Contemplating Foucault

Oh boy, reading philosophy has always intimidated me. Bottom line: I hate it. I remember one of the first classes I chose in University when I was 19yrs old was called “the philosophy of love”. Naturally, I thought, this will be EASY!!… Big mistake!  I nearly failed. I’ve since decided that all philosophy should be summarized within 140 characters (someone will make a fortune with that achievement if they can pull it off!)

Anyhow, Michel Foucault’s work was on my reading list recently and so, I braved it and handed in a 10 page paper entitled “Educating For The Care Of Self” this afternoon. Truth be told, I let other talented authors inform my understanding of Foucault’s influence on education, and I thank them profusely for that (abbreviated bibliography below). My post this week is an excerpt of my submitted text. Yep, that means I’m waiting for a grade (my favorite academic experience).

Before the stimulating read, why not take a glance at a titillating banter between Noam Chomsky and Foucault from 1971:

Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault



Foucault saw the role of academic institutions as enabling the creation of autonomous, self-caring individuals. Roth interprets Foucault’s remarks as follows: “[The institution’s] goal is to produce young bodies and minds that are self-governing; failing that, they try to make their graduates governable.”[1] Such a black- and-white statement could lead a cynic to feel insurmountable defeat; for the idealist, however, if individuals have created society thus far they can certainly find the means to change it. It is a mind-set to not impose influence or be influenced by others. “What particularly intrigued Foucault, even though he did not develop this insight,” Deacon states, “was the problem of knowing how, in the typical pedagogical relationship, to avoid the effects of domination.”[2] There is a wealth of instructors whose philosophy of teaching deviates from the norms of top-down, power driven educational practices. Today, many of them are engaging with the blogosphere to share their views of educational reform with a wider audience, especially their peers. In Kelly Tenkely blog, Dreams of Education, she makes the following remarks:

If achievement is everything, education is surely at the pinnacle of its demise. It can’t just be about the numbers. It has to be about more…Right now the education system puts the focus on what students don’t know.  We make students feel ashamed of what they don’t know and try to use that shame (of a poor grade) to make them work harder.  What if instead of focusing on what a kid doesn’t know, we help them realize what they do know?  What if we started capitalizing on what they know and used it to help them make connections in their learning?  What if we minimized the focus on achievement?[3]

While this example may not illustrate an exclusive means of producing a care of self within the learner, I believe that giving them the experience of learning in modes that deviate from the norm (and in such as nurturing manner) are, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

Deacon makes the association, in fact, that Foucault’s opinion should awaken our minds to the “twentieth century shift toward more child-centered and participatory pedagogies, not least given the finding that pedagogical methods are not simply imposed but are formed out of the individual’s own adaptation to school functioning.”[4] While this may be evolving through instructors that take new initiatives in this realm and an increase in alternative learning environments, I feel that we should acknowledge the shift toward the ‘self’ (especially in the last twenty years) that deviates from the care of the self that Foucault speaks of. This shift does not involve a movement away from social constraint, per se, nor a deeper ambition toward self-mastery but rather the self-ish care of individuals to achieve and possess what one wants when one wants it. The issue here is an increasing sense of entitlement that individuals and societies are developing.  Consider the following points that Jean M. Twenge makes in his book, Generation Me:

Narcissism is the darker side of the focus on the self, and is often confused with self-esteem… a facet of narcissism involves believing that you deserve and are entitled to more than others… Teachers have seen this attitude for years now… Stout [an education Professor] points out that the self-esteem movement places the student’s feelings at the center, so students learn that they do not need to respect their teachers or even earn their grades, so they begin to believe that they are entitled to grades, respect, or anything else…just for asking.[5]

While the direction of care is evolving and perhaps in a direction softly in line with Foucault’s philosophy of self-care—as more people are looking inward–the manner in which subjects are learning to engage with the self is not ethically in line Foucault’s ambition. Instead subjects’ expectations are frequently laden with self-motivated desires and expectations of others.

Furthermore, while social-media today is enabling people to be more vocal about their approval and disapproval of social and political conditions, social-media and social-networking are also influential forces that condition obsessions on many levels including the need for social inclusion. People are beginning to define themselves according to their online presence. How do you complete with a rapidly evolving “wired” society that expects online interaction and can influence your sense of self worth based on how many friends you have on Facebook? This evolving form of social control and power could not be more in conflict with the ethical philosophy Foucault had in mind.

Learning about the history of institutional discipline through a reading of Foucault and various authors addressed here reinforces to me the negative impact and depth of social control that has forever affected individuals. It is difficult to deviate from the camp of cynics who feel defeated by Foucault’s ideal to invest in the care of the self.  That said, it also reinforces a compelling argument for the renewal of educational practices and environments. Specifically the need for methods that will instill in the learner and instructor different perspectives that call into question what social ‘norms’ truly represent and how self-care should be at the forefront of how we navigate ourselves and how we interpret and engage with others.


[1] Jeffrey Roth, “Of What Help Is He? A Review of “Foucault and Education”,” American Educational Research Journal 29, no. 4 (1992): 692

[2] Roger Deacon, “Michel Foulcault on Education: a preliminary theoretical overview,” South African Journal of Education 26, no. 2 (2006): 184

[3] Kelly Tenkely blog, Dreams of Education , 11 23, 2010, (accessed 12 03, 2010).

[4] Roger Deacon, “Michel Foulcault on Education: a preliminary theoretical overview,” South African Journal of Education 26, no. 2 (2006): 183

[5] Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before p. 70-71, 2006

About cayoup

Colleen Ayoup was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. She has been engaged in media creation for nearly twenty years. After attending the Dawson Institute of Photography (Montreal), she worked as a commercial photographer for several years until the craving for different creative pursuits gave way. This desire led to two subsequent degrees in Psychology/Film Studies and Film Production (B.A., B.F.A) at Concordia University in Montreal. Her short fiction films and documentary, Kings (2001), about drag-king culture in Montreal toured festivals internationally. In 2004, she joined the National Film Board of Canada where she coordinated Doc Shop, a program designed to give emerging filmmakers an opportunity to learn trade skills from industry professionals and produce a short documentary for broadcast on CBC. She also contributed to the development and creation of CitizenShift (, the NFB’s first social-media website that she subsequently coordinated for five years. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Documentary Media at Ryerson University (Toronto, ON)