The Authority Who Tells You To Question All Authority: Foucault and Postmodernism

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I wrote this for a class on the sociological, historical and philosophical foundations of education.

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, significant in the postmodernist movement. His writings on power and desire have been applied to education, a topic he did not cover in depth. In a pedagogical context, his most influential view is his criticism of contemporary experts, including educators and social scientists as making false claims of objectivity, when the material is often a justification for both the status quo and the maintenance of privilege for the elites over the marginalized. That’s something for teachers to question: Why do we teach what we teach?

We’re going to teach many students who are not in the privileged group (my cohort of straight, white, males) so Foucault’s work on the significance of being aware of these biases has some relevance. Decisions about what to teach aren’t the only things for teachers to question under Foucault’s philosophy. As Richard Smith noted in a review of Foucault and Education, academics influenced by Foucault described how seemingly objective standards are not neutral, since “notions like effectiveness and management, as well as such rallying-cries as ‘excellence’ and ‘standards’, create power and even employment for some (school effectiveness researchers, for example, and the new breed of education managers) and disadvantage others.” We should be skeptical of the benchmarks as well.

Michael Peters described a series of Berkeley lectures where Foucault directly addressed education as we understand it, and its origins. It started with an effort to have an educated elite able to recognize truth-tellers. Central to this was truth-telling as an activity, which leads to four philosophical problems that have hounded us since Socrates “who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relation to power.” While there is one side who pushes for a greater understanding of truth, there is another that is more skeptical of its need, “concerned with the question: what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognize them.” In some ways, the postmodernist skepticism predates the alternatives.

Foucault died in 1984, so he’s unable to provide direct commentary on the current educational and academic environments. Considering how often I find problems in modern education diagnosed in documents that are more than thirty years old, this doesn’t disqualify him from having something to say about the problems of modern education. We will be in a position to influence impressionable children, and we have to consider the implications of that. Foucault wants us to consider the possibility that the authorities are wrong, but this leads to an interesting question now that many of the authorities have been influenced by him. We must be skeptical of them as well.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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