Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Educational Research Association in May, 2010, I offered the following statement:

Thank you very much for this award. Because I have always rowed against the current of educational research, with the ideas of Karl Marx as guide and inspiration, it is especially gratifying to know my work is appreciated by this organization. But the award is not just mine; it goes to all of us in my generation and after who have written from left of center in education.

The introduction of neo-Marxist ideas and concepts into education in the late 1970s and ‘80s gave us a vocabulary to talk about the social context of education, and the social struggles in and surrounding it.

Before Bowles and Gintis published Schooling in Capitalist America in 1976, and Mike Apple published Ideology and Curriculum in 1979, most discussions of child learning were psychological—could the child ‘conserve volume,’ as Piaget had predicted s/he should? Educational research was positivistic and oriented toward 2control—as in the Skinner stimulus-response paradigm. Most education conversations centered on technocratic, mechanistic, and behavioral aims—exemplified by Ralph Tyler's widely regarded theory of building the curriculum around a series of behavioral objectives.

Also, in the decades after the Second World War, education was typically viewed as ideologically and socially neutral not affected by dominant hegemonic ideas, not culpable in social or economic oppression, and unrelated to political economic opportunity structures, racism, or sexism. If anything, schools were seen as ‘the great equalizer,’ as Horace Mann had described them in the 19 th century.

With exceptions like John Dewey and George Counts, education scholarship before my generation mostly involved the study of teaching and learning isolated within schools and classrooms, unaffected by life outside; curriculum was thought of as unrelated to the needs and interests of power elites or a student's experience in school, and was thought to be largely unaffected by the student's social class, race, or the dominant ideologies of the society.

I remember my excitement upon reading Bowles and Gintis. It was 1976, and I felt trapped in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, writing a dissertation on the linguistic theories of Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky.

In Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America, I saw an alternative model of educational analysis—a way to talk about education that would allow me to bring in the social: social class as important, the economic and political constraints and exclusions of capitalism as relevant to what occurred in schools, and the power of dominant ideas to shape what counted as curriculum. I finished my dissertation and began to retool myself to explore these new ideas. I joined a study group and began to read Karl Marx.

3As a new professor, I engaged in research exploring the notion that schools were not neutral: they contributed to the reproduction of social classes, the economy, and racial and gender exclusion and subordination. I wanted to demonstrate ways in which the political economy was tightly bound with what happened inside school buildings.

But as Marx had argued struggle in the form of public contestation might also wring increased equity from the system or as we put it then such struggle might produce ‘fundamental social transformation.’

Among those who wrote in a Marxist vein in education in the late 1970s and early ‘80s were Mike Apple, Henry Giroux, and myself. We agreed, as Mike Apple argued, rather than being neutral, “educational issues are at root ethical, economic, and political… ” (1979,12).

The development of neo-Marxist ideas in U.S. education research and analysis was a project soon joined by others, who were also influential in the development of this work—Stanley Aronowitz, Donaldo Macedo, Cameron McCarthy, Peter McLaren, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Lois Weis, in particular. More scholars were soon writing in a radical vein as well. These colleagues include, in somewhat chronological order: Ira Shor, Rich Gibson, Bill Ayers, Martin Carnoy, Dennis Carlson, Kathleen Weiler, Kevin Vinson, Gary Anderson, Lois Weiner, Pauline Lipman, Kathleen Kesson, Antonia Darder, Rudolpho Torres, Bill Watkins, Ellen Brantlinger, Gustavo Fishman, Kathy Emery, David Gabbard, David Hursh, and most recently, Sheila Macrine, Ramin Farahmandpur, David Gabbard, Wayne Au, and Zeus Leonardo.

Of course, despite our considerable work over the years, mainstream policies still have characteristics of the old paradigms, and although federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race 4to the Top contextualize education in conditions of race and poverty, they maintain much of the positivistic, behavioral goals of earlier decades. And most school reformers in U.S. cities continue to ignore the contribution of the political economy to urban school failure. But I think my generation, and those who followed, have changed the understanding of what school is and what it does in society. That is, I believe we have substantially changed the conversation. I don’t think mainstream scholars, politicians, or reformers could argue with legitimacy today that education has nothing to do with the political–economic context of schools and neighborhoods. And it would be difficult to assert convincingly that race, social class, and gender do not impact learning in significant ways. School, it is now widely understood, is an institution that is not socially neutral, but tends to be strongly supportive of the goals and processes of the system and its mainstream ideas—and thus, those who profit most from these. It took the work of many scholars to change the conceptual paradigm that had been dominant. So I would say that the Lifetime Achievement Award you are giving to me is recognition of all our work, and goes to all of us on the Left who have been inspired by Marx's progressive vision.