Cultural politics and education
|New York: Teachers College Press. 1996.|
In this volume, as in my others, I often employ a word found in the last sentence of the previous paragraph: hegemony. It is a concept with a long and varied history .33 It remains one of my favorite concepts, not because of its poetics as it slips off the tongue (which it doesn't do anyway) and not because it gives a person instant theoretical legitimacy (in some circles it makes people nervous). Rather, I use it because of its usefulness as a tool in unpacking crucial parts of not only the powerful economic and family agenda I just discussed, but also of the cultural agenda of restorational politics in education. It is an essential tool in uncovering some of the ways in which differential power is circulated and used in education and the larger society.
The concept of hegemony refers to a process in which dominant groups in society
come together to form a bloc and sustain leadership over subordinate groups.
One of the most important elements that such an idea implies is that a power
bloc does not have to rely on coercion. (Although at times it does. Think
of the fact that the United States incarcerates a larger percent of its population-and
especially men and women of color-than any other nation of its type in the
world.) Rather, it relies on winning consent to the prevailing order,' by
forming an ideological umbrella under which different groups who usually might
not totally agree with each other can stand. The key to this is offering a
compromise so that such groups feel as if their concerns are being listened
to (hence, rhetoric is essential in this process), but without dominant groups
having to give up their leadership of general social tendencies. As I argued
earlier in this chapter, this is exactly what has happened in so many of our
nations as rightist discourse becomes increasingly dominant in the formation
of our common sense. 3' The fact that we are tacitly returning to a form of
the workhouse test and to a condition of denying person rights to many of
the poor-and that this is becoming widely accepted-documents my point.
It is, of course, crucial to note that in any given historical situation,
hegemonic control can be found only as the partial exercise of leadership
by dominant groups, or by an alliance of dominant groups, in some, but certainly
not all, spheres of society. The most powerful forces in our societies will
not be equally successful in the economy, in the law, in statefinanced educational
institutions, in the mass media and the arts, in religion, and in the family
and civil society as a whole. 36 As Jim McGuigan states, "The dominant
culture never commands the field entirely: it must struggle continually with
residual and emergent cultures. -37 Equally important is the fact that while
hegemonic relations often have been thought of in class termsand it is of
great import to continue to think of them in that way-as I noted, it is essential
that we always recognize the multiplicity of relations of power surrounding
race, gender, sexuality, and "ability. "
Race-which is not a biological entity but a social constructionprovides an
example here. 38 Take the attempt by neoconservatives to have schools and
the media create a single, unitary "American identity." It is not
imposed, in the usual sense of that word. Rather, it is put forward by an
alliance of dominant groups in a way that the alliance hopes will enable all
the other groups it wants under its ideological umbrella to find something
in it for themselves. Yes, some of you are in very shaky economic circumstances,
feel culturally or religiously marginalized, are condemned to attend what
are seen to be failing schools that are racially tense and underfunded, and
are feeling immensely insecure in nearly all parts of your life. Some of you
live in rural and urban areas where conditions are nearly as bad as those
I noted in my opening story in this chapter. But "we" are all one.
We are all part of one identity, a nation of immigrants. This is hegemonic
discourse at its creative "best."
Edward Said nicely points to part of the danger:
Before we can agree on what the American identity is made of, we have to concede that as an immigrant settler society superimposed on the ruins of considerable native presence, American identity is too varied to be a unitary and homogeneous thing; indeed the battle within it is between advocates of a unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not reductively unified one. 39