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Teachers & Texts: A Political Economy of Class & Gender Relations

reviewed by Philip Panaritis - 1989

coverTitle: Teachers & Texts: A Political Economy of Class & Gender Relations
Author(s): Michael W. Apple
Publisher: Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
ISBN: 0415900743, Pages: , Year: 1988
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There is a weird power in a spoken word. . . . And a word carries far very far—deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Michael W. Apple’s Teachers & Texts: A Political Economy of Class & Gender Relations in Education is a book about words and their history, context, and power to subordinate our classrooms. It is an important book, and this is precisely why I must also say that I am saddened to imagine that few classroom teachers will read it. Suppose we were to pick our most capable, curious, and reflective colleagues, and personally hand them this book. If my experience in doing just that is typical, it is unlikely that Apple’s book will gain the audience it deserves.

The title suggests that a good deal of the book examines teachers themselves. Apple believes that the current status of teachers must be understood in light of the (often exploitative) relationships between the powerful and the powerless. “By not seeing education relationally, by not seeing it as created out of the economic, political and cultural conflicts that have historically emerged in the United States and elsewhere, [educators] too often place educational questions in a separate compartment, one that does not easily allow for interaction with the relations of class, gender and racial power that give education its social meaning” (p. 5).

By viewing teaching as labor process, we see today’s nostrums-accountability and centralized authority in light of a historical struggle for control of the workplace. “Scientific management” techniques have sought to increase “efficiency’ on the shop floor by reducing each task to its atomistic parts. Skills are minimized. Conception is divorced from implementation. Worker disaffection is commonplace. Today the “process of proletarianization” (p. 31) is accelerating. Swaddled in this dissimulating cloak of the “service economy” and the “challenging high-tech jobs of tomorrow,” the majority of present and future workers face a diminished future.

The author argues that the corporate economy, rather than confronting its systemic inequities and contradictions, prefers to “export the blame” (p. 17) and thus students and teachers are to blame for everything from Japanese computer chips to the disintegration of the American family. Their answer of course is to make schools conform to the needs of our economy, so that they become “appendages of national economic policy” (p. 14). “If structural conditions within a corporate society constantly generate these lamentable conditions,” he wonders, “is giving more of the school over to the needs of capital the solution?” (p. 138).

Just as the assembly line and time-and-motion studies contributed to the proletarianization of industrial labor, so has the work of teachers often been restructured downward to conform to a reductive model of accountability. In a passage sure to sound familiar to many of us, Apple examines the effects of chronic testing, record-keeping, and evaluation of prescribed “mastery” on teachers. “There is so much to do that simply accomplishing what is specified requires nearly all of one’s efforts” (p. 44). Counter intuitively, downward does not mean less work, only less control, fewer privileges, and greater dependence on hierarchical authority.

Woven throughout his analysis is the theme of teaching as “women’s work.” The peculiar status of twentieth-century teachers cannot be understood unless we understand what “professionalism” meant to millions of our (largely female) colleagues. Aside from their well-known economic exploitation, female teachers were expected to conform to the “ideologies of patriarchy” (p. 72). In exchange for the $75 per month, a standard teacher contract of 1923 stipulated that “Miss_____agrees: To be home between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. . . . Not to loiter downtown in ice cream stores. . . . Not to ride in a carriage or automobile with any man except her father or brother. . . . To wear at least two petticoats” (p. 73) and so on.

Before we snicker and congratulate ourselves on having come such a long way since then, the author would like us to consider the role of gender in our schools today. Teachers are still overwhelmingly female. The economic status of women in our nation is still less than two-thirds that of men, and the gap has increased in recent years. In 1928, 55 percent of elementary school principals were women. Today, most elementary teachers are still women, but women hold only 20 percent of elementary school principal ships (p. 33). The business of educational publishing continues to be dominated by white males. The seemingly neutral tools of high technology are more accessible to male students, while females are often tracked into “pink-collar” ghettos. In my high school, not a single male is enrolled in the Clerical Office Skills track, while females are underrepresented in the more prestigious and remunerative Computer Programming major.

For all its critical analysis, Teachers & Texts is not satisfied to curse the darkness. Apple constantly reminds us of the past and present struggles of our colleagues to mediate and transform the status quo. In his final chapter he challenges us to match the efforts of teachers here and abroad as they struggle to escape the bonds of dominant ideology. At the same time, he challenges his colleagues in academia to develop “constant and close ties to the real world of teachers, students and parents” (p. 204). The first step is to educate ourselves: “People - including educators -need to be convinced that the current and emerging organization of a large part of our economic, political and cultural institutions is neither equal nor just” (p. 178).

It is incumbent on educational scholars to write books that are accessible to teachers. They should no longer pretend that teachers ought to come “up” to them. The unpleasant truth of the matter is that most classroom teachers regard the world of educational scholarship not with awe at its wisdom, not with envy at its virtuosity, but as profoundly irrelevant to their professional lives. Classroom teachers are not necessarily put off by “education books” because they are narrow or technical, but rather because they are too often stubbornly opaque, needlessly arcane, and unremittingly witless. The point is that some of us imagine that “serious” writing demands that the reader be so disregarded.

Neither are classroom teachers necessarily discouraged by scholarly writing about education because it may wrestle with a complex body of theory. Good teachers relish abstractions. We are forever trying to lead our students-and ourselves-from the literal to the general. Few of us imagine that the events of the French Revolution are in themselves worth knowing, unless a knowledge of them will allow youngsters to reflect on the nature of power, theories of class struggle, and so on. What the best teachers-and not coincidentally the best writers- work very hard to cultivate is the careful art of making us want to know; making us want to turn the page; helping us make sense of what we imagined to be insensible; connecting what we do not know with what we know, and what thought we knew; helping us wonder at what is simple, what is complex, and what is neither; tantalizing us with the odd glimpse of fleeting insight; always, challenging us to turn the page.

Teachers & Texts is more accessible to classroom teachers than a good deal of writing about education -compared with Apple’s previous Education and Power, it is positively lucid-but it nonetheless belongs to the impoverished species called “education books.” I do not mean to suggest that Apple is oblivious to this problem, for he does conclude this book with gentle, but occasionally pointed, criticism of educational theorists, their tendency to write for one another, their disregard for making their work accessible to others. “Clarity begins at home,” he admonishes “those of us who engage in critical scholarship” (p. 204). Well put. Now the task is to figure out where “at home” is, and to what extent our respective notions of “at home” inhibit a discourse between scholar and teacher and keep our proud, but almost pathetically small, homes from being a community.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 123-126
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 432, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:16:45 AM

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