“It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that political violence has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked so that one can fight against them.” – Michel Foucault
Earlier this week I wrote a guest post for the blog Scientia et Sapienta on Michel Foucault’s criticisms toward societies’ fascination with drugging as a solution (see here). I had to write it for a philosophy class that I have been taking this semester. Today I lead a short discussion on Foucault for this class. I do not claim to be an expert (maybe not even a novice!) on Foucault, but I do know that my minimum exposure has led to automatic influence. I think being born and raised in northern California (i.e. near San Francisco) already makes me sympathetic to someone like Foucault.
Today I will be asking the class to consider Foucault’s critique of academic institutions as a form of political power (in a classroom setting, go figure!). My wife has been taking classes on education, child psychology, and counseling over at Portland State University and she has exposed me to some very Foucault-worthy targets of criticism. Here are some examples that I will be using today:
(1) Most public schools force non-English speaking students into their own class sessions to learn English (in the United States). This form of linguistic segregation makes the task of learning all the more difficult because these children must learn the language before they can even begin engaging teachers and classmates on the other subjects. Where does a Foucaltian critique come to play? It is this power structure that continues to prevent those of a certain socio-linguistic class from having a fair playing field in the game of “success” that our society plays.
(An alternative) My wife told me of a charter school program here in Portland where the students have three languages: English, Spanish, and Chinese. All languages are taught and used. This allows children who speak Spanish and Chinese to learn English while also allowing English speaking children to learn Spanish and Chinese. Since all three languages are taught this makes it even when they go into their gardening class and they have a section of the garden where they must name the vegetables in Chinese, another in Spanish, another in English. This is a good example of subverting a system that says English is a superior language.
Foucault would have had criticisms against the English-is-the-language-you-need-to-know-forget-the-others approach to the United States educational system. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of fellow students. What are your thoughts?
(2) School counselors in Portland have found their jobs being challenged by schools that would rather have a psychologist in the budget that a counselor. Why? Well, cognitive and behavior therapy takes longer and it is therefore a tad more demanding on the system than pills. This is another example of schools seeking to make “good citizens”. The “troubled” children are segregated, the children with “potential” elevated, and the two can only come together if one is doped enough to not be a problem. Should these children have special classes to their own? Is it better to work with individuals over time for their sake or a more utilitarian approach of drugging them in order for the system to function better? Again, I welcome your thoughts.
(3) History class! Yes, “history” begins with the Greek city-states and it ends with the Empire of the United States of America. Asia? Africa? the Middle East? South America? You can wait to college to learn about these places if you want to use an elective course to do so. What the educational system does to serve the State is it tells the metanarrative of “western exceptionalism” or more precisely “American exceptionalism”. Should history courses be more “world history” than “our history”? Thoughts?
I know Foucault’s propositions upset people and I can imagine the three suggestions above will get more than a few people perturbed. I welcome your approval or criticisms of these suggestions? What do you think: Is our educational system essentially an extension of State power with the machine-like goal of producing “good citizens”? If so, is this bad?
For context feel free to watch these clips from a discussion between Foucault and Chomsky:
From what I understand, even American exceptionalism is more of a revisionist effort now-a-days too — or at least selective.
To be clear, *exceptionalism* as I understand it, bugs me, thoroughly. I see it as equal with Nationalism, and that got Germany a long ways.
So maybe Foucault has provided an avenue for thinking “critically” about society, but at the same time I don’t see Foucault’s approach as something necessary in order to be “critical.”
But to answer your question more directly: I do think the American educational system, in many ways, serves as a propaganda machine to create an ethos that serves whatever the particular “agenda” might be at the moment — of course I generalize.
Nationalism is always dangerous. While Foucault’s criticism is not the only criticism it was interesting to see how it stretched so many of our minds as we pondered these issues.
Regarding your last question of whether public education is an extension of state power to produce good citizens, I think Foucault definitely has a point. Education necessarily involves power relations (what gets taught, who teaches it, what criteria of rationality will we use, etc.). And, since the state is a major player in society, it definitely exerts its power to use public education as a tool for its own ends. But, it is a bit more complicated than that. Public education (as we have it in the states), is really the product of a web of competing power relations in society (big government, local government, parents, teachers, etc), each with their own vision of the good (i.e. agenda). Indeed, one of the reasons public education is so difficult is because I don’t think it’s operating with a singular conception of the the good that it is trying to achieve. Where I find Foucault’s analysis particularly helpful is in uncovering the ways in which these various entities exercise power in their own interest, but cloak that (often unconsciously) in high-minded rhetoric about “what’s best for the children.”
My freshman year of college made me hate my high school education. Not only was I limited to learning only one language, but I was also only educated in “our history”; learning about what was going on in foreign countries/continents didn’t come until I took a couple history classes in college. Looking back, it’s saddening at how dumb we treat students within the K-12 educational system. I’ve met several people who couldn’t “cut it” in high school, dropped out, settled for their GED, went to a community college, and found ways to become more globally and politically knowledgeable than the average high school graduate.
The way I see it; people ought to be critical in general. Maybe not to the point where attacking every institution or every potential institution at every step of the way, but enough to test these institutions to make sure they don’t have this “nationalism” agenda. Teaching students certain subjects because they’re the agreeable and safe subjects that raise good citizens actually destroys potential of becoming people with character and integrity, let alone being smart enough to communicate with people of different languages and cultures. Being critical of these current educational systems strives for a change that will produce not just smarter students, not just bilingual and trilingual students, but globally-awake students; students that are aware of what someone in Africa is going through on top of what their neighbor is going through.
Not only might there be less division in the classroom, but we, as Americans, might gain a little more respect from other countries.
And Bobby, your generalization isn’t really that far from the truth at my old high school. The propaganda theme wasn’t blatantly obvious… until I came to college.
@Marc: Very true, it is not black-and-white. I think this is where Foucault’s quote that I noted above becomes very relevant: exposing claims toward neutrality and independence.
@Jeremy: I left high school feeling like a complete idiot as well. Even college (a private, unnamed Bible college in California) left me feeling even more stupid. If I wasn’t a critical thinker I would have choked to death on the pseudo-education shoved down my throat (I exclude one or two professors).
I agree that we should be critical. This doesn’t mean nihilistic or whiny, just observing and not letting the unnatural settle as natural.
@Brian, it would’ve been interesting to hear you class presentation and discussion; sounds like it went good.
@Jeremy, I’m sorry to hear that; unfortunately I was actually thinking from the experience my daughter has had at her public school in the state of Washington (quite a bit of propaganda . . . of course that’s rather relative to say too; since my idea of what propaganda is, is somebody else’s “truth” — which is why what Marc said is certainly a pertinent point — although, I do think it’s possible to know “right” from “wrong” which takes me back to my propaganda point 😉 ).
I guess I’m in the minority here. Maybe its my Bible Belt southern roots but honestly I see nothing wrong with students having to learn English and integrate. As far as history is concerned we live in a global economy where English speaking is predominant and history of other culture/religions IS vital. I’m at UH Bauer Business school and we have to take literally 12 units of international business. Honestly I still don’t think it is enough. Anyway speaking from a third generation Hispanic point of view I don’t see anything wrong with enforcing integration unless integration is taught as superior. This view is after heavily discussion with my parent who are second and first generations that grew up here in Houston, Tx during the civil rights movement and they agree with me.
Now addressing the educational institution I have a huge bone to pick with them. One I think my education in higher academics is wasted in frivolous subjects not associated with my field. Second, I hate the fact that thinking independently is discouraged. Most instructors want you to regurgitate their thoughts. Anything outside of that is wrong. Third, I dislike that school are fascist institutions that uphold specific schools of thought instead of testing them constantly. Irritatingly these are the institutions that get quoted and change culture. Just my point of view.
Danny how do you really feel?: “. . . Third, I dislike that school are fascist institutions that uphold specific schools of thought instead of testing them constantly.” 😉
I have a friend who did all of his course work in Philosophy of Religion at Purdue University; he made his dissertation proposal, and because it had a “Christian” worldview behind it (my friend) they blackballed him — effectively ending his PhD work (after spending at least 3yrs doing course work). Anyway, I say this just to say that I hear ya on the “politics” of the University.
I met a teacher in Queensland Australia who set up a trial program for kids slipping through the cracks. 1 team did carpentry and the other did mechanics. One team restored a house and the other a car.
He had them write their own manuals on how to use the tools, ohs and a manual on restoring the house / car. In the 2 years this program ran, illiterate kids became fluent readers, understood maths, basic science etc…
It was closed down because of lack of support by the teachers union as it didn’t fit the norm….
WE NEED to recognise that different people have different ways of learning and learn how we can teach using a variety of methods to do so….. not just drug those who are bored so that they don’t disrupt the status quo.
@Danny: I don’t think the critique is so much against learning English as it is teaching it in a manner that unknowingly isolates and segregated non- English speakers creating an unnecessary up hill battle. The alternative model is awesome because–and I say this as a white male–it is shameful that I don’t know a lick of Spanish and I was raised in California. This is an injustice toward me as well. I would put my (future) children in a school like this in a heart beat.
@Craig: Interesting project. Yes, it is true, intelligence should never be limited to math and science. Humanity is broader than that.
@ Brian – I honestly do not know of the alternate program you are suggesting. I can’t speak to that. If there is a better alternative for integration for ESL students I’m all for it. But, these student do need to know English, my argument is not built from ethnocentrism but a business world reality. We are the largest economic market in the world and thus have set the trend that most business is done in English. I believe we are doing children a disservice not teaching them English, I mean China and India have English speaking programs. To not teach them English is not helping them from being isolated and further segregation. It is just not institutional but self imposed due to language barriers. Hence why my neighborhood in Houston is 95% Hispanic. Now as far a second language acquisition in learning. I to wish America would take a more European model towards this.
@ Bobby – Sorry man I really am passionate about this. I hate the fact that if students think for themselves its wrong unless it agrees with the professors. I have literally been bullied by professors due to my Christian beliefs especially in my science courses. I’ve had many heated conversations in private with some of these instructors not so much about science and religion but blatant disrespect for my beliefs.
@Danny: I mentioned the program in this post. It does teach English, but it also teaches English speakers Chinese and Spanish and Chinese speaks English and Chinese.
@ Brian – Lol, no I’m speaking about I really don’t know much about the details, structure, and etc. on the program. I know about the ESL program pretty thoroughly because I have a sister who is speech therapist that works mainly with ESL student for the school district and my mother that has worked for the school system here for over twenty years. I got the info you mentioned, what I meant was I didn’t know enough about it to give an informative opinion. Sorry. 🙂
@Daniel: Thanks for the clarification.
Who says English is “the superior language have another thing coming. Let us give the English speaking countries some credit, they are a bit smart, but a little too smart for their shoes and they tend to hang their hats where they cannot reach. Maybe this is why they are at a financial deadlock or worst. What i admire them for and their new president is that he takes selfless chances and is the right man for the job. He will see that the Americas get back on track over the next few years. God has given us different languages as a test of faith. We need to become one even if there are language barriers. this is the test, learn to communicate and do not view language barriers keep us back. There should be respect for all languages because each community has build there own empire with different strengths and who are the English speaking countries to believe that they are superior. But many countries have a plan and as the old saying goes play dead to catch cor beau alive. The America’s have to turn right back to the same third and developing world nations to start to rebuild their nation. Stay tuned i will continue after i spend some time with my course of study.
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