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 Counter-Hegemonic Education & Critical Pedagogy 



Hegemony Simplified: Societies are seldom controlled by overt force; rather, societies are controlled by the ideas made available to them and the forms of knowledge legitimized by those with power in said societies. We adhere to specific norms and reject others because we are, from a young age and from myriad sources, taught to think and behave in certain ways. Societies reproduce their cultural norms and beliefs by enculturation; those with power reinforce very specific ideologies through the messages they send via laws, schools, churches, media, corporations, etc. At the same time, differing or opposing ideologies are either ignored or discredited by these same sources. As such, citizens of a culture, a society, or a nation are taught to believe certain things while denying the validity of differing points of view. This indoctrination happens so frequently and from so many sources (and usually without much critique) that the beliefs taught therein are considered "common sense" by people within those societies. This is the basis of hegemony. It is common to all modern societies and is pernicious in large part because it is a system of control that operates tacitly; most people are unaware of the fact that the "common sense" they have developed is, in reality, no more factual than other and opposing beliefs.

It is no small irony that many people in "free" societies critique and lament the brainwashing and mind-control exerted on peoples in other nations (especially socialist and communist nations) when, in fact, all societies face significant levels of brainwashing. Americans, including children, encounter more than 20 minutes of propaganda for every hour of television they watch (including the news). Advertising for one product or another is virtually ubiquitous in the world's "beacon of freedom."  That most of that propaganda is geared toward corporate sales simply speaks to the supposed normalcy of consumerism and corporate profits. We are constantly sold the idea that happiness can be ours if only we purchase the right products. That many of these products are harmful to us or to the environment goes unnoticed. 

Schools as Hegemons: American children are told from an early age--and with seeming pride by their parents, teachers, and political leaders--that their country is the "greatest nation on earth." The teaching of this ideological stance far transcends national pride; it defines patriotism in relative terms by positioning the United States as superior to all other nations. This is the definition of ethnocentrism. Schools reinforce such notions with mandatory recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance (even to small children who have no understanding what this means), often followed by the playing of the national anthem accompanied by videos of American military might (a glorification of militarism and military strength while ignoring altogether other and less violent ways of demonstrating greatness). Millions of school classrooms prominently display the Mercator map--a distorted version of the world in which the U.S. is at the center and in which the size of some continents--namely Africa--are dramatically shrunk in size. Schools teach a selective version of history that highlights "American exceptionalism" while downplaying or ignoring the ways in which the nation has failed to live up to its ideals. Missing from American history textbooks, for example, are the many instances in which the U.S. both supported and even helped install a plethora of violent anti-democracy dictators. The point here is not to decry the United States as a great nation but rather to point out that what we learn about our nation from official sources is intentionally limited in scope. It is easier to maintain the status quo when the population thinks that the status quo is largely without significant problems--that the status quo is the rational and expected norm.


"Hegemony as it is traditionally understood is the success of the dominant class in presenting their definitions of reality and truth. It manifests itself in the political, economic, social and cultural terrains of society as well as through a dynamic process of negotiation between the dominant and subordinate classes. It is about the dominant seeking to make the rest of society believe and accept that their approach to life and understanding of society is the right and only way." As Gramsci pointed out (as cited in Jay, 2003 p. 5), hegemony is never simply imposition from above. Instead, it is maintained through the winning of the consent of subordinate groups by the dominant one(s). A major means for winning this consensus involves the universalizing of the dominant groups interests as the interests of society as a whole.


Critical pedagogy is an educational approach that seeks to promote educational experiences that are transformative, empowering, transgressive ande ven subversive. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (1972) which aims at helping learners find a sense of agency in their lives through the process of “conscientization,” is generally regarded as the foundational text associated with this approach. Critical pedagogy has a vision of a more egalitarian society and posits the view that this state of affairs can be realised through rationality (which might be problematic for some persons) while simultaneously incorporating some aspects of postmodern thought. There are various approaches to critical pedagogy but some common themes can be delineated, for instance the questioning of how power operates in the construction of knowledge, bell hooks (1994) explains: “More than ever before...educators are compelled to create new ways of knowing, different strategies for sharing knowledge” (p.12). This involves rethinking a number of aspects of educational practice including who makes the decisions about what and how to learn, who does the talking and who takes the responsibility for learning."  Mervin Chisholm, Developing Counter-hegemonic Pedagogy in Adult and Higher Education.

Countering Hegemony & Engaging in Critical Pedagogy

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