A Panoptic Education

How Public Schools Teach Us to Watch Ourselves

by Adrian Oteiza

Illustration by Georgianna Stoukides

published March 13, 2020

What does it mean to fix the very system of public education in America? As engineer W. Edwards Deming said of the things we build: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” This is equally true of mechanical systems and of social creations such as public schools. However, among nationwide surveys, barely half of high school students describe their schools as “satisfactory” and over 70% say they are bored “some to most of the time” that they are in class. Be it student absenteeism, decaying buildings in Providence, or the chronic underfunding of education across the nation, public schools seem to be failing. I’d like to propose, however, that the American school system is working perfectly: the issue lies in what it was designed to do. As it stands currently, public schools limit student success through a process of controlling homogenization.

The American public education system is incredibly complex. Not only are there excessive bureaucratic complexities in the funding and running of individual schools, but the majority of decision-making power and funding is concentrated on the local level. While there are occasional elections, most governmental positions are appointed directly by the state governor or other political bodies without the general public’s approval. For this reason, school policy across the nation is as heterogeneous and complex as the diverse groups it serves. However, there is also much about American public schools that work the same. Despite the many structural intricacies, such as complex budgets and ever-changing curricular requirements, there are commonalities. All of us would be capable of recognizing a school and are familiar with common structural characteristics and practices such as classrooms, teachers, and grades. 

However, public education hasn’t always been available to all. The modern conception of a standardized public education system emerged near the start of the nineteenth century in Europe and was closely ticon’s prison guards, but the effects remain similar. programming of schools to fit a particular type of followed by a near-identical system in the United States. While there may have been a political revolution in 1776, the United States still modeled itself, culturally and philosophically, after Europe. In the 1840s, Horace Mann, an educational reformer and politician, proposed a plan to institute an extensive public education program in Massachusetts. In order to pass such a large and expensive piece of legislature, Mann convinced his fellow congressmen of his most steadfast belief: “Schoolhouses are the republican line of fortifications.” Like much of Mann’s philosophy, this quote is embedded in a militaristic and homogenizing belief about what it means to be an American citizen.

Unfortunately, today, the public rarely thinks critically about education as a civic responsibility. In fact, a group of students has recently sued the state of Rhode Island for providing inadequate civic education. Surely, Mann would be displeased with such an ignorant implementation of his vision. However, in the 19th century, Mann’s principle to educate everyone in the entire nation was highly visible and was created as a means to advance American democracy. Mann argued that by educating everyone, the people would be able to keep the government in check.

Under the leadership of Horace Mann, public education came to America, not as a way to uplift individuals, but to ensure the government could be checked by the people effectively. Mann was a staunch supporter of the power of standardized opinions going so far as to say, “We go by the major vote, and if the majority are insane, the sane must go to the hospital.”

It is through education and socialization that we learn what is accepted by the majority and what is not. Without an educational process, our democratic norms would fall into chaos. Just like other state-created systems, education was essential to properly maintain peace in society. For Mann, “Jails and state prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more you must have of the former.” There is a clear philosophical relationality between schools and prisons that extends beyond the school-to-prison pipeline. For Mann, public education was nothing more than a secondary line of policing. By ensuring everyone was in agreement about what the laws were and how to enact them, school would keep citizens in line. For Mann, the education system was designed to homogenize society.

Public education—as envisioned by Horace Mann—is often described by education reformers as a “factory system.” There is some validity in this comparison and it serves as a good model to understand the school system but is not entirely accurate. Neither Mann nor any of his contemporaries spoke of a factory model. The term itself is a product of school reform movements from the late 20th century whose goal was to reimagine the entire way school defines a successful student.

While the “factory model” highlights much of the day-to-day functioning of the school system, it isn’t as helpful for describing how school homogenizes individuals. Instead, the theory of the Panopticon provides a good model to understand how discipline, examination, and systemization combine to create complacency within schools. Designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham near the end of the 18th century and first built in 1817, the Panopticon is a prison in which cells cover the outside walls of a rotunda with a central guard tower in the middle. While the singular prison guard cannot actually watch everyone at once, the threat of possibly constant surveillance would scare the prisoners into self-regulating their behavior. Famously, the postmodernist thinker, Michel Foucault applied the metaphor of the Panopticon to better understand discipline as it occurred in prisons, hospitals, and even schools.

However, the theory of the Panopticon assumes that subjects enter already knowing how to behave, which is rarely the case. One common pattern with panoptic prisons is that those imprisoned are made to go through a few weeks of intense punishment and scrutiny before they are expected to“self-regulate.” In other words, in the logic of the panopticon, those imprisoned need to learn the rules before they can follow them.

This period of intense punishment and scrutiny is the primary job of schools today. They serve as a small-scale simulation of the rest of the social world. Clear rules and standards of success help guide student behaviors. Some of the harsher edges are taken off and teachers tend to be more kind than the panopticon's prison guards, but the effects remain similar. The education system measures one’s success by how closely students are able to follow the rules. Primarily, to avoid getting punished by teachers or administrators, students must learn to respect their teachers, refrain from physical violence, and arrive to class punctually—all characteristics of social life outside of school as well.

Consider your own school experience. Teachers only scold the students whose behavior is disruptive to the rest of the class or in clear violation of school policy. However, school has an added complication. Unlike prison, which is exclusively for people who are not conforming with the rules of society, school is designed for all children. As a result, there is a multi-tiered measurement of success that enables people to measure their ability to conform through getting good grades. Those who struggle have their future career options limited or are even held back to repeat the lesson. This especially hurts marginalized groups who already have to struggle more to meet the same requirements because of systemic inequalities perpetrated outside of the school building. Those who struggle economically, for instance, rarely have as much time or resources to study for tests as those who can afford tutoring and don’t need to work a job.

Mann’s system of education exists not as a Panopticon in and of itself, but rather as a critical component of the Panoptic aspects of post-secondary society. By providing students with extensive rules and continually reminding us how well we succeed at following them, we are inculcated with the rules of complacent behavior, and we naturally begin to self-regulate.

Is there anything wrong with self-regulation in schools? In general, those involved in education reform paint schools as total failures. While I do agree that a panoptic education is concerning, there is an extensive grey area when it comes to thinking about the purpose of school. If all they did was teach people to speak out, we would likely be in the midst of a rebellion. Furthermore, following the rules in school and self-regulating is the fastest way to succeed financially. The most common and successful pathway into the middle-class today is through the pursuit of STEM fields or other “professional” degrees. For those who wish to succeed in American economic society and provide for their families, self-regulating is central. There is a very good argument to be made that this is, in fact, a good thing. It is incredibly honorable and valuable to provide for one’s family. However, I still wonder if this is all school should be doing. As young children, we are often full of our own definitions for success and school drives us toward a singular idea of what our life goals should be.

Education has changed since Mann’s ideas were first envisioned nearly two centuries ago. While there have been adjustments to school curricula—Latin and Greek, for example, are no longer taught in most public school—the largest changes on a structural level have happened on the national stage. The goals of President Obama’s Race To The Top (RTTT) fund highlight some of the priorities of modern education. The plan establishes four priorities for K-12 education:

1. Developing a national definition of educational standards

2. Measuring student success via testing

3. Continuing teacher development

4. Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

Interestingly, priorities one and two of RTTT perfectly match the 200-year-old model of preparing students to fit into society by measuring their success in class and prioritizing standardized education, mirroring the goals of Mann and the theories of Foucault. Priorities three and four are what's new in schooling. Priority three is driven by much of the new research from the early 2000s that suggests that the largest predictor a student's success in class is having skilled and caring teachers that look like the students they are teaching. If students have a teacher they can trust, it makes students more successful in the clasroom. Priority four echoes coded language for replacing public schools with public charter options. It is often easier to scrap a failing school and try again with an alterante system than to fix the school from the inside.

The philosophy that guides charter schools is to make traditional schools “better, faster, and stronger” as Todd Dickson, founder of Valor Charter Schools in Tennessee, put it. They generally try to tailor the broad programming of schools to fit a particular type of student (generally a group that has historically struggled in school). While this approach often seems to work, the highly specialized and unregulated nature of charters makes it difficult to evaluate their success along standardized lines and has critics concerned that the charters are not providing crucial services to their students. Most concerningly, charters often take away large funding streams from the local public schools that need it the most. By turning around our lowest-performing schools through the creation of charters, the American education system abandons the very public schools that need care and attention the most.

Be it in a charter school today or a Massachusetts schoolroom in 1840, American public education continues to provide the same model of success to its students. By inculcating young minds with a strong sense of the rules, schools work to make sure students fit into society. Like a Panoptic prison, regulated society works because we watch ourselves. It’s because of school that we know what behavior to watch ourselves for. Is this bad? Not everyone can be above-average, but should a good education provide us with the tools to reinvent the world if we want to? As poet Gloria E. Anzaldua says, “Nothing happens in the 'real' world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Education is ultimately the fundamental basis for constructing those images. What if schools helped us each curate our own blank canvas instead of simply photocopying the world around us? I believe school can be more than just training for us to live in a social version of the Panopticon even if that is all that we are told to expect from the real world. If we truly wish to use education to build a better world, certainly we should ensure Mann’s goals are met. A better world should have a stable society, but a good world should also be more than just stable. As the great American philosopher—and contemporary of Horace Mann— Henry David Thoreau writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.” So why must school define success so narrowly? Surely, there is more than one way to thrive. A proper public education should embrace this multitude and teach students to self-evaluate, not self-regulate.

ADRIAN OTEIZA B’23 is watching you.