Michael Apple

MICHAEL APPLE

OK, I’m Michael Apple. I teach at the University of Wisconsin in curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies.

This is a complicated issue. Um, first of all I think we need to think about that education is not a neutral act. It’s involved deeply in questions of politics, culture. Let me give you an example. In my mind the most important educational question is not the—the Spenserian question of “What knowledge is of most worth, but whose knowledge is of most worth?” So the way we think about teaching, the way we think about curriculum, the way we think about evaluation, is deeply involved in questions of differential power. Uh, an example of this would be the new history standards uh that are being proposed nationally by the history teachers in the United States and are being used to construct all the textbooks. Um, their story says this. We are a nation that has one story for everyone and we are all immigrants. So from the first nation people, the American Indians who supposedly came over the Barring Strait and then walked over thousands of years to Chile, they are the first immigrants. And then African-Americans are immigrants. Uh, people from English and Scotland are immigrants, so we have the same story. Well, our government as part of its policy gave smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans. Uh, many of them died. There is a policy of official enclosure. African-Americans were slaves when they were brought over. Three million of them—well, that’s the—the—an estimate that seems to be confirmed that a minimum died in the ships on the way over. I don’t want to call that immigration; I would prefer to call that murder. So here we have something that seems like a liberal document, something that binds all of us together in terms of curriculum, that we’re all the same. We’re all immigrants uh so we should be treated equally. Yet underneath is a question of power. Whose story is being told? Are Native Americans immigrants? Were they brought forcibly in chains? So again, I think that this is a complicated issue. I want to say one other thing about this. Um, it’s also a question of power in a positive way. Schools have been historically been victories, not losses. So it’s not simply that schools represent differential power relations where the most powerful people get their way. Schools have been sites of successful battles over democracy. And one of the reasons, for instance, that ultra conservative groups right now are so pleased to attack schools and teachers and administrators uh is because they’re have been gains. So the relationship between education and power is both a negative one and a positive one. It represents losses and it represents uh victories.

This is uh a very complicated issue. First of all, in the United States we are very uncomfortable talking about class and that’s deeply unfortunate. So I spent a lot of time working in Brazil, in New Zealand, in Australia, in Korea, Japan, Germany, and a large number of countries. We are the only nation I think of its type in the world that feels uncomfortable about talking about class and I think that that is a mistake. We have a class system in the United States. We have high rates of individual mobility and that’s very important, that represents victories. An example would be my own history. Um, where the relationship between education and class and its positive and negative moments and between education cultural and class in its positive moments—moments can be seen. Uh, I went through a very poor school. I come from an impoverished working class family, uh yet I was able to find pass of going to night school uh for an undergraduate degree and ultimately went to Columbia for a masters and a doctorate. I was one of only 5 percent of my cohort in this urban, very poor high school in an old, dying, industrialized city, but I made it. Now that’s a victory. That is, my parents had to sacrifice an immense amount in their own lives for someone who grew up poor to become the John Baskin, distinguished professor of something. So—so on the one hand it seems to me that here we have an instance where class is very visible, where I’m at a—a prestigious university and occasionally feel odd still being there no matter how many books I write. There’s still this sense of looking around and saying, “How did someone from poverty get to be in a place like this?” Now that represents class both as a structural phenomenon. That is, who gets ahead? Which kids go to what school? What’s there trajectory? Um, and by and large we do reproduce class—not in an individual level, but as a group level. So if I know you’re um parents income, the kinds of jobs that they do and I know where they live geographically in a city, I can unfortunately predict within one standard deviation how well you’re going to do in school. Uh, that’s very unfortunate, but it happens to be the case. As an educator I don’t like that, but it happens to be by and large true in general. But at the same time there are paths of individual mobility where even though I felt uncomfortable and many people in the urban high school—well, actually African-American and Latino high school that I went to, felt uncomfortable with the culture that was taught. It didn’t seem to be connected with our—our lives. Uh, there were still paths that were there that enabled us even though we felt uncomfortable for some of us to do well. So again, the relationship between class and culture and education then uh is positive and negative. In my mind, the way that we should think about this is using one word. Uh, schools are contradictory institutions. They are sights of struggle in which those who are in dominance and those who tend to be positioned in subordinate positions uh battle. And victory by either side is not guaranteed. Schools are a compromise. Oh, there’s another way of thinking about the relationship between class culture and education um and that is that uh social movements uh move education. Often these movements are class related. An example would be something like this. Historically in the United States, working class groups either organized in unions or not in unions struggled mightily to get a curriculum that was connected to their culture, their history, their lives. And some of those were victories. So if you look at the early curriculum materials in social studied, for instance, uh that were widely used in the United States at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, no mention of unions would be found. None whatsoever. It was simply prohibited by state textbook adoption policies. And now in the same text that you would find uh capitalism is the best economic system, in the same page uh you’ll find not simply quite conservative ideology forms, but things that stress the importance of workers, or unions, etc. So that’s what I mean when I say there’s a struggle over this. My own position on this is that whether we like it or not, those in dominance have more money, more power, are better organized. So the predominant cultural forms in schools will be related to dominant classes, dominant gender groups, dominant racial groups. But that doesn’t mean that they win all the time.

Uh, the issue of um the way hegemony works in the United States and elsewhere, how it is rebuilt, how it is contested, uh is a crucial one given not just past iterations of education of policy and practice, but profoundly important today. Hegemony isn’t a thing. It’s not simply the ideas that you have in your head. Hegemony is a constantly flowing process in which dominant groups in order to gain leadership uh must in fact incorporate uh others groups under their umbrella. And the metaphor I want to use for understanding hegemony is something that we might call an ideological umbrella. Almost everyone I know of thinks there’s something wrong with the way education is organized right now. They don’t like the way it reproduces some in equalities. They don’t like the way teachers are being treated with an immense amount of disrespect in many school districts and they feel as if some of the curriculum and some of the practices of—are out of touch with community values and sustenance. And those can be quite conservative criticisms or relatively radical criticisms. But throughout those criticisms there’s very similar themes. Schools don’t seem to be in touch with parents, in touch with children, in touch with social needs. Now those social needs can be defined by dominant groups or by subordinate groups or by groups who are not positioned in either one. So the tasks of dominant groups is to exert leadership and this is what I mean by hegemony. They must form alliances, a large umbrella, where people who understand that it’s raining outside, that there’s something wrong with schools and education, are convinced to come under one umbrella over there or one umbrella over here. And dominant groups very creatively attempt to take the elements of good sense, the themes, the criticisms that people who don’t feel empowered right now by education have in their heads uh, their worries, their fears, their hopes, their dreams for their children, and they reach out and attach themselves through a process again what I call building hegemonic alliances. They grab a hold of the themes, and fears, and worries, and hopes that other groups have and say, “You’re worried about this. Come here. We can solve your problems.” Now dominant groups have been immensely creative in taking the language and themes of progressive criticisms and using those to beckon, to go like this to subordinate groups. Let me give you an example. Um, under the conservative restorations right now or what in my latest book um, “Educating the Right Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality” um, what I call conservative modernization rather then conservative restoration. What dominant groups have done is this. Our usual understanding of democracy, a key word when everyone’s saying school, is not—they’re not democratic enough. I don’t feel like I have a voice in them. Um, dominant groups have said, “We will give you democracy.” Now democracy in our usual intuitions normally means collective, it means political. If I were to say a school is democratic, it means it’s participatory; everybody has a say. So we think of it as a collective issue where everybody has a voice. Or if I say, “That’s a democratic movement,” in a church, in a community, uh in a labor union, um among parents, we would say everybody is participating jointly. That’s our intuition. Now what I call neoliberals, that is people who believe that markets and consumer choice will solve everything, what they have done is to say, “I will give you democracy,” but they have struggled to change our very idea about democracies. So no longer is democracy seen as a collective, political issue. It’s now seen as what I call “Possessive Individualism.” It’s simply consumer choice. So as long as I have choice for my child, the common good, the collective wisdom, will take care of itself. So a good example now would be voucher plans where the idea is that we no longer collectively struggle over building schools that are democratic for everyone, we say schools are supermarkets. We treat them like bread, cars, and deodorants, or cereal. As long as I have my choice among Countchocola or Cheerios—that’s not meant to be a commercial—um, as long as I have my choice, the social good, social justice will take care of itself. Now that’s a brilliant strategy. Um, so here are claims by a vast array of people who don’t necessarily agree with all conservative agendas but they hear the word democracy—democracy is no longer collective, it’s now individual. Parents are deeply worried, very fearful, about the future of their children. Now let’s face it. In a time when the rich are getting much richer and the poor have never had the benefits of this supposedly burging economy, which has now turned downwards, but that’s never trickled down to the poor, and everyone is very worried about the future of their children. Given this what has happened then, the language of democracy as individual choice resonates so people’s elements of good sense—they understand why they should be worried about their children—neoliberals reach down and pull them under a hegemonic alliance, under this umbrella, that says, “We have a way of solving your problem.” And they do this very creatively by changing our idea about democracy. So in my mind hegemony then is the building of alliances, changing common sense—our common sense use to be democracy as collective—change what we think. What Raymond Williams calls our structures of feelings, sort of the tensions and emotions that we have about our children saying, “We’ll solve it. Listen to us. Uh, we will give you democracy but we won’t give you democracy as you use to think about it, we’ll give you individual choice and decollectivizing. So don’t think of yourself as a member of a class, a race. Don’t think of yourself as a union member. Don’t think of yourself as a woman. Don’t think of yourself as a member of a religious group. Think of yourself simply as someone who’s a prophet maximizing um individual who makes individual choices.” It’s what we call neoliberalism in action. So hegemony then is very creative in building alliances of pulling people under an umbrella. And we can see that right now with uh a large hegemonic alliance that includes what I think are four groups. One that I call neoliberals, um markets are good, they will solve everything. In essence, neoliberists believe that private is very good, anything that is public is by definition bad. So schools are seen—public schools are seen as black holes. Money goes in, results don’t come out. Uh, so “We’ll give you choice, it will solve everything.” In every nation in the world where that has been tried, it has increased class, and race, and equalities. It’s a disaster. And that’s not an issue, that’s empirically the case. So neoliberals have a lot of work to do and they’ve been very successful. A second group under this hegemonic alliance are what I call neoconservatives. And they believe we’ve—they’ve got a romantic view of culture. There was a cultural “Eden,” uh if we could just return to it. These are people like Diane Ravish, Bill Bennett, Edie Hirsch. A curriculum of facts. If we can get back to the dispositions that everyone once had. That’s a false thing; there never was a common culture. But when people are very worried about their children the—then the idea of having discipline, a common culture, stability, enables dominant groups in charge of this alliance to reach in and grab those people and say, “You’re worried about children, you’re worried about cultural, you’re worried about your religion, come under my umbrella again.” Um, then a third group is what I call authoritarian populists. Um, these are often very conservative uh evangelicals and very conservative fundamentalists. And I want to be cautious. I am not opposed to religion at all. I can’t imagine a democratic movement that doesn’t need utopian dreams and religion is one answer to those utopian dreams. That vision of the world can be better. And committed religious activists are people are work in—live in Latin American, for instance, for social justice. So do not misinterpret what I’m saying about an anti-religious position, but these are people who believe that God spoke in English, he spoke to King James, King James wrote it down and he made no mistakes. So they have the answer uh and they wish very much to have a single Biblical text to uh—of, you know—with no other texts available um and uh the more we can get schools around traditional gender relations, around traditional class and race hierarchies, and around a particular religious vision, uh that will be better. And when they hear neoliberals say, “We’ll give you choice and vouchers,” um they respond very, very well to that because they feel that will give them a choice of using public funding for religious schools. And then the final moment in this hegemonic alliance are what I call members of the new middle class. And these are people who believe one simple thing. Um, if it moves and classrooms measure it, if it hasn’t moved yet measure it anyway in case it does move tomorrow, uh and they are the accountability experts. And they don’t agree with neoliberals and neoconservatives or authoritarian populist, religious fundamentalists, but they do believe that a good curriculum has measurable results only if it can’t give you immediate measurable results it’s not worth doing. So these are the efficiency experts and they give the skills to neoliberals and other that put their hegemonic policies into practice. So—so hegemony then again is forming an alliance saying, “Who’s in, who’s out,” forming policies based on it, and trying to convince people that you’re giving them what they want. It’s a complicated process but I think right now we’re seeing this with high stakes testing, we’re seeing it with voucher plans, and we’re seeing a very creative use in transformation of common sense.

Education reform exacerbates existing inequalities in powerful ways. Let me give two examples. In my own state, Wisconsin, um we developed standards through the participation of many groups. Now I’m not opposed to standards because I think that they stimulate discussions. Uh, I don’t want imposed standards but I do—I think we ought to have some democratic discussion about where we’re going in schools. Uh, so I want standards to be flexible, I want them developed from below, and I want them to be continually changing as our understandings of society and as new knowledge comes out. Uh, so all of these changes will need a—a very flexible set of standards. So in Wisconsin, we developed one with community and school participation. It took three years, the standards were flexible and built democratically in very powerful ways. And we were quite naïve about this. Our sense was that democratic standards would enhance education. That reform would be important not because we wanted standards but we wanted to stimulate a conversation about what we should teach and how it should be taught and what evidence we would have that would—would lead us to think we’re successful. And we wanted standards to be a pedagogic process that everybody would get more deeply involved in education. Well being—even though many of us were very deeply involved and spent three years working with schools on this, our beloved governor, uh conservative person at the time, um refused to fund these standards. He has line item fetes so he cut them out of the budget uh and said, “We will not do this.” So he simply cut the funding for their publication and he then went out and purchased standards from the Hudson Institute, uh which is one of the most conservative educational foundations in the United States, and imposed standards from above and then tried to press for high stakes testing in the state. Now let’s take these couple of examples. Here we have an idea that is sweeping this nation and others, “Standards are good,” we objected to that because we thought standards would be imposed. So we try to do an alternative. Democratic processes having general standards use this pedagogic activities so parents, teachers, students, community activists, no matter what their ideologies, would be deeply involved in the formation of them. It seemed to me a very wise process. There is a reform we all agreed on. We were naïve about power relations. Uh, dominant groups are not sangen (?) and inactive about these kinds of things. And ultimately our attempt at pedagogically progressive standards opened the door for very conservative things to come in and it opened the door for tests on that. Now if you do accountability with multiple forms of evidence as we wanted, portfolios with some standardized testing but kept at a real minimum with various forms of collecting evidence about success that would then be fed back to the schools to tell them what was right and wrong uh and they would be involved in thinking about what counts as evidence, instead we opened the door to high stakes testing. So here is a reform that both disempowered the people whom we felt we were empowering and we now have a system of testing—because it is much too expensive to have multiple forms of evaluation, the legislature only funding paper and pencil, machine scored high stakes testing. We don’t need to spend any more money to tell us what we already know. There is a strong relationship between poverty and schools. So here was a reform very similar to what is going on in Arizona, Texas, New York, California, all over the United States—uh to say nothing of other states like Utah, etc.—um, all of this has now lived with situations where standards talk has led to an imposition from above by and large, to more tests not less, an immense amount of money spent on test development telling us what we already know that poor kids do poorer in schools and in only two states in the nation there’s extra money and support to material and human resources go into a school that shows that it didn’t do well. Instead we have a process of public shaming. But in Connecticut we will show the top 100 schools that have the bottom scores but no resources will go in. We will just hold you up for ridicule. So here we have a situation where school reform—where people, you know, work deeply committed—school people are—they don’t go into it for the money, they’re not getting paid a huge amount, are deeply committed to the reform of the institution but at the same time the ultimate effect was to increase the possibilities of schools creating deviance, creating inequality. Another example of that would be vouchered plans. Um, the rederick is democracy. Um, we want to give parents choice yet we do know from many other nations it increases white flight, so people take the vouchers and run to suburban schools. Then at the vast majority of say African-American or Latino and Latino parents who do not have flexible jobs and do not have um cars—two cars often, um so given the fact that I’m a professor, it’s very easy for me to drive across a city if I have a voucher and put my kid in ‘x’ school rather then the school they’re going to now. If I am working at seven in the morning and my boss gives me no flexibility then I must take public transportation—yet the government is massively cutting public transportation right now—it takes me two in a half hours to go across the city by bus with my child and then come back. And to do that twice a day, it gives us the fiction of choice. It’s choice for an affluent minority and for the vast major—who will then refuse to pay taxes for the kids remaining in public schools in the inner cities as an example, or in rural areas. Um, so the vast majority then of say African-American parents, would be left in under funded, falling apart highly policed schools. So here we have another instance where the testing and accountability reforms and the voucher quasi-choice programs—marketized choice programs—do increase inequalities. The other side of this though, is what I would call the democratic schools movement that I’m deeply involved in and, you know, a book that Jim Bean and I called, “Democratic Schools” ratifies this. But here are educational reforms that are related to more equality. So we tell the story of a Fratney Street School in Milwaukee, an urban school that is two-way bilingual where for half the time every subject is taught in Spanish and every subject is taught in English so that everyone comes out bilingual, not just Spanish-speaking kids. It’s very, very interesting and I think quite powerful as an educational reform, um, Central Park East secondary school in New York um Raines School of Technical Arts in Boston. So these are schools where educational reforms actually lead to and increase inequality. So once again I don’t want to say that the relationship between education and inequality in reform only goes in one direction. There have been truly progressive gains. And I want to remind all of us that um the reason that—that the hegemonic alliance is attacking schools is because there were gains. There’d be no reason to constantly attack schools and teachers and administrators from the far right or from the marketizers and privatizers if they weren’t worried that schools were doing things correct already. So again there’s a positive moment in this as well.

Um, the issue of legitimate knowledge, of what counts as what I call “Official Knowledge” uh in a book by the same name, is a question I’ve been raising for three decades. In my mind the curriculum question that we have been taught to ask—rather two questions, one that we’ve forgotten, one that we’re pretty good at. Uh, the originating curriculum question is “What knowledge is of most worth,” you know the Spenserian question. Um, I would prefer that we change that to “Whose knowledge is of most worth.” I don’t mean to be reductive in that but I want us to ask “Who’s knowledge are we teaching? Whose knowledge gets to be official?” That is, is sponsored by the government, by schools, etc. Now that’s a question we have not been very good at asking. There’s another one that we’re pretty good at asking which is a how-to question. “How should we teach?” So we’re pretty skilled at various forms of pedagogy, various forms of making knowledge accessible to kids, etc. Um, but because of that we’ve actually deskilled ourselves in other questions. If we should know anything from the past 20 or 30 years, there is no neutral knowledge. One-third of all school districts in the United States over the last decade have had a serious censorship controversy in areas such as mathematics, science, literacy, um just about everything. Phy—physical education, health. Every subject area has been politicized. Uh, now that should tell us something that knowledge is not this thing that we get in a box. It’s pristine. It’s there. Teach it, it’s neutral. It’s not neutral. And even if we think it is, there are groups saying, “I don’t like that.” Well, that should make us sort of take notice that there is a politics of legitimate knowledge and some groups’ knowledge is legitimate, other groups’ knowledge is considered illegitimate. Uh, I revel in that. That is, I actually think that that is what curriculum is about. So one of my favorite schools is Central Park East School in Harlem, in New York, largely a school populated by children of color, a public school, where there’s one curriculum question that guides its entire curriculum and it’s this, “From whose perspective are we listening, reading, etc?” That’s a very provocative question to me. It doesn’t say that therefore we ought to just say that everything is relative, it asks kids to start thinking about that issue. “Whose knowledge am I hearing, studying?” And it may be that it comes out to be everybody’s or it may be that it comes out to be partial. Now I’ve done a lot of work on the politics of that, historically and currently, and it’s one of the reasons I like focusing on textbooks. Whether we like it or not—it’s almost as if we’re in Japan where there’s a ministry of education that mandates a centralized curriculum and where the text are connected to that centralized, mandatory curriculum. But again, it’s—I spent a lot of time outside the United States and I’m always impressed with the fact that even though we don’t have a central ministry of education, in the United States the curriculum is the textbook. Now most teachers don’t use it slavishly, but whether we like it or not, that is the dominant curriculum artifact. And because of that, there’s a strong relationship between official knowledge and the politics of textbooks. Now in the United States if we drew a line from California to Washington, uh 20 states below that line have what are called state textbook adoption policies. There are 22 of the 50 that have these things. And these are often politically appointed bodies, or as in Kansas they’re elected, and they determine what texts are good and what texts are bad. So in—the—the three most populists states that account for 35 percent of all textbook purchases are Texas, California, and Florida. And Texas is the most powerful one. They have a statute that says that you may choose five textbooks in each area. So think of reading textbooks. Of the hundreds that are published each year in uh elementary school reading, only five will be selected by Texas. So the pressure is on publishers to publish only the material that will be sold in Texas because they buy them in bulk and then schools make their orders. Now that means that official knowledge for the entire nation is determined by what we’ll sell in Texas, and California, and Florida. Now Texas is uh one of the most conservative states in the United States. You may disagree or agree with that, but it actually means that there is an anti-democratic process in the United States. So what is used my own state, Wisconsin, is not determined—at least unofficial text—by teachers, administrators, community members, etc. Uh, in Wisconsin it’s determined by the State Board of Education uh and the state textbook adoption policies in Texas itself. So official knowledge is determined by what I once called “The Political Economy of the Textbooks.” Um, no publisher will publish anything that does not meet the needs of California, Texas, and Florida—and especially Texas. So it’s not simply the sort of oddly disembodied thing that some groups’ knowledge is legitimate, other groups knowledge is illegitimate. Texas has very strict rules and those rules, for instance, say that no deviant lifestyles can be presented, that all laws are to be obeyed. Well, what does that do with Martin Luther King? What does it do with the Suffragettes? What does it do with groups who felt as if their religion was not respected? What does it do with people who feel that school—not just schools, but the entire society is organized around apartheid, as we had in the United States, for instance, or about women not having the right to vote and having to protest? So because of that our textbooks tend to be more conservative then not, uh and I don’t think it’s a principled conservatism. I think it’s based on what we’ll sell. So there’s—to give one concrete example of this which I think is quite laughable in some ways, um there is a true story—it’s not apocryphal, of a home economics textbook in um, uh, um Texas that had a picture of um—a display of setting the table. And it had two glasses, a wine glass and the water glass. Uh, Texas ruled that you had to retouch the photograph or the book wouldn’t be approved. You had to take the second glass out because after all, wine was “a tool of the devil.” Now there are many people who believe that—and I have, you know, for those people who do not have alcoholic beverages, that’s fine. That’s not my point. It’s a point of some people, and there happen to be some religions at ceremonies, wine is crucial to the ceremony. So within say the Jewish tradition, as one example, uh the most holy evase uh at a Passover service, wine is a crucial part of one’s identity. So some group’s vision then is dominant, other groups are marginalized. Uh, a similar thing would be even in things such as dictionaries. So in Texas the Marian Webster Dictionary uh about 10 years ago which had definitions of body parts, um male and female genetalia, had to be taken out because you could not have these words in the dictionary. Well, it’s not as if—it’s uh sort of important for biology, for human anatomy, for kids to understand what the functions of these body parts are. Uh, even if one is deeply committed to abstinence education, you have to talk about the body. So these become very commonsensible examples, but it does show that there are power relations over knowledge and what counts as official is a result of well-organized, political, and economic powers. Uh, and I think it—it behooves us to pay attention to this otherwise we’re talking about abstractions. Abstractions in theory are powerful but there is a real existing politics and official knowledge. And unless we can understand how state textbook adoption policies work, we will make no difference whatsoever in the curriculum.