts now that text complexity has become a mantra in English education. Propaganda that targets teens is unlikely to have a lexile level of 1200, with advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure. For this reason, many students get little opportunity to analyze the most powerful and emotionally-resonant messages that circulate in contemporary culture.

The consequences of ignoring the study of propaganda for more than 20 years are beginning to be felt in the society as a whole, and educators are beginning to feel a little guilty that they have not paid more attention to it. Fortunately, new momentum on the need to incorporate the study of propaganda and persuasion is beginning to develop. After the U.S. presidential election in 2016, a number of professional organizations responsible for teaching writing, composition and speech reaffirmed their commitment to teaching the responsible use of language as a form of social power.

In 2019, the National Council of Teachers of English issued a resolution on critical literacy in English education, calling for educators to promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in analyzing and evaluating “sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined.”

These practice NCTE recommends are not yet normative in American public schools, but they could be. Teachers all over the world are feeling a need to demonstrate how attention, emotions and evidence are all fundamentally responsive to the search for truth. One scholar explained, “Rhetors must know the facts in order to mislead through lies; they must recognize the truth in order to deceive through fallacies, and they must understand reality in order to manipulate through doublespeak” (McComsisky, 2017, p. 8). The careful and systematic study of propaganda and persuasion should not be neglected in English education.

Renee Hobbs is a world- renowned authority on digital and media literacy education. She founded the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island and is director of its Media Education Lab.

This post is an excerpt from Renee Hobbs’ book, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age (W. W. Norton, May 2020).

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