Schools, Prisons and Foucault

I recently enjoyed reading this post by @jamestheo. In it, James deconstructs five common arguments made about schools and learning. One of which – the picture of different species being instructed to climb a tree – I wrote about here.

However, one of his examples of a bad argument chimes with one of my own issues related to the work I’ve been reading as part of my EdD studies: the school=prison argument.

@jamestheo presents this argument with the following picture:

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As @jamestheo points out:

… we could easily draw attention to similarities between all sorts of institutions based on these structures and rules. If you worked at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, you’d find much of those lists above structuring the way the place is run.

And I agree. Having said that, it’s easy to see how such comparisons can be drawn between institutions such as schools and prisons. In particular, I’m thinking of some schools buildings that I’ve visited over the last few years – new builds with three floors whose corridors look down onto the ground floor. Imagine if prisons had been designed by Google, with plenty of glass and grey carpets.

Version 2

Of course, this comparison between prisons and schools was articulated by the French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault – the theorist whose work I am using to build a theoretical framework for teacher discourse on Twitter. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault makes this grand claim:

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault, 1995, p.228)

What Foucault is talking about, though, is the development of the disciplinary society – a society in which we are inculcated into being docile bodies, capable of self-discipline. Foucault is not necessarily critical of this development in a negative sense; indeed Foucault throughout his oeuvre is keen to point out the creative potential of this kind of disciplinary action and what he calls biopower (probably a topic best saved for another time, when I’ve got my head around it).

In his blog post, @jamestheo presents that interesting comparison to The Magic Kingdom in order to draw out the absurdity of the school=prison argument. However, I think that Foucault might well have agreed that – in terms of the disciplinary aspects – The Magic Kingdom does resemble a prison, even if not physically. Employees are expected to behave in particular ways at all times, and are under the constant gaze of customers/guests as well – no doubt – as the CCTV systems. Have you ever watched one of the performances that process along Main Street? Each member of the cast is performing exactly the same routine in exactly the same way each time – just as the automatons do in It’s A Small World. I know because I was forced to endure that ride each day of our visit because children. Actually, because Mrs Sputnik.

And, to a certain extent, we as customers/guests perform a role too, and we conform to the rules of the institution – we queue patiently through the labyrinths that provide access to each ride; and we use only the permitted access gates to enter and exit the kingdom.

Furthermore, The Magic Kingdom could be seen as a heterotopia providing an other space which exists simultaneously within the real world and outside of it; a little bubble universe growing like a boil on the skin – or skein – of the universe of our daily stuff. Schools, too, are heterotopias, just as prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks are.

But Foucault’s claim that schools resemble prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks has always bothered me. I could just as easily say that schools resemble art galleries, museums or National Trust properties. Many of the schools I’ve worked in have been ugly, brutal things built in the 1960s, cold and brutal; and some have resembled the workhouse, with elegant Victorian functional elegance. Inside, of course, many schools are lightened with nice carpet, nicely coloured walls, engaging displays and beautiful artwork. In contrast, one school I worked in – a former grammar school – had glorious parquet flooring which, in some rooms, had been covered with foul carpet tiles.

In my current school, I’m fortunate to work in a variety of buildings: converted houses, the Palace, and one custom-built 1980s built wing. Each has its own character and charm. My teaching room is a one-time lounge, I think, which has been divided up into two perfectly fine classrooms with enormous windows and beautiful wood panelling. It certainly doesn’t feel like a prison.

 

Reference

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage

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3 thoughts on “Schools, Prisons and Foucault

  1. Architects … They usually goes for the latest trend in materials, shape, etc. so much that they tend to forget the use at times.

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