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The Politics of Education: A Critical Introduction

reviewed by Kathleen Nolan - June 08, 2014

coverTitle: The Politics of Education: A Critical Introduction
Author(s): Kenneth J. Saltman
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1612054439, Pages: 243, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

We live in an era in which young people interested in education and social justice—popular themes on college campuses—are in dire need of critical frameworks to interrogate prevailing educational policy trends lest they buy into dominant, commonsense rhetoric that privatization, “no excuses” charter schools, or curricular alignment with national economic interests has anything to do with a “new civil rights.” This goes double for aspiring teachers entering teacher prep programs, which under pressure from neoliberal reformers and accreditation councils, have become increasingly uncritical in the last several years. In this context, Kenneth Saltman’s new book, The Politics of Education: A Critical Introduction, is a valuable addition to educational studies, and at 127 pages, it is short enough to slip—surreptitiously if necessary—into any educational studies or teacher prep curriculum.

There have been many books in recent years offering important critiques of neoliberal education policy or expounding on the uses of critical theory in education, but perhaps none so pedagogical in its organization and content. Along with a readable introduction to a variety of useful theoretical frameworks, the book offers highlighted essential terminology, a glossary, chapter study questions, and at the end of the book, a collection of case studies of educational struggles from around the globe.

In each chapter, Saltman creatively weaves together the ideas of important cultural and critical theorists, philosophers, and educational scholars to offer readers a distinct theoretical framework for the critical analysis of educational policy and practice. Together, the various frameworks discussed in the book help the reader understand that teaching, regardless of one’s desire to “stay out of politics,” is a deeply political act, and schools are both sites of the reproduction of inequality and contested spaces with emancipatory potential.

In the introduction, Saltman briefly outlines the recent history of the rise of neoliberal, market-based educational policy. He also distinguishes the critical perspective in education, which he delineates throughout the book, from both liberal and conservative perspectives. He argues that criticalists, unlike conservatives and liberals, recognize both the reproductive and transformative potential of schools, view culture and knowledge as unfixed, and call for the theorization of practice.  

Subsequent chapters include discussions on culture, political economy, the psychology of education, hegemony, race and disciplinary control, biopolitics, and gender. While each chapter offers a unique framework, there are two overarching themes throughout: relations of power, social structure, and the school and teachers’ role in the construction of (subordinated) subjectivities, on the one hand, and the transformative capacity of human agency and critical pedagogy on the other.

Saltman’s discussion of culture draws mainly on the work of Stuart Hall, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul Willis to theorize culture as a dynamic process and cultural politics as a site of struggle over meaning. In his discussion of the political economy of schooling, he draws on Bowles and Gintis and the work of early reproduction theorists, Althusser and Bourdieu. Later in the book, Saltman discusses disciplinary power and race. Here, Saltman draws largely on Foucault, but the strength of the analysis is his discussion of Ann Ferguson’s ethnographic work, which illuminates the ways in which institutional power and discourses construct Black boys as bad. These three discussions on culture, social class reproduction, and race are some of the most widely known frameworks for critically analyzing education, and in several parts of the book, Saltman connects them directly to timely discussions of standardization, cultural bias in standardized tests, the Common Core, scripted learning, militaristic discipline, and the disparate impact of privatization across low-income, urban districts and well-resourced, suburban districts.

Saltman also introduces lesser-known (within the field of education) theoretical frameworks. For example, he offers a clarifying discussion of what might otherwise be the impenetrable theories of Marcuse, Zizek, Elizabeth Ellsworth, and Foucault to provide aspiring teachers a critical psychology framework for the analysis of ideology and the teachers’ role in the formation of subjectivities in the classroom. And in another interesting chapter on biopolitics, Saltman discusses the current test score fetish and the normalization of pharmaceutical drugs to pacify students into test-taking mode.

Later chapters offer a more detailed discussion of neoliberal school reform and the politics of globalization. And in the penultimate chapter (before the case studies), Saltman draws mainly on his own prior work to push the critical educational perspective beyond its critical pedagogical focus on political engagement and cultural interpretation toward a conception of schooling for egalitarian forms of economic activity.

Overall, the book is a timely contribution. It offers clear introductions to a wide range of strands in critical theory useful for the study of the politics of education. Nevertheless, there are some limitations. It seemed that Saltman, at times, under-utilized theoretically informed, empirical research to bridge discussions of abstract theory and specific policies and practices, particularly as they relate to racial inequality. He does draw nicely on Willis’s important work to offer a class-based analysis of culture and Ferguson’s work to illuminate the school’s role in the construction of Black masculinity, but there were other moments when I felt that seminal or key analyses were missing. Jean Anyon’s seminal ethnographic work (1980), for example, would have helped to illuminate further the ways in which prescribed curriculum and classroom interactions serve to reproduce inequality across race and class lines.

Other seminal concepts, such as, teachers’ dysconscious racism (King, 1991) or more recent qualitative work that draws on critical race theory and the critical stands of culturally responsive pedagogy also might have helped to bridge class-based theories of culture or abstract discussions of the teacher’s role in the construction of subjectivities to everyday life in the classroom and to the micro-politics of racial subordination. Along these lines, Saltman might have also drawn from the growing bodies of scholarship on the relationship between race and social class in schooling, cultural political economy, and critical race policy studies to explicate more fully for the reader the ways in which racial inequality is both produced and obscured within the current political, economic and policy context.  

These limitations of the book do not negate its important contribution, however. Regardless of what might be “missing” from the book, it offers an excellent springboard to prepare students to think critically about their teaching practice and engagement in the politics of education.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. The Sociology of Education, 162, 1250.

King, J. E. (1991). Dysconscious racism: Ideology, identity, and the miseducation of teachers. Journal of Negro Education, 133–46.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17558, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 3:13:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Nolan
    Princeton University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN NOLAN is a lecturer at Princeton University in the Program in Teacher Preparation and American Studies. Her research interests include the social context of urban schooling, school discipline, the politics of school reform, and ethnographic methods. Currently, she is conducting ethnographic research on the lived experience of urban school reform. She is the author of “La Educación in Room 320: Toward a Theory of Care-based Resistance in the Context of Neo-liberal School Reform,” (forthcoming) in Teachers College Record, “Neoliberal commonsense and race-neutral discourses: a critique of ‘evidence-based’ policy-making in school policing,” (2014) in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
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