Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hegemony in Education

Who can forget the inspiring figure of the Progressive, man-of-the-people, Hugo Chavez standing before the United Nations waving a copy of Noam Chomsky's latest diatribe to an adoring international audience? That diatribe was titled "Hegemony or Survival."

Unfortunately, to discuss the current state of education, it is necessary to bring out the six dollar word "hegemony." It is a word and concept that I find distasteful. I do not believe that hegemony is a foundational issue. The word serves a useful purpose as a descriptor. Sadly, when people build ideologies that demand they must gain hegemony to survive, then things start getting ugly.

Hegemony sits among a whole class of terms that, when used in moderation as descriptors, serve a useful purpose. When pushed to extremes the ideas swirling around the term turn nihilistic and ugly.

The reason that hegemony is important in a debate about education is that it appears that the far left has gained hegemony in the public school system with the hope that they could use that hegemony to gain political power. When you have a group that intentionally uses the education system to gain political power, you end up creating forces that undermine education.

A prime example of the detrimental effects of new think in education was the decision to rip logic out of the curriculum some 50 years ago. Another example was the decision to replace math with new math.

These decisions have had a detrimental effect on our ability to engage in affirmative discourse. Just look at the large number of logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks and low quality discourse going on in the blogosphere. Much of the friction we see was created by our education system.

While the problems started with the left. The low quality of education in the public school has affected both left and right.

It would be impossible to correct the problems in the public education system simply by changing the hegemony that controls the monopoly. I think we are at a point where the best solution is to create a competitive framework for the schools that would allow for the development of different curriculums. The natural tendency will be for parents to choose those schools that provide the best education.

Unfortunately, to make my argument, I fear I will have to employ the overwrought word "hegemony."

An Icky Topic that Noam Chomsky Loves

The term "hegemony" has been around since antiquity. It refers to a group that has dominance at a given time.

A common pattern is that one group will gain dominance. The people allied with the hegemonic power would prosper. Those not allied with the hegemony would be disenfranchised and fall into survival mode. Often the ideologies survive by moving to the fringes of society. The hegemonic power would generally grow arrogant and corrupt. The disenfranchised powers would eventually unite then overthrow the hegemonic force and create a new world order with a new hegemony.

You can write compelling histories with the word hegemony. For example, France and England were hegemonic powers in the eighteenth century. The American colonies rebelled against England. To do so, the colonies formed an alliance with the King of France against the English hegemony. This alliance turned sour for France. In their war against Britain, they had inadvertently allied themselves with revolutionary forces that would bring down their royalty.

The US founders were apparently aware of the dangers of the European hegemonies. They originally wanted a loose confederation of states. Fearing that the hegemonic powers of Europe would cause dissension between the independent states, the Founders decided to create a new Federation of States with an executive strong enough to stand up to the hegemonic powers of Europe.

The founders created a very interesting structure with a strong executive that could defend against foreign hegemonies. The government had a loose internal structure that allowed for the evolution of a free market and included democratically elected legislatures. This model created the first stable republic since antiquity.

I will refer to the political, socio-economic and intellectual structures created by the US Founders as Classical Liberalism.

Classical liberalism is based on classical notions of truth. There is a belief that there is a truth out there, but that humans always fall short of knowing that truth. We latch onto ideas that we see as virtues. Classical thinkers learned that each virtue pushed to its extreme becomes a vice. In classical literature the term "tragedy" specifically refers to cases where something bad happens as the result of a virtue.

The classical liberal ideal was to concentrate on giving people a broad, balanced education. Although such education does not get us to pure truth, it gets us closer.

The classical liberal was interested in pursuing this vague notion of truth with the thought that you should give the students the best quality of education to help them get closer to understanding truth. In my opinion, classical liberal educators make the best teachers as they are interested primarily in the quality of the education and are not so much interested in converting the political opinions of the student. In his work Radical Son, David Horowitz spoke in admiration of his classical liberal professors who, although they disagreed with his politics, actively worked to help him pursue his objectives of becoming a leftwing agitator.

The great American education system was built by classical liberals with a maniacal faith that, if you build the university, truth would come. Unfortunately, a new generation of scholars appeared on the scene, and this new breed of scholars was very much interested in hegemony and the effects of education on the body politic. So, I have to write about the history of this problem.

The Foundations of The Modern Age

A good place to begin the story of the modern age is with the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant took to studying pure reason. In his studies he rediscovered the thing known since antiquity. He rediscovered that, if you push any idea to its extreme, it becomes paradoxical. Kant discovered that you can't derive perfect knowledge from a detailed study of one's naval.

The fact that Kant let loose with a cloud of empty grey fluff doesn't matter. He is adored as the greatest philosopher of all time.

Kant rediscovered that certain issues like the infinite or the nature of free will or even the nature of space will always involve paradox.

In the 19th century, a German philosopher named Hegel mastered the art of paradox and had all sorts of schemes for proving that freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom. Hegel used his skills to create a compelling Philosophy of History that presented history as a world stage. The hegemonic powers were actors on this world stage.

Intellectuals loved the Hegelian structure as it allowed them to talk about different ideas battling for supremacy in the world. Intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century were fond of slapping the suffix "ism" on words associated with ideas. Each of these isms pushed the basic idea to its paradoxical extreme. Scholars could babble about these paradoxical ideologies battling for hegemony.

Karl Marx pushed this type of thinking to a new level of absurd with a thing called the Material Dialectics. Marx claimed his dialectical materialism to be a science. Since it is a science, it must be true. While Hegel was prone to talk about nations battling for supremacy on the world stage, Marx gave the world a fantastical history with peoples of the world locked in class struggles.

Marx claimed that he could scientifically predict the future. In Marx's future, the corrupt merchant class (which he called bourgeoisie) would gain hegemonic power through monopolistic commerce. The disenfranchised workers (the proletariat) would form an alliance with the intelligentsia in a worldwide revolution. The revolution would so complete that a new world order--a workers paradise-- would sprout from the killing fields. There would be paradise on earth, and no religion too.

Educators are naturally drawn to an ideology where the intelligentsia forms alliances with disenfranchised groups and rises to power. Such ideologies makes the educator altruistic and the primary actor on the world stage at the same time.

The fanciful thinking about hegemonic powers struggling on the world stage led to an extremely violent century. During the twentieth century, Hegelian/Marxist thought had gained hegemony in the world. For a period, most of this planet had fallen under the sway of various forms of Marxism or Fascism (a Hegelian style reaction to Marxism). Sadly for mankind, the action on Hegel's world stage proved quite bloody.

Ironically, the classical liberal system of the US (that initially only sought survival) created a system that led to widespread domestic prosperity. As it happened the classical liberal United States was pulled into both world wars. The prosperity of the classical liberal system was decisive in both wars.

The United States that had created a strong centralized presidency to survive against the intrigues of the hegemons of Europe had itself become a hegemonic power.

This was really problematic for intellectuals who had given their faith the various isms of the modern world. While the Hegelian/Marxist view had hegemony in the middle of the century, when the Berlin Wall was torn down, people ran West and not East. The intelligentsia was stunned at the turn of events. The system that they were united against did more for the poor people than their fanciful totalitarian dreams.

Unfortunately, another sad twist occurred during the century. While the classical liberal United States was gaining hegemony in the world, the leftwing had retreated into the American education for survival. So while the classical liberal system created by the US founders triumphed, it won't be able to survive as the left has control of education.

So, we finally get back to talking about hegemony in the school.

Back to School

The American primary and university school systems were built by classical liberal educators who saw quality education as the path to a prosperous future.

Unfortunately, scholars in the US were as enchanted with new think as were the scholars of Europe. Folks like John Dewey made bizarre American versions of the Hegelian new think. Dewey was clever and saw that Americans really did not like the ideologies abroad; so he created a version of Hegelian that transformed the distaste for ideology into an ideology. This paradoxical non-ideology ideology was called "pragmatism." In this non-ideology ideology, you gain hegemony by railing against ideals. You then do whatever is most expedient to gain power.

The classical liberals fell for it. The weak spot of classical liberalism is that its adherents really are open to new ideas. New think provided a compelling new array of new ideas and seemingly possible paths for these new ideas to improve society. Unfortunately the paradoxical nature of the extreme ideologies of new think had a way of classical liberal system of moderated ideas.

In the middle of the last century we saw the word "liberalism" transform from something that saw the freedom of the individual as a good thing to won that held the Hegelian paradox that freedom is slavery and slavery freedom.

Drafting off the notion that any idea pushed to extremes leads to paradox, the modern liberal gradually pushed classical liberal ideas to the side.

The first thing to go, of course, was the study of logic. Kant, after all, had discovered what every logician knew. Pushing any ideal to an extreme produces paradox. Therefore logic is corrupt.

A person who falls into the hegemonic world view will reject the idea that truth or even logic exists. Everything is simply propaganda in the struggles of powers. Logic, after all, was nothing more than a tool used by the corrupt bourgeoisie to suppress the proletariat who were prone to do illogical things with their cash.

The first step was to remove logic from the curriculum. There then was an effort to replace math with new math. In my opinion, this all was to the detriment of education. Driving the classical liberal from the schools has created a world where math scores drop each year and we get more and more complaints from groups like Students for Academic Freedom that say modern professors are more interested in indocrinating students into an ideology than in teaching a subject.

So, while the classical liberal United States was gaining hegemony, we saw the bizarre situation where modern thought and its preoccupation with hegemony had taken root in the American schools. The classical liberal United States can't survive all that long in a world where no one learns classical liberal values. I suspect that the loss of our classical liberal education system will prove extremely damaging if not fatal for America.

(NOTE, George Bush received a modern education from left leaning schools. The result was that he could not figure out that invading Iraq was a bad idea.)

Personal Experience

Most of the talk I've heard about gaining hegemony in the school has come from leftist thinkers. On occasion, you will find reactionary thinkers like Horowitz on the issue. Reacting to a conversation of others is different from making an issue foundational.

During my fiasco in the education department at the U, I found myself engaged in numerous conversations about how the left needed to regroup in education and needed to radicalize the classroom. Professors actually taught us propaganda techniques as we read a slew of unbalanced literature from Chomsky, Friere and others. I was taught that the goal of an activist educator was to raise social consciousness and recruit student activists, etc.,

The department had a single focus on political issues, and was not providing me much information on the subject I really wanted to learn: How does one teach math to kids!!!

The people who I think would have been good at teaching math to kids were driven away from the public school systems by a system that was more interested in the political outcome of the education than in the quality of education.

Hegemony as a Descriptor

This post is too long, and you will notice that it really doesn't have a conclusion.

I thought I would re-emphasize that I see nothing wrong with the use of hegemony as a descriptor. For example, it is valid to say that the Ptolemaic view of astronomy had hegemony in the Renaissance and Copernican view of skies took hold after the Copernican revolution.

Problems occur when people start making "hegemony or survival" a fundamental part of their world view. When one holds the need to dominate or survive in their world view, they start doing destructive things to the people around them.

Chomsky claims that the neocons chose to invade Iraq because they wanted to expand American hegemony, and that they used propagandist techniques to mislead the American public. I had direct experience with leftist professors using negative techniques to gain hegemony in education.

Simply noting that the left has hegemony in school is not in and of itself bad. If they are using the school system to indoctrinate students or if they are misusing their position in teaching schools to weed out people based on politics, then they are doing something detrimental to the students.

I really don't have an answer on how to handle a political hegemony in the public school monopoly. The fact that we have a monopoly in education is a bit problematic. Having a monopoly means that political groups will want to gain power by controlling the monopoly.

Simply replacing public with private schools may not be the answer as private schools often have their own agendas that they hope to advance over education.

The long term solution would be to create a much more open market system for education where no one group has total control over the education of a single student. The voucher idea where students have a financial resource that follows them as they move between schools might work to help students broaden their education. The teaching company idea that creates some separation of the administration of the school from the teaching of the class might also break monopolistic forces.

Regardless, I do not think hegemonic thinking will ever result in improved education. If one group has too much power in the education system, we should point it out, but I do not think we can improve education by efforts like NCLB that simply added more politics to schooling. After all, educations should be about impowering the individual student with the knowledge they need to thrive.


Democracy Lover said...

Sorry but I don't really have the patience to read these long diatribes.

If there was a way to create some sort of system in which no group could exercise hegemonic control over the public education system we could discuss it. The fact however, is that a privatized system would end up being under the control of large education corporations with a minority of schools run by closed-minded religious groups. It is not possible to allow a "free market" without permitting hegemonic control, so there's little point in discussing it.

The question in truth is "What is the purpose of education?" Are we indoctrinating children in becoming obedient wage slaves willing to follow their political leaders, or do we actually want our children to learn to think for themselves? If the latter is the goal, then by all means we should celebrate the secular humanists (small in number though they be) and plead with them to take control of our schools and throw out the narrow-minded folks who are all too often controlling them now.

Putting private, profit-making business concerns in charge of the schools is hardly likely to improve the quality of education or produce students who can grapple with the issues of modern society with logic and reason. It is more likely to succeed in cutting costs and quality while increasing propagandistic PR to convince us it is doing otherwise.

Reach Upward said...

You already see people on the fringe working against the monopolistic public schooling hegemon. The rate of home schooling has exploded in recent years.

The whole voucher debate in Utah right now is completely about the issue of control. All other elements and arguments are simply side shows. There is a significant and growing group of people that want to wrest control of education from the Left because their track record is so dismal. The Left is fighting to hold onto this monopoly at all costs.

But there is no denying an idea whose time has come. Vouchers may be defeated in November, but the push to wrest control of education from the Left will not stop. Promoters may feel disheartened for a while, but there is enough of a groundswell out there that this issue simply will not go away.

y-intercept said...

Hegemony is the preoccupation of the modern age. When you adhere to the new think of the day. You eventually find yourself pulled in the trap where you feel you must dominate to survive.

Because we are in the modern age and our politicians (left and right) were educated in a system of new think, hegemony is the primary concern.

Democracy Lover essentially said that he can't even think of a system where hegemonic control is not the primary concern. This is what new think does.

Personally, I believe that the free market with an emphasis on the classical liberal ideal of freedom of thought could create an education system that de-emphasizes hegemony. You will never completely get rid of the isuee. Hegemony itself would stop being a foundational issue.

I look around me and see that the free market has produced a large number of reasonably priced quality products. There is also a lot of worthless products.

The results of the free market seems to be driven by the way that our society defines product. If we designed an open education stucture where the education of the child was the product, then we would see a marked improvement in the quality of education.

If we designed a system so that the school or the political beliefs of the students were the primary concern (as it is in public schools today) then we would continue to see mediocrity.

I think my idea of independent teaching companies could work. In a teaching company, a group of teachers would design a class, then contract with public and private schools.

A multidimensional system with teaching companies, public, private and charter schools actually would thros the education system in overdrive.

Reach Upward said...

I very much like your descriptions in your posts about independent teaching companies. This kind of thing happens on a short-term basis in the business world all of the time.

Democracy Lover said...

You are suffering from the delusion that the "free market" would create an educational system that would de-emphasize hegemony. Hardly. It would substitute hegemony of the corporate view, that greed is good, that one should get as much as one can in spite of the effects on society, etc. That is the very opposite of the "classical liberal ideal".

Certainly if you live in a dream world where teachers would design a curriculum that taught students how to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting whatever is put in front of them by the establishment and then get some profit-making corporation to underwrite their school without any say whatever in the curriculum, then it might work. However, in the so-called "free market", there would be no incentive for a company to engage in instructing young people to think. Thinking people are not suckers for advertising and don't believe everything they are told by someone in authority. What Board of Directors would go for that as a business model?

Wikipedia says that hegemony decribes the existence "of dominance of one social group over another, such that the ruling group -- referred to as a hegemon -- acquires some degree of consent from the subordinate, as opposed to dominance purely by force." That is common to any political system that does not derive its powers from the consent of the governed, or any system in which the governed are systematically deluded by a compliant media and co-opted political class. It is a perfect description of the US government today - as much as the Chinese government or the old Soviet government. The only way to avoid hegemony is to return to true democratic governance, and that cannot be done by entrusting our education system to people interested only in making a profit and continuing their own hegemony.