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When I teach Animal Farm by George Orwell I have the opportunity to teach propaganda techniques. I provide the students with the definitions and examples of several different types of propaganda techniques. Then, as we read, I have them find these techniques in the novel. Students also find and share propaganda in advertisements they see in other media, on TV or on the web.
The New World Encyclopedia states, “The aim of propaganda is to actively influence people’s opinions, rather than to merely communicate the facts about something.”
Former news anchor Campbell Brown has been very vocal in actively trying to influence people that tenure for teachers is bad. She wrote an impassioned response to criticism of her efforts in educational reform which was posted to The Answer Sheet blog, written by Valerie Strauss, the Washington Post’s education reporter. The lack of evidence or facts in her claims is what that made me think “propaganda” and Animal Farm.
But first, a little background on Brown.
A product of private schools, Ms. Brown’s teaching experience was a year spent teaching English in Czechoslovakia. Despite her lack of classroom teaching or judicial credentials, she represents an organization Partnership for Educational Justice.
The Partnership for Educational Justice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven parents against New York State’s teacher tenure laws. Brown has been making the rounds on television and in print media to push her case that tenure is what is causing low student achievement.
Her letter, dated August 13, 2014 has been posted under the heading, “Campbell Brown Responds to Critics (Including Me).” There are no facts in Brown’s response to critics, but there is a reference to “a successful suit in California that tackled the same basic issues: tenure, teacher dismissal and seniority.”
She could have provided the factual information that Superior Court Judge Treu’s ruling in the Vergara case on June 10, 2014, was a response to California’s tenure laws. She does, however, select the most damaging statements from that decision to include in her letter: “grossly ineffective teachers on students” …so compelling that “it shocks the conscience.”
Brown is familiar face, a former CNN news anchor who also had former stints at NBC’s Today and often substituted for Bryan Williams on the Nightly News. In this letter, she uses the “testimonial” propaganda technique in order to persuade.
This propaganda testimonial technique is defined as, “using an expert or celebrity to sell or support.” Brown is not an expert on education, but as a news anchor she might be considered a credible news source herself; she might be considered a celebrity.
Brown is direct about the use of her status. She writes, “I am using my platform as a former television anchor to give lift to these concerns and to the case of the parents. I happen to think that is exactly what a person with a platform ought to do – to use it to draw attention to a problem and to ask for support with the solution.”
Her use of the media to represent an organization is where she does have prior experience. Just who is in the Partnership for Educational Justice or how it is is funded is not clear. This group includes some undisclosed partners who, according to Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, Brown said she will keep “anonymous” because “they don’t want to take the flak that may come along with that, I respect that.”
The second technique of propaganda is her use of “glittering generalities” and the definition for this technique that I provide my students is:
the employ of vague, sweeping statements (often slogans or simple catchphrases) using language associated with values and beliefs deeply held by the audience without providing supporting information or reason.
Brown uses several “glittering generalities” and I have bracketed the words associated with values and beliefs:
- “I also think some sense of fairness still matters.” [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][fairness]
- “It [lawsuit] is the foundation for challenging a state that constitutionally promises a sound education for all and yet does not provide it.” [constitutional, promise, sound education]
- The parents who put their names and reputations on this suit know their schools have caring, dependable, inspiring teachers – and that is not their worry. [caring, dependable, inspiring]
Brown generalities suggest that caring dependable, inspiring teachers will not have to worry about losing tenure. Yet many of these teachers may be veteran teachers with higher salaries set by negotiated contracts. Would it be fair to replace them with younger caring, dependable, inspiring teachers who would be allotted less salary? Would caring, dependable, inspiring people be willing to enter a profession that did not offer some protection for their experience? How is the constitutional promise for sound education be met in a system that does not value experience?
Finally, Brown uses the “loaded word” propaganda technique throughout her letter. The definition of the “loaded words” technique is
“using words with strong emotional implications.”
In her posted letter, Brown uses the emotional words “care” with “child” as in:
- “Anyone is entitled to care, and that includes me.”
- “And if you are going to take a stand, perhaps the best one possible is the one good for the child.”
Surprisingly, Brown undermines her own argument by coming to a conclusion that there are other pressing problems in education. Mid-way through the letter she writes how The Answer Sheet blog that Strauss writes has been, “raising other issues that matter significantly to the quality of education and demand more attention: innovation, leadership, professional development, parental engagement, poverty. We agree in every case.”
She (We) agrees? These issues demand more attention? Rather than choose the contentious path of a lawsuit over teacher tenure, why not take on these enormous challenges that need attention? How will this lawsuit on tenure address the problems of innovation, leadership, professional development, parental engagement, or poverty?
Brown’s response to her critics, intentionally or not, uses propaganda techniques that Orwell used to have one group manipulate another in Animal Farm. Taking a page from Orwell, Brown’s statement that eliminating tenure as one of “the best ways to improve education” could be paraphrased by reworking a few lines from Chapter One:
Man Tenure is the only real enemy we have. Remove man tenure from the scene, and the root cause of hunger low student achievement and overwork sub-standard teaching is abolished forever.
Except, according to Orwell, that’s not how things work out.