Foucault and Education


Here is a short part of a debate between Foucault and Chomsky (full debate here – FYI-you may have to enable closed captioning to get the subtitles) where Foucault explains both the importance of education as a site of critique, and why critique shouldn’t be reduced to describing alternative visions of society/the future.



Here is an example of a card that flushes out the ideas Foucault is discussing:


Ball, PhD, 17

(Stephen J, Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education EPRU, Policy Studies, Institute of Education University of London, Foucault as Educator)

Foucault believed that we are more able to recognise power and its oppressions in the immediacy of our social relations than in the abstract politics of labour and capital. Critique is thus aimed at specific points of power, immediate institutional settings, and resistance is a set of provocations, mundane rebellions, without reference to pre-established moral positions or commitments, or even clear goals and purposes—rather ‘an engagement with the numberless potential transgressions of those forces which war against our self-creation and solidarity’ (Brenauer 1987). Walzer among many other critics (e.g. Bernstein 1992; Taylor 1989; Rorty 1986) is unconvinced by and unhappy with this. Walzer says finally of Foucault ‘Angrily, he rattles the bars of the iron cage. But he has no plans or projects for turning the cage into something more like a human home’ (1988 p. 209). But perhaps Walzer misjudges and misunderstands Foucault. He certainly fails to grasp that humanity is the cage, or one of the cages that Foucault seeks to rattle. The point is that humanity itself is something that makes us up—as ‘man’. It is a productive limitation to what we might be. But also, over and against this, the possibilities of being freer than with think we are, the struggles that this opens up and their ethical substance are the basis for a creative and aesthetic politics, and not reliant on pre-given, tainted, moral principles that we take to define humanity. Thus, the erasure of ‘man’ that Foucault prophesises at the end of The Order of Things is not a ‘deficiency’ or a ‘lacuna’ but rather ‘nothing more, and nothing less, than the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think’ (1970, p. 342). Drawing on Nietzsche Foucault is seeking to displace the humanist/progressive traditions of western philosophy, with their promise of personal well being and collective progress, and which require us to search for and link our essential qualities to inherent abstract principles, and instead to set the challenge ‘of creatively and courageously authoring one’s ethical self’ (Pignatelli 2002, p. 158). The task is to avoid fixity in order to become a stylist, an ironist, a hero by ‘tak[ing] oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration’ (Foucault 1986, p. 166). Again, in a different way from the previous chapter, education as the transmission of knowledge and values and principles is thus made impossible—at least in the ways we have come to conceive of it as a canonical curriculum and an institutional practice. However, Foucault was adamant that there is no simple relationship between critique and action. The focus, the problem for Foucault is the struggle against what is, and not, at least initially, to rush to delineate what might be an alternative. ‘I think that to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system’ (Foucault 1997b, p. 230). The primary task is as much one of refusal as it is resistance. The necessity of reform mustn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell one: “Don’t criticize, since you’re not capable of carrying out a reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, “this, then, is what needs to be done.” It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. (Rabinow and Rose 2003b, p. 84) In other words, ‘Foucault has invented a past for some future present’ (Walzer 1988, p. 206) and rather than ‘offer anaemic fore-closed readings of a possible future’ (Pignatelli 2002, p. 158) we sift through the past ‘in order to provide different and distinct ways of coming at our own problems and yearnings as ethical subjects’ (p. 162). Rather than the enactment of a new (or old) set of principles or the creation of a systematic alternative social world, Foucault seems to be urging us to some kind of empirical experimentation (Foucault 1988a) within the space created by denunciation and the recognition that we might be different. This takes place not outside or beyond power but within some other kind of power relations, some kind of ‘socialist art of government’ (Defert and Ewald 2001, pp. 1155– 1156), the absence of which Foucault thought had debilitated the political left in its failure to develop an ‘autonomous governmentality’ or as (Ferguson 2011, p. 67) suggests exercising power ‘in a way that would be provisional, reversible, and open to surprise’ an opportunistic polyvalence, a re-appropriation. For Foucault, as Miller (1993, p. 140) asserts, ‘the world appears as a city to be built, rather than a cosmos already given’.(41-2)


If you would like to learn more about Foucault here is an interesting exchange about the usefulness of his theorizing to education

Original Article





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