Thursday, April 11, 2013

Panopticonism at MSNBC

Melissa Harris-Perry--host of the Melissa Harris-Perry show (clever name, that) on MSNBC--is catching a lot of flak for what she said in an MSNBC promo for her show:

Her words in full:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of “These are our children.” 
So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
Once it’s everyone’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.
People like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other right-wing media figures are having a field day with this. Limbaugh has wondered (sarcastically, to be fair) if this view means one can demand work from others' children. Beck has argued (not sarcastically) that this viewpoint is a part of a nefarious plot. Others have simply noted that the view is just stupid and wrong-headed.

But there are some specific elements therein that need to be addressed. First, there is the claim that our investment, the United States', in public education comes up short. As compared to who, one must ask? Because according to the actual data, the United States spends more on education per student--in simple dollars--than, well, everyone else. In terms of education spending as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. comes in fifth, behind Iceland, Korea, Israel, and Norway.

So what the hell is Ms. Harris-Perry talking about here? The woman has a PhD from Duke after all; one would think she'd have at least a small handle on the facts before she opened her mouth.

Next, there is supposition that the "ownership" of children in a familial sense is a concept that needs to be undone, to be corrected and replaced with a communal sense of ownership. And that begs the question, what communities is she referencing? Because local school communities already have this handled. There are PTAs throughout the land; local tax dollars fund local schools and local school boards are elected by local voters, all to establish the "communal" aspect of education.

Is she also unaware of this reality, as well? Seems pretty implausible if you ask me. There's just no way she could be this dense.

Then there's the last, the "better investments" part. It's pretty fuzzy; it suggests there have been some bad investments, no? But again, those past investments--some of which must be "bad"--are a product for the most part of localized, community decisions. The ones that aren't come from the Federal Government. They're wholly non-localized, wholly arbitrary and--I must therefore surmise--wholly bad. That's the only logical conclusion to draw here.

Of course there's no way this is the angle Harris-Perry wants to take. The sense of the bit is that of an over-arching change in mindsets about education, a change that needs to be consistent throughout the land and would thus proceed from the central government. Ms. Harris-Perry isn't looking to get the Feds out of education, she's looking to get them deeper in I think, to foster the change in mindsets about education she apparently imagines we so desperately need.

But why? What's the supposed pay-off? Better education? Seems unlikely, given the boatloads of money being poured in to education now with little to show for it (aside from talking benches at a half-a-billion-dollar public school).

Some have suggested the whole bit--the MSNBC ad--is just trolling, that Ms. Harris-Perry only said what she said to get a rise from the far right, to drum up some attention for her TV show. I guess that's possible, but I think it unlikely. To be sure, the MSNBC clowns are thrilled with the publicity, but that doesn't mean Harris-Perry was anything other than deadly serious with her comments. I've seen no signs of such duplicity from her in the past and what she said is very much consistent with past opinions she has offered.

So again, what's the pay-off? Simple: the normalization (or indoctrination) of citizenry via control over new generations. Glenn Beck actually is somewhat on target here, horror of horrors, though it's not really a plot, it's merely a predictable approach to ordering society from a collectivist mindset (or a statist mindset, as some libertarian types might say). See, such people--while big fans of radicalism in theory--are actually more interested in conformity, with the caveat that such conformity is with the "right stuff."

In the realm of education, this "right stuff" is ideology, that of social and economic justice-inspired views on people, government, and business. Individuality--in this world--is expressed via clothing, culture, art, and the like. With regard to politics and economics, there is no individualism, no valid differences of opinion. People--starting with children--need to be brought to heel in this regard, they need to be taught and forced to adopt the collectivist mindset. The destruction of the traditional family unit--simply because it is traditional--is just another step down this path.

Shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a society wherein everyone is obliged to serve the state first and foremost. Because look what Ms. Harris-Perry is saying: children don't belong to their parents--thus they are not really a part of a family--but rather belong to the community, apparently at the moment of their birth, if not before. And the "private" idea of children is wrong, they are "public" entities, a "public good" if you will. Communal property managed by the state, that is her definition of children.

And how might such property be managed? How, indeed.

In Michel Foucault's 1975 classic Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham's prison design--the Panopticon--as a metaphor to describe much of modern society in general insofar as behavior is conditioned via the mere belief that one is under permanent surveillance. According to Foucault, this is particularly true of public education systems. And remember, he was researching and writing this over forty years ago. Since that time, public education has become even more "panoptic," for lack of a better way of saying it.

This is not just about the students, it's also about teachers. Both groups are conditioned by the same kind of panopticism: students via curriculum designed to influence their understanding of society and teachers via the steady curtailment of choices with regard to both lessons and disciplinary tools. The latter is particularly significant. The responsibility of maintaining order in the classroom once fell to the teacher in that classroom. Now, "zero tolerance" policies are the norm but only for a handful of select infractions. And in that regard, the administrators are in charge, often using police as the enforcement mechanism (as opposed to simple in-the-classroom or in-school mechanisms).

Thus, children are enmeshed in a wider communal structure as a matter of course, outside of familial structures. This is normalization, indoctrination, and it has been happening for decades now. But for people like Ms. Harris-Perry, it's still not enough. The last vestiges of the old structures still need to be stripped away (leaving control in the hands of regional governors, I guess) in order for members of the next generation to assume their rightful place in society, in service to the greater good, to the State, above and beyond any allegiance to something as outdated as the idea of family...
It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — 'child hero' was the phrase generally used — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.--Geroge Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Cheers, all.


  1. We started home schooling 20 years ago - just finishing up. It has been wonderful. Personal experience. And from that, this observation.

    You cannot STOP a human from learning, and children, even more so. What you do is direct what they learn. What REALLY upsets me is that the schools are taking the credit for the efforts and successes of the students, and when an ill winds blow, we always have the same propaganda. Schools need more money.

    I am reading a book I think you would enjoy.
    Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
    That is the context I use next.

    In education, the student is antifragile, and actually gains from being stressed. The system is, on the other hand, top down, and fragile. The system is built to transfer the deleterious effects of their own fragility to the individual students. To me, that is evil, but sans religious conviction, it should still be wrong.

    (you already said, "cheers".)

  2. Welcome to The Dark Side, sir. We have cookies. :)