One Thing the Totalitarians Got Right

June 13, 2010

This article argues that certain methods of mass indoctrination and control typically associated with totalitarian regimes, when implemented properly, do not have to be used for acts of hate or aggression.  Such methods would in fact be highly effective in generating a strong sense of school pride, thereby increasing the students’ commitment to abstract ideas of loyalty, and to school- and state-wide initiatives in which they do not necessarily have a personal vested interest.

I spent most of March and April articulating the ways in which totalitarian methods are destroying education.  I’m not about to rescind any of that, but in using fascism as a model for an institution of any kind, there are certain components that should not be entirely dismissed.  Consider this: how did a small minority of national-socialists in Germany not only unify an entire nation around a single set of ideas, but did so to such an extent that the average citizens were willing to either participate in or at least turn a blind eye to the most horrible atrocities in human history?  The answer is propaganda.  It is the deliberate, systematic method of getting people to subscribe to an abstract idea like “nationalism.”  The Nazis did not just write some nifty mission purpose statement and then wait around, hoping people would buy-in to the notion on the basis of its idealistic merit.  Mission statements don’t work.  In point of fact, Hitler’s tedious two-volume mission statement, Mein Kampf, was a literary embarrassment and one of the few smudges he could not erase from his fabricated résumé.  But this was of no consequence to the party.  As much as they believed in their own idea, they knew it wouldn’t sell itself.  Therefore, they implemented a program of calculated measures designed around a single goal: to foster nationalism, because once your citizens have nationalism, you have their have obedience, and they will sacrifice their individual aspirations for the Cause – whatever it is you tell them the Cause is supposed to be.

The Nazi Cause was bent, twisted, and corrupt.  But this does not mean that the methodology did not work.  In fact, it worked extremely well, and it can be applied to any Cause you want.

In education, we replace the idea of “nationalism” with that of “school pride.”  Our Cause is to facilitate a popular mindset wherein the individual students actually care not only about their own grades, but also how the school itself is faring on a state-wide or even national scale.  We want them, to a certain extent, to sacrifice some of their personal aspirations (such as socializing and gaming) and their personal interests (such as culturally relevant or contemporary curriculum), in favor of conforming to a loftier ideal – an ideal that is bigger than they are and whose full ramifications they will not understand until years later.  To be blunt (and whether it is right or wrong is not the issue here), we want mass conformity to a set of ideas in which the populous does not generally believe.  We want school pride.  And there is a tested methodology to generating such feelings of widespread, superficial allegiance – a methodology that does not have to be used to support atrocity, injustice, or hate.  Granted: there is a thin line between rivalry and hate, between pride and fanaticism.  This is where the strength of leadership comes in from the faculty and administration.  Given strong leadership, what follows are the actual measures that must be deliberately implemented to foster school spirit.  The list will not be exhaustive.

The Leader Must Be Visible

How many students know who the principal is?  When they see him, does he have a commanding presence?  Is he in their academic lives on a regular basis?  Does he represent the ideals that the institution is trying to instill in the students?  He should.  A principal has a difficult political position, having to divide his time and attendance between so many competing forces, but when the principal is on campus, everyone should know.  From the most senior vice principal to the lowliest groundskeeper, the presence of the principal should be paramount.  And even if he is not on campus, he can still reach the students through media.  Students are not the only ones changing the educational landscape with their technology.  The principal can now be present in every class, every day, by using the somewhat outdated P.A. system, or better yet, by recording a video-message to the students that will be broadcast during regular announcements.  Think of Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” if you will.  These broadcasts are used to promote solidarity and to reinforce the institutional ideals.

The Students Must Be Galvanized Against a Constructivist “Other”

It worked for Bismarck.  It worked for Hitler.  It even worked for George W. Bush.  People love to otherize.  It’s part of our nature.  Perhaps it isn’t a healthy part of our nature, but there it is.  And it can be used to strengthen the sense of collective unity and allegiance to the abstract.  A school rivalry is the perfect focus for otherizing.  Look for a top-tier rival.  We’re talking about Cal-Stanford caliber.  Ole Miss-Louisiana.  Harvard-Yale.   Catholic-Protestant.  All other rivals should be de-prioritized.  Faculty and administration should encourage and promote the rivalry with the other school, regularly referring to “them” not by their school name, but by their mascot or some other trivializing label.  Examples: “Those Rebs,” “Those Tigers,” “Those Elis.”  Conversely, faculty and staff should encourage students to think of themselves as members of a collective.  Use collective pronouns like “we” and “us.”  Use the mascot as a symbol of the self, and never forget the (imagined) injustices at the hands of “those [rivals].”  All competitions against the rivals, whether academic or athletic, must be highly publicized, especially student favorites, whether that means football, baseball, soccer, debate team, or chess club.

The Facility Must Be Beautiful

If this seems superficial, it isn’t.  Students cannot be proud of a campus that is trashy, unkempt, or even badly painted.  Cleanliness begets cleanliness.  Ever notice how much harder you work to keep your house clean once it’s been cleaned?  Or how you casually throw your laundry on the floor when the toilet is dirty?  The facility must not only be clean and sterile, but extra steps must be taken towards to beautification.  Money must be spent on cosmetic enhancements, and as many as possible.  The school mascot and associated emblems must be prevalent everywhere.  It must be bold, bright, printed and painted with aesthetically pleasing color schemes in every classroom, on every building, on flags, banners, pendants, and school gear and materials.  Posters should be slapped on every wall promoting desirable behavior, discouraging undesirable behavior, and touting clever slogans and mnemonic devices that plant the ideas deep in the students’ brains and fertilize them through constant repetition.  Comedian Eddie Izzard jokes that the British Empire ruled the world “through the cunning use of flags.”  It isn’t far from the truth.  How many United States flags do you see on a school campus?  Why do you think that is?  They are breeding loyalty to the image, to the brand, and therefore to the abstract ideas behind that brand.

A Sense of Tradition and Heritage Must Be Fostered

The faculty and administration need to speak of the school always within the context of its long history.  They must connect – and encourage the students to connect – the school’s present circumstances with those of its glorious early years.  And an important detail: even if the school’s early years weren’t very glorious, THEY WERE.  Reminisce on the school’s successes, and if you can’t find some way to ignore or downplay the school’s failures, then try to blame those failures on the rival school.  Students and staff should know the history of their campus and its leaders.  How many students know the school’s alma mater?  How many staff members know the school’s alma mater?  It should be taught, and it should be recited every day, sung at every school event, as faithfully as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner, if not more so.

These methods may seem contrived, artificial, or superficial.  That doesn’t matter.  These methods WORK.  Of course, there will always be a percentage of the populous who simply goes through the motions, lacking that fervor, that emotional response we’re really looking for.  Again, that doesn’t matter.  We will have already won over a large enough faction who unconditionally believe to achieve our goals, and as for those who are simply going through the motions, we mustn’t overlook the importance of the fact that they are still going through the motions.  They conform.  They are indoctrinated.  They are obedient to an idea or a behavior without questioning it or resisting it.  In some ways, that’s even better than true loyalty.  And if we combine these contrived methods with some actual, meaningful goals, and if we provide the students with meaningful curriculum and experiences, then the school pride we seek will be that much more easily won, and the power of the educational institution will be astonishing.

4 Responses to “One Thing the Totalitarians Got Right”

  1. Patricia Crawford said

    I had never before made the connection between negative uses of propaganda and positive ones, such as engendering school spirit. Possibly one missing element: Success in some area. My high school was football state champ three years in a row, so our school spirit level was incredibly high. Some schools seemingly have no successes: State testing scores are low, most sports teams don’t do well, and many of the students feel disenfranchised by the system as a whole. What can we do about them? Great blog, by the way, and a voice definitely needed in public education.

    • Patricia,

      Thank you for pointing this out. Success is definitely an important element in garnering school pride. Towards that end, the administration needs to pour its energies into those things at which the students are likely to be successful. In a Title I school, for example, test scores and academics might be the thing to downplay. Sports is always a convenient stand-by, but which sport is the question. It may not always be American Football. I know at our school, for instance, the student body in general is far more interested in Futbol. Whichever sport it is that the populous feels most connected to, that is the sport that needs to get more attention from the admin, as well as more press in general, especially when it comes to crushing the “other” school. Thank you for reading.

  2. Bob Santiago said

    I enjoyed this enlightening article. I can now discerned the elements of effective propaganda that you had described. While attending a military college, we collectively sung the alma mater every night at precisely 10pm. We had extraordinary school spirit to match her extraordinary propaganda. I learned from this article. Thank you.

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