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Foucault’s Prison September 10, 2011

Posted by Chetan Chitre in Uncategorized.

Michael Foucault, the French philosopher in his book titled ‘Discipline and Punish’ had drawn comparisons between schools and the prison system. Foucault generally looks upon the prison system as a place where a deviant is made to fall in line – a place where one does not ‘go’ but is ‘admitted’ – and generally as an instrument in the hands of the establishment to ensure the protection and perpetuation of the existing system.

I sometimes wonder what he would have inferred if he had known the Indian organized crime scene – where criminals voluntarily get themselves into prison in order to enjoy State protection from a rival don. Where the criminals look upon their tenures in prison as indicators of seniority among the criminal fraternity – and prisons are looked upon as a place to make contacts, strike deals, and generally a meeting place for the fraternity with sponsorship coming from the State.

One also wonders if such a prison – different in essence than the one analyzed by Foucault – can also have its parallels in the education system.

So we have a place where ‘disciplining’ – both in behavioral as well as in academic sense – is not the objective – neither for the students nor for those who run the education system. The students get admitted there because in some sense the time spent in the education system gives them (a) Some advantage over (protection from) their rivals (in the job market) – though not necessarily because they have imbibed any discipline and (b) a place to socialize and make contacts, strike deals and belong to a fraternity.

This can be easily observed in any of the thousands of educational institutions spread across the country, especially in institutions of higher education, barring a few very select exceptions. The whole idea of teaching and learning a discipline has been jettisoned for a long time now. These days in most institutions in the non-metro cities, there is not even an effort made in this direction. Low attendance – both of students and teachers alike are clear indicators.

We have not only given up the idea of failing a student in a grade for not learning the discipline, we have even made it official. I have heard of some government order stating that all students should be promoted upto a certain grade regardless of their performance in the learning process. What is officially done upto a certain grade is further done on basis of an informal understanding in the higher grades.

Have we in some sense realized Foucault’s project of removing the ‘discipline’ part from the education system, at least to a limited extent.

Perhaps yes. But then that also calls for a reinvention of the key task of an educational institution. No longer does the principal play a role similar to a prison jailer and no more would teachers behave like wardens.

As a matter of fact, the very idea of educational institution as a means for preaching and perpetuating ‘disciplined’ knowledge is redundant. An educational institution instead becomes a social gathering – meeting place where people come to make social contacts which may or may not result in fruitful associations in future. I guess that is what most ‘management’ schools are doing with increasing emphasis. Providing the students a platform to interact with the fraternity – the industry, the alumni, peers. Some of these interactions may result in eureka moments at some point, others may fizzle out while most may achieve something in between the two extremes. An educational institution focuses on the process of letting interactions take place rather than being bothered with the outcomes. The certificate then is given for the time spent rather than any progress in the learning or ‘disciplining’ process.

In this system then, what would be the role of the teacher? Is there any space at all for the teacher? She knows her subject (discipline) and is ready to share it with anybody who is willing to listen. But who is? Can she be an arranger of interactions? But for that – mere academic excellence is not sufficient. One has to dabble in the ‘real’ world every once a while. It is essential that the teacher is able to establish a clear and visible link between her knowledge and the real world out there.

The picture indeed sounds interesting. However, I have two concerns.

Making academic pursuit excessively linked with the ‘real’ world – will it not limit the scope of the investigation? We have had researches in almost every discipline, where true potential of an idea was realized long after the initiation of the idea – sometimes many years after the death of the originator. One can’t imagine how these researches will get funded if immediate appreciation by the ‘real’ world becomes a precondition.

Secondly, we need to formalize the system. Today all schools have de facto become places of socialization and lectures, teachers, examinations, etc. are just incidental – some kind of necessary evils to be gotten away with. The managers of the educational institutions are, in many places, working with the older idea of an educational institution. This results in some kind of perversion. So while lectures are scheduled, nobody attends. Teachers are employed but nobody takes them seriously, as everybody realizes the redundancy of the conventional teacher.

It is high time that the managers of the educational institutions as also the state education apparatus come to terms with these changes in the role of an educational institution. Rather it is a fundamental change in the very definition of ‘education’ that we are witnessing. It is a takeover of the prison system by the prisoners. They have now twisted the very system to serve their own ends. If some democratic space is not conceded at this point, there is a danger that the twisted system may really look very ugly and be of no use to anybody.



1. Kanan Mehta - November 11, 2011

A good analysis.. logical and simple..
Wish the authorities also view it the way you do

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