Michael Apple set for retirement light

‘This is the place I always wanted to be’

After spending nearly half a century at UW-Madison as a leading education scholar and activist,
Michael Apple is ready for ‘retirement light.’

It’s not easy to make clear the significance of Michael Apple the scholar and activist, or to thoroughly explain the depth and breadth of his work.

After all, the long-time professor with UW–Madison’s departments of Curriculum and Instruction, and Educational Policy Studies has not only conducted groundbreaking work as one of the leading founders of the field of critical curriculum studies; he has been engaged in this labor of love for nearly half a century.

Summer 2017 Learning Connections cover“There really aren’t enough superlatives to capture Mike Apple’s importance as a scholar or to describe his contributions to our School of Education and university,” says colleague William Reese, UW–Madison’s Carl F. Kaestle WARF and Vilas Research Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History.

Any synopsis of Apple’s career must highlight how he has authored or edited more than 50 books — including two that came out earlier this year and two others (“Ideology and Curriculum” and “Official Knowledge”) that are recognized as being among the most influential publications on education in the 20th century. These works have been translated into more than 20 languages.

It must also be noted that since arriving at UW–Madison in the fall of 1970, Apple has been the advisor to 119 students who have completed their Ph.D. under his supervision. Many have been international students who came to UW–Madison expressly to study with Apple.

“These former students are now out influencing education,” says Wayne Au, a former student of Apple’s who today is a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell. “This means there are Ph.D. students at other institutions now who are essentially Michael’s scholarly grandkids and scholarly great-grandkids. He is having an exponential influence in terms of shaping education theory and practice.”

Apple’s influence also is made clear by the fact that universities from across the globe have recognized his scholarly efforts by bestowing upon him 13 honorary doctorates, or their equivalent. This past fall alone, he received honorary degrees from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, the Education University of Hong Kong, and the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Such honors are among the highest in academia.

And perhaps nothing better illustrates the rock-star-like status he holds in education circles than a chance meeting he had in late April with a student at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in San Antonio. Eli Kean, then a doctoral candidate in curriculum, instruction and teacher education at Michigan State University, is an admirer of Apple’s work who ran into the professor and asked to take a picture with him.

Eli Kean TweetKean later shared the photo and encounter on Twitter by posting: “Omg! I just met Michael Apple my life is complete.”

“I couldn’t believe how nervous I was to meet this man whose work has been so integral to my own development as a scholar,” Kean, who received a Ph.D. from Michigan State, wrote in a short email interview. “I literally started crying as we were talking because I was so nervous, excited and honored to meet him.”

There were plenty of tears shed — due to both joy and sadness — during the final weeks of the 2016—17 academic year after Apple started sharing with colleagues and friends that he would be retiring from his post at UW–Madison. Citing health issues and an “ethical obligation” to step aside so the university can start the process of recruiting and filling his position with a talented new faculty member, Apple officially retired on May 31.

“I’m calling it ‘retirement light,’ ” says Apple, who held a John Bascom Professorship the past 26 years with the School of Education. “I’ll still be working and writing and lecturing around the world. I’m not ending my commitment to UW–Madison or its faculty and students.”

• • •

Michael Whitman Apple was born in 1942 and grew up in an immigrant family in Paterson, N.J., a poor, working-class city about 20 miles outside New York.

His father was a printer and his mother, even though she didn’t finish secondary school, wrote poetry and was involved as an anti-racist organizer. Apple recalls being socially active even as a child, spending time talking about politics and the importance of the working class with his grandfather and others at the Workman’s Circle, a fraternal order for Jewish workers.

“I was brought up in a family that wasn’t very formally educated but that had a great love of literature and the arts and poetry,” says Apple.

Michael Apple 1965
Michael Apple, circa 1965
Apple, who worked for several years as a printer himself, joined the Army reserves shortly after turning 18. Fortunately for the future educator, the Army put him to work with a teaching unit. During this period, Apple also took night school classes to be trained as a teacher.

Not even 20 years old, he was then offered a full-time substitute teaching position in Paterson for the 1961-62 school year and “learned by doing.” Apple says he taught everything from kindergarten and girls physical education to technical school trigonometry and calculus. After two years of “teaching in the slums,” Apple taught two more years in the rural southern New Jersey community of Pitman, which at the time sported an active Ku Klux Klan chapter.

Apple and his colleagues who taught sixth grade worked with their students on a community research project that utilized county archives to highlight past lynchings and efforts to keep the town segregated. When the report was published, some in Pitman tried to have all the sixth grade teachers fired. Apple, who also was president of the teachers’ union, was furious.

Shortly thereafter, and while still attending night school, Apple took a workshop led by a professor at Columbia University about literacy practices for kids.

“It was like a switch turned and I instantly realized I wanted to go to graduate school to learn more,” says Apple.

He eventually received his master’s in curriculum and philosophy from Columbia in 1968, and his doctor of education from Teachers College at Columbia in 1970.

“Columbia transformed me,” says Apple. “Originally, I planned to get a master’s degree and go back into teaching and being a union organizer and anti-racist activist. Then I considered working at a community college or small teacher’s college.”

But over time, Apple recalls how people at Columbia started paying attention to his work and started treating him as if he had something to offer academically.

“I started to do some OK work,” says Apple. “And then the dream was to come to the University of Wisconsin.”

• • •

“This,” Apple says while tapping a finger on his office desk in UW–Madison’s Teacher Education Building this past December, “is the place I always wanted to be.”

He explains that his advisor at Teachers College, Columbia University, earned his Ph.D. from UW–Madison. So Apple had heard stories about Lake Mendota, the Memorial Union, the political history of Wisconsin and the progressive nature of the university. Although Apple had four or five job offers shortly after earning his doctorate, he was recruited hard by UW–Madison’s Herb Kliebard — another alum of Columbia University who would go on to enjoy a highly regarded career with UW–Madison’s School of Education.

“It was a good fit,” Apple says of his decision to come to Madison.

Michael Apple with Ideology and Curriculum
Michael Apple poses with his groundbreaking book,
"Ideology and Curriculum," during a visit in 2016 to
Slovenia to receive an honorary doctorate from the
University of Ljubljana.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Ljubljana)
In less than three years, Apple earned tenure. During these early years on campus, he taught both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, and spent time chairing the elementary education program and directing its introductory class.

In the early 1970s, Apple also started working on a project that lasted five years and culminated in his 1979 book, “Ideology and Curriculum.” The book was published again in both 1990 and 2004, and is Apple’s best-known early work.

This book helped put the spotlight on the relationships among power, politics, knowledge and schooling. It was instrumental in making educators and education researchers think more deeply about whose knowledge should be taught in schools — instead of what knowledge should be taught. “Ideology and Curriculum” made Apple a leading figure in the new field of critical curriculum studies and ultimately was heralded as one of the most influential books in education in the 20th century.

In 1993, Apple then authored, “Official Knowledge,” which was similarly selected as one of the 20th century’s most influential books, as it examined the political process through which “official knowledge” is chosen.

Apple explains how he “describes the ways in which neoliberals, neoconservatives, the new middle class, and authoritarian populists have created a commonsense understanding that what is public is bad and what is private is good.” This work has also been revised and published again in 2000 and 2014.

His 2006 award-winning book (“Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality”) and his 2013 publication (“Can Education Change Society?”) both took important looks at whether education can contribute to social change.

Nearly all of his work, Apple explains, looks to expand the field’s “understanding of the social, economic and political forces that shape what is taught in schools and how schooling is organized.”

The fact that Apple’s scholarly investigations are so highly regarded has given him not only a national, but an international platform from which he can further share his ideas on crucial education topics. He has been a visiting professor, distinguished professor or world scholar at numerous universities around the world, including the University of London, the University of Manchester, the University of Melbourne, East China Normal University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Two research centers in his name — one in China and the other in Argentina — have recently opened.

Add it up, and Apple has positioned himself as a uniquely influential figure who has been afforded the uncommon opportunity to work with educational systems, governments, universities, teachers unions, and activist and dissident groups throughout the world to democratize educational research, policy and practice.

Indeed, Apple has remained committed to supporting activist and dissident movements for justice around the world. He was arrested in South Korea for speaking out against the military government back in the early 1990s, and as recently as April delivered powerful remarks during politically tense times in Turkey.

“This is why he has so many honorary degrees, special appointments and awards from universities worldwide,” says Au, the University of Washington-Bothell professor. “His commitment to supporting international educational activism is also part of what makes him unique. ... He is a world scholar of critical education in the best possible sense.”

• • •

Although a great deal has changed in the nearly five decades Apple has worked on the UW–Madison campus, he says many of the basic issues in education are the same today as they were in 1970.

In particular, Apple started his career at UW–Madison examining how powerful groups in society control curriculum and what is taught in schools. Today, he is deeply concerned that too many are losing sight of the power of what it means to have a robust public education system.

“The groups pushing for privatization — the business community and powerful corporations — are more powerful now than before,” says Apple.

Cuts to higher education in the state for much of the past decade, plus controls put on the power of faculty governance at UW–Madison are also causes for concern. Apple stresses, however, that he doesn’t have all the answers and is constantly noting the importance of respecting the opinion of people who disagree with him.

Michael Apple Quote“The danger in my politics or anyone’s politics is arrogance,” he says. “I want to be careful to assume I don’t always have the right answers.”

That said, one of the things Apple has appreciated most about working at UW–Madison is that it has allowed him to work on issues that are important to him, without fear of repercussions.

“This place isn’t perfect,” says Apple. “This is not a comfortable place for people of color. We can do so much better in this regard. But I have spent a lot of time at other institutions over the years, and this is one of the best. I’ve had offers to move to other institutions for $80,000 more. But it’s not about the money. It’s about keeping alive the Wisconsin tradition. To give up on the Wisconsin Idea is to give up on public higher education.”

Apple adds that his career would never have been possible without the support of numerous talented colleagues and students, especially in the departments of Curriculum and Instruction, and Educational Policy Studies. UW–Madison today is widely regarded as being home to one of the world’s strongest programs in critical curriculum theory, research and development in critical policy analysis.

“I have been so fortunate to be Michael’s colleague since 1999 — as a professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and now as dean,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess, the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education. “Clearly, both his scholarship and mentorship of students are first-rate. But I most appreciate how he supports, nurtures, and helpfully challenges his faculty colleagues. We are better as a faculty than we would have been without Michael’s deep engagement in the departments and the university more broadly.”

As Apple has said many times in the past few months, his retirement isn’t ending his commitment to these units and the university — it’s “simply signifying a new manner of living out this commitment.”

Because, Apple explains: “This place is an ideological and political home for me. This is a place worth fighting for.”

Michael Apple at Rowan University in spring 2017
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