‘Can Education Change Society?’, ‘Knowledge, Power, and Education: The Selected Works of Michael W. Apple’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

Can Education Change Society?

Routledge, New York, 2013. 200pp., $36.95/£25.99 pb
ISBN 9780415875332

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


Michael W Apple is an educational theorist and political activist committed to creating educational institutions that are fundamentally democratic (Apple and Beane 2007). As a (critical) historical materialist, Apple certainly understands that the democratization of schools necessarily depends on the democratization of society. However, the link between schools and society is complex. Apple is quite condemning of Marxists who view schools (and other cultural forms) as merely epiphenomenal of production relations.

He has published two recent books. The first, Can Education Change Society? (2013a), is primarily concerned with historical and current counter-hegemonic struggles within education and society. The second, Knowledge, Power and Education (2013b) is a fourteen-chapter collection of readings, primarily from his previous published books, with a few chapters and articles from edited books and journals. The arguments in Can Education Change Society? are important complements to his analysis of knowledge and power (2013b, 19-40; 92-131; 195-211), and the rise of curricula and pedagogic dominance of the Right (2013b, 212-240).

The basis of Apple’s social theory and philosophy where established in his early work. The so-called “Apple Trilogy” (2004, 2012, 1986) is where he first draws heavily from Marxian social theorists such as Raymond Williams (2013b, 20-7), Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser (2013b, 7-8), employing concepts such as “the long revolution,” (2013b, 273) “hegemony,” (2013b, 22-8) and “over-determination” (2013b, 38n8). In these works, Apple is primarily interested in the social reproduction of educational and economic social relations. However, he became increasingly interested in contingency, agency, and how popular culture develops so as to contradict, sometimes radically, the hegemonic social relations of production.

In his early work (2004), Apple had been critical of Bowles’s and Gintis’s (2011) Schooling in Capitalist America as liable to the interpretation that schools are a type of epiphenomenon of production relations, whereby schools, or agents within them, were not capable of changing society. Apple (1979) fully embraced Bowles’s and Gintis’s insight that liberal educational policies and practices had failed to manifest egalitarian outcomes, and only accomplished partial and impoverished personal human development. But he rejected what he called the economistic position of Bowles and Gintis (2013b, 19-23).

Apple came to understand the implausibility of the economistic position from how the Right came to win and dominate cultural and political battles (see Apple 2000, 1996, 2003, 2006), and frame the discussion and set the agenda of education reforms. “The Right has successfully demonstrated that you need to work at the level of people’s daily experiences” (Apple 2013b, 10). The Right has a rhetoric and practice that resonates deeply with the experiences, hopes, dreams, insecurities, and fears of people as they go about their daily lives. Critical educators and social theorists cannot ignore the daily experiences of individuals and popular culture. Moreover, critical educators and social theorists must always remember not to ignore their personal critical practice, along with critical answers to “What do I do on Monday?” (especially during a conservative dominated era) (Apple 2013b, 240-53).

In his Can Education Change Society? Apple continues this challenge to economistic positions of education, and critiquing the ubiquitous historical failures of liberal educational reforms and the tragedy of impoverished personal development in the so-called modern era. In answering the question “can education change society?” Apple’s resounding answer is “Yes, schools can be sites for and participate in substantive social changes” (2013a, 163).

However, according to Apple schools can also tend to prohibit change. Apple (2006) argues there has emerged a fourfold conservative hegemonic block (2013b, 201-5): 1) Neoliberals are intent on “modernizing” society and education by means of commodification, privatization, and marketization of educational problems. 2) Neoconservatives are concerned with establishing a curriculum of a “common culture,” highly capitalistic “official knowledge,” high standards, discipline, and social Darwinist competition. 3) Authoritarian populists – broadly described as the religious right, and those concerned with security, the family, and traditional or “official” knowledge and values (Apple 2013b, 168-85)). 4) The New Professional Middle-Class have a more or less uncritical commitment to business oriented standards concerning classroom management, techniques of assessment and accountability, and measurement (2013a, 130).

Apple insists that hegemonic relations and modes of interaction are never permanent, but always in the process of challenge from counter-hegemonic efforts (2013a, 163). Official knowledge is always liable to radical transformation (2013a, 72). This is the promise of Hegelian/Marxian philosophy and history, especially the cultural Marxism from Gramsci and the Frankfurt School informing the social theory and philosophy of Apple’s work.

Apple’s intention is to remind us (educators, students, and citizens) that social movements, often manifest from moments of crisis, “push leaders to the forefront, creating a dynamic relationship between movements and leaders” (2013a, 63). Major social movements are always constituted by “anonymous” groups of politicized actors (2013a, 63). Exploitation, dominance, and oppression are always contested in large or small ways. “There is recognition that no place is too small, no policy too insignificant, that it can’t be the site of challenges” (2013a, 149).

There are in turn always attempts to silence these challenges (“disarticulation”) and/or rhetorically usurp the challenge through “rearticulation.” Educational polices “are a major site of such ideological disarticulation and rearticulation” (2013a, 156). The efforts of disarticulation and rearticulation toward the challenges to conservative modernization tend “to be immune to empirical arguments, especially but not only, in education” generating a more or less religious-like orientation to conservative modernization (2013a, 6).

In Can Education Change Society? Apple aims to demonstrate that struggle and resistance are both always present and always active. Apple brilliantly demonstrates, in both theory (chapters 2, 3, and 4), and in practice (chapter 5, 7 and 8), there are always actions (and events) of resistance and counter-hegemonic praxes. Apple contends that there “so much to learn from the educators who devoted so much time and energy to building counter-hegemonic schools, curricula, and teaching.” Ignorance of or forgetting these efforts come at our own peril (2013a, 69). “Popular memory” must be protected and built upon.

Apple rehearses the counter-hegemonic career of George S Counts (2013a, 46-72). Counts emphasized that schooling tended to be controlled by the dominant capitalist classes (2013a, 50). Similarly, these same forces of class controlled the productive apparatus of the economy in highly undemocratic ways (2013a, 51). For Counts a promising counter-hegemonic means of resistance and change was “to coordinate the efforts of schools and other institutions to reconstruct the state, the economy, and civil society” (2013a, 50).

Counts insisted that schools must teach about the mechanisms of capitalism that produce and reproduce inequality and injustice. Capitalism as an economic system was “structurally unable and unwilling to provide for the common good” (2013a, 60). Capitalism is a system based on exploitation and domination, and the capitalist dominated system of education was politically committed to the indoctrination of young minds towards the acceptance of exploitation and domination as inevitable and fair. Counts clearly understood education is never “divorced from political struggles and movements, for him education was explicitly political” (2013a, 48).

Since schools were not, nor ever could be, neutral sites of knowledge and truth, institutions of education must be guided by an explicitly articulated normative vision (2013a, 53). He contended that the indoctrination of capitalism in our schools needed to be countered with a curriculum of “democratic collectivism” (2013a, 52). Just as counter-hegemonic political movements during the Long Depression (1870-90) and the Great Depression (1930-1938), “fought against monopolistic tendencies and for more direct democracy” teachers and schools needed to participate in this counter-hegemonic alliance to battle against powerful monopolistic forces of exploitation and dominance (2013a, 50).

“Counter-hegemonic education included many kinds of institutional and ideological forms and orientations, all of them aimed at a politics of interruption” (2013a, 66, emphasis added; 2013b, 134-41) and redistribution (2013b, 5-6).

Apple recounts the urgent pedagogical messages of W E B Du Bois and Carter G Woodson (2013a, 73-95). Both these theorists understood their counter-hegemonic struggles were necessarily against the hegemony of capitalism and its dominant classes. However, they also both underscored that the specific struggles of American blacks faced additional specific problems. For American blacks it is not merely a politics of interpretation and redistribution, but further and first-most, a politics of (Hegelian) recognition (2013a, 80).

There are several important points here to underscore that characterize Apple’s work. Because all education is political, even the hegemonic curriculum politicizes students (and teachers) to some extent. To not offer schooling to particular groups is to depoliticize them. Likewise, popular culture and counter cultures are necessarily political sites of struggle. Thus, various institutional forms, such as popular culture and religion, are political, social, and educational sites. These sites must be understood and embraced (albeit critically) by efforts for counter-hegemonic change. It is mistake to reduce these institutions to mere epiphenomena to social relations of production.

Apple urges the Left to make “decentered unities” in our struggles against exploitation, illegitimate authority, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and injustice (2013a, 94). We need not agree on every aspect of our counter-hegemonic struggles. But we need alliances analogous to those the Right has accomplished (see Apple 2006, and Apple 2013b, 212-40). Counter-hegemonic struggles need to connect with popular sentiment and popular memory. There needs to be a politicization of daily life and daily classroom that will resonate in the minds citizens and students (2013b, 195-209; 2013a, 105).

The chapter on Paulo Freire addresses several issues (2013a, 23-45), but here I want to focus on the primary lesson Apple draws from Freire. Apple had a number of theoretical disagreements with Freire, but these are not the main focus: they shared common philosophical sympathies and pedagogical orientations. The twofold, lesson Apple draws from Freire is, first, the dialectic of, and necessary tension between, theory and practice (2013a, 27; 2013b, 263-7), and second, action is both necessary and unavoidable. Necessary, because according to Freire all real education is a struggle against exploitation and for emancipation (2013a, 24; 2013b, 175-8). Unavoidable, because to accept hegemonic status quo, e.g. neoliberal and neoconservative projects, is an action “in what Gramsci would have called ‘active consent’” (2013a, 28; 2013b, 235).

Critical pedagogy is “the valorization of knowledge from below” (2013a, 34) or the non-dominant classes, what Apple calls the “subaltern” (2013b, 241-57). “Yet this too can be largely a rhetorical claim unless it gets its hands dirty with the material realities faced by all too many subaltern people” (2013a, 34). Critical practice is as important as critical theory and critical pedagogy (2013b, 232).

Two chapters are developed as testament to critical practice and manifesting counter-hegemonic (Badiouian) events. Apple (with Luís Gandin) (2013a, 96-127) outlines a favorite (Apple) example of counter-hegemony (Apple 2013b, 258-78): the Citizen School Project in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The educational activists in Porto Alegre have developed a democratic educational system in co-operation with the local community. Apple explains how the “Popular Administration” has committed to improving the lives of people in local neighborhoods, especially in favelas (shantytowns). One key institution at the center of these substantive improvements has been the school (2013a, 163). In Porto Alegre a real voice and real power has been provided to historically oppressed populations. Apple describes citizen initiatives to shape classrooms away from traditional models of education and toward curricula that address community interests and needs. It is a clear example that education can help to change society. It is an example of what Wright calls “real utopias” and also how the South can teach the North in counter-hegemonic resistance and social change (2013a, 100).

The Citizen School Project is a powerful example of counter-hegemonic successes, but not the onlyone. Apple maintains that Woodson in particular, and community activists generally, sketch out space and sponsor opportunities for other writers, activists and workers with emancipatory aims. Woodson’s activist efforts helped to carve out “space” for others, such as female black teachers, who would otherwise have had less warrant for practicing progressive educational reforms (2013a, 91-5). This should remind us “no place is too small, no policy too insignificant, that it can’t be the site of challenges” (2013a, 149). Most modes of resistance are local and particular to a single school. It is because these local and individual efforts occur that “decentered unities” become realistic formations of alliance and counter-hegemonic resistance.

The extraordinary labors of teachers, librarians, editors, curriculum workers, and writers are what bring about educational transformations. These efforts are not epiphenomenal, but (often) have real effect on the relationship of production (2013a 153). Citizens push back. “They constantly challenge dominance, sometimes overtly and sometimes in unseen ways. They [do] this in those institutions that [have] an effect on their daily lives, and on their futures and the futures of their children” (2013a, 154). Counter-hegemonic efforts, big and small, help to establish what counts as “legitimate knowledge” and what becomes “official knowledge” in curriculum and textbooks (2013a, 160-61, also 2013b, 195-211 and pp. 152-85).

Chapter 7 (2013a, 138-50) concerns how hegemonic powers attempt to disrupt the efforts of counter-hegemonic actors. In other words, the “dangers” and “risks” involved in counter-hegemonic activity. These pages describe how the South Korea authorities disrupted Apple’s ability to visit and speak with critical educators, students, and citizens interested in extending democracy in South Korean education. This chapter is too romantic (albeit in a remarkably unromantic way). “Risk” in counter-hegemonic action rarely directly confronts agents in “dark sunglasses all dressed in black.” More typical it is a ‘pissed off’ principal, college dean, or department chair that confronts the critical educator. Even more typical, and more sinister, counter-hegemonic efforts are interrupted by colleagues, parents, and students who well-represent Apple’s “Professional new Middle Class” and are not motivated by, nor even recognize the need for, “emancipatory” efforts. Nonetheless, it is these individuals, not men in dark glasses, who ruin careers and diminish the quality of life of counter-hegemonic educators.

For me, these books together reminds us that all our individual and local counter-hegemonic efforts in our own colleges, departments, and home communities need to reach out to similar and more regional and national movements. It is the only through such efforts of counter-hegemonic extension that “decentered unities” are formed and Badiouian events occur. Although Badiouian events appear to happen suddenly and out of nowhere, in fact they typically follow years and decades (sometime centuries) of counter-hegemonic struggle. Apple’s body of work generally, and his most recent two books in particular, are a reminder and guide to the “realization of the importance of understanding the connections among intersecting power relations and working toward the long-term goals involved in building [what Williams called] ‘the long revolution’” (2013a, 164; 2013b, 273).

15 September 2014


  • Apple, Michael W. 2012 [1982] Education and Power 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Apple, Michael W. 2006 Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Apple, Michael W. 2004 [1979] Ideology and Curriculum 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Apple, Michael W. 2003 The State and the Politics of Knowledge New York: Routledge.
  • Apple, Michael W. 2000 [1993]. Official Knowledge 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Apple, Michael W. 1996 Cultural Politics and Education New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Apple, Michael W. 1986 Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender in Education Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Apple, Michael W. and James A. Beane. Eds. 2007 [1995] Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education 2nd edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2011 [1976] Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life Chicago: Haymarket Books.

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