The Subaltern Speak: Curriculum, Power and Educational Struggles

reviewed by Jennifer Tupper - June 08, 2006

coverTitle: The Subaltern Speak: Curriculum, Power and Educational Struggles
Author(s): Michael W. Apple & Kristen L. Buras (Eds.)
Publisher: Taylor & Francis, London
ISBN: 0415950821, Pages: 294, Year: 2006
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This book weaves a cautionary tale regarding the state of education in the United States, and is a call to continually examine educational practices that not only perpetuate inequities, but also attempt to expand them. In response to Spivak’s (1988) question, can the subaltern speak? Apple and Buras advance the position that indeed they can and do, organizing the edited collection around three themes:  The Subaltern Speak: In Whose Voices; The Subaltern Speak: National Contexts; and lastly, The Subaltern Speak: International Contexts. The editors fittingly introduce the volume by exploring whose knowledge is of most worth. Beginning with the story of Sagoyewatha, a Seneca chief who challenges the dominance of Christian missionaries, Apple and Buras remind us of the longstanding traditions of exclusion and dominance to which subaltern people have been subjected. The introduction to the 11 essays contained in the collection does not simply summarize each, as is so often the case in edited collections. Rather, it sets the reader up to ask questions, negotiate, and live within the tensions articulated in each of the essays.   

The essays that follow attempt to address the struggles over knowledge and voice, while also offering new insights on transforming inequities. Each chapter reveals the multiplicity and complexity of identity, illustrating “how dominance and subalternity mix and mingle, forming a tangled web of interrelations based on class, race, gender, sexual orientation, ‘ability,’ religion, language, and local, national and global affiliations” (p. 9). Concurrently—and also an integral element of this collection—each of the essays offers some degree of hope with respect to challenging systems of domination and privilege that position the subaltern as the “other.”  In the first section, each essay explores the complex relationships between educational reform and subaltern groups. In the second section, the voices and experiences of several subaltern groups are offered as a means of illustrating how dominance is challenged. Finally, in the last section, a range of contexts outside of the United States are explored as a way to further understand how educational struggles are experienced and lived.  

In her essay, Tracing the Core Knowledge Movement: History Lessons from Above and Below, Kristen L. Buras critiques E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Movement and its corresponding educational resources in the United States. This movement, she argues, exemplifies the complexities of subalternity as groups that have been traditionally oppressed, but are currently gravitating towards it. The movement is grounded in a return to “core content,” and a refusal to acknowledge the political nature of knowledge and schooling. Buras discusses the appeal of the Core Content Movement to a variety of schools serving subaltern students, exploring how its appeal transcends “difference.” Following Buras’ essay, Michael Apple examines the home- schooling movement in the U.S., including its reliance on technology, and the claim of Christian conservative families to subaltern status as an impetus for this movement. As we have come to expect from Apple, the essay is a provocative look at who is engaged in the labor of home schooling, how this labor is interpreted and justified by those engaging in it, and for what purposes. What I am struck by are the similarities between the home schooling work of “Godly women” and the Character Education movement in the United States and Canada, as each privileges certain values and qualities through a “packaged” approach to education. Apple ends his essay by expressing concern regarding the loss of legitimacy of the common school. While I find this somewhat alarmist from my Canadian perspective, where the “common” (public) school remains the primary vehicle for educating students, his concern is worthy of further attention. In his essay, Can the Subaltern Act? African American Involvement in educational Voucher Plans, Thomas Pedroni considers how conservative educational mobilizations succeed through their appeals to the real fears and desires of subaltern groups. Pedroni offers a compelling discussion of the voucher movement in Milwaukee and its appeal to African-American families, but the essentialist tendencies occasionally revealed in his essay undermine the complexities of identity, affiliation, and agency.   

The second section of the book begins with the essay, “In My History Classes They Always Turn Things Around, the Opposite Way”:  Indigenous Youth Opposition to Cultural Domination in an Urban High School, by Glenabah Martinez. In it, she examines how indigenous youth in the United States have resisted educational practices that devalue or erase their culture. The inclusion of student voices in this essay helps to capture the real experiences of indigenous students. However, Martinez’s support of Native American Studies as a vehicle to promote cultural self-esteem, preservation, and sovereignty advances a “two solitudes” model of education of which many First Nations people in Canada are critical (Ermine, 2005). Rather than offering a stand-alone course that has the potential to further marginalize indigenous or First Nations students, Martinez suggests that white educators and white students must take account of their own privilege. Additionally, Martinez frames much of her discussion in terms of the cultural differences between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Cultural difference, a quality that indigenous people are said to have and which is often used to explain their lack of academic success, argue Schick and St. Denis (2005, p. 306), functions as a “common code for racial difference…The phrase, ‘cultural difference’ connects education failure to the ‘other’ by shifting emphasis away from how dominant identities are implicated in the production of ‘difference’.”   Rather than simply focusing on culture and cultural difference, Martinez’s essay would be strengthened by considering how race is also implicated in school success and failure.  

Following Martinez’s essay, Dolores Delgado Bernal engages in a gender analysis of the 1968 East Los Angeles School Blowouts. Rethinking Grassroots Activism: Chicana Resistance in the 1968 East Lost Angeles School Blowouts offers the stories of eight women involved in the blowouts. Through her re-conceptualization of leadership, Bernal offers a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the important role that women played in this movement. In his essay Detraction, Fear, and Assimilation: Race, Sexuality, and Education Reform Post-9/11, Kevin Kumashiro interrogates the propensity of anti-oppressive education to be “wilfully partial” (p. 163).  He argues that through the lenses of detraction, fear, and assimilation, our way of thinking about anti-oppressive education can be complicated. Stanley Aronowitz follows with his piece Subaltern in Paradise: Knowledge Production in the Corporate Academy. Aronowitz explores the erosion of academic freedom in universities as knowledge becomes more commodified, corporate interests influence the awarding of research grants and contracts, and tenure becomes more elusive.  Aronowitz challenges us to consider the contexts in which we live and work as well as our taken-for-granted assumptions about democracy and the extent to which we are willing to fight for freedom.  

The final section of this collection, situated in a variety of international contexts, begins with Jyh-Jia Chen’s Struggling for Recognition: The State, Oppositional Movements, and Curricular Change. The essay explores the role of opposition movements in Taiwan towards the nationalization of Chinese language and culture. It specifically examines symbolic and pedagogic change “with respect to the creation of official knowledge” (p. 198) and provides insight into the struggles faced by the Taiwanese people for identity and education. Chen’s essay is followed by Luis Armando Gandin’s, Creating Real Alternatives to Neoliberal Policies in Education: The Citizen School Project. Gandin chronicles the emergence of the Citizen School Project in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in response to a “market-based one-size-fits-all model” in education (p. 217). This essay is above all, a hopeful story of an educational project committed to transformation. While the essay offers many important and necessary educational changes for subaltern peoples, it does so in a way that perhaps downplays the complexities, difficulties, and frustrations of enacting such significant and transformative change. The essay also seems to be a rather utopian snapshot of curriculum and school transformation, with guarantees that “the educational space occupied by subaltern children is a space that treats them with the dignity, respect, and quality necessary to keep them in school and educate them to be real citizens” (p. 226).  

The next essay in this collection, Toward a Subaltern Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism, by Kristen Buras and Paulino Motter, troubles dominant conceptions of multiculturalism situated within the nation-state that simply acknowledge difference and attempt to harmonize competing interests.  The authors argue that “multiculturalism cannot deliver what it promises unless it partly embraces a global perspective from below” and that emancipation struggles are increasingly trans-national (p. 245).  For educators and academics, this essay offers opportunities to question what we think we know about legislated multiculturalism. It offers opportunities to critique democratic processes, and perhaps to even question the existence of democracies themselves. Finally, the essay challenges us to consider how curriculum might support “epistemological subalternity” (p. 256).  The edited collection ends with Michael Apple and Kristen Buras Speaking Back to Official Knowledge. This last essay is less a summary of what has preceded it and more of a challenge to continually revisit the issues and questions surrounding the politics of subalternity. Apple and Buras ask a number of important questions in their essay that they feel have emerged from the discussions advanced in the various essays; in so doing, they compel the reader to further reflect on subalternity. While readers may not agree with all of the arguments or conclusions emanating from the collection, it is a must read for any individual committed to counter-hegemonic struggles in real, authentic and hopeful ways.  


Ermine, W. (2005). Ethical space: Transforming relations.  Discussion Paper: National

Gatherings on Indigenous Knowledge, Rankin Inlet: NU, May 3-5, 2005.

Schick, C. & St. Denis, V. (2005).  Troubling national discourses in anti-racist curricular

planning.  Canadian Journal of Education, 28(3), pp. 295-317.  

Spivak, G.C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In C. Nelson & L. Grossberg's (Ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (pp. 271-313). Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2006 ID Number: 12537, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:12:25 PM

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