COVID-19, COMMODIFICATION, AND THE LOSS OF CRITICAL EDUCATION
MICHAEL W. APPLE
Çeviri: Alper Hacıoğlu&Nurcan Konkmaz
The COVID-19 crisis continues to have devastating consequences in the United States and many other nations. This crisis has transformed the lives and realities of huge numbers of people. Such pandemics are in some ways equalizers. Illness and death are faced by people across the economic spectrum. But saying that allows too many people to live in an epistemological and political/economic fog. We need to constantly remember that these realities are still strikingly unequal. Minoritized and poor people are much more apt to suffer the worst consequences of the disease, not only in health care, but in all aspects of their lives. People living in refugee camps, slums, poor rural and urban communities, war zones, and so many other places face the pandemic under very different conditions than those who are more affluent and more secure. At the same time, large numbers of working class, poor, and undocumented people cannot “shelter at home” as protection against the virus when they are living paycheck to paycheck, if they are “lucky” enough to have paid work in the first place. Yet so many of these same jobs offer no other forms of physical protection. Nor do they offer health insurance. The choice is to work or to not eat.
In response to the health crisis and the ensuing crises in other aspects of our societies, crucial institutions have been closed. Among the most important are schools, colleges, and universities both private and public. But the closure of these institutions has carried with it a continued set of social and educational responsibilities that have not disappeared, including teaching what is considered important content and questioning that content, providing meals for large numbers of students, responding honestly and with care to the varied needs of students with disabilities, and so much more. And here too, existing inequalities are reproduced, as well as new ones being produced.
One of the areas where these tensions and inequalities are visible is in the growth of homeschooling. With the closure of schools in the United States and a number of other nations, a hybrid form of education is being developed, often in very uncertain and tentative ways. Many of the results are not fully known yet. Nor would it be fair to all of the homeschooling community(ies) to judge them only in relationship to the crisis we are currently experiencing. But let me raise a number of issues that can have very real and long-lasting effects on critical teaching and curriculum, and on the larger body of schooling in general.
1) The hybrid forms of homeschooling (basically a variant of distance education in which the school system and its curriculum enters the home in a more or less organized manner) that are being developed and put into use now can change the political economy of education. Large corporate publishers and media conglomerates are already involved in producing material for homeschoolers and distance education. With nearly all educational material now being sent electronically into the homes of children (or at least those children who have computers and internet connections—and those children who actually have homes and are not “homeless), the market opportunities for private publishers to commodify and sell a prepackaged curriculum will multiply in extraordinary ways. This can have contradictory effects. It opens the home and thus the entire educational process even more as a center of profitability. It can deskill teachers, as more and more of the curriculum is commodified and not subject to more personal transformations by teachers. On the other hand, it can create opportunities for teachers to share material electronically with each other and to tell their stories of success and spread them across various media. Many teachers are already doing this. But let us not romanticize these possibilities. Commodification and profit are already increasingly powerful dynamics in education and it would be wise to think more seriously about the implications of this now.
2) Another hidden effect, but this one more positive, is the realization on the part of very large numbers of parents and community members of the crucial roles that teachers actually play and how the intellectual and caring labor they are called upon to do deserves even more respect and support. In a time when conservative and neoliberal policies that are deeply disrespectful of teachers and their unions dominate a good deal of educational policies, this may enable a greater sense of the importance of providing teachers with the financial and emotional support that is required to do their jobs. This could bring about a renewal of significant interest and appeal in becoming a teacher among new generations. It can also be employed to forge new and stronger alliances among oppressed communities and teacher activists.
3) On the other hand, the commodification of curricula and the standardization of teaching that may occur through the hybrid educational forms that are being sent to homes now, may have the opposite effect. As home education of this type gets regularized, teaching can be become more anonymized as something that can be increasingly impersonal and given over to machines. It is less apt to deal with individual students’ needs, languages, and cultures and the ways in which teaching as an intensely personal set of relationships with the children who are present with you every day become slowly transformed into something that is even more routinized. This can lead to increasing disrespect for public schooling and a search for private alternatives.
4) As I have argued elsewhere (Apple 2006; 2013) homeschooling is a deeply controversial practice. There are major concerns about its teaching quality, about what it actually teaches, about accountability and what counts as evidence of good practice, about its commitment to a society with a robust diversity, and many other concerns. The COVID-19 crisis has forced school systems to rapidly decenter education from the school to the home. This may make homeschooling seem more acceptable, without parents and community members being aware of the range of concerns that have been raised. It can also lead to desocializing democracy, so that democracy becomes simply the possessive individualism of “consumer choice.”
5) The inequalities that are now being produced by the economic, employment, housing, and health structures and resources that dominate US and other societies are becoming ever more visible in the move to education in the home due to the crisis. This has certainly not gone unnoticed in discussion by educators, communities, parents, and students. Taking this seriously is of course absolutely essential. However, there are other differences and inequalities that will be produced that should be of concern to us. Most schools are part of the public sphere. Their task is not only to teach (and challenge) “official” content and its goals and values, but to embody the norms of a larger social community that (more than rhetorically) is respectful of diversity, is based on fully critical and participatory citizenship, that interrupts gender, class, and race inequalities. This list has thankfully been extended by the movements throughout society for thicker forms of redistribution, recognition, and representation. With the possible normalization and acceptance of the movement of education from the school to the home, we may lose many of these more critically democratic goals. Once again, given the growth of public racisms, of hate crimes, of anti-Muslim feeling and policies in the West, of antisemitism, of anti-immigrant policies, of homophobic and patriarchal sentiments, we should be very cautious in normalizing forms of education that may not be committed to thicker forms of democracy.
6) It is not only political issues that need to be dealt with here. There are also epistemological concerns about what knowledge and ways of knowing are to be considered “important.” We already know that in many schools attended by poor and minoritized children, the emphasis on test preparation squeezes out those subjects that are not easily tested or not seen as “economically important.” The economic, cultural, and social capital of more affluent parents compensates for the increasing de-emphasis on these subjects through the family’s ability to add an entire range of out of school and after-school experiences. We need to ask if one of the hidden effects of the hybrid home-based distance models that are being employed to deal with school closings will be to exacerbate the lack of attention to those subjects that are already becoming minimized or even lost. This could make it harder once schools “return to normal” to argue for a more central place of these subjects, especially given the economic arguments that will become more salient as we try to recover economically. When added to the commodification and routinization I noted earlier, one of the most damaging effects for critical educators will be the increasing difficulty of teaching a seriously critical curriculum in seriously critical ways.
7) In Can Education Change Society? (Apple 2013), I argue that among the tasks of the activist educator is to “bear witness to negativity”—to tell the truth about what is happening. Even if we can’t immediately change these often dangerous and oppressive conditions in which we live, we still must document what the effects actually are. I also argue that these conditions are never total. They create contradictions, spaces, where counter-hegemonic work in education can and does go on. This recognition leads to another task, to act as the “critical secretaries” of critically democratic practices that are being built and defended, to make them public and to assist in defending them (see Apple, Meshulam, Liu, Gandin, & Schirmer 2018). This of course requires that we act in solidarity with the teachers, community activists, and others who are doing this work. Thus, our efforts cannot remain at simply the rhetorical level
There are many more points I could make here. But I hope that these comments are useful in situating the issues in a context that is radically changing the educational and larger social/economic landscape. These issues will not be easy to deal with. And as many people in Turkey, the United States, and so many other nations have recognized, keeping critical education alive is risky. In response to this, I keep reminding myself of a set of political questions that have guided my own efforts: “If not now, when? If not me, who?” How will you answer them as well?
Apple, M. W. (2006). Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W. (2013). Can Education Change Society? New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W., Gandin, L. A., Liu, S., Meshulam, A. & Schirmer, E. (2018). The Struggle for Democracy in Education: Lessons from Social Realities. New York: Routledge.