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Educational policy analysis archives
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Arizona State University
University of South Florida
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Educational policy analysis archives.
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Review of Michael W. Apple : Cultural politics and education / Dieter Miseld.
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1 of 5 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 4 Number 18December 3, 1996ISSN 1068-2341A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal. Editor: Gene V Glass,Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Educ ation, Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411 Copyright 1996, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy any a rticle provided that EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES is credited and copies are not sold.Review of Michael W. Apple Cultural Politics and Education Dieter Misgeld The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto Abstract: A review of Michael W. Apple's Cultural Politics and Education New York, 1996. Teachers College Press. Columbia University. Apple's book was begun as a text, an "outline" as he says, for the John Dewey Lecture in 1992. It continues themes taken up in previous publ ications and once again profiles a tendency very characteristic of this outstanding educational theorist: to find ways to connect theory with the practice of (progressive) educators and with th e community, to connect (as he says at the end of the book) the "global with the local" (p. 115), and to generally introduce a perspective on education and the schools which links them very cle arly with the larger society, especially the economy, but never loses sight of what is specific to the educational effort itself. Thus students, young people, teachers, neighbourho ods and parents become and remain very real in the pages of this book. This is quite an achievement for a book which otherwise also deals with weighty theoretical matters and includes quite a range of empirical materials as well. Given this range, it is important to mention that t wo chapters out of five have coauthors: Anita Oliver for Chapter Three and Christopher Zenk for C hapter Four. The book critically investigates conservative tendencies in education with specific reference to the most recent and very determined attempts, on the part of neoconservative and neoliberal Movements of the Political "Right" in the United States, to restructure educat ion (as well as other areas of culture) and to remove all those themes and concerns from the educa tional agenda which have been introduced by the movements of the "Cultural Left" in the U.S. by feminism and antiracism, the gay movement, etc.


2 of 5 Apple shows, however, that the fundamental force o f the (neo) conservative/neoliberal push for restructuring education derives from an ol d and deep-seated conviction that the hierarchy of social class in existence in the U.S. needs to be defended, indeed to be made invincible, that class-hierarchy rests upon merit, educational and otherwise, and that competitive market orientations are the decisive factors propel ling society onward. These, say the conservatives, deserve to be recognized as represen ting the sounder side of society. This is why Apple makes a critical discussion of proposals for national curricula, national testing, and marketized "choice" plans a centrepiece of his argu ment (Chapter Two). In Chapter Four, he and Zenk give a systematic rev iew of the "moral" crisis of the U.S. economy and of its implications for schooling and t he schools. The "moral" crisis--if I may call it thus--consists in an increasing gap between rich an d poor, between "people of colour" (apart, perhaps, from those of East-Asian descent) and Euro Americans. It consists in a growing level of child poverty ("one out of every four children u nder the age of six" lives in poverty, p. 74), which puts the U.S. behind other major industrializ ed countries, including Great Britain. It includes other dimensions as well, such as the grow ing rate of incarceration for Black and Latino men, or the growth of low-paying, repetitive work. The authors argue in this chapter that the Politic al "Right" wants to ignore these problems by concentrating on "dropouts" from the school-syst em and youth at risk (p. 90), and even by launching an all-out assault on public schooling, i n favour of substituting for it a system which functions like a market open to consumer choices th rough voucher plans and taxcredits (p. 98), and by a continuous monitoring of teacher and stude nt competencies and learning outcomes, "thereby centralizing even more the control over te aching and curricula" (p. 99). Apple and Zenk complete this picture by drawing attention to the e fforts to reform the curriculum in a strongly neoconservative/neoliberal direction stressing fa mily, free enterprise, patriotism, Christianity, etc., and by "making the needs of business and indu stry into the goals of education" (p. 99). Overall, public schools will be seen (in this pictu re from the "Right") as responsible for the economic crisis, but also, the authors point out, a s the solution, assuming they can be redesigned (p. 68). The authors argue convincingly that this is an imp lausible view. Neither are most economic and social problems due to what does or ma y go wrong in or with the schools, nor is it the case that the schools can make up for the failu re of society to provide meaningful jobs, decent health-care and housing, etc. The arguments given h ere are direct and well-founded, even if they will not convince those committed to the programme of the "Right." Their strength rather lies in the ability of the authors, to draw the attention o f those critical of the programme of the "Right" to the complexity of the situation and to show that questions of larger social and political movements cannot be screened out from educational t heory nor should educational theory and reflection on practice simply be reduced to politic al economy. In addition, Apple in particular notes (in this and in other chapters) that the cons ervative movement is one of the strongest and most transformative of the century and therefore ne eds to be examined with care and diligence, by one's taking seriously its motives and reasons r ather than replying by invoking highly theoretical jargon. (Here an occasional critical as ide against postmodernist/poststructuralist theorizing in education may be noted.) The theme of the strength of the conservative move ment and the investigation of its constitution preoccupy Apple in other chapters as w ell, such as in Chapters Three and Five (conclusion). Chapter Three actually is the most co mpelling and startling one, while Chapter Five has a forthright directness rarely found in academi c writing. Chapter Three examines the emergence of a cohesive neoconservative orientation in a particular school-district. Anita Oliver and Apple want to answer one question: "How does the Right get formed?" (p. 45). They take the position that the new conservative consensus often is built in response to a variety of accidental factor s, and does not simply amount to the execution


3 of 5of a master-plan, down to the particulars of educat ional practice in local settings. The authors thus move away from any conspirational theory of the New Conservativism so common among members of the "Cultural Left" and att empt to show that this movement gives shape to common and popular conceptions of what is going wrong in and with American society. It does not simply exploit these conceptions and se ntiments either. They show that the building of "Right-Wing" consens us is a political process, as would be the building of a "Left-Wing" one. Thus there is no escape from a reflection on particular actions and policies, arguments and initiatives. Oliver and Apple develop their argument by focusing on a controversy regarding the adoption of a text book treating it as an instance of what counts as official knowledge in the schools (here Apple also alludes to a previous book of his). They show that a parental challenge to a particular textbook to be adopted was met by a bureaucratically/managerially preprepared response, meant to hold grass-roots or parental criticism at bay and implying, on the part of the s chool administration and of board-officials, that any such "grass-roots" criticism could only be unen lightened and "Rightwing" anyway. Here the authors have identified a most important step in the emergence of many Right-Wing movements, from European Fascism (Nazism ) to the Anglo-American "New Right": These movements avail themselves of the protest-pot ential to be found among people disappointed by bureaucracy, technocracy, and exper t rule. A political position (and condemnation) is quickly achieved, when these struc tures are associated with the "State" and interpreted to reflect a loss and erosion of commun ity, as happens in the U.S. (more than elsewhere at present). Thus the fear that social so lidarity might be disintegrating, is mobilized and directed toward the constitution of an educatio nal and moral code which is to reestablish social cohesion. It is at this point that "Rightist tendencies may become dangerous and one should not hesitate to once again reflect on Fascis m (and the racism and anti-intellectualism built into it), in order to be forewarned. Apple and Oliv er succeed in showing how a series of errors and a lack of understanding on the part of an insen sitive and powerful administrative apparatus may mobilize and crystallize popular sentiment such that a populist interpretation of state action arises and a well-designed or educationally promisi ng text becomes seen as an undemocratic imposition and misleads people to believe that neoc onservative and (possibly) Christian fundamentalist values are actually democratic and p erhaps more democratic than those represented by well-meaning educational specialists and academics regularly involved in the examination of curricular materials, etc. Apple and Oliver show, in essence, that at bottom the conflict is about democracy and the place of education in democratic development. The q uestion is how an educational project can be defended which helps people accept and learn to be at home in open situations such that they are not afraid of conflict. In the conclusion (Chapter Five), Apple addresses this issue. For him problems of learning in contemporary schools in the U.S. are really "abo ut competing social visions" (p. 97). He mentions as the greatest failing of the neoliberal/ neoconservative reformmovement that it refuses to situate its curricular and other reform proposals in the larger context of "democratic education and a more democratic society" (p. 97). Q uite appropriately Apple discusses how John Dewey still had a conception of such a context and redesigned vocational education on this basis. Apple then proceeds to praise a proposal made by t he Ontario Federation of Labour in Canada which echoes the Deweyan tradition. He thus prepares the reader for his concluding argument that "nonreformist reforms" (p. 107) are t he best course to follow. They are a combination of political and educational approaches taken toward schooling. In the pursuit of "nonreformist reforms" matters of social justice an d of social equality continue to be addressed, often by acting critically upon the daily practical details of classroom situations. But in this approach steps toward reform also remain linked to "a larger social vision and to a larger social movement" (p. 109). It almost goes without saying t hat this argument implies a defense of the


4 of 5 public school in the U.S. I believe that Apple's book (together with his prev ious ones) is very important under present conditions and helps one maintain a perspec tive on educational as well as human and social development which was first articulated by J ohn Dewey and has since then become an American tradition. Those living in other countries such as myself, have been greatly impressed by it. Apple helps us reidentify its contours. This holds true even if he introduces a more strongly political element than was typical of the progressi vist tradition. But this is a requirement of the times, as much as a feature of Apple as an educatio nal theorist. Apple's lectures collected in this book also help one see through the pretentious radicalism of much postmodernist and poststructuralist educati onal criticism which frequently remains unburdened by a concern for the daily detail of lif e in schools. Overall the most important lesson of the book is not to underestimate the force and c oherence of the new conservative attack on the liberal and progressivist educational agenda. At pr esent it matters more to come to terms with this movement as a whole and its power of attractio n than to receive detailed practical instruction on how to respond to it. It is this understanding w hich Apple helps the reader achieve, and in quite a compelling, concrete and comprehensible way .About the AuthorDieter Misgeld Department of Theory and Policy StudiesThe Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of t he University of Toronto OISE: 416-923-6641 x2521 416-926-4725Department of Political Science: 416-978-2846 41 6-978-5566Copyright 1996 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesEPAA can be accessed either by visiting one of its seve ral archived forms or by subscribing to the LISTSERV known as EPAA at (To sub scribe, send an email letter to whose sole contents are SUB EPAA y our-name.) As articles are published by the Archives they are sent immediately to the EPAA subscribers and simultaneously archived in three forms. Articles are archived on EPAA as individual files under the name of the author a nd the Volume and article number. For example, the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Archives can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@a and making the single line in the letter rea d GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to INDEX EPAA F=MAIL, tha t is, send an e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EPAA F=MAIL.The World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is To receive a publication guide for submitting artic les, see the EPAA World Wide Web site or send an e-mail letter to and include the single l ine GET EPAA PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return e-mail. General questions about ap propriateness of topics or particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, Glass@asu.ed u or reach him at College of Education, Arizona Sta te University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)


5 of 5Editorial Board Greg John Andrew Coulson Alan Davis Sherman Dorn Mark E. Thomas F. Alison I. Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. Aimee Craig B. Howley u56e3@wvnvm.bitnet William Richard M. Jaeger Benjamin Thomas Dewayne Mary P. Les Susan Bobbitt Anne L. Hugh G. Richard C. Anthony G. Rud Dennis Jay Robert Robert T.