"Redefining Equality" Reconsidered

by Nicholas C. Burbules & Harvey Kantor - 1988

In this article the authors discuss Michael Apple’s observations about changes in contemporary educational policy debates, focusing on the mode of explanation he employs in accounting for these changes.

In this article we will discuss Michael Apple’s observations about changes in contemporary educational policy debates, focusing on the mode of explanation he employs in accounting for these changes. Explanations in current radical studies in education have, in our view, taken an overwhelmingly culturalist turn, to the neglect of issues concerning political dynamics and the foundation of changing belief structures in changing material interests.1 We believe Apple shares our concerns, and his analysis here addresses many substantive issues typically neglected in the radical literature; in responding to his arguments, we seek to move the point of emphasis a bit further toward an analysis of political economy. Such an emphasis can provide a more pragmatic understanding of how social changes actually happen and the possibilities and limits of educational reform.

Apple offers a diverse set of observations in his article, yet his core theme is clearly the shift that has occurred in educational debates away from a strong concern with equality and the role of the state in promoting social and economic rights. The shift he describes can be summarized as follows: In the 1960s and early 1970s educational policy debates were framed by a liberal consensus that emphasized programs aimed at providing greater access to education for poor and minority students, expanding responsibilities for schools as providers of varied social services, and increasing federal spending for a variety of curriculum reforms aimed at narrowing achievement differences between successful and unsuccessful students (often focused on racial inequities). This liberal consensus was part of a larger view of social policy that stressed egalitarian reforms and state intervention to promote opportunity and access to the benefits of an expanding economy.

Today the dominant educational issues include a concern about standards, the restoration of a core curriculum, greater classroom discipline, more economically relevant education (especially in science and mathematics), and, most significant of all, an entrenched skepticism about the appropriateness and effectiveness of state involvement, particularly at the federal level, in promoting egalitarian policies aimed at overcoming educational disadvantage. The received wisdom now is that federal intervention constituted an unwarranted usurpation of educators’ prerogatives, diluted the curriculum, and failed to improve substantially the performance of poor and minority students.

Apple explains this shift in policy priorities and political coalitions primarily in terms of a change in public perceptions and values concerning education. He identifies the problem in ideological terms:

Concepts do not remain still very long. They have wings, so to speak, and can be induced to fly from place to place. It is this context that defines their meaning. As Wittgenstein so nicely reminded us, one should look for the meaning of language in its specific contextual use. This is especially important in understanding political and educational concepts, since they are part of a larger social context, a context that is constantly shifting and is subject to severe ideological conflicts. Education itself is an arena in which these ideological conflicts work themselves out.

Apple describes two parallel processes, the decline of the “social democratic accord” and the rise of “authoritarian populism,” and basically explains the latter in terms of the former. His analysis of how and why this change occurred mentions but does not give adequate weight to dynamics that, we believe, are more fundamental: the political struggles between social groups and the state, and among those groups themselves; the decline of state resources given the “fiscal crisis” of the 1970s; and the difficulty of maintaining complex political coalitions in the face of increased (and often intentionally structured) competition over political access and state resources. Apple mentions these larger dynamics, but his emphasis is still primarily with a war of ideas. This line of argument is, for us, theoretically unpersuasive; worse, it can lead to the conclusion that the rise of New Right educational ideologies is the fault of leftists who have abandoned the terrain of public discourse to the Right—a conclusion we doubt Apple would wish to endorse. A more convincing approach is to pursue a line of analysis that explains both the rise of New Right policies and the decline of left political coalitions in terms that appreciate the efficacy of ideas and public discourse, but that stress the economic and political bases of policy initiatives and of the ideologies that rationalize them.

Nowhere, we believe, are the limits of cultural and ideological modes of analysis more apparent than in current radical educational debates. Particularly in the United States, the reaction to Bowles and Gintis’s essentially political and economic analyses in Schooling in Capitalist America2 has spawned a variety of accounts that overemphasize the culture of everyday life in schools and the potential of “resistance” by students or by teachers—which take predominantly cultural rather than political forms—as a basis for educational change.3

Apple’s analysis here is an enormous improvement over this trend (including, as he has noted, his own earlier work). He portrays the shift from social democracy to authoritarian populism against a background of changes in the capitalist state. In the 1960s left protest movements, especially the civil rights movement, pushed for greater state intervention on behalf of egalitarian policies; these protests were at least partially successful in exacting policies that redistributed resources and in raising social expectations that fundamentally changed national perceptions, especially where racial equality was concerned. This victory was adulterated, Apple argues, because the state not only accommodated, but structured and co-opted this protest. As a result, much of the passion and energy of left politics was diffused into an increasingly compromised set of tradeoffs to maintain state support. When the state encountered a fiscal crisis in the 1970s and could no longer afford to fund the social obligations it had undertaken, the Left was no longer in a position to pressure the state politically.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to blame the fiscal crisis on left demands. Certainly, the rising expectations and demands of blacks and other minorities for various social services put an increasing strain on the federal budget. At a time of escalating inflation and a declining economic position internationally, the state could not reconcile its role in fostering the accumulation of capital with its social agenda.4 Conservative economic policies have exacerbated this problem: production and investment strategies based more on profit considerations than on growth; increasing tolerance for investment policies of global corporations that shifted development monies from the United States to other countries; and a federal policy of “military Keynesianism” that diverted a larger and larger share of the federal budget to research and development on behalf of large “high tech” defense contractors, not to basic infrastructure or re-industrialization. In fact, we would identify this as a conscious policy of the Reagan administration, via tax cuts and increased military spending—actively creating conditions of scarcity and thereby forcing increased competition among social groups for federal support.5

Hence, the decline of left politics occurred not only because the Right seized the terrain of public discourse, nor simply because the state co-opted left coalitions, but because changing economic conditions set group interests against one another where previously they could be reconciled, and because political opportunities to form coalitions and pressure groups were attenuated. An account that does not fully accredit these dynamics seems to imply that a simple reassertion of left issues can reverse this trend and provide a basis for broad social reform, or even the more modest aim of making schools more egalitarian.

This confluence of factors was especially evident in the politics of education in the 1960s, particularly the black movement for equal education. This movement was significant not only as a demand for a greater share of resources (during a time of relative plenty), but as a change in the relation between blacks and the state. However, these demands brought blacks into direct conflict with teachers, urban school officials, and local politicians wedded to established patterns of school decision making. It was by making demands that could not be easily accommodated within existing political structures that the civil rights movement generally, and the movement for equal education in particular, made such a fundamental contribution to contemporary American political life.6 Yet this challenge, and its expression in policies such as integration or community control, came at the expense of other groups, notably working-class whites, and changed the relation of both groups to the state.7 The black victory was limited, not only because it was co-opted, but because its successes laid the foundation for a backlash by other potential left groups, and because it contributed partially to the fiscal crisis of the state in the 1970s as the federal government realized it could no longer make good on all of the promises it had undertaken.8

These changes also had a significant effect on the Democratic party at the national level. Tagged with much of the blame for the fiscal crisis, since it was in control of Congress during the 1960s and 1970s, and increasingly unable to maintain its core constituency of working-class, black, and middleclass Americans, the Democratic party abrogated much of its own commitment to a politics of equality and its advocacy of state intervention to ensure social and economic rights. Further, the spending requirements of extended media campaigns, the revolving door of consultancies and lobbying efforts, and the dependence of Democrats at the national level on conservative Sun Belt support have further “Republicanized” the Democratic party. As a result, progressive social coalitions have been hampered by the absence of any party structure, especially at the national level, through which to press their demands for more egalitarian state policies.

These dynamics have altered the shape of political life in the country. They have made enormously more difficult the formation of left coalitions such as those that prospered in the 1960s; such coalitions thrive not only on a unity of ideas or ideals, but on shared interests that can be expressed in specific policy demands. In other words, the formation of a complex coalition is as much a political as an ideological process, and depends on the existence of a nascent grass-roots movement and on specific structures. The latter include access to funding from various public and private sources, electoral opportunities and strategies, the shifting fortunes of the major political parties, and the specific dynamics of legislative and judicial decisions at the state and federal level. These structures can be accounted for only partially, and relatively superficially, by ideological analyses.

Correspondingly, the emergence of the New Right as a political force was fundamentally a response to changing social and economic circumstances. In part, as we have argued, “anti-statism” was able to take hold because the state to a large degree could not make good on its commitments; liberal social policies aimed toward greater equality were discredited when they failed to achieve the sorts of amelioration they were designed for, when the political costs of pursuing these policies became increasingly plain, and when the policies became too expensive for the state to afford.

The emergence of authoritarian populism cannot be explained primarily in terms of the influence of ideas, because as Apple notes this ideology is hardly coherent or even internally consistent in its appeal. Hence we believe its appeal and unity must derive from other sources than simply the weight of ideas. Within the New Right educational agenda, for example, there are two distinct and incompatible themes: One is the corporatist approach of T. H. Bell and A Nation at Risk, emphasizing the centrality of schooling to the development of human capital, and thereby to the maintenance and growth of a free market system; the other is the agenda of William Bennett, aimed much more at using schools to promote conservative social values and as focal points of a process of cultural renewal. These themes have been held in uneasy balance, not by an ideological reconciliation, but by their common base in a pattern of social resentment shared by corporate leaders seeking to alter the nature of government intervention in the affairs of the economy, and by working-class and middle-class whites who see themselves in competition with poor and minority citizens for control over education and access to limited state resources.

In the resulting climate of mistrust of the state and discontent with egalitarian policies, these groups came to see their interests with supporting a more conservative educational agenda. Specifically, expanding the state’s role in promoting the accumulation of capital, and in defining the value of schooling in human capital terms, became the guiding wisdom of liberals as well as conservatives.9 Educational policies that effectively reproduce class, racial, and gender inequality under the guise of “excellence” and meritocracy (e.g., increased graduation requirements, new core curricula, more selective admissions policies for higher education) have also exerted considerable appeal.

To sum up: Apple’s basic line of argument is that changing policy initiatives, especially where schools are concerned, need to be viewed against a background of changing perceptions and attitudes toward equality as a social aim, and toward the state as an instrument of social reform. Identifying many of the same events, we find it more compelling to consider these changes as the outgrowths of economic crises that have altered the state’s capacity to maintain the legitimacy of its role in these areas, and political crises that have fundamentally changed the structures and opportunities for progressive coalition building.

We do find the current success of Jesse Jackson and a populist strategy based on voter registration and participation an encouraging development; but there is as yet little sign that this movement will return the national Democratic party to an explicit advocacy of class and racial equality, as was true in the 1960s.10 The question remains whether major party politics are helpful or harmful in building a progressive politics around the basic concerns of people’s lives.

One of these concerns is with schools. Historically, schools have often been a focal point of larger debates about civil rights, access to jobs, and community control. As a focal point for such larger issues, school politics can have progressive import. Here we diverge most sharply from Apple, who concludes his essay with recommendations “to promote more democratic curricula and teaching in order to counterbalance “the values embodied in the conservative restoration.” Because we do not attribute the rise of the New Right primarily to an ideological victory, but to changing economic and political circumstances in people’s lives, we would place the emphasis for action on strategies that enable economically disadvantaged and politically disenfranchised groups to take greater control over those circumstances. Much of this will involve coalition building and community-based politics, mobilizing people around issues with salience and immediacy for them and for their families. Access to schools, their quality, their curricula, their funding, and how they are governed all hold promise as political focal points, though addressing these issues often pits poor and minority communities against educational professionals. The democratic and progressive issue of schooling is not primarily how to get certain ideas into the curriculum, but how to change the structures of school funding and decision making in light of a larger vision of social justice and political empowerment.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 2, 1988, p. 185-191
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 480, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:34:17 PM

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