Professional Voice 14.3.3

Populism, teachers and schooling*

Associate Professor Jessica Gerrard

*This paper draws on the text and ideas developed in: 1) Gerrard, J. (2022) The educational dynamics of populism: schooling, teacher expertise and popular claims to knowledge, Discourse; and 2) Gerrard, J. (2019) The uneducated and the politics of knowing in ‘post-truth’ times: Ranciere, populism and in/equality, Discourse


To a raging crowd, the then Republican Party nominee Donald J Trump triumphantly declared in February 2016, ‘I love the poorly educated!’ (Saul, 2016). Part of his effervescent remarks after winning the Nevada caucus, these five words can be though to sum up a core component of Trump’s politics: an embrace of the conditions of a cohort usually understood as lacking, in need and disadvantaged. In his exclamation, the ‘poorly educated’ are not represented as lacking or as being in need. Nor are they derided or depicted as requiring intervention; they are recognised, made visible and simply embraced.

Writing this six years later, whilst Trump may no longer be in an official position of power in the US, the rising tide of authoritarian right-wing populism at home in Australia and abroad is a significant concern in contemporary politics. In Australia, populist currents have leveraged off fear of migration (such as Pauline Hanson) as well as a general frustration with party politics and politicians, best encapsulated perhaps by Bob Katter and Clive Palmer (Moffitt, 2017). 

The question of education (and the lack of it) is central to the many global expressions of populism. Routinely declared as an imminent threat to Western democracy, the term populism is used to refer to far right and nationalist politics and is often ascribed to the white, poorly educated working-class (see Katsambekis, 2017). In other words, populism is often coupled with presumptions of a lack of education and an implied assumption that ‘proper’ education would likely lead to less populism and better forms of democratic citizenship and responsibility.

In response, and in the face of associated science and expert scepticism there can be a tendency to double down on the authority and importance of experts and expertise (see Gerrard & Holloway, 2023). However, in what follows, I explore what the repercussion of this is for those of us in the field of education, and in particular for teaching and teachers. I argue that there is a need to resist the urge to double down on asserting teacher expertise against a populist threat, especially when this creates too strict boundaries between the teaching profession and our communities. We need to understand how populist politics is fuelled by existing inequalities within our democracies alongside the elite capture and use of populism, and it is these – along with authoritarian right-wing politics – that need be the focus of our collective professional attention.

Populism, the ‘elite’ and the ‘people’

Contemporary life in Australia and internationally is shaped by deep inequalities and the social fractures that stem from this. Liberal democracies, which promised social mobility, equality and freedom are in reality characterised for many by social immobility, inequality and fixity. It is important to acknowledge that a big part of these dynamics is the politics of race and racism. For instance, in her highly acclaimed investigation into politics in the US south, Arlie Hochschild (2016) explores how working-class white Tea Party supporters understand their own inequality and immobility as linked to migration and equal opportunity policies.

In the Australian context Ghassan Hage (2009) refers to ‘stuckedness’ as a way to make sense of the permanent state of waiting (and indeed resilience) that occurs for those who remain immobile amidst promises of mobility. In both Hage and Hochschild’s accounts there is a kind of ‘mobility envy’, as Hage puts it, in which the racialised Other is problematised for ‘overtaking’ white settlers, even if this overtaking is imagined, symbolic, and in fact representative of racialised fictions that are created to make sense of stubborn inequalities.

It is important to place contemporary populism in the context of these sociological trends. Present-day populism is deeply connected to contemporary experiences and understandings of immobility imbued with long-standing racism. Racialised frustrations are taking shape in contemporary appeals to ‘the people’ against the traditional institutions of representative multicultural democracies in localised and global contexts (see Muller, 2016). Populism circles around the failure to provide the so-called promises of modern liberal democracies: employment with a liveable wage, equality, social mobility, and opportunity. Of course, populism is not a simple reflection of these failed promises. Yet, it is a powerful political modality which galvanises upon them to cultivate an identification of ‘the people’ against the ‘elite’.

Most often in current debates, populism is used to refer to far-right, nationalist, anti-immigration and racist social currents who position themselves as standing for ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ (e.g. Grant et al., 2019; Norris & Inglehart, 2019; Wodak, 2019). This is a kind of ‘we’ versus ‘others/outsiders’ politics, in which the nation state is seen in need of protection from invaders. In the settler colony of Australia, therefore, the cultivation of ethno-national populist politics involves erasing the sovereignty and existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to cultivate a false assertion of a ‘true’ (white) Australian identity connected to the British Empire. However, populism is not just of and for the right. Populism has various expressions from leftist South American versions to far-right authoritarian strains (see Charalambous & Ioannou, 2020; Stavrakakis, 2014). The populist appeal to ‘the people’ vs ‘the elite’ can and is claimed from a range of political standpoints.

Teachers and the people

There is no shortage of examples in contemporary public and political debates where teachers are positioned as experts who have gone too far, who are not acting in the interests of the so-called ‘people’. In Australia, take for instance, Mark Latham’s infamous Parental Rights Bill in NSW which sought to undermine the rights of trans and gender diverse young people under the auspice of ‘parents rights’. Or the debates in Australia, US, and UK about the teaching of critical race theory. Across these debates, a common refrain has been that teachers are over-stepping their professional duties and expertise, and that ‘the people’ are taking back education and schooling.

An understandable response is to argue for the need to trust teacher expertise and allow teachers to get on with their work; to, in other words, insist on protecting teacher expertise. Of course, teachers’ professional judgement is incredibly important and there is a wealth of excellent research that demonstrates the dangers of current policy trends which supplant rich disciplinary, situated and relational teacher expertise with data metrics and technical standards (see Holloway, 2021; Mockler & Stacey, 2021).

Nevertheless, there is a danger of closing off teacher expertise from challenges from the community. As Jessica Holloway and I argue in our recent book (Gerrard & Holloway, 2023), teacher expertise is socially, historically, and politically contextualised: decisions about what is expert judgement, and who is an expert, is dependent on understandings of the day. Teachers are not immune from past and present acts of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia and homophobia, and challenges to these acts often come from those outside of the profession.

For instance, there is a long tradition of ‘popular education’ that arose from institutional exclusions from within institutions of schooling and the teaching profession (see Crowther et al., 1999; Gerrard, 2014; Mayo, 2020; Silver, 1965; Tiana Ferrer, 2011). Multiple crises in confidence in teacher expertise and its practices have emerged from Indigenous, anti-racist, anti-sexist, disability, and working-class rights campaigns, often led by parents, young people and children – the ‘laypeople’ who sit outside of the professional ‘expertise’ of schooling, but who are also its primary concern (see, e.g. Gerrard, 2014). This history of community struggles against the practices of expertise in schools demonstrates the contested and dynamic relationality of teacher expertise.

Of course, this is not to say that all challenges to expertise are unproblematic. Latham’s Bill and other contemporary right-wing ‘parents rights’ movements demonstrate that popular and community challenges to teacher expertise are politically varied. Nor are all of these challenges or forms of popular education necessarily populist. The point is that like populism, they find their purpose in a rejection of existing practices of expertise and thus form political alliances in distinction from, and sometimes against, expert and professional judgement. Whilst popular claims to education are not necessarily always ‘populist’, they do invoke a standpoint of a ‘people’ against what is understood to be the failings and/or deceit of prevailing forms of teacher expertise.

What does this mean for teachers?

So far, I’ve suggested that it’s important to understand contemporary populism as one expression of the failures of modern democracies. Right-wing expressions of populism, therefore, can be understood as leveraging off existing racism, sexism, and inequalities as a means to proclaim a ‘people’ against an ‘elite’ connected to the bureaucracies, institutions, and values of modern democratic governments (like schools). I’ve also suggested that whilst there are very concerning challenges to teacher expertise through the mode of populist politics (like Latham’s Bill), that we should be cautious of responding to this simply by re-declaring the untouchability of teacher expertise. To do so would deny how teacher expertise is socially contextualised, and has been implicated in problematic practices, and should always listen to, be informed by, and act in relation to the community.

The fundamental issue, therefore, is not that there are popular challenges to expertise. Such challenges that should be thought of as inevitable and at times productive. Teachers and schools should not shy away from challenges to their practices from outside their profession; the issue at hand in the context of the contemporary rise of right-wing populism is its underlying politics: ethnonationalism, authoritarianism, anti-immigration, sexism, transphobia. In the current moment, this means addressing how right-wing populism is used to defend Anglo-colonial constructions of nationhood that refuses Indigenous sovereignty, rests upon patriarchal forms of leadership, and which attempts to form a racialised distinction of fear between a so-called ‘people’ versus a so-called ‘elite’ (see Moffitt, 2017; Wodak, 2015).

Most of all, dismissing populism as the product of the uneducated and ignorant, overlooks three important issues.

First, is the importance of populism as a form of politics of and for the political elite. It is no surprise that some of the most prominent right-wing populists are in fact wealthy elite, aligning themselves against the elite by politically galvanising on modern democracy’s lost promises.

Second, is the key dynamic from which populism emerges: the hierarchical divisions in knowledge and power that rest upon inequalities in education, producing a sense for many that their views, experiences, and existences do not, and are not, counted or accounted for.

Third, as noted above, such a dismissal is in danger of eclipsing the many popular claims that have – and do – challenge inequalities and systematic injustices in schools and in the expression of teacher expertise.

The challenge, therefore, for schools and teachers is to reckon with the underlying dynamics of the elitist capture of populist politics, the role of education in social inequality, and the need for a relational professional that can and does respond to our communities while recognising and rejecting the contemporary threats of anti-immigration, anti-Indigenous, racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic politics.


Charalambous, G., & Ioannou, G. (2020). Left radicalism and populism in Europe. Routledge

Crowther, J., Martin, I., & Shaw, M. (Eds.). (1999). Popular education and social movements in Scotland today. The National Organization for Adult Learning

Gerrard, J. & Holloway, J. (2023) Expertise. Bloomsbury

Gerrard, J. (2014) Radical childhoods: schooling and the struggle for social change. Manchester University Press

Hage, G. (2009). Waiting out the crisis: On stuckedness and governmentality. In G. Hage (Ed.), Waiting (pp. 97–106). Melbourne University Press

Hochschild, A. (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American Right. The New Press

Holloway, J. (2021). Metrics, Standards and Alignment in Teacher Policy: Critiquing Fundamentalism and Imagining Pluralism. Springer.

Katsambekis, G. (2016). The populist surge in post-democratic times: Theoretical and political challenges. The Political Quarterly, 88(2), 202–210.

Mockler, N., & Stacey, M. (2021). Evidence of teaching practice in an age of accountability: When what can be counted isn’t all that counts. Oxford Review of Education, 47(2), 170–88

Moffitt, B. (2017). Populism in Australia and New Zealand. In C. R. Kaltwasser, P. Taggart, P. Ochoa Espejo, & P. Ostiguy (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of populism (pp. 121–139). Oxford University Press

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Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2019). Cultural backlash: Trump, Brexit and authoritarian populism. Cambridge University Press

Silver, H. (1965). The concept of popular education. MacGibbon & Kee.

Stavrakakis, Y. (2014). The return of ‘the people’: Populism and anti-populism in the shadow of the European crisis. Constellations, 21(4), 505–517.

Tiana Ferrer, A. (2011). The concept of popular education revisited – Or what do we talk about when we speak of popular education. Paedagogica Historica, 47(1), 15–31

Wodak, R. (2019). Entering the ‘post-shame era’: The rise of illiberal democracy, populism and the neo-authoritarianism in Europe. Global Discourse, 9(1), 195–213.

Wodak, R. (2015). The politics of fear: What right-wing populist discourses mean. Sage

Associate Professor Jessica Gerrard researches education, policy, social movements and inequality at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Her recent books include Expertise (2023, with Jessica Holloway), Learning Whiteness (2022, with Arathi Sriprakash and Sophie Rudolph) and Class in Australia (2022, with Steven Threadgold). Before working as an academic she was a teacher and has always been a proud union member.