Thomas S. Popkewitz (born August 16, 1940) is an American curriculum theorist on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education. His studies are concerned with the knowledge or systems of reason that govern educational policy and research related to pedagogy and teacher education. His research includes histories of the present, ethnographic and comparative studies of national educational reforms in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Southern Africa, and the US. His book Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform (2008) explores the systems of reason in pedagogy through historically examining the changing images and narratives of Enlightenment concerns with cosmopolitanism. He has written or edited approximately 30 books and 300 articles in journals and book chapters. Two of his books (Paradigms and Ideology in Educational Research and A Political Sociology of Educational Reform) have won awards for their contribution to educational studies. His work has been translated into twelve languages (Chinese, Danish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Portuguese, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish).
Popkewitz earned a B.A. at Hunter College, City University of New York (1962), a M.A. at Teachers College, Columbia University (1964) and an Ed.D. from New York University (1970). The American Educational Research Association awarded Popkewitz the Division B (Curriculum Studies) Lifetime Achievement Award (2008) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education gave him its Distinguished Faculty Award (2008). Popkewitz was elected as Fellow to the American Educational Research Association (2014). He has also been awarded a fellowship as Guest Researcher Professor at the French Ministère de L’Éducation Nationale, De L’Ensigeignement Supérieur et De La Recherche, Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique (2010), Distinguished Overseas Professor at East China Normal University (2014–2016), Guest Professor at Luxembourg (2012–2014), Doctor Honoris Causa at the Universidad de Granada in Spain (2014), and Lifetime Honorary Professor at the Nanjing Normal University.
Popkewitz began his career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970, where he holds the position of Professor. In 1978 Popkewitz was selected by the US State Department to organize an American delegation on teaching and learning for joint Soviet/American seminar at USSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences Presidium, marking the beginning of a career that has been particularly defined by its international focus. In 1981, he was named a Fulbright Fellow, allowing him to spend the year at the USSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences as a Senior Researcher. In the fall of 1988 he was a Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences in Uppsala and from 1994 to 1999 acted as a Visiting Professor at Umeå University in Sweden. His international work has also included an award (1988) as W. F. Wilson Fellow from the Oppenheimer Foundation 1999–2000, in 1999–2000 a Senior Fulbright Fellow award at the University of Helsinki, and in 2004 a Finnish Academy of Science Fellow award.
From the 1940s through the Cold War, curricular thinking was dominated by Ralph W. Tyler and his idea of teaching. In the post-Sputnik years, this procedural and instrumental mentality was recast as the development of scientifically oriented and efficient teaching methods (Pinar, et al.). In the 1960s a variety of social and academic movements recognized the role of the politics of knowledge, cultural differences and the limits of objectivity-based theories. In this context, Pinar and colleagues (1995) consider that Popkewitz summarized the key elements of the new era already in 1988:
Understanding research…requires thought about the intersection of biography, history, and social structure. While we are immersed in our personal histories, our practices are not simply products of our intent and will. We take part in the routines of daily life, we use language that is socially created to make camaraderie with others possible, and we develop affiliation with the roles and institutions that give form to our identities.
Green and Cormack (2009) credit Popkewitz with having founded "The Popkewitz School of Research", or alternatively called "the Popkewitz Tradition", that investigates the social epistemology of the school. Green and Cormack (2009) note that the most interesting and conceptually rich work in curriculum has increasingly addressed itself to questions of textuality, language and discourse, noting further that previously there had been little explicit recognition or acknowledgment in the field as a whole of the importance of language in and for schooling, as well as for knowledge, identity and power. They argue that “here what might be appropriately if somewhat provocatively called the Popkewitz school” was a central site of embracing the linguistic turn (2009, p. 224).
Clearly, his research introduced the construct of social epistemology to Curriculum Studies. It considers language and knowledge as cultural practices having significant material consequences, from a theoretical viewpoint far different from Marxist or Neo-Marxist critiques of functionalism and instrumentalism (Pereyra & Franklin, 2014). Popkewits’ publications on social epistemology are: Cosmopolitanism and the age of school reform: Science, education and making society by making the child (2007), translated into Spanish, Swedish, and forthcoming in Chinese and Italian; A political sociology of educational reform: Power/Knowledge in teaching, teacher education, and research (1991), translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, and forthcoming in Chinese. He co-authored Educational knowledge: Changing relationships between the state, civil society, and the educational community (2000) and Foucault's challenge: Discourse, knowledge, and power in education (1998).
Popkewitz draws on the work of philosopher Michel Foucault already in 1988 (Foucault Challenge). In his works, the knowledge of education is an issue of power as productive, as shaping, and in circulation rather than a simplistic concept of power envisioned as negative, juridical, sovereign, and static.
The Political Sociology of Educational Reform takes the sociology of knowledge into dialogue with Foucault and other continental philosophical work. Thus, Popkewitz historicizes knowledge and analyses the way school transforms it into a “psychologized” type in the K-12 curricula. His analysis problematizes reductionist, dualistic and what he calls “administrative conceptions” of being, agency, and change – a social epistemology of knowledge-production as non-monolithic and contingent. Key in Popkewitz's approach is the inherent reflexivity, which enables him to questions the “systems of reason”. In Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform (2008), “the cosmopolitan” is approached through historicizing its epistemological principles. The analysis demonstrates the assemblages of systems of reason and illustrates the shifts within different moments and under different cultural, statist, and global pressures. Popkewitz's research shifts the question in education research from “Whose knowledge is of most worth?” to “What gets to count as knowledge in the first place?” His redefinition attempts to challenge a set of traditional binaries often found in educational research.
Popkewitz engages in fundamental questions about social exclusion in national school reform efforts. Popkewitz explores historically and sociologically how a comparative style of thought enters into school reform to recognize difference. In his view, difference produces distinctions and differentiations that leads to exclusion and abjection.
Struggling for the Soul (1998) combines Foucauldian power-knowledge nexus with ethnographic research of teachers in urban and rural schools. The study offers a way of thinking about how differences such as national/international, advanced/left behind are produced through the commonsense reasoning on teaching. The book's focus on urban education is significant as reforming urban education has been a major social policy and research effort since WWII. The volume's thesis is that different ideological positions about school reform and concepts of equity and justice often maintain the same principles of ordering, classifying and dividing, keeping problematic and restricted notions of identity still in play.
The social epistemology of Popkewitz engages with what he calls “systems of reason.” His research maps “reason” as the historical logic and underlying cultural principles that inform the practices of teacher education, educational reform, and the education sciences. Systems of reason are arbitrary, historical, and culturally constituted. In each time/space, systems of reason influence the construction of the line between truth and falsity, knowledge and opinion, fact and belief. Popkewitz examines how the rules and standards of reason in various disciplinary fields are translated and transformed within the practices of schooling; how historically formed systems of ideas construct our sense of identity; and, how these systems of reason are part of institutional standards and power relations. Through ethnographic, textual and historical studies, he has "made visible" the principles that order and shape how teachers organize, observe, supervise, and evaluate students and has illuminated the ways these systems produce norms that serve to exclude students who are poor or of color.
Popkewitz has developed a number of new constructs to engage in empirical research related to education: double gestures, traveling libraries and the indigenous foreigner, cosmopolitanism as a cultural thesis, the alchemy of school subjects, and salvific themes in secular objects. Through the construct of “traveling libraries,” Popkewitz challenges comparative education scholarship in that he focuses on how ideas travel and intersect with other “authors" to produce particular cultural ways of “seeing” and acting. “Traveling libraries” is linked to an “indigenous foreigner” concept, that implies an ironic understanding how ideas are nationalized and naturalized. This mode of analysis produces a notion of Dewey (2005) as “an indigenous foreigner,” whose ideas connect significantly with other ideas and cultural principles (“traveling libraries”) in different times and geographical spaces that have little to do with pragmatism's historical and cultural origins.
Popkewitz plainly demonstrates that the traveling of discourses is neither purely from a center to a periphery, or from fixed point to fixed point, but rather, it is mediated by sociohistorically specific discursive frames that redefine “the national interest”. What appears to be a unidirectional spread or diffusion of discourses is a far more complex appropriation of available tools enmeshed with localized systems of reason (2009). Highly visible and popular worldwide trends in education are reinterpreted and redefined such as inclusive schooling, best practices, and “Education for All”.
Finally, through his examination of what he calls salvific themes in secular objects, Popkewitz challenges the secularization thesis of modernity as it relates to the school. He articulates how particular strains of American Protestant reformism are inscribed in what are widely viewed as secular education practices; to demonstrate how these discourses have shaped dominant education logics; and to document how they have informed dominant conceptualizations in education sciences of children's learning, problem solving, action, and community.
Popkewitz's approach goes beyond intersectionality studies, systems theory, and the qualitative/quantitative divide. He proposes a radical critique of how the European and American enlightenments helped to constitute what count as good knowledge, good method, good care, and good education through the formation of the very academic disciplines. Through integrating a variety of postfoundationalist literatures, cultural histories, and accounts of American exceptionalism, Popkewitz has demonstrated how narratives that emerged through a particular Protestant reformism shaped dominant education discourse. He is the first scholar in curriculum studies in the US to reference how religious discourses about salvation and redemption were inscribed in educational practices and research.
A variety of “mixed methods” approaches that involve historical, policy, statistical, and ethnographic study illustrate a further innovation in the field. His major contributions in this area include The study of schooling: Field methodologies in educational research and evaluation (1981), Teacher education: A critical examination of its folklore, theory, and practice (1987), The formation of the school subject-matter: The struggle for creating an American institution (1987), Critical theories in education: Changing terrains of knowledge and politics (1997), Cultural history and education: Critical studies on knowledge and schooling (2001), Governing children, families, and education: Restructuring the welfare state (2003), and Education research and policy: Steering the knowledge-based economy (2006).
The international recognition of Popkewitz's (Pereyra & Franklin, 2014) is evident from the translation of his major books, such as, The myth of educational reform: School responses to planned change (1982, into Spanish), Paradigm and ideology in educational research: Social functions of the intellectual (1984, Spanish), Teacher education: A critical examination of its folklore, theory, and practice (1989, Spanish), A political sociology of educational reform: Power/Knowledge and power in teaching, teacher education, and research (1991, Spanish Portuguese, Russian, and Traditional Chinese), Struggling for the Soul: The politics of education and the construction of the teacher (1998, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese), Foucault's challenge: Discourse, knowledge, and power in education (2000, with M. Brennan, Spanish), Reformas Educativas e Formacao de Professores Novoa, A., & Popkewitz, T. S. (Eds.), (1992), Cosmopolitanism and the age of school reform: Science, education and making society by making the child (2008, Spanish).
Postiglione, G. A. (1986) Reviewed work(s): Paradigm and Ideology in Educational Research: The Social Functions of the Intellectual by Thomas S. Popkewitz. Comparative Education 30(1), 180-182.
(2009) BOOK REVIEWS, Policy Futures in Education, 7(5), 578-580.