Izzit Capitalist Propaganda?

By Julie Knutson

Illustrator: © 1978 USPS

© 1978 USPS

Free teaching materials intrigue me. I could spend hours perusing Curriki and TeacherTube for appropriate, anti-biased resources for my 8th-grade U.S. History students. So, when forwarded a link to izzit.org—which allegedly serves 195,000 teachers, 44,000 schools, and 18 million students—I took the bait. As the basic but inviting website opened, my eyes were immediately drawn to the free DVD offerings for educators. I began scanning the list of films, entertaining the possibility that the cryptically titled Yours and Mine: The Lessons of 1623 might provide a fresh perspective on life in the Plymouth colony.

Admittedly, after all that excitement, the DVD sat shrink-wrapped and unwatched on my bookshelf for nearly a year. I came across it again a few weeks before launching a unit on early colonial life in the Americas. Hoping it could offer some compelling details about 17th-century New England, I decided to watch it. No stranger to the world of teaching materials, I prepared myself for some hackneyed but harmless reenactments and some overly brief accounts of colonial history. Nevertheless, the DVD’s description promised some “surprising facts”—such as the Pilgrims’ affinity for “colorful clothes”—so I remained vaguely optimistic. Several minutes into the film, however, I realized I was watching an unabashed ode to free-market capitalism and private property.

We begin with our young narrator, Priscilla, whose stated purpose is to debunk some common myths about the Pilgrims. As she prepares us to venture into the main storyline, she stresses that we should think of the Pilgrims not as brass-buckle-wearing religious zealots, but rather as social pioneers whose image should be conjured “every time we use our cell phone or iPods.” As if sensing my confusion, Priscilla looks into the camera with a raised eyebrow and asks, “Curious?” Not knowing where her odd digressions were taking me, I mentally replied with a cautious, “Yes.”

On this myth-busting expedition, our host is accompanied by her father, an economics teacher and direct descendant of the Fullers of Plymouth. Hellbent on discussing the role of private property in the nascent years of the colony, Priscilla’s father attempts to reeducate his daughter and a misinformed reenactor named Samuel about the devastating effects of sharing on the Plymouth Plantation.

Through a series of interviews with the local townspeople, we learn of the Pilgrims’ trials and tribulations that first winter on Cape Cod Bay. While the colonists managed to produce a good harvest the following fall (thanks to whom the teacher’s guide calls “a friendly native”), a ship bringing 35 more colonists meant that food needed to be rationed. Malnourished and still relatively unskilled at growing food, we’re told that the Pilgrims’ initial attempts at sharing the labor and harvests began to unravel. “It left the opportunity for some to take advantage,” a woman in period garb explains through what is apparently a Puritan accent, “and leave the work for others.” To combat these “leeches,” as Samuel calls them, Governor William Bradford decides to parcel the farmlands into private individual properties and order is restored in Plymouth. Therein lies the great Lesson of 1623: that privatization and ownership provided the Pilgrims with an incentive “to work harder and be more productive in a strange land.”

By placing a premium on this “lesson,” Yours and Mine relegates all other aspects of life in the early years of the Plymouth colony to the margins. The traditional classroom “origin myth” of a peaceable Thanksgiving is supplanted by the new myth of capitalist self-determination, with both approaches problematic in that they sap history of its messiness and humanity. No need to mention boring details of the Pilgrims robbing Native American graves or raiding buried corn supplies. Anyway, those were just mistakes made before colonists learned the value of private property in the Lesson of 1623.

So what’s the alternative? What should be mentioned? What lessons could 1623—and the three years that immediately preceded it—offer? As James Loewen has suggested in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history — allow[ing] students to learn both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ side of the Pilgrim tale.” The Izzit team could have accomplished this through inclusion of four key but oft-neglected aspects of Plymouth’s early history: European disease and the subsequent near-decimation of the region’s indigenous population; the aforementioned looting and grave-robbing that characterized the Pilgrims’ first few months; Wampanoag leader Massasoit’s strategy in entering into early peace treaties with Pilgrim leader John Carver; and land agreements and relations between the Pokanoket Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation and the Pilgrims, which served the Pokanoket well but displaced other New England tribes.*

These omitted realities of life in the fledgling Plymouth colony could be introduced to viewers with relative ease, but it’s unlikely that such a revision would interest Izzit.

When I began investigating the “who” and “what” of this organization, Izzit’s brief tribute to private property—rather than to a more truthful telling of multiple histories—became less surprising. The izzit.org website features a “Who Izzit?” page with the smiling faces of five employees. There’s no mention of funding or financing. A basic Google search on Izzit yields nothing particularly substantive either; most hits that mention the site feature teacher “buzz” hyping the website’s free services. Adjusting my search to “Izzit nonprofit” I’m finally led to Izzit’s silent parent organization, freetochoosemedia.org. Curiously, there’s no mention of “Free to Choose” on the Izzit site. At the bottom of the page, a line in fine print reads, “An educational initiative of the Palmer R. Chitester Fund.” Searching for information on Chitester, I find a telling profile featured at mediatransparency.org that describes an organization “created by the combative Bob Chitester, with startup money from the Bradley Foundation, to create right-wing popular media.”

Disguised as innocuous learning material on izzit.org, Chitester’s agenda is apparently making its way into more and more American classrooms?complete with teaching guides and prefab quizzes. According to the Chitester Fund’s site, Izzit has been used by “one in four secondary social studies teachers in America.” This statistic is likely inflated, but is nonetheless concerning, in that many of Izzit’s other film selections and resources can be described as nothing less than comically libertarian, promoting the idea that laissez-faire capitalist economies are the answer to all social ills and that governments are universally and unequivocally bad. This philosophy is perhaps most aggressively promoted in the Milton Friedman-oriented, The Price System, in which the narrator summarily states, “free markets, personal freedom, and political freedom—they need each other and lead to the predictable miracle of steadily better ways of life through the price system.” Other Izzit features, including Everyone’s Space, place equal faith in entrepreneurial capitalism to develop “options and solutions” for our collective future—in space. Izzit’s apparently enormous reach means Chitester’s cherry-picked history and radical free-market prescriptions—so aptly illustrated by Yours and Mine, the Price System, and Everyone’s Space—are likely finding their way into increasing numbers of classrooms.

Knowing this about Chitester, it’s no wonder that Yours and Mine presents Plymouth’s alleged “ownership society” as a fixed and immutable economic principle established in early American life. This notion not only meets Izzit’s laissez-faire agenda, but also serves the more nefarious purpose of justifying inequities in our own times by suggesting that poverty and hardship are individual problems and not a social responsibility. The DVD’s argument leaves little room for a broader critique of social and economic disparity, its historical roots, and its effects on modern American culture.

*On the practice of grave robbing, see Karen Kupperman, Settling with the Indians (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), p. 125; for additional references to looting and grave robbing, see also Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 61, 64, 67-69. Philbrick provides additional details on early peace treaties between the Pokanoket Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation and the Pilgrims, p. 99.

Julie Knutson teaches 8th-grade U.S. History and 7th-grade Life Skills in the Houston area.