Francis Schrag is a professor of the philosophy of education in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Education Building, Madison WI, 53706, USA. He is author of Back the Basics: Fundamental Educational Questions Reexamined (Jossey-Bass, 1995).
JCS invites comments responding to the views in this paper. Such comments should be addressed via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. All such comments on this paper, and on other papers in the journal, can be accessed via the JCS web site at http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/jcs/
Copyright © 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd. ISSN 0022-0272. Copies may be made under the normal terms of copyright law.
Over the last 40 years, American educational scholars have deployed a variety of theoretical perspectives to understand schooling in its relation to society beyond the schools. Through most of the 1950s and 1960s, the structural-functional perspective deriving from the late sociologist Talcott Parsons was dominant. During the 1970s, perspectives whose roots can be traced back to European theorists such as Karl Marx, and Antonio Gramsci held centre-stage. During this period, the structural-functional framework was the object of severe criticism. Most recently, the influence of the late French scholar Michel Foucault has been growing. In the US, Foucaults work appears, indeed, to represent the cutting edge of theorizing about schoolings role in society. 1
What is curious is that in Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucaults only work to deal specifically with schooling, the logic of Foucaults analysis bears a strong resemblance to that found in the earlier structural-functional accounts. This remains true, I believe, despite Foucaults vastly different rhetorical style and despite his own disavowal of the label structuralist.
Why, then, would a mode of analysis that was the object of so much criticism a generation ago, be reincarnated a generation later? Before speculating on this in the second part of the essay, let me support my assertion that the two modes of analysis are homologous by comparing Foucaults analysis of the examination in Discipline and Punish with that offered byRobert Dreeben, a student and disciple of Parsons.
Dreeben's On What Is Learned in School (1968), represents an exemplary analysis of schooling from the Parsonian perspective. Dreeben hypothesizes that differences in structure between families and schools have consequences for the nature of socialization afforded by the two settings. The argument proposes that schooling contributes not just to the students' repertoire of knowledge and skill, but to the acquisition of norms that are valued by adult society: in Dreebens (1968: 84) words,
The argument . . . rests on the assumption that schools, through their structural arrangements and the behaviour patterns of teachers, provide pupils with certain experiences largely unavailable in other social settings, and that these experiences, by virtue of their peculiar characteristics, represent conditions conducive to the acquisition of norms.
In his central fifth chapter, Dreeben identifies four such norms, which he labels independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. The school test, to take one of Dreebens own illustrations, whether it be of the informal classroom variety or the high-stakes Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken as part of the admission process to US colleges and universities, provides a structure that fosters the acquisition of these norms. As Dreeben (1968: 32) notes, teachers assign the same or similar tasks to all pupils in a classroom, . . . and evaluate performance by formal testing. In contrast to school, . . . family life does not customarily involve this form of evaluation, in which the performance of one child is compared systematically with that of others on the same task over the same period of time.
With respect to the norm of independence, for example, Dreeben (1968: 69; emphasis in the original) notes that . . . the social conditions designed for the administration of tests help establish it. He (1968: 69, 70) notes that teachers expect students to do their own work and that when taking high-stakes tests, for example, pupils are physically separated, and the testing room is patrolled by proctors whose job is to discover contraband and to guarantee that no communication takes place, these arrangements being designed so that each examination paper represents independent work. Dreeben notes that even when collaboration and group work are encouraged, if stronger students have done the work of weaker ones, that is usually considered unfair. This suggests the normative priority of independence and the simple fact of life in industrial societies; i.e. that institutions of higher learning and employers want to know how well each person can do and put constraints on schools in order to find out.
The structure of the argument then is this: schools have distinctive structural features that assist students in the development of norms that are needed to function in society. The central question of this book, then, really concerns only that part of the school's total contribution that pertains to the development of those normative psychological capacities that enable people to manage the social demands placed on them when they participate as adults in public institutions outside the orbit of the family (Dreeben 1968: 144). In short, if we are to have a modern industrial society, we shall need schools that inculcate the requisite norms. Such inculcation demands schools with structural features like examinations.
Before sketching Foucaults account of school examinations, a brief introduction to his intellectual project will be useful. 2 Foucault is concerned to map a set of major social transformations occurring within a span of decades that separate our world from that of our European ancestors living before the 18th century. His work is an example of what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called the hermeneutics of suspicion. Foucault challenges the notion that the West has experienced a gradual growth of freedom over the past two centuries.
One of Foucaults major themes is the nature of power in modern, disciplinary society. A clue to that view can be found in a statement he made in an interview: The relations of power are perhaps among the best hidden things in the social body (Foucualt 1988: 118). Although complex and difficult to disentangle, three claims are central to Foucaults view of power (see Weberman 1995): First, in a disciplinary society, it is misleading to think of power as something that some individuals or even classes possess and other lack. Power is dispersed over society and its effects are everywhere. Foucault (1980: 158) likens disciplinary power to a machine working by a complex system of cogs and gears a machine that no individual or group is in charge of. He says that . . . although it is true that its pyramidal organization gives it a "head", it is the apparatus as a whole that produces "power" and distributes individuals in this permanent and continuous field (Foucault 1977: 177). The second claim is that disciplinary power is intimately connected with ways of knowing that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the birth of the human sciences, especially psychology: By assessing acts with precision, discipline judges individuals "in truth" ( Foucault 1977: 181).
Finally, disciplinary power should not be thought of as negative, as preventing people from doing what they wish to. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production (Foucault 1977: 194).
Foucault (1977: 184) situates the written examination (which includes, of course, the whole modern technology of aptitude testing) within this context. Indeed, the examination is for him the very model of disciplinary power, combining the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement. Whereas in earlier times, the masses of people remained invisible, now each of us becomes visible as an individual, but only along dimensions that apply to all. Thanks to the exam, each of us can be put in his or her place on a finely graded hierarchy&endash;one that is organized around the concept of the norm. The examination, therefore, illustrates a prominent way in which power and truth, according to Foucault, are connected in modern society. Without power over students, examinations could not yield truths about them and these truths could not be used for purposes of placing them in social hierarchies and shaping their expectations of themselves and others.
A familiar contemporary illustration will help us grasp Foucaults thesis. Consider again the SAT, one of the bases on which many colleges select students. These exams are one element in a vast network of power that includes the Educational Testing Service, which produces the exams; the College Board, which administers them; psychometricians and professors, who develop the test questions and help vet their statistical properties; high school teachers and guidance counselors in high schools all over the US and abroad; college admissions officers; private companies that offer preparation for a fee; journalists who use the scores to tout or condemn schools in their communities; parents; and, finally, students, themselves. In the case of the students, especially, one can grasp what Foucault means when he says that disciplinary power produces subjects: the score a student obtains becomes part of who the student is&endash;an average student, in the bottom decile, a perfect scorer, smarter than her brother, too dumb for Princeton, etc.
It might seem to a skeptic that simply abolishing the SAT as a requirement would weaken the hold of the examination, but a follower of Foucault would show that this is utopian. Given an enormous pool of students from diverse communities vying for a limited supply of slots, its almost inevitable that some other criteria would need to do the very same thing&endash;to individualize applicants by ranking them on measures common to all. And even if a law were passed requiring college admissions by lot, wouldnt similar examinations play an even bigger role in selecting for employment or professional school?
Is this not tantamount to saying that examinations fulfill a function that modern, capitalist society cannot do without? With Foucault, as with Dreeben, the logic of structure and function is inescapable. As Foucault himself says, Its impossible to get the development of productive forces characteristic of capitalism if you dont at the same time have apparatuses of power (Foucault 1980: 158; emphasis added). Of course identifying a functional necessity neednt constitute an endorsement, and in Foucaults case it obviously doesnt. 3 The ostensible growth of freedom masks a darker development:
The general judicial form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. . . . Enlightenment which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines. (Foucault 1977: 222)
Foucaults image of disciplinary society evokes and is intended to evoke suspicion. Given this normative stance, one might expect Foucault to anticipate or urge profound social transformation, but he does not. Indeed, Foucault is suspicious of the Marxian view of class struggle although, like most French intellectuals of his generation, he was educated in Marxist theory. When asked by an interviewer to identify the subjects who oppose each other? Foucault (1980: 208) responded:
This is just a hypothesis, but I would say that its all against all. There arent immediately given subjects of the struggle, one the proletariat, the other the bourgeoisie. Who fights against whom? We all fight each other. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else.
Foucaults rhetoric is full of words like resistance and struggle, but according to his own analysis, domination has reached a stage that renders conventional political action based on class or party beside the point. According to Foucault, the image of a future society embracing human freedom concomitant with enormously developed productive forces, the image found in Marxs sketch of the communist future, is utterly utopian.
Dreebens and Foucaults rhetorics are utterly dissimilar, yet their accounts of society and the role schools play in society are surprisingly parallel. Both present images of modern industrial societies as essentially static entities rather than evolving processes; neither posits any mechanism of change nor any explicit criteria of value. Since structures produce individual agents, individuals play little role in either account. Both theorists describe social institutions such as families and schools as generic entities with generic functions. Both perceive modern, industrial societies to require schools and examination systems.
While it is true that Foucaults description of the disciplinary society is intended to evoke repugnance, recall his contention that Enlightenment which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines. This suggests that these are two sides of a single coin, neither capable of existing without the other. Foucaults image of a machines interlocking parts suggests even less room for change than does the organic imagery often used by Parsonian structural-functionalists.
I dont wish to exaggerate the similarities between Dreebens and Foucaults analysis. One contrast is obvious: while Dreeben observes modern society with calm acceptance, Foucault wishes to puncture his readers complacency. Unfortunately, the political programme which follows from the resulting deflation is very unclear. Foucault does see himself as a participant in the politics of his time, struggling to make piecemeal changes; still it is fair to say that neither he nor Dreeben&endash;one because he sees no need to challenge the existing order, the other because he thinks the challenge is obvious&endash; supplies explicit normative criteria whereby states of affairs can be deemed better or worse (see Weberman 1995 and Fraser 1989)
I said at the outset that the Parsonian version of structural-functionalism was subjected to severe criticisms in the 1970s, criticisms which apply with equal force to Foucaults mode of analysis in Discipline and Punish. Two limitations of the structural-functional image of society are related: first, that society is viewed as static rather than dynamic; second, that individual human actors and human choices play little or no role. Criticisms deriving from these limitations can be levelled at both Dreeben and Foucault. First, both write about examinations as if they had no history, no evolution, as if they simply materialized out of thin air when the historical stage was ready for their entry. Consequently, no individual inventors or challengers, no Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman, or John Dewey, no Arthur Jensen or Steven Jay Gould are present in their pages. Institutional actors such as the French Ministry of Education or the Educational Testing Service are, likewise, absent. Moreover both write about schools as generic entities performing uniform functions with generic children. Neither sees schools as sites of conflict and contestation, sites whose function is related to their social location in a stratified society. Political struggles over examinations are consequently occluded in both accounts. The absence of historicity, of individual agency, and of politics, in short, leaves us with a very distorted picture of schoolings relation to the rest of society.
Given such criticisms, how can we explain the attractiveness of Foucaults genre of analysis in the American academy today? Might the fact that political processes and mechanisms of social change are conspicuously absent from Foucaults analysis provide a clue? I believe they do.
Lets recall a bit of history here. The period that saw the vigorous critique of structural-funcionalisms rather static view of society, the 1970s, was also a period of intense social upheaval, a period marked by opposition to the Vietnam War, the Black Power and feminist movements to name the most prominent causes. In education, this era was also full of talk about change and actual experimentation. Older American readers may recall the excitement surrounding educational experimentation associated with free and alternative schools, deschooling, schools without walls, teachers as facilitators, open classrooms, the human potential movement, multi-age schooling, discovery learning, community control, among many. Works by Ivan Illich, Carl Rogers, A. S. Neill, Paul Goodman, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, and Jonathan Kozol excited educators as well as a larger audience of citizens and intellectuals.
During this same period, educational scholars were deploying neo-Marxist frameworks to indict the status quo in public education and to identify the dynamics wherein lay the potential to transform schooling and the wider society. The spirit of this era in the academy is probably best captured in Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis Schooling in Capitalist America (1977). No doubt the most influential critique of schooling published during this period, Bowles and Gintis (1976: 14, 246) attitudes come through clearly in their announcement that . . . the economic transformation which we envision, and which is the basis for our optimism, is so far-reaching and total in its impact on social life as to betoken a new stage in the development of US society. Bowles and Gintis claim that educational strategy is part of a revolutionary transformation of economic life. Very much aware that schools have sometimes supported and sometimes resisted social change, they argue that history reveals opportunity for using schools to promote revolutionary change and, at the same time, presents the danger of co-optation and assimilation into a counterstrategy to stabilize the social order.
The possibility of far-reaching (though, perhaps, not immediate) transformation of society and schooling toward more egalitarian and less alienating structures, a possibility that is very much alive in Bowles and Gintis as in so many writers during the 1970s, seems dated today. Of course in the 1970s and 1980s diverse scholars expressed various degrees of pessimism and optimism about the future, but what they shared was a conviction that society was constituted by dynamic processes. If the outlook for social transformation in the US was not always easy to sustain, promising if flawed possibilities could be found elsewhere, in China or Cuba or Yugoslavia or Nicaragua.
The unanticipated collapse of state socialism in 1989 underlined the need for left-leaning scholars to renounce any remaining illusions about regimes calling themselves communist. Concurrently, the splintering of the feminist movement and the rise of identity politics appeared to weaken rather than strengthen the power of the less advantaged to challenge the privileged. Indeed, far from moving toward a more equal society, ours has become more unequal, with those mired in poverty and despair even less likely to escape their circumstances.
Many academics writing about the role of school in society from locations in universities have maintained their egalitarian aspirations and hence the critical stance towards the role of schooling in modern societies that they adopted as young scholars and which they passed on to their students. At the same time, the public schools apparent immunity to fundamental change over a generation demands a perspective whereby scholars can give expression to both the aspiration for transformation and to the despair regarding this possibility. Foucaults stance is ideally suited to meet that demand. Of course his undoubted brilliance and dazzling linguistic virtuosity make it relatively easy for converts to believe they are astride a fresh mount rather than a dead horse. To put my point in a more Gallic manner: by embracing Foucault, scholars can announce their resignation to the status quo while appearing to protest it.
Let me adduce three further reasons why Foucault appeals in the current climate. The first reason scholars turn to Foucault is simply that the neo-Marxist schemas dont resonate in the post-communist world and scholars who wish to challenge the status-quo must adopt perspectives that are not tainted by affiliation with a discredited political movement.4
In this connection, the example Foucault, himself, set as an engaged
intellectual provides a second reason for his popularity. Foucault participated in a variety of oppositional movements, yet resisted identification with a particular party. At a time when many French intellectuals were members of the Communist party, Foucault refused to align himself with it. That refusal to be identified with a particular political party or ideological faction makes it possible for scholars aligned with a variety of counterhegemonic movements to march under his banner without engaging in internecine, ideological warfare.5
The third reason for Foucaults appeal has to do with his own view of the relationship between scholarship and politics, a view that stressed the way critique and transformation were necessarily intertwined. In a 1981 interview Foucault (1988) noted that thought is present and operative in everyday behaviour, in the institutions we take for granted, even in silent habits. Foucault (1988: 155) asserted that,
Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it; to show that things are not as self-evident as once believed, to see that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such . . . .
In these circumstances, criticism (and radical criticism) is absolutely indispensable for any transformation. A transformation that remains within the same mode of thought, a transformation that is only a way of adjusting the same thought more closely to the reality of things can merely be a superficial transformation.
On the other hand, as soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult, and quite possible.
Notions such as this make it possible for scholars, especially those with a flair for theorizing, to believe that, no matter how esoteric or precious their formulations, and no matter how limited their audiences, they are, even as they theorize, social activists engaged in laying the ground for social transformation.
There is a great irony here that needs mentioning. In the 1970s despite the powerful critique of schooling, despite the demands for fundamental changes in pedagogy and organization, the continued existence of public schools in the US was never really doubted. Today, their future is far from guaranteed. Once again, we hear a renewed call for community and parental control of education, but this call comes primarily, though not exclusively, from those identified with the political right. Now thinkers on the right such as Chester Finn (see Finn and Gau 1998) are preparing the way for social transformation by asking us to think the unthinkable, namely that education in a democratic society does not require government operated schools. Moreover, the current call for radical change in the provision of schooling, unlike the one heard in the 1970s, is politically potent. This puts many scholars and writers such as Jonathan Kozol in the unenviable position of having to rise to the defence of an institution that was their target of condemnation a generation ago.
My thanks to a number of colleagues for comments on earlier versions of this paper: Michael Apple, Ken McGrew, Richard Merelman, Michael Olneck, Bill Reese, David Weberman, Geof Whitty, and Eric O. Wright.
1. A search of the library holdings of the University of Wisconsin-Madison using the key words Foucault and education finds no book published before 1990, one published then, and five in 1994 or later. It is important to note that Foucaults star is by no means rising in his native France. In a 1994 survey of recent French political thought, Mark Lilla (1994) notes that the intellectual climate in France has changed profoundly in the previous 15 years. Lilla (1994: 115) claims that a more favourable view of Western liberal societies was triggered bythe translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyns Gulag Archipelago, the butcheries in Cambodia, the flight of the boat people, the rise of Solidarity in
Poland . . . And those who had followed Foucault in seeing classrooms, hospital wards, and offices as thinly disguised concentration campus now confronted the real thing.
It is worth noting that a recently published book from France (Dubet 1997) dealing with the educational problems resulting from the immigration of large numbers of North African immigrants, and containing essays by sociologists and professors of education, does not include Foucault in its bibliography.
2. A clear and readable exposition of Foucaults project is found in Smart (1985).
3. Adrian Wooldridges Measuring the Mind (1994) reinforces Foucaults claim even as he tries to distance himself from Foucault.
4. My colleague Michael Apple, who takes a somewhat more positive view of Foucault than I do, helped me appreciate the importance of putting Foucaults popularity in the context of sociology of the academy.
5. I owe this point to my colleague Bill Reese.
Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1977) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books).
Dreeben, R. (1968) On What Is Learned in School (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).
Dubet, F. (1997) Ecole, Familles: le Malentendu (Paris: Editions Textuel).
Finn, C. and Gau, R. (1998) New ways of education. Public Interest, No. 130 (Winter), 79-92.
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books).
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon; trans. Colin Gordon and others (New York: Pantheon Books).
Foucault, M. (1988) Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, trans. Alan Sheridan and others (New York and London: Routledge).
Fraser, N. (1989) Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).
Lilla, M. (1994) The strange birth of Liberal France. Wilson Quarterly, 18 (4), 106-120.
Smart, B. (1985) Michel Foucault (Chichester: Ellis Horwood).
Weberman, D. (1995) Foucaults reconception of power. Philosophical Forum, 26 (3), 189-217.
Wooldridge, A. (1994) Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England, c. 1860-c.1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).