Book Review: The ‘Reason’ of Schooling: Historicizing Curriculum Studies, Pedagogy, and Teacher Education

Book Review: The ‘Reason’ of Schooling: Historicizing Curriculum Studies, Pedagogy, and Teacher Education, ed. Thomas S. Popkewitz

(New York, Routledge: 2015), pp. 264, Hb. £99.99, Pb. £39.99.

Reviewed by Houman Harouni (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Educational Studies faces a practical and philosophical conundrum: the field has hitched its prosperity to the flourishing of the very institutions and practices it hopes to critique. Educational research is so enmeshed with the phenomenon of schooling that it rarely asks why a school practice exists, opting instead to focus on what needs improving and how it can be improved. Under such conditions, it might seem that objective and independent critiques of schooling must arrive from outside the field, using methods and perspectives that were developed elsewhere. Is there then any hope for an immanent critique of education systems and educational discourses?

The essays collected in The ‘Reason’ of Schooling: Historicizing Curriculum Studies, Pedagogy, and Teacher Education are attempts by educational researchers to address this problem. Very little about schooling is taken for granted in this volume. The authors question the logic and values that underlie both widespread and local educational discourses. They historicize key concepts in discussions of school reform: teacher quality, interest in science, learning outcomes, teaching methodology, integration, adolescent development… They place these concepts, literally or figuratively, in quotation marks and examine how they arise or operate as ideologies within specific historical contexts.

The authors draw their own methods and key concepts from another field: social epistemology. Foucault’s “archeology of knowledge,” Deleuze’s “image of thought,” and Agamben’s “paradigmatic method,” among many others, are transferred into these studies and applied to phenomena that social epistemology has often ignored. In the collection there are, as I will discuss, very few instances of these imported concepts being modified, and fewer still of new concepts being created. The collection as a whole, therefore, demonstrates both the power of applying social epistemology to education, as well as its limitations. 

The collection’s overall stance toward schooling is negative: the chapters do not offer solutions for change. The reason, as articulated by the editor, Thomas Popkewitz, is that solutions would entail taking the existing situation for granted and assuming that it can be reformed through “negotiation and agreement” (p. 15). Two principles, which also serve as the uniting theses of the book, do not bear negotiation, according to Popkewitz. The first principle states that pedagogy is an “alchemical” process that takes scientific and social disciplines as its raw materials and turns them into modes of ordering and regulating people. In other words, school subjects are never simply mathematics, science, literature and so on, but elements of those disciplines placed at the service of certain larger functions of schooling. The second principle is that the ordering and regulating institutions use the language of equality and inclusion to “exclude and abject” large sections of society. “Good students,” “qualified teachers” and “civic participation,” for example, all imply their obverse: students, teachers, and individuals who are bad, unqualified, or uncivic according to criteria that often go unspoken and unexamined. 

The purely critical stance of the collection allows the authors to view the situation from a distance that is rarely experienced in curriculum studies. This distance, however, comes at a high cost. Whoever imagines that criticizing a situation would place her perfectly outside the problem, risks lending justification to the situation precisely by portraying it as easily overcome, separable and, ultimately, abolished. After all, if the authors can so easily see the power dynamics that shape schooling, there is no reason why everyone else, including school practitioners, should not be able to do so as well. In reality, we do not see a problem because we are implicated in its dynamics. The authors of the collection, for example, are all academics (i.e. involved in schooling), and their writings contribute to certain pedigreed and accepted forms of academic discourse. There are definite differences between universities and k-12 schools, of course, but these differences are not absolute: many key practices and discourses that operate in one are present in the other. The chapters, however, do not address these overlaps. A result of this refusal is a duplication of some of the same alchemical and idealistic discourses that the authors attack. The self-confident and straightforward style of the chapters, wherein problems, methods, and analysis march in line toward conclusions, betrays a willingness to ignore two obvious implications of Popkewitz’s own principles: first, that academic writing is itself a pedagogic form and as such contains alchemical properties; and, second, that the discourse produced in this alchemy also excludes and abjects – here namely anyone who, by attempting practice, embroils herself in the contradictions that shape “reason.”

This division of labor between critic and practitioner inevitably leads to a new idealism. The authors take certain values as given and universal. Exclusion, for example, consistently appears as an evil. The only exception to this is in the chapter by Kowalczyk on the discourse of integration in Italian school policy. More significantly, the ordering and regulation of bodies appears as another evil, and to this norm I can only find a single exception in this book – in the chapter by Weili Zhao, which I will discuss shortly. The very concept of “alchemy” implies a type of science that can be transferred without alchemization. All these are essential and problematic idealizations, because education, in any form, implies ordering, regulating, and repurposing. A social epistemologist can often place herself outside such dilemmas because her work differs substantially from the disciplines she critiques. But education does not quite afford such separations. It is a universal activity and is woven into almost any form of writing and reasoning: whatever is known is learned and at least partly taught.

To grapple with these problems requires more reflective styles of writing, or at least an approach to curating the chapters that would signal a readiness for self-examination. More importantly, it requires that the authors do not rest content to merely call out power and ideology in school relations. No attempt at development, organization, or culture-building is ever free of power and ideology. To show that a practice subjects a group of people to a power structure is merely a first step. It immediately raises a second question as to why this group does not vehemently resist this power and why those in charge cannot reorganize their practice.  Although most chapters do end with such questions, all are left suspended.

The difficult work is to grasp one’s own reason for teaching, acting, or critiquing, and in this way to reject the “reasons” of the work as imperatives from above. This would also mean that the concepts and procedures borrowed from the work of other theorists would not be allowed to colonize the topics without undergoing some degree of transformation. The chapter by Lars Bang and Paola Valero on the discourse of “interest in science” demonstrates steps toward remedying this problem. It mixes and modifies the concepts it borrows from Deleuze, Foucault, and Popkewitz himself, in order to address a new set of materials. Pedagogy might be an alchemical – and, so, irrational – practice, Bang and Valero suggest, but by comparing different approaches we can begin at least to chart these irrationalities and to understand the reasons that bind their various elements. The author’s own reasons for doing so, however, remain opaque.

Weili Zhao’s chapter on the reinstatement of kneeling-bowing rites in a number of schools in China is an exception that quickly demonstrates the kind of difficulties that arise in dealing with education. The chapter addresses a practice – students kneeling and bowing to teachers and parents in graduation ceremonies – that in every way seems oppressive. Those who justify it claim e.g. that it instills a sense of gratitude and duty, which might appear as mere speculations in the service of reinforcing certain hierarchies. Zhao, however, points out that some students and parents who have undergone the ceremony speak about an experience of sympathy and co-responsibility that cannot be easily dismissed as either humiliation or oppression. To account for this experience, Zhao finds that she has to modify Foucault’s critique of power, which was her starting point, and introduce a new concept, “voluntary servitude,” that better fits her understanding of the situation. It is a dangerous concept; but the work of education occurs only in such danger zones. By trying to make the danger of her concepts and her own position vis-à-vis kneeling and bowing transparent, Zhao’s piece allows the reader, too, to assume the burden of a critical perspective on education.

The book as a whole demonstrates – as has been done before – that social theory can help to tease out the dilemma of stagnation and stultification in education. By planting itself completely outside the practice of education, however, the book also forgoes one of the chief lessons of pedagogical science: i.e. that any process of development requires a temporary reliance on structures that are, nonetheless, always resisted by learners and must eventually be overcome if learning is to progress. The compulsive repetitiveness of school practices and the lack of real change in schooling are signs that educators have abandoned education itself. Any critique of these conditions is an attempt to promote education and, therefore, it must also present itself as a structure that should also, eventually, be overcome and thrown away. A study of the reason of schooling should be as openly dangerous as the structures it hopes to dislodge are covert.