The public education system in the United States is often thought of as one of the most important and beneficial social institutions for individual self-improvement and access to social mobility and better life outcomes. We want to see education as “the great equalizer,” through which any individual can overcome their personal circumstances and rise to achievement. Michel Foucault provides a very different picture of the role of education in the life of the individual: in his analysis, schools are only another site for collective powers to exert their control, conditioning, and regimentation over individuals. He identifies a number of schooling practices throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that work to shape the individual student to the needs and standards of the dominant power-knowledge system at different points of history. Rather than enable students to achieve personal success, schools in the Foucauldian framework work to create students in very controlled and calculated ways, so as to serve the needs of the collective powers at work in society.
Foucault’s understanding of schools resonates startlingly with many contemporary developments in public education, especially the Common Core. This national set of education standards, ostensibly developed to ensure that all American students can graduate at a consistent level of preparation, in fact, furthers Foucauldian power systems aiming to conform individuals to a particular collective norm.
The Collective in Foucault
Before analyzing how these collective powers work, it is necessary to understand what the “collective” is. Foucault has an understanding of the collective that stands in opposition to the understanding of the collective given by Durkheim. For Durkheim, the collective is the group of every individual in that given society, or a milieu, and is considered sacred. This collective experiences kinship through collective effervescence, and also the need to objectify itself in the form of signs like totems in order to affirm its existence. Durkheim believes that the existence of a physical collective consequently produces a collective consciousness, which acts on the individual through an abnormal behavior or relative autonomy. This social phenomenon allows for values and traditions to be passed down generationally, ultimately providing for the genesis of an individual who acts in accordance with the rites and traditions of the collective.
However, Foucault’s collective is something entirely different. Foucault’s collective takes the shape of a disciplinary society; this disciplinary power standardizes popular behavior by shaping each individual’s experiences through the arrangement of space and time. Through observation, judgment, and examination, disciplinary society, which seems like the collective, creates a normalized individual.
The collective for Foucault is a system that arises out of the disciplinary mechanisms of the state apparatus. By converging a particular set of techniques, rationalities, and practices that are together designed to govern people’s conduct as members of a civil collective, the collective that emerges is one where the state, in essence, takes care of the people involved in that collective and shepherds them to what is determined to be a proper, correct, or normal course of action.
The 19th Century’s Panopticon exemplifies how disciplinary practices and structures come to form a collective in Foucault’s framework. The panopticon is a particular architectural structure designed by Jeremy Bentham for use as a sort of prison. Its circular arrangement of cells around a central watch tower leaves every inmate open to inspection without being able to tell whether they are being watched at any particular moment. The effect is to “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”; inmates must always assume they are being watched, and thus themselves proliferate the power of being watched (201). The knowledge of this watching and the power the understanding produces illustrates how a collective understanding alone can produce real power over individuals.
The key to understanding Foucault’s individual and collective is to understand the relations of power and knowledge that they live under. Foucault’s power has many key characteristics and qualities that are instrumental to the way that this affects the individual. First, power is not a thing, but rather it is a relation between people. Power is not only repressive but it is also productive. Power does not only lie in the state; power is not only localized within a governing body; instead, power is exercised throughout the entire social body. Power operates at the smallest levels of social relations. Power is always present at every single level of the social body. Finally, the exercise of power is strategic and war-like.
While Foucault discusses sovereign power, within this discussion, it is discipline power and pastoral power that should be focused on.
Discipline is a mechanism of power that organizes, observes, and normalizes the behavior of individuals in the social body. Disciplining power has a series of techniques it initiates, by organizing people’s activity and dictating their understanding of time and of space. Discipline is not the only form of power, but just simply one of the forms that power is exercised. This is how the disciplinary society is brought about. This is a society that continues to discipline its individuals through its system of instructions built on hospitals, asylums, and, of course, schools.
Pastoral power is a power that lies within the system of disciplining. This type of power is formed through the individual being shepherded by society to act and as a political and civil collective. This is another layer of the disciplined society.
However, what does this power truly do in relation to knowledge that the society holds? Essentially, mechanisms of power create different types of knowledge. These categories of knowledge gather all of this information together and they determine the way the individual performs activities and their existence. For Foucault, it is key that one understands that knowledge isn’t power, but that power creates knowledge. They are not equivalent but products of each other. For Foucault, knowledge is always an exercise of power and power is always a function of knowledge.
Knowledge is produced, not solely through an expression of power, but through the power struggle itself. Through this mentality, different knowledge is created through the expression of different powers. There are different products of knowledge depending on the beliefs a society holds in tandem with the political conditions that the society exists under. In conclusion, knowledge is always created under specific conditions.
In Foucault’s conception of the power dynamics involved in social life, the principle of normalization is a key channel through which the power of the state apparatus manifests itself. By imposing a system of hierarchization and defining a standard, normal condition in opposition to all others – defined as abnormal or substandard – the apparatus can direct the actions of an individual to conform with what has been predetermined. Normalization and standardization enforce a cult of objectivity that solidifies and imprints the power of the state and other institutions on human social life.
Foucault’s History of the School
Throughout Discipline and Punish, Foucault studies how normalizing powers in schools worked to shape individuals at different points in history. The earliest schooling system Foucault considers is that of the provincial and Christian schools of the 17th Century. The ostensible purpose of these first schools was to raise the children of poor parents, who were “unable to communicate a sound upbringing that they themselves never had” (210). In practical terms, these schools were interested in producing young people who would avoid three main vices:
“ignorance of God; idleness (with its consequent drunkenness, impurity, larceny, brigandage); and the formation of those gangs of beggars, always ready to stir up public disorder” (210)
Even these early schools, we see, thought of themselves as a parent to the young poor, with an imperative to prevent them from developing into individuals whose drunkenness, idleness, and gang formation would upset the collective society.
The 18th Century saw the rise of a new form of discipline, interested in exerting control over individual bodies; in this era of power, systems of schooling play a central role. Foucault describes a new political anatomy consisting of “a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location”, that all exert a micro-physics of power over the individual (138). Actions as simple as handwriting become highly regulated gestures:
“The pupils must always ‘hold their bodies erect, somewhat turned and free on the left side, slightly inclined, so that, with the elbow placed on the table, the chin can be rested upon the hand, unless this were to interfere with the view; the left leg must be somewhat more forward under the table than the right.” (152)
The body of the individual becomes entirely subjected to the power of a collective understanding—in this case, the collective understanding of the “correct” posture for handwriting. The result is the reduction of the individual student to an instrument of the school, whose every movement must be controlled by external powers. These powers also carefully regiment students’ space and time:
“Each of the pupils will have his place assigned to him and none of them will leave it or change it except on the order or with the consent of the school inspector.” (147)
“In the elementary schools, the division of time became increasingly minute; activities were governed in detail by orders that had to be obeyed immediately: ‘At the last stroke of the hour, a pupil will ring the bell, and at the first sound of the bell all the pupils will kneel, with their arms crossed and their eyes lowered. When the prayer has been said, the teacher will strike the signal once to indicate that the pupils should get up, a second time as a sign that they should salute Christ, and a third that they should sit down’” (150)
Control over space and time complements control of gesture and further integrates collective power-knowledge into the body of the student. These controls are supported by a complex system of inter-student relations, in which all are hierarchically arranged by age and academic performance. This hierarchical system “exercised over [the students] a constant pressure to conform to the same model,” furthering the school’s project of molding individuals to a collective ideal (182).
All these detailed regulations work to make the individual student into a highly productive and efficient man-machine. By the end of the century, the dominant power-knowledge accepts productivity as the aim of education. Foucault cites this 1791 account of the purpose of primary schooling:
“to ‘fortify’, to ‘develop the body’, to prepare the child ‘for a future in some mechanical work’, to give him ‘an observant eye, a sure hand and prompt habits’” (211)
The collective powers at work in developing individuals have thus turned their attention to the needs of capital. As factories became central elements of society in the late 18th Century, the school endeavored to create perfect factory workers, and itself began to resemble an efficient factory for the production of such workers.
In the 19th Century, schools introduced panoptic methods of surveillance and examination. Constant examination may seem like just a way to ensure that students’ productivity is developing as desired, but it also serves to create a science of the individual:
“the examination in the school was a constant exchanger of knowledge; it guaranteed the movement of knowledge from the teacher to the pupil, but it extracted from the pupil a knowledge destined and reserved for the teacher.” (187)
Assessments produce long, written chronologies of each student, thus reducing the individual student to a pedagogical case to be studied. These cases are then put under the power of various sciences—like educational psychology—that refine and bolster the control the school exerts over the student.
We can see that throughout Foucault’s history, the types of individualizing projects schools employ is informed by the dominant source of power-knowledge, which shifts from the church, to the factory, to the disciplinary society as such.
The Common Core as an Individualizing Power
The Common Core Standards Initiative is an educational initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association which establishes educational standards across the country; this standardization dictates what students, grades K-12, should learn in English, language, arts and mathematics in each grade. The goal of this initiative is to prepare students graduating from high school to either enter the workforce or enter college programs. While the Common Core is not under federal control, forty-two of the fifty states have adopted the Standards Initiative. The Common Core has received criticism over the fact that it emphasizes uniformity opposed to creativity, and it does not appeal to the varying learning styles or acknowledge cultural differences among the classrooms.
Foucault shows that the school is just another manifestation of power and a system of oppression on behalf of the state. Common Core represents a leveraging of this power by the Federal Government to further standardize schooling on a national level and across communities. The Common Core prioritizes memorization in the same standardized way that Foucault identifies penmanship being prioritized in the French schools. Through standardized testing and standardized testing preparation, Common Core regiments schooling and learning in the same detailed, task oriented manner that Foucault identifies in the art of penmanship, riflery, and others, again meant to exert micro-physical control over individual bodies. This incentivization program manifests in the pressure on schools to “teach to the test” in order to force the standardization not just among students in the class, but nationwide. Not only are less gifted students molded to the model, but so are more gifted students, with a kind of ceiling placed on them to ensure that they are performing to the same standards as the other students.
This kind of regimentation on a national level is reminiscent of Foucault’s explanation of standardization as a system of power, and thus Common Core manifests as such. In fact, research from the University of Connecticut has found that since instructional emphasis under Common Core is placed mainly on procedural skills (i.e rote memorization) and not conceptually based, the students begin to view a discipline such as mathematics as only a discipline of basic rules, formulas, and algorithms that do not require understanding and reasoning. This, of course, is exactly what Foucault identifies as a goal of oppressive systems of collective domination that organizations like schools and hospitals engage in.
Unfortunately, Common Core ends up being problematic for precisely this regimentation, with the empirical data finding support for Foucault’s critique. As a paper in the Journal of Educational Research has found, spending more class time on test taking skills does not influence nonroutine story problem solving (in other words, tackling real world problems), and as a result, may not guarantee actual improvement in higher-order mathematics skills that are important for scientific thinking and individual human life. Furthermore, because of the massive disparities in funding levels that manifest on the level of individual schools, the system of regimentation that Common Core tries to establish ends up exacerbating disparities between schools. As research from the University of Colorado at Boulder has found, while schools with resources have in place the kind of instruction that is needed and can simply redirect the effort of well-qualified teachers to meet the standards set out by Common Core, poor schools lack the resources to implement a framework for meeting the standards in the first place. Thus, standardization through Common Core, while intending to implement a system of regimentation, may end up prescribing the wrong solutions to the wrong problems due to the reverse causal effects of standardization.
Additionally, and perhaps most troublingly under the Foucauldian analysis, Common Core has a kickback effect on the corporations and special interest groups that were involved in putting it in place. Research from Hofstra University confirms that companies like Pearson have a very close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core state standards- not only does Pearson provide the assessments, but it delivers textbooks, test prep material, and online support. Implementation of Common Core standards are estimated to cost between $1 billion and $8 billion, and virtually all of it is going directly to the publisher. This is yet another system of hierarchization and domination over individuals that the companies exercise. Institutionalization of state power is only, therefore, one level of the project of the Common Core. The power of corporate institutions also manifests in the implementation of this standardization process and demonstrates the plurality of collective disciplinary systems that force people and organizations to behave in a certain way.
Common Core is an example of the panopticism that Foucault identifies in systems of power. Because Common Core standards are implemented across schools and states from a federal level, all schools are presupposed to have the same institutional beginnings and capabilities and are expected to perform under the observational lens of standardized testing administered at the federal and state level rather than at the school level. Everyone, from the students to the teachers, to the administrators, is observed and implored to conform. As in the Panopticon, students and teachers are not observed perpetually but know that they are going to be observed and that their evaluations are dependent on a regimented implementation of the federally determined standards. Performance on the standardized exams is the enforcement and disciplinary mechanism on the students, who are held back or placed in lower tracks if they underperform, on the teachers, whose job and salary becomes dependent on their students’ performance, and on the administrators, whose school funding and federal attention depends on their students’ and districts’ performance on these standardized examinations. The individual teachers and administrators, along with their students, are forced to conform to the norm created by the broader collective powers established by this observation.
Overall, the systems of regimentation and standardization that manifest in the implementation of Common Core standards are a snapshot of Foucault’s bigger picture of the relationship between the collective and the individual. The collective that arises in Foucault’s writing is generated through the disciplinary power of a state apparatus that creates and enforces a “normal” or “standard” condition that must be conformed to. Those that do not do so are labeled as abnormal or substandard and the state has the power to rectify and correct these deviants. The power of the state to do so is derived from the power-knowledge complex, which is instrumental in the exportation of power through the social channels that Foucault identifies.