Living in Layers – Part III – Power and Control

As suggested by Bertrand Russell1, the major motivation of most human beings is a striving for power and control in at least some aspect of life. When we examine the layers of a variety of social and institutional structures, the tendency has been to create stratified layers or hierarchies. In India, such layers have manifested over millennia as the caste system. Those at the higher layers have had privilege, power, and access that those in lower layers have not had. Although this structure is slowly breaking down, the stratification persists. In the United States, such a system does not exist explicitly. However, a social stratification that provides privilege and access to power is alive and well. Although we have proclaimed that the United States is the land of opportunity, only a very small number of people, who are not among those in the higher, privileged layers of society, have moved into positions of power.

Moratorium in Washington, DC, 1970

When I was coordinating a Peace Corps Fellows program2 at my university, I attended a Peace Corps Fellows meeting in Washington, DC. At dinner, a Hispanic man of incredible presence started circulating and introducing himself and shaking hands with everyone at our table. After we shook hands, I thought, “this man has to be a politician.” As it turns out, President G. W. Bush had just appointed him as the director of the Peace Corps. Over dinner, he described how he had grown up in a Mexican-American migrant farm worker family. As he began to be disenfranchised by school, a middle school English teacher, whom he did not like, asked him to enter a speech contest. He ended up winning at the national level. This event, he contends, changed his life and led him to pursuing his present course. He had learned the language of power very well. Although he had an engaging presence, with a seemingly soft and permeable outer layer, I felt uncomfortable. After dinner and his speech, I introduced myself again, commended him on his speech, and tried to engage him on a more personal level. His response was at the same time appreciative and distantly cold. Trying to permeate the deeper and more personal layers was met with resistance. I grew up in a working class family, and it is still obvious in the way I speak (even though it is in formal English). Somehow I must give myself away through clues in my manner or in not following the unwritten rules of higher social strata. He picked up on these clues and resisted entry at that level. In positions of power, we seem to establish our own barriers to anything that may threaten that position.

Barriers are systematically established that prevent people of color, those who do not speak proper formal English (i.e., the language of power), and those from working class and lower socio-economic families from moving into positions of power. Such barriers appear in schooling, work environments, recreational situations, social interactions, and everyday activities and business interactions.

In schooling, we increasingly institute “standards” and “standardized tests” to upgrade the education of our children. At the surface, such moves seem to make a lot of sense. Raising standards and developing an approach to accountability seem to provide a vision of extensive intellectual growth in our population. In the same way, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, appeared to be a step in the right direction. However, at deeper levels of analysis, such initiatives may do just the opposite. With the pressure on teachers and principals to raise test scores, the standards no longer become the minimum, but become the maximum. Unless children extend there own learning, they are relegated to a “standard” or mediocre level of knowledge. Such mediocre levels of learning are further entrenched by teachers, who no longer feel that they can risk deviating from the curriculum and teach material that is devoid of relevance and meaning. They teach to the tests, omit material, which can be of great relevance and importance, and teach in ways that do not allow children to develop complex and meaningful understandings. For two years, I worked with groups of elementary teachers on developing their abilities to teach science through inquiry and to help children develop more complex understandings. These teachers were among the best in the local school district. However, what became frighteningly evident was that they did not want to take the risk, to take the time required to teach in ways that truly help children take their learning beyond the standards. The pressure from the upper levels of the schooling hierarchy has established a culture of mediocrity in our schools.

For children from different cultures and with non-English first languages, the situation is compounded even further. Teachers are forced into not taking the additional time needed to help children make connections to their own culture and language. A number of years ago, I had a Chinese graduate student who explored the dynamics of learning a second language in his masters degree thesis. What he found was that the embeddedness of meaning provided difficulties in conveying such meaning in a second language. Even a simple term, such as “park,” had very different meanings for someone from a different culture. Even within English, meanings vary between subcultures and cultures. If I were to say, “Fred is quite smart,” we in the United States would be impressed. However, someone from England would think he wasn’t really very smart at all. When I moved to Canada and bought a new car, the sticker information said that the car would consume gasoline at “six litres per 100 kilometres.” Although I had learned the metric system throughout my schooling (I was always interested in science), I knew what the statement meant, but it had absolutely no meaning for me. Over time on commutes to work, I developed a one step conversion of kilometers per liter to miles per gallon. After filling up, I got 17 liters per kilometer (pretty meaningless to me), but that translated (2.35 times 17) into about 40 miles per gallon. That’s great mileage – it was meaningful. For children learning English as a second language, the meanings contained within the words of their first language may be difficult to translate into English. Yet, meaning has to be addressed in the schooling of children, especially for those from different cultures. Imagine how difficult it is to learn science or how to write in English, when faced with the difficulties of expressing meaning, for which no clearly evident translation is available.

The power from above in schooling and the politics of schooling is creating a disconnected and irrelevant approach to education that is devoid of meaning for those students who are not privileged with opportunities to extend their learning outside of school. The symbols of power move down through the hierarchies of schooling. The federal Department of Education that controls funding based on its policies, each state’s department of education that controls funding and curriculum, the school district superintendent, the principal, and finally the teachers all have particular symbols, mechanisms, and languages of power. Children and parents occupy the lower layers. Each of the upper layers of the hierarchy has mechanisms that regulate contact with those in power. Try calling up or visiting the federal secretary of education or the superintendent of a local school district. The barriers to contact make it difficult. When contact is made a variety of barriers create further separation. The large desk behind which sits the individual with power is symbolic of such barriers. The desk puts us into a social space as opposed to a personal space. The monolithic desk indicates importance and power. A variety of other symbols may further indicate the differential in power, such as, the person’s clothing, the language and mode of communication they use (e.g., patronizing and official tones of voice), and certificates of accomplishment and institutional decorations on the wall.

In other social institutions, the counters and locked entry doors to the examination room areas in doctors’ offices, guards and metal detectors in schools and federal buildings, and a business person whose secretary controls access all create barriers and demarcate situations of power. We live in a hierarchical world that creates visible and invisible, explicit and implicit, overt and covert borders that establish and maintain layers of power and control.

The rigid structures of hierarchies also promote strivings for power, as well as a deferring of power and control to others. At the same time, hierarchies lead to a variety of relational binaries. Relationships between individuals occupying different layers set up dominant-submissive binaries. Relationships among those occupying the same layer are often competitive, where individuals vie for moves to more powerful layers. In both cases, such relationships are likely to result in separation. We set ourselves up for disappointment or disenfranchisement.

On the other hand, holarchic situations tend to distribute power and control among participants in social structures. Competition and subservience tend to be minimized. Relationships in such situations are based upon negotiation and respect for others. In such situations that are based on negotiation, relationships among individuals tend to lead to unification and stability.

Some of the covert approaches to power and control involve what has become known as “spin,” in which a variety of tactics, such as the use of propaganda, logical fallacies, disparaging news media, and playing to people’s emotions, are used to influence public opinion, bend the facts, evade issues, and propagate untruths. Such spin tactics are repetitive or cyclic patterns of brainwashing. During a past election for a seat in a newly created United States congressional district, the Republican candidate pursued an intensive smear tactic campaign against the Democratic candidate. This tactic took partial truths about the Democratic candidate, bought a large amount of TV time, and repeated these statements with great frequency. At the same time, my wife was quite active in the local Democratic party. As a result, I had several opportunities to meet and talk with their candidate. He was not very smooth in the way he presented himself, but appeared to be sincere, passionate, intelligent, and articulate. To me, this was a plus. Maybe I was talking with a real human being? In a small gathering, he explained the contexts of what actually happened in relation to each of the charges mounted by his opponent. One charge was that he stole millions of dollars from his business partners who sued him. That was all of the information provided in the campaign advertisements. Yes, his business partners sued him, but they lost the suit. His business was helping failing businesses turn themselves around. His success rate exceeded 80%. The majority of the voting public never asked questions about the claims. Even very intelligent people with whom I spoke during this time, accepted the claims as truth. As in the old television advertisement with the line “where’s the beef?”, we could ask “where’s the evidence?” Such cyclic spin weaves spheres of partial truths, misinformation, and emotional textures. The sphere as context is not only powerfully persuasive, but an all encompassing influence upon the public.

At an even more subtle levels of influence is the notion of creating contexts based on common assumptions. Noam Chomsky has discussed how most political arguments and critical media coverage serve only to reinforce the political hierarchy’s agenda.3 For example, George W. Bush’s argument for pursuing a war in Iraq was presented as a war on terrorism with implicit suggestions that there were ties between Saddam Hussein (who we helped get into power) and Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden (who we trained militarily). His arguments with the international community for joining in the military effort presented the binary of “you’re either for us or against us.” At the time, very little resistance to this stance was taken within the political structure of the United States. As time went by with the approaching 2004 election, more politicians came out against the war and our continued presence Iraq. Not only was the “for or against us” argument a false dilemma, but it established the foundation of common assumptions. These common assumptions revolved around the whole notion of war. If opponents argued against the war on whatever terms, they served only to reinforce the notions of war as the only tool, of an “us-them” binary, and of the United States as a superior military power. The same tactics have been taken to another level in the Trump administration. All of these assumptions, actions, and arguments occur within the same contextual sphere. However, if politicians and the media were to explore other possibilities based on very different sets of assumptions, we, as citizens, could have a true alternative. For example, we may perceive the world through a different set of lenses and assumptions. Rather than basing our view on an “us-them” binary, we may see “us” as a global community with a vast diversity of views, culture, and concerns. In a functional (as opposed to dysfunctional) community, we approach conflicts in very different ways. We do not pull out a gun and start shooting or start pounding someone else with our fists. We express concerns, try to understand others’ points of views, and negotiate terms for working together. In some cases, such as a work community, an effective “boss” will work with an individual on developing whatever skills or attitudes needed to be an effective participant. If this does not work, he or she may work with the individual in question to decide that they need to resign for their well-being and the well-being of the community. Such approaches hold a sense of shared humanity, where concern for others is paramount. Everyone is connected at some level.

On a global scale, seeing how everything and everyone are connected affects the way we view conflict resolution. Rather than an approach based on aggression or the lack of aggression, which is just the flip-side of the same coin, we can consider a variety of options. What is the problem as conceived of by the “terrorists” (of course, the term “terrorist” itself reinforces an “us-them” binary)? We could start by asking what the “terrorists” call themselves (not “terrorists”). Maybe they think of themselves as the resistance, freedom fighters, or any number of other possibilities. If we try to deconstruct the barrier created by the “us-them” binary, we can begin to develop a variety of other possible strategies to deal with the conflict, all of which can be based on different sets of assumptions. Instead of war or other aggressive action as the major tool for relating to others, we can pursue a variety of other strategies. We can work towards alleviating inequities, establishing relationships based on equal status (i.e., equal views of worth as human beings and cultures), or trying to develop understandings. All such strategies work toward establishing unifying relationships (or binaries) and not as adversarial or dominant-submissive relationships. The underlying assumption of a shared humanity can lead to radically different approaches to relationships, from those between individuals to those between students and teachers to those between races and cultures in our society to those between nations and cultures around the globe.


1 Russell (1969)
2 Peace Corps Fellows Program was a program that placed returning Peace Corps volunteers in Native American reservation schools while they work towards teacher certification.
3 Chomsky (2003)


Chomsky, N. (2003). Chomsky on democracy and education. New York: Routledge.
Russell, B. (1969). Power. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
This entry was posted in Connections, Schooling, Society and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply