The Prager University Foundation presents itself as an unbiased educational non-profit that produces free-to-watch online videos in the style of Khan Academy or TED Talks. The presenters are ‘experts’, the graphics are clean, the production value is obviously high, and the videos get millions of views. To the unsuspecting viewer, they might even be a legitimate university - working to help educate the public about popular contemporary issues.
Beneath this veneer, PragerU is a far-right propaganda company with a $50 million budget and 5 billion views. PragerU uses its immense funding to legitimise its presenters and radicalise unsuspecting viewers. From Reaganites, Bush-era Neo-Cons, the Tea Party, to its impressive roster of Alt-Right presenters, PragerU connects all parts of the Republican Party and the American Far-Right. By platforming far-right commentators like Stephen Crowder alongside more institutionally mainstream conservatives like Dana Perino or Jim DeMint, PragerU puts them on the same level, providing them a similar level of legitimacy. In this way, PragerU can be thought of as a legitimising hub for the American far-right.
PragerU is most famous for its ‘educational’ videos; see (or, more likely, avoid) ‘What is Critical Race Theory’, ‘Why I left the Left’ and ‘A Short History of Slavery’ - aimed at seducing young adults, high schoolers and university freshmen. Several years ago, it was apparent that PragerU was targeting millennials and young adult men for radicalisation. Their target audience gradually got younger, through Will Witt (who has now moved on) and Amala Ekpunobi, PragerU has started to employ ‘influencers’ to appeal to Gen Z, imitating podcasts and streamer-style discussions between the two.
In the last two years, however, PragerU has begun directly targeting younger and younger children. This is evident in their central role in fomenting a moral panic around Critical Race Theory (Cowin and Dickinson, forthcoming) and on trans rights. In targeting children and mothers, PragerU both mongers fear in parents and attempts to indoctrinate children. As these panics develop, it is becoming clear that PragerU has ulterior motives than mere moral panics; rather it is instrumentalising the fear of CRT and Gender Identity to foment distrust in the American Public School system. In the place of tainted public education, PragerU styles itself as an alternative education system, free from the ‘liberal’ oversight and expertise of trained educators.
PragerU’s attempts to generate distrust in public education are the latest in a long tradition of multi-faceted attacks on public education, from cutting funding and privatization to policing content. As with all public spending, the political right has been historically reticent to fully-fund education at a national level. Instead, they advocate for a hyper-localised school district system that entrenches educational inequalities, while Charter Schools divert public expenditure into private profit. Originally conceived in the 1970s and supported by Teaching Unions, funding for Charter Schools has migrated to the Conservative end of the spectrum, with charter schools able to take advantage of a lack of scrutiny, and crucially, avoid dealing with a unionised workforce. Charter Schools have since become a mainstay in the Republican policy platform from Bush in 2004, McCain, with Romney pushing for Vouchers to differentiate himself from Obama. Charter Schools, and School Vouchers similarly push for an increased role of parents in education - as citizens merely expressing their right to choose schools, in an open marketplace.
The drive from the political right to privatize education is international: the Conservative-led Coalition flagship education policy introduced ‘academies’ to the UK. Ostensibly to increase standards, in practice, privately-run academies are a right-wing attempt to create a ‘quasi-market’ in education, with Academy leads deploying language of branding, serving local markets, and outsourcing staff.
The most vociferous attacks on public education however, are less material and more to do with the education itself. Policing the content of public education is, by 2022, a right-wing tradition. Around a century ago, the Daughters of the Confederacy, for example, sought to peddle the Lost Cause myth, erasing the horrors of slavery from the education system - while simultaneously sponsoring the lesser-known ‘Children of the Confederacy’ organisation. PragerU, as we shall see, display a similar talent for erasure in their videos. Half a century later, in 1971, future SCOTUS Justice, Lewis Powell Jr. wrote a memo exhorting the Chamber of Commerce to defend the American free enterprise system from dangerous leftists on TV and on university campuses, who 'are succeeding in radicalizing thousands of the young'. Even back then, Powell was calling for 'the evaluation of textbooks, especially in economics, political science and sociology.'
Similarly, moral panics over sex education appear throughout the 20th century. Funding for abstinence-only sex ed, for example accompanied the rise of the evangelical right as a political force. It has remained a political football since, with Republican presidents encouraging abstinence-only, with Democrats switching to comprehensive education, before Republicans once again revert. These arguments start from the assumption that the parent’s right to determine the type and content of their child’s education is paramount, superseding pedagogical experts, teachers themselves and, often, empirical facts. In 2021, Terry McAuliffe was widely panned on the right for suggesting otherwise, contributing to his defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
PragerU mobilises this tradition of attacking the standards of public education precisely by stoking moral panic in parents. Below, we demonstrate PragerU’s role in fomenting two panics, Critical Race Theory (CRT) and on Trans Rights. This blog post will not define CRT, there is little point: PragerU and the American Rightwing use CRT as a floating signifier to represent the broader leftwing deviance and create fear in its viewers. Defining CRT simply plays into their hand by accepting that there is some legitimate object that is up for debate. Instead, by promoting CRT as something to be afraid of and to protect your children from, PragerU encourages radical activism among its viewers. Their videos often include the idea of parents being in opposition to radical leftist school-boards, against which viewers must take action.
Many of its videos on CRT end with explicit calls to action, from presenters playing the role of the ‘mom’. Beyond simply CRT, PragerU attacks on the US educational system extend to universities as indoctrination centers for the deviant American leftwing. This evokes the 2010s moral panic around ‘safe spaces’, ‘snowflakes’, and ‘free speech’ on college campuses. The roots, though, go deeper, and by attacking universities, PragerU revisit a McCarthyist and pro-Business classic: arguing that American universities should be seen as part of a leftist conspiracy theory to indoctrinate America’s youth into deviant leftism, and avoided at all costs. This summer, Trump continued his proud tradition of saying the quiet part loud, calling for the abolition of the Department of Education, ‘to stop the radicalization of children’.
Most recently, PragerU has adopted and champions the moral panic of LGBTQ+ issues in public education and ‘grooming’, particularly honing in on any form of discussion of gender as anything except a rigid, assigned-at-birth binary.
This blatant homophobia and transphobia serves to other LGBTQ+ people, the American left-wing in general, and equate teaching about gender and sexuality to pedophilia. This is another tactic that's straight from the far-right playbook - conflating a cultural issue they disagree with to pedophilia - as we saw with the moral panic around gay teachers supposedly molesting students in the late-2000s and early-2010. This formed the basis of the homophobic, reactionary attempts to stem the rising tide of public support for LGBTQ+ civil rights.
The delegitimation of the American public school system is centered on panic, produced through fearmongering. PragerU videos are designed to create fear in viewers, presenting the American leftwing as deviant, dangerous, and even violent - and coming to get you.
The image above provides an example of how PragerU frames their moral panics. Sexual identity issues is portrayed as an enormous, smoke-belching, color-polarized bulldozer in the process of destroying a small Christian church (built in the style of a small-town church in rural America) and with a row of suburban houses next in line. With this simple visual, a political disagreement is instead portrayed as an imminent threat to the viewer. The left-wing and their ideas are portrayed as all-powerful, threatening the homesteads and very lives of viewers. This is classic radicalisation: (1) portraying political opponents as deviant, violent threats; (2) political allies are constructed as victimised; who are (3) attempting to protect the average person from the threat of one’s opponents. It is Cas Mudde’s classic formulation of populism - the defence of the pure people from corrupt elites.
Having produced fear in the parents, PragerU also steps in to provide its own content to replace the delegitimized public school curricula. While it's true that PragerU videos have been shown in American public schools for years, more recently they have started explicitly designing videos for delivery in schools. However, their efforts does not simply stop at getting PragerU content in (and fortunately, they have not always been successful here); they go further by attempting to side-line the American public school system altogether. In other words, if they can’t get their content in, they’ll help get the kids out.
And when parents have started home-schooling, PragerU’s educational videos, content packs, and their PREP programme are there to make the public education curriculum redundant. Alongside these ready-made packs, PragerU now produce a line of ‘Kids Shows’, which appear right next to the rest of the ‘core content’ on PragerU's homepage. The prominence of the Kids Shows on their website homepage highlights the extent to which PragerU as an institution is choosing to focus their efforts on these videos and expand their child audience.
The ‘Featured Kids Shows’ are afforded pride of place, sitting just below PragerU's staple content and highlighting the wide variety of PragerU content directed at children. These videos take the form of animated cartoons with child protagonists; videos with puppetry or crafting; and quiz shows that include messiness, evoking Nickelodeon’s variety of ‘slime’ or ‘gak’ content where participants get drenched in green goo.
It is important to recognize that this child-focused content is not attempting to just be entertaining. Remember PragerU explicitly markets itself as an educational institution, these Kids Shows purport to educate children, to make up for the supposed failures of the American public school system. In doing so, PragerU encourages parents to remove their children from public schools and instead utilize PragerU content to bolster far-right home-schooling or conservative/religious private/charter schools.
This is not extrapolation, or even analysis, of PragerU content - they state this directly and explicitly in their videos. To paraphrase Jared Sexton, we worked on this research for a year… and… they just… YouTubed it out.
What differentiates PragerU from the variety of other far-right kids’ content is the direct attempt to replace the US public education system in the eyes of its viewers. PragerU takes the next step beyond fear mongering and moral panics - replacement. Their videos build distrust and delegitimize the public education system, while simultaneously legitimizing their presenters as experts, trusted, and often internationally-famous educators, who are part of an unbiased learning institution: Prager University.
A sweeping right-wing movement threatens to delegitimize and destroy US public education, and this is certainly more than just a PragerU phenomenon. And though American history is replete with moral panics centred on kids, today is different. Today's far-right is producing a staggering volume of children's content, with an enormous variety of videos, resources packs and kids' books, in an attempt to drag the younger generations to the right. Education systems are under siege, with anti-CRT legislation purposefully broad, to deny the teaching of virtually anything that mentions racial inequality. PragerU serves as a case study for the larger anti-public education movement, as both a legitimising hub that unites the right, and one of its greatest champions.