Discover more from Still More to Say
PragerU cartoon approved for use in Florida public schools suggests slavery isn’t always wrong
Other videos distort history; one says slavery legalization helped U.S. ‘achieve something great’
The words coming out of Christopher Columbus’s mouth in a cartoon that has been approved by the Florida Department of Education for showing in elementary schools are shocking: Talking to two American schoolchildren who had used a time machine to visit him in 1493, Columbus defends European slavery by comparing it to the savage practices, allegedly including cannibalism, he found among the indigenous people of what we now know as the Caribbean.
“Slavery is as old as time and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left,” he tells the children. “Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no? I don’t see the problem.”
Still More to Say is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Columbus then lectures the children, siblings Leo and Layla, questioning why he should be judged by the standards of the children’s era, telling them essentially that slavery is something that everybody is doing in his time.
You said you’re from 500 years in the future? How can you come here in the 15th century and judge me by by your standards in the 21st century? For those in the future to look back and do this is, well, estúpido. ... But the idea of throwing away the past because of your present values is, listen, I love and am thankful for the ancient Greeks but they did lots of things that here in 1493 I do not agree with. They permitted lifestyles and worshiped Gods that as a Christian I think is very bad, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t honor and respect all the amazing things they did.
This prompts one of the children, Layla, to ask a logical question: “Good and bad are based on the time you live in?”
Columbus answers, “Some things are clearly bad, no matter when they happen,” without naming slavery as an example. “But for other things, before you judge, you must ask yourself what did society and culture at the time treat as no big deal.”
The implication, since the discussion was specifically about slavery, is that the morality of slavery is dependent on the time and place.
When the children return home, they agree that while Columbus wasn’t perfect, he deserves to be praised for his courage. And, besides, says Layla, “Lot of things we judge him for now were normal in his time.”
The cartoon is Leo & Layla Meet Christopher Columbus, an 11-minute presentation by PragerU, a nonprofit educational organization that produces videos and other informational material for all ages. The organization has launched a petition drive to get school districts across the country to get its material aimed at children into the hands of students.
The organization, founded by talk show host Dennis Prager, says it “is fighting to save America with our mind-changing content.” Although some of the organization’s material is designed to teach universal values such as respect and perseverance, much of it is used to promote a political “pro-America” agenda opposed to government regulation. Some of the most recent videos aimed at adults tackle a wide variety of issues such as the Hunter Biden “scandal” and the allegedly anti-white aspects of American culture.
Although Prager is Jewish and PragerU doesn’t appear to produce materials with an explicitly Christian agenda, PragerU’s materials have been wildly popular among certain groups of evangelical Christians, particularly Christian nationalists. Ironically, the Columbus video supports a form of moral relativism — the idea that there aren’t universal rights and wrongs — a belief frequently denounced by evangelical leaders.
What I saw in PragerU videos
Because of the push by PragerU to get its materials in public schools and Florida’s recent approval, I spent much of this week reviewing literally dozens of videos to get an idea of how suitable they are for public schools. (Because I write about religion and culture, I focused on those that might have a religious angle, although most did not. The largest share are related to history, while others focus on character development. Videos aimed at adults, which apparently won’t be used in Florida’s schools, are much more varied in subject matter.) What I found was that most of them aren’t objectionable, and many of them don’t come across as much different than what you might find on your local PBS station.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that a few, such as the Columbus episode, are dreadful. Many of them teach a one-sided (or even incorrect) version of history. A fair number come cross as propagandistic. And a few would raise constitutional questions if shown in public schools because of their religious content.
It doesn’t take watching many videos to catch the general PragerU philosophy: Without saying so directly, many of the videos portray a United States that has a divine purpose. That’s the essence of Christian nationalism (although not exclusive to Christian nationalism), that the United States has a special purpose in this world, to be a light for all other nations. And part of the way PragerU spreads that message is by downplaying or justifying problems with the American past, problems such as slavery and the mistreatment of indigenous Americans (who are almost not mentioned among the videos I saw). And the only economic system that makes any sense at PragerU is unfettered capitalism; the message is clear over and over again government regulation is bad. PragerU may be the only educational organization that has produced a children’s game show episode about the life and philosophy of Ayn Rand.
The video lessons also repeatedly suggest that anyone can get ahead with perseverance and hard work. I don’t think I saw even a nod given to the possibility that there may be systemic issues that are limiting. And the message comes through clearly that current Americans aren’t responsible for and shouldn’t feel bad about mistakes of the past.
Are the PragerU videos racist or misogynistic? Not in any explicit way that I saw. In fact, many episodes feature persons, either historical characters or participants in game shows, from racial minorities, particularly blacks. Racial discrimination is frequently denounced. And a reasonable share of history-based episodes featured women in nontraditional roles, often because they were firsts in their fields.
Distortions of American history
Where the PragerU materials fall woefully short, however, is in their treatment of slavery. Viewers can be the judge of whether that is due to racism or a desire to make the United States look good.
At least two videos — one featuring escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and another about black educator Booker T. Washington — aim in part to convince viewers that the U.S. record on slavery isn’t as bad as people might think it is.
“America was one of the first places on Earth to outlaw slavery,” Washington tells Leo and Layla in one video. But that’s flatly not true. According to The Poynter Institute, Mexico, Britain, France and Denmark had abolished slavery before 1865, when the U.S. adopted the 13th Amendment. And that’s not including countries that had once banned slavery but resumed the practice later.
Similarly, Douglass tells the children: “There was no real movement anywhere in the world to abolish slavery before the American founding.” The fact is that there were numerous small jurisdictions that prohibited slavery before then, and there was a brief rejection of slavery in China as early as the first century. France also briefly outlawed slavery in the 14th century. The French abolition movement had its origins in the decades immediately prior to the American founding.
An attempt to justify legalization of slavery
While unequivocally condemning slavery, Douglass in the video justified its legal existence in the early years of the United States, saying that prohibiting slavery would have meant the United States would have never existed. “I’m certainly not OK with slavery, but the Founding Fathers made a compromise to achieve something great, the making of the United States,” he tells Leo and Layla.
In real life, Douglass had parted ways with another abolitionist leader, William Lloyd Garrison, who took a less accommodating approach than Douglass. Douglass said in the video that Garrison wanted to destroy the “whole American system,” and the plot of video compared Garrison’s efforts with those of protesters that the children saw on TV news before their travel to Douglass’s time. If the protesters of the children’s time are “radical like Garrison, you and your brother would be best served to stay away,” he warns them.
There’s probably nothing unconstitutional about using public schools to politically indoctrinate students. But the teaching of religion is another matter, although courts have allowed publish schools to teach about religion, such as in a course on culture.
The history-based cartoons featuring Leo and Layla include episodes on five people from the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament): Jacob, Moses, Esther, Ruth and David. The videos tell the stories familiar to Christians and Jews alike, and there’s little in them that would raise eyebrows in most branches of the two great world religions.
But in a public school? Most include explicitly religious content, such as the story of Jacob wrestling with God and being renamed Israel.
If these stories were being taught as literature, that would probably be constitutionally acceptable. But they are taught in the videos as factual history, rather than stories accepted by faith, even though historians have strong doubts about the historicity of at least the pre-Davidic events and characters in the Bible.
There are also videos with the accounts of Noah’s ark and Daniel in the lion’s den, but they are presented as stories rather than history. There do not appear to be any videos featuring stories from the New Testament.
Otherwise, the videos are uneven in the way they treat the religious motivations of historical characters.
There is surprisingly little content relating to the religious motivations of U.S. founders, although that’s not so with Columbus. At one point in the video with Leo and Layla, he tells the children: “Only my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is perfect and I hope to spread his teachings to all the lands I find that don’t know his name.”
At the other extreme is the Leo and Layla video on Martin Luther King Jr., which somehow fails to mention that he was a pastor, although he does tell the children, “My Christian faith directs me to love my neighbors, even when they act in ways I don’t like, and that’s always helped me remain peaceful.” (A different video about King does portray him giving a sermon.)
The Leo and Layla video on King emphasizes his nonviolence and his “I Have a Dream” speech. It ignores his vision for economic justice.
Perhaps the most propagandistic video was a history of the nation of Israel. It makes the outlandish claim that “Israel is the only country in the Middle East that does not oppress its minority population,” ignoring its occupation of Palestinian territory and its establishment of a two-tier system of governance for the West Bank and other areas where Palestinians live.
Archaeologists have long debated the credibility of Columbus’s claims about coming across cannibals, but to date no proof of cannibalism in the territory visited by Columbus has been found. His claims were widely believed, and the English word “cannibal” comes from the word used to refer to some of the indigenous Caribbeans.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t happen, just that there is no to little corroboration beyond the Biblical texts, which were probably written centuries after the events.