I spend a lot of time thinking about hegemony, a term descended from the Greek word for “leader.” Today we use the word to describe the exercise of power by a dominant group or groups over other groups. Wikipedia describes hegemony as “the political, economic, ideological or cultural power exerted by a dominant group over other groups, regardless of the explicit consent of the latter” (italics mine).
Consent does not have to be explicit. In general, hegemony is wielded to ensure minority rule: In America, there are fewer straight, white, wealthy, educated men–our top of the pyramid–than there are everyone else. Consent must therefore be manufactured. And manufactured it is, through an elaborate system of schools and work and religion and laws and prisons and news institutions and the government and television and, now, the very web of information that flows around and through us, out our fingertips and back to our eyes. The dominant Discourse, the Discourse of hegemony, not only helps the dominant groups to retain their positions at the top; it also inculcates the rest of us into the rhetoric of passivity: Of tacitly consenting to minority rule.
“The difficult thing to explain about how middle class kids get middle class jobs,” writes Paul Willis, “is why others let them. The difficult thing to explain about how working class kids get working class jobs is why they let themselves.” It’s difficult to explain, yes, but it’s not a mystery: Hegemonic discourse surrounds every one of us from the very moment of our births. Trajectories of power are, through an elaborate system of pulleys and levers, reserved for those who are most likely to reproduce hegemonic ideals. To be sure, things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all.
Which brings me to the hegemony of making edible playdough. I’ve written about this issue before, in response to work by Angela Calabrese Barton, a feminist educational researcher working on social justice issues in science education. In her 1998 piece “Teaching Science with Homeless Children: Pedagogy, Representation, and Identity,” Barton argues that
knowledge construction about science and self-within-science occur within and are shaped by the relational space of the social, historical, and political. It is from this perspective that questions of representation in science (what science is made to be) and identity in science (who we think we must be to engage in that science) become central.
Barton, working with a group of girls living with their families in a homeless shelter, offers tactics for addressing the “hegemonic practices” in science that “have resulted in an unarticulated, yet highly active caste system.” In her view, science can serve an important function for the highly disenfranchised young people she is working with; she argues that the purpose of her visits
was not simply to help the children do science, but rather to do that which grows out of their questions and experiences. It was not to ﬁt their experiences into science; it was to ﬁt exploration of the natural world, questioning, and critique into their experiences. This distinction is important because it makes the borders of science fuzzy in two ways. First, it removes the binary distinction from doing science or not doing science and being in science or being out of science. Second, it allows connections between students’ life worlds and science to be made more easily. This is signiﬁcant because, as the feminist arguments remind us, much of the culture, discourse, and content of science is reﬂective of masculine, Western, and middle-class values (Harding, 1986).
Among other activities included in weekly science lessons are a series of food-based activities: Useful not only for pedagogical reasons but also for a practical one–these children are often underfed and anxious about getting enough food at mealtimes.
By the end, Barton reports, the girls felt more connected to science education, felt more confident about their abilities to conduct scientific inquiry, and felt more connected to the everyday science of their communities and lives. All of which is fantastic. What is less clear, however, is whether these learners felt more empowered to engage with and potentially resist a science Discourse that is designed to include and marginalize them and others like them.
The following things are true about the Discourse that supports the hegemony of dominant groups over other groups:
- It is in the best interest of the dominant group to maintain its power at all costs;
- Members of a dominant group have a vested interest in maintaining their power, even if some (though certainly not all) members of the dominant group can be persuaded to act against their own best interests and in the interest of others;
- Members of oppressed or marginalized groups are generally the only people who can convince those in power to act against their own best interests;
- In order to do so, members of oppressed or marginalized groups must come to no longer agree, even tacitly or passively, to abide by the norms established to keep them oppressed or marginalized; and
- The most useful way to equip members of oppressed or marginalized groups to resist hegemonic structures is to teach them about the structures.
It’s powerful but not sufficient to teach marginalized kids what others call “everyday science.” If the problem is that “the rhetoric of science is slanted against non-dominant groups,” then the answer is not simply “…so we therefore will not force them to engage with that rhetoric.” They’re already engaging with it, every single day of their lives. It’s the rhetoric that filters through every rule and barrier and truth and lie our children are told. It’s in the decision to lock the kitchen cupboard at the homeless shelter, so that children can never eat when they’re hungry. It’s in the decision to put the shelter in the dirtiest, most polluted area of the city. It’s in the tar balls washing up along the Gulf coast shoreline and the mere skeleton of a public transportation system in most cities across the country. It’s in a Congress that votes against extending unemployment benefits right before filing out of town for a “much-needed” paid vacation. It’s in the decision to close down schools that serve our poorest, most invisible youth. It’s in the fake cigarettes I saw at a display case of a fireworks store–directly at childs-eye level. It’s in the standardized tests that serve as both gateways and gatekeepers. It’s in the stares my friend gets from strangers ever since she shaved her head. It’s in the sheer temerity of people who believe they have a right to legislate the happiness of others. It’s in the plastic bags they load your shopping cart up with at the supermarket. It’s in the supermarket. It’s in the food processing plants staffed by underpaid workers. It’s in the factory farms stocked up with sterile and strangely colored produce. It’s in our milk, in our skies, in our schools, and in our homes.
It’s everywhere. And it’s powerful but not sufficient to enable marginalized kids to do a kind of science that meets their local needs. We must also teach them about the dominant Discourse of a science, of a schooling system, of a culture that is designed to oppose their own best interests in order to support the interest of others. We must teach them, and in so doing we must empower them to resist.