- Revisiting Michael W. Apple's School Discipline:Why Simple Solutions Are No Solutions At All
Michael Apple likes to say that his scholarship asks simple questions. Who is in power? Whose knowledge is included? Who benefits from the design of the curriculum? How do we interrupt or disrupt the current conservative trends in education? His faculty biography page at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he has taught since 1970 (and only retired from this year), describes his research in one sentence, "Professor Apple's research centers on the limits and possibilities of critical educational policy and practice in times of conservative restoration.1" His biographical statement goes a bit further but is equally terse. It reads, "His major interests lie in the relationship between culture and power in education and in democratizing educational policy and practice.2" This simple language belies the depth and incredible level of complexity of Apple's work. I worked with him as a graduate student, took all the courses he offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he served as my co-advisor for my dissertation work.
Apple's 1984 The High School Journal article titled "School Discipline: Why Simple Solutions Are No Solutions at All" continues in the same thematic vein as his main research focus. Asked to write this piece after a series of popular lectures he had given on the topic of school discipline, he told me he structured it to appeal to practitioners, scholars, parents, and community members alike. This isn't unusual for Apple. One only need to hear him speak at an education conference or one of his public lectures, read the introduction to one of his many books, or sit in one of his classes to understand that his work is highly personal and meant not just for the academy, but, as I wrote in my graduate school application essay, "the street." Scholarship, Apple contends, is supposed to be of use and thus Apple rages against scholars, particularly those like him, who are critical but engage in scholarship which is, as he says, "only rhetorical." A self-described "red diaper baby" raised in Patterson, New Jersey to a family of printers who were Marxist in orientation and union organizers, Apple never intended to live exclusively in the academy, neither academically nor politically.
To bridge what can sometimes be a vast chasm between the academy and what we might call the "real world", Apple brings the dense language and writing of the academy to meet the reality of life in schools and education more broadly. Apple eventually developed his lectures as a public intellectual into a written text. Expanding and specifying the philosophic notion of praxis (Freire, 1970), or the intersection of reflection, knowledge, experience that then becomes new action, Apple developed the Tasks of the Critical Scholar/Activist (2013). There are nine tasks in total, five of which relate to my 2017 re-reading and discussion of Apple's School [End Page 116] Discipline: Why Simple Solutions Are No Solution At All (1984). Specifically, Apple (2013) warrants that critical scholars/activists must: "bear witness to negativity"; "point to contradictions and to spaces for possible action"; "reconstruct elite knowledge" into something more organic and useful; "keep the multiple traditions of radical and progressive work alive"; and finally, make good use of "the privilege one has as a scholar/activist". In reflecting upon Apple's 1984 work, connections to these particular tasks of a critical scholar come forth as a call to action, asserting Apple's contributions to our work as scholars and activists as relevant to us now in 2017 as it was over 30 years ago.
Bearing Witness to Negativity
As Apple argues, the critical activist scholar focuses attention on research and matters of critical importance to schools, students, teachers and the greater society. Bearing witness to negativity is relating one's research and scholarship to something negative, difficult, complicated yet necessary; for Apple, this is exploring the power hidden in the official curriculum, analyzing how the conservative restoration is winning and what can be learned from it, and unpacking the gendered problems of schooling. Bearing witness pushes scholarship to be about something more...