The State and the Politics of Knowledge

reviewed by Richard D. Lakes - 2004

coverTitle: The State and the Politics of Knowledge
Author(s): Michael W. Apple
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 041593513X, Pages: 259, Year: 2003
Search for book at

Michael Apple’s newest book benefits from a group of international collaborators who analyze educational politics in the Pacific Rim countries of South Korea and Singapore, the Polynesian Islands in Oceania, the Scandinavian nations of Sweden and Norway, Brazil, and the United States.  Viewed in light of what Apple terms “official knowledge,” the book exposes conservative state policymaking in the reforms of curriculum and schools, colonizing discourses in the production of knowledge, and resistance to hegemonic domination through progressive social movements.  


A case study of textbook selection in the United States, co-authored by Michael Apple and Anita Oliver, gives understanding to social movement origins and structures.  Parents of a semi-rural community initially opposed to the content of readings in a language-arts series united to fight the school board over its adoption.  Interestingly, the early makeup of this group reflected religious diversity and mainstream politics, and refused to be identified with a New Right agenda.  As the conflict escalated due to inflexible school district leadership portraying the opposition as a bunch of religious conservatives and reducing the parental concerns to censorship issues, the alliance moved into a more active, rightwing posture—as an accidental formation by the state “which may have expanded its policing functions over knowledge for good reasons but responds in ways that increase the potential for rightist movements to grow” (p. 47).


Hannah Tavares analyzes the popular cultural representations of Polynesia Islanders and deconstructs the raced and gendered meanings of identities constructed through imperialism.  She looks at contemporary artifacts such as Mattel’s Polynesian Barbie doll as well as Hollywood films of the “hula girl”—and a wide swath of historical ephemera including guidebooks and posters from the grand era of Hawaiian steamship tourism in the 1920s and 1930s.  Colonizing tropes for Polynesia (and all of Oceania) as exotic and primitive, sexualized and childlike remain today, inscribed in the cultural production of knowledge that had its origins in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature on Tahiti and the South Seas.


Ting-Hong Wong and Michael Apple examine state formation of schooling in Singapore from the years 1945 to 1965, and detail a number of curricular reform policies in that period relating to unifying the polyglot nation of indigenous Malays, immigrant Chinese, and Anglo-Dutch colonists, among others.   While pre-war demographics showed increases of Chinese residents on the Malayan Peninsula, for instance, Chinese schools in Singapore basically were ignored under British colonial rule.  Only when the governing regime wanted to prepare its peoples for self-rule (starting in 1955) did the elites take an interest in de-Sinicizing the citizenry.  Additionally, governmental officials in postcolonial Singapore had difficulties with nation building due to the Anglicized curriculum and testing materials which “prolonged the state’s dependence on the British model” (p. 97).


Petter Aasen from the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Research and Education analyzes educational restructuring in Scandinavia in the latter decades of the twentieth century.  He points out the tensions embedded within historic social democratic traditions that honored progressivism but in the 1990s, shifted toward the conservative educational politics of core knowledge, standardized testing and evaluation, managerial efficiency, and teacher accountability.  


Two researchers on staff of the Korean Educational Development Institute offer insights into the interplay of schooling, curriculum, and political economy.  First, Misook Kim Cho and Michael Apple team up to examine the rise of career education as a state directive from the Ministry of Education in the early 1990s.  Anticipating severe labor shortages among unskilled manual workers, governmental leaders mandated the teaching of occupational choice and career decision-making in secondary schools to dissuade students from making so-called irrational decisions that prolonged their academic school-going tendencies.  Program delivery had varying degrees of success; state educational officials were viewed with hostilities by principals continually uncomfortable with top-down meddling in local affairs.  Students, too, contested the rhetoric surrounding manual labor by viewing factory work as a dumping ground for “low achievers or troublemakers” (p. 165).  Youl-Kwan Sung and Michael Apple join forces in writing about how Korean social studies teachers fought the authoritarian Ministry of Education and the prescriptive national curriculum through creation of a web-based, on-line discussion group.  The authors highlight teachers’ discourses around democratic praxis within classrooms using dialectical techniques rather than traditional rote instruction, as well as using critical pedagogy approaches to build awareness of social injustices.  Yet when attempting to implement progressive education these teachers are faced with immense cultural pressures placed upon the delivery of standardized testing for competitive college admissions.


Luís Gandin and Michael Apple provide a case study of the Citizen School Project in Porto Alegre, Brazil, that speaks to the role of building democracy through sharing of power among locals.  They offer an explanation of how the leftist municipal administration in the city of 1.3 million people is organized to improve the lives of people in the neighborhoods, especially those who live in favelas (shantytowns); a discussion of the origins of educational policymaking through mobilization of school communities engaged in democratization efforts; a description of the ways the Citizen School rejected traditional age-grade groupings, instead favoring a system of three developmental cycles (childhood, preadolescence, and adolescence) that does not punish students for multiple failures in learning; a brief look at real-life curriculum development based upon action research in the community at hand; a listing of the composition and responsibilities of the school councils; and an analysis of potential pitfalls to building sustainable community development projects and participatory endeavors among the citizenry. 


Traditional comparative educational research is too focused on the West and the North, Apple contends; and those chapter contributions from the South and East indeed are much needed additions to the policy literature.  Although earlier versions of Cho’s, Gandin’s, and Oliver’s co-authored studies have appeared elsewhere in print, to his credit, Apple provides current and former doctoral students with avenues for publishing their research.  Yet his dedication to “studying the cultural politics of empire, of how empires engage in cultural control, ... what it meant to be a colony, and how social movements challenge such control from below...” (p. 4) appears to be treated unevenly in this book.  Aside from the case studies on progressive politics in Brazil, state formation in Singapore, and right-wing movements surfacing in the U.S., further examples of counterhegemonic alliances are weak and underdeveloped.  For instance, more evidence is needed about the unionizing drive among Korean teachers and their conflicts with the Ministry of Education—apparently the newly emboldened teachers now are willing to challenge the state by embracing critical pedagogy.  Similarly, the variety of left-center-right actors in Scandinavia’s post-war social democratic countries certainly needs to be teased-out in order to thoroughly detail shifting alliances in advancing elements of progressive education.  And while carefully unpacking complexities in Polynesian culture, lacking are accounts of liberation struggles leading toward greater justice for indigenous peoples.  Poststructural analysis along these lines is exciting, yet few scholars can translate such theoretical work into the vicissitudes of state policy formation and governmental legislation.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 354-357 ID Number: 11199, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:38:43 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review