Tag Archives: Thoughts

THE GOLDEN RULE

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THIS IS THE THIRD POST FROM GUEST BLOGGER, MS. ORTIZ.

Growing up, I was taught by those who raised me that we should treat each other with respect. The Golden Rule, treat others the way you would want to be treated, always came up in these conversations. I try to live by this rule as much as I can, although I fall short from time to time like everyone else. So many adults drummed the Golden Rule into my head as a child that I just assumed it was universally followed. It was, after all, a Golden Rule.

Now that I am sitting in different classrooms, learning how teachers  interact with their students, I have noticed that the Golden Rule is not being followed by everyone. You probably think that I am referring to the students and you are partially right. I have seen students be disrespectful to their teachers countless times, both when I was a high-school student and now that I am observing classes. In high school I assumed that students deserved their punishment when the teacher deemed them “disrespectful”. My upbringing taught me to respect both the Golden Rule and authority. However, I now see that this outlook was based on certain assumptions, assumptions that failed to consider the antecedents of certain disrespectful student behaviors.

My classroom observations have been teaching me that some teachers are not following the Golden Rule, even though they insist their students follow it. If a teacher demands respect, they should also show some level of respect in return. Even though students know of the Golden Rule when it comes to their teachers, it gets difficult for them follow if some of those teachers do not model that behavior. There have been instances when I lost respect for a teacher because they showed little consideration toward their students when addressing them. I was conditioned to just let it slide because, if I got into an argument, I felt there was no way for me to win. However, not all students will let an insult pass by without them having a say about it. This usually ends in an argument with the teacher. If a teacher says that students have to respect them and the rest of the class, but then the teacher calls them names, makes them feel stupid or perhaps insults them out of frustration, how can a teacher expect respect in return?

Students are human beings with feelings, even though they may not always understand those feelings. If they feel as if they have been debased, they usually answer back in kind. This is by no means a justification for poor student behavior, just a call for some empathy. How would you react if you were told that what you did was dumb, even though you were not taught how to do it? How would you react if you were constantly put down instead of being encouraged to constantly to do your best? How would you react if your culture was insulted in any way, shape or form, intentionally or not? If it was one adult saying these kinds of things to another adult, there would be an argument between them. Even though teachers are supposed to have authority, some students will not allow a teacher to insult them, especially in front of the entire class. They will speak up and possibly insult the teacher in return. One also has to take into account the fact that students usually close ranks when a teacher insults one of them, especially if the insult has to do with one’s culture and/or values. This diminishes the teacher’s authority and makes it difficult to maintain control of the class.

Yes, unfortunately I have seen such situations in the time I have been observing classrooms. In an era when NYC teachers have virtually no recourse in disciplining unruly students, the only authority at their disposal is moral authority. It is tough to see how a teacher can make it to June without it.

Even though I have seen teachers who say things to insult students, this certainly is not the norm. The majority of the teachers I have had, and the majority of the teachers I have known throughout my life, generally followed the Golden Rule even when their students did not. Furthermore, I believe the times I have seen teachers lose control of themselves was when they were frustrated, a point all human beings reach from time to time. Perhaps the teacher felt that saying something shocking or especially mean was the only way to get their students’ attention.

A teacher should not let their frustrations drive their actions because it may end up alienating their students completely, reducing the influence they exercise in the classroom. This has the potential to create a vicious cycle of frustration and alienation, each feeding off the other and making it progressively harder for the teacher to have effective classroom management. From my perspective, it is easy for me to talk about the Golden Rule because I have yet to be charged with controlling a classroom. In a way, I am grateful for the opportunity to witness these candid classroom moments. They have taught me much about the dynamics of student behavior. There is value in learning what to avoid when I start my own career.

One thing this has taught me is that the classroom is a reflection of the teacher. It is ironic to learn all of these theories in college that take the view that the teacher who teaches best teaches least. Since classrooms take on the personality of their teachers, does this mean that the teacher who teaches least has students who learn the least? Is this not also a manifestation of the Golden Rule?

For now, it seems as if the Golden Rule is the only pedagogical theory that holds water.

A WORD OF CAUTION TO THE ACTIVISTS

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Eugene Debs did not have convictions. He had beliefs and was convicted for them.

Leftist groups in the United States have traditionally descended into cannibalism. At first, they start off well enough, find a unified vision and make some progress. Socialists did pretty well as third party candidates at the start of the 20th century, for example, by getting the votes of unions and other, ideologically less rigid, groups.

But making progress requires compromise; and compromise requires pragmatism. At a certain point, the most convinced ideologues (the Marxists, communists, anarchists, rigid socialists, extreme feminists, culture talkers, racial thinkers, etc.) draw their own lines in the sand and say “enough! No more compromise! After all, aren’t we fighting against a system of so-called ‘compromise’ as it is?” They then turn on each other, each accusing the other of being too soft, too ideologically impure, too (God forbid) conservative. Then the  flesh-eating begins.

There is a reason why ideologues like Lenin were able to take control of Russia at the start of the 20th century. They brought rigid, autocratic ideology to a country accustomed to autocracy. When the Bolsheviks started their purges of the bourgeois class, they were building on a tradition of autocratic purges Russians knew well, not the least of which were the frequent pogroms against Jews. Strict loyalty to the Romanov family and the Orthodox Church that served as its handmaiden was replaced by strict loyalty to the party. Dialectical materialism became the church. Pogroms against Jews were replaced by pogroms against monarchists and capitalists.

Do not be too enthralled with your own convictions. A conviction is merely a belief that has been allowed to fossilize. It is like going fishing, catching one fish and holding on to that one fish forever without ever bothering to fish again. In order to strengthen, broaden and deepen one’s beliefs, one must constantly cast their net into the pond to ensure a steady stream of fresh fish. If not, you starve and those who have done the messy work of fishing will grow fat and prosperous.

Convictions are dead fish, dead beliefs.

The real world, especially the world we call the United States (and double triple especially the world of New York City), is messy. It requires a messy mind, one teeming with all types of fresh fish, to keep up. Quite frankly, people so steeped in their convictions scare me. They are of the same ilk as religious fundamentalists, no matter what the religion is.

Now, this does not mean that all beliefs should be malleable so that one becomes a jellyfish with no core. What it means is that we must be open to having ALL of our beliefs, even our most cherished beliefs, reexamined and challenged from within. You might reexamine your beliefs and find that you believe them now stronger than you ever did before.

Who ever reexamines their convictions? Wouldn’t they cease to be convictions the moment one reexamines them?

Convictions are not open to reexamination. That is what makes them dangerous. Convictions, at their core, are enemies of freedom.

A word of caution to the activists.

Value Add This

The New York Times beat everyone else to the punch by releasing the teacher data reports last night. The rest of the news outlets are sure to release them throughout the course of the rest of today.

No, I am not linking to them.

I have taught United States History for as long as I remember. My students generally do well on the U.S. History  Regents. Since I have been at my current school, my  students have had well above a 90%  pass rate every year. Two years ago 100% of my students passed the Regents with over 60% of them scoring 85 or higher.

Teachers like me who generally have students with high pass rates should be  just as outraged over what the DOE and the media are doing with this “value added” garbage as anyone else.

First, the U.S. History Regents is cake. The scoring rubric is so generous that an average  student has to literally try to fail it. Second, the test is usually given to 11th graders, who are more serious and mature than underclassmen. The ones at risk of dropping out have usually done so before the 11th grade.

The scores of my students do not reflect my quality as a teacher. When I used to teach 10th grade Global History, the Regents pass rates of my students were lower. Take me out of 11th grade and put me in front of a 10th grade class and my stats would take a hit.

It reminds me of the famous Casey Stengel line after he went from managing the championship-addicted New York Yankees to the hapless Mets, essentially moving him from first place to worst place. He said “I guess I got dumb in a hurry.”

Of course, he was making the point that a manager is not the deciding factor in the success of his team. He was also acknowledging that the media was going to blame him for the Mets’ failure regardless of that fact.

Fast forward 50 years and teachers have joined the Casey Stengel club. They are being publicly blamed for things over which they have little control.

This means that when value added data gets released for us high school teachers (and we know it will), my name will be there, probably with a favorable number next to it.

And that angers me.

I do not want people thinking I am a “good” teacher because some arbitrary number stands next to my name. It gives absolutely no indication of the type of teacher I am and what goes on in my classroom.

Sure, I cover the material that will be covered on the Regents. Admittedly, part of me does it out of fear for my own hide. More importantly, I do it because I acknowledge that I am in a system that requires students to pass this test in order to graduate. I feel it is my duty to help prepare them for the test so they can go on to get their diplomas. It is vital for their futures that I do this.

I could take a stand and say “screw this, I am going to teach the higher order stuff that I want to teach.” I can imagine doing that if it was part of a larger rebellion of teachers, students, parents and administrators aimed at bringing down the entire standardized testing regime. But if I were to make a unilateral decision to thumb my nose at the test and teach whatever the hell I wanted to teach, would I be doing this for the good of the students or to massage my own rebellious ego?

So I make my pact with the devil and try to help my students walk into that testing room with the knowledge to get through the test. But that does not mean that I do not exact a price for selling my soul in this way.

I take my pound of flesh and I do that by teaching whatever the hell I want to teach anyway. Once I felt confident enough in my craft, I have always tried to strike a balance between teaching to the test and teaching the good stuff. There is a way to do both at the same time. This way, I do not feel quite so dirty.

My students know me as the teacher that never uses the textbook. On day one I tell my students that they will receive a textbook but I doubt that we will ever use it (gotta keep your options open). Instead, I explain to them that they will get handouts , notes and homework  everyday. None of these things are particularly difficult. I was never one to load my students down with tons of work anyway. But if they keep all of these things in order (and I punch holes in everything I give them to help them stay organized), they will see that they are compiling their own textbooks over the course of the year. They can thumb through their history section and see maps, graphs, charts, pictures, readings, notes and homework. They will have a treasure trove of information by the end of the year to which they can always refer.

The best part is that most of the information comes from them. Their notes are points of class discussion that they bring up and that I write on the board. Sometimes they get to write it all on the board themselves. Their homework assignments are a series of thought questions that requires them to go through the day’s notes and handouts in order to synthesize different chunks of information and draw their own conclusions. This precludes them from having to read walls of boring paragraphs in textbooks that tend to kill any love they might have for history. For the average student, it should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. Students have come to me and said that they actually find the homework fun.

None of this is easy. All of the handouts ( I literally have hundreds) contain visuals or passages that I have chosen off of the internet, usually from a simple Google image search. I then write my own questions underneath them. My lesson plans have all the meaty information, including dates and vocabulary, that I wish to pull out of class discussions. What ends up going on the board as their notes is a compromise between what they say and what is in the lesson plan. They get a homework sheet at the start of every unit with all the assignments for the next two weeks or so. Again, I make all of the questions myself. If there are days when we do not cover some of the questions, my students know not to worry about it. We will get to it another time.

This does not even count the research papers or extra projects we do, which vary from year to year.

By doing things in this way, I do not feel quite as dirty. I can help my students prepare for the Regents while also turning them on to higher level historical analysis. The historical content they get is fuller and more accurate than the one-dimensional (and sometimes plain wrong) drivel that is found in history textbooks.  I am still trying to find the right balance between teaching to the test and teaching for actual historical appreciation, which is part of what makes teaching an art and not a science.

And this is the entire point. Teaching is an art. But the people who worship at the altar of value added and testing think everything can be broken down to a science. Like all sciences, real sciences that is, they think it can all be expressed in numbers.

At the core, this is what makes value added invalid. People keep talking about the wild “margins of error” for all the data the media is set to release today. This assumes that there is a model expressible in numbers that can have lower margins of error.

There will never be a value added formula without huge margins of error. It is a fool’s pursuit to try to find one. You simply cannot measure an art form in scientific terms.

The margin of error is so vast because value added is an error in and of itself.

This is the same problem with the new teacher evaluations. People are crowing about it, or at least saying it is not so bad, because it measures teachers in multiple ways. That is not the point. The point is that it promises to stuff all of these measures into a sausage of numbers.

You simply cannot put a number on an art form. This goes for the learning process as well. The whole concept of putting numbers on students in the form of grades is asinine, but that is another discussion entirely.

The value added craze and the teacher evaluation debacle merely reflect the true goal of education deformers, which is to take all of the art out of teaching. They do not care about the “achievement gap” or “failing schools” at all. They care about reducing teachers to automatons and piano keys.

This is why idiotic teachers like those over at Educators4Excellence applaud the new evaluation system. None of them ever saw teaching as an art. None of them stay in the profession long enough to get an appreciation for teaching as an art. There is nothing excellent about them aside from their own sense of self-importance.

None of the numbers that the newspapers published mean a damn thing. You cannot put a number on what teachers do, ever. The vast majority of teachers in NYC, whether with high value added or low value added stats, do what I described for myself. They stay up late making lessons. They reflect on their craft. They take the success of their students personally. They somehow find a balance between actual teaching and teaching to a test. They may not all do it in the same way, but that is what makes teaching such a great profession and such an art form.

But now, in New York City at least, the deformers have taken a giant step towards taking the art out of teaching.

This is what makes every teacher in New York City an assailed teacher.

Great Teachers Series: Friedrich Nietzsche

1. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Nietzsche worship in this day and age is somewhat hackneyed. Everyone quotes him, everyone thinks they know him, everyone thinks they see themselves in his writing. Many of them violate the first rule of being a Nietzsche disciple: there are no Nietzsche disciples. Another paean to Nietzsche runs the risk of adding to this noise. By asserting that Nietzsche is the hub of the wheel of my thought process, I run the risk of discipleship myself. These are chances I am willing to take.

His life was short, even by the standards of his age. It was even shorter when we consider the fact he spent his last decade in a state of vegetative madness. There are those who ascribe his mental breakdown to the volatility of his ideas, but it was most likely the syphilis he had contracted as a youngster serving in the Franco-Prussian War. He was an incredibly prolific writer in the 40 or so lucid years he had, writing a string of books that would eventually turn western philosophy on its head.

Yet very few people took notice of his genius during his lifetime. He would have probably went unnoticed altogether if not for the efforts of his sister. Nietzsche had a rocky relationship with his sister, taking issue with the fact that she married a man that embodied everything he hated about German society at the time: a German nationalist and raving anti-Semite. Once Nietzsche was dead, his sister ransacked all of his unfinished writings, added in sections of her own and packaged it as an apology for German imperialism and racial cruelty entitled The Will to Power, published in her brother’s name. Her self-serving act forever put a black eye on Nietzsche’s reputation.

The Will to Power was such a hit in German nationalist circles that Adolf Hitler went on to proclaim Nietzsche a national hero. The recognition that eluded Nietzsche in his lifetime was finally found with the very people that most disgusted him. Throughout the years of the Third Reich and beyond, Nietzsche would be known as the Nazi philosopher. His name would be associated with a justification for cruelty, racism and war. It is an image of Nietzsche that has never been totally shaken. We see this when people celebrate his famous line “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger”, without fully appreciating the rest of what Nietzsche truly stood for.

That would change when a German-Jewish philosopher named Walter Kaufmann started rehabilitating Nietzsche’s reputation. He cut through decades of self-serving Nietzsche interpretation in order to get at the true thinker. For the first time, Nietzsche would have a fair hearing.

Nietzsche’s style lends itself to misinterpretation. His best books are written in aphorism, or individual paragraphs and sections that each deal with a specific topic. Succeeding aphorisms usually relate to each other, the goal being to weave a tapestry of ideas that somehow hang together. Some aphorisms deal with topics head-on, usually with many italics and exclamation points that enable the reader to envision Nietzsche standing there gesticulating wildly . Others are pure metaphor, indirectly making a point about one thing when he is usually talking about another. All of it is great writing. Rarely in the world of philosophy does one encounter someone who unites profound thinking and artistic writing in the manner of Nietzsche.

The way Nietzsche laid out his books is a window into his thought. He needed to use the aphorism style because it allowed him to approach the same topic from different directions. If at times he seemed to contradict himself, it is because he did. Nietzsche did not shy away from contradiction. In fact, contradiction lies at the heart of his thought.

Humans are irrational creatures. Their thoughts and feelings are in constant flux, making contradiction the natural human condition. For millennia, philosophers had tried to pound these contradictions into straight arrows. They erected systems of thought based upon rational reason. The validity of these systems was measured by their internal consistency. For Nietzsche, what these philosophers were doing was running from their own humanity. Their elegant systems were expressions of fear of the uncertainty of human beings. By trying to be inhuman through building these awe-inspiring systems of thought, philosophers had merely betrayed their very human fears. This is part of what Nietzsche meant by the title of one of his first books, Human, All Too Human.

As he said many times, Nietzsche was not a system builder. He was a “ploughshare”, destroying old systems in order to clear the way for something new. What this new thing would be was for future generations to decide. His role was to help point the way. This would be what gave rise to the idea of Nietzsche’s “overman”. Hitler perverted the overman to mean the Aryan superman found in Nazi propaganda. In reality, the overman was the philosopher of tomorrow, irreverent towards the systems of the past, totally in tune with his own humanity and completely unafraid to set his course by his own standards. The overman would complete what Nietzsche referred to as the “revaluation of all values” that had begun during his age.

Too much has been made of the overman by Nietzsche fanatics. Much like the role of communism in the philosophy of Karl Marx, the overman was merely a vague end point of a rich cultural critique. By interpreting and misinterpreting that end point, they ignore the path that leads there.

Europe of the late 1800s was in a state of cultural flux. The institution that had given order to society and thought for thousands of years, Christianity, was done. In its place was a modern world defined by national rivalries, commercial pursuits and industrial production. This change is to what Nietzsche was referring when he said in the Gay Science “God is dead and we have killed him.” Through a new configuration of the western world that celebrated modernity, God had been left behind.

“God is dead” is not a celebration, merely an observation. While it is clear that Nietzsche believed the Judeo-Christian tradition celebrated a “slave morality”, he was not all too happy about the modernity that had replaced it. The west had unchained itself from God and now found itself twirling in an oblivion of nationalism, capitalism, industrialism, democracy and socialism. All of these things were competing with each other to be the new zeitgeist. None of them were able to provide the deep meaning that God had once promised. The west was on the verge of nihilism, hence the need for an overman.

One of the most interesting parts of Nietzsche’s variegated philosophy was his attitude towards science. He fully appreciated the fact that science could provide answers that God was never able to provide. It was one of the driving forces of our modern age, if not the dominant force. However, he believed that the scientist’s claims to objectivity were bloated. To Nietzsche, science required every bit as much faith as religion. Scientists had faith in the truth of objective facts, that these facts can be discerned through empirical research and that the scientific method was the way to conduct this research. Science smacked of all of those other attempts by philosophers throughout history to pound the contradictions of human experience into a straight, logical arrow. Science was another human, all too human attempt to run from our own humanity.

This points the way to Nietzsche’s view on truth. Most philosophers, indeed most people, assumed that there was a universal truth that existed independent of human beings. Not only does this truth exist, but it is knowable by us. For Nietzsche, this was an arrogant claim for people to make. The concept of truth was just that, a concept, and one that had been brought into the world by human beings. If there is such a thing as truth, our perspective would be too small and ant-like to ever see the entire thing. However, it is possible that truth does not exist at all, that the world outside of us (if one exists) is filtered through our human brains and learned cultural handles. Truth is untenable because we can never get past our own biases about what truth is supposed to be. Those biases shape our expectations and, therefore, shape how we see the “truth”.

This is why Nietzsche needed the aphoristic style. If we can never get at truth, then the next best thing would be to look at the world through several different perspectives. What might seem like a bunch of contradictory ideas is really a noble pursuit to understand as much as we can about the world. This is what might be deemed as “relativism”, or the idea that there is no one right way to look at things, just a series of perspectives that all have something different to say.

Nietzsche is the type of thinker that cannot help but enthrall. Whether you end up hating or loving his philosophy (there is no in between), Nietzsche is sure to have an impact on the way you think. For me, Nietzsche teaches to constantly be skeptical not only of those ideas that seem too good to be true, but of my own ideas. Nietzsche helps prevent me from getting too carried away by my own self-righteousness. He warns that the things that I am totally convinced of, including all of my deepest assumptions, can be wrong. Not only might they be wrong, but they might be oppressive because they preclude me from reflecting honestly.

After I had blown through Nieztsche’s works, I felt my mind become a vast ocean. I was less inclined to dogma, more inclined to tolerance and more likely to admit intellectual laziness or dishonesty within myself. Nietzsche taught me to embrace my humanity. As a human, I am naturally inclined to make mistakes. I am naturally inclined to have contradictions. Rather than beat myself up over these things, not to mention beat up others, they all must be embraced. This points the way to one of Nietzsche’s most powerful ideas: amor fati.

Amor fati means “love of fate”. Looking at the past, amor fati teaches us not to “cry over spilled milk”. Whatever is done is done. Rather than tear ourselves apart for the mistakes we have made, we must love them because they have shaped who we are today. Looking at the future, amor fati means accepting all that will befall us. Because we live in a human world of flux and contradiction, we can never know or have control over what will happen to us. We cannot even guarantee that we will make the best possible choices for ourselves when faced with new challenges. All we can do, according to Nietzsche, is be the “yes sayer”. It is an exhortation to embrace life for all of its thorns and warts. It is a humbling idea that helps us push through bad times and appreciate the good.

Part of amor fati and being a yes-sayer is the embracing of death. We cannot fight against death by expecting an afterlife or a supernatural reward. What we can do is ensure that we make the greatest possible impact when we are alive. For Nietzsche, all human life has the same drive. It is not the will to survive. It is the will to power. The will to power is a natural yearning to shape our surroundings. It is the discharge of our human spirit. The only way to cheat death is not through heaven or a fountain of youth, it is in having such a will to power when we are alive that we will be remembered after we are dead. All of the philosophers that had built systems of thought were discharging their will to power. They built a system in their own image in hopes that it would live forever. What they were really doing was carving their image on the face of eternity.

The greatest wills tend to die young. Just as the brightest stars tend to die relatively fast from burning up all of their fuel, the greatest humans tend to devour all of their energy quickly, pushing them into early graves. Nietzsche would not know how prophetic this idea would be for him. Losing his mind while still in his 40s and dying before he reached 60, Nietzsche certainly emitted enough energy to the world around him to warrant being remembered throughout history. Nietzsche’s life and death is a reminder to us to live by our passions and not be afraid to take risks.

There is nobody who can bring this home better than the man himself:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Great Teachers Series: Michel Foucault

2. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault is my avatar. He is the bald-headed man you see when you visit this site and the Facebook page that goes with it. There are many reasons why I chose Foucault, reasons that should be clear by the end of this post. Years ago, as I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge during a relatively light day, I started reading my copy of Madness and Civilization on which I had been working for a while. Before I could get into a sentence, a young teacher sarcastically said “oooh, you’re reading Foucault”, as if I had taken out the book to impress her. I did not bother to explain that Foucault’s work was the type of stuff I just read for pleasure, the same way people read Twilight or Harry Potter.

I chose Foucault as my avatar just in case she, or people like her, are reading this blog. It is an indication of who I am, or at least strive to be. It is also a foreshadowing of the types of ideas one will encounter upon reading the posts here. That is because Foucault’s dense historical works have worn deep channels in my brain. Foucault represented to me the final frontier. He brought my two favorite intellectual pursuits, history and philosophy, together in a way no other thinker could begin to touch. It was initially a maddening experience. My first encounter with the world of Foucault was The Order of Things, which starts by describing in painstaking detail Diego Velazquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas. Interlaced with these details were allusions to how it all fit in with the topic of the book, which was nothing less than how the western world has organized the human sciences. After 5 or 6 attempts to make it through the introduction, I threw the book down in disgust, convinced that Foucault was a nutcase with nothing really to say.

That all changed a few months later when I picked up a free copy of Discipline and Punish. Thankfully, there were no giant, esoteric metaphors through which to wade before getting to the actual book. Although tough going at first, I was able to catch the flow of his writing, allowing me to ride the wave all the way to the end. Until this day, I count it as the second most important book I have ever read.

Discipline and Punish is ostensibly about the history behind the European prison reforms of the 1800s. Before that time, prisons were places where society exacted revenge on the people who had violated its laws. Prisoners would be stuck in dark cells and neglected, oftentimes as a prequel to some sort of physical punishment. Then along came the enlightened reformers. They believed prisons should be places where criminals are rehabilitated. This led to more humane treatment of prisoners and fairer standards of sentencing. The success of the reformers pretty much gave us the template for the prisons of today.

But there was much more behind the efforts of the reformers than just a concern for prisoners. As the book progresses, Foucault ties in their agenda to wider changes overtaking the western world at the time. The 1800s represented a fundamental rupture in historical time, an era when the entire power structure of the western world was shifting. Europe was changing from a monarchal world, where power was concentrated in a dynasty, to a capitalist world where power was diffused throughout a democratic marketplace. The efforts of the reformers were in step with this new power structure.

The new regime exercised discipline through many different channels. Rather than just the state, discipline began to be exercised by entities outside of the state: hospitals, schools, banks and anything else that dealt with masses of people. Its goals were not necessarily to enforce laws, but to enforce norms. Norms are determined by the bell curve. When your doctor tells you that you are overweight, it is because she is comparing your weight to the average of everyone else in your age or height group. When the school tells you that you are failing, it is comparing your grades to average grades of your peers. When a bank tells you that you have a bad credit score, they are comparing your score to an overall average. If found deficient in these areas, these institutions have ways of correcting you so that you eventually fall within that meaty part of the bell curve where most other people can be found. Doctors can recommend diet and exercise regimes, schools can provide extra tutoring and banks can refuse to give you a loan until you square away your other debts. This is what discipline looks like on an everyday basis.

In order to keep track of your progress, or lack thereof, each of these institutions treat you as a case. Your doctor has a file on you, the school has a permanent record and the banks have your credit history. These institutions have the facts of your case because they each exercise a certain type of power over you. Doctors can strip you naked and invade your body with any type of device they see fit. Schools can demand that you take a test to prove what you know. Banks can access your bills and other sensitive information. In short, they all have their own forms of examination. These examinations require that you expose certain parts of yourself to what Foucault calls a “normalizing gaze”. In a sense, your most private effects are constantly on display for these institutions, all so they can determine if you need some sort of correction.

The normalizing gaze is part of a society of surveillance. There are eyes on us constantly. Cameras and wiretaps are only the most explicit forms of this surveillance. The goal is always the same. We are under watch so much that we begin to behave as if even our most private actions will always be seen. In this way, we discipline ourselves so society does not have to. It is an efficient way to keep society under control.  It is a far cry from the type of discipline exercised in a monarchal regime, where secret police and informants watch our physical actions and the punishment for wrongdoing involves something done to our physical bodies. Hence the poor conditions of prisoners in such a regime. Hence also the efforts of the prison reformers of the 1800s. They represented not so much a more humane alternative to punishment as they did a more efficient alternative. It was the perfect form of punishment in a capitalist society obsessed with cost-effectiveness. Their prisons were not better because they aimed at rehabilitation but because they folded up all of the devices of the surveillance society under one roof.

The panopticon, from the perspective of a prison cell.

The modern prison combines all of the forms of discipline found in the outside world. Foucault uses the example of the panopticon. The panopticon comes out of the work of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham. In the middle of the prison floor there is a tower on top of which there is a compartment where one guard can see out but nobody can see in. Surrounding the tower are all of the cells of the prison. The prisoners in each cell have no way of telling whether or not the guard is watching them at a particular moment, so they must assume they are being watched at all times. In this way, they are forced to internalize the camera that they did not internalize in the outside world. On top of this, prisoners can count on the normalizing gaze of psychotherapists, doctors, educators, religious activists and everyone else that can be found in the outside world. The modern prison is the single most complete place of surveillance anywhere. It is the ultimate manifestation of an entire society structured around the panopticon.

In these modes of discipline and punishment, we see the fingerprints of the two greatest developments of modern western civilization: democracy and capitalism. Democracy is represented by the bell curve. Where most people can be found is considered “normal”. Capitalism is represented by the ruthless efficiency of our disciplinary regime. There is no need to employ armies of Cossacks to watch and terrorize the population in the name of the monarch. Instead, people can be trained to discipline themselves with a just a small investment on society’s part. There is more bang for the buck, so to speak. Foucault ends up by calling attention to the parlance surrounding modern day criminal justice. Someone who is incarcerated is said to be paying their “debt” to society. A trial can expect to uncover not only the facts of a case, but the character history of the defendant as well. Everyone who has had, or can have, a normalizing gaze on the defendant is called in to testify. In this way, not only can the judge discern the severity of the crime, but the severity of the dysfunction within the criminal. Like money changers, the years they mete out must be roughly equal to the crime and the criminal. They weigh everything on the scales of justice to ensure both society and the criminal get a fair deal. It is the convergence of the marketplace and the courtroom.

In all of this, we see the major tendency of all of Foucault’s thought. Ideas are more than just ideas. Ideas take hold or recede based upon power structures. The reformers were genuine in their humanitarian concern for the incarcerated. However, their brand of reform was only possible in an age that was becoming more democratic and market-oriented. Their agenda eventually won out because it was compatible with the power structure of the time. Looking at their words and deeds is a study in what Foucault would call archaeology. Words are artifacts that say something about the age in which they were conceived. We can examine them the way an archaeologist examines a stone tool or a piece of pottery from an ancient civilization. They give us a window into the culture of an entire historical epoch. Through examining the words of an era, we can say something about the societal forces that gave those words sense and made those words possible.

Some people have criticized Foucault for making too much of power. They have taken his ideas to mean that change can only happen if the ruling elite of the time allow it. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Foucault “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.” He believed Foucault ended up supporting a power structure that crushed free will and human agency.

Yet, Foucault was one of the most actively progressive thinkers of the 20th century. He marched in the streets for prison reform and believed in what he called “unmasking” all of the forms of discipline that existed throughout society. More than most thinkers, Foucault joined philosophy and action together. He believed activism to be more than just a struggle for social justice. Instead, activism was the way we made new ideas real and new historical epochs possible. One of his more famous quotes illustrates this:

“We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.”

While philosophers loved irresistible logic, Foucault understood that ideas were messy affairs, forged in the fires of historical struggle and change. Rather than seeing Foucault as a supporter of the status quo, we must look at the example he set through his actions.

He believed people must live the change they want to see in society. This requires not only being aware of the type of change you want, but the type of society you want to change.

Chris Hedges is Right About Pretty Much Everything

It is very rare that I hear somebody so thoroughly correct.  Chris Hedges nails every subject, every time, with a breadth and exactitude few people can touch.

For example. this is Chris Hedges on the Tea Party movement:

Chris Hedges on intelligent design:

Chris Hedges on surveillance and propaganda:

Chris Hedges even criticizes education deform in New York City (the video starts with a very good speech by Cliftonia Johnson of DC37, who was laid off with hundreds of other school aides back in October. Chris’ part starts at 3:27)

His best videos are by far his lectures like “Death of the Liberal Class” and “How Corporations Destroyed American Democracy”. He has written many books and was a correspondent for the New York Times in the Middle East.

A brilliant person who would get my vote if he ever ran for office, which is not likely. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School and is the son of a minister, but has been a reporter and activist most of his life.

More from Chris Hedges:

Chris Hedges’ columns on Truthdig

Chris Hedges’ columns in The Nation