Power In Eduation & Foucault

When one examines the development and trajectory of modern theories of social
change, an interesting axiom becomes evident. Take Marxism, for example. The
second-generation epigones did not so much distort the original, pure Marxian
corpus, as they moved into and built upon its critical lacunae and
shortcomings. Their vulgar scaffolding was erected on its weakest foundations.
Stalin is a vulgarizer of Marx, to be sure, but it was gaps and failings in
Marx's work -- not least, in his understanding of politics, the state and
democracy -- which allowed a Stalin to build upon that theory in the way he
did. Vulgarization is invariably related to the critical shortcomings of the
original theory.

These thoughts come to my mind when I read two of the responses to my posting
on the above thread. I had pointed to what I saw -- and in this, I noted, I
agreed with Michael Walzer's criticism -- as a critical lapse in Foucault's
theory, and how this lapse played out in those who adopted that theory in an
uncritical way. To wit, I wrote, <<his analysis is unable to distinguish
between authority and the authoritarian, and between the existence of a total
institution in a generally open society and totalitarianism. The facile
equation of the high school and the prison, especially when announced from the
ivy-covered halls of an institution which likes to delude itself that it is
outside of disciplinary power, seems to me to be the logical extreme of this
flaw in Foucault's analysis.>>

Ian Douglas writes that to criticize Foucault in this way is to fail to
understand that he does not offer an "universal truth," simply "his opinion."
Now it is an opinion which is based, he writes, on "an immense reading of
source material as well as a careful, meticulous, and honest reading." The
bottom line is "If you don't like what he says, don't read him."

This vulgarization of what Foucault has said about philosophical claims of
truth leads to a position where it is impossible, within its terms of
reference, to critically engage Foucault's work. Either you like it or you
don't. It's nothing more than the equivalent of our preferences for ice cream
flavors -- Foucault has 'tasted' far and wide, and carefully too, so if we
find his statements on the relative merits of flavors useful, fine; if not,
move on. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more naive understanding of
Foucault's work -- he did a lot of reading, and just said what he saw. There
is no theoretical apparatus for his investigations, no philosophical frame for
his observations (What you do with the Archeology of Knowledge or The Order of
Things here is completely beyond me), just a lot of well-informed opinions.
This is about as sorry a prescription for intellectual engagement and dialogue
as I have seen in quite some time. And it is hard to think of a more naive
understanding of Foucault's work -- he did a lot of reading, and just said
what he saw. Some of us find much of value in Foucault's work, but also
serious blindness and shortcomings. That is why we critically engage it.

Douglas goes on to say that "By the way--and this is my opinion--I find no
relevancy or significance to the question concerning the difference between
authority and authoritarianism. It's what the SS and the NYPD share in common
that is important, not the degree to which one becomes a pure form." Maybe
because this is his "opinion" we are once again to take it or leave it, and
not critically engage it. But the point is so classical an expression of what
Lenin called "the infantile disorder" of ultra-leftism that I cannot let it go
without comment. The significance of the difference between authority and
authoritarianism is that it is the conceptual core of the difference between a
liberal democracy and a fascist or Stalinist state. Authoritarianism is
authority without democratic constraint or limit: while every modern state has
the potential to develop into an authoritarian state -- the expansion of
incarceratory power to civil society -- not every modern state is an
authoritarian state. As outrageous as the NYPD's practices are, the suggestion
that there is a fundamental equivalence between its operation in a liberal
democracy and the SS in Nazi Germany betrays a type of thinking that is unable
to make the most basic analytical distinctions. Such distinctions may be
irrelevant to someone comfortably living in the liberal democracy, but it is
hardly irrelevant to those under a fascist or Stalinist state, or to a
political theory which takes democratic rule and political emancipation at all

As if to give credence to my view that there was an inability to make the
distinctions which allowed one to understand what authoritarianism is, and how
it is distinguished from liberal democracy, Henry Sholar places on my foot a
"hob-nail boot" (metaphorical, of course, he tells us) crushing his views,
which he likens to fragile flowers. Critical engagement and disagreement with
a set of ideas becomes tantamount to goose-stepping Nazis -- but only
metaphorically, of course.

Sholar then goes on to provide a picture of high schools as Auschwitz: <<the
forces of regimentation, the language relations, the power-stance of those in
authority is similarly total in the high school as in prison. students are
interrogated by school officials and expected to respond in a powerlessly,
docile & transparent manner. students' behavior is interpreted with total
power by school officials. what is deemed
inappropriate is punished without fail. personal vendettas against students
take place everyday thru-out the public schools of this country by school
officials in a similar manner to the kind of abuse we hear of in jails and

This is an absurd portrait unrecognizable to anyone who was
lived/studied/worked in high schools for any time -- including their most
outspoken internal critics, of which I am one. Note how the student is denied
in all voice, all subjectivity in this portrayal; he/she is reduced to a
powerless, docile being. (The unresisting teenager: a fiction of the most
incredulous type.) Note how the administrator and those in authority are
omnipotent. (This is in the realm of the laughable.)

Yes, Mr. Sholar, since you asked, I have spent my last fifteen years teaching
in an inner city high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY, and
I have been involved in educational reform and educational change efforts that
entire time. So, as you put it, my knowledge is rather intimate. But one need
not have been near a high school for the last 25 years to find this portrait
more in the realm of surrealism than social analysis.

Leo Casey

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