In the early 1970s, in addition to the other writing I was doing on teacher education, on critical studies of curriculum and evaluation, and on student rights, I began the initial work on a volume that was to take nearly five years to complete, Ideology and Curriculum (2004 3rd Ed.). This book has been revised and updated a number of times (1990 and 2004) and was first published in 1979. However, the aim of that early book was not only to revitalize the curriculum field, but also to challenge both “liberal” educational policies and practices and the reductive and essentialising theories of the role of education that had become influential in critical analysis, books such as Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976). In Ideology and Curriculum, I argued that education must be seen as a political act. I suggested that in order to do this, we needed 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.
Others had said some of this at the time, but they were all too general. I wanted to focus on the connections between knowledge and power. 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?
During the writing of Ideology and Curriculum, I came into contact with a number of people in England who were doing similar critical work on the relationship between knowledge and power. The “New Sociology of Education” in England had nearly exactly the same intuitions and used much the same resources as critical curriculum studies did in the United States. As my analyses became popular there, international connections were cemented in place. This led to my first set of lectures in England in 1976 and created a set of intellectual and political bonds that continue to this day. I am certain that Ideology and Curriculum would not have been seen as such a major contribution without the political and academic influences of these colleagues in England.
A moment ago, I mentioned the kinds of questions that I&C raised. Yet, it is important to state that the volume was grounded in a large array of issues and literature. Indeed, I&C enabled me to synthesize a considerable number of the influences that had been working through me for many years. Let me note them here, since many people see such early work as simply an expression of Neo-Marxism. It is this, but it was so much more. It rested in such traditions as the following: cultural Marxism and Marxist theory; phenomenology and in particular social phenomenology; the sociology of knowledge; analytic philosophy inside and outside of education; European critical theory; the philosophy, sociology, and history of science; aesthetics and the philosophy of art; political economy and studies of the labor process; the new sociology of education in England and France; and last but certainly not least, the critical and literary traditions within education and curriculum studies.
Thus, Ideology and Curriculum was meant to speak to a much larger array of educational, social, cultural, and political issues than some might have realized. I fully recognize that I&C bears the mark of its time. It devotes most of its energy to unpacking the role that curriculum and pedagogy play in cultural reproduction. It spends much less time than it should on a more dialectical understanding of knowledge and power and because of this is not as adequate in understanding transformations and struggles. But this is taken up in the many books that followed. Yet, even with its limitations and silences, the fact that it has gone through multiple editions and has been translated into a very large number of languages means that I must have gotten something right.
Expanding the Dynamics of Power
I&C was the first step on what became a long journey, for other books regularly followed as I understood more and as I was taught by the criticisms of other scholars and activists throughout the world and certainly by my doctoral students from all over the world at Wisconsin. (There is a reason I regularly thank the Friday Seminar in each of my books. The PhD and Masters students in that group have been more than a little influential in my development and keep my honest at all times.).
Two other books followed—Education and Power (1995 2nd Ed.) and Teachers and Texts (1988). That set of books formed what somehow came to be known as the first “Apple trilogy.” The two additional volumes both corrected some of the errors and spoke to some of the silences in I&C and expanded the dynamics of power with which we had to be concerned to include gender and race. They focused on the power and contradictions of resistance and struggle both inside schools and in the larger society. They critically examined what was happening in curricula and in teachers’ labor through a process of deskilling, reskilling, and intensification. They illuminated the political economy of the “real” curriculum in schools—the textbook. And they analyzed the spaces where possible counter-hegemonic action could take place.
The path I was on now was even more involved and the relations and realities I was trying to understand were even more complex. These issues demanded more attention. But looking back on the first set of volumes, I can now see more clearly that they led me from a largely neo-Marxist analyses of social and cultural reproduction, to an (unromantic) emphasis on agency, to treatments of teachers’ work and lives, to an enlargement of political and cultural struggles to complement (but definitely not abandon) my original focus on class, and more recently to sustained critical analyses of how powerful movements and alliances can radically shift the relationship between educational policies and practices and the relations of dominance and subordination in the larger society, but not in a direction that any of us would find ethically or politically justifiable. All of these efforts over the years have been grounded in a sense of the significance of cultural struggles and of the crucial place that schools, curricula, teachers, and communities play in these struggles.
Understanding and Interrupting Conservative Social Movements in Education
Another series of books followed—this time four volumes—these focusing much more directly on the ways in which power worked currently and on how we might interrupt these relations. In volumes such as Official Knowledge (2000 2nd Ed), Cultural Politics and Education (1996), Educating the ‘Right’ Way, 2nd Edition (2006), and The State and the Politics of Knowledge (2003), I 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 continue to be the most powerful now are more than a little conservative. In essence, I have claimed that if you want to understand how to engage in a successful large scale pedagogic campaign that changes people’s common-sense about legitimate knowledge, teaching, and evaluation—indeed about schooling in general—examine those people who have actually done it. I hadn’t abandoned my previous concerns with knowledge and power, but I now had better tools. And the politics were now even more pressing since educators all over the world were facing a set of conservative attacks that were deeply damaging to any education worth its name.
For exactly these reasons, over the past decade and a half I have been engaged in a concerted effort to analyze the reasons behind the rightist resurgence – what I call, using Roger Dale’s felicitous phrase, “conservative modernization”—in education and to try to find spaces for interrupting it. 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 marketised 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.
I have had a number of reasons for focusing on the alliance behind conservative modernization. First, these groups are indeed powerful, as I have learned from my intellectual and political work in many nations and 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.
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. 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. Worries about economic insecurity, about the destruction of communities, about feelings of powerlessness, about a lack of respect, about bureaucratic inaction and intransigence—all of these are based in real things that very many people experience in 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 the continuation of the profound respect for Antonio Gramsci’s writings about this that was so visible even in my early work – has to do with my belief that we have witnessed a major educational accomplishment over the past three decades in many countries. The Right has successfully demonstrated that you need to work at the level of people’s daily experiences, not only in government policies, so that even many Labour policies in the England and Democratic Party policies in the US incorporate the new commonsense that the Right has created over years of creative ideological work. The accomplishment of such a vast educational project has many implications. It shows how important cultural struggles inside and outside of schools actually 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 this next set of four books, 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 decentred 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?