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Can education change society?

Published in Editor's Choice, Theory by Mark Murphy on December 7, 2013

AppleEarlier this year Michael Apple published a book entitled Can education change society? (Routledge). Anyone familiar with Apple’s work would not be surprised by such a title; they also wouldn’t be surprised that it’s a very readable take on the possibilities of social transformation via education, where the central arguments are couched in the language of critical pedagogy, incorporating the ideas of Freire, Du Bois and George Counts among others. Apple’s stance is undeniably normative, pitching the forces of progressive movements and traditions (civil rights, workers’ movements, affective equality) against what he considers a more ‘retrogressive, set of traditions’ (neo-conservatisism, neo-liberalism) that view profiteering and extreme individualism as the ideological vanguard of educational change.

This position is grounded in a broader personal politics, which he refers to as ‘radical democratic egalitarianism’ (p. 151), a form of conviction politics that sees such a form of egalitarianism as ‘necessary for a flourishing and fulfilling personal and social life’. As a result of this conviction, he values educational change as that which

seeks to challenge the social, economic and cultural policies and practices that generate inequalities in the material and social conditions of identifiable people’s lives that limit the possibility of such flourishing (p. 151).

This is a clear political position to take on educational change and one that is shared by other critical pedagogues. Personally I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the sharp dichotomies on display in such thinking on educational change – ‘progressive’ versus ‘regressive’ being a classic example. How much change is a combination of both? And does change always and forever have to be couched in such terms? These kinds of dichotomies make me consider the restrictive effects of some forms of social theory which have had an influence on the development of critical pedagogical approaches. But just because Hegel may or may not have constructed an abstract tri-partite dialectic doesn’t mean it exists always and forever in the real.

I’m also not comfortable with what I’d call the ‘glorification’ of education, a tendency to  posit educational change that doesn’t contribute to broader social transformations as unworthy of consideration, as lacking real value in ideological struggles. But so many educational developments could as easily be characterised as banal, ordinary. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have value in the context within which they have developed. And there’s no shame or disgrace in that.

These tendencies are also illustrated in the final few lines of the book (p. 166), in which Apple suggests that answers to the question ‘Can education change society?’

can best be found by joining in the creative and determined efforts of building a counter-public. There is educational work to be done.

I’m not sure why it has to be a ‘counter’ public or even a public in the singular. I would have expected that a radical democratic politics would find a plurality of publics a more comfortable bedfellow. Having said that, he is correct to state that active involvement in educational change is a better bet than taking a ‘position on the balcony’ as he puts it.  This is one of the more valuable contributions that the book makes to educational debates, one that reflects other questions that guide the arguments in the book, such as:

from whose perspective are we asking and answering this question [can education change society]? and who are the people who will engage in these transformative efforts? (p. 138)

Apple rightly argues that such questions need to be asked alongside the broader question of whether or not education can change society. These are the kinds of questions that require further reflection and collaborative work in order to develop more viable and multiple accounts of social change.


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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