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Birth of the un-modern school?

In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison Michel Foucault (1977) suggests that schools adopted their current form at around the same time as prisons, factories and barracks. Foucault's chapter Docile Bodies (pp. 135-169) supported the idea that the labour process (Hamilton, 1990) was at the heart of schooling. He indicated that the innovators of the eighteenth century believed that soldiers, prisoners and pupils alike could all be constructed out of "formless clay" by turning them slowly into the desired archetype through "automatism of habit" (p. 135). The manufacture of the pupil was thus achieved, Foucault believed, through the discipline of the minute:

Gradually - but especially after 1762 - the educational space unfolds; the class becomes homogeneous, it is no longer made up of individual elements arranged side by side under the master's eye. In the eighteenth century, 'rank' begins to define the great form of distribution of individuals in the educational order: rows or ranks of pupils in each class, corridors, courtyards; rank attributed to each pupil at the end of each class and each examination; the rank he obtains from week to week, month to month, year to year; an alignment of age groups, one after another; a succession of subjects taught and questions treated, according to an order of increasing difficulty. And, in this ensemble of compulsory alignments, each pupil, according to his age, performance, his behaviour, occupies sometimes one rank, sometimes another; he moves constantly over a series of compartments – some of these are 'ideal' compartments, marking a hierarchy of knowledge or ability, other express the distribution of values or merits in material terms in the space of the college or classroom. It is a perpetual movement in which individuals replace one another in a space marked off by aligned intervals. Foucault (1977, p. 147)

This extensive quotation shows that much of the eighteenth century notion of schools and schooling survives to the modern day. There are few inventions that have had such longevity and yet the social construction and reconstruction of the school has survived. I am not suggesting that the educational space described in Foucault's book endures unchanged, but there are substantial and fundamental similarities that have survived for nearly two hundred and fifty years.

[an extract from my PhD]

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