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The Long March Toward Revitalization: Developing Standpoint in Curriculum Studies

by Wayne Au - 2012

Background/Context: There historically exists significant epistemological and political tension within the field of curriculum studies. Further, although there is some application of standpoint theory in educational research generally, and little used within curriculum studies specifically, much of it is undertheorized at best and, in many cases, misapplied or misunderstood.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to offer a potential resolution to the epistemological and political tension within the field of curriculum studies through the development of a conception of curricular standpoint that recognizes the dialectical relationship between the subjectivity of experience and the materiality of social and economic relations. Another purpose of this article is both to illustrate curricular standpoint as both a methodological tool for analysis and to justify a politics of social justice in classroom practice.

Research Design: This study is designed as an analytic essay that addresses critical issues within curriculum studies, develops a conceptual framework to address those issues, and analyzes concrete examples that illustrate the conceptual framework.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study concludes that the framework for curricular standpoint can serve as a viable methodological tool for curriculum studies to overcome its ongoing epistemological and political tensions, and as an epistemologically strong orientation for the curriculum taught by classroom teachers.

It has been more than 40 years since Schwab (1969) declared the field of curriculum studies “moribund,” and more than 30 years since Huebner (1976) pronounced it “dead.” The terminal prognosis made by both scholars was based on the same set of symptoms: a perceived conceptual disunity and lack of practical application of curriculum studies to school practices. It has been a long, slow death, however, as contemporary curriculum scholars have regularly expressed grave concern over conceptual disunity in the field in the intervening years (Jackson, 1996; Morrison, 2004; Wraga & Hlebowitsh, 2003). As such, the scholarly consensus seems to be that curriculum studies is mired in a crisis of disarray and conceptual confusion that inhibits its growth and development (Miller, 2005; Slabbert & Hattingh, 2006).

In this article, I seek to enter this ongoing scholarly debate within curriculum studies with the intent of offering one potential conceptual resolution to the self-described crisis in the field. I begin here with a discussion of the current contours of conceptual struggle within the field, which revolves around what has been constructed as a lack of paradigmatic unity (due to a focus on subjectivities) versus a lack of pragmatic connection to real-world curricular issues (due to an overemphasis on theory). I then offer a critical analysis of some of the strengths and weaknesses found within this struggle and, building on the model offered by feminist standpoint theory, I elaborate an epistemological, methodological, and conceptual framework for standpoint in curriculum studies as a tool that offers a possible solution to our crisis of morbidity. I conclude with a brief analysis of two lesson plans, using curricular standpoint as a lens.


In the mid-1970s, curriculum studies took a notable turn toward critical politics, with issues of equality and power within education being highlighted as a focus in curricular research (see, e.g., Anyon, 1980; Apple, 1973, 1975; Rosenbaum, 1976). Pinar (1978, 1975) proclaimed this critical turn as one part of the new chapter in the field of curriculum studies he dubbed the “reconceptualization”—a problematic category that many scholars Pinar identified as “reconceptualist” fundamentally rejected for being ahistorical and not adequately representing the full range of their work (M. W. Apple, personal communication, January 2010). In the decades since, a significant number of curriculum scholars have maintained research trajectories that use postmodernist-influenced theoretical orientations with the express intent of explicitly examining the positionality and subjectivity of both knowledge and educational actors (Kafala & Cary, 2006; Slattery, 2006). Specifically, to lesser and greater degrees, scholars have taken up postmodernist-influenced lenses such as feminism (see, e.g., Luke & Gore, 1992), cultural studies (see, e.g., Pinar, 2006), poststructuralism (see, e.g., Popkewitz & Fendler, 1999), disability studies (Erevelles, 2005), neo-Marxism (see, e.g., Apple, 1995), and postcolonial studies (see, e.g., Dimitriadis & McCarthy, 2001), among others, to analyze the politics of school knowledge and classroom practices. Although some of the curricular scholarship associated with these analyses maintained an overall focus on material reality (see, e.g., Anyon; Apple, 1995), what unites these postmodernist-influenced orientations is an overt recognition of the subjectivity of experience and epistemology (Benton & Craib, 2001) that acknowledges the complexity of social and material reality for multiple groups and communities (Fraser, 1995; Hartsock, 1998a). As such, critical scholarship in curriculum studies has made great strides not only in questioning relationships of power as they exist within school knowledge, but also in striving for curriculum that is more equitable, more inclusive of various perspectives, and more resistant to status quo relations.

Research on synoptic curriculum studies texts confirms a steady shift toward critical politics in the field (Kim & Marshall, 2006), such that, as Miller (2005) asserted,

It now certainly is commonplace to view U.S. curriculum studies as situated, always located within larger discursive frameworks, always part of U.S. cultural, political, and educational moments of the day and place. American curriculum studies and curriculum design and development are seen as bound up in a wealth of local political, cultural, economic, social, historical complexities. Curriculum is taken as embedded in multiple local contexts of use, multiple contexts of construction and relationships. (p. 18)

Thus, between postmodernism’s focus on the subjectivity of meaning and perspective (Benton & Craib, 2001), the increased presence of postmodern-influenced critical theories in curriculum studies (Kim & Marshall, 2006; Miller, 2005), and the fragmented and compartmentalized structures of schooling and curriculum generally (Slabbert & Hattingh, 2006), the existence of a fractured or balkanized field of curriculum studies is hardly surprising (Kafala & Cary, 2006; Säfström, 1999): Scholars have been applying new paradigms and epistemologies in their attempts to more fully understand the complexity of what is taught in schools as well as the meanings that students, teachers, and communities subsequently construct in the process.


The shift toward analyses that explicitly focus on politics and power in school knowledge did not happen without resistance within curriculum studies. Weighing in on both the death of the field and the then recent critical turn, Jackson (1980) disagreed with both Schwab’s (1969) and Huebner’s (1976) prognoses and asserted that perhaps the field of curriculum studies never really existed, going on to deride the rise of critical politics in the field. Hlebowitsh (1993, 1997, 1999, 2005) and Wraga (1998, 1999; Wraga & Hlebowitsh, 2003) have carried forward aspects of Jackson’s critique into more contemporary scholarly debate. In their work, both scholars have asserted that the field of curriculum studies has given too much credence to critical theorizing and in turn has overpoliticized the field, focused too much on theoretical exploration, and neglected practical curriculum design.

In response specifically to the critical turn in curriculum studies, Wraga and Hlebowitsh (2003) called for a “renaissance” in curriculum theory that specifically rejects paradigmatic orientations that they suggested have no place in the field, where ideology and “sound scholarship” are incompatible and where life experience should not be considered within the defined curriculum. Thus, they advocated for a depoliticized field in which “curriculum scholars shed ideological blinders, clearly delineate boundaries of the field, consciously build upon the field’s constructive legacies, and foster a robust interplay between curriculum theory and curriculum practice” (p. 435).

Three aspects of Wraga and Hlebowitsh’s (2003) framing are particularly important to highlight. The first is their lamentation that curriculum studies does not have the same amount of power or effectiveness that it once leveraged in schools in the United States. Their renaissance thus hints at a return to a romantic past where districts and schools relied on university scholarship for curricular guidance. Second, and fundamental to their overall analysis, is a pragmatic push for curriculum studies to embrace school practice. This aspect serves the dual purposes of critiquing critical scholars for being focused on theory and increasing the relevance of the field in the day-to-day operations of schools. Third, and as an extension of their pragmatism, is their idea that by focusing more on practice (what works and what needs to be done), curriculum studies necessarily should not incorporate ideology, politics, personal experience, culture, and other forms of subjectivity that might be brought to analyses of school knowledge.


Despite the strengths offered by postmodern subjectivity in curriculum studies and the concrete practicality called for by curricular pragmatists, both positions suffer from some critical shortcomings. For instance, Wraga and Hlebowitsh’s (2003) suggested curricular renaissance is extremely problematic. Most prominent is their push to focus on issues other than the existence of political, cultural, and ideological relationships between schools, the curriculum, and society—a position that seems questionable considering the sheer amount of empirical research that points to the centrality of such relationships to all aspects of the curriculum (see, e.g., Apple, 2004, 2006; Au, 2009). The boundaries of our knowledge, including what comes to “count” as legitimate curricular knowledge, are intimately intertwined with social and political relations (Apple, 2000; Bernstein, 1999; Buras, 2008; Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995). Further, it seems equally impossible to deny the ideological nature of all scholarship and research (Canagarajah, 2002; Harding, 2004a; Sandoval, 2000), particularly when researchers themselves lay claim to ideological neutrality and, by extension, methodological objectivity, associated with the positivistic sciences (Benton & Craib, 2001). In this regard, Wraga and Hlebowitsh’s (2003) call for curriculum studies to “shed ideological blinders” (p. 435) in search of some form of paradigmatic unity lends itself to a hegemonically defined field of curriculum studies (Morrison, 2004), one based more on positivistic epistemologies. In this sense, Wraga and Hlebowitsh’s response to critical politics in curriculum studies implies a call for a form of a normative pragmatism.

It is important to recognize that there is nothing inherently negative about the growth of criticality in curriculum studies, just as there is nothing inherently negative about a lack of paradigmatic unity in the field (Säfström, 1999). Indeed, one could argue that the diverse forms of critical analyses demonstrate the field’s resilience, strength, and adaptability. Further, given the conservative modernization that has taken place socially and educationally (Apple, 2006; Valenzuela, 2005), and the increasing institutional inequalities, both nationally and internationally, associated with neoliberal globalization (Lipman, 2004; McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2005), the critical turn in curriculum studies seems more than appropriate. Further still, the modern decline in the influence of curriculum studies in public education must be understood within the current context, particularly the shifting and diverse stakeholders involved in public school reform (Burch, 2009; Karp, 2010–2011) and the increasing influence of tests and textbook publishers on the curriculum (Au, 2007, 2009).

Despite these criticisms, its is equally important to acknowledge an important issue within curriculum studies that Wraga and Hlebowitsh (2003) identified: Curriculum studies as a whole would be better served if it were more grounded in schools (Apple, 2010). In their assessment, however, Wraga and Hlebowitsh flatly charged critical curriculum scholars with being particularly disconnected from actual curricular practice at the school and classroom levels. Such an assessment is curious because a significant body of the work done by such scholars specifically takes as its focus the politics of power and culture as it manifests in school knowledge at many levels, including the classroom (see, e.g., Anyon, 1980; Apple, 1986; Au, 2009; Beyer & Liston, 1996; Hickling-Hudson & Ahlquist, 2003; Sleeter, 2002).  Indeed, the intent of much critical scholarship in curriculum studies is to influence practice by taking up real-world issues, such as educational inequality, as a focus.

Intent, however, does not always equate with outcome, and despite the focus of some critical scholars on practice, the epistemological edges of postmodern analyses can lead to a disconnection from engagement with material reality (Au & Apple, 2009b). Thus, although it is absolutely necessary to recognize the crucial role that postmodernist analyses have played in challenging master narratives and injecting the lived experiences of peoples and cultures into all our work (Apple & Whitty, 2002; Lather, 1992), a difficulty arises that is due to postmodernism’s general rejection of a material world outside human perception and subjectivity (Benton & Craib, 2001; Bhaskar, 1989; Perry, 2002). Such a position in reaction to the hegemony of positivist sciences is understandable, but it negates our ability to change material and social conditions because within the postmodern epistemological-philosophical paradigm, we can never establish that those conditions—whether socially just or unjust—actually exist (Cole, 2003). It all becomes a matter of perception or, in the case of curriculum studies, a matter of language, discourse, and pure theorizing (Apple, 2010). Thus, although critical scholars embraced postmodernist subjectivity to lesser and greater degrees (and with lesser and greater effect), a disassociation from material reality is a serious consideration philosophically, epistemologically, and methodologically when postmodernism is brought to bear in any field or discipline (Au & Apple, 2009b), including curriculum studies (Apple, 2010; Au, 2011).


Despite my critiques, it follows that, like Wraga and Hlebowitsh (2003), I too wish to see a heightened focus on practice in curriculum studies, but not for the same reasons. Whereas they eschew critical scholars for focusing on theory (a far too simple assessment, as I argued earlier), I see curriculum studies as no different from the rest of social science research generally, which historically has struggled with connecting research with reality (Benton & Craib, 2001). Further, Wraga and Hlebowitsh’s clarion call for more attention to practice and without “ideological blinders” implies that the study of curriculum should exist in pragmatic isolation from context, so that our study of it can similarly share in what one might see as the positivist guise of objective, ideologically neutral research. Contrarily, my desire for an increased focus on practice is grounded in an opposite sensibility: In connecting curriculum to material reality, we acknowledge that it cannot be isolated from context and ideology and that our study of it should therefore be able to explain how, why, and to what ends those connections exist. Such strong grounding in material reality further requires that we recognize the ways in which those connections manifest through the various lenses of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, culture, ideology, and so on, that our identities embody as well.

If curriculum studies is to be revitalized through an increased focus on practice, then let us focus on practice as it exists in the context of the complex social, political, and cultural relations of the material world. Such a revitalization would necessarily draw on aspects of subjectivity found in the critical turn in curriculum studies, as well as call attention to practice somewhat akin to that suggested by Wraga and Hlebowitsh (2003). This revitalization would have to do so on different conceptual grounds that combine the strengths of both, while ameliorating their respective weaknesses of disconnection from material reality (postmodernist/subjectivity) and false pretenses to objectivity and nonideology (positivist/pragmatism). In what follows, I explain how standpoint theory offers a conceptual, methodological, and epistemological tool.


Standpoint theory formally originated with Lukacs (1971) and his elaboration of proletarian standpoint, a concept that he himself drew from Marx’s discussion of how different economic classes experience alienation from the production of commodities under capitalism in qualitatively different ways (Au, 2011; DeLissovoy, 2008). Lukacs (1971) then extended this argument to literally take up how different ways of understanding the world are implicated by different class locations within capitalism, where his analysis suggests that “every method is necessarily implicated in the existence of the relevant class” and that “the proletariat finds itself repeatedly confronted with the problem of its own point of departure . . . in its efforts to increase its theoretical grasp of reality” (p. 164).

In the 1970s and 1980s, critical feminist scholars (see, e.g., Hartsock, 1998a) drew on the concept of proletarian standpoint to challenge both masculinist norms and regressive gender politics found in scientific research (Benton & Craib, 2001; Harding, 2004a). Since then, standpoint theory—along with feminist studies more broadly—has struggled with its own internal politics of difference surrounding issues of race, class, nationality, and sexuality, in which feminists of color critiqued earlier manifestations of standpoint theory for upholding the notion of a “universal woman,” one that often neglected non-White, non-Western experiences (Foley, Levinson, & Hurtig, 2000; Hartsock, 1998a; Sandoval, 2000). In what follows, I sketch the outline of standpoint theory, one based on those theorists associated with more philosophically materialist conceptions (Benton & Craib), to argue the political and epistemological explanatory and analytic power that standpoint offers curriculum studies.

Standpoint theory builds from the basic understanding that power and knowledge are inextricably intertwined, that “they co-constitute and co-maintain each other” (Harding, 2004a, p. 67), and that this power relation is socially situated because, “for any particular interpretive context, new knowledge claims must be consistent with an existing body of knowledge that the group controlling the interpretive context accepts as true. The methods used to validate knowledge claims must also be acceptable to the group controlling the knowledge-validation process” (Hill Collins, 1989, p. 753). Thus, as an extension of the control over validated knowledge, in terms of methodology and epistemology, standpoint theory also operates under the assumption that “there are some perspectives on society from which . . . the real relations of humans with each other and with the natural world are not visible” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 107) because of the differential power relations relative to knowledge production and because of the epistemological limits carried with the viewpoint provided by specific social locations.

As it has been articulated by Hartsock (1998a) and Harding (2004a, 2004b), standpoint theory consists of five central themes that guide it epistemologically and methodologically:

First, standpoint theory asserts that our experiences with material reality—which also constitute our social relations—structure our epistemology of the world in ways that both limit and enable certain ways of understanding (Harding, 2004a; Hartsock, 1998a). That is to say, our social locations both enable us to see and understand the world more clearly with respect to our positionality and place limits on our ability to understand the world beyond that same positionality.

Second, because our experience and material life is embedded in and structured by systems of domination and rule that are organized hierarchically around power relations of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and other forms of socially determined difference, the epistemologies available to groups in power contradict and run counter to the epistemologies of less powerful groups—forming epistemological inversions of each other (Harding, 2004a; Hartsock, 1998a). Put simply, by nature of their different experiences from within their social locations, the ruler’s view of the world will in many ways be oppositional to that of the ruled.

Third, because of differentials in power (and how such power manifests unequally in social, cultural, and political institutions), the perspectives of those in power are made functional in the lives of everyone regardless of position, because “the ruling group can be expected to structure the material relations in which all people are forced to participate” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 229) as “all are forced to live in social structures and institutions designed to serve the oppressors’ understandings of self and society” (Harding, 2004a, p. 68). Thus, the skewed understanding of the world that is imposed institutionally by those in power illustrates how “epistemology grows in a complex and contradictory way from material life,” where a standpoint “explains the ‘surface’ or appearance, and indicates the logic by means of which the appearance inverts or distorts the deeper reality” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 107). Put differently, we might say that the unequal distribution of power leads to the unequal distribution of epistemologies, where those with more power can exert stronger influence on our common-sense understandings of the world, even if such common-sense understandings fundamentally operate as distorted conceptions of material reality (Gramsci, 1971).

Fourth, and as a consequence of the previous, a standpoint is always born of struggle against the common-sense, hegemonic epistemologies of those in power, making it an “achievement” that arises from active, conscious work against the reigning, institutionalized epistemologies that generally support status quo inequalities. Subsequently, a standpoint “must be struggled for against the apparent realities made ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ by dominant institutions” (Harding, 2004a, p. 68), the activity of which “requires both systematic analysis and the education that can only grow from political struggle to change those relations” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 229). As such, we can never assume that a standpoint is simply given by one’s social location; just because one comes from a marginalized social location does not mean that one automatically has taken up a standpoint. People from marginalized or less powerful groups can and do maintain forms of consciousness that are regressive, just as people from dominant groups can also develop forms of consciousness that are progressive. Rather, a standpoint arises from conscious resistant struggle against the prevailing and hegemonic forms of consciousness that maintain status quo inequalities.

Fifth, the taking up of a standpoint by the marginalized and less powerful carries with it the potential for liberation because it “makes visible the inhumanity of relations among human beings” (Hartsock, 1998, p. 229), emphasizing that “an oppressed group must become a group ‘for itself,’ not just ‘in itself’ in order for it to see the importance of engaging in political and scientific struggles to see the world from the perspective of its own lives” (Harding, 2004a, pp. 68–69).

Thus, the development of a standpoint necessarily requires the development of “oppositional consciousness” (Sandoval, 2000) as the less powerful create transformative epistemologies as part of their struggle against existing power relations. Indeed, this liberatory potential of standpoint makes it dangerous to the prevailing social order and therefore gives cause for the more powerful to actively seek to discredit such positions (Hill Collins, 1989).


Fundamentally, as outlined earlier, standpoint theory argues that certain social locations, specifically those of systematically oppressed or marginalized groups, provide the best “starting off thought” for generating “illuminating critical questions that do not arise in thought that begins from the dominant group lives” (Harding, 2004b, p. 128) because “marginalized lives are better places from which to start asking causal and critical questions about the social order” (p. 130). As Hartsock (1998a) explained,

The criteria for privileging some knowledges over others are ethical and political as well as purely “epistemological.” The quotation marks here are to indicate that I see ethical and political concepts such as that of power as involving epistemological claims on the one hand, and ideas of what is to count as knowledge involving profoundly important political and ethical stakes on the other. Marx made an important claim that knowledge that takes its starting point from the lives of those who have suffered from exploitation produces better accounts of the world than that starting from the lives of dominant groups . . . The view from the margins (defined in more heterogeneous terms) is clearer and better. (p. 80)

Thus, social location provides an important epistemological standpoint because not only does “the experience of domination . . . provide the possibility of important new understandings of social life” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 240), but it also provides a sharper view of material and social relations.

From this perspective, it follows that, its origins within feminism withstanding, standpoint theory is not a singularly feminist project (at least as far as feminism being defined as solely being about “women’s issues”). Rather, as Harding (2004b) explained,

The subject of liberatory feminist knowledge must also be, in an important if controversial sense, the subject of every other liberatory knowledge project. This is true in the collective sense of “subject of knowledge,” because lesbian, poor, and racially marginalized women are all women, and therefore feminists will have to grasp how gender, race, and class, and sexuality are used to construct each other. (p. 134)

Standpoint theory thus invites a recognition of personhood and one’s equality, which means that by definition, it must also be connected antiracist and antihomophobic positions, among others. Hence, standpoint has to contend with issues of power and oppression in a general sense because, as a paradigmatic orientation, standpoint openly acknowledges that the social location of the oppressed and marginalized (as defined by historical, social, cultural, and institutional contexts) is the best vantage point for starting knowledge projects given that it can provide a clearer, more truthful lens for understanding the world than that of hegemonic epistemologies.

To be clear, however, in making such arguments, standpoint theory does not argue for total epistemological relativity, where every socially located standpoint simply holds equal value relative to every other socially located standpoint. Rather, as Harding (2004b) asserted, standpoint theory

argues against the idea that all social situations provide equally useful resources for learning about the world and against the idea that they all set equally strong limits on knowledge. . . . Standpoint theory provides arguments for the claim that some social situations are scientifically better than others as places from which to start off knowledge projects.  (p. 131)

It follows that, rather than a call for epistemological relativism, a standpoint is perhaps better conceived as “a cognitive, psychological, and political tool for more adequate knowledge judged by the nonessentialist, historically contingent, situated standards of strong objectivity” (Haraway, 1991, as cited in Hartsock, 1998a, p. 236). Such a tool allows for “the creation of better (more objective, more liberatory) accounts of the world” (Hartsock, 1998a, p. 236)—even if, as Harding (2004b) asserted, “The epistemologically advantaged starting points for research do not guarantee that the researcher can maximize objectivity in her account; these grounds provide only a necessary—not sufficient—starting point for maximizing objectivity” (p. 128).

On a simple reading, it might seem contradictory that an epistemological and methodological orientation such as standpoint, one that essentially emphasizes a specific type of subjectivity related to social location, relies so heavily on concepts of objectivity—either in the form of Hartsock’s (1998a) references to “more objective” perspectives on the world, or what Harding (2004b) and Haraway (1991) referred to as “strong objectivity.” However, there is no contradiction in these scholars’ formulations; they recognize that there is a material world outside of human subjectivity that can in fact be understood and that such understanding takes place dialectically, through interaction and mutual reaction between humans and their environments (Allman, 2007). Hence, standpoint argues that we can achieve more objective understandings of that objectively existing world by not only recognizing subjectivity in our epistemology, but also purposefully embracing our subjectivity and actively reflecting on it within our sociopolitical environments (as well as actively reflecting on our knowledge processes themselves; see also, Freire, 1974). Harding (2004b) put it thusly:

Strong objectivity requires that the subject of knowledge be placed on the same critical, causal plane as the objects of knowledge. Thus, strong objectivity requires what we can think of as “strong reflexivity.” This is because culturewide  (or nearly culturewide) beliefs function as evidence at every stage of scientific inquiry: in the selection of problems, the formation of hypotheses, the design of research (including the organization of research communities), the collection of data, the interpretation and sorting of data, decisions about when to stop research, the way results of research are reported, and so on. The subject of knowledge—the individual and the historically located social community whose unexamined beliefs its members are likely to hold “unknowingly,” so to speak—must be considered as part of the object of knowledge from the perspective of scientific method. (p. 136)

Strong objectivity means that we gain a better, clearer, and more truthful—more strongly objective—understanding of social and material realities from the achievement of a standpoint in our knowledge projects because we “can take the subject as well as the object of knowledge to be a necessary object of critical, causal—scientific!—social explanations” (Harding, 2004b, p. 137).

It is critical to stress that strong objectivity must be understood within the context of standpoint theory specifically, and as such, its explanatory power does not arise simply from the assertions of Marx, Lukacs, Hartsock, or Harding. Rather, by taking into account the social construction of knowledge and the power relations that are thus expressed epistemologically as a result, standpoint theory is essentially grounded in the social fact that knowledge is a terrain of struggle and that those with more power socially, materially, and institutionally express their power through the assertion of epistemological norms. Further, standpoint theory recognizes that within these socioepistemological relationships, because those in power are often served through the obfuscation of reality, the epistemological perspectives of the marginalized are not automatically more truthful—marginalized groups certainly maintain misunderstandings of how the world functions (as we all do). Hence, it is also important to emphasize that standpoint arises from struggle with and against prevailing common-sense, hegemonic epistemologies. Strong objectivity is thus formed within this context as a struggle to understand material reality in ways that not only take the perspectives of multiple social locations into account, but also recognize that we must embrace the power relations embedded in those social locations—the entire purpose being to develop a fuller and more analytically sharp grasp of the world. Thus, because standpoint theory both recognizes forms of subjectivity associated with our various contexts and the existence of a concrete, material reality as the object of our research (a recognition that implicates action), it can function as a powerful epistemological and methodological tool for curriculum studies by bridging the subjectivist-pragmatist divide in the field.


Standpoint theory has been used sparingly in educational research. Some of the earliest applications arose within the milieu of the development of feminist pedagogies that challenged heterosexual, patriarchal norms of classroom interactions and sought to emphasize women’s narratives and points of view as critical entry points into a deeper and more full understanding of the world (Manicom, 1992; Weiler, 1991). Since then, standpoint theory has been discussed in relation to educational research generally and applied to a smattering of educational research projects. In terms of general discussions focusing on educational research, Greene (1994), for instance, briefly touched on the concept of standpoint theory in her review of contributions to shifting epistemologies in educational research, and Denzin and Lincoln (2000) saw standpoint theory as contributing new perspectives to the body of qualitative educational research. Howe (2009) further highlighted standpoint theory as an important challenge to issues associated with objectivist dogma found in positivist paradigms of scientific research, and Glasser and Smith (2008) noted that standpoint theory, as a manifestation of what they referred to as a “materialist accounts of gender” (p. 346), is used as one analytic framework for research on how the terms gender and sex are often conflated in educational scholarship. Foley et al. (2000), despite mistakenly identifying standpoint theory as simply research coming from women’s perspectives, ultimately upheld the novel contribution that standpoint makes to studies of gender in the field of educational anthropology. Fine (2006) offered strong objectivity as a guiding epistemological frame for critical scholarly research, and Sleeter (2000–2001), in her review of research on teacher education and equity, explicitly equated standpoint theory with what she referred to as “emancipatory research” (p. 235).

Although standpoint theory is addressed in synoptic texts on educational research, few specific research projects have made active use of it. For instance, Henry (1996), framing standpoint as “an act of political consciousness” (p. 364), discussed the role of Black women’s “oppositional standpoint” in her analysis of the ways that Black women teachers negotiate the cultural and pedagogic norms of predominantly White educational institutions. Bloom and Erlandson (2003) drew on a similar framework in their own analysis of Black female school administrators and their struggles for recognition within their school contexts. Yonezawa (2000) also made use of standpoint theory to understand how parents negotiate and make decisions regarding systems of educational tracking, and Andre-Bechely (2005) applied standpoint theory as one lens for analyzing how parents understand and experience school choice policies differently depending on their social locations. Spatig (2005) made use of standpoint theory in her feminist critique of developmentalist classroom practices that often advocate hands-off pedagogies that can produce inequalities, and Cooper (2005) used Black feminist standpoint to analyze how working-class African American women make sense of school voucher programs. Takacs (2002), in discussing how he addressed positionality in his social-justice-oriented teacher education courses, specifically referred to his use of strong objectivity to have both students and himself see beyond their socially located individual perspectives.

Watkins’s (1993) work on “Black Curriculum Orientations” essentially described a form of African American curricular standpoint. Setting the different approaches to African American education within the context of racism in the United States, he explained that “Black curriculum theorizing. . . is inextricably tied to the history of the Black experience in the United States. Black social, political, and intellectual development in all cases evolved under socially oppressive and politically repressive circumstance involving physical and intellectual duress and tyranny” (p. 322). Watkins went on to identify six Black curriculum orientations: functionalist, which focused on rudimentary skills for social functioning; accommodationist, which focused vocational training/manual labor “linked to colonialism, segregation, and subservience” (p. 325); liberal, consisting of missionary- and corporate-influenced standard liberal academics;  reconstructionist, which critiqued capitalism as the “facilitator and generator of racism” (p. 332); Afrocentrist, which placed the reclamation of traditional African culture at the center of curriculum and pedagogy; and Black nationalist, which adopted a Pan-Africanist, cultural nationalist, and Black separatist focus for learning.


Kumashiro (2002), without naming it as such, essentially applied standpoint in what he framed as “antioppressive education,” which he stated is

not something that happens when the curriculum is no longer partial. Rather, it happens when critical questions . . . are being asked about the partial curriculum. It is not a curriculum that is fully inclusive or that centers on critical texts. Rather, it is a process of looking beyond the curriculum. It is a process of troubling the official knowledge in the disciplines. It is a process of explicitly trying to read against common sense. (p. 62)

Here, Kumashiro suggested a basic form of curricular standpoint, one that actively challenges common-sense understandings of the world by doing what he termed “troubling the official knowledge in the disciplines.” Although not fully theorized, Kumashiro thus asserted not only that power relations exist within the structure of our curricular knowledge but also that antioppressive education, like a standpoint, is something that is achieved through critical analysis (the act of which is itself a form of intellectual action).

Connell’s (1994) work is one of the few to take up standpoint theory within curriculum studies specifically. Connell’s concept of “curricular justice” suggests that if schools are to work for social justice, they must examine the world from the “standpoint of the least advantaged” (p. 43):

The “standpoint of the least advantaged” means, concretely, that we think through economic issues from the standpoint of the poor, not the rich. We think through gender arrangements from the standpoint of women. We think through race relations and land questions from the standpoint of indigenous people. We think through questions of sexuality from the standpoint of gay people. And so on. (p. 43)

Connell thus advocated that our curriculum take the standpoint of the marginalized or oppressed, a position that he justified by arguing that “the current hegemonic curriculum embodies the interests of the most advantaged. Justice requires a counter-hegemonic curriculum. . . designed to embody the interests and perspectives of the least advantaged” (p. 44). Hence, we see Connell taking up the cardinal basis for standpoint—that curricular knowledge is intimately connected to power relations in society and that such relations are thus transmitted within hegemonic knowledge projects, including in schools. It is important to note that ample research supports Connell’s argument as it applies to school curriculum (see, e.g., Au, 2009; Au & Apple, 2009a; Sleeter & Stillman, 2005).

Of all the educational research and theorizing discussed here, DeLissovoy (2008) offered the most developed treatment of standpoint theory. In his piece, DeLissovoy discussed Hartsock (1983), whom he said “transposes the notion of class position in Marxism onto the category of gender in arguing for a feminist political and epistemological standpoint” (DeLissovoy, p. 84). Although highlighting the political-philosophical strength of this epistemological turn, DeLissovoy went on to discuss what he saw as the limitations of Hartsock’s (1983) and others’ (e.g., Collins, 2000; Harding, 1997) conceptions of standpoint theory: mainly, that if we take each distinct social position as the basis for a standpoint, then “each standpoint ultimately appears inadequate for understanding social life outside of the characteristic experience of that group” (DeLissovoy, p. 85).

Some educational researchers have also made sharp critiques of the use of standpoint theory. One line of such critiques represents positivist attacks on epistemologies and methodologies that take context and subjectivity into account. For instance, some scholars ultimately seek to deny the contextual basis for all knowledge while simultaneously denying the existence of hierarchies of power that determine social location (see, e.g., Landau, 2008) and hence have incorrectly labeled standpoint theory as a “wholly discredited theory of science” (Pinnick, 2008, p. 1056). Other lines of critique represent misunderstandings and misconstructions of standpoint theory itself. Siegel (2006), for instance, misconstrued epistemological standpoints as perspectives that simply arise from essentialist, universal positionalities associated with identity politics—a position that explicitly contradicts Hartsock’s (1998a) and Harding’s (2004a, 2004b) conception of standpoint, outlined earlier. In his critique of standpoint theory, Siegel went on to conflate neutrality with strong objectivity, and then argued for the lack of neutrality in all research. Siegel’s critique proves ironic because not only is it factually incorrect, given that Harding’s (2004b) notion of strong objectivity is foundationally based on the idea that there is no neutrality in research at all, but he also went on to uphold the very kind of subjectivity that Harding (2004b) advocated for quite clearly in her analysis.

These positivistic and erroneous attacks aside, there are some critical issues to address with how standpoint theory has been used in educational research. Henry (1996), Andre-Bechely (2005), and Foley et al. (2000), for instance, despite their constructive use of standpoint theory, incorrectly framed it as mainly a feminist project that merely takes women’s perspectives into account. Indeed, this applies to DeLissovoy’s explanation of standpoint theory as well, despite his quite powerful analysis. In my read of Hartsock, especially her more recent writings, I do not see her arguing for a standpoint epistemology that only applies to a singular social group (e.g., women only, as part of a feminist standpoint), as DeLissovoy (2008) specifically outlined in his critique. Rather, as explained in my above detailing of her work, for Hartsock (1998a), the issue is that of the standpoint of the oppressed, with an explicit recognition of how gender, in combination with other social locations such as race, class, and sexuality, influences how we “know” the world, which in turn influences and informs all research/knowledge projects in some way. As such, educational researchers making use of standpoint theory to look at intersections of gender and race (Andre-Bechely; Bloom & Erlandson, 2003; Henry), for instance, could further strengthen their analyses by explicitly acknowledging how class, race, sexuality, and other aspects of our identities are an integral part of standpoint theory as well (Harding, 2004b).

Further, it is important to note that my own critique of DeLissovoy (2008) is friendly and constructive, given that his work has pushed on the edges of critical educational research in very positive ways, and his considerations of standpoint theory in educational research remain some of the most theoretically and conceptually developed. Indeed, in this case, it seems to me that DeLissovoy’s work would simply benefit from a reading of Hartsock’s more recent writings, which include specific replies to her critics and increased explanatory clarity in her conception of standpoint theory (Hartsock, 1998a, 1998b). Indeed, my engagement with DeLissovoy (2008) points to the most significant critique to be made of how standpoint theory has been used in educational theory generally, and curriculum studies more specifically: It has been undertheorized. This is critical because if standpoint theory is to be used more widely in education and fields such as curriculum studies, then a more fully elaborated framework is required. In what follows, I offer such a framework in hopes that it can exist as a tool for the revitalization of curriculum studies, one that both acknowledges relations of power in school knowledge and is committed to the reformation of those same relations as they exist concretely in schools and society.


In light of the preceding discussion, I would argue that it is crucial that standpoint theory be brought more substantively and consciously into curriculum studies as an epistemological, methodological, and conceptual tool for the interrogation of and inquiry into school knowledge, one that recognizes the subjectivity associated with analyses of unequal social and educational relations, as well as one that embraces the centrality of addressing curricular issues in practice. In what follows, I articulate a guiding framework for using the key aspects of standpoint theory, outlined earlier, as a model for what I refer to as curricular standpoint:

First, curricular knowledge, as an extension and expression of material and social relations, structures our understanding of the world in ways that are both limiting and enabling. In this sense, the curriculum itself communicates epistemologies associated with particular social locations, and in doing so creates potentialities for understanding the world more clearly or in more obscurity relative to such locations.

Second, because schools and school knowledge exist within institutional and social contexts that are themselves structured by systems of domination and rule organized hierarchically around power relations of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and other forms of socially determined categorical difference, the curricular knowledge asserted by groups in power generally support status quo, hegemonic social relations and epistemologies. This curricular knowledge thus often contradicts and runs counter to the epistemologies and curricular knowledge advanced by oppressed groups. Put differently, the curriculum of the ruler will in many ways be oppositional to the curriculum of the ruled.

Third, because of unequal power relations, the curricular perspectives of those in power are made operational in generally hegemonic and common-sense forms in school knowledge for everyone, regardless of social location and regardless of whether such perspectives are congruent with (or contradict) the material and social realities of students, teachers, and their communities. Put differently, the unequal distribution of power leads to the unequal distribution of specific curricular knowledge, where those with more power can exert stronger influence on our common-sense understandings of the world vis-à-vis the curriculum, even if such common-sense understandings fundamentally operate as distorted conceptions of material and social reality.

Fourth, because school knowledge is always embedded within dominant power relations, curricular standpoint requires struggle against those very same power relations. In this sense, curricular standpoint is achieved, not given, because it arises from active, systematic, and conscious reflection on and consideration of the reigning, hegemonic, institutionalized forms of curricular knowledge.

Fifth, curricular standpoint carries with it the potential for human liberation because it works to reveal unequal social and material relations as part of a process that can (not will) contribute to the taking of action to change those same unequal social and material relations. Further, curricular standpoint helps in the development of “oppositional consciousness” (Sandoval, 2000) as students, teachers, and researchers potentially develop ways of understanding the world that can trigger their own resistance to both status quo knowledge and relations, which in turn develops their capacity to take transformational action individually, institutionally, and socially. Thus, the potential of human liberation embedded in curricular standpoint moves us beyond simple critique as it also calls on us to push both epistemological and curricular boundaries of the possible. In this sense, curricular standpoint requires a commitment not only to critique, but also to vision and creativity.

Sixth, curricular standpoint requires that we seek to develop strong objectivity relative to curricular knowledge and that we be strongly reflexive not only about the standpoint of knowledge itself, but also about the origins, politics, and process of how knowledge itself makes its way into the curriculum. Indeed, curricular standpoint is itself a product of strong objectivity, because it immediately and explicitly recognizes the politics of school knowledge in such a way that places the curriculum itself (as an object) on the same plane as the subject knowledge contained within the curriculum.


In what follows, I briefly analyze some curricular materials that embrace standpoint in practice. This undertaking serves two concrete purposes with regard to my discussion here. First, it serves as an example of the importance of linking curriculum studies to what teachers are doing with students in classrooms. Second, by analyzing how these teachers take up standpoint epistemology in their curricular practice, I am also offering an example of how the framework for curricular standpoint developed here can be used for further research in curriculum studies. In a sense, then, in what follows, I use curricular standpoint to consider examples of curricular materials that themselves take up standpoint in the manner I advocate for here—offering curriculum standpoint in both form and function.

Although they are not explicitly articulated as such, there already exist a number of lesson plan collections and curricula that take up curricular standpoint (see, e.g., Bigelow, 2006; Menkhart, Murray, & View, 2004; Wei & Kamel, 1998). Christensen’s “Putting Out the Linguistic Welcome Mat” (2009) provides a brief concrete example of curricular standpoint in practice. In this piece, Christensen discussed her curriculum on language and power and included classroom strategies and resources that she uses with her high school language arts students. She explained,

During 30 years as a language arts classroom teacher, I realized that if I wanted my students to open up in their writing, to take risks and engage in intellectually demanding work, I needed to challenge assumptions about the superiority of Standard English and the inferiority of the home language of many of my black students: African American Vernacular English. . . . When students feel attacked by the red pen or the tongue for the way they write or speak, they either make themselves small—turning in short papers—or don’t turn papers in at all. To build an engaging classroom where students from different backgrounds felt safe enough to dare to be big and bold in their writing, I had to build a curricular platform for them to stand on . . . I finally realized that I needed to create a curriculum on language and power that examined the roots of language supremacy and analyzed how schools perpetuate the myths of the inferiority of some languages. (p. 91)

Using a variety of films, readings, and writing activities, Christensen introduces her students to the origins and grammatical rules of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and with stunning effect. As she recounted, as her African American students learned that AAVE actually had systemic linguistic roots in West African culture, they actively began to challenge forms of internalized racism they had learned relative to their home languages. Further, Christensen highlighted how this curriculum aided students in developing a metacognitive understanding of not only the structures of AAVE, but also the relationship between AAVE and Standard English—thus creating the potential for these students to take conscious action relative to their own educational futures through an applied awareness of linguistic tools such as code switching and meta-awareness of Standard English itself.

Christensen’s (2009) classroom practice clearly takes up curricular standpoint: She explicitly acknowledges the ways in which social relations and systems of domination exist within classroom knowledge and linguistic practice (in this case, AAVE). In an attempt to have her curriculum reflect the social and material realities of her African American students, and in an embrace of the ways in which language intertwines with culture and identity, Christensen’s curriculum thus takes up the standpoint of a marginalized form of the English language while also taking the standpoint of a marginalized racial/cultural group within the United States. In the process, she works with students to uncover linguistic relationships that may have been previously obscured from student consciousness. Further, Christensen’s curricular standpoint represents a conscious act on the teacher’s part, something that, after having reflected on 30 years of teaching, she had to work to achieve in her practice. Additionally, we see that this curricular standpoint embraces action in that Christensen also sees her curriculum as providing her students with increased abilities to develop their writing skills—a pedagogic move requires action on the part of both the teacher and the students. Finally, although Christensen uses AAVE as her starting point, she is quick to point out that the resources she uses actually speak to a wide range of nonstandard forms of the English language. Thus, the issue for Christensen is the validation of “home language,” regardless of the cultural specifics of one’s home.

Another good example of curricular standpoint in practice can be found in Gutstein’s (2009) “Math, SATs, and Racial Profiling.” In this piece, Gutstein described the work he has done with students using lenses of race and class as a standpoint to connect students with his mathematics content. First, Gutstein discussed his mathematics lesson on racial profiling, where he explained that “The essence of profiling is proportion and expected value: A higher proportion of African Americans (or Arabs/Arab Americans today) are stopped and searched than would be expected given their percentage in the population—assuming random (i.e., fair) searches or stops” (p. 342). Using graphing calculators and dice, Gutstein leads students through activities that illustrate the concept of theoretical probability. Students then compare what they have learned about theoretical probability with statistics on police traffic stops, illustrating a clear pattern of racial profiling by police officers in the area.

In the same article, Gutstein (2009) described similar work with mathematics students regarding issues of economic class and race relative to the college-entrance SAT exam. As part of a unit on data analysis and creating scatter plots (a type of graph that can be used to look at correlations between two variables), Gutstein’s students used raw SAT data that had been disaggregated by race and class to look for correlations between the two data sets relative to SAT scores. Students found that SAT scores clearly correlated with family income, and they saw that specific racial groups, such as working-class Mexican Americans (the predominant racial group at Gutstein’s school), were clustered close to the bottom. These data raised many questions for the students that revolved around issues of race and class relative to school achievement generally. In response, Gutstein’s students wrote critical letters to the Educational Testing Service (the institutional body responsible for creating a administering the SAT) that outlined the correlations they found and that requested that changes be made to this gatekeeper college entrance exam.

Much like the preceding example of Christensen’s (2009) language arts curriculum, Gutstein’s (2009) mathematics instruction also demonstrates curricular standpoint. Most immediately, we see how Gutstein used the social location both of his students and other marginalized communities more generally as a starting point for classroom knowledge projects. In doing so, he further pushed students to confront and reflect on their social and material reality in a way that not only named important issues they faced in their lives, but also created a potential for them to take action—large or small. Again, the curricular standpoint in Gutstein’s teaching is also an achievement, because it too required a conscious struggle with the politics of knowledge in what is often incorrectly considered an apolitical subject area—mathematics. Students also took part in the process of achievement on two levels. First, from an academic skills perspective, these students are learning important mathematical concepts and putting them into practice. Second, from an epistemological perspective, these students are also struggling against the same apolitical conception of mathematics knowledge faced by their teacher and are also struggling with the political reality of educational inequality that the curricular standpoint brings to bear. This last point raises one of the most important aspects of Gutstein’s curricular standpoint: Mathematics is used here to specifically gain a more strongly objective understanding of how the material and social world functions. Thus, it illustrates a reach for understanding reality more objectively and in ways that run contradictory to hegemonic constructions of both the legal and education systems in the United States as unbiased and individually “fair” institutions. Such understanding is critical because it always carries with it the potential for reconstruction, revision, and transformation (Bernstein, 1996).


In this article, I have entered into the scholarly debate surrounding the present state of the field of curriculum studies, its direction, and its future. I have argued that if curriculum studies is to be revitalized relative to education and what happens in schools, then the field would be well-served by interrogating issues that are critically relevant to contemporary educational and social conditions, with particular attention paid to how power and inequality manifest in their myriad forms. Further, vis-à-vis standpoint theory, I have attempted to chart a conceptual and methodological course for curriculum studies that explicitly allows for the recognition of the importance of identity struggles and subjective interpretations of experience relative to the existence of objectively existing material and social relations.

However, in bringing standpoint theory more deeply into education generally, and curriculum studies specifically, I want to reiterate an important point, one that serves as a caution against an important and common misunderstanding of standpoint theory generally: Social location, within the context of socioeconomic relations, is what determines standpoint. Thus, we cannot simply fragment standpoint to constitute all the various subjectivities we might find in any given society, if for no other reason than unequal power relations are hegemonic, and standpoint arises from the social location of the marginalized or oppressed. “Standpoint” does not simply equate to “perspective” in the colloquial sense that “everybody has a standpoint.” Rather, standpoint refers to the socially situated perspective of the oppressed or marginalized, a perspective that only exists in context and relative to existing social relations.

Similarly, it is equally important to highlight that standpoint is considered a starting point for knowledge projects—as an epistemological and methodological grounds for inquiry into understanding the world. As such, it shapes the kinds of questions we ask and the overall orientation of our knowledge projects and our curriculum. In this sense, Connell’s (1994) treatment of standpoint in social justice education is precisely right: If we want to understand patriarchy and sexism, then, given the power and privilege of men in our current social relations, we stand a better chance of getting a clearer, more strongly objective understanding of patriarchy and sexism if we take up the standpoint of women as the starting point for our inquiry. This immediately implies two things relative to my analysis here. First, it means that standpoints should not automatically be fragmented abstractly into the various possible subjectivities that simply exist in our world. To do so would incorrectly give rise to the idea that different standpoints somehow compete with each other for being closer to material reality. Rather, standpoints exist relative to specific knowledge projects, as part of specific inquiries into specific phenomena, all of which exist within specific social relations. What this means is that we are never taking up standpoint in the general sense and instead must always be looking at standpoint in reflexive relation to the specific object, process, or area of study. Second, it means that curricular standpoint (both in terms of the study of curriculum and in terms standpoint in the curriculum) functions relative to the specific social, political, and economic context of schools, school knowledge, and educational research.

Curricular standpoint, as I have conceptualized it here, follows Fraser (1995) in that it effectively addresses the tension between subjectivity and materiality, a tension that exists historically as that between the politics of recognition (identity) and the politics of redistribution (material/structural) in social science discourse as well. As Fraser explained,

This distinction between economic injustice and cultural injustice is analytical. In practice, the two are intertwined. Even the most material economic institutions have a constitutive, irreducible cultural dimension; they are shot through with significations and norms. Conversely, even the most discursive cultural practices have a constitutive, irreducible political-economic dimension; they are underpinned by material supports. Thus, far from occupying two airtight separate spheres, economic injustice and cultural injustice are usually interimbricated so as to reinforce one another dialectically. Cultural norms that are unfairly biased against some are institutionalized in the state and the economy; meanwhile, economic disadvantage impedes equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres and in everyday life. (pp. 72–73)

As such, curricular standpoint provides a conceptual and political synthesis that attends to culture/identity and to issues of materiality and practice in curriculum studies itself.

Thus, the framework for curricular standpoint that I have conceptualized and put into brief practice here offers one way (and only one among many possibilities) for the field of curriculum studies to find such critical relevance. As such, I hope to have provided a conceptual tool for justifying the privileging of marginalized or oppressed groups in curriculum studies as part of an appeal to understanding material and social reality as it exists in ways that are more truthful and more objective than what hegemonic perspectives provide us—while still acknowledging the dialectical relationship of subjectivity to that same material and social reality (Au, 2011). In this sense, the type of revitalization I am calling for follows DeLissovoy (2008), who observed that “the violence done to individual students’ spirits, psyches, and identities represents the same process as the preservation of economic and political privilege for elite groups. This dynamic cannot be grasped holistically from any perspective that analytically splits the cultural from the economic” (p. 100).  Curricular standpoint thus calls for the revitalization of the field of curriculum studies as a critical, intervening force in the struggle against not only the cultural and political problems that have manifested in our schools during the period of conservative modernization (Apple, 2006; Valenzuela, 2005), but the persistent structural and material inequalities (Ladson-Billings, 2006) that exist as well.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 5, 2012, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16421, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 7:07:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Wayne Au
    University of Washington–Bothell
    E-mail Author
    WAYNE AU is an assistant professor in the Education Program at the University of Washington–Bothell Campus, and he is an editor for the social justice education magazine, Rethinking Schools. His research focuses on critical education theory, teaching for social justice, and critical educational policy studies. Au most recently coedited The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Education (Routledge, 2010) and authored Critical Curriculum Studies: Education, Consciousness, and the Politics of Knowing (Routledge, 2011).
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