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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 8, February 13, 2010

Neo-liberalism, Neo-conservatism and the Inequalities in Education

‘Instead of being mere Imitators, Indians should become Teachers of the World’

Thursday 18 February 2010, by Michael W. Apple


The following is a summary of the lecture delivered by Michael W. Apple (Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA) at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi, on October 21, 2009. Notes and references have been inserted by the compiler (Vikas Gupta, Assistant Professor of History at Delhi University) with the view to help the reader to pursue further inquiry. The compiler has stated that he is grateful to Professor Apple for making necessary corrections in the summary notes. —Editor

I would like to do two things in this presen-tation with the view to explain the processes of the production and maintenance of inequalities in the contemporary times of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. First, I would like to do a relational analysis of various kinds of worldwide social movements and struggles. Relational analysis implies the study of the relationship of an institution with the larger structures of power and resource distribution. Relational analysis may seem a simple thing in the first instance, but it is not so, because it involves very compli-cated and larger questions like whose knowledge is taught; who produces knowledge; and who gets benefit out of it.1 After this, I want to see the possibilities of intervention for transforming education.

It is the social movements which make us work, not just education. In other words, education is pushed by larger movements in society.2 For example, we are witnessing in our country (and in many nations throughout the world) that the Right-wing movements are pushing education in a particular direction.3 There is a new formation of leadership, which is attempting to orient education in a particular direction. Its task is to change our common sense by getting inside people’s consciousness.4 There are four types of people in this new group or umbrella of leadership.5

The first component of this umbrella is the IT sector (and other sectors of economically power-ful groups) professing neo-liberalism. It believes that the private sector is invariably good and the public sector is essentially bad. It believes in economic rationality; and it wants that the educational responsibility should be given in private hands. In order to escape the crude terminology of privatisation of education, it uses terms like public-private partnership or people-people partnership (PPP) and proposes for voucher plan etc.6 It argues that the weak state is a good state. However, actually no state is weak. Even in the most progressive states of the USA, like Wisconsin, a considerable number of people from the minorities are thrown in prisons. They are further minoritised through state policies.

Actually, neo-liberalism envisages the world as a supermarket. It believes that the market will improve the achievement level of people. However, as I have shown elsewhere, this is not true.7 The people who do not have capital to buy things will always stand outside the window of the supermarket.

The second component of the umbrella of present leadership is that of neo-conservatives. Neo-conservatives have a cultural agenda. But neo-liberalism cannot succeed without this cultural agenda of neo-conservatives. Neo-conservatives desire a strong state with a strong emphasis on values and cultural orientation. However, the problem is that there is not necessarily an automatic commonness of culture in any nation; rather, according to Raymond Williams, the deliberation or the time in which the nation is moving is the only common thing of any nation-state.8 What is common is the debate over what the common is. Thus, we need to have that debate in every nation. Nowhere in the world has there been a consolidation of the market without the neo-conservatives’ unifying agenda.

The third group consists of authoritarian populous. They believe that it is the system of secular government schools which is the source of all evil; and therefore, it needs to be challenged. In the USA, the fastest growing trend, even faster than marketisation and nationalisation, is the trend of development of the home schools. Two million students are studying in the home schools and 40 per cent of them are Christian fundamentalists. In the textbooks of these schools, there is no discussion of concepts like the big-bang theory, because they just focus on the biblical account of creation. These textbooks sometimes even hold that worshipping in the Islamic way is like worshipping the devil.9

The fourth component of the umbrella of present leadership consists of a particular fraction of the managerial class. They talk about measuring the achievements and argue for better management of available resources. They highlight the lower level of achievements of the government schools; and thereby they indirectly and even directly oppose any system of public education. Their work often leads to a mistrust of state-supported education and usually benefits their own children.

The extremely rich people do not need govern-ment schools, or schools of any kind, since they have sufficient capital to purchase anything they want. The middle classes do not have this economic capital. But they have the cultural capital; and therefore, they are more concerned about it than anything else.


Neo-liberalism attempts to change our common sense. By changing how we think about good teachers versus bad teachers, good schools versus bad schools, good curriculum versus bad curriculum etc., it aims to push education in the direction of merely serving the needs of the economically dominant groups. By arguing that democracy is simply the choice on a market, it does not have a concept of a democratic school. It practices at best what may be called thin democracy which is an economic doctrine. It does not talk about thick democracy.

Even in The Wealth of Nations, Adams Smith had agreed that the market functions relationally.10 However, this side of Adam Smith’s argument has been repeatedly overlooked. The market privileges only those who have the resources. The language of choice is nothing but an attempt to change our common sense and to hide the discrimination.

There is nothing common in nation-states either in the USA or in India except the fact that the citizens are placed at different social locations. In fact, there cannot be anything in a national curriculum framework which is common for all unless that curriculum framework is constantly changed and subject to serious critical analysis.11 Secondly, it is true that presently the NCERT in India has been doing many interesting things. However, what will happen when this progressive and democratic team, which has prepared the National Curriculum Framework (2005), is replaced by authoritarians?

How to intervene with the view to transform education? To understand this, we need to learn from those who are good at transforming agendas. These Right-wing forces are in fact more concerned about education and about transformation of education than even most of the progressives in the Left. We therefore need to learn from the Right-wing forces how to build hegemonic strategic alliances.12

Secondly, we need to question the basic terms of the discourse and policies.

Thirdly, as intellectuals, we need to become ‘success secretaries’: we must publish the success stories of teachers and activists.13 We must also collect and publish the statements or diaries of those teachers who are working hard in government schools: who do not get time to do those things which they want to do, even basic things like going to the toilet.14

Last, but not the least, instead of simply imitating the West, Indians should benefit the world with their experiences. They should see that it should not happen that the models of education are developed in the West and are transported and implemented in the East. Instead of being mere imitators, Indians should become teachers of the world.


1. These are the questions which Professor Apple started raising as a pioneering scholar as early as the 1970s. He is still engaged with these questions and has provided such illuminating answers that they have become central to educational research across the globe. See, for example, Michael W. Apple, Ideology and Curriculum, 25th Anniversary Third Edition, Routledge Falmer (New York), 2004; Education and Power, Second Edition, Routledge (New York), 1995: First Published Routledge & Kegan Paul (Boston), 1982; Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education, Routledge & Kegan Paul (New York), 1986; and Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age, Second Edition, Routledge (New York), 2000: First Published 1993.

2. Even the aims and objectives of education as well as its nature and definition are redefined in all ages as many theorists including Durkheim, John Dewey, Talcott Parsons and Karl Mannheim had argued. For these and other insights on the relationship between society, education and the state, see Suresh Chandra Shukla and Krishna Kumar (ed.), Sociological Perspective in Education: A Reader, Chanakya Publications (Delhi), 1985; Stephen J. Ball (ed.), Reader in Sociology of Education, Routledge Falmer, 2004; and Michael W. Apple (ed.), Cultural and Economic Reproduction in Education, Routledge (London), 1982.

3. The phenomenon of the Right-wing movement in education and their (as well as the neo-liberals’) cultural politics is the subject matter of Professor Apple’s more recent books, such as Cultural Politics and Education, Teachers College Press (Buckingham), 1996; Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age, Second Edition, Routledge (New York), 2000: First Published 1993; and Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality, Second Edition, Routledge (New York), 2006: First Published Routledge Falmer (USA), 2001.

4. For a discussion on the attempts of the new leadership for changing the “common sense” of the people, see Michael W. Apple, Official Knowledge (especially Ch. 2).

5. Professor Apple summarises these four components in Ch. 1 of his Educating the “Right” Way.

6. Ibid. (especially Ch. 1 and 2). Even in India, the MHRD has been planning to adopt for school as well as university education the “public-private partnership” formula, ranking system and voucher plans under the influence of the neo-liberal pressure groups and World Bank in consultation with US experts.

7. Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way.

8. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope, Verso (New York), 1989, pp. 37-38.

9. For a discussion on authoritarian populous and the home schooling in the USA, see Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way (especially Ch. 5 and 6).

10. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Clarendon Press, (Oxford), 1976, pp. 709-10.

11. For Professor Apple’s discussion of the National Curriculum Framework in the US context, as well as the general questions he raises, see his Cultural Politics and Education (especially Ch. 2).

12. In fact, when I asked Professor Apple about his opinion about how we could fight the vulgar relativism of post-modernism, he said that the only way is to build strategic alliances. He once again said that this we can learn better from the Right.

13. Professor Apple accomplished this task in the USA by documenting success stories of teachers with all their difficulties and challenges. For this, see Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane (eds.), Democratic Schools: Lessons from the Chalk Face, Open University Press (Buckingham), 1999. This work has gained so much popularity amongst activists, teachers and teacher unions across the globe that it has been translated in a number of languages and recently Eklavya has also printed an Indian edition of this book. Also see Dennis Carlson and Michael W. Apple (eds.), Power/Knowledge/Pedagogy: The Meaning of Democratic Education in Unsettling Times, Westview Press (USA), 1998.

14. It is only very recently that some activists and scholars in India have started exposing the absence of any valid perspective of teachers in the educational planning and policy formulation. (An exception was some writings of Krishna Kumar, such as his Raj Samaj Aur Shiksha, Rajkamal, 1990: First Published MacMillan, 1978, especially Ch. 5.) See, for example, Anil Sadgopal, Shiksha Men Badlav Ka Saval, Granth Shilpi, 2000. Professor Sadgopal was even nominated as a member of the National Commission for Teachers (1984-85). However, he subsequently resigned from it on the ground that the approach of the Commission was not scientific.

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