Mises Wire

Government Schools Are Propaganda Machines

In Artis Shepherd’s recent article, which I highly recommend, he aptly detailed the numerous benefits of homeschooling and data showing that homeschooled students—far from being socially stunted, academically insular young people—are actually generally high-achieving, socially adroit young adults ready to provide value in the world.

Thus, in this commentary, I want to address a common argument against homeschooling: namely, that homeschooling is a breeding ground for propaganda—mainly “far right” political and religious ideologies—from parents and religious institutions, which is dangerous for social cohesion and democracy.

The Propaganda Problem

To begin, there is a dearth of evidence to show widespread inculcation of homeschooled students with so-called radical political or religious ideologies. The media often provide anecdotes that are supposed to represent the larger reality, but, in fact, a National Center for Education Statistics survey from 2019 showed that “a desire to provide religious instruction” was only the fifth most popular reason for homeschooling (chosen by 58.9 percent of parents) whereas the most popular reason to homeschool was “a concern about school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” (chosen by 80.3 percent of parents, who could choose more than one reason in this survey).

Does such a reason strike you as ideologically or religiously radical? I would be much more judgmental of parents who were not concerned about their children’s school environments.

However, I concede it is undeniably true that homeschooled students—like any students or human beings, for that matter—can be propagandized by any type of ideology: right, left, center, or otherwise. I know of no person or teaching materials that are truly unbiased because to be so would entail having no opinions and providing all available information on a subject without any explanations. So, every teacher, parent, textbook, online course, or forum post is, by nature, biased in some way. Of course, this fact also means that government school or private school students are also susceptible to and recipients of propaganda daily.

Moreover, such propaganda is inculcated far more effectively and efficiently via government schools that continue to churn out obedient and often intellectually incurious citizens who rarely question the morality or composition of the state that rules over them. This assertion should be self-evident through obedience to mask mandates, pledges of allegiance to flags, continued support for America’s overseas “defense” campaigns, and the strong contention among many citizens that democracy and voting are salubrious for all of us.

Regarding this efficiency and effectiveness, let us think numerically for a moment. The plurality (23.9 percent) of school districts in the United States in 2020–21 enrolled between 1,000 and 2,499 students, with an average per-school enrollment of 555 students. The total public school enrollment was roughly forty-nine million in 2023 versus 3.1 million homeschooled students. (About 5.5 million students attended private schools.) Thus, approximately 85 percent of school-age children attended public schools last year.

At the same time, the average number of children per family in the United States was 1.94. Therefore, the reach of a homeschool parent’s propaganda is severely limited compared to that of the government. A public school reaches, on average, 555 students while a parent reaches, on average, two. Further, we know that students in government schools are receiving information that is vetted and approved by that very government (via local school boards), so students in such schools are undeniably being propagandized to think in a certain uniform way. No such uniformity exists or should be expected among millions of diverse homeschoolers, whose “school” experiences will vary widely—thus impeding the spread of any single ideology, unlike in government schools.

The effectiveness of this unitary government-school propaganda, furthermore, is undeniable. One primary piece of evidence for the success of government schools in this regard is the fact that most parents still send their children to government schools and never think twice about the coercive way those schools are funded—while simultaneously teaching their children that stealing is wrong. Despite the rapid growth in homeschooling since the covid lockdowns, government schools still enroll the vast majority of students, as I detailed above, and parents still generally approve of their local schools.

Government Sets the Standard for Propaganda

Government schools also earn an A+ for keeping people ignorant or misinformed, especially about history, government, and economics. Indeed, only half of Americans surveyed in 2008 could name the three branches of government, and only 18 percent and 23 percent of eighth graders were proficient in US history and civics, respectively, according to the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

How many of those students also believe Pearl Harbor was an unprompted sneak attack, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that capitalism caused the Great Depression, or that Abraham Lincoln took the country to war because of slavery? Is such misinformation not also propaganda that tens of millions of students imbibe each year? Consider also the mindlessness of pledging allegiance to a flag each morning—a pledge written by a socialist who was concerned about “every alien immigrant of inferior race” eroding American values. Ironically, the “under God” section of the pledge was added to differentiate America from “godless Communism.”

When the state mentions God, no worries; it’s apparently only those religious people in flyover countries who are the problem.

Finally, the government school system was established specifically to propagandize students and to encourage obedience (to Protestant ways) and uniform thinking (i.e., not diversity and inclusion). Thus, although government-school leaders may trumpet the diversity of melanin or gender, true diversity—diversity of thought—is not to be abided. This type of diversity is one in which government schools actively do not participate because it is antithetical to their mission and organization and dangerous to their propagation. Homeschoolers, on the other hand, will learn different ideas, perspectives, and information and will display a panoply of thoughts simply because they are not part of a centralized, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-none system.

You and I may disagree with some of those ideas, but it is simply irrational to say that homeschoolers from disparate families in different areas of the country learning diverse ideas from varied curricula will somehow be uniformly propagandized at any rate even close to that of government-school students. Don’t believe me? If you went to a government school, just compare your experiences and what you learned in school to those of a friend or family member from out of state. How much learning diversity do you find on key issues? As the old saying goes, if everyone is thinking the same thing, then someone isn’t thinking.

We also should consider that, according to Gallup polls and others, religious conviction in the United States is shrinking, not growing. In fact, according to Gallup data, between 2000 and 2022, the percentage of Americans who said religion was “not very important” to them rose from 12 percent to 28 percent.

Unfortunately, Gallup does not ask Americans a similar question about government (i.e., if government is important in their lives), but they do ask if people think government has too much power. A majority does think so. However, a majority also thinks that government should have a greater role in seven of its functions (out of eleven provided). Such logically and morally inconsistent responses demonstrate what we might expect after twelve years of government propaganda: people will complain about government, but in the end, they support and often want it to do even more—especially if that “more” benefits their chosen groups.

Thus, we find ourselves in a time of decreasing religious faith but static or even increasing belief in the government’s role in society, despite complaints to the contrary. We also find ourselves in a time in which over 85 percent of children attend government schools to learn about the important roles of government in society and the morality and necessity of democracy. Whose propaganda should we really fear?

As an anecdote of the power of the current system’s propaganda, I offer an example from my time as a high school teacher. In response to an article we read in class, a sophomore wrote the following, which I paraphrase: “Nazis killed to kill; Americans kill to protect. Also, our government is completely different in political views and doesn’t lie to us like the Nazis did. Lastly, Hitler was a dictator, which we don’t have or support in America.”

Are such beliefs any less propagandistic than whatever a homeschooler might learn? Are such beliefs more or less easily transmitted to large groups of people in the government school system versus at home?

If we are being intellectually honest, we know the answers to those test questions.

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