Critical educational reforms and dirty toilets: being honest about blockages and contradictions

By Michael Apple

Large numbers of educators, community activists, and social movements are rightly deeply involved in the struggles for a more responsive and critically democratic education. These efforts are essential and need to be defended and expanded. Yet at the same time that we continue to engage in these actions, we need to be conscious of the ways in which the multiple dynamics of power and how they intersect with each other in the complex realities of education and the larger society can have serious effects on even our best intentioned progressive reforms. In understanding this, it is important that we think not only nationally but internationally as well. I want to use a story about a practical initiative that was deeply involved in the struggle for critical democracy in education to bring this point home.

For a number of years, my wife Rima and I spent time working with activists, community groups, the ministry of education, critical educators, and others in one of the more progressive states in a nation in Southern Asia. Its high rates of literacy were well known. The left-leaning government was expressly dedicated to improving the economic and political lives of the population, especially those at the bottom of the class and caste structure.

The ministry of education had been influenced by critical pedagogical theories and practices, including the powerful work of Paulo Freire as well as some of my own work. It had also developed connections with groups engaged in movements such as “people’s science” and similar local critically oriented educational strategies that were building “counter-hegemonic” educational programs from the ground up as well as from the top down.

One of the commitments that were very visible was to improve the lives of young women and girls, an initiative that was of considerable interest to Rima as well as myself, since Rima is a well-known historian of women’s health. We wanted to see how this actually went on. Seeing things close up is crucial to us. We’ve had too many experiences of rhetorical reforms—including supposedly quite radical policies and programs–that sound so very good when seen from afar, but the words were often very different than the realities.

A primary initiative involved giving much more access to technological skills and knowledge in schools that served poor and marginalized students and connecting these skills and knowledge to the daily lives of oppressed people. It was thought that this emphasis would have benefits not only for poor children but for women as well, since they were doubly marginalized, not only by class and caste but profoundly by gender and by the patriarchal norms that were still so present in their communities.

Communities and social movements were consulted about the new programs. Even with the real scarcity of resources in education, the ministry worked hard to ensure that schools in these areas were given large numbers of computers. Time was set aside for their use and integration into the daily activities of the schools. Curricula were prepared that urged teachers to connect these new skills with the everyday experiences of the students and their lives, one of the key elements in critical pedagogy.

Having already written about the worries I had about “technological fixes” for educational inequalities, I was prepared to be somewhat skeptical about all of this. But Rima and I had learned to trust that the ministry and the activists working with them were serious in their conscious attempts to interrupt the role of education in reproducing inequalities. Thus, we went in with an open mind that combined solidarity with the critical and progressive commitments that had been taken seriously by the ministry before; and yet we still had some questions about the curriculum and the reliance on technology.

What we saw pushed us even further toward understanding the complex contradictions that can be present in critical education, contradictions that refocused our attention not only on the curriculum and pedagogy in the school, but even more on the material realities of gendered specificities in daily life.

The sun beat down on us as we walked from the car to the school. The temperature was nearly 40 (C) degrees with humidity nearly as high. There was little respite from the heat inside the school. Computers lined the walls of the classroom. The teachers were hard at work with groups and individual students, most of whom were between the ages of 11-14.

The students soon were at the computers. At first glance, even with the oppressive heat and humidity, everything looked fine. But after a while of watching and then interacting with teachers and students, Rima and I looked at each other and recognized that we both had come to the same realization of what was happening underneath the progressive aspects that were visible. Now the story gets more substantive about contradictions and the politics of intersecting dynamics of power in daily life. Understanding these contradictions is absolutely crucial if we are to interrupt the power of dominant ideological groups.

What we had nearly simultaneously come to realize was that almost all of the students working so diligently at the computers were the boys. This was not “planned.” It wasn’t because the teachers were sexist in the usual sense of that word. It was more complicated than that.

In this school, there were no clean bathrooms for the girls. Boys faced a similar situation, but the boys could go behind the school buildings and urinate, something they regularly did. This was an act that had very different meanings and implications for the girls. To publicly urinate in an “open space” was to risk not only being seen as “dirty” but also to be seen as sexually “available.” The dangers associated with this in a climate of male dominance and female subordination—even with a government deeply committed to interrupting this—were not abstract. They were very real and based on all too many experiences, given the fact that sexual violence both as a threat and a reality was an ever present danger.

Because of this, in order to “protect their modesty,” many girls did not attend school. The girls who did come to school tried very hard to not drink anything during the school day so that they would not have to urinate. With the heat and humidity so very high, many of the girls had no energy or even fell asleep at their desks.

None of this was planned. The ministry, in association with activists and critical educators, had correctly prioritized a process of schooling that was meant to interrupt dominance and to provide a curriculum and a set of tools that led to more democratic outcomes for poor and marginalized students, and that was overtly aimed at radically changing the lives of girls and young women. Very real economic sacrifices had been made to provide the students with the technology, the curriculum, and the teacher skills to give the youth experiences that were simply taken for granted by affluent parents and communities. In class terms, this was indeed progressive. Yet students have gendered bodies. The politics of bodies, built into the materiality of physical environments, powerfully interrupted the official attempt at interrupting dominance. “Simple” things like bathrooms and the gendered dynamics of schools and daily life contradicted the very well-intentioned class and caste based policies of a ministry that was trying so very hard to live out its commitments and to democratize the processes and outcomes of education.

I tell this story not to make us cynical. Cynicism has no place in the struggles to create an education that is consciously aimed at challenging dominant power relations that are reproduced in schools, the media, and elsewhere. Rather my aim is to remind us that reality “hits back” and that we need to be conscious that building a lasting critically democratic education requires us to understand that doing so will at times be filled with tensions and contradictions.   The concern with critically democratic outcomes must start with a realization of everyday life—in this case with the lived realities of violence against women.

The politics of this will be complicated. It will involve a combination of joy over partial victories and sometimes sorrow at the fact that the victories may not go far enough or that even reproduce other forms of dominance and subordination. Ignoring all of this won’t make it any easier. We are talking about the real lives of teachers, students, communities, and so many other groups of people who have so much to lose in a society that is all too often organized to destroy their hopes and dreams—and even their very lives not only through “symbolic violence” but actual physical violence as well. While it is still crucial to understand dominant neoliberal polices as themselves forms of violence, it is equally important that we recognize that the terrain of critical education also occurs on a ground where there already exist multiple forms of differential power that can interrupt even our very best-intentioned progressive educational initiatives. As much as we might wish it wasn’t the case, we can’t hide from the visible and invisible politics, and the conflicts these entail, involved in building and defending a truly critical education. Only by understanding the lived realities and multiple dynamics of power that exist in situations such as these can we succeed.



Michael W. Apple is John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Among his most recent books are: Can Education Change Society? and the 3rd edition of his classic volume Official Knowledge.



This piece is part of a series on schooling and democracy in the lead up to the Re-imagining Education for Democracy Summit, being held at USQ Springfield 13-15 November. Professor Apple will be presenting a free public lecture on Monday 13 November as part of the summit.

10 thoughts on “Critical educational reforms and dirty toilets: being honest about blockages and contradictions

  1. Marten Koomen says:

    This article reflects an issue I have with Apple’s work. On the one hand he claims “Large numbers of educators, community activists, and social movements are rightly deeply involved in the struggles ….” and then argues for “counter-hegemonic” agendas. He seems oblivious to the possibility that the movements and communities with which he himself identifies might be considered hegemonic by others.

    Education, as a universal activity, places all those involved in direct relation to all others in the species. This can be perceived as hegemonic and overbearing at the personal level, It is the responsibility of educational leaders to manage systems for plurality and to minimise the soul crushing of the marginalised. Modern societies are increasingly struggling with this,

    The counter-hegemonic narrative, as well as being hegemonic in itself, is a narrative of a generation that failed to grow up. It is a narrative captured by the frisson of Paris 1968, a comfortable place of youthful rebellion that conjures and presupposes a hegemonic overlord. An overlord that at once provides a safe place of institutional munificence, and a safe place for playful struggles. But it is not a narrative that produces educational leaders capable of managing plurality. It’s a generation that failed to accept responsibility of leadership and led education systems increasingly being mediated by money and power in the absence of reason.

  2. Marten Koomen says:

    I’d stick to the “not worthwhile engaging with” if you can’t handle the polemic, rhetorical and general discussion of forums. I also find the accusatory and personal inquisition a tad offensive.

    In the meantime, appropriating the good stuff, and projecting the bad stuff, remains “la critique du jour”.

  3. Michael W. Apple says:


    Thanks for the comment. I may not agree with you, but I’m pleased that the story I tell generates some thoughtful replies. I find it interesting that you chose to focus on “my generation” and “our” supposed inability to see that “our” position could be hegemonic. I understand your claim. But this seems somewhat overstated to me. And it especially risks minimizing the real point of the story–that progressive policies that don’t understand more fully the complex and contradictory effects of their actions can have hidden implications in terms of dynamics of power involving, in this case, the realities of gender relations and the power of the material realities involved in that.

    But thanks again for the comments.

  4. Brian Cambourne says:

    Whatever Professor Apple’s ideological stance, I appreciate how this piece identifies the unpredictable effect that context can play in educational policy, educational practice, and outcomes Would ” Big Data” advocates applying the principles of ” learning analytics” be able to identify the complex set of factors at play here?

  5. Allison Fairey says:

    Yes, I’m with Brian. What a story! This clearly illustrates that educational reforms are useless if children are not attending school to benefit from them. A basic takeaway for me regardless of Professor Apple’s ideology.

  6. David Zyngier says:

    Agreed Brian. Apple’s story is one that never is told through our PISA Envy obsessions.

  7. The point I take from the article is that education reform is not necessarily successful purely through introducing technology (or monetary funding) if the cultural, family and social aspects are not considered in the education process. Ignoring any of these in education will ultimately lead to inequalities as the education initiatives will not cater for the individual experiences and learning needs of these students. Even in Australia, teachers need to consider the background of the students in their classes in order to navigate appropriate ways to develop the learning of these students (as outlined in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers).However, sometimes there is such a push to include different perspectives in the curriculum without considering the ‘perspective’ or background that your own student comes to class with. Knowing your students’ needs can be a more effective way of dismantling the barriers (or ‘blocks’) to a child’s learning rather than just providing new technology as the solution.

  8. Michael W. Apple says:

    Thanks to all of you who took time to engage with my post. I appreciate the dialogue.

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