Selling Ourselves

Tonight on Facebook, my friend Lilian Kelian shared her sadness about people who relate to each other through interpersonal hegemony. I thought about it a while… Is the growing phenomenon of interpersonal hegemony the deep impact of neoliberalism on our personal and collective psyche?

The word hegemony means dominance; interpersonal hegemony is when we try to dominate others with our selves, our sense of what makes us us. 

The word hegemony is mostly used to talk about cultures, economics, educational practices, and social relationships. But the idea of interpersonal hegemony sticks in my craw, mostly because I see it and practice it myself!


It’s as if we are all trying to sell ourselves to each other, including our ways of being, feeling and experiencing the world. We do this inadvertently, pitching our ideas and sharing our problems and rallying our celebrations all through social media and in person and with family, friends, colleagues, and sometimes anyone who will listen. This heightened egotism reflects our own insecurities, showing others how, in order to feel better about ourselves, we have to make others see our superiority and power.

I think we do this as a mere echo of the dominate cultural hegemony all around us, all the time. There’s a reason why companies use logos, why restaurants use the same designs in their construction, and why all magazines are laid out the same. They do it because we crave familiarity and likeness. We do the same thing by surrounding ourselves with people who are like us and do the same activities, listen to the same music, and follow the same trends we’ve always followed.

Our practices of interpersonal hegemony make others look at our ways of being and doing and feeling and thinking, and want to do the same. It is like we’re selling ourselves to each other, instead of having genuine human interactions.

Adults do this all the time with youth – and I say that from experience! Giving a youth I worked with a CD of my music was pure interpersonal hegemony, as I tried to get them to like the things I liked. When young people start showing up wearing the style of clothes we wear; when they use the phrases we use; and when they talk the ways we talk its not just flattery. Its interpersonal hegemony and the worse kind of dominance, intentionally or otherwise.

Hegemony does not have to be explicitly forceful, either. The most well-meaning, kind and intentional people can be accidentally hegemonical. The question rises of how to defeat it, and that I cannot answer well right now. The answer surely lies in a pedagogy of freedom, and the need to learn, teach and lead in freedom.

Thanks again, Lilian.


My Questions

  • Where does suggestion become dominance?
  • How can we promote personal freedom in our relationships with others?
  • With the dominance of hegemony throughout our lives, is there anyway to escape perpetuating it?


My Review of Pedagogy of Hope by Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Impacts)Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is essential for Freirians; first-time readers of his work want to go to the original, and then onward. Eventually, come back to this book and you’ll appreciate its depth a lot.

Freire examined his own career consistently, revisiting his beliefs as often as some people change socks. This book was written a quarter century after Pedagogy of the Oppressed, with the purpose of reliving the experience of writing it. He examines his own experiences, offering some of the personal story behind his society-changing critical theory. This book is for people who’ve read the original and want to know more, particularly from a humanizing perspective.

View all my reviews

A Disimagination Machine

People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.

– James Baldwin

When I was 23, I started writing about my career. Studying at The Evergreen State College, I took a program there called Prior Learning From Experience. In that course, I was convinced that since I started working with youth professionally when I was 14, my decade-long career gave me something worth reflecting on. So I wrote and wrote, reflecting on the writing of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Michael Carrera, Grace Llewellyn, Kurt Hahn, Peter McLaren, bell hooks, and many of the authors my mentors suggested throughout my work.

This image illustrates the connection between dreams and memories.
A scene from the classic Wim Wenders film “Until the End of the World” explores the role of memories in dreams.

As I wrote, I found that my memories of youth work went back much further than my work life. I found stories in my memory of hanging a sign outside a hotel room for my advertising business; getting trapped in a tent at summer camp by an angry mob of boys from my neighborhood; campaigning for senior class president as an unpopular kid; and much more. This wasn’t youth work, so much as it was simply about growing up.

Claiming our memories is essential for reclaiming democracy and promoting nonviolence, as Henry Giroux shows in his latest article. My work is my attempt at doing exactly that, on many levels: critically reflecting on my own work allows me to ignite my imagination and enlivens my soul, while engaging others in doing the same allows me to fight what Giroux poetically calls the “disimagination machine”. We all have this creative capacity and responsibility.

Somewhere within this growing awareness comes the understanding of Bauman’s conception of “liquid society,” this fluid construction of identities, purposes, belonging and control that form all of our beliefs, knowledge and ideas. Basically, it means that everything moves, change is constant, and the only absolutes in our world are human constructs, and that they are more in flux than anything else.

Today, I recognize that I live in a space that’s made of my past and my future, both living in perfect tension right now. And that everything changes. Seeing this has helped me know that my future is undetermined and that my past is constantly and consistently wide open for examination. I will know this all my life, and live this for the rest of my days. Or maybe not.


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Elsewhere Online

Adultism in Democratic Education

My child has attended learning environments operating with democratic education principles for the last seven years, and as her dad I believe I’m a partner with her in her learning. As a line-level youth worker, I worked to infuse democratic education principles into my own practice for more than a decade, and as a consultant, I have assisted more than 100 K-12 schools across the US and Canada as they’ve wrestled with these principles. As a student myself, my bachelors degree is from The Evergreen State College, a widely renowned democratic education institution. For the last several years, I’ve been an advisor to the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and have worked to help grow this movement nationally in many ways, including presenting several workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

It is from this place of warm interaction, deep investment, and soul-filled appreciation that I share my concerns about adultism in democratic education.

Goals, teaching styles, rules, curriculum, budgeting, building design, behavior expectations… All of these things are determined by adults, for students, throughout schools and nonprofits. Even in well-meaning democratic learning environments, adultism often runs rampant and unchecked. Like the wildly fast undercurrent of a river that looks slow and smooth on the surface, adultism is deep throughout work done by adults for children and youth.

When they read this, some people will automatically dismiss it as an attempt to cast aspersions on their work. I don’t mean to demonize anyone. Instead, I want us to simply acknowledge the basis from which so much of this work operates, including democratic education in all its myriad forms. Understanding this basis can help people attempting to work within democratic education to truly create democratized spaces that are so woefully absent in our society today.

Where Adultism Surfaces in Democratic Education

It is important to recognize that there is no one, single, androgynous form of democratic education that all people everywhere adhere to. If my experience with IDEA has taught me anything, its that democratic education means many things to many people. Inside of that reality, I don’t want people to harbor the sentiment that simply calling something democratic education automatically means it is safe, free, and/or holistic. Just that notion alone makes democratic education adultist, as it reflects an adults’ perception of what young people want, rather than asking fully informed, fully invested young people what they want.

In some forms of democratic education, adults create specially isolated spaces for kids to “learn in freedom”. This is adultist on many levels. One reason for this is that learning environments that isolate young people from “real world” interactions by creating isolated experiences where young people have the capability to do whatever they want in the name of learning are actually expressing the will of adults. In our society today, we are installed with an inalienable number of rights because of our age. Intending to rectify a perception of diminished rights for youth, there are educators both in schools and outside schools who seek to create rebalance by instilling similar rights in the young people they work with—to an extent.

In a number of gestures, adults in schools and community organizations who adhere to democratic education grant young people the right to voluntary class attendance, voting through class meetings, and in some cases, “all aspects of the school” are led jointly by participants in these meetings. This is A.S. Neill supposedly dismissed early efforts to replicate Summerhill in the U.S., because he thought they were granting license, not freedom. He was wrong; they were granting the right to self-governance, not freedom. As William Deresiewicz so powerfully showed, that’s a premise of American democracy that’s been lost to the years.

Neill’s fetishizing of freedom for children has become the premise for a lot of democratic education today. Unforuntately, as the next IDEC will inevitably show in August, it is an international movement that’s reaching in twenty-nine directions at once, all without a unifying focus beyond the well-intended adults trying to change the world. Not unlike much of the society many of these activist-educators are working to change, much of the work they do is deeply infused with adultism.

However, the right to self-governance, when applied to children and youth, is wholly adultist, as are all forms of governance. Let’s be absolutely clear here: Adultism is bias towards adults, and so far as history shows, no form of governance has ever been proposed and enacted upon by children or youth. Rather than how many philosophizers and theorizers would define it, adultism is not merely discrimination towards youth. Instead, adultism is bias towards adults, and it is not always wrong.

In the case of democratic education, adultism informs its very existence. As Neill showed in his refutation mentioned above, revealing the very premise of our understanding of freedom is adultist since it was he himself who determined its necessity rather than the young people he worked with themselves. In other democratic education settings this is true, too, as so many program workers, educators, community organizers, and activists form their opinions of the world and then impose them on young people, calling them democratic education rather than allowing young people to form their own conceptions independent of adults’ influence, guidance, leadership, or facilitation. All schools, all nonprofits, all groups, and all movements do this.

The final important distinction to make about adultism in democratic education is regarding the difference between capacity and capability. Capacity is the ability a single person has to understand information, use it in doing something, and foresee the outcomes of that thing. Because of the ways that each person evolves, the boundaries of an individual’s personal capacity are largely unknown throughout their life and can only be seen on a person-by-person basis. In an important difference, capability is a specific level of skill, knowledge, or ability relative to a task. It is a continuum that is best measured by degrees in order to allow for according, appropriate, and just differentiation between people. In these ways, capacity refers to what could be, while capability refers to what is.

As the natural world around us routinely reflects, young people are not born with the capability to operate in the world around them. However, every child and youth has infinite capacity to live according to their own terms. The dilemma is that well-meaning adults throughout our field seem to mix up these two words, capability and capacity. They assume young people are capable of leading themselves whenever, wherever, and however they want to, without working to intentionally increase the capacity of young people to do this. This is a deep expression of adultism, whereupon adults assume that young people have the same capability as them simply because adults have the capacity to do it. This is an unjust assumption at best.

Alternatives to Adultism

In his novel Turn Coat, Jim Butcher explains, “No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story.”

I have found this is true of democratic education too, as with much of society’s work with young people in general. The fields of youth development, K-12 education, social services, counseling and therapy, and public health are all littered with heroes like this, people who are unjust villains trying to save the world. I am wholly responsible for this thinking myself, both as a line-level youth worker who held a variety of direct service positions with young people for more than a decade, and as a government administrator and consultant who has worked in all kinds of organizations across the U.S. and internationally focused on children and youth.

Democratic education, in all its myriad forms, can only be be anti-adultist by making young people fully equal partners. This means that in addition to the self-governance over educational operations, all children and youth of any age in any space has full ownership over fundraising, the mission, and higher levels of organizational operation through an equal or greater number of full voting positions on boards of directors for the schools and nonprofits that are practicing democratic education. In many states across the United States, those roles are fully against the law for young people to occupy. I am not saying that is right or fair, but that is the way it is. In other situations where young people can legally hold those positions, in organizations ascribing to the values of democratic education, young people are often thrown into these positions by well-meaning adults without the knowledge and skills (read: capacity) to fully contribute. This justifies adults’ rationale thinking that says young people have nothing of substance to contribute.

In the face of this discrimination, I have found that it is never good to falsely sooth ourselves into believing we’re being anti-adultist. Every adult practices adultism. By confronting the situations and naming what they are, I have found we can successfully challenge them from an informed place of critical awareness instead of a naïve place of self-satisfaction with status quo.

No Alternative to Adultism

Beward of Children sign
I saw this sign outside of a school in Lancashire, UK.

From my own position of experience and privilege, I want to propose that there is no alternative to adultism. It is not one of the Big “Ism”s, like the racism, sexism, and classism. Most people define those “isms” as exaggerated beliefs focused on a group or category of people, and while we popularly refer to adultism this way, that’s not the right framework. As any bias towards adults, adultism forms a foundation of our social relationships.

There’s something askew in the thinking that all adultism anywhere ever is inherently wrong, bad, and eeeeevil. Nature habituates hierarchical relationships among many species in order to propel evolution forward. Given the absence of adults in their species, many animals simply die, while others live only to procreate. I will not abandon our young people to their own devices and defenses in the name of personal freedom, if only because I believe that with the rights I enjoy as a human being, there are inherent responsibilities I possess as well. One of them is to raise young people in ways that are just and fair, which is more important than free and unhindered. My adult privilege tells me so, and adultism informs that.

Rather than using adultism incorrectly to describe the discrimination young people face in democratic education, we should use the correct terms to identify why and how this reality is conjured, surfaces, lives, and sustains itself. Words like ephebiphobia, which is the fear of youth; pediaphobia, the fear of children; and adultcentrism, which is the belief that adults are better than young people; these words should be used throughout democratic education, instead of or along with adultism, which should only be used to describe bias towards adults. Paternalism, patriarchy, infantalizing, and even maternalism should be used accordingly, too, as each plays a unique role in democratic learning environments.

The continued usage of adultism without deep examination of its extended parts will actually be detrimental to the growth of democratic education. Using the misunderstood definition or applying it in a blanketed way across all discrimination facing young people reflects a lazy, irrelevant analysis that is inconsistent with the goals of what a lot of well-meaning adults say they want through democratic education practices and organizations.

Overcoming Naïveté

You Are Here like it or not
You Are Here like it or not

The concepts we’re looking for, I think, are within grasp. We are on the brink of a social transformation that insists on recognizing the evolving capacities of young peopleyouth/adult equity and social justice for children and youth. Democratic education can claim youth/adult partnerships as a cornerstone right now, positioning young people in substantive, rich relationships with adults in strategic, intentional, and deliberate ways. Every day, each of us can strive and enact justice with young people in our personal and professional relationships with all young people of every age in all locations we find ourselves.

This naïveté is at the core of democratic education today, and it can be overcome, if we’re willing to learn. Understanding that adultism is deep in our work, but not the only thing worth learning, is essential to this fight. I have found that by directly confronting adultcentrism, paternalism, and ephebiphobia I am compelling society towards becoming more just and fair for young people -and- adults; by fighting adultism, I am merely spinning my wheels.

Are you ready to take up arms against semantics and engage in a real struggle? It is time we address adultism in democratic education.

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In Defense of Public Schools

A decade ago, I first that public schools, which are the heart of our democratic society, are by example teaching students nothing about participating in a democracy.

That was at the beginning of the age of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the draconian federal school funding law which mandates standardized teaching, learning, and evaluation across the United States. That law continues today relatively unabated by the Obama administration.



Today, more than 12 years after the instillation of NCLB, a revolution is working against the anti-democratic nature of the process of public education. It is completely apt and necessary, and more people are getting on board with it every single day. This revolution has many sides, and the one I’m rallying against today is the demonization of public education brought about by advocates like John Taylor Gatto, who wrote, “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”

This little revolution actually began back in the 1990s, with peak teachers of that era coming from the 1960s and early 70s. They were the last of the “free” teachers, grinding their idealism into their students, who are today’s parents.

Their idealism enabled the parents of students today to see for the first time exactly what schools are doing to their children. Because of this, like never before, we as parents can see our kids pushed out of learning by overly-rigorous, anti-creative, dehumanizing educational practices.

The parents who don’t share that particular analysis or outcomes are leaving simply because it doesn’t seem right for children to experience non-democratic learning in a democratic society.

In turn, adult voters whose children have graduated or who never had children are divesting in public education by routinely voting down public funding levees and electing anti-public education candidates. Students are responding too by dropping out, either physically or mentally, by simply completing school without ever attaching to learning.

At the same time, corporate profiteers have raided public education by jury rigging curriculum and testing to meet standards set by politicians who are owned by corporations who are driven by profits. The extensions of this corporate-political-industrial complex include the school-to-prison pipeline and the American service industry, both of which are reliant on schools to fail.



All of this says little or nothing of students themselves, who are responding en masse. Growing up in routinely racially segregated learning environments with vast inequities according to their race and socio-economic statuses, well-to-do white students from wealthy families are systematically set up to succeed, while their counterpart students of color and low-income white peers are tracked to failure – routinely. With a small proportion of students set up for that success, the vast majority are mired in measures of failure, all the while more enticed by the fruits of a free society than any students in many generations.

“Successful” students experience access, ability, and engagement through modes of technology that have no place within public schools today, while the “unsuccessful” students struggle more against falling in the holes created for them than ever before. I know all of this not only because I have studied it and lived alongside schools during these transitions, but because I have experienced it, first as a student and a brother, then as a state education worker, then as a school consultant, now as a dad.

AND there’s more to the situation than all of that.

The situation is cynically ironic: these places, which are the heart of our democratic society, are teaching young people nothing about democratic living. And yet, they are, and we don’t notice. Its actually what we don’t notice that we’re not advocating for, and without that advocacy we’re loosing democracy right now, if only because corporations want it that way because they stand to make more money from our divestment in public schools and our disinterest in educating in a democracy.



On the whole, we don’t notice that public schools are the bedrock of democratic society: politicians don’t refer to them as such, teachers don’t embrace them that way as a whole, and students don’t learn that without the very presence of a free, universal, and public education our democratic society would cease to exist. We don’t remember what FDR taught when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The preparation he spoke of was not specifically teaching young people through democracy; it was simply the practice of education within a democratic society.

On the whole, we don’t recognize that the situation of “democratic” in schooling for a long time was simply defined by those three terms I used above: Democracy meant FREE, as in accessible without cost; UNIVERSAL, meaning that all young people could attend, not just the ones who were selected at will; and PUBLIC, meaning that there was a system of voting by voters which established, ensured, and sustained the free and universal components of schools. That’s the only way that democracy was seen as relevant to public schools for a very long time (both before and after John Dewey, if you’re an education nerd).

By these three criteria, the backlash that educators, education leaders, and politicians are beginning to sense, squelch, and plainly resist is apropos, if only because they thought they were doing their jobs, and rightly so, because they were.

But when that definition of Democracy changed to mean broad personal efficacy, active participation, and systemic transparency, schools simply couldn’t keep up, and its being made more challenging for them to catch up. That isn’t to sound apologetic for schools or the education system, either. The ways they’ve behaved in response to these transformations, including becoming highly autocratic, obfuscating public knowledge, and colluding with corporate interests, are deplorable. They necessitate critiques by people like Sir Ken Robinson, who said, “Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies.” This is absolutely true and evidenced in the responses of public schools to transformations in the world around them.

In the meantime, technology is leading a cultural transformation which is mandating social transformations which are [going to] drive institutional transformations in the United States and elsewhere. One of the transformations is that public schools must reflect modern conceptions of democracy.



President John F. Kennedy, who constantly reminded Americans to be active in the world around themselves, challenged that, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The ignorance of people who would work to eliminate public schools on the backs of them not being democratic enough undermines the entirety of this democracy.

So, while we’re tearing at the infrastructure and teachings of the public education system, we should keep the purpose, intent, and ability of schools in mind. We have to remember that Democracy is stronger and more aligned to the cultural transformations we seek than any other system of governance. Schools can, should, and must continue to be the greatest purveyors of that understanding. THAT is what I’m fighting for in schools, and nothing less.
The question of WHY public schools today are so compromised isn’t particularly addressed here, beyond noting that corporations benefit from them. Dewey gave two answers that expand on this. The first was obviously related, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”. The second is the premise for all my work: “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Socially, culturally, economically, and morally conservative people work to maintain status quo constantly; Dewey’s contention shows why exactly they fight against the empowerment of young people, and why I fight for it. 


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All Student Voice Is NOT Created Equal

We must abandon completely the naive faith that education automatically liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress; in fact we know it may serve any cause. It may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth. It may lead men and women to think they are free even as it rivets them in chains of bondage… In the course of history, education has served every purpose and doctrine contrived by man; if it is to serve the cause of human freedom, it must be explicitly designed for that purpose. – George Counts in Education and the Foundations of Human Freedom (1963)

Not all actions to change education are created equal. Since Horace Mann and Booker T. Washington seeded schools across America in the 19th century, lots of people have tried to change schools again and again. It’s obvious that all these changes aren’t the same.

Yet, there are those in today’s progressive education movement who would lump everything together. I am one of them. Almost singularly concerned about the roles of students throughout education since 2000, my first project focused on engaging students in formal school improvement activities lumped all student voice as the same in data aggregation activities. It was an opportunistic activity that reflected the first decade of my work. There simply weren’t that many student voice activities to count. Examples, research, and tools focused on student voice were few and far between, and I attempted to pile them all together in order to promote Meaningful Student Involvement

Examining activities that students called meaningful, I tried to put parameters on my efforts by defining the practices as, “…the process of engaging students in every facet of the educational process for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” That emerged from another project I facilitated that focused on equity in education. Testing it while facilitating a statewide student engagement initiative in New York, I found reception among educators who’d written off “democratic education” in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, at best I was perpetuating the very problems I thought I was combating. I tried to become the monster in order to seduce it to be less monstrous. Recently, I discovered I might have been growing little monsters instead.

Emerging from among those few examples has come nothing short of a nascent movement. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of student voice programs across the US and Canada. Some of these I’m directly responsible for, and others have come together as a response to my writing, while others are completely independent of my influence.

Somewhere along the way, my goal of created a democratically-oriented, socially just conception of school transformation focused on engaging students as partners was distilled towards the essence of student voice. Then, that was manipulated to simplify it to the lowest common denominator for student involvement in schools, which is to say that in many cases student voice has become a simple shill for adults.

I can do better. Acknowledging past inability to forthrightly declare the socially-oriented roots of Meaningful Student Involvement, I can ally with George Counts’ call for American schools to partner with social justice movements in order to foster social change by pointing out the youth-led education organizing efforts embedded within the student voice movement. Rather than gently nudging people towards acknowledgment of adult influence in student voice actions, I can be forthright. Recently, I tried the tact of reaching out directly to the student voice movement itself, with mixed reception. I will continue talking directly to adults about our attempts to engage student voice, and encourage them to move beyond simplicity.

It’s been my recent work in Miami and southeast Washington state that has really reinforced for me that all student voice is not created equal. Working with low-income students, English language learners, and students of color in the places I have has reinforced for me that there are many different politics, urgencies, and necessities that inform student voice in all it’s myriad forms. I will continue to emphasize different locations for Meaningful Student Involvement, and different ways to integrate student/adult partnerships throughout schools. But it’s time to be done with student voice, if only because many of us are getting it all wrong.

Learn more about my work in schools on the SoundOut website, and follow my blog here.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Paulo Freire Photobiography

The Paulo Freire Institute in São Paulo has released Paulo Freire – Educar Para Transformar-fotobiografia. It is a beautiful new publication available to read and view for free. Written in Portuguese, we encourage all of our readers to take a flip through it. 

Here at CommonAction, including The Freechild Project and SoundOut, our efforts are guided heavily by the insight, challenge, and promise of Freire’s work. In a sentence, he summarizes our approach: “Education is not the act of consuming ideas, but of creating and recreating them.”

Flip through this book and see what inspires us so greatly.

Paulo Freire – Educar Para Transformar-fotobiografia  

Enjoy! And let us know what you think about Freire’s legacy today.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!