Discipline and Progress

A lifetime ago I wrote my master’s thesis on Michel Foucault and his social theories as applied to a high school classroom. Specifically, I argued that an English classroom in Oregon that I observed provided examples of Foucauldian power relations as outlined in Discipline and Punish, The Order of Things, and Power/Knowledge. It was 1994, and the world stood uneasily on the cusp of the digital age. School looked much as it had when Foucault wrote his major works, and much as it always had in America. How times have changed.

As I reflect on my path to being a site administrator, informed by my interest in challenging the status quo and always conscious Foucault’s assertion that “every educational system is a political means of maintaining or modifying the appropriateness of discourses with the knowledge and power they bring with them” (Foucault 1971), I’m encouraged to find that what the twenty-five year old beginning teacher I was saw as ominous and constraining has changed. The skeleton of education, which Foucault describes as controlling pupils through a variety of means remains, but it seems to me, at least in my present position as an administrator (Foucault would cringe) at a suburban high school in southern California in 2014, that the flesh and blood of the school has undergone major changes. The forty five year old administrator I am, sees this as progress.

In many ways the school as Foucault described it looks no different than it did in 1994, or 1964, or 1934; bells ring to announce classes, students find their seats in desks, teachers (at least the good ones) welcome their pupils at the door of the classroom. Assistant principals still exist, as do behavior referrals, suspensions, expulsions, and in some cases even panoptic security cameras. But something else exists there too. I’ll risk calling it freedom.

Foucault noted an assortment of manifestations of power in the school, structures which limited individual freedoms, including the division of bodies, segmenting time, and controlling activity. Looking at these, albeit briefly, shows a softening, due in great part to the influence of technology both beyond and inside the schoolhouse.

Students are still divided into grade levels and subdivided into particular classes, but their connectivity to each other transcends folded paper notes and being paired to check homework. Linked via social media, sometimes in ways that alarm those struggling to keep them apart, students today are harder to divide; many educators ask if we even should. And while twenty years ago one might have imagined a student body represented by a stack of sugar cubes, today’s students are a collective syrupy amoeba of interconnectedness. From the right perspective, no less sweet.

Classes still begin and end, time segmented by a bell schedule,  but increasingly learning extends beyond the time designated for any particular period. This work outside “class time” doesn’t look like yesterday’s homework. Instead, teachers routinely “flip” classrooms, students watching lectures at home online and returning to work collaboratively in the classroom. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have sprung up for classes, and students’ access to their teachers (via email or school sanctioned social media) increases apace. Even within the classroom times have changed; more and more tests aren’t timed, as many educators acknowledge that mastery trumps speed; some teachers encourage students to use personal electronic devices to take real time polls in class or do instant research; and a host of educational apps jostle for teachers’ PD time along with more traditional brick and mortar topics.

The control of activity, masquerading as a positive social order, remains a staple of education; students must follow rules about what they can do, when they can do it, and where they can be, but…

At my school students have opportunities to take classes that have them outside the confines of traditional classrooms. They might be making movies or taking photographs on our large campus, building sets, playing guitars on the lawn, or composting in the science quad. Students in Surf PE or AP Environmental Science find themselves on the beach, and students in Fitness Walking or Child Development might not even be on campus. In addition, online learning has changed the nature of education, allowing students to earn English credit from their kitchen table, or get ahead in math credit while sitting at a coffee shop blocks from any traditional classroom. Increasingly school does less to control students’ activity, and more to honor the academic work they do in “real life” contexts.

This isn’t to say that Foucault, or anyone looking for examples of the power relationships between individuals and institutions wouldn’t find much to write about in a modern high school, but academically the strict segmentation of time, space, and activity that existed in the institutions that informed his work in the sixties and seventies looks different now. More Google than gulag, schools today challenge us to recognize the freedom than can propel students beyond the confines of the status quo.

Foucault’s idea that “It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” may still hold some truth, but the nature of how that knowledge is developed (developed rather than acquired) has shifted. Students are increasingly not what Foucault would describe as “docile bodies,” but are active participants in directing their own education. At its best school has changed, become more connected, broken down the non-loadbearing walls, and emerged as a place where possibilities outnumber policies.

Foucault would be curious to see what happens next. I know I am.

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