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Curriculum studies and historicizing the present: the political and impracticality of practical knowledge.


We titled this special issue Curriculum Studies and Historicizing the Present: The Political and Impracticality of Practical Knowledge in order to speak about the politics of schooling in an unconventional way. To historicize the present is a strategy to study curriculum through the rules and standards of its "reason." To study how we understand ourselves and the world is, one sense, akin to asking a fish about the water in which it swims. Our reason imperceptibly surrounds us and serves as a security blanket. It provides stability to the ordering and classifying of things. It makes life seem as natural and manageable. We can just take it for granted. When we cross the street, we want to trust in the knowledge that the red light means cars will stop; or, that it is a safe bet to think of the kinds of people sitting in the classroom as "children" who, if "practical" teaching methods are applied, will grow and develop into "reasonable people."

To disturb the grounds of this reason is to disturb the order of things. It is to challenge what seems natural and given to life itself. Our knowledge about what is practical and useful, common tropes of the contemporary landscape, is given as how to change the world, to bring about progress and to correct social wrongs. Yet, as this special issue explores, this practical knowledge may not have less to do with being "practical" but, to borrow from Foucault, is an effect of power. The very principles of the reason that give security to who we are and what the world are political in the ways that they shape the conduct of conduct and what is (im)possible.

The limits of the reason of the present, argued through the articles, require continual scrutinizing. Freedom, ironically, is the disturbing of the order of things and its apparent self-evidence in order to make possible options and alternatives outside of the rules and standards already given as natural and practical.

The contributors to this special issue share a commitment to exploring the reason of schooling as a "social fact"--something that can be studied by making visible the rules and standards that order what is known, talked about, and acted upon. Together, the contributors interrelate historical and ethnographical studies to explore issues of power-knowledge embedded in certain taken-for-granted concepts that comprise the "reason" of schooling and its reforms. Beginning with commonsense conceptions such as, "competence," "dispositions," "citizenship," "indigenous," "equality," and "knowledge, " each paper in this special issue plays with a notion of reason that goes against the grain. The above are not taken as merely practical categories to help teachers and children become more effective or successful. Instead, they are interrogated as historical, cultural, and political categories that order educational thought and action by organizing what is possible to see, think about, and do in and through schooling.

The study of reason as the rules and standards that order ourselves and the world is sometimes referred to as social epistemology. This approach offers a counterpoint to the analytic philosophy of epistemology. (1) The analytic traditions tend to view epistemology as questions regarding the underlying and transcendent logic of knowledge. This theory of knowledge focuses on the inherent nature and procedures of justification and belief. Reason becomes, in these traditions, a natural property of the mind (e.g., psychology)--a method by which humans can interrogate their "nature," or as a universal logic through which the truthfulness of statements is determined.

In contradistinction to the analytic traditions, the contributors to this special issue engage in a different study of reason in schooling. They offer a critical questioning of how and why the "things" of schools are seen, thought about, and acted upon in so-called reasonable ways. To study reason in this fashion is to explore how we know what we know. It does not assume what is known is naturally there or is representative of social interests. Rather, the contributors treat "ideas" and knowledge as material in the sense they intern and enclose reflection and action.

(Re)visioning the Study of Reason

The concern with "reason" and change might not seem so new. The sociologies of Durkheim and Mannheim during the past century gave emphasis to knowledge as tied to collective goals of society, an emphasis (re)visioned in the cultural Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and later by Althusser, and expressed by Raymond Williams and the German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas. These approaches to knowledge are driven by structural Marxism. That Marxism sees knowledge as an epiphenomenon to structures. These structures are defined through oppositional identities of who rules and are ruled, of who dominates and who is oppressed. Resistance, then, is to these structural oppositions. The foci of these different literatures are related to some inscription of human interest that remains ironically outside of history; and requires accepting the givenness of its subjects as a transcendental object that becomes the origin of change (see Popkewitz, 2013).

To ask questions about the reason of schooling is a different critical approach and introduces a different notion of change (Popkewitz & Fendler, 1999). The contributors' shared concern is in historicizing the subjects and objects of reflection and action. This historicizing is related to what Foucault has called "productive power." To historicize is to study the emergence of the rules and standards of reason that order what is seen, talked about, acted on, and hoped for. Methodologically, historicizing inverts the starting points of investigation from the transcendental subject of schooling. The child, the learner, the gifted, the disadvantaged are instead explored for the principles that make possible these kinds of people as ways of seeing and acting; and, how these determinate categories inscribe cultural theses about modes of life. Critical, then, is to make visible the principles that intern and enclose the present, thus to open up other possibilities than those that current exist.

This way of thinking about the critical and change can be associated with the works of Michel Foucault (1979), Gilles Deleuze (1991/1994) and Jacques Ranciere (2004). In this special issue, they are deployed, in different ways, to think about the historical conditions through which the objects of reflection and action are produced and how these objects configure what is (im)possible in the present. The articles' focus on the epistemological construction of objects is related both to Foucault's governmentality (1979) and Deleuze's (1991/1994) notion of power as a practice set in social relations. Deleuze argues, for example, that power cannot be explained within institutions as they are not sources, essences, and mechanism "since they presuppose its relations and are content to 'fix' them, as part of a function that is not productive but reproductive. There is no State, only state control, and the same holds for all other cases" (p. 75). The problem of research, then, is to consider a

multiplicity of local and partial integrations, each one entertaining an affinity with certain relations or particular points. The integrating factors or agents of stratification that make up institutions: not just the State but also the Family, Religion, Production, the Marketplace, Art itself, Morality, and so on. (Deleuze, 1991/1994, p. 75)

The contributors' critical engagement with the commonsense of schooling --as partitions of the sensible (Ranciere, 2004), effects of power (Foucault, 1978) or as strategies of transmission and distribution (Deleuze, 1991/1994, p. 75)--is an effort to decenter the subject as the locus of change. Yet this approach remains, paradoxically, a theory about agency and a cautious optimism about change. To historicize, rather than take as given, the categories and concepts that seem self-evident in current systems of reasoning about schooling is a strategy to open the future to possibilities and alternatives other than those already present.

Introducing and Situating the Contributions

The articles of this special issues explore the categories that order the reason of schooling as embodying principles that come together to provide "sensible" and "practical" ways of thinking and acting on children in schools. As a way of (re)visioning the political, the papers are concerned with how experience and practice are effects of power, historically produced principles that shape the conduct of conduct. The articles, in different ways, explore how what is given as practical and necessary in schooling reforms is, in fact, impractical when thought about in relation to notions of--and commitments to--inclusion, equity, justice, and social change.

The first two articles explore how cultural theses make up "reasonable" kinds of teachers and students. In Historicizing Affect in Teaching, Lesko and Niccolini examine how ways of reasoning have culturally and historically become (in)valid ways of feeling. Drawing on recent humanities scholarship, their inquiry historicizes affect in education through portraits of teaching in the education reforms of 1955-1970. Rather than judge affects or their generative practices as oppressive or liberating, Lesko and Niccolini examine how (im)proper affects produce notions of teachers and public views of teaching and schooling beyond the framing and concepts provided by individualized psychology. Their approach illuminates how feeling--though rarely acknowledged in teacher education--contingently structures how teachers are taught to think about and act upon themselves and others.

Gomez-Caride's article is also interested in the making of the subject. His focus in Catholicism and Republicanism: Shaping the Reason of the Argentinean Citizen is to examine the citizen as a kind of person whose qualities and characteristics are continually formed through the historical intersections. Gomez-Caride looks to the formation of the Argentinean republic in the 19th century and its idea of the citizen as not merely a political theory of the subject of government. He studies how the narratives and images of the citizen form through relations between notions of the secular and theological in Argentinean school reforms. He investigates how religious discourses become interrelated as a system of reason that shapes the cultural and historical production of the nascent Argentinean citizen. Gomez-Caride analyzes how theological cultural principles travel into and connect to ordering and interpreting the experience of a citizen. Gomez-Caride challenges the secularization thesis of modernity that circulates in the idea of the education of the citizen and provides a way to rethink central issues in schooling by exploring what is often placed in opposition. The historical analysis makes possible reimagining the borders between the religious and the secular, the believer and the citizen--not only in the historiography of Argentinean republicanism--but also in relation to present-day school reforms.

The following two articles are challenges to the commonsense of educational reform related to questions of social inclusion and exclusion. Lopez's article, Language, Science, and Mission: Another Look at Pluralism, addresses the activities, desires, and aspirations of a Protestant mission in an effort to begin understanding how a religion-science tactic emerges and is enacted in the making of indigenous kinds of people. Exploring comparative linguistics as a cultural practice that invents and orders languages, the article troubles how comparative linguistics reproduces representation of identities via "Europe," and enacts a strategy of stabilization inscribed in gestures of language revitalization in education. Inserting the political in taken for granted concepts such as identity, indigenous, and plurality, Lopez interrogates how the reasoning about such concepts delimits notions of multiplicity in teacher education practices in the 21st century and troubles notions of "inclusive" indigenous education.

Similarly, Kirchgasler explores questions of inclusion in schooling. In this, case, the analysis is a historical comparison of the "reason" of two school reforms intended to intervene and produce practical results for marginalized populations. The Limits of "Knowledge for All": Historicizing Transnational School Reforms in Kenya, compares two transnational school reform efforts from past and present in order to make visible the continuities and discontinuities of their social scientific theories and practices--and how they organize how to see and act upon notions of difference. Focusing attention on the comparative reason that locates difference in one's "consciousness" or "reasoning," Kirchgasler questions how these distinctions simultaneously classify "other" ways of being in the world as "less than." Reaching beyond the historical and cultural specificity of these reforms, the study points to how a logic of increasing "access" to schooling as a natural goal of human development and social progress simultaneously embodies practices that exclude and abject.

The last two articles focus directly on the models of curriculum that order what is thought about and acted on in schooling. These articles point to the alchemy of school subjects (Popkewitz, 2004); that is, how notions of science and mathematics travel into the school and are translated into particular styles of reasoning that have little to do with the cultural practices of their disciplinary fields. School subjects, the following two articles argue, are pedagogical practices about modes of living that differentiate and divide. These dividing practices generate principles of exclusion and abjection in the practices of inclusion.

In questioning what is natural and given in schooling, Ideland's article, The Action-Competent Child: Responsibilization through Practices and Emotions in Environmental Education, provides a way to think about how the knowledge of schooling organizes its subjects as a cultural practice. Ideland interrogates the standards of environmental education as not merely "about" the environment. Rather, the rules of reason that order the practices of sorting garbage, organizing debates, and writing letters become ways of producing a child that is to see and act on the world in "competent," "genuine," and "intentional" ways. These actions appear in the curriculum as natural, commonsense practices; however, Ideland argues that they are culturally produced distinctions that are to be internalized by the action-competent child so as to engage authentically and knowingly with the environment. While environmental education is to instill empowerment, empathy, and optimism toward the future, the curriculum contains double gestures. The capabilities of the individual who is well-planned and reasonable simultaneously embodies the abjected Other. That Other is recognized for inclusion but on the condition that pedagogy changes the characteristics of this child who-is-different.

In thinking about mathematics education curriculum reform, Diaz considers mathematics education as a cultural practice. To grapple with the cultural and historical production of difference in school reform, Diaz's article, Power in the Child as a Problem Solver: Making Mathematical People and the Limits of Standardization, attends to how the logic of equality embedded in the notion of mathematics for all organized certain ways to see and think about children during the emergence of Standards-based reforms in the United States. By examining the use of the equal sign (=), the analysis highlights how notions of equality, equivalence, and difference are inscribed in the curriculum as a cultural practice that orders notions of the child as a certain kind of mathematical person. Calling into question how the use of the equal sign--and the logic of equality it carries--produce a common way of reasoning about who children are and should be as problem solvers, the article interrogates how notions of equality work to (re)organize math education for the equal benefit of everybody while simultaneously distinguishing who is not part of "everybody."

The contributions to this special issue can be located in the field of "Curriculum Studies" and intersects with a field of educational studies concerned with issues of knowledge, power and the political of schooling. One of the earlier markers in the 1970s in the field of Curriculum Studies was "the hidden curriculum," which focused on the social and political values of the curriculum, and of the "knowledge" produced in the processes of the selection and organization of pedagogy. Today, the field's focus has shifted away from the structural concerns of power towards what might be called a cultural sociology of knowledge and what Foucault describes as a History of the Present. The contributions, as evidenced above, draw upon a range of disciplinary literatures referred to as "post-foundational" in that they seek to make questions of knowledge as non-representational, historical, and relational.

Together, the articles direct attention to intersecting fields of knowledge that produce what is seen, thought about, and acted upon in schooling. This multidisciplinary perspective entangles the social sciences, the sciences, religious studies, continental philosophy, political studies, cultural studies, and history. By taking the common and the assumed as starting points and asking, "how did we get here?" This special issue offers ways for rethinking the production of learning and knowledge. The contributions also raise questions of justice, equity, and inclusion in schooling and its reforms. The approaches and questions contained in what follows offer ways to rethink the political of schooling and provide an alternative approach to critical studies. They are a strategy of change.


University of Wisconsin-Madison


Augsburg College


University of Wisconsin-Madison


(1.) See Popkewitz, 2014. Some of this discussion is drawn from that article.


Deleuze (1991/1994) Difference and repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, M. (1979). Governmentality. Ideology and Consciousness, 6, 5-22.

Popkewitz, T. & Fendler, L. (1999). Critical Theories in Education: Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics. New York: Routledge.

Popkewitz, T. (2004). The alchemy of the mathematics curriculum: Inscriptions and the fabrication of the child. American Educational Journal, 41(4), 3-34.

Popkewitz, T. (2013). The sociology of education as the history of the present: Fabrication, difference, and abjection. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 34(3), 439-456.

Popkewitz, T. (2014). Social epistemology, the reason of "reason" and the curriculum studies. Special Issue: Nuevas Perspectivas sobre el Curriculum Escolar. Education Policy Analysis Archives DOI: n22.2014

Ranciere, J. (2004/1983). The philosopher and his poor (J. Drury, C. Oster, & A. Parker, Trans.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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Author:Popkewitz, Thomas S.; Diaz, Jennifer; Kirchgasler, Christopher
Publication:Knowledge Cultures
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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