7.1: Reinscribing Power Dynamics: An Introduction
- Page ID
“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.
Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys —
The guardians of information.”
--Donovan Livingston, Lift Off
In Donovan Livingston’s convocation address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 commencement ceremony, he captured of the duality of education—paradoxically, it can function both as a vehicle to “infinite power” and as an exclusionary mechanism that guards power and information from the masses. As Livingston pointed out, the power of education is not freely accessible to all; rather, it must be unlocked by keys that are possessed by “keepers.” This sharp poetic critique, delivered as part of Livingston’s longer spoken word poem, raises important questions about the inherent relationship between education and power: Who or what is the “keeper of the keys”? Why is information being guarded? Who benefits from this guarding and who is disadvantaged by it? Why don’t we ever question the keeper? Note your thoughts in response to these questions below:
The hierarchical nature of our educational system, throughout which power is unevenly distributed, has been criticized for perpetuating inequities and disparities instead of addressing them. In fact, Kozol (1985) argued that “public education has not produced unrest or disobedience among the masses; it has . . . been designed to ensure that students, particularly working-class students, are thoroughly schooled in passive compliance, if little else” (George, 2001, p. 94). Perhaps you are wondering why education might be designed to instill “passive compliance”? Why
might “working-class” students receive a different form of education from their more privileged peers? While there isn’t a simple answer to these questions, Kozol asserts that passive, obedience-focused education prepares students to “accept subordinate roles in society” (p. 95). Similarly, Freire (2008) explains that “the interests of the oppressors lie in ‘changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them’, for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated” (p. 74). As passivity renders a more docile, adaptable population, the threat of resistance and unrest is quelled, the status quo can be sustained, and those who occupy privileged positions can comfortably maintain power.
This concept of education is troubling, especially because it nullifies students’ capabilities to act as change agents and achieve their goals and dreams, many of which call for intervention in the social and material realities of their lives. So, how can this passive approach to education be changed? How can education, information, and power become more accessible to all students? How can students take back the keys from the hands of the keepers? While there are many ways that students have reclaimed power over their education and attempted to enact broader change to the educational system, language often plays a major role in those efforts. As Peter Elbow asserts, “Many people are now trying to become less helpless, both personally and politically: trying to claim more control over their own lives. One of the ways people most lack control over their own lives is through lacking control over words. Especially written words. Words come at you on a piece of paper and you often feel helpless before them” (p. v). Since language and power are inherently connected, language offers a generative site for broader change. For example, students might create broader audiences and modes of circulation for their texts, utilize their linguistic resources within academic writing, or engage in word inquiry that brings in all three dimensions of the English orthography—a process that can transform a sense of helplessness when confronted with words.
If we momentarily return to the opening excerpt from Livingston’s convocation address, we can see yet another concrete example of a student who has reclaimed power over his words and education. More specifically, Donovan Livingston’s original intent was to deliver his spoken word poem during his high school graduation, but that plan was rejected by school officials in favor of tradition. As Livingston explains, “The teacher who was in charge...threatened to take me offstage or cut my when she caught wind that I wanted to incorporate a poem . . . . She wanted it to be traditional. So I complied, but I really wanted to address my class in my most authentic voice.” Here, Livingston acknowledges both the hierarchy within the educational system—teachers were the ones who exercised the power to determine the nature of the rhetorical situation—as well as the compliance that was expected of him as a student. Years later, in his Harvard Graduate School commencement ceremony, Livingston was selected to address his class and utilized that opportunity to deliver the words that he believed the world needed to hear—a reenvisioning of education as a path towards equity. Since Livingston’s speech has become published and circulated around the world, the impact of his reclamation has the potential to be far-reaching.
Like Livingston, the authors in the rest of this section demonstrate their ways of reinscribing power dynamics, especially those that govern education. For example, in the rest of Livingston’s spoken word poem, he claims the power to redefine education and challenge the limits that others have placed upon it. Just as Livingston repositioned himself and fellow students from passive subjects under the guardians of knowledge and “keeper of the keys” to active participants in their own education, other authors also initiated a similar repositioning. More specifically, Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick, an author who is incarcerated during the time of his writing, transforms himself from within prison, and in doing so, reclaims power over his own life and learning. Furthermore, through his transformation and embrace of learning and knowledge, he challenges his position within an implicit social hierarchy that typically positions incarcerated individuals at the bottom. As you engage with these texts and extend your own language-based inquiries, we hope that you recognize your own position as co-learner with your classmates, instructors, and even with the writers whose stories are featured in this book. True inquiry implies that no one begins with the answer; rather, through the process of seeking deeper insight, we can all experience a sense of empowerment.