The brainchild of conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, its catchy videos just won approval from the Florida Board of Education for use in all the state’s K-12 public schools, making Florida the first of what the nonprofit PragerU expects will be more red state adoptions of its rightwing ideology.
Prager’s prime audience is kindergarten through fifth grade, with animated portrayals of historic figures like Christopher Columbus, who is shown explaining to future generations that slavery is “as old as time,” and that people should not be judged by standards that change over time. In another video, an animated Frederick Douglass explains slavery is “wrong and evil,” but compromise was necessary “to achieve something great.”
The conservative slant and America First boosterism are obvious and well within bounds, but do they belong in public schools?
Gov. Ron DeSantis banned racial equity policies and programs where he could, saying he’s for “education not indoctrination.” Meanwhile, Dennis Prager says in a promotional video, “We are in the mind-changing business, and few groups can say that.” Addressing criticism he received at a Moms for Liberty convention this summer, he said, “It’s true we bring doctrines to children.” He then asked, “But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”
Michelle Pozzie homeschooled her children with PragerU videos, and now she’s running as a Republican for the Florida House, promising to end the woke agenda and defend parental rights. In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, she said, “The name [PragerU] is a little misleading, it makes you think it’s a university or an educational platform, but as far as PragerU being a right-wing bogeyman, that’s not factual.”
She continued: “Slavery is happening now in parts of the world and we know that from PragerU videos. We still have child labor and child trafficking going on.” But, Pozzie insists, “If some teachers don’t like the content in videos about climate change, they don’t have to show them. I don’t want to shove it down anybody’s throat,” she added, “but facts don’t have feelings.” (Paraphrasing one of conservative flamethrower Ben Shapiro’s best-known lines.)
Florida is not mandating these videos, and Broward County, one of the largest and most progressive school districts in the state, has said it will not use PragerU materials. It’s up to individual teachers if they want to incorporate these videos, and with the school year only just starting across Florida, we don’t know how many districts in the more conservative parts of the state will adopt the videos, or how much pushback there will be from teachers and/or parents, and in what direction.
PragerU, founded in 2009 as a non-profit organization by a rightwing radio host with a history of making inflammatory remarks, aims to “to teach what most schools aren’t—our American values, history and blessings,” according to its founder.
PragerU videos address all the hot button issues of our time: racism, sexism, income inequality, gun ownership, immigration, police brutality, and speech on college campuses in a climate where, according to its website, “Woke agendas are infiltrating classrooms, culture, and social media.”
But PragerU’s slickly made animated videos for younger kids have recently gained the attention of environmentalists. Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist based in Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won office on a platform of parental rights, says people who’ve seen the videos describe them as “a cross between conspiracy theories and indoctrination.”
Some PragerU videos echo climate change denier arguments, portraying climate change over time as natural and not man-made. They also warn that renewable energy is inadequate to meet the challenge of the world’s needs without fossil fuels.
“What Prager is doing for Big Oil is strikingly familiar to what was done for Big Tobacco over a generation,” says Ferguson. “They’re pushing their political agenda through an alliance with a governor and a school system that gives them direct access to the next generation.”
One animated video has two children, siblings—Leo and Layla—being counseled by their uncle, a scientist, that “Wind and solar just aren’t powerful enough to power the modern world, the energy from them isn’t dense or robust enough.” To underscore the message for young children, a bird falls dead from the sky, a supposed victim of the blades of a wind turbine. “Windmills kill so many birds,” the scientist says sadly.
Another video has a girl in Poland being assured by her parents that the planet has naturally heated up and cooled since prehistoric times, prompting the girl to clash with her friends, activists who abandon coal for an undependable energy source. “Unlike coal, energy from the wind or sun is unreliable, expensive, and difficult to store,” the narrator opines as the girl’s grandfather praises her courage in fighting oppression, likening climate activists to the Nazi invaders of Poland.
Responding to recent criticism of its content as biased, Marissa Streit, chief executive of PragerU, issued this statement, “The purpose of our climate videos is to allow for real debate, create an opening for scientists who have been bullied and marginalized by tyrannical elites and legacy institutions.”
Adrienne McCarthy, a researcher at Kansas State University who studies ideological extremism, told The Daily Beast that environmentalists have PragerU in their line of vision because two of its biggest funders are petroleum industry billionaires Dan and Ferris Wilks. “Big money is trying to change minds,” says McCarthy, noting the irony of DeSantis “overturning critical race theory because it was biased and political, and replacing it with PragerU which is biased and political.”
What McCarthy finds most alarming is the growing resemblance between what PragerU is marketing and what she sees in the echo chambers of far-right extremist groups. In her words, “nationalism imbued with morality, how the West is a superior system, how we don’t hate immigrants, but we don’t like their influences on our culture and our economics.”
In other words, PragerU is not a bogeyman operating in the dark places of the Internet. It’s cheery and charming, not like all that “leftwing stuff” that DeSantis has been trying to remove from Florida schools.
What’s happening in Florida is evidence of a larger struggle, as the two political parties frame the world as they see it. And voters are left to decide which America they want—the one they have or the one they wish they had.