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From Theory to Data and Back Again: Michael W. Apple Argues for a New Role for Critical Theorists: A Review Essay

reviewed by Amy Stuart Wells - 2004

coverTitle: From Theory to Data and Back Again: Michael W. Apple Argues for a New Role for Critical Theorists: A Review Essay
Author(s): Michael W. Apple
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 041593513X, Pages: 259, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

These are hard times for people on the political left. In fact, in the field of education, times have been tough since 1980 when Ronald Reagan set out to make public education a central target of his assault on the welfare state. What emerged was a new “common sense,” a political ideology that has declared that any service provided by the government, especially public education, is bad; the private sector is better in every respect; and markets, not democratic decision-making, should determine children’s opportunities to learn (Chubb and Moe, 1990; Bronner, 1997; Frank, 2000; and Giddens, 1994).

For the last 20-plus years, many of the most popular political themes in education, including “excellence,” “choice,” and “accountability,” have been defined mostly by conservatives who create public policies that project their view of the world onto every school and community. Meanwhile, more liberal policy makers are left scratching their heads, confused about how the problems in public education came to be defined by those who have traditionally offered little support for these schools. Still, they are apparently unable to come up with viable alternatives. Furthermore, they find it very difficult to reject proposals for greater “excellence,” “choice,” and “accountability” in public education. It is a bit like arguing against sliced bread.

The result is that conservative agendas, embodied in legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), gain bi-partisan support and thus become the new mandate on how to whip the many “failing” public schools into shape (Blair, 2002; Olsen, 2002). Indeed, the way things are going, NCLB and other conservative educational policies may lead to the complete dismantling of a universal and free public educational system that was once the envy of the world. There are many observers–conspiracy theorists, perhaps–who would argue that such an outcome would not be an accident.

The conservatives’ success in recreating the public’s understanding of public education and its shortcomings can depress even the most optimistic leftist. While the left has never been shy to critique the many inequalities and reproductive forces in U.S. public education, the way those on the right are currently framing the issues, it seems that they have found the schools to be too equal and not reproductive enough. Indeed, there are many days when it all seems a bit too overwhelming. These are the days to turn to Michael W. Apple’s two most recent books–Educating the “Right” Way and The State and the Politics of Knowledge. Apple, a well-known critical theorist and sociologist of education, remains committed to keeping the left engaged politically and not losing hope.

Apple is hopeful that what he calls the hegemonic project of “conservative modernization in policy and practice” will be deconstructed, and its many inconsistencies and contradictions will be revealed. He hopes that seemingly disparate counter-hegemonic social movements on both the left and right will unite in creating new political possibilities. And finally, he is calling on critical theorists to draw on the many theoretical and empirical perspectives needed to support social movements that resist conservative hegemony.

While this may seem like a lot of wishful thinking, these books, which complement each other in many substantive and methodological ways, read like two parts of one volume on how to better understand, resist, and ultimately by-pass and disassemble the conservative agenda in education. Furthermore, these books are not vessels of an abstract academic argument for political change that is removed from the daily struggles of people working in schools and communities across the globe. On the contrary, each of these books examines the effects of “rightist educational beliefs, proposals and programs” on the “real world” (Apple, 2001; p. 8).

In Educating the “Right” Way, Apple begins this examination by focusing primarily on the U.S. context and analyzing what he calls the “complex configuration of interests on the right.” He identifies four main rightist groups:

  1. Neoliberals who are deeply committed to markets, privatization, and “freedom” defined as individual choice. Apple notes that this is the most powerful group in the alliance supporting a conservative modernization agenda.
  2. Neoconservatives who advocate for a return to discipline and traditional knowledge. This group advocates a strong state role, particularly in terms of mandating that schools teach curricula that revivify the “Western” tradition, patriotism, and character education.
  3. Authoritarian Populists, more commonly known as “religious fundamentalists,” “conservative evangelicals,” or the “Christian Right” who want God (their God) returned to all public institutions, especially public schools. Members of this group generally shape their arguments for educational reform around their vision of “Christian morality,” traditional gender roles, and the family.
  4. The Managerial and Professional New Middle Class comprised of the civil servants working within the educational system and other government agencies to import business models into the inner working of the state. Thus, as Apple notes, their own mobility depends on the expansion of their technical expertise to put into place conservative policies.

Defining the right in this way, Apple emphasizes that this “complex configuration” of conservative groups is not a unitary movement; rather it is a coalition of forces with many different emphases, some of which overlap and some of which conflict. For instance, neoliberal efforts to deregulate the educational system by introducing voucher plans to give parents greater freedom to choose between public and private schools can conflict with neoconservative efforts to create a highly regulated and more uniform educational system, especially in terms of what is taught in schools. Within the space of these gaps and contradictions, Apple argues, the rightist agenda can be challenged and perhaps interrupted. A better understanding of how these seemingly fragile coalitions came to be ideologically united in the first place, writes Apple, is an important step in this direction.

The individual chapters of Educating the “Right” Way, are organized around more clearly defining this somewhat odd combination of rightist groups and how their interests and agendas have converged in ways that have shaped educational policy making in the U.S. and across national boundaries. A good example of this is found in a section of Chapter 3 titled “New Markets, Old Traditions,” in which Apple demonstrates that the move toward neoliberal “free market” reforms of choice and competition for students can coincide and even complement the move toward a neoconservative “strong state” instituting a centralized national curriculum. He notes, for instance, that in

England , the conservative government of the 1980s created autonomous schools of choice, known as grant-maintained schools, in a way that did not conflict with the centralized national curriculum or the published performance examination scores. Rather, these two seemingly contradictory reforms have complemented each other when popular schools with high-achieving students use their high national exams scores to attract more “motivated” parents with “able” children. In other words, the schools were able to use the neoconservative reform of national curriculum and testing to “enhance their relative position in local systems of competition” and a market of educational choice (p. 71).

This illustrates, according to Apple, how the neoliberal and neoconservative alliance can create situations in which the state appears to be devolving power to individuals and institutions that are themselves increasingly competing in a market while at the same time remaining strong in key areas–namely defining whose knowledge and behaviors are valued and rewarded in the educational system. This is similar to the case of charter school reform in the

U.S. , which was implemented at the same time that states, under the federal mandate of the Goals 2000 legislation, were developing comprehensive standards and accountability systems. Thus, charter schools are theoretically “free” to operate autonomously from the regular public education system. Yet, in most states, charter schools are required to administer the same state-mandated test, and thus they have the same pressures to do well–pressure that surely restricts their curricular freedom. So, it is not clear what kind of autonomy charter schools really have, except for a more decentralized funding system and much more control than the public school over who teaches there and enrolls (Wells, 2002). But meaningful autonomy over the curriculum is not an option in the current context. The U.S. example of charter schools is in many ways more complicated than the English grant maintained schools due to the complex political history of the charter school movement and the standards movement in the U.S. (Wells, 1999). Still, neoliberals in the U.S. have supported charter schools with a vengeance, and thus there are many parallels to Apple’s UK example.

Another powerful example of alliances across the different conservative groups is found in Chapter 6 in which Apple focuses on home schooling. Here, he demonstrates the ways in which the anti-government and the traditional values arguments of the neoliberal and neoconservative reformers helped to bolster the authoritarian populists’ critique of the public education system and thus their decision to exit that system and begin schooling alone.

Through these and many other examples Educating the “Right” Way helps those of us who are not a part of the rightist movement to better understand the various conservative groups, their motives, and their odd and potentially fragile political alliance. This is an important contribution to scholarship in education, public policy, and sociology–fields of study in which too much research and writing provides an a-theoretical and de-politicized analysis of whether or not certain policies are “working” without questioning how these policies came to be or whose interests are served by them.

My only criticism of this book is that in the final analysis, the discussion and explanation of the fourth conservative group, the managerial middle class, was shortchanged. While Apple’s discussion of this group is woven into several different chapters, I would like to have seen a separate chapter dedicated to these civil servants because they are the least visible and least analyzed group of all. When I first read Apple’s discussion of these mid-level bureaucrats in Chapters 1 and 2, I found myself nodding, thinking of district and state officials I have interviewed in the past who fit this description. Thus, I would have welcomed more about them in the later chapters of the book. Perhaps Apple will provide this in future writings.

In addition, prospective readers should be warned that Apple pays a great deal of attention to the authoritarian populists, or the conservative religious critics of schooling, in the later sections of this book. Apple explains this decision by noting that leftist critics of the Christian Right too often ignore the insights of their criticisms of public education and the ways in which they have been brought under the “umbrella of neoliberal leadership.” Furthermore, he adds that these authoritarian populists have been very effective at putting pressure on state and local policy makers. Thus, it is important to understand their influence, their ideology, and their political tactics.

On a pragmatic political level, Apple is arguing that those of us who are dissatisfied with, frustrated by, or angry about what he calls the conservative modernization of education have a great deal to learn from these four conservative groups and how their somewhat disparate politics has been, in a Rush Limbaughist fashion, morphed into a powerful ideology of what is wrong with the public schools in this country and what needs to be done to fix them.

On a more theoretical level, Educating the “Right” Way is a rather bold attempt to persuade critical theorists to move beyond their important work on the cultural and epiphenomenal struggles in education and to pay more attention to the ways in which these struggles have shaped and been shaped by real changes in the material conditions of schools. Such changes, Apple argues, need to be documented with thoughtful empirical research because they have profound effects on children’s daily experiences in schools. Thus, Apple writes that in his own work he strives to combine the theoretical and the empirical because he is “deeply worried that we [critical theorists] have played the theoretical card so often at such a level of abstraction that we have vacated the empirical space and left it open for neoliberals and neoconservatives to occupy–which they predictably have done” (p. 33).

Ultimately, he would like to see more critical theorists engaged in empirical work as a way to ground their theoretical arguments in the material realities of children and educators. As someone who conducts empirical research and tries to bring my research findings into conversation with social theory in a way that enhances both the theory and the empirical analysis, I applaud Apple’s effort to encourage scholars on the left to engage in the kind of work that can more directly counter conservative political ideology and hegemony. I realize this is controversial and even antithetical to many poststructural theories. Still, at some point, the left needs to consider whose interests are served by on-going efforts to deconstruct the rhetoric of the right without simultaneous efforts to create the social movements needed to resist and reverse policies such as No Child Left Behind. Can we stand back writing theory for small audiences as these policies are having devastating effects on urban school districts, serving the majority of students of color, poor students, and immigrant students in this country? When conservative policies negatively impact the daily experiences of the most politically powerless children and their educators, it is time to gather evidence of this devastation and use it to build the sort of resistance that a more theoretical analysis alone will not create.

Interestingly enough, it is this controversial argument about the role of the critical theorists and their need to document material realities of children and schools in the midst of a project of conservative moderation that provides one of the strongest conceptual links to Apple’s most recent book, The State and the Politics of Knowledge. Although this second book is dissimilar from Education the “Right” Way on several levels–e.g. it is an edited book, it has a more global and non-Western focus, it includes more empirical research and analysis, and it develops a more profound theory of state formation in relation to social movements–we find that here too, Apple is talking to his fellow critical theorists about their role in counterhegemonic struggles and a potential political transformation.

Thus, in trying to answer the fundamental question about why the left has been so ineffectual in responding to the successful political campaign that conservatives have waged against public schools–or anything else “public”–for the last 25 years, Apple offers at least two answers that thematically connect these two books:

First, as he documented in Educating the “Right” Way, the conservative agenda is well-coordinated and articulated in such a way that masks many of the inconsistencies underneath the rightist political umbrella. In this more recent book, Apple and his co-authors examine rightist hegemony and, in some cases, counter-hegemonic movements in several international contexts, including Singapore, Scandinavia, South Korea, and Brazil as well as Hawaii and an undisclosed town in the U.S. In this way, this book takes the analysis of conservative modernization further by forcing us to “think contextually” and try to understand the very real relations of power in different situations and at multiple levels–e.g. where the global meets the local in very divergent local contexts. Apple and his co-authors show us that at each specific site they see not only economic domination but cultural relations of power as well.

These simultaneous cultural and economic forms of domination relate to Apple’s second answer to the question about the left’s ineffectuality. Here, picking up where he left off in Educating the “Right” Way, he argues in The State and the Politics of Knowledge that the left has ceded too much “authority” to the right by abandoning the use of empirical and historical evidence–as well as social theory–to “understand complexities of real situations so that we might use such understandings to further an agenda of interrupting dominance” (p. 221). He notes that too much of the “current critical research in education has been rhetorical, as if authors assume that detailed empirical and/or historical substantiations of one’s arguments are beside the point.” He describes this as “writing as if evidence was an afterthought” (p. 5). Apple is once again suggesting that academics on the left cross intellectual and epistemological borders and engage in empirical and political projects that will benefit the most oppressed communities and students.

Although these two themes–of rightist hegemony and the need for critical theorists to rethink their role in counter-hegemonic social movements–transcend these two books, The State and the Politics of Knowledge presents a much more sophisticated argument of the role of the state and state formation in the process of resisting or supporting conservative ideology. State-supported schools, according to Apple, play a central role in state formation. He writes that the chapters in this book demonstrate that the connections between schooling and state formation are “two-way, reciprocal and interactive.” This relates to Apple’s argument that the state is fluid and, is not simply there. “It is constantly evolving, always in formation, as it responds to demands from social movements” (p. 4).

In this way, Apple and his co-authors are giving the left a sense of hope, a sense of emancipatory possibility, and a clearer vision of meaningful social transformation through the creation of counter-hegemonic movements across difference, or what Apple calls “decentered unities.” He writes, “…the chapters in this book are part of a larger project concerning the very possibility that the world and its educational and cultural institutions could be different” (p. 17).

As in all edited books, the chapters are uneven, and thus some of them fulfill this promise better than others. For the most part, I found the chapters that Apple co-authored–all but two of the nine–to be the best at furthering these central themes of the book. In particular, the chapter he co-authored with Anita Oliver on “Becoming Right…”, a shorter version of which appears in Apple’s 1996 book Cultural Politics and Education and in this journal, remains very insightful and helpful in understanding how and why the so-called “Christian Right” and the home schooling movement have grown so quickly in the last 20 years.

Similarly, Chapter Four, co-authored by Ting-Hong Wong and Apple, provides an historical case study of the Singapore educational system from 1945-1965 and the profound impact the schools had on the formation of the state in their resistance to government efforts to implement a Chinese curriculum. The main theoretical argument and contribution of this chapter is to problematize the assumption that schools are passively shaped by the state and that they simply function to meet the demands of state formation. Indeed, this case study shows that local social movements resisting the state-mandated curriculum had a real effect.

Chapter Six also offers a case study of how local and school-level resistance interrupts the implementation of policies and practices that are regressive and designed to further the ruling power bloc’s hegemonic project. This chapter, co-authored by Misook Kim Cho and Apple, portrays the less visible ways in which students and educators in South Korean commercial high schools both actively resisted and quietly ignored a government policy designed to channel them into factory jobs.

And finally, the most uplifting chapter of the book, Chapter Eight by Luis Armando Gandin and Apple, provides us with hope that only critical theory can–the hope that counter-hegemonic social movement will create emancipatory spaces within an otherwise regressive and conservative political context. This chapter describes the Workers’ Party educational policies in

Porto Alegre , Brazil and the Citizen School project, which allowed for the creation of a publicly funded school with an explicit goal of transformation. According to Gandin and Apple, the Citizen School provides a space for citizens to recognize themselves as bearers of dignity and to rebel against the commodification of life. The Citizen School gives its poor students more chances to succeed than to fail and it, like other nearby schools under the direction of the Workers’ Party policies, has adopted a curriculum in which students are not asked to study “history or social and cultural studies through books that never address the real problems and interests they have” (p. 207).

In this way, Gandin and Apple write, the educational reforms taking place in Porto Alegre are efforts by social movements to “recuperate and reinvent” neoliberal concepts such as “autonomy” and “decentralization.” These terms, which have had different meanings in the popular movements of

Brazil than in neoliberal discourse, are, in this setting, being “disarticulated” from their neoliberal meanings and rearticulated for the Citizen School project. Thus, the authors argue: “… it is still crucial to realize that a dominant hegemonic bloc cannot control all spaces simultaneously. As the Citizen School project shows, even dominant groups’ own discourses can be rearticulated to favor counterhegemonic purposes” (p. 199).

The example of the Citizen School and the curricular reform of the Workers’ Party in Brazil is a fitting ending for Apple’s two most recent books. It is, after all, an example of what Apple hopes will become more widespread over time – a counterhegemonic answer to a politically conservative moment. And because he and Gandin collected empirical and historical data on the school and the reform in Porto Alegro and engaged those data in a conversation with critical theories about the state and rightist ideology, it is also a fitting ending to a set of books that are calling on other critical theorists to pay close attention to–and gather information on–the material conditions and policy contexts of the very oppressed communities that are the focus of so many theories.

As Apple notes at the beginning of The State and the Politics of Knowledge:

To answer questions of the role of education in responding to and forming collective and progressive political action, “we need critical theoretical, empirical and historical tools; and we need examples of how these tools might be used productively. That is what this book is about” (p. 3).


Apple, M.W. (1996). Cultural Politics and Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Blair, J. (November 6, 2002). “Unions’ Positions Unheeded on ESEA.” Education Week. 22 (10). (pp. 1, 12-14).

Bronner, S. E. (1997). “Political theory in our time.” In S. E. Bronner (Ed.), Twentieth century political theory. New York: Routledge. (pp. 1–16).

Chubb, J.E. and Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, Markets & America's Schools. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Frank, T. (2000). One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy. New York: Anchor Books.

Giddens, A. (1994). Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Olsen, L. (December 4, 2002). “Final Rules Give States Direction, Little Flexibility.” Education Week 22 (14) (pp. 1, 26, 27).

Wells, A.S. (1999). "The Politics of Deregulation, Devolution and Competition: A Comparison of Charter Schools and Grant-Maintained Schools." In K. McClafferty, C. Torres and T. Mitchell. (Ed.) Challenges of Urban Education: Sociological Perspectives for the Next Century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. (pp. 99-126).

Wells, A.S. (2002). “Why Public Policy Fails to Live Up to the Potential of Charter School Reform: An Introduction.” Where Charter School Policy Fails: The Problems of Accountability and Equity. (Editor). (2002). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 338-346
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11208, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:47:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Amy Wells
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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    AMY STUART WELLS is a professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also an editor of the Teachers College Record.
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