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Friday February 3rd

Column: PragerU, 'liberal lies' and the war against higher education

Ben Shapiro speaks at The Left's Obsession With Race: An Evening with Ben Shapiro, presented by UNC College Republicans in Caroll Hall on Wednesday night.
Buy Photos Ben Shapiro speaks at The Left's Obsession With Race: An Evening with Ben Shapiro, presented by UNC College Republicans in Caroll Hall on Wednesday night.

If you’re politically aware, a college student or an avid internet user, there’s a chance you’ve heard of PragerU or Turning Point USA. These conservative-led nonprofit organizations create educational content, report on political news and host conventions for high school and college students. 

Their strategy for recruiting members? Convincing students that their schools are lying to them. 

This tradition of anti-intellectualism is far from new, but PragerU and Turning Point have given new life to the art of discrediting and devaluing the knowledge creation that happens in higher education.

Founded in 2009, PragerU was originally meant to be a physical university, but its founding members discovered the power of the internet in spreading Judeo-Christian values and social conservatism. Their goal is to make conservative ideas accessible to young people, and they do so through short videos and podcasts.

6,500 high school and college students consider themselves members of “PragerForce” and attend conventions on college campuses. The New York Times reported on Will Witt, a former University of Colorado at Boulder student who dropped out of school after watching PragerU’s videos and became a spokesperson for the brand. He felt as if his education up to that point had been disingenuous.

Similarly, Turning Point USA was founded as a campus group in 2012 with the mission to “identify, educate, train and organize students to promote the principles of free markets and limited government.” Freedom is an idea everyone can get behind, right?

With provocative and inflammatory headlines, Turning Point publishes stories like "Liberalism is a Disease! The Only Cure Is A Red Pill” and “How To Have The Ultimate Cuteservative Summer.” 

Beyond perpetuating a politically motivated culture war, they ran the headline “UPS Is Now Hosting Woke Webinars” — which refers to diversity and inclusion seminars for employees.

It’s easy to see how PragerU and Turning Point have sparked controversy, but the issues with their messaging extend far beyond the woes of partisan politics.

To start, both organizations are attempting to tackle complex topics — such as economics and institutional racism — in five-minute videos. By portraying issues as black or white with no room for discussion or interpretation, PragerU and Turning Point simplify otherwise nuanced conservations.

And they do so with provocatively labeled content. Their video “Blacks in Power Don’t Empower Blacks” disputes the importance of symbolic representation in politics, while “How to End White Privilege” ends with the not-so-surprising assertion that it simply does not exist. 

To back up this provocative claim and combat the idea that Black homebuyers have restricted access to economic resources, like mortgage loans, PragerU suggests that it is illogical for banks to disapprove of loans for anyone, and that liberal virtue signaling is the source of this “dubious” claim.

(For reference, Black homebuyers last year were denied mortgage loans 80 percent more often than their white counterparts.)

This leads to the next major issue with these resources: they weaponize education to further a political agenda, and a far-right one at that. The Southern Poverty Law Center cautions that “PragerU’s '5 Minute Ideas' videos have become an indispensable propaganda device for the right.”

The alt-right pipeline is a term used to describe young men becoming increasingly exposed to white supremacist and far-right ideas on social media as they engage with content and digital algorithms.

By touting the idea that “your professors are lying to you,” PragerU and Turning Point have created a higher education version of this phenomenon. To do so, they seek out young adults who are — for the first time in their lives — forming stable political beliefs.

Social media has allowed these organizations to reach Gen Z students, most of whom are looking to expand their political literacy. Controversial, attention-grabbing headlines capitalize on this need and circumnavigate professors and universities in the process.

Furthermore, PragerU boasts that 70 percent of viewers’ minds were changed after watching their online content, and 60 percent of their YouTube viewership is under the age of 35. I argue that this — to change minds — is not and should not be the goal of education.

Instead, we should be aiming for a civic education that provides students with the tools to make their own decisions based on knowledge and lived experience, not from any one website alone. This is true regardless of where the information is coming from.

Despite this, PragerU and Turning Point have found their success by condemning higher education. By doing so, they capitalize off of existing fears about a lack of pragmatism in higher education and “liberal indoctrination.”

And this fear is abundant. Among Republicans who don’t trust education, 32 percent say it is because education is too liberal, or too political entirely.

The spread of biased, conspiratorial and inaccurate information online is not new, but PragerU and Turning Point have given the alt-right new and worrying weapons to wield against educators and mobilize youth.

For students wanting to expand their political literacy, I urge you to be critical of where your information is coming from and how you go about forming your political identity.

Your own salient political opinions should be just that — your own. Beliefs should develop from experience and conversation. When you do seek out political information online, it shouldn’t just confirm your existing beliefs, but challenge them in thoughtful ways — not via clickbait.


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