Home » Volume IV, Issue 2 / Spring 2016 » The Urban Between Your Ears

The Urban Between Your Ears

Maria Tope Akinyele
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

The urban seems familiar as I walk down Lenox Avenue on my way home: street vendors holler trying to solicit my cash; gratuitous amounts of litter color the sidewalk; teenagers walk in large groups competing for who can speak the loudest; police officers guard the investments of a gentrifying neighborhood. This is the Harlem that I know; this is the urban between my ears. Yet, the familiarity of this particular stroll home becomes unfamiliar when I notice a Black elderly man lean on his cane to eventually kneel on the floor. He proceeds to grab pieces of colored chalk from his bag and lays them on the ground. Staring intently at his chalk collection for some time, he places the green chalk in his shaking hands. As he is about to write on the sidewalk, he has a change of heart and picks the pink chalk instead to etch:

And so on.

Intrigued, I decide to sit at the local coffee shop to watch him as he writes. I begin to wonder about this man: Who is he? Why is he writing? Who is he writing for? Why the color pink? Is he concerned about the imminent rain? After about an hour of kneeling, he struggles to stand. A passing Good Samaritan helps him. The elderly man stares at his work and then leaves. I cross the street to read his inscription on the sidewalk. He provides ten math problems and continues with:

Being my best self means: (pink)
1. Doing all my school and homework. (pink)
2. Respecting my teacher. (pink)
3. Saying thank you. (blue)

Other people begin to join me as I read, while others consumed by the familiar city unknowingly walk over the inscription. Later that evening, I mention the elderly man and his musings to my friends at the neighborhood bar. Surprisingly, all of them know of the man, but do not know him by name. Shana remarked: “Oh yeah, pops writes all over Harlem. Tryin to teach those bad ass kids sumthin.” We laugh and the subject of conversation changes.

The “elderly man with chalk” presents a rupture in a familiar city so inundated by technological advances that it makes the use of chalk as a writing tool seem anachronistic to many teachers today. The pressure to equip urban students with the skills necessary to compete in a future Digital Age has propelled many schools to secure funds for laptops, SMART Boards and other forms of technology. Assumptions about this future help to shape an educational imagination that influences present actions, determines the meaning of the past and consequently creates possibilities for the future in which we will live. The man’s use of chalk as a tool of expression suggests his nostalgia for an educational past in which chalk as a writing tool becomes a cultural artifact that can help students learn in the present for the future. Extant urban educational discourse is decidedly concerned with preparing students for the Digital Age, making the actions of the elderly man with chalk so much more incongruous to educational models currently vetted within the neoliberal agenda that dominate the imagining and enactment of schooling today.

This paper seeks to conceptualize the urban between our ears as a basis for imagining a counter to hegemonic neoliberal practices currently embedded in education. A theory of imagination is central to creating this urban between our ears —a figured world in which socially identifiable frames of meaning help to negotiate human actions (Holland, 1998). The imagination is often the struggle between Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) notion of common sense, behaviors and ideas that are seemingly normative but socially and politically constructed, and good sense, a revelatory eruption of ideas and actions that allows one to challenge and critique common sense practices. When good sense triumphs, we proactively engage in the thinking needed to transcend the normative neoliberal educational paradigm.

As an itinerant instructional coach, I travel from school to school helping teachers use the tools they have to improve instruction for school-dependent children (Jackson, 2011). I’ve learned that the work of improving instruction is not just a quest to enable teachers to implement effective pedagogical shifts, but one that also involves encouraging a shift in imagination, helping educators to think outside the neoliberalism paradigm. My intent is to conceptualize the urban between your ears as a theory of imagination that builds upon Gramsci’s tenets of good sense, requiring me to fully understand how the urban educational common sense is developed. Furthermore, the move from common sense to good sense requires a critical engagement with understanding the material and social factors that shape urban education discourse, while actively seeking and building upon ruptures in the common sense actions like the elderly man’s insistence on writing with chalk. I theorize the urban between our ears by exploring the neoliberal agenda and how it has become common sense or normalized hegemony within education, and how good sense could be developed by deliberately seeking moments of deviation within the everyday realities of common folk within the urban.

Right to the City

It is the context within which the elderly man with chalk acts—kneeling, writing, and choosing color—that fascinates me. His educational imagination values and enacts a learning experience that is very different from the neoliberal project of sustaining a world in which individuals imagine their lives and act according to market principles of capitalism (Spence, 2015). He challenges neoliberal educational policymakers who promote the standardization of curricula and assessments as the best means to educate students for future technologically advanced jobs. Current neoliberal educational literature does not provide the theoretical sustenance to explore the utility of his actions. How does one measure the success of his singular provocations under current neoliberal educational practices in New York? There are no quantitative assessments to document whether pedestrians stop to pay attention to his sidewalk inscriptions, or more importantly answer the math questions correctly. He kneels to write despite having no data to measure the impact of his actions; he therefore offers an alternative mode of acting in the present to create possibilities of change in the future. The elderly man with chalk and his writings are a useful departure point in exploring one of Gramsci’s focal questions concerning change: what is it about how people live and imagine their lives in particular times and places that advances or hampers progress to a more equitable and just order (Crehan, 2002)? How does the practice of outfitting urban classrooms with SMART Boards instead of actual books become so commonplace and unquestioned? Ultimately, the potential for change lies not in just acknowledging the existence of objective conditions, of possibilities or of freedom: “It is necessary to ‘know’ them and know how to use them and to want to use them” (Crehan, 2002, p. 78). What tools did the elderly man know and use to act? More importantly, what can we learn from the elderly man with chalk and his writings in terms of understanding the formulation of an educational imagination that can lead to real systemic change?

Real change begins by critically engaging with factors that contribute to the formulation of the urban between our ears: a familiar world that is shaped by multiple influences —city life, technology, ideology, haunting past and imminent future— which create dispositions that potentially lead individuals to initiate meaningful change. The elderly man with chalk’s urban between his ears enabled him to view the urban sidewalk as a medium for learning. It is not a coincidence that he chooses to write on one of the busiest streets in Harlem—a metropole in which 80 percent of its youth qualify for free lunch in school (NYC Teaching Fellows, 2013). Jean Anyon (2005) reminds us, “the concentration of so many poor people in relatively small urban spaces provides fertile soil for insurgency” (p. 5). Amidst the oppressive realms of a gentrifying Harlem, where sidewalks represent sites of capital accumulation and dispossession for the marginalized, the elderly man writes, an act of defiance in claiming a right to this Harlem too.

In Pauline Lipman’s (2011) New Political Economy of Education, she situates the city as a site filled with contradictions. Major financial, cultural and political neoliberal institutions abide next to high concentrations of low-income, marginalized and excluded peoples. The physical closeness of peoples with varying economic interests and realities also represents the precarious nature of the neoliberal project; it has to be continually reconstructed to be maintained, creating what Lipman identifies as new contradictions that open space for progressive and transformative social alliances. In order to identify and seize these moments of contradiction, “common sense” must be viewed as a phenomenon that is questioned. This process of viewing the normal as strange is key to equipping individuals with power in creating counter hegemony. Why doesn’t the normal always seem strange?

Gramsci’s (1971) concept of hegemony is central to understanding how and why individuals participate in the co-construction and normalization of neoliberal educational polices that maintain unjust structures. According to Gramsci, hegemony is the culmination of a long process of intense critical activity in which the ruling class is able to impose its interest onto subordinate classes. The ruling class succeeds in being a dominant force by perceiving and proactively reacting to the needs of the subordinate class. In other words, the ruling class knows exactly what the oppressed want and need, and therefore is able to create a social imagination that subverts the subordinate classes’ needs. The subordinate classes thus unknowingly perceive the needs and wants of the ruling class as their own.

The case of transforming schools into innovative space through technological acquisition exemplifies the seemingly innocuous but pernicious process of neoliberal hegemony. Schooling serves to facilitate neoliberal hegemony by presenting itself as acting independently of the social and political realms of society as a neutral party. However, federal acts, such as Race To The Top, had states compete for federal funding by adopting “innovative” practices such as the endorsement of the rigorous Common Core State Standards, data accountability structures and methods for recruiting highly effective teachers. Schools were coerced to act according to market principles in competing for practices that were not innovative because they came without resources needed to support struggling schools. This guise of innovation is set as a solution to the achievement gap positioning schools as quasi-entrepreneurs who by all means must do what is necessary to secure extra funds, even if this monetary quest entails imposing test prep all year on students, cheating to achieve test gains or participating in what Lipman (2011) identifies as the culture of grant-writing. According to Lipman, the preponderance of a grant writing culture actually aligns with the neoliberal agenda of making schools feel “empowered by taking advantage of opportunities in the market” (2011, p. 11). Understanding the dynamics of this hegemonic process helps to conceptualize how the urban between our ears can possibly be manipulated to imagine an alternative hegemony: one that allows the collective frustrations of the school community —teachers, parents, and students— to become a consistent and formidable force constantly working towards the goal of equitable systemic change. The school community, as a subaltern class, must therefore continually seek to truly understand the interests of the ruling class or the functioning of the neoliberal project for subversion.

Much has been written on the plight of urban schools and modes of resistance appropriated by various action groups in New York City (Anyon, 2005, Jackson, 2011). Organizations, such as the New York Coalition Of Radical Educators (NYCORE), assiduously fight to promote equity within public schools.   However, the majority of the educational community —teachers, students, parents— do not engage in these social movements for many reasons, but mainly because the underlying roots of economic disparity are hidden and seen as normal. Furthermore, social movement discourse within schools often presents past movements as spontaneous and reactionary to an explicit form of injustice when in reality movements that have resulted in equitable change are mainly a consequence of working class alliances strategically fighting over a period of time. It therefore becomes even more difficult to identify and make use of transformative tools of action within structures of injustice that are not overtly pernicious. These modes of thought unfortunately miss the burgeoning seeds of political action that are only illuminated when one politicizes all actions individuals partake in. Social movements have a long run, are not static, and are often part of a continuum of a history of struggle (Anyon, 2005). Therefore it is worthwhile to contemplate the “elderly man with chalk” in terms of identifying the educational/social movement he is disrupting.

Neoliberalism and the Construction of Consent

I watch a variety of pedestrians walk over the elderly man’s prose. What constitutes the urban between their ears that allows some to attend to the different phenomena of the urban, but not the writings of the elderly man? The thought leads me to attempt to count the number of individuals, out of ten, who stop (even for a second) to marvel at his work. Perhaps the familiarity of the urban seems all too common for many, making the actions of the elderly man with chalk easily dismissible as just another peculiarity inveterate to city life. Counting quickly becomes too daunting as people with different walking paces impede my ability to count accurately.

In hindsight, it becomes all too clear why it seemed natural for me to count as I attempted to theorize the elderly man with chalk. In the neoliberal state, quantitative assessments always trump qualitative means to measuring the impact of pedagogical approaches. This privileged form of assessment has become so entrenched into the educational imagination that children identify themselves as test scores numbers in interactions with their peers. As an instructional coach strolling through the hallways of schools, it is not unusual for me to hear banter from children such as: “Shut up, I’m a three and you’re a two!” (This refers to ratings achieved on the New York State English Language Arts Exam). Also, on occasions where I hear parents discuss the quality of their child’s progress, comments such as, “Oh Rayvon’s school is real good. He got a three,” preponderate. These comments reveal the extent to which neoliberal discourse has become internalized by members of the educational community.

David Harvey (2005) reminds us that such internalizations are not spontaneous but part of the hegemonic process. He writes: “For any way of thought to be dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires; as well to the possibilities inherent in the social word we inhabit” (p. 5). Harvey enables us to think about the appeal of neoliberalism that allows for it to become so embedded in common sense. He forces us to deconstruct neoliberalism in order to identify those elements that are attractive enough for members of the educational community to consent to its implementation. Why would children proudly equate their humanity with their performance on a test? What is it about the construction of consent that allows for quantifiable intelligence to overshadow the economic destruction that neoliberalism creates? Evaluating the practices of neoliberalism within schools allows us to answer such tough questions and begin the process of developing the formidable good sense that Gramsci (1971) advocates.

Neoliberalism must be conceptualized as a continual process and not necessarily a concept with rigid dimensions. Central to its functionality is capitalism, which continually reinvents and destroys itself to maintain its relevance. In essence, Harvey (2005) describes neoliberalism as the financialization of everything. Privatization needs quantification. Thus the push towards standardized assessments makes sense for the economic elite who need to convince the public of its utility in reaching the common good. Even though historically, more assessments have never led to a decrease in the achievement gap (Lipman, 2011), new assessments have inevitably been created with more social promises to the masses proclaimed loudly enough to quietly hide the economic rewards of private companies that created the assessments. Thus, the neoliberal cycle of destruction and reinvention continues.

Harvey (2005) asserts that neoliberalism has been marketed as a utopian ideal of sorts, which actualizes the individual rights of man. Individuals prefer the “I” over the “we”. Each time schools compete for funds, they substantiate the neoliberal agenda of individualism. One of the appeals of neoliberalism is that it claims that the market needs to be reconstructed so that individuals can enjoy the possibility of greater freedoms. Concern with the collective is viewed as a threat to this freedom.

The portrayal of a destructive system in need of fixing further enables the continuation of neoliberal practices. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 set the historical precedent for allotting monetary assistance for the development of compensatory education programs designed to identify and remediate “weaknesses” of students designated as “disadvantaged” under Title I (Jackson, 2011). Schools that succumbed to the temptation of receiving additional funds helped institutionalize the culture of “failing” institutions that needed further management. Such was the case in New York City in 2002 where Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s takeover of the school system depended in part on convincing the public that the system was failing and in dire need of a savior –even though parents and activist groups such as the Campaign For Fiscal Equity had been working with the local schools for many years to develop organic action plans to deal with issues facing public education. Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg sought to destroy the community control of schools platform and reinvent it with neoliberal business practices. Under Bloomberg, schools were managed like businesses, with greater accountability structures that privileged data over human relationships. Schools deemed as failing were shut down and reopened as charters or smaller schools. These new schools benefitted from more economic resources while serving fewer high needs students.

Immediate gratification overshadows long term planning models within the neoliberal agenda. Economic development is valued over democratic principles that will empower individuals to change and challenge the status quo. Schools were required to spend monies allocated to professional development on learning new accountability systems instead of attending professional development training that would enable them to better meet the immediate needs of their students. Under Bloomberg’s economic model school management consultants undated schools (Lipman, 2011). These experts encourage schools to spend monies on technologies such as SMART Boards that do not really enhance the learning experience of their students. Such “innovative” goods do not attend to structural injustices, but rather cloud them. These instances exemplify Harvey’s (2005) insistence that neoliberalism delivers a “world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core” (p. 27). Thus the insistence on acquiring more goods for schools allows parents and students to be temporarily appeased by shiny laptops. In New York, there was more emphasis on acquiring goods rather than providing professional development funds that focus on teacher growth and student learning. Education has continually been one of the few fields in which requirements for higher academic achievement have not been followed by explicit training based on the research about the stated objective, reversing underachievement (Hillard, 1977; Noguera, 2003 cited in Jackson, 2005). If members of the educational community do not begin to see the preponderance of “experts,” the acquisition of technology and the proliferation of new accountability systems that emerge under each new chancellor as neoliberal practices, then we will continually engage in the reproduction of said practices.

Gramsci (1971) warns that part of the hegemonic process involves couching political questions as cultural ones. Under Bloomberg, schools were ordered to focus on the learning outcomes of African-American boys because their cultural preparation conflicted with the educational priorities of the school. Michael Dumas (2016) warns that problems tend to be localized in Black bodies and young men instead of in the social and economic order. Seemingly altruistic in its presentation, this focus on minority boys conveniently ignores the political and economic injustices that may have created these “learning deficiencies.”

The urban between your ears is about theorizing a tool for change specifically for members who live the daily realities of urban education —teachers and students— requiring them to be knowledgeable about the implementation of neoliberal practices within schools. While Harvey allows us to think about neoliberalism as a conceptual and structural process, Gramsci forces us to think about the quotidian lived realities of individuals within this hegemonic process.

Gramsci’s Hegemony

The elderly man with chalk chooses the colors pink and blue to write his words on bare concrete. These colors are laden with meanings concerning gender representations, understandings of visual appeal and modes of change. The concrete transmutes from platform of walking to one of possibility. His actions with chalk are not necessarily novel to the world, but represent a rupture in our current understandings of how to educate.

Gramsci’s (1988) complicated concept of hegemony enables us to see opportunity in all of our everyday lived experiences.   For Gramsci, possibility is not reality: but it is in itself a reality. Whether a man perceives he can or cannot do a thing has its importance in evaluating what is done in reality. Focusing our perception on what can be done drives Gramsci’s hegemony. Although it is rooted in evaluating how one’s economic reality influences their participation in the production of power, it is not the determining factor. For Gramsci, part of what hegemony means is that a class has succeeded in transcending its interests while minimally incorporating the interests of subordinate classes so that it appears to represent the interest of society as a whole (Crehan, 2002). Therefore there is solace in knowing that hegemony does include the interests of the subordinate class, which refreshingly underscores that power is never totally stable and free from contradictions. It is in the contradictions that possibility becomes reality.

Gramsci (1988) was more concerned with the context in which particular power dynamics manifested themselves. He does however provide a unique way to think about power in terms of two superstructural levels: one representing hegemony and consent, and the other coercion and force (Crehan, 2002). These two levels are not bounded entities, but fluid. The educational community as a subaltern class becomes a relational category in which the oppressed (to an extent) can unknowingly become or cooperate with the oppressor. History plays an important role in understanding how hegemony has worked, but it cannot be assumed to operate in a predictable way. Gramsci’s hegemony emphasizes truly understanding the specific context in which power operates in order to successfully transcend its destructive forces.

Raymond Williams (1997) states, “Hegemony is a lived system of meanings and values —constitutive and constituting— which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming” (p.110). Williams’ understanding of hegemony cogently acknowledges that hegemony as a process of power cannot be theorized as a static entity; these systems and meanings are constantly changing. Therefore a lived hegemony is always a process contingent on factors mainly concerning the economic realities of the people they affect. The reality of any hegemony is that while by definition it is always dominant, it is never either total or exclusive. Deconstructing and appropriating Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is necessary in order to understand how the education community can become a formidable force in upending neoliberal practices within schools. Gramsci’s hegemony allows us to focus not only on the actions of the elite, but also on the myriad ways that the marginalized unwittingly concede to the neoliberal agenda.

Hegemony bridges the gap within Marxist theory between the economic relations of production and the revolutionary rise of proletariat consciousness, which is supposed to arise from its historical development. In other words, Marxist theory contends that the proletariat will become a formidable force from simply acknowledging their subjugation as a lower economic class. Such interpretations do not view power as ever-shifting, mutable relationships depending on the context. It is a top-down understanding of power that does not leave room for the subordinate class to see how their economic interests —however slightly— are being constantly contended.

Counter-hegemony and Common Sense

Is it common for individuals to write on the street? How does the common become uncommon? And in what context?

Gramsci (1971) maintained that man is a product of history and not nature; we therefore have the power to alter our fate. As products of history, Gramsci believed that if an idea is shared by enough people it becomes a material force (Crehan, 2002). Gramsci’s ultimate goal was to help awaken one’s consciousness to realize the hegemonic forces shaping reality in order to alter it or create counter hegemony. How is this to be done?

Creating counter hegemony involves creating a new consciousness. For Gramsci, a man has two consciousnesses: one that unites him with his fellow workers and one that is inherited from the past. We therefore need to ask ourselves: what is the consciousness that unites members of the educational community, and what is the past that is inherited? In order to answer these questions, we (the educational community) must recognize ourselves as a marginalized class. According to Gramsci, subaltern culture emerges from the group being “historically on the defensive” (Crehan, 2002, p. 100). Yet what does he mean by defensive, if the subaltern class is consenting to hegemonic forces? Raymond Williams (1997) offers his take:

Gramsci’s emphasis on the creation of an alternative hegemony, by the practical connection of many different forms of struggles, including those not easily recognizable as and indeed not primarily ‘political’ and ‘economic,’ thus leads to a much more profound and more active sense of revolutionary activity in a highly developed society than the persistently abstract models derived from very different historical situations (pgs. 110-111).

Williams expounds on Gramsci’s idea of class formation by making the process more inclusive of different forms of struggle. He encourages us to think about those cultural actions not necessarily deemed political or economic. Williams’ words do enable one to consider the role of culture in creating a formidable class. The subaltern class has to be created; and this creation is contingent on creating a particular culture. Gramsci viewed culture as thought in action, in which the major features are exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas and habit of connecting causes and effects (Crehan, 2002). All human beings are cultured with regard to Gramsci’s definition; we all have the capacity to understand our place in society. This capacity is strengthened by intelligent reflection guided by intellectuals. It therefore is not their economic and political positionality that automatically aligns them with a particular class, but the type of reflection processes and intellectual engagement in which they engage.

A subordinate class has the potential energy to realize itself as a historical force through intelligent reflection. Gramsci believed that this potential energy is stifled by a class’s level of saturation with common sense. Gramsci asserted that the principal elements of common sense are provided by religion, and consequently the relationship between the two forces is much more intimate than that between common sense and the philosophical system of the intellectuals (Crehan, 2002). As a Marxist, Gramsci was not a religious man; the connection he sees between religion and common sense can therefore be considered a negative. However, Gramsci believed that common sense or popular knowledge can have great utility in organizing and unifying class formation. Instead of completely eschewing religious practices that are internalized by the masses, he encourages intellectuals to know what other conceptions of the world and of life are active in the intellectual and moral formation of people, in order to uproot them.

Engaging with and critically analyzing folklore is central to understanding the common sense absorbed by the subaltern, for only then will intellectuals be able to supplant common sense with good sense. Gramsci reminds us that this intellectual endeavor is the result of intelligent reflection first by a few people and then by a whole class. These few people examine why certain conditions exist and how to best convert the facts into signals of rebellion (Crehan, 2002). Again, Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony nicely outlines the task of the intellectual, who must reinvigorate an intellectual and political imagination amidst the clever neoliberal common sense that saturates the minds of the subaltern. This task also involves elucidating the challenges and opportunities for political change and the task of political leadership to achieve the necessary unity —an alliance between different factions of the working classes and with other marginalized groups— through strategic action (Gidwani, 2008). Identifying the strategic steps that need to be taken requires an acute understanding of common sense in a world that is very different from the one Gramsci once penned.

The role of the intellectual is generally understood to be the exclusive territory of the academic. However this role must be extended to the members of the educational community if counter hegemony is to be actualized:

Each man, finally outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher,’ an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought (Grasmci, 1971, p. 9).

Gramsci reminds us that within each individual lies an intellectual capacity and power to create new thought and manifest change. The elderly man with chalk exemplifies this intellectual power Gramsci imagines. Perhaps it is time that we too begin writing on the sidewalk with chalk.

Good Sense and Modernity

People in Gramsci’s world did not have the advantage of being able to access all types of information that we enjoy today. Perhaps the limited access to information in Gramsci’s world compelled him to overvalue the role of intellectuals and undervalue the role of non-intellectuals in creating change. Arjun Appadurai (1996) believes that the consumption of mass media throughout the world often provokes resistance, irony, selectivity and agency among the masses. The role of the intellectual in inciting change does not have to be limited to being a full-blown revolutionary in the romantic sense. Appaduarai’s theory of imagination and rupture expands on the possibility of change that Gramsci envisioned for the subaltern classes.

Acknowledging the impact of media and migration today forces us to reformulate how one can engage on supplanting common sense with good sense. For Gramsci, common sense occupies a position between folklore and knowledge produced by specialists (Crehan, 2002). Good sense incorporates elements of the common, but focuses on making more informed judgments on the way that the world operates in terms of economic relations. These “informational specialists” are the organic intellectuals Gramsci believes will drive the revolution. But today, everyone has the ability to produce special information; Youtube and Facebook, for example, have blurred the lines of what counts as notable news and ideas. Therefore, if we contemporize Gramsci’s idea, do we need super specialists or intellectuals? Fusing Gramsci with Appardurai means yes.

Neil Smith (2010) asserted that the biggest threat of neoliberalism has been the death of the political imagination. Gramsci (1971) also acknowledged that common sense ideologies have hindered the individual’s ability to imagine a more just society. Appadurai (1996) challenges both of these notions by affirming that ordinary people have begun to deploy their imaginations in the practice of everyday lives. The imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work and negotiation between sites of agency and globally defined fields of possibility. The capabilities of the imagination are strengthened by the technologies available today. The super intellectual must utilize these technologies to spread good revolutionary sense among the masses.

Appadurai (1996) outlines the ways that technologies have influenced new subjectivities and consequently the capabilities of the imagination through his five dimensions of global cultural flows: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscape, finanscape and ideoscape. He refers to these scapes as imagined worlds that are enhanced through technological means. The utility in Appadurai’s framework lies in its acknowledgment that locality is not determined by spatial or economic relations, but more by the technologies of interactivity and relativity of contexts. Gramsci’s aspiration for the subaltern class to unite does not have to be limited by spatial or scalar dimensions but can be connected to other worldwide struggles in education. The educational community becomes more dynamic and inclusive when one considers Appadurai’s insight.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony encourages us to look for the seeds of revolution from within the spectrum of force and consent. Appadurai’s acknowledgement of the utility of the imagination allows us to reconsider the role of mass consumption and media. Technologies when not viewed as the answer to structural inequalities are the way to actualize the formation of the subaltern class. Appadurai (1996) calls this a community of sentiment —one that begins to imagine and feel together. Critical scholars have taken heed to the potential of media to spread good sense and incite transformative action. The Black Lives Matter movement is a testimony to the power of technology to unite individuals globally. The challenge is to build upon these acts of neoliberal transgression and apply them to urban education.

Framing the Urban Between Your/Our/My Ears

My goal in exploring the urban between your ears is to create a space for reflecting on the ways in which neoliberalism has become common sense, how the educational community participates in the co-construction of this common sense and how we can potentially subvert this system by being aware of the hegemonic process. As an aspiring academic, I’m fortunate to partake in discourse that exposes the hegemonic process, allowing me to recognize points of deviation whether on the sidewalk or in the classroom. I realize academia creates the space to explore the urban between my ears and think through ways to overcome the challenges of developing good sense. However, my daily work in schools as an instructional coach has reaffirmed my belief that this space for reflection needs to also take place among teachers and students, members of the educational community who live this reality. I now believe my task is to not only contribute to the academic space, but to also facilitate a reflective process for teachers and students to understand hegemony. Activist organizations like NYCORE have done tremendous work in exposing the workings of neoliberalism to the education community, but most of this work takes place outside of the school day. Building upon their cause requires that dialogue concerning the urban between our ears takes place during the school day.

Gramsci, Harvey, and Appadurai would all agree that the elderly man with chalk is a disruption in the system, that his actions represent a break in our common understandings of education. His imaginative capabilities are the seeds of thinking otherwise, a step in any revolutionary movement. Engaging these theorists has allowed me to begin to theorize the urban between my ears. For now, I know that understanding the hegemonic process, technology and our senses are part of this framework. This is just the beginning of understanding how we can shift our imagination to actualize change.


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