Thursday, August 09, 2007

Covert authoritarianism

In the comments to Legotown, humbition brings up an important point:
In my opinion what we see with these teachers is a kind of turn of the screw of Foucaultian power. It is the exertion of power at a meta-level which denies that which it is. In a sense this meta-power-power gives even less scope for the individual liberty to criticize it, than does simple authoritarian power. Ultimately the new power is one which does not recognize itself as power, and will not accept a critique of itself as power, yet wants, as the conservatives [David Thompson and commenters on his post] do effectively point out, particular outcomes.

In that sense the "spontaneously correct" responses that the children came up with after their play had been pedagogically guided, are in some sense related to Foucault's "confessionalism" in modern regimes of power and knowledge.

It is not anymore a simple opposition of spontaneity versus discipline, as in some ham-handed authoritarianism. It is a meta-attempt to discipline the very spontaneity of the children themselves, to "structure" it for outcomes. To "get them to find the right answers by themselves," but the answers are still predetermined, not a matter of free inquiry.

In an earlier draft of the essay, I compared the Legotown teachers' indoctrination to the worst of Catholic school, but on reading humbition's comments, I realize that analogy is inapt. However heavy- or light-handed Catholic school indoctrination might be, the authority of the priests and nuns is never in doubt. This authority might be granted on unfalsifiable, irrational terms, but it is overt and admitted.

The indoctrination by means of the non-authority authority the teachers employ is far more corrosive than even the very worst the Catholics can do. An 8-year-old at least has a fighting chance against Catholic school; the authors and their ilk have fooled the editors of a published journal, half the philosophical community and even to some extent their critics; what chance does a child have?

An analogy springs immediately to mind: The number of Ph.D.-level academics who take this blanket anti-authoritarian stance: If they're so anti-authoritarian, why are they seeking the authority of degrees, appointments and tenure?

I am suspicious of anyone who styles himself anarchist who does not first and always—as I do by titling this blog "The Barefoot Bum"—find some way to undermine his own authority.

1 comment:

  1. I actually won't underwrite that the teachers in this story have "fooled" anyone, as if this were a deliberate strategy. I don't hold to the kind of paranoid interpretation that underwrites the usual critiques by the Right of "indoctrination." Instead, what I see here is a version in practice of what Janet Halley calls "exercising power in bad faith."

    Teachers see, rightly or wrongly, the embryonic Structure of Oppression in children's play, and they must Make Things Right. Situationally emergent "Power" (created by flawed beings who are always already corrupted by capitalism even as small children) is to be treated as embryonic of the Big Power Structures that corrupt the world, and the world will therefore never turn out right (become Utopia) unless we Intervene in a Deus ex Machina fashion, exercising power in order to prevent Power.

    Ultimately this deprives children of the opportunity to learn to exercise freedom, since their free exploration of the world in play is treated as already corrupted and in some sense the children themselves are treated as flawed beings needing fundamental correction and alteration. However this is easily corrected if their experiences are properly structured so as to bring them to the spontaneous realization of the teachers' ideology, an ideology which is clearly visible in the way the experiences are organized such that the children will learn What's Right, the Injustice of their corrupted (original) spontaneity.

    I'm not arguing that children are All Good and that their spontaneity "trails clouds of glory from God which is their home." No, it is quite possible that we are indeed all corrupted and not even just by capitalism, patriarchy, and the other usual suspects. But I am arguing that people need to learn to exercise their freedom in ways which are not ultimately manipulated by benevolent powers which provide them only with experiences which teach the right lessons. People have to have a robust sense of their abilities to exercise their freedom in the face of life challenges which will, indeed, often tempt them to learn wrong lessons, and they cannot learn to be free in an Ultimately Controlled Environment in which their very freedom is (with benevolent intentions) structured out of existence, by power that does not admit that that is what it is.

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