The media group was just approved to spread its brand of historical disinformation to classrooms in Florida, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire.
Dennis Prager,Gage Skidmore
This summer, Florida’s Department of Education approved the organization’s videos for use, “at district discretion,” as supplemental material in K-6 classrooms—perhaps an unsurprising decision from a state that is currently waging a war on “woke indoctrination” (read: instruction about race and sexual orientation) in public schools. Although Florida was the first to do so, at the time, PragerU told Fox News that “[m]ore states are coming on board.” Indeed, it has since been reported that New Hampshire followed suit, with its board of education approving PragerU as an educational vendor for a financial literacy course on September 14. Oklahoma has now also announced a partnership with PragerU Kids to develop an Oklahoma-specific history curriculum.
Among the material now greenlit in Florida and Oklahoma is Leo and Layla’s History Adventures, a cartoon program intended for third through fifth graders. The series follows the titular protagonists, a brother and sister, as they time travel to seek the advice of historical figures on developments within their school, community, and social circle. Most episodes follow an encounter between Leo and Layla and a renowned figure from the past, who offers the show’s young viewers “lessons that teach the truth about Western civilization.”
But Leo and Layla falls far short of these lofty aims, as PragerU Kids appears less keen on creating a program that offers an honest glimpse into the past than on warping it with selective omissions and mythologizing, molding the historical figures depicted into vehicles for rightwing messaging and cudgels in the modern conservative culture war.
In one episode, for instance, while watching the news, Leo and Layla hear about local police abolitionists who “want the U.S. system torn down.” To learn more about “abolition,” they time travel to 1852 to meet Fredrick Douglass, who recounts his disagreements with fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and teaches the siblings the virtues of compromise. Garrison, PragerU’s Douglass says, “refuses all compromises, demands immediate change, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he likes to set things on fire.”
“We’ve got that type in our time, too,” Leo and Layla interject, and Douglass admonishes them to avoid “radicals” like his ex-friend Garrison, heeding only those “willing to work inside our system.”
The video creates an impression of Fredrick Douglass as a staunch anti-radical, committed to combating injustices only within the bounds of the “system.” But nothing could be further from the truth. While PragerU describes Douglass’s falling out with Garrison, it curiously fails to mention his friendship with John Brown, who influenced Douglass to look beyond mere moral suasion as a means to oppose slavery.
From his first meeting with Brown in 1847 onward, Douglass would later write, “my utterances became tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.” In 1849, Douglass said he would “welcome the intelligence tomorrow” that a slave revolt was sweeping the South, and, in 1852, the year in which Leo and Layla’s fictional visit is set, Douglass told a Pittsburgh crowd, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.” In other words, Douglass’s political views at the time were practically the opposite of those in his PragerU portrayal.
In another Leo and Layla episode, the siblings consult Benjamin Franklin during his tenure as ambassador to France on the notion of “the American dream.” The diplomat tells the children that, in 1780s France, most people are “stuck doing the same thing their entire lives” due to hereditary titles within the ancien régime; across the Atlantic in America, however, “individual citizens determine the outcome of their lives.” When Layla notes that, despite the absence of a monarchy or nobility in the United States, some are still “born into better situations than others,” Franklin holds that “the natural outcome from equal opportunity” is that “some will always have less and some will always have more.”
Notably, however, PragerU’s rendition of Franklin fails to address Layla’s observation: that true equality of opportunity has yet to be achieved in the United States, where the playing field is stacked against those born into less wealth. Surely, in reality, Franklin, who held some fascinating ideas about the public’s right to regulate “superfluous” private wealth and inheritance—going so far as to propose amending Pennsylvania’s constitution so the state could “discourage” the “enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals”—would have offered a more thoughtful response.
In perhaps the most controversial episode of the series, the children seek clarification about the contested legacy of Christopher Columbus from none other but the Genoese navigator himself. When the young time travelers question the cartoon Columbus about his brutal enslavement of Native Americans, he shrugs off the charge. Slavery is “as old as time” and “better than being killed,” he says, before asking, “how can you come here to the fifteenth century and judge me by your standards from the twenty-first century?”
The episode overlooks the fact that, even among his contemporaries, Columbus was regarded as a ruthless tyrant. On Hispaniola, a governership marked by maiming and torture of Spanish colonists led Columbus to be removed from his post and arrested by the Spanish monarchy. “Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place,” Spanish historian Consuelo Varela told The Guardian after colonial testimonies about Columbus’s reign came to light in the early 2000s. This is not even to mention, of course, the well-documented horrors he wrought on the Native American population, whose perspective PragerU presumably felt was not worth including in the Leo and Layla episode.
The series, at times, blurs the line between history instruction and religious proselytizing, with some episodes dedicated to Biblical figures like Moses and to other religious figures like Mother Teresa.
A similar saintly glow is painted around Ronald Reagan, who extols the virtues of Reaganomics in the first Leo and Layla episode. “You’re amazing Mr. Reagan! You saved everyone’s lives and made them better at the same time,” Leo decisively exclaims: a statement that only holds true if one’s definition of “everyone” excludes those impacted by the Reagan Administration’s union busting, mishandling of the AIDS crisis, brutal foreign policy in Central America, and those for whom the benefits of “trickle-down” tax cuts for the wealthy never trickled down, to name a few who might object to Leo’s sentiment.
While Leo and Layla is a show about history, or at least PragerU’s version of it, an entire episode is dedicated to smearing renewable energy—flying in the face of both the cartoon’s typical format and the scientific consensus. Rather than time traveling to meet a historical figure, Leo and Layla teleport to meet their uncle, a fictional environmental scientist, at a windmill farm. The siblings are told that they have been misled about solar and wind power, which, he says, actually damages the environment. “Look around you,” their uncle says, gesturing to the surrounding windmills, “does this look natural to you?” This unfounded message becomes explicable—but no less troubling—when one considers that PragerU is a notorious purveyor of climate denial, which was propelled in no small part by the funding of fracking industry billionaires.
When the news broke that Florida had approved PragerU as an educational vendor, Marissa Streit, the CEO of the rightwing media organization, told WESH, “We want our kids to accomplish academic excellence without it being laced with political narratives. Kids should be learning without being indoctrinated with left-wing propaganda.”
But PragerU’s founder and namesake, Dennis Prager, embraces characterizations of the group’s content as indoctrination. At this year’s Moms for Liberty summit, the Miami Herald reports, Prager conceded that accusations of “indoctrinat[ing] kids” are “true,” saying, “We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement. But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”
The effort to introduce PragerU content into public schools highlights what media critic Eric Alterman once observed as a conservative propensity to “work the ref”—or, accuse neutral institutions of harboring a leftwing bias in order to push that institution to the right. In this case, PragerU’s “anti-woke” Republican proponents seek not only to scrub schools of what they (falsely) deem pernicious leftist influences—which is troubling enough in itself—but also to teach rightwing dogma. As a result, this coming school year, students could potentially be taught junk history like Leo and Layla rather than material that engenders actual engagement with the reality and complexity of the past.
That, to answer Dennis Prager, is “the bad” of PragerU’s “indoctrination.”
Robert McCoy is a former editorial intern at The Progressive.
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