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Ideology and the Web

By Lee, John K. | Social Education, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Ideology and the Web

Lee, John K., Social Education

Ideology is a word that evokes a variety of sentiments. An ideologue is often thought of as an emotionally overcharged believer who disregards reason and common sense in order to follow a particular set of beliefs. At the same time, having "ideological convictions" is considered by many to be honorable. Social studies teachers and students engage the concept of ideology on a daily basis. Whether teaching about such subjects as the Cold War or considering such issues as the nature of the curriculum, social studies teachers find ideology to be a central part of the curriculum. This is especially true when social studies teachers and students use the World Wide Web.

In this article, I will review the history of ideology, the place of ideology in the social studies, and the ideological character of the web. In addition, I will consider a number of ideologically framed social studies-related websites and make instructional suggestions how to use ideologically framed websites in social studies classes.

What Is Ideology?

The French philosopher Antoine-Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy coined the term ideology in 1796 to describe what he referred to as the "science of ideas" (1) As a science, ideology was (according to Destutt de Tracy) associated with the senses and removed from the "idealism" of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Ideology, a product of the enlightenment, was firmly opposed to classical metaphysics. For the most part, this use of the word has been lost to history. Destutt de Tracy and his colleagues were unable to establish ideology as a science because of a number of factors, including the derogatory use of the term by Napoleon Bonaparte. He attacked his political opponents who called for democratic representation in France by calling them "ideologues." The derogatory use of the term "ideologue" continues to this day.

Karl Marx was possibly the most famous critic (or proponent, depending on your interpretation) of ideology. He conceived of ideology as a type of "false consciousness" that veiled more fundamental or real historical processes. At the same time, Marx spoke of ideology as a superstructure that could expose the "false ideals" of the material or dominant class. His theory of economic progress suggested that ideology (or ideas about life) and real life interacted in a dialectical way that would advance humans toward a classless society.

Postmodern theorists have revived ideology as a conceptual device, using it to explain the occurrence of what might be called "multiple realties." According to some postmodernists, any theory of life would represent not only a valid but also a lived ideology. These varied ideologies then vie for attention in a complex and chaotic world.

Outside the realm of philosophy, ideology is generally conceived of as any given set of beliefs. It is this use of the term that has the most relevance in social studies.

Ideology and Social Studies Instruction

Ideology appears in many areas in social studies, the most obvious in the content of history and civics or government. World and U. S. history courses include content on the historical origins of ideology and the historical and political consequences of ideological commitment. In government courses, students study various political ideologies as competing forms of social life. Beyond content, ideology impinges on curriculum and instruction in a variety of ways. Most important, ideological perspectives influence how specific curricula are developed. We find evidence of the ideological character of curriculum in the recent contentious debate over the national history standards. (2)

Ideology may be present in social studies content, but those involved in education often attempt to mask its influence. Publishers go to great lengths to remove ideological overtones from textbooks. In a market as narrow as social studies textbooks, few companies would risk sales by claiming to be driven by a particular ideology.

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Ideology and the Web


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