“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: