83: Deconstructing Edward Bernays’ ‘Propaganda’ (Part 10)

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Episode 83 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast features Part 10 of our mini-series dissecting Edward Bernays’ seminal text ‘Propaganda’. In this show, the focus is placed specifically on Chapter 8 (‘Propaganda for Education’), which alludes to themes of standardized testing, the dichotomy between theoretical and practical knowledge, and the general limitations of Educational systems. Did Edward Bernays’ contempt for ‘ordinary’ people influence his views on Education? Find out in our latest episode!

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Smells Like Human Spirit is a DAILY podcast that covers society, culture, and everything in between! Previous guests include Professor Noam Chomsky, Dan Carlin, Michael Ruppert and many others…



EDUCATION is not securing its proper share of public interest. The public school system, materially and financially, is being adequately supported. There is marked eagerness for a college education, and a vague aspiration for culture, expressed in innumerable courses and lectures. The public is not cognizant of the real value of education, and does not realize that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy.
It is felt, for example, that education is entitled to more space in the newspapers; that well informed discussion of education hardly exists; that unless such an issue as the Gary School system is created, or outside of an occasional discussion, such as that aroused over Harvard’s decision to establish a school of business, education does not attract the active interest of the public.
There are a number of reasons for this condition. First of all, there is the fact that the educator has been trained to stimulate to thought the individual students in his classroom, but has not been trained as an educator at large of the public.
In a democracy an educator should, in addition to his academic duties, bear a definite and wholesome relation to the general public. This public does not come within the immediate scope of his academic duties. But in a sense he depends upon it for his living, for the moral support, and the general cultural tone upon which his work must be based. In the field of education, we find what we have found in politics and other fields—that the evolution of the practitioner of the profession has not kept pace with the social evolution around him, and is out of gear with the instruments for the dissemination of ideas which modern society has developed. If this be true, then the training of the educators in this respect should begin in the normal schools, with the addition to their curricula of whatever is necessary to broaden their viewpoint. The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea.
The normal school should provide for the training of the educator to make him realize that his is a twofold job: education as a teacher and education as a propagandist.
A second reason for the present remoteness of education from the thoughts and interests of the public is to be found in the mental attitude of the pedagogue —whether primary school teacher or college professor—toward the world outside the school. This is a difficult psychological problem. The teacher finds himself in a world in which the emphasis is put on those objective goals and those objective attainments which are prized by our American society. He himself is but moderately or poorly paid. Judging himself by the standards in common acceptance, he cannot but feel a sense of inferiority because he finds himself continually being compared, in the minds of his own pupils, with the successful business man and the successful leader in the outside world. Thus the educator becomes repressed and suppressed in our civilization. As things stand, this condition cannot be changed from the outside unless the general public alters its standards of achievement, which it is not likely to do soon.
Yet it can be changed by the teaching profession itself, if it becomes conscious not only of its individualistic relation to the pupil, but also of its social relation to the general public. The teaching profession, as such, has the right to carry on a very definite propaganda with a view to enlightening the public and asserting its intimate relation to the society which it serves. In addition to conducting a propaganda on behalf of its individual members, education must also raise the general appreciation of the teaching profession. Unless the profession can raise itself by its own bootstraps, it will fast lose the power of recruiting outstanding talent for itself.
Propaganda cannot change all that is at present unsatisfactory in the educational situation. There are factors, such as low pay and the lack of adequate provision for superannuated teachers, which definitely affect the status of the profession. It is possible, by means of an intelligent appeal predicated upon the actual present composition of the public mind, to modify the general attitude toward the teaching profession. Such a changed attitude will begin by expressing itself in an insistence on the idea of more adequate salaries for the profession.
There are various ways in which academic organizations in America handle their financial problems. One type of college or university depends, for its monetary support, upon grants from the state legislatures. Another depends upon private endowment. There are other types of educational institutions, such as the sectarian, but the two chief types include by far the greater number of our institutions of higher learning.
The state university is supported by grants from the people of the state, voted by the state legislature. In theory, the degree of support which the university receives is dependent upon the degree of acceptance accorded it by the voters. The state university prospers according to the extent to which it can sell itself to the people of the state.
The state university is therefore in an unfortunate position unless its president happens to be a man of outstanding merit as a propagandist and a dramatizer of educational issues. Yet if this is the case—if the university shapes its whole policy toward gaining the support of the state legislature—its educational function may suffer. It may be tempted to base its whole appeal to the public on its public service, real or supposed, and permit the education of its individual students to take care of itself. It may attempt to educate the people of the state at the expense of its own pupils. This may generate a number of evils, to the extent of making the university a political instrument, a mere tool of the political group in power. If the president dominates both the public and the professional politician, this may lead to a situation in which the personality of the president outweighs the true function of the institution.
The endowed college or university has a problem quite as perplexing. The endowed college is dependent upon the support, usually, of key men in industry whose social and economic objectives are concrete and limited, and therefore often at variance with the pursuit of abstract knowledge. The successful business man criticizes the great universities for being too academic, but seldom for being too practical. One might imagine that the key men who support our universities would like them to specialize in schools of applied science, of practical salesmanship or of industrial efficiency. And it may well be, in many instances, that the demands which the potential endowers of our universities make upon these institutions are flatly in contradiction to the interests of scholarship and general culture.
We have, therefore, the anomalous situation of the college seeking to carry on a propaganda in favor of scholarship among people who are quite out of sympathy with the aims to which they are asked to subscribe their money. Men who, by the commonly accepted standards, are failures or very moderate successes in our American world (the pedagogues) seek to convince the outstanding successes (the business men) that they should give their money to ideals which they do not pursue. Men who, through a sense of inferiority, despise money, seek to win the good will of men who love money.
It seems possible that the future status of the endowed college will depend upon a balancing of these forces, both the academic and the endowed elements obtaining in effect due consideration.
The college must win public support. If the potential donor is apathetic, enthusiastic public approval must be obtained to convince him. If he seeks unduly to influence the educational policy of the institution, public opinion must support the college in the continuance of its proper functions. If either factor dominates unduly, we are likely to find a demagoguery or a snobbishness aiming to please one group or the other.
There is still another potential solution of the problem. It is possible that through an educational propaganda aiming to develop greater social consciousness on the part of the people of the country, there may be awakened in the minds of men of affairs, as a class, social consciousness which will produce more minds of the type of Julius Rosenwald, V. Everitt Macy, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the late Willard Straight.
Many colleges have already developed intelligent propaganda in order to bring them into active and continuous relation with the general public. A definite technique has been developed in their relation to the community in the form of college news bureaus. These bureaus have formed an intercollegiate association whose members meet once a year to discuss their problems. These problems include the education of the alumnus and his effect upon the general public and upon specific groups, the education of the future student to the choice of the particular college, the maintenance of an esprit de corps so that the athletic prowess of the college will not be placed first, the development of some familiarity with the research work done in the college in order to attract the attention of those who may be able to lend aid, the development of an understanding of the aims and the work of the institution in order to attract special endowments for specified purposes.
Some seventy-five of these bureaus are now affiliated with the American Association of College News Bureaus, including those of Yale, Wellesley, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Western Reserve, Tufts and California. A bi-monthly news letter is published, bringing to members the news of their profession. The Association endeavors to uphold the ethical standards of the profession and aims to work in harmony with the press.
The National Education Association and other societies are carrying on a definite propaganda to promote the larger purposes of educational endeavor. One of the aims of such propaganda is of course improvement in the prestige and material position of the teachers themselves. An occasional McAndrew case calls the attention of the public to the fact that in some schools the teacher is far from enjoying full academic freedom, while in certain communities the choice of teachers is based upon political or sectarian considerations rather than upon real ability. If such issues were made, by means of propaganda, to become a matter of public concern on a truly national scale, there would doubtless be a general tendency to improvement.
The concrete problems of colleges are more varied and puzzling than one might suppose. The pharmaceutical college of a university is concerned because the drug store is no longer merely a drug store, but primarily a soda fountain, a lunch counter, a bookshop, a retailer of all sorts of general merchandise from society stationery to spare radio parts. The college realizes the economic utility of the lunch counter feature to the practicing druggist, yet it feels that the ancient and honorable art of compounding specifics is being degraded.
Cornell University discovers that endowments are rare. Why? Because the people think that the University is a state institution and therefore publicly supported.
Many of our leading universities rightly feel that the results of their scholarly researches should not only be presented to libraries and learned publications, but should also, where practicable and useful, be given to the public in the dramatic form which the public can understand. Harvard is but one example.
“Not long ago,” says Charles A. Merrill in Personality, “a certain Harvard professor vaulted into the newspaper headlines. There were several days when one could hardly pick up a paper in any of the larger cities without finding his name bracketed with his achievement.
“The professor, who was back from a trip to Yucatan in the interests of science, had solved the mystery of the Venus calendar of the ancient Mayas. He had discovered the key to the puzzle of how the Mayas kept tab on the flight of time. Checking the Mayan record of celestial events against the known astronomical facts, he had found a perfect correlation between the time count of these Central American Indians and the true positions of the planet Venus in the sixth century B.C. A civilization which flour129 Propaganda ished in the Western Hemisphere twenty-five centuries ago was demonstrated to have attained heights hitherto unappreciated by the modern world.
“How the professor’s discovery happened to be chronicled in the popular press is, also, in retrospect, a matter of interest. … If left to his own devices, he might never have appeared in print, except perhaps in some technical publication, and his remarks there would have been no more intelligible to the average man or woman than if they had been inscribed in Mayan hieroglyphics.
“Popularization of this message from antiquity was due to the initiative of a young man named James W. D. Seymour. . . .
“It may surprise and shock some people,” Mr. Merrill adds, “to be told that the oldest and most dignified seats of learning in America now hire press agents, just as railroad companies, fraternal organizations, moving picture producers and political parties retain them. It is nevertheless a fact. . . .
“. . . there is hardly a college or university in the country which does not, with the approval of the governing body and the faculty, maintain a publicity office, with a director and a staff of assistants, for the purpose of establishing friendly relations with the newspapers, and through the newspapers, with the public. . . .
“This enterprise breaks sharply with tradition. In the older seats of learning it is a recent innovation. It violates the fundamental article in the creed of the old academic societies. Cloistered seclusion used to be considered the first essential of scholarship. The college was anxious to preserve its aloofness from the world. …
“The colleges used to resent outside interest in their affairs. They might, somewhat reluctantly and contemptuously, admit reporters to their Commencement Day exercises, but no further would they go. . . .
“To-day, if a newspaper reporter wants to interview a Harvard professor, he has merely to telephone the Secretary for Information to the University. Officially, Harvard still shies away from the title ‘Director of Publicity.’ Informally, however, the secretary with the long title is the publicity man. He is an important official to-day at Harvard.”
It may be a new idea that the president of a university will concern himself with the kind of mental picture his institution produces on the public mind. Yet it is part of the president’s work to see that his university takes its proper place in the community and therefore also in the community mind, and produces the results desired, both in a cultural and in a financial sense.
If his institution does not produce the mental picture which it should, one of two things may be wrong: Either the media of communication with the public may be wrong or unbalanced; or his institution may be at fault. The public is getting an oblique impression of the university, in which case the impression should be modified; or it may be that the public is getting a correct impression, in which case, very possibly, the work of the university itself should be modified. For both possibilities lie within the province of the public relations counsel.
Columbia University recently instituted a Casa Italiana, which was solemnly inaugurated in the presence of representatives of the Italian government, to emphasize its high standing in Latin studies and the Romance languages. Years ago Harvard founded the Germanic Museum, which was ceremoniously opened by Prince Henry of Prussia.
Many colleges maintain extension courses which bring their work to the knowledge of a broad public. It is of course proper that such courses should be made known to the general public. But, to take another example, if they have been badly planned, from the point of view of public relations, if they are unduly scholastic and detached, their effect may be the opposite of favorable. In such a case, it is not the work of the public relations counsel to urge that the courses be made better known, but to urge that they first be modified to conform to the impression which the college wishes to create, where that is compatible with the university’s scholastic ideals.
Again, it may be the general opinion that the work of a certain institution is 80 per cent postgraduate research, an opinion which may tend to alienate public interest. This opinion may be true or it may be false. If it is false, it should be corrected by high-spotting undergraduate activities.
If, on the other hand, it is true that 80 per cent of the work is postgraduate research, the most should be made of that fact. It should be the concern of the president to make known the discoveries which are of possible public interest. A university expedition into Biblical lands may be uninteresting as a purely scholastic undertaking, but if it contributes light on some Biblical assertion it will immediately arouse the interest of large masses of the population. The zoological department may be hunting for some strange bacillus which has no known relation to any human disease, but the fact that it is chasing bacilli is in itself capable of dramatic presentation to the public.
Many universities now gladly lend members of their faculties to assist in investigations of public interest. Thus Cornell lent Professor Wilcox to aid the government in the preparation of the national census. Professor Irving Fisher of Yale has been called in to advise on currency matters.
In the ethical sense, propaganda bears the same relation to education as to business or politics. It may be abused. It may be used to overadvertise an institution and to create in the public mind artificial values. There can be no absolute guarantee against its misuse.

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