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New class on the old stuff

May 3, 2024 at 4:00:00 PM

Shanuka Navaratne '25

Propaganda. What emotion comes to your mind when hearing that word? Do you perceive it positively or negatively?

What our history department needs is more term courses! This is why I propose that Mercersburg offer a term course focused on the historical exploration of political propaganda.

History teacher Rich Heffron’s Middle East term courses this year are a wonderful prospect for curious students. With additional history courses focused on diverse and targeted topics, students will have more mobility when navigating their course selections in history—similar to the English department’s plan for next year. 

From watching the History Channel with my dad to collecting political posters from Sri Lanka’s political uprising in 2022, I have always loved unraveling the intricacies of propaganda. I find it incredible how effective its appeals can be at swaying public discourse. Under its gaudy colors and dramatic fonts depicting romanticized ideals, there is a story.

Osama Bin-Laden, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Un, Harry Truman, Greta Thunberg, Alexander the Great… These leaders have all used various manifestations of propaganda to platform their ideas. Their campaigns may often be distorted by misinformation, but that’s not always the case. According to the Oxford Dictionary, propaganda is “persuasive mass communication that filters and frames the issues of the day in a way that strongly favors particular interests.” Therefore, while it is manipulative in nature, propaganda doesn’t always have to be hateful or conspiratorial. Many examples of propaganda actually have positive overtones. 

Derived from the Latin verb propagare, which literally means to spread, propaganda is rhetoric that promotes a specific agenda for ordinary people to consume. This technique has been used by humans throughout history—from the Stone Age through classical antiquity and into the modern era. While its messages change with context, its primary function has remained consistent.

Propaganda’s role in evoking sentiments that people never knew they held until such exposure has proved to be dangerous in the past. A catchy string of words or colorful cartoons could have made the difference in notable events of history. Propaganda is perhaps the smartest exploiter of the human brain, and I think that in itself is powerful. 

In an age of readily available information, we as a generation often disregard media literacy. In analyzing the evolution of propaganda and its past implications, we can learn a lot to help us going forward. Hopefully, by opening spaces of dialogue for topics that challenge our worldviews, we can understand this art from a different perspective.

  I believe that opportunities like these will foster critical thinking while allowing students to pursue personal interests is the quality that truly sets Mercersburg Academy apart from other schools.

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