Tag Archives: crime

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.

New York City and the “School to Prison Pipeline”

The most recent issue of Rethinking Schools has sparked debate on how the education system criminalizes children. The issue features an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of the important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. In part, she blames zero tolerance policies in many schools, where small infractions on the part of students are met with heavy punishments like suspension or prosecution. These policies prematurely end up introducing children to the justice system by criminalizing behaviors common to many young people. Inspired by this piece, Alan Singer of The Huffington Post has run a few articles (here and here) about the prison-like atmosphere in many New York City public schools. He talks about how students are introduced to the criminal justice system early for fairly trivial transgressions on school grounds.

They are mostly right. As a basketball coach, I get to see the inside of dozens of different schools in New York City. School Safety Agents, who work for the New York City Police Department, often bark at us as soon as we get through the door. They want everyone to sign in, show ID and go through metal detectors. While my boys only have to endure this for the moment they are visiting the school (our own school does not have metal detectors), the students who attend these schools have to do this every single day. I can imagine how demoralizing it must be to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you walk into the building. Once the kids are inside, there is no coming out until the end of the day. There is certainly something prison-like about this atmosphere.

However, as a high school dean of many years, I have to take issue with the entire zero tolerance issue. There has been no zero tolerance policy in any school in which I have worked. Most principals around the city are actually afraid of suspending kids or calling the police, since that all goes into the School Environment Survey that impacts a school’s report card grade. The schools that have the lowest rate of violent incidents are the ones who best underreport those incidents, not necessarily the safest. In my old school, there would be times when students would assault teachers, bring weapons or sell drugs without it resulting in any disciplinary action at all. Charter schools are a different story, since they have the weapon of automatic expulsion at their disposal, something regular public schools do not have.

There need not be a zero tolerance policy in place for a school to feel like a prison. There was an incident that occurred when I was a dean of a particularly violent and troubled boy assaulting one of his teachers. The police were called and they asked if the teacher wanted to press charges. The teacher refused, perhaps out of fear of sending the young boy back to juvenile hall, at which point the police washed their hands of the matter. We asked the cops what could be done and they advised me to search the boy every day as he arrived at school. Having a naïve concern for civil rights, I asked if that was not a violation of improper search and seizure, prompting the police officer to say “it’s your school, you can search whoever you want. You don’t need a reason” Nothing brought home to me more the type of netherworld schools can be than that statement. It was quite chilling.

The truth is, zero tolerance is just one path in the school-to-prison pipeline. What New York City does is very different, yet the result is the same. When kids are welcomed by metal detectors every day, when they are subject to arbitrary search at any time, when surveillance cameras are installed, they are subject to the same type of unfreedom that exists in the prison system. At the same time, when learning standards are eroded, when standardized testing becomes the engine of all instruction and when the small schools provide no enrichment opportunities, you make it clear that the only thing that is expected of children is criminality. There is very little left that resembles a place of learning. Children of the inner cities already come from a world of limited horizons where they only know their five-block radius. Our schools do nothing to expand those horizons. Our schools merely confirm the culture of low expectations that already exist in the inner cities.

In fact, the utter lack of discipline in New York City schools, through education law and through the underreporting policies of many principals, ensures that children develop a very keen criminal nature. The only enrichment activity that is allowed is criminality. There are no other outlets for children and nothing else is expected of them. Zero tolerance policies criminalize students and introduce too many of them prematurely to the criminal justice system. Our schools in NYC are already prisons. Like all prisons, the end result is not rehabilitation of the criminal nature, but a refinement of it.

To some extent, schools have always had this resemblance to prisons. Only the individual teacher, through providing a nurturing and inquisitive classroom environment, or through establishing enrichment activities, could mitigate the impacts of this prison structure. But today, in the era of education reforms that destroy the power of individual teachers, this type of nurturing classroom environment is tougher to come by. By harassing the most veteran teachers out of the system and replacing them with Teach for America mercenaries from the suburbs, the cultural understanding that veteran teachers used to provide is vanishing. These things, combined with the increasing obsession with standardized testing, turns the teacher into a correctional officer who barks out arbitrary orders to the people in their charge. “Sit down. Answer this question, You need to know this. If you do not pass this test, you do not graduate. No excuses.”

So while Alan Singer is essentially correct in positing that our schools resemble prisons, zero tolerance policies have little to do with it. Instead, our schools are set up to anticipate and foster criminality in children.