Education and the Politics of Culture


In 1993 Michael Apple wrote that, “Education is deeply implicated in the politics of culture. The curriculum is never a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic conflicts, tensions, and compromises that organise and disorganise a people”. In this article I will ‘unpack’ Apple’s quotation, showing that it emphasizes the social, cultural, and political processes that underlie any curriculum. I will discuss the political life of the curriculum in New Zealand, paying attention to historical and contemporary conflicts regarding its purpose, content, and structure.  Finally, I will address criticisms of Apple’s approach to curriculum theory.

The Living Curriculum

For Apple the curriculum is not an object, an “assemblage of knowledge”, transmitted from one person to another; it is a complicated and “multiply referenced conversation” (Pinar, 2012, p. 43) that unfolds as people interact with each other in a variety of contexts. Knowledge does not just ‘appear’ in texts and classrooms; it is selected and produced through a process of conflict and compromise. As Pinker has pointed out, “There are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is a decision not to teach another. The question is not whether trigonometry is important — it is — but whether it is more important than probability; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important to know the classics than elementary economics” (2003). Curricular decisions emerge from and are influenced by many factors, including but not limited to: the values of the teacher; tradition, the availability of resources, background knowledge, the students’ interests and abilities, school policy, etcetera. Moreover, what happens in classrooms – how content is presented – also influences what students learn and the meanings they attach to their learning:

 Students live in a personal and social world as well as in the word of teacher-managed activities, and much of the knowledge students acquire comes from their peers. When it does, it comes enveloped inside their social relations. During class activities, what students learn and how they learn it depends on their social status within peer culture, as well as the position conferred on them by the curriculum content (for example if one student knows more about a topic than the others know). Much more than the curriculum content occupies the minds of students, and connects to what and how they learn. (Nuthall, 2007, p. 157)

Apple has acknowledged the dynamic relationship between the social and cultural aspects of the curriculum. He sees a connection between underlying patterns of power and inequality – the way people are organized and disorganized – and between the way these patterns are reproduced and challenged within schools and classrooms. The role of English in New Zealand society provides an example that helps illustrate this point. In New Zealand, English is the dominant language; it is valued and considered normal, while ‘other’ languages are ‘assigned’ less value and viewed as ‘abnormal’ by members of the dominant culture. Those who do not speak English fluently can be excluded from higher levels of social, economic and political life. The fact that class, race, and gender characteristics, in part, determine English ability is obscured by a public discourse that insists on making individuals personally responsible for their successes and failures. The school curriculum can reproduce (or challenge) these patterns of inequality. When a student falls behind in class because she or he cannot understand instructions given in English, or when she or he fails to obtain a ‘high-stakes’ qualification because the English requirements are too demanding, structural divisions are perpetuated and the status of English as the only legitimate language of New Zealand is reified.

The curriculum, as Michael Young argued (1971) is always political because it represents someone’s selection of what is regarded at that point of time as being ‘worthwhile’ knowledge. Apple also emphasized the political nature of the curriculum. He believed schools are interconnected with other economic and political institutions. The curriculum can sustain the visions, or ideologies, of dominant groups. It is a powerful hegemonic tool that ensures the ‘legitimate knowledge’ and ‘way of life’ of the ruling class is entrenched and normalized for the rest of society. For example, over the past thirty years neoliberal and neo-conservative discourses have become entrenched deeply in the New Zealand curriculum. These discourses assume that “real citizens…embody the idealized virtues of a romantasized past [and]…consistently act in an entrepreneurial way” (Apple, 2004, p. 11). People who do not demonstrate these values are seen as undeserving ‘others’. For Apple the emphasis placed on choice and accountability forms “an underlying ‘racial contract’ in which particular groups’ experiences are used to underpin our commonsense understanding about what counts as a ‘neutral and natural’ policy” (2004, p. 11).

Apple is interested in the curriculum as it is – how it actually unfolds in pluralistic societies. This study does not preclude normative questions; rather it shows a desire to understand the world, as it is, in order to change it for the better. Apple is concerned that the technocratic-rationality prevalent in contemporary educational discourse is too focused on methods and process that ‘work’, while the “difficult ethical and political question of content, of what knowledge and which forms of experience are of the most worth” (2004) has been “pushed to the background” (1993, p. 223). Apple is committed to working towards socially just, humane, and democratic forms of education.

The Social, Cultural, and Political life of the Curriculum in New Zealand

Throughout New Zealand’s educational history, social and cultural processes underlying the curriculum have been implicated in challenging and sustaining the marginalization of Maori (Barrington, 1992). This was illustrated clearly by a debate that occurred in the early twentieth century “about the type of curriculum most appropriate for Te Aute, a private denominational boarding college for Maori boys”  (Barrington, 1992, p. 39). A debate that can be traced back to The Native Schools Act, 1867 and the 1880 Native Schools Code (stipulating the curriculum to be taught in primary schools).

By 1906, the curriculum at Te Aute was academically oriented and had produced a number of eminent graduates, including Peter Buck, Maui Pomare, and Apirana Ngata.  This orientation challenged a dominant view of the time that stipulated the education of Maori boys should prepare them for manual labour and agricultural work, as this would enable them to remain in their own communities, where they could contribute to the success of their race. Te Aute headmaster, John Thorton, challenged these views; he believed “Maori should not be shut out from any chance of competing with English boys in the matter of higher education” (Thornton, cited in Barrington, 1992, p. 40). However, at the 1906 Royal Commission on the Te Aute and Wanganui School Trusts, the Inspector in charge of Maori schools, William Bird, argued “the whole idea of Maori education is to fit Maoris for life among Maoris” (Bird, cited in Barrington, 1992, p. 40). The Inspector-General of Schools, George Hogben, also believed that Maori boys were best served by studying a technical education (Barrington, 1992). Indeed, Hogben was keen on pushing technical education for all ‘non-academic’ students, irrespective of their race.  After considering a number of conflicting views, the judge recommended, “prominence be given to manual and technical instruction in agriculture” (Barrington, 1992, p. 48) at Te Aute College. The school was forced to align its curriculum with these recommendations. However, the school also retain some remnants of an academic stream, but this was a hard fought battle (Barrington, 1992). The case of Te Aute highlighted the contested nature of the curriculum and the role it played in impeding the social mobility of Maori in New Zealand.

Research conducted in New Zealand during the 1990’s illustrated how the cultural, social, and political aspects of the curriculum were played out ‘on the ground’. Based on extensive observations, Alton-Lee, Densem, and Nuthall found evidence of ethnic abuse among students in New Zealand classrooms that was “often outside the awareness of the teacher” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 149). During a unit on ethnic diversity they observed a number of “overtly racist comments” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 149) by Pakeha boys who did not link their comments to issues being addressed in the curriculum. When the topic of ethnic diversity was introduced an “unconscious use of ‘we’ and ‘them’ pronouns” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 149) positioned non-European students as ‘others’ while reaffirming the dominance of European culture. Edward Said has called this process “othering” i.e., “I am not like the others”. In a year seven classroom, Nuthall found that “despite a range of ethnic differences among students, the curriculum did not include any aspects of non-European cultures” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 149), inclusions which might have “provided a bridge between the culture of the school” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 150) and the culture of the home and extended family. According to Nuthall many students in the classrooms he observed lived “on the margins of two cultures” (2007, p. 150). The “pull of the alternative culture” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 150) was at times strong enough to cause them to abandon “their attempts to succeeded in school” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 150).

Political reforms in New Zealand over the last thirty years further illustrate the social, cultural, and political nature of the curriculum. Following the 1987 general election in New Zealand the reelected fourth Labour Government initiated an education ‘reform’ agenda that would reshape the culture of knowledge and learning in New Zealand significantly (O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008). The reforms were inspired by New Right ideologies, which promoted the idea that “the key to maximising economic productivity and competitiveness lay in raising educational standards” (Lee, 2003, p. 90) by providing choice, and by increasing competition between schools along with “a renewed emphasis by the state and its related education agencies on surveillance and accountability of learners and teachers” (Lee, 2003, p. 90). The National government continued this aggressive reform agenda. In 1991 the Minister of Education, Lockwood Smith, announced his intention to implement an outcomes-based curriculum, claiming that it would “strengthen New Zealand’s overall skills base and boost its economic outputs and international competitiveness” (Smith, cited in Lee, 2003, p. 82). By 1993 a new Curriculum Framework was in place, which included a list of explicit learning outcomes for each of seven essential areas of learning, According to Lee, these outcomes were “hegemonically embedded” (2003, p. 90) and tightly prescribed” (2003, p. 90) mechanisms designed to “steer students along different social and/or vocational tracks, according to their particular skills or attitudes” (2003, p. 91).

Following the implementation of an outcomes-based curriculum in 1993, new forms of standards-based assessment were introduced in New Zealand. A secondary school qualification, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement, was introduced in 2002, and National Standards in literacy and mathematics were introduced at the primary level in 2008. Standards-based assessments provide discrete, criterion referenced, descriptions of learning designed to measure student achievement. The introduction of standards-based assessments was linked to the wider social and cultural aims of the neoliberal reform agenda. Although promoted as neutral assessment tools, which would allow teachers to respond to students and their unique learning contexts, standards-based assessments were used to hold schools and teachers tightly accountable; they led to increased competition between schools and constrained the autonomy of teachers. According to Hipkins, “The impetus to use NCEA results to make changes in teaching and learning that will lift student achievement has intensified. It is a pressure that plays out against a backdrop of increases in league table reporting of NCEA results. This means the equity issues related to the provision of appropriate learning opportunities become messily tangled with marketing issues related to the wider public perceptions of the school, with all the media controversy that such reporting engenders” (2010) . Standards-based assessments encouraged students to think of learning as the accumulation of discrete skills, and led some students to develop a ‘credit accumulation’ mentality (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008).

Criticisms of this approach to understanding the curriculum

One critique of Apple’s approach is that it is grounded in an overly negative view of capitalism. In this sense, any acknowledgement of the contested and political nature of the curriculum is simply “code for a critique of capitalism and the ways it is reflected in the broader cultural and social institutions of society” (Evans, 2008, p. 19). The danger of this approach is that it can lead to the “indoctrination of students…proselytizing, and propaganda” (Evans, 2008, p. 19). According to this view:

 The cultural impulse helps us to identify the injustices of a given political order. But critiques can also paralyze the imagination, suspend the development of an alternative political vision, and engender despair. If leftist critique becomes hyper-critical, smelling power and injustice everywhere, it can lead to a politics of reaction where everything the left stands for is posited as good, while everything about the Right is evil (Sokolof, cited in Gordon, 2012, p. 9).

According to Ellsworth, critical theorists like Apple seek to “appropriate public resources (classrooms, school supplies, teacher/professor salaries, academic requirements and degrees) to further various progressive political agendas that they believe to be for the public good” (1989, p. 301).

Another criticism is that Apple’s approach represents a ‘grand narrative’ – one based on a masculine epistemology that privileges “logic and rationality” (Evans, 2008, p. 19) over “ emotional, intuitive, and moral ways of knowing” (Evans, 2008, p. 19). At the heart of critical theory is a belief in individuals’ abilities to confront “public issues critically through ongoing forms of public debate and social action” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 300). However, critical thinking is only one way of ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ in the world; it is based on an epistemological position that implies the existence of a rational subject – someone who is able to understand the world rationally. It suggests that ‘others’ can be known, “defined, delineated, captured… explained, and diagnosed” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 300). According to Ellsworth, the militant discourse at the heart of critical theory and a belief in “the ideal rational person and the universality of propositions” (1989, p. 304) is set up in opposition to an irrational ‘other’ – often women, and people of colour. When empowerment is made dependent on rational thinking, the partial and conflicting experiences of the ‘other’ can be “rejected as irrational (biased, partial)” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 306).

A response to these criticisms

These criticisms are mild reminders that critical theorists need to test assumptions and arguments in the light of evidence (McGrew, cited in Gordon, 2012, p. 9). However, Apple’s position is not biased; he does not ground his theories in a particular political ideology. Rather, he is concerned with what actually happens as a result of the social, cultural, and political process underlying the curriculum. The impacts of capitalism are real and the pervasive inequalities that exist in capitalist societies deserve to be criticized. In New Zealand, for example, students from schools in the highest deciles (deciles 9 and 10) are almost three times more likely to leave school having achieved a university entrance standard than students from schools in the lowest deciles (Ministry of Education, 2009). Acknowledging power and injustice ‘everywhere’ is not hypercritical or reactionary when such power and injustice actually exists.

The relativistic orientation that informs Ellsworth’s postmodern critique of rationality is highly problematic. Rational, critical, thinking is indeed one way of understanding the world, and it is a very good way. In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill explained why critical discussion is crucial in democratic societies:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

If emotional, intuitive, or ‘moral’ ways of knowing were to replace rational, critical, thinking then public discourse would be impossible. The suggestion that women and ‘people of colour’ are sometimes seen as less rational than white European males is no reason to jettison rationality altogether; rather it is a reason to engage more deeply in rational conversation in order to understand and overcome the limitations of irrational human minds.


For Apple the curriculum is a living thing, unfolding constantly as a result of interactions between people; it is implicated deeply in the politics of culture. In New Zealand, cultural, political, and economic tensions have been at the heart of conflicts regarding the content and structure of the curriculum. In 1906, the success of Maori at Te Aute College threatened existing social divisions between Maori and Pakeha and sparked a lively debate, with some members of the dominant culture trying to set parameters around what counted as legitimate knowledge for Maori. More recently, research in New Zealand has demonstrated that the curriculum is constructed moment-by-moment as students and teachers interact and bring their prejudices from ‘outside’ into the classroom with them. Finally, thirty years of educational ‘reform’ in New Zealand has seen the ascendancy of neoliberal ideology, which has produced a competitive, market-driven, brand of education. Apple’s approach to understanding the curriculum is rational and effective; it has allowed us to uncover and respond to the many ways that inequalities and injustices are reproduced and challenged in schools and classrooms in New Zealand.


Apple, M. W. (1993). The politics of official knowledge: does a national curriculum make sense. Teachers College Record, 95(2).

Apple, M. W. (2004). Foreward. In A. M. O’Neill, J. Clark & R. Openshaw (Eds.), Reshaping Culture Knowledge and Learning. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Barrington, J. (1992). The school curriculum, occupations and race. In G. McCulloch (Ed.), The School Curriculum in New Zealand: History, theory, policy and practice. Palmesrton North: Dunmore.

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering: Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3).

Evans, R. W. (2008). The (Unfufilled Promise of Critical Pedagogy. Journal of Social Studies Research, 32(2).

Fitzpatrick, K., & Locke, T. (2008). Sir, do we get credits for this? NCEA, class and ethnicity in New Zealand. In A. St.George, S. Brown & J. O’Neill (Eds.), Facing the Big Questions in Teaching: Purpose, Power and Learning (pp. 87-98). Melbourne: Cengage Learning.

Gordon, S. P. (2012). Beyond Convention, Beyond Critique: Toward a third way of preparing educational leaders to promote equity and social justic. Texas: Connexions.

Hipkins, R. (2010). The evolving NCEA: findings from the NCER National Survey of Secondary Schools 2009. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educaional Research.

Lee, H. (2003). Outcomes-based education and the cult of educational efficiency: Using curriculum and assessment reforms to drive educational policy and practice. Education Research and Perspectives, 30(2).

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

O’Neill, A.-M., & O’Neill, J. (2008). How the official curriculum shapes teaching and learning. In A. St.George, S. Brown & J. O’Neill (Eds.), Facing the Big Questions in Teaching: Purpose, Power and Learning. Melbourne: Cengage Learning.

Pinar, W. F. (2012). What is curriculum theory? (Vol. 2). New York: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2003). How to get inside a students head, The New York Times.


1 Comment

Filed under Criticism of theories, General, History of education

One response to “Education and the Politics of Culture

  1. Sadly being either ignorant or from the UK I have not heard of Apple’s work before but your synopsis is very useful in the context of the hyper neo-liberal experiment being conducted by Gove and the coalition government. Thank you.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s