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EDUCATION, POLITICS, AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
MICHAEL W. APPLE
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MADISON
I began writing this chapter soon after my return from giving an address at an
international conference in Cuba. As many of you will know, it is not easy for US citizens to go
to Cuba. Special licenses are required. Permission is only given if the person has a “legitimate”
purpose for going. And in the case of academic lectures at conferences, permission is only given
if the conference is not sponsored by the Cuban government.
During the time I was in Havana, the United States tightened these regulations even more
to make it even harder for Cuban-Americans to send money to, or even to visit, relatives living in
Cuba. This was on top of over forty years of economic and cultural/political blockade.
I am decidedly not in favor of these policies, which seem to me and many others to be
deeply flawed. However, my interest here is not in such policies, but in my address at the
conference itself. I began my address with a statement of political and educational solidarity
with the people in the audience—most of whom were educators—and with the large number of
countries they represented. I distanced myself from a number of the international economic and
cultural policies advocated by the United States. I then critically discussed in much greater detail
the problems with two major emphases in education internationally: 1) neo-liberal educational
reforms, such as the immense pressure toward marketization and privatization like vouchers and
the growth of for-profit schools; and 2) neo-conservative policies involving the push for ever-
increasing national standards, national curricula, and (increasingly high stakes) national testing.
Finally, I stated that these were not only dangerous tendencies (see, for example, Apple 2006;
Apple, et al. 2003), but they were very simplistic. There were alternatives to the policies and
practices of what I called “conservative modernization.” I pointed to the schools represented in
Democratic Schools (Apple and Beane 1995; Apple and Beane 2007), in the work of educators
associated with the progressive educational journal Rethinking Schools, and in the Citizen School
and participatory budgeting movements in Porto Alegre, Brazil (Apple et al. 2003; Apple and
As with any speaker, I was heartened by the fact that the large international audience
greeted my address with applause. I looked forward to some serious discussions with the
participants over the course of the conference. This did occur. But so did something else.
Immediately after my address, a person came up to me. He was visibly agitated and
literally stuck his nose into my face and yelled at me. “Dr. Apple, you are a creep and a disgrace
to the American flag!” He was an official from a school system in Florida, someone who saw
my arguments and criticisms as unpatriotic. Perhaps he was also personally threatened by my
public worries about the move toward vouchers in his own state, about the move toward
conservative definitions of “common culture” in the curriculum and the growing over-emphasis
on reductive forms of testing, and about the concerns I had about the increasing influence of
ultra-conservative religious movements on schooling in the United States organized around
people who believe that God only speaks to them. But whatever his motivations, his attack says
something about the ways in which some “Americans” equate a lack of substantive criticism as
patriotic and define critical sensibilities in general as outside the boundaries of legitimate
Yet in my mind, when a nation and its government and major institutions do not deliver
on their promises and on the sets of values they officially profess in education and elsewhere,
then substantive criticism is the ultimate act of patriotism. Such criticism says that “We are not
just passing through. This is our country and our institutions as well, built by the labor of
millions of people such as ourselves. We take the values in our founding documents seriously
and demand that you do so too.”
Of course, the arguments I’ve been making in this chapter are quite political. But that is
the point. Over the past three decades, I have argued that education must be seen as a political
act. I’ve suggested that in order to do this, we need to think relationally. That is, understanding
education requires that we situate it back into both the unequal relations of power in the larger
society and into the relations of dominance and subordination–and the conflicts--that are
generated by these relations. Thus, rather than simply asking whether students have mastered a
particular subject matter and have done well on our all too common tests, we should ask a
different set of questions: Whose knowledge is this? How did it become “official”? What is the
relationship between this knowledge and who has cultural, social, and economic capital in this
society? Who benefits from these definitions of legitimate knowledge and who does not? What
can we do as critical educators and activists to change existing educational and social inequalities
and to create curricula and teaching that are more socially just (Apple 2000; Apple 1996; Apple
and Beane 1995; Apple and Beane 2007)?
These are complicated questions and they often require complicated answers. However,
there is now a long tradition of asking and answering these kinds of critical challenges to the
ways education is currently being carried on, a tradition that has grown considerably since the
time when I first raised these issues in Ideology and Curriculum (Apple 1979; see also the new
edition, Apple 2004).
BIOGRAPHY AND POLITICS IN EDUCATION
How did I come to this position? One of the benefits of chapters such as these is that
they cause authors to reflect back on what the roots of their critical social, economic, and
educational concerns were. It’s almost impossible to isolate individual causes. Was the critical
stance I’ve taken and helped to build due to my growing up poor in a poor neighborhood in a
decaying old industrial city? Being raised in a deeply committed family where my parents may
have been poor but also were anti-racist and anti-corporate activists? Being very active
politically myself as a teenager? Did the time I spent while still in high school as the publicity
director of one of the first chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality radicalize me even more?
What effect did my experience in the Army in the early 1960s have? What of the time I spent
working as a printer–historically one of the most politically radical crafts–while I went to school
at night for my undergraduate degree at a small state teachers college? And did the time I spent
as a teacher in urban and rural schools, as president of a teachers union, and then the years I
spent as a graduate student at Columbia University during a time of major campus unrest and
protests play significant roles?
Take the following experience from my years immediately before and then at Columbia.
Having gone to some of the poorest schools in the nation and then on to night school at that
small teachers college, I was used to, but also repulsed by, the ways in which children from poor
and working class homes were treated. The material I was taught in night school ratified these
visions of poor and working class students as “not quite worthy.” It was always labeled
something like “History for Teachers” or Mathematics for Teachers” or “Science for Teachers.”
You get the idea I’m sure. It was watered down content, with an expectation that all anyone
needed to be a teacher of poor children and children of color was simply enough to get by. The
standardized textbooks would do the rest. This was demeaning and caused me no small amount
Attending Teachers College at Columbia University after teaching for five years was a
very different experience to say the least. There was an expectation that in order to be the best
you had to read what seemed to be everything both inside and outside of education. Studying
with Dwayne Huebner and Jonas Soltis—Dwayne was a critical phenomenologist, critical
curriculum scholar, and religious educator and Jonas was an analytic philosopher—meant that it
was assumed that if I was good enough to be at “TC” I was good enough to deal with some of
the most complex political, historical, theoretical, empirical, policy related, and practical material
available. I had learned to act against imposed curricula before coming to Columbia and there
were incidents of collective “rebellion” among myself and other graduate students there. But,
there can be no doubt that the experience of immersing oneself in the intellectually intense
pressure cooker and highly politicized environment that then was TC was deeply formative. The
fact that it was basically in Harlem and seemed to largely ignore its location and the social
responsibilities that this entailed made me and many others have a love/hate relationship with its
history, status, and odd combination of self-importance and seriousness. But it did leave a
lasting impression about what it takes to treat educational issues with the seriousness they
deserve. Discussions about education could never be the equivalent of conversations about the
What of later experiences? Does the fact that I am the father of a Black child mean that I
am more responsive to arguments about the constitutive nature of racism in this society? What
role did my arrest in South Korea for speaking out against the repressive military government
that was in place there play in my continued commitment to speak out publicly against
oppression? What about the repeated experiences I have had in other nations working with
All of these things and more would need to be considered, of course. People’s lives are
complicated and I am no different in this regard. However, in thinking about what specifically
caused these radical critiques to focus on education, a number of quite specific things come to
mind. Let me relate the story of one of my strongest memories from the time that I was teaching
in inner city schools in the neighborhood and city in which I too was brought up.
REMEMBERING REAL SCHOOLS AND REAL CHILDREN
Joseph sobbed at my desk. He was a tough kid, a hard case, someone who often made
life difficult for his teachers. He was all of nine years old and here he was sobbing, holding on to
me in public. He had been in my fourth grade class all year, a classroom situated in a decaying
building in an east coast city that was among the most impoverished in the nation. There were
times when I wondered, seriously, whether I would make it through that year. There were many
Josephs in that classroom and I was constantly drained by the demands, the bureaucratic rules,
the daily lessons that bounced off of the kids’ armor. Yet somehow it was satisfying,
compelling, and important, even though the prescribed curriculum and the textbooks that were
meant to teach it were often beside the point. They were boring to the kids and boring to me.
I should have realized the first day what it would be like when I opened that city's
"Getting Started" suggested lessons for the first few days and it began with the suggestion that
"as a new teacher" I should circle the students’ desks and have them introduce each other and tell
something about themselves. It's not that I was against this activity; it's just that I didn't have
enough unbroken desks (or even chairs) for all of the students. A number of the kids had
nowhere to sit. This was my first lesson--but certainly not my last--in understanding that the
curriculum and those who planned it lived in an unreal world, a world fundamentally
disconnected from my life with those children in that inner city classroom.
But here's Joseph. He's still crying. I've worked extremely hard with him all year long.
We've eaten lunch together; we've read stories; we've gotten to know each other. There are times
when he drives me to despair and other times when I find him to be among the most sensitive
children in my class. I just can't give up on this kid. He's just received his report card and it says
that he is to repeat fourth grade. The school system has a policy that states that failure in any
two subjects (including the "behavior" side of the report card) requires that the student be left
back. Joseph was failing "gym" and arithmetic. Even though he had shown improvement, he
had trouble keeping awake during arithmetic, had done poorly on the mandatory city-wide tests,
and hated gym. One of his parents worked a late shift and Joseph would often stay up, hoping to
spend some time with her. And the things that students were asked to do in gym were, to him,
The thing is, he had made real progress during the year. But I was instructed to keep him
back. I knew that things would be worse next year. There would still not be enough desks. The
poverty in that community would still be horrible; and health care and sufficient funding for job
training and other services would be diminished. I knew that the jobs that were available in this
former mill town paid deplorable wages and that even with both of his parents working for pay,
Joseph's family income was simply insufficient. I also knew that, given all that I already had to
do each day in that classroom and each night at home in preparation for the next day, it would be
nearly impossible for me to work any harder than I had already done with Joseph. And there
were another 5 children in that class whom I was supposed to leave back.
So Joseph sobbed. Both he and I understood what this meant. There would be no
additional help for me--or for children such as Joseph--next year. The promises would remain
simply rhetorical. Words would be thrown at the problems. Teachers and parents and children
would be blamed. But the school system would look like it believed in and enforced higher
standards. The structuring of economic and political power in that community and that state
would again go on as “business as usual.”
The next year Joseph basically stopped trying. The last time I heard anything about him
was that he was in prison.
This story is not apocryphal. While the incident took place a while ago, the conditions in
that community and that school are much worse today. And the intense pressure that teachers,
administrators, and local communities are under is also considerably worse (Kozol 1991; Lipman
2004). It reminds me of why I mistrust our incessant focus on standards, increased testing,
marketization and vouchers, and other kinds of educational "reforms" which may sound good in
the abstract, but which often work in exactly the opposite ways when they reach the level of the
classroom (see Lipman 2004; McNeil 2000). It is exactly this sensibility of the contradictions
between proposals for reform and the realities and complexities of education on the ground that
provides one of the major reasons I have taken the positions I have during my career. I want to
say more about this in the next section of this chapter.
THE POLITICS OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM
Throughout my books, I have demonstrated that policies often have strikingly unforeseen
consequences. Reforms that are instituted with good intentions may have hidden effects that are
more than a little problematic. I have shown that the effects of some of the favorite reforms of
neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, for instance--voucher plans, national or state-wide curricula,
and national or state-wide testing can serve as examples--quite often reproduce or even worsen
inequalities. Thus, we should be very cautious about accepting what may seem to be meritorious
intentions at face value. Intentions are too often contradicted by how reforms may function in
practice. This is true not only for large scale transformations of educational policies and
governance, but also about moves to change the ways curriculum and teaching go on in schools.
The framework I have employed to understand this is grounded in what in cultural theory
is called the act of repositioning. It in essence says that the best way to understand what any set
of institutions, policies, and practices does is to see it from the standpoint of those who have the
least power. Growing up poor myself made this almost a “natural” perspective for me to take.
That is, every institution, policy, and practice–and especially those that now dominate education
and the larger society–establish relations of power in which some voices are heard and some are
not. While it is not preordained that those voices that will be heard most clearly are also those
who have the most economic, cultural, and social capital, it is most likely that this will be the
case. After all, we do not exist on a level playing field. Many economic, social, and educational
policies when actually put in place tend to benefit those who already have advantages (Apple
These points may seem overly rhetorical and too abstract, but unfortunately there is no
small amount of truth in them. For example, in a time when all too much of the discourse around
educational reform is focused on vouchers and choice plans on the one hand and on proposals for
national or state curricula, standards, and testing on the other, as I have shown in a number of
volumes (Apple 1995, 1996; 2000; 2006; Apple et al. 2003), there is a good deal of international
evidence now that such policies may actually reproduce or even worsen class, gender, and race
inequalities. Thus, existing structures of economic and cultural power often lead to a situation in
which what may have started out in some educators’ or legislators’ minds as an attempt to make
things better, in the end is all too usually transformed into another set of mechanisms for social
While much of this is due to the ways in which race, gender, class, and “ability” act as
structural realities in this society and to how we fund (and don’t fund) schools, some of it is
related to the hesitancy of policy makers to take seriously enough the complicated ways in which
education is itself a political act. These very politics and the structurally generated inequalities
that stand behind them provide much of the substance underpinning the organizational principles
of my work.
A key word in my discussion above is reform. This concept is what might be called a
“sliding signifier.” That is, it has no essential meaning and, like a glass, can be filled with
multiple things. As Wittgenstein (1953) reminded us, it is always wise not to accept the meaning
of a concept at face value. Instead, one must contextualize it. The meaning is in its use. Let us
look at this in a bit more detail.
The language of educational reform is always interesting. It consistently paints a picture
that what is going in schools now needs fixing, is outmoded, inefficient, or simply “bad.”
Reforms will fix it. They will make things “better.” Over the past decades certain language
systems in particular have been mobilized. Not only will specific reforms make things better,
they will make schools more democratic. Of course, the word democracy is one of the best
examples of a sliding signifier. It carries with it an entire history of conflicts over its very
meaning (Foner 1998). Like reform, democracy doesn’t carry an essential meaning emblazoned
on its head so to speak. Instead it is one of the most contested words in the English language.
Indeed, one of the major tactics of dominant groups historically and currently is to cement
particular meanings of democracy into public discourse. Thus, under current neo-liberal policies
in education and elsewhere, there are consistent attempts to redefine democracy as simply
consumer choice. Here democracy is not a collective project of building and rebuilding our
public institutions. It becomes simply a matter of placing everything that was once public onto a
market. Collective justice will somehow take care of itself as the market works its wonders.
As Mary Lee Smith and her colleagues have recently demonstrated in their powerful
analysis of a number of educational reforms, the nice sounding and “democratic” language used
to promote reforms is often totally at odds with the actual functioning of these reforms in real
schools in real communities (Smith, et al. 2003). A significant number of things that were
advertised (and that is often the appropriate word) as making schools more responsive and
“better” (increased testing and parental choice through marketization may serve as examples)
may have exacerbated problems of inequality. (Think of Joseph and what happened to him in an
earlier round of increased testing and “raising standards.”)
One of the reasons this is the case is because the formation of a good deal of educational
policy is actually a form of “symbolic politics,” basically a kind of theater (Smith, et al. 2003).
This is not to claim that policy makers are acting in bad faith. Rather, because of the distribution
(or not) of resources, tragic levels of impoverishment, the ways policies are implemented (or
not), and the cleverness of economically and cultural dominant groups in using reforms for their
own advantage, the patterns of benefits are not anywhere near the supposedly democratic ends
envisioned by some of their well-meaning proponents. (Some reforms as well may simply be the
result of cynical manipulation of the public for electoral advantage; but that’s a topic for another
UNDERSTANDING CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN EDUCATION
The arguments I made above are related to a particular claim I’ve made. I’ve spent a
good deal of time showing that it is social movements, not educators, who are the real engines of
educational transformations. And the social movements that are the most powerful now are
more than a little conservative.
Over the past decade, I have been engaged in a concerted effort to analyze the reasons
behind the rightist resurgence–what I call “conservative modernization”--in education and to try
to find spaces for interrupting it (See Apple 2006; 2000; 1996; Apple and Buras 2006). My aim
has not simply been to castigate the Right, although there is a bit of fun in doing so. Rather, I
have also sought to illuminate the dangers, and the elements of good sense, not only bad sense,
that are found within what is an identifiable and powerful new “hegemonic bloc” (that is, a
powerful set of groups that provides overall leadership to and pressure on what the basic goals
and policies of a society are). This new rightist alliance is made up of various factions--neo-
liberals, neo-conservatives, authoritarian populist religious conservatives, and some members of
the professional and managerial new middle class. These are complicated groups, but let me
describe them briefly.
This power bloc combines multiple fractions of capital who are committed to neo-liberal
marketized solutions to educational problems, neo-conservative intellectuals who want a “return”
to higher standards and a “common culture,” authoritarian populist religious fundamentalists
who are deeply worried about secularity and the preservation of their own traditions, and
particular fractions of the professionally oriented new middle class who are committed to the
ideology and techniques of accountability, measurement, and “management.” While there are
clear tensions and conflicts within this alliance, in general its overall aims are in providing the
educational conditions believed necessary both for increasing international competitiveness,
profit, and discipline and for returning us to a romanticized past of the “ideal” home, family, and
school (Apple, 2000; Apple, 1996).
I have had a number of reasons for focusing on the alliance behind conservative
modernization. First, these groups are indeed powerful, as any honest analysis of what is
happening in education and the larger society clearly indicates. Second, they are quite talented
in connecting to people who might ordinarily disagree with them. For this reason, I have shown
in a number of places that people who find certain elements of conservative modernization
relevant to their lives are not puppets. They are not dupes who have little understanding of the
“real” relations of this society. This smacks of earlier reductive analyses within the critical
tradition that were based in ideas of “false consciousness.”
My position is very different. I maintain that the reason that some of the arguments
coming from the various factions of this new hegemonic bloc are listened to is because they are
connected to aspects of the realities that people experience (Apple 1996; Apple and Pedroni in
press). The tense alliance of neo-liberals, neo-conservatives, authoritarian populist religious
activists, and the professional and managerial new middle class only works because there has
been a very creative articulation of themes that resonate deeply with the experiences, fears,
hopes, and dreams of people as they go about their daily lives. The Right has often been more
than a little manipulative in its articulation of these themes. It has integrated them within racist
nativist discourses, within economically dominant forms of understanding, and within a
problematic sense of “tradition.” But, this integration could only occur if they were organized
around people’s understanding of their real material and cultural lives.
The second reason I have stressed the tension between good and bad sense and the ability
of dominant groups to connect to people’s real understandings of their lives–aside from my
profound respect for Antonio Gramsci’s writings about this (Gramsci 1968, 1971)–has to do with
my belief that we have witnessed a major educational accomplishment over the past three
decades in many countries. All too often, we assume that educational and cultural struggles are
epiphenomenal. The real battles occur in the paid workplace---the “economy.” Not only is this a
strikingly reductive sense of what the economy is (its focus on paid, not unpaid, work; its neglect
of the fact that, say, cultural institutions such as schools are also places where paid work goes on,
etc.) (Apple, 1986), it also ignores what the Right has actually done. Conservative
modernization has radically reshaped the commonsense of society. It has worked in every
sphere--the economic, the political, and the cultural–to alter the basic categories we use to
evaluate our institutions and our public and private lives. It has established new identities. It has
recognized that to win in the state, you must win in civil society. That is, you need to work at the
level of people’s daily experiences, not only in government policies. The accomplishment of
such a vast educational project has many implications. It shows how important cultural struggles
are. And, oddly enough, it gives reason for hope. It forces us to ask a significant question. If
the right can do this, why can’t we?
I do not mean this as a rhetorical question. As I have argued repeatedly in my own work,
the Right has shown how powerful the struggle over meaning and identity—and hence, schools,
curricula, teaching, and evaluation--can be. While we should not want to emulate their often
cynical and manipulative processes, the fact that they have had such success in pulling people
under their ideological umbrella has much to teach us. Granted there are real differences in
money and power between the forces of conservative modernization and those whose lives are
being tragically altered by the policies and practices coming from the alliance. But, the Right
wasn’t as powerful thirty years ago as it is now. It collectively organized. It created a
decentered unity, one where each element sacrificed some of its particular agenda to push
forward on those areas that bound them together. Can’t we do the same?
I believe that we can, but only if we face up to the realities and dynamics of power in
unromantic ways. And this means not only critically analyzing the rightist agendas and the
effects of their increasingly mistaken and arrogant policies, but engaging in some serious
criticism of some elements within the progressive and critical educational communities as well.
Thus, as I argued in Educating the “Right” Way (Apple 2006), the romantic possibilitarian
rhetoric of some of the writers on critical pedagogy is not sufficiently based on a tactical or
strategic analysis of the current situation nor is it sufficiently grounded in its understanding of
the reconstructions of discourse and movements that are occurring in all too many places. Here I
follow Cameron McCarthy, who wisely reminds us, “We must think possibility within
constraint; that is the condition of our time” (McCarthy, 2000).
We need to remember that cultural and educational struggles are not epiphenomenal.
They count, and they count in institutions throughout society. In order for dominant groups to
exercise leadership, large numbers of people must be convinced that the maps of reality
circulated by those with the most economic, political, and cultural power are indeed wiser than
other alternatives. Dominant groups do this by attaching these maps to the elements of good
sense that people have and by changing the very meaning of the key concepts and their
accompanying structures of feeling that provide the centers of gravity for our hopes, fears, and
dreams about this society. The Right has been much more successful in doing this than the left,
in part because it has been able to craft–through hard and lengthy economic, political, and
cultural efforts–a tense but still successful alliance that has shifted the major debates over
education and economic and social policy onto its own terrain. And the sometimes mostly
rhetorical material of critical pedagogy simply is unable to cope with this. Only when it is linked
much more to concrete issues of educational policy and practice—and to the daily lives of
educators, students, and community members—can it succeed. This, of course, is why journals
such as Rethinking Schools and books such as Democratic Schools (Apple and Beane 1995;
Apple and Beane 2007) that connect critical educational theories and approaches to the actual
ways in which they can be and are present in real classrooms become so important. Thus, while
I may have been one of the originators of critical theory and critical pedagogy in the United
States, I also have been one of its internal critics when it has forgotten what it is meant to do and
has sometimes become simply an academic specialization at universities.
The story of how the book I mentioned above, Democratic Schools (Apple and Beane
1995; Apple and Beane 2007), came about may be a good way of showing what I mean here.
Along with people such as Alex Molnar and others, I’ve argued that it is essential that critical
educators not ignore the question of practice. That is, we must find ways of speaking to (and
learning from) people who now labor everyday in schools in worsening conditions which are
made even worse by the merciless attacks from the Right. This means that rather than ignore
“mainstream” organizations and publications, it’s important to occupy the spaces provided by
existing "mainstream" publication outlets to publish books that provide critical answers to
teachers' questions about "What do I do on Monday?" during a conservative era. As I hinted at
earlier, this space has too long been ignored by many theorists of critical pedagogy.
This is where Democratic Schools enters as an important success. One very large
"professional" organization in the United States--the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development (ASCD)--publishes books that are distributed each year to its more than 150,000
members, most of whom are teachers or administrators in elementary, middle, or secondary
schools. ASCD has not been a very progressive organization, preferring to publish largely
technicist and overtly depoliticized material. Yet it has been concerned that its publications have
not sufficiently represented socially and culturally critical educators. It, thus, has been looking
for ways to increase its legitimacy to a wider range of educators. Because of this legitimacy
problem and because of its large membership, ASCD approached me to write a book about what
critical educational theory had to say to practitioners. Paradoxically, this invitation happened at
exactly the time it had become clearer to me that it was important to convince major
organizations and publishers to publish and widely circulate material that would demonstrate the
actual practical successes of critical models of curriculum, teaching, and evaluation in solving
real problems in schools and communities, especially with working class and poor children and
children of color.
At first I emphatically said “No”—not because I was against such a project, but because I
believed quite strongly that the best people to do such a book would be those practicing critical
teachers and administrators who were now engaged in doing what needed to be done “on
Monday.” In essence, I felt that I should be their secretary, putting together a book based on
their words, struggles, and accomplishments. If ASCD was willing for me to play the role of
secretary, then I would do it. But I had one caveat. It had to be a truly honest book, one in
which these critical educators could tell it as it really was.
After intense negotiations that guaranteed an absence of censorship (which ASCD did try
to engage in when the manuscript was in fact completed), I asked Jim Beane to work with me on
Democratic Schools. Both of us were committed to doing a book that provided clear practical
examples of the power of Freirian and similar critical approaches at work in classrooms and
communities. Democratic Schools was not only distributed to most of the 150,000 members of
the organization, but it has gone on to sell at least an additional 100,000 copies. Thus, nearly
250,000 copies of a volume that tells the practical stories of the largely successful struggles of
critically-oriented educators in real schools are now in the hands of educators who daily face
This is an important intervention. While there is no guarantee that teachers will always
be progressive (nor is there any guarantee that those who are progressive around class and union
issues will be equally progressive around issues of gender, sexuality, and race), many teachers do
have socially and pedagogically critical intuitions. However, they often do not have ways of
putting into these intuitions into practice because they cannot picture them in action in daily
situations. Due to this, critical theoretical and political insights, then, have nowhere to go in
terms of their embodiment in concrete pedagogical situations where the politics of curriculum
and teaching must be enacted. For both Jim and me, this is a tragic absence and strategically
filling it is absolutely essential. Thus, we need to use and expand the spaces in which critical
pedagogical “stories” are made available so that these positions do not remain only on the
theoretical or rhetorical level. The publication and widespread distribution of Democratic
Schools provides one instance of using and expanding such spaces in ways that make critical
educational positions seem actually doable in "ordinary" institutions such as schools and local
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
My understanding of these political and educational issues, of the dangers we now face
and of what can and must be done to deal with them, is grounded not only in my early political
experiences, in the gritty realities of working with children such as Joseph, in the research I’ve
carried out on what schools do and do not do in this society, or in my and Jim’s work with
practicing educators on building more critical and democratic curricula and teaching strategies.
It also has been profoundly affected by the extensive international work in which I have been
fortunate to engage in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. For example, beginning in
the mid-1980s, I began to go to Brazil to work with the Ministry of Education in the southern
city of Porto Alegre and to give both academic and more popular lectures at universities and
teacher union groups. Most of my books had been translated there. Because of this, and because
of similar theoretical and political tendencies in the work coming out of Brazil and my own, I
developed close relationships with many politically active educators there. This also meant that I
developed not only an ongoing relationship with activist educators and researchers in the
Workers Party throughout Brazil, but just as importantly an even closer relationship with the
great Brazilian critical educator Paulo Freire grew as well (see, for example, Freire 1972).
Oddly enough, unlike many critical educators in the United States I actually had not been
strongly influenced by Freire. Let me clarify what I mean here. I had read him during the late
1960s and early 1970s and was impressed. He was articulating a powerful theoretical, political,
and practical vision of emancipatory education. Yet, not only was I hesitant to simply borrow
material that had been developed out of very different circumstances, I already had been formed
by a more indigenous radical educational tradition that had centered around the struggles in
urban and rural communities against an educational system that was clearly reproducing class,
gender, and race divisions. While Freire’s arguments were indeed poetic and powerful, they had
less of an impact on me. Thus, as we became friends over the years, our conversations were less
those of teacher and taught–although I respected him immensely. They were more those of
relative equals who often agreed but sometimes disagreed. For example, I believed that Freire
was much too romantic about the question of content. He seemed too easily to assume that
almost automatically oppressed people would discover what was crucial to know. I wanted
much more attention to be paid to the what of the curriculum. It was only later that I realized
that my ongoing public and private discussions with Freire had indeed had a lasting effect on me.
[As an aside, unlike some others, I decided not to publish a book based on my public
conversations with Freire. I have a rather strong aversion to using well-known figures for career
advancement. And having seen this happen too often within the critical educational community,
I refused to participate in the conversion strategies of converting” social capital” (who you
know) into economic capital (financial and career mobility). These conversations did indeed
serve a pedagogical function both for Paulo and me and for the audience. But it seemed
disingenuous to do what has bothered me about some other people’s actions–using their
affiliations with Paulo for personal advancement.
CAN EDUCATION CHANGE SOCIETY
While my critical work cannot be understood by simply looking at it through other
people’s efforts, it is decidedly true that like Paulo Freire and many others who were more
specifically rooted in the history of critical educational and cultural work in the United States
such as George Counts, Harold Rugg, Miles Horton, W. E. B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, and
others, I have been guided by an abiding concern with the role of education not just in
reproducing dominance, but also in its role in challenging dominance. Thus, one of the major
questions that have served as an unacknowledged backdrop for my and others’ work is simple to
say, but very difficult to answer: “Can education change society?” I need to say something more
about this here.
Of course, this way of wording the question has some serious conceptual, empirical, and
political problems. First, it is important to realize that education is a part of society. It is not
something alien, something that stands outside. Indeed, it is a key set of institutions and a key
set of social and personal relations. It is just as central to a society as shops, businesses,
factories, farms, health care institutions, law firms, and so many other places in which people
and power interact.
But there are other things that make it decidedly not an “outside” institution. Even if one
holds to the orthodox belief that only economic institutions are the core of a society and that
before we can change the schools we need to change the economy, schools are places where
people work. Building maintenance people, teachers, administrators, nurses, social workers,
clerical workers, psychologists, counselors, cooks, crossing guards, teacher aids–all of these
groups of people engage in paid labor in and around the places we call schools. Each of these
kinds of positions has a set of labor relations and class distinctions attached to them. And each is
stratified not only by class, but by race and gender as well.
Thus, teaching is often seen as women’s paid work, as are school nurses and the people
who usually serve the food in the school cafeteria. In many areas these same women who serve
the food are women of color, as are teacher aids in many urban areas. The labor of building
maintenance is usually done by men. School secretaries are most often women. Not only is the
labor process of each different (although there is a significant dynamic of proletarianization and
intensification of teachers’ work (Apple 1986; 1995)—indeed the best description of teaching
I’ve ever heard is from my neighbor, a secondary school teacher who said “Once again I didn’t
have time to even go to the bathroom today!”)--but there are significant differences in pay and
prestige socially attached to each. Thus, it would be very wrong to see schools as other than
“society.” As paid work places, they are integral parts of the economy. As differentiated work
places, they reconstitute (and sometimes challenge) class, gender, and race hierarchies. And as
institutions that have historically served as engines of working class mobility in terms of
employing upwardly mobile college graduates from groups who have often been seen as “not
quite worthy” or even as “despised others” such as people of color, they have played a large role
as arenas in the struggle over class, gender, and race economic advancement. My own history
from poor schools to night school to Columbia documents parts of this struggle. It is the result
of both cooptation (giving poor and working class children a chance to make it as an individual,
but not radically changing the structures that create impoverishment in the first place) and
But it is not just as work places that schools are part of the economy. They are also
places that are increasingly being placed on a market through such things as voucher plans. The
children inside them are increasingly being bought and sold as “captive audiences” for
advertising in “reforms” like Channel One (Apple 2000; Molnar 1996). Interrupting the selling
of schools and children is a form of action that challenges the economy. And this is one of the
reasons I’ve worked with others in community activists throughout the mid-west to get Channel
One out of schools.
So far, I have focused upon the ways in which educational institutions are very much part
of the economy, not things that exist somehow apart from it. But, as I mentioned earlier, this
ignores the ways in which cultural struggles are crucial and, while they are deeply connected to
them, cannot be reduced to economic issues without doing damage to the complexity of real life.
Take the history of African American struggles against a deeply racist society. Schools
have played central roles in the creation of movements for justice in general, but have been
central to the building of larger scale social mobilizations within communities of color. In
essence, rather than being peripheral reflections of larger battles and dynamics, struggles over
schooling–over what should be taught, over the relationship between schools and local
communities, over the very ends and means of the institution itself–have provided a crucible for
the formation of larger social movements toward equality (Hogan 1983; Apple, et al. 2003;
Apple and Buras 2006). These collective movements have transformed our definitions of rights,
of who should have them, and of the role of the government in guaranteeing these rights. Absent
organized, community-wide mobilizations, these transformations would not have occurred
(Fraser 1997; Giugni, McAdam, and Tilly 1999). In cases such as this, education has been and is
a truly powerful arena for building coalitions and movements, one whose social effects can echo
throughout the society.
But this is not all. Education clearly plays a key social role in the formation of identities.
That is, children spend a very large part of their lives inside the buildings we call schools. They
come to grips with authority relations, with the emotional labor both of managing one’s
presentation of self and of being with others who are both the same and different.
Transformations in the content and structure of this key organization have lasting effects on the
dispositions and values that we do and do not act upon, on who we think we are and on who we
think we can become. Here too this is not only an intellectual and political position, but one
based on very intense personal experiences. I have too many memories of the way my son Paul
was treated differently throughout his school career simply because he is African American—
and the truly damaging effects this had both on his sense of self and on his understanding of what
it was possible for him to become.
Yet, schools also are part of the cultural apparatus of society in other ways than building
(positive or negative) identities. They are key mechanisms in determining what is socially
valued as “legitimate knowledge” and what is seen as merely “popular.” In defining what is
legitimate knowledge, they also participate in the process through which particular groups are
granted status and which groups remain unrecognized or minimized. Thus, here too schools are
at the center of struggles over a politics of recognition over race/ethnicity, class, gender,
sexuality, ability, religion, and other important dynamics of power (Fraser 1997; Binder 2002).
These too are spaces for political and educational action.
In the last sentence of the previous section, I made a number of arguments about the
importance of seeing schools as places for action. Yet having said this, I want to be honest about
some of the implications of this argument. Engaging in political/educational action in and
through schools is risky. I mean this in two ways. It can lead to arrogance. I’ve got the correct
answer, the correct ethical and political stance, and don’t have to listen to you. This is a very
real danger, one that has surfaced more than once within the critical educational community.
Political commitment must be countered by humility and an equal commitment to listen carefully
But there’s a second danger. Actually acting on one’s deeply held ethical, political, and
educational commitments to building a education that responds to all of us, one that embodies a
vision of the common good that says that it needs constant criticism and revision to keep it alive,
can be threatening to people with power. Let me return to a personal story that documents this in
my own life, but at the same time shows that victories can still be won (Apple 1999).
In the last few years of my teaching career--after I had spent some time teaching children
such as Joseph in inner city schools and well before I ever dreamed of becoming a "critical
scholar" and well before I had developed the more organized ways of making the arguments
about schools and social transformation found in the previous section--I was an elementary
school teacher in a small and strikingly conservative town in a rural area of a northeastern state.
While there was a middle-class population, most of the town was certainly considerably less
affluent. My own classroom was filled with children who were relatively poor or working class
and also had a number of children whose parents were migrant laborers who worked on local
farms picking crops for extremely low pay and under conditions that can only be described as
inhuman and exploitative. The curriculum and the textbooks (they were one and the same) were
not only completely out of touch with these children's cultures, histories, and daily lives, but they
were simply boring both for me and for the students in that class.
To try to overcome this, we reorganized the curriculum. We wrote and performed plays.
We studied local histories, the relations between food production and the conditions of farm
labor, and the hidden histories of the people who were invisible in their texts but who had lived
in the area. (For example, the town at one time had a small black farming community near it that
had been a stop on the Underground Railroad where escaped slaves had been safely housed as
they made their way to the industrial cities in the northern part of the state.) We interviewed
parents, grandparents, and others about their lives and histories there and elsewhere. These were
written up into narratives. The texts of their lives became the texts of historical study and led to
our going to the local archives to connect the lived versions of historical events with the "official
news" that was published. Histories of racial tensions and racial subjugation were uncovered.
Histories of racial segregation in the local area (which supposedly never happened in such
northern states) were bared. Stories of the uncommon courage of people (black, Chicano/a, and
white), where people collectively and individually stood up to racist movements and policies,
surfaced as well. The students put out an informal mimeographed "newspaper" to tell what they
Much of this was--how can I put this kindly?—“unsettling” to some people. The local
Chamber of Commerce felt that these kinds of topics were “not appropriate for young minds”
(the students in my class were 12 and 13 years old), but also that the kinds of things being
publicly brought up would put the town “in a bad light.” This could be “bad for business.” A
local fundamentalist minister who believed that the Bible clearly showed that “God had made the
white race superior” led a small but very vocal group that added to the criticism of what they felt
were "radical" and "unchristian" methods. [It may be that the later work I did on the growing
influence of conservative evangelical movements in education had their roots here (See Apple
2006; 2003).] Either I was to stop doing this or pressure would be put on the school board to
ensure that my contract would not be renewed.
Like many teachers I suppose, I was initially shocked by the hostility of these groups to
what seemed to me and the students to be simply an attempt to create the conditions for a serious
education. But after the initial shock had worn off, I decided that I could not let these attacks go
unchallenged. I spoke at meetings about the racism being exhibited. I publicly demonstrated the
quality of the reading and writing that the students were doing and the open-mindedness with
which they approached their historical research. I showed that the scores the students had
achieved on the standardized tests (yeah, we all have to compromise, don't we?) were actually
higher than before. (Is it so odd that when students are actually engaged in educational work that
seems socially and personally serious to them, they tend to do better at it?)
The students themselves, and their parents, were not silent about these attacks. They
spoke out as well to members of the school board and to other members of the community, often
more than a little eloquently. Colleagues of mine--even those who were more politically and
educationally conservative than I was--lent support. They too knew that what was at stake was
the loss of autonomy in creating curricula and teaching that were in any way critical. Soon,
considerable counter-pressure arose. The conservative ideologues had to back down. But for
years teachers, administrators, and students looked over their shoulders whenever methods or
content got a bit more “creative” than the norm.
I look back on this time with both joy and distress. The students, the parents, and my
colleagues and I had gained--at least temporarily--some important educational space. We had
collectively demonstrated that it was
possible to engage in educational practices that were
personally meaningful, that asked critical questions, that were grounded in a sense of critical
literacy, and that connected the school to a wider community in serious ways. Yet the fact that it
continues to be both professionally and personally risky to engage in this kind of pedagogic
action--and in fact because of the power of the current conservative restoration, may be even
more risky at times now (even at universities, not only at elementary, middle, and secondary
schools)--is not something that is the stuff of joy. But it does remind me constantly of what I
think a significant portion of our work must be about. And it reminds me again of why books
such as Democratic Schools are important to all of us to provide an ongoing sense that it is
possible to make a difference even under the circumstances we face today.
But let us be honest. The personal vignette I’ve just told could be retold by a significant
number of politically active educators at all levels of our school system. And sometimes the
stories do not have such positive endings. I do not want to minimize the nature of what can
happen to educators in a time of conservative attacks that are even worse now than what I
experienced as a teacher in that little town. Nor do I want to speak for others. Let’s face it; it’s
much easier for me to say these things when I’m now a holder of a “distinguished professorship”
at a major and politically progressive university. People must make their own lives and must
make their own decisions based on how much they can risk.
But let us also be honest about something else. We live in a society where everyday
millions of people are denied what should be their rights to respectful employment at a respectful
wage, health care, decent housing, schools that are well-funded and respectful both to the
teachers and students who go to them and to the communities in which they are based, a
respectful treatment of their histories and cultures, and a government that doesn’t lie—and here I
must stop myself because the list gets larger and larger and my anger increases. The risks that
millions of people who live in the United States (and elsewhere) must take everyday to survive,
the dangers they face when they struggle against the oppressive conditions they and their
children face—these risks are real and cannot be simply dealt with rhetorically.
Much more could be said about the structural inequalities of this society, just as much
more could be added about the crucial role that schools can play both as an arena of reproducing
and an arena for critical understanding and action in changing these inequalities. The point of
the combination of “academic” discussion and personal story telling that I’ve done in this chapter
is to remind us why the continuing struggle over schooling--over what is and is not taught, over
how it is taught and evaluated, over how students with different characteristics are treated, over
how teachers and other school employees are respectfully dealt with, over how the relationship
between schools and their communities can be democratized, and so much more—is absolutely
crucial to the pursuit of social justice.
I’ve employed elements of my biography to reflect on these issues. What stories could
you add to my own? In this regard, we can learn relearn something from the forces of
“conservative modernization.” As they constantly have demonstrated, education is an arena that
is more than a little important in transforming society. Struggling in the school is struggling in
society. Thus, the question I noted earlier comes forward again. If they can it, why can’t we?
Let the struggle for social justice continue, even in the face of being labeled as “creeps.”
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I have purposely put the word “Americans” in quotation marks for a specific reason. Perhaps
because I have spent a good deal of time working on democratizing educational policy and
practice throughout Central and South America, it is clear to me these too are “America.” There
is something arrogant about the fact the word American has been taken over by one nation out of
the many more that actually exist in the Americas.
This is not true for some authors, for example Donaldo Macedo and Ira Shor. However, a
number of other critical educators have engaged in actions that seem more than a little self-
promoting when it comes to Freire.