Interview with Michael Apple: The biography of a public intellectual

Part 1: From the beginning –A ‘red diaper baby'

Originally published: Peters, M. A. (2015). Interview with Michael Apple: The biography of a public intellectual. Open Review of Educational Research, 2(1), 105-117. DOI: 10.1080/23265507.2015.1010174

Part 1: From the beginningA red diaper baby

If I do want to continue being a critical scholar/activist, being organic—with all of the tensions, joy, and at times very real sacrifices that this entails—I have to see myself as an ongoing project. Michael W. Apple (2015)

Introduction – Michael Peters (MP):

This interview is a source of interactive biography enabling not only the establishment of chronology and the discussion of intellectual influences but also an understanding of the biographical aspects of intellectual projects and the inextricable links between a life history and forms of activism. In this interview conducted through the medium of email, I explore with Michael Apple how his past and upbringing helped to shape his intellectual life and commitments. The original as published in the Open Review of Educational Research (2014) has been divided into two parts here to appear, with Michael Apple’s approval, in PESA Agora.

Michael Peters (MP): I know you grew up in New Jersey. Can you please say something about the environment you were born into? Who were your parents? Describe your family and your earliest memories and the way they shaped you from the very beginning.

Michael Apple: In order to understand some of the reasons I look at the world in particular ways, it is important to understand that I am what has been called a red diaper baby. I come for a deeply committed leftist family, one that lived in a poor neighbourhood of one of the most political cities in the United States. Let me say more about this. My grandfather was a Russian immigrant who as a young man in the late nineteenth century emigrated first to England to work in mills in the Manchester area and then to the United States. He left Russia for political and economic reasons. As a communist, he was always in danger. As someone who was very poor, he had other reasons for leaving. And as someone who (the story goes) killed a policeman who was part of a pogrom engaged in deadly action against my grandfather’s immediate family, he had no choice but to leave as quickly as he could.

My first political memories include going with him to the Workingmen’s Circle every week where pinochle was played, and politics was talked. Talked is exactly the wrong word here. Lived, passionately argued, part of ones very being—these are perhaps better metaphors. Like other immigrant working-class folks in the inner city of Paterson, New Jersey—the home of some of the most important strikes and labour struggles in the history of the US—life wasn’t life without being consumed by politics. This was, of course, ratified in his daily life as a textile worker and tailor. But politics wasn’t politics unless it was guided by reading everything one could get one’s hands-on: books on political struggles and on world history, including the works of Marx and other leftist authors as well; great novels from the United States and elsewhere; and the Yiddish and English weeklies and dailies, especially the socialist and communist ones. I thought that he had personally composed one of his favourite lines: Religion is the opium of the masses. For him, religion was what kept us backward and was a tool of oppression. Who us was meant to be was a sliding signifier—the Left, Jews, workers, immigrants, and so on. Yet probably unstated, as an absent presence, within this category of us were people exactly like him—poor Russian communists who rose up against the oppression of workers. His favourite joke led to another saying that has had an impact on me throughout my life. When the Left lines up in a firing squad, it always lines up in a circle. (Think about it.) This is definitely one of the reasons that throughout my writings I am suspicious of the search for purity, for simplistic explanations of educational politics, and why I have consistently called for broad alliances or decentered unities among progressive groups in so much of my work.

Let us move a generation in time—to a mother (the daughter of this grandfather) who herself was a communist and anti-racist activist. Mimi Apple never finished high school but still loved to write short stories and poetry (and gave me a middle name—Whitman, after Walt Whitman, the New Jersey poet of the people and the profane—that spoke to her love of the poetic and of what was at the time partly transgressive culture). She insisted that since we all lived there, housework was everyone’s work. Thus, everyone did it—washing, cleaning, etc. She was one of the founding members of the Paterson chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was an activist in the poor and Black communities in Paterson; but also an activist who came home to cook and to be a mother. (I too became very active in CORE, becoming its publicity director at the age of 15 when I was still in secondary school.) She was deeply involved in the struggle over education and jobs, against the forms of political patronage that denied power to poor folks, and to fight the class and especially racial structuring that dominated Paterson’s political, economic, and educational structures. We too—as Mimi’s children—went to these meetings and worked in the campaigns for the progressive candidates, and with others did much of the shit work required in mobilizations—putting together signs, distributing material, and so on. It wasn’t seen as odd. We were just Mimi’s kids and, like the kids of so many other working-class, and especially anti-racist activists, we were expected to pitch in. Why? Because reality is unequal. It’s our job to do something about it now. And she read long into the night to me, at me, with me.

Or a father, Harry—a printer who was from a socialist family—who worked long hours trying to make enough money to allow the family to escape the poverty of the slums of Paterson. As a printer, he was a member of one of the most historically literate and radical crafts. His sons—myself and my younger brother—spent hours at the print-shop each week. From the time we were old enough to carry a broom, we worked there. We learned to set type, to deposit it in the correct place in the cases, to run hand presses and later to run larger presses. (I, in fact, worked part of my way through night school at a small teachers college by working as a printer during the day.) And we learned—viscerally—that work was crucial to becoming a person and that it must always be done in a way that respects your skills and your fellow workers. And we learned to love the printed word.

Both Mimi and Harry worked at politics—in CORE, in campaigns to elect labour-oriented and/or Black or Latino/a candidates. Both had an undying respect for unions and for the possibilities of collective organizations of real people. Both were cynical about the machinations behind the two major political parties. Both were (aggressively) secular and had a profound mistrust of rightist religious movements such as those that added the under God to the Pledge of Allegiance said by students daily in schools. (This too had a major effect on me since I refused to say the words under God each day at the beginning of the school day—and suffered mightily because of it.) Both of my parents were more than a little happy when I decided early in my life that what I wanted to be was—a teacher. To them, there was something almost sacred about being a teacher. Even though neither of them had completed high school in the allotted time, to be a teacher was to honour the family both in class terms (I was getting ahead), in political terms (It’s up to you, Michael, to tell the truth about this society), and in intellectual terms (teaching was about critical literacy, about giving people power to understand the world and—maybe—to change it). And when I ultimately became president of a teachers union, well that was even better for all of the above reasons.

All of these people made it clear, by their very actions, that politics and ethics were to be lived, and that literacy and political talk counted. Among my memories are mealtimes where everyone—including the children—was expected to have opinions about what seemed to be everything. But some everythings returned again and again to nearly every meal. Local, national, and international politics were consumed with each meal. But, of course, this is partly romantic. I have dropped a net down into the past whose weave is almost guaranteed to pull up memories of this sort. Growing up poor, in a poor area, being surrounded by relatives who all seemed to live in the same area and all seemed to be in danger of constantly losing the jobs that they had—given the fact that as an aging textile city Paterson was suffering massively from what we now call capital flight—all of this made life tense and filled us with unease about the present and the future. Poverty, job loss, the inability to pay for medical care or even ones rent (these words seem too damn abstract to deal with these experiences) weren’t theorized. We didn’t find them important because of some text published by The Party or by a leftist intellectual. They were focused upon because they were part of our daily lives and the lives of everyone (African-American, Puerto Rican, Russian, Polish, Italian, Jewish) who lived in that area of Paterson at the time. Thus, those mealtime conversations were undoubtedly filled with other everythings—paying the rent, talk about school, family problems (a communist mother’s family and a socialist father’s family had, shall we say, interesting problems in getting along; again, I am reminded of my grandfather’s old adage about leftists, firing squads, and lining up in a circle). These intense political discussions, where family = politics = arguing about everything, and where even children were expected to participate and to be argued with because the nascent and still not totally formed arguments of children were supposed to be serious enough to be taken seriously. It is this sense of political arguments, of committed critical literacy, of not standing on the balcony but living a life of such commitments that has stayed with me throughout my career. It is the DNA that continues to form me. It is also one of the reasons I am sceptical of those figures in critical pedagogy who tend to engage with the world in large rhetorical ways, but do not put their politics into lived practice.

MP: Thanks Michael. There are so many biographical leads here that it’s hard to know which to follow. Where did the Apple name come from? And let me ask you to reflect on the lived connection of growing up in a Jewish household with strong socialist sympathies? I ask this question because few people realize the historical importance of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment going back to the eighteenth century that marked the beginning of a Jewish secular engagement with the world which resulted in political movements for Jewish emancipation but also for political rights in other spheres. I have always been impressed by Moses Mendelssohn’s response to the question What is Enlightenment? His answer based around self-realization seemed clearer to me than Kant’s. Being poor and Jewish in America is like a double alienation, and in the United States, there were many Jewish intellectuals who grew up reading Marx and became committed socialists and democrats.

Michael Apple: The history of the name Apple is cloudy. My father’s brother, Uncle Abe—a 100 year old former labour organizer and steel mill worker, recounts one family story. During the forced Jewish diaspora from Spain in the fifteenth century, many Jews had to leave. Some went to what is now Turkey and Greece, while others went north and east to Russia, Poland, Germany, Holland, and elsewhere. Supposedly, parts of my family settled in Holland and then what is now Ukraine. The Apple name was undoubtedly changed multiple times over the years and could have been Apfel, Appel, or something similar. There is no easy way to determine whether Apple was related to an occupation (grower or seller of fruit) or whether it had a very different genesis.

Your more important question about the Jewish Enlightenment, secular engagement, and the issue of alienation is actually a difficult one for me personally. Let me preface this by saying something more general. There are times when I am rather uncomfortable with autobiographical accounts. I do not want to slight the power and importance of the testimony of oppressed groups—Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights [Harvard University Press, 1992] comes to mind. However, in a time when amateur psychoanalysis, postmodern personal narratives, and all too precious autobiographical accounts are increasingly found in educational literature, I have a number of worries about such tendencies. At their best and when done very reflexively, they do remind us that behind even the most eviscerated writing stands an embodied person. They do remind us as well of Dewey’s recognition that all educational events end in an act of personal knowing. They do ask us to take seriously Abraham Heschel’s insight in his book Who Is Man? [Stanford University Press, 1963] that knowing is a form of celebration that takes one beyond oneself. And when done well, they do enable voices that are silenced to be heard. Yet, this said, I also believe that too many of such autobiographical tendencies reflect the new middle class’s infinite need for self-display. In a time of increasingly oppressive economic and cultural relations, the message of their often relatively well positioned and well educated authors is too often But enough about you; let me tell you about me.

Let’s return to your question of double alienation. I need to admit that I don’t know what it means for something to be called Jewish; nor can I answer the question of to what extent the Jewish Enlightenment and its answers to difficult questions works through me and others like me. I know what the stereotypes say it means. But what it means to me is unclear. Where I am positioned within this long philosophical (and religious?) tradition has until recently not usually been a conscious issue for me, except in instances such as those signified in the personal fragments with which I began this interview. I do assume one thing, however. I do assume that there are others like me who were raised in totally secular and deeply political families where the real religious underpinnings of their lives was an abiding commitment to social justice.

I do know that I often feel as an outsider politically and sometimes culturally in this society. I do know that the hedonistic and possessive individualism that so permeates this nation and others like it make me deeply uneasy. I do know that as a scholar, as a teacher, as a political activist, and in other aspects of my personal life, I do not usually overtly think of myself as a Jew. In fact, if someone were to ask me who I am, the word Jewish would be well down on the list of conscious attributes and positions I would perhaps enumerate. And yet I do know that at times—even when I can’t articulate it clearly—I feel the gaze of others looking at me as a Jew with all that such a gaze implies. I also know that at times I feel as if I must contest the public definition and stereotypes of what people believe it means to be a Jew.

I do not want to give the impression that my personal struggle over identity is due to the fact that historically I and many others have been positioned as a Jew in a negative way. Rather, I believe that a constitutive aspect of being a secular and political Jew is a concern with where one fits, where one’s home is. If identity is being part of historical community/ies, where in that community does one belong? Whose definition of that community prevails personally and politically? In Heschel’s apposite words, to be human is to wrestle.

Little did I know how Jewish this was until recently. Actually, in a way that I still can’t quite grasp, my realization of the Jewishness of this came from a book. That book, Irving Howe’s rather masculinist yet still very powerful World of Our Fathers [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976], placed my political biography within a much longer history of secular Jewish struggles. I recognized a continuity with thousands of others. It seems odd to me that a book could have such an effect. But perhaps this speaks to your question of the relationship between the Enlightenment, the politics of contested understandings of rationality, struggles in many spheres, and the complex intersections and history of secularity and politics.

Your question strikes a chord because it challenges me to ask whether much of my ongoing actions in and on a deeply unequal world is partly related to historically important political and secular traditions that work through me in ways that I don’t totally understand. Why is nearly all of my writing and research organized around a set of (too damn complicated) issues—what is the relationship between knowledge and power in schools and the larger society? Who benefits from the ways this society is organized? What can be done about it? How do I understand some (not all) of the historical roots I may have in a set of multiple traditions (I don’t know whether to call these religious traditions since I, like many others, do not feel religious) that are much larger than myself?

In the end, your question makes me listen just a bit more to others who have tried to answer the question of double alienation. Perhaps Paul Berman is partly right when he suggests that there is a peculiar Jewish custom of rebelling? As he puts it, in a somewhat too reductive way, There is an old and slightly peculiar Jewish custom of rebelling against Jewishness by identifying with the most marginal of all possible groups so as to rebel and still not be assimilated into the mainstream. Whether he is correct or not, there is no doubt in my mind that whatever the answer is and whatever traditions it comes from, the key is never to stop the struggle.

MP: A wonderfully rich, reflective and compelling response. I asked the question because, when I was invited to Harvard to a seminar by Cavell and Putnam, I asked Cavell about his Jewish background. At the time, he was writing his autobiography. I commented that his writing seemed very Jewish to me. By that, I meant Talmudic in the sense of a textual meta-commentary on his own life with both the poetry, the polyvocal element and complexity of reflexivity—let me say now, in a broad sense, Freudian. He said he was only beginning to understand the effects of his Jewish cultural upbringing on him. I very much liked your reflection on the form of biography and the way it has made its way as a cultural methodology that at once personalizes knowledge (standpoint epistemology), but also risks the charge of incestuous textual power relations with one’s own family and background. It occurs to me that two giants who are forever relevant to us and to our work, who cultivated methods we now take for granted, who wrote in many different registers—scientific, rhetoric, and poetic—and defined the academic territory of discourse are precisely Marx and Freud—two secular Jewish thinkers who inherited the mantle of Jewish thinking more than either would care to have admitted. Marx himself was also in exile for much of his academic life, as you well know. In this way I hope to reflect upon the greatness of these two thinkers that came from Jewish backgrounds and exemplify the kinds of biographical questions and probings that we are in dialogue about. Marx’s maternal grandfather was, I believe, a rabbi, and Marx’s father was the first in his family to receive a secular education. The question of Marx’s Jewishness is beyond this interview and a complex question. He did write On the Jewish Question, of course, and we know he was very hostile to religion in general. Two very difficult questions that are inescapable (I cannot not ask them—the Jewish double negative!): first, can you say briefly what your relation is to Marx as a thinker; second, while I know the outlines of the answer you might give, what do you think about the importance of a secular (public) education?

END of Part 1. 

Bio: Michael W. Apple is the author of many works including: Can Education Change Society? (Routledge, 2013), Education and Power, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2012), Global Crises, Social Justice, and Education (Routledge, 2010), The Routledge International Handbook of Sociology of Education (2010), The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Education (2009), Democratic Schools, 2nd edition (Heinemann, 2007), with James A. Beane, Educating the Right Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2006), Ideology and Curriculum, 25th anniversary, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2004), The State and Politics of Education (Routledge, 2003), Official Knowledge: Democratic Knowledge in a Conservative Age, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2014), and Cultural Politics and Education (Teachers College Press, 1996). His books have been widely translated and gone into many editions.

Sources – see:; see also: Rage and Hope;  Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism and the Politics of Educational Reform, University of Toronto, 2009;  Understanding the Meaning of Educational Quality as Influenced by M. Apple, University of Bath, November 24, 2011; Educational and Curricular Restructuring and the Neo-liberal and Neo-conservative Agendas: Interview with Michael Apple, 2001; Here I stand: a long [r]evolution. Ideology, culture and curriculum: Michael Apple and progressive critical studies, Paraskeva, João M., 2004;  Michael Apple: April 2012 Routledge Education Author of the Month.


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Full Citation Information:
Apple, M. W., & Peters, M. A. (2020). Interview with Michael Apple: The biography of a public intellectual: Part 1: From the beginning –A ‘red diaper baby.' PESA Agora.

Michael W. Apple

Michael W. Apple is Hui Yan Chair Distinguished Professor of Education, Beijing Normal University; John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  He is one of the foremost educational theorists in the world and a public intellectual and activist-theorist who is deeply committed to empowerment and transformation of people through education. He has worked with governments, researchers, unions, political movements, and dissident groups around the world on building more critically democratic research, policies, and practices in education, making major contributions to the fields of cultural politics, curriculum theory and research, and critical teaching.


Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He was awarded a Personal Chair at the University of Auckland in 2000 and became a Research Professor at the University of Glasgow (2000-2006) before being appointed Excellence Hire Professor at Illinois and Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. He has Honorary Doctorates from Aalborg University, Denmark and SUNY, New York.

Michael was Editor-in-Chief of Educational Philosophy and Theory for 25 years and is currently Editor of Beijing International Review of Education (Brill). He is the founding editor of Policy Futures in Education (Sage); E-Learning & Digital Media (Sage); Knowledge Cultures (Addleton); Open Review of Educational Research (Taylor & Francis); Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Brill) and on the board of many other journals and book series.

Michael has written over 120 books and many journal articles on a wide range of topics and has worked with and mentored many younger scholars. He was given the Social Science and Humanities Leader in China Award in both 2022 and 2023 ( and is ranked 1st in China and 5th in Asia for Education and Educational Philosophy and Theory (AD Scientific Index, 2023). He is also ranked in the World’s Top 2% of Scientists by Stanford University. His recent works includes two books on the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic philosophy to be published in 2024.