Friday, February 06, 2009

Education and Power – Michael Apple

According to Apple (1995), the process of education is both a reflection and producer of the dominant culture, in which the goal is to sort and select people in order to maintain the current system of unequal distribution of power in the society. Looking at education through this lens makes me almost embarrassed to be a part of it. Since the school is an arm of the state, that would make me a complicit lackey of state sponsored indoctrination and segregation. As I was reading, I was reminded of The Simpson's episode in which Homer becomes a member of the Stonecutters and finds that this secret society is responsible for controlling everything from the British pound to the Oscars. If education is so totally controlled and controlling, what's the point of trying to change anything – the “secret society” will just make sure it doesn't happen?

Throughout Apple's (1995) book, practices that I have engaged in came to mind which illustrate the market-driven aspects of education. I have purchased and used “school to work” materials in order to make school seem “relevant” to students who are not “college bound”. In making this statement, there are so many embedded assumptions that I've never examined. Why must I prepare students for the work world? Who determines what skills are needed and relevant? How did the student become a “not college bound” kid? How did I determine that I needed to choose materials to help them on this path? Another time, I assigned an interview and report in which students selected a person working in a job they hoped to get eventually and find out what types of literacy was required. Again, in an effort to make English class “relevant” I turned to the world of work, essentially saying, “This is what school is preparing you for.” Again, I was unconsciously a lackey for the state.

So, I am led to ask, is there any school system that does not support the government/culture in which it operates? Is there really a “better” way of doing school? As Counts (1932) determined, all schools indoctrinate or “influence” their students. He suggests that as educators, we need to be more aware of what influence we are expending. One way to do that is to look at how the students are resisting our influence – which points to areas of conflict between the expectations of the dominant culture and the needs of the minority culture. But then, what do we do with this knowledge? Can school truly serve the needs of everyone? And should it try?

Although the actors within the educational system, both students and teachers, have supposed agency and the ability to resist, during this reading, I didn't feel very hopeful. Even the length of chapter 6 indicates this – at only 12 pages, it recognizes that “neither vision nor strategy is possible, on a mass basis, unless the cynicism about social change that now pervades American politics and culture can be overcome” (Peter Dreier, as cited by Apple, 1995, p. 157). This would entail not only reforming the educational system, but taking on the working world – to encourage and education people and companies to institute truly democratic policies. As was stated early in the book, we don't need democratic schools (which most schools profess to be, yet are actually autocratic) but rather centers of democratic engineering – where the democratic process (rule by and for the people) is the goal. It is clear that in America capitalism has overcome the ideals of democracy, and this is where the transformation must start. But, there is the question of the chicken or the egg? Does the transformation begin in the school to affect the culture, or in the culture to affect the school?

Apple, M. W. (1995) Education and Power, 2nd edn.New York, Routledge.
Counts, G. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order? New York: Arno Press & The New York Times.

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