Academic journal article Journal of Curriculum Theorizing

Schools and the Public Good: Privatization, Democracy, Freedom, and "Government" (1)

Academic journal article Journal of Curriculum Theorizing

Schools and the Public Good: Privatization, Democracy, Freedom, and "Government" (1)

Article excerpt

The movements to privatize American public education are justified and contested by renewed calls for the "public good." The public good, and its derivatives, the "common good" or the "public interest," are deemed to benefit from the privatization of public schools which will make them more efficient through competition. The idea of the public good, however, is also a stumbling block to privatization, since the public's interest in democratic schools is deemed threatened by their "marketization." Thus, the "public good" serves both sides of the privatization debate. But what kind of debate is this?

I want to argue that this debate is about "government," but not in the sense we are used to thinking about the concept. Often, the "public" in public education means nothing more than that such education is state-controlled, but this inquiry is not primarily about political government's role in schools. My study treats the concept of government as a function of what Michel Foucault termed "governmentality," "government rationality," or the "art of government." (2) Foucault died before elaborating greatly on this notion, but by it he did not mean "government" in the modern sense of the term referring to political institutions. He relied on an older meaning of the term, one which referred to the ways "in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be designated: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick." (3) What we call "the state," according to Foucault, is but one of the forms that government takes, though unquestionably a very important one.

Colin Gordon, who summarized the (mostly still unpublished) lectures in which Foucault elaborated upon the idea, explained that Foucault used the concept of governmentality to mean "the conduct of conduct," or the forms of activities and rationalities aiming to shape, guide, or affect the conduct of individuals. It concerns the relations between self and self, between self and others, between social institutions and communities, and between all of these in relation to the exercise of political sovereignty. (4) The rationalities of government address themselves specifically to the shaping of conduct, and are directed at making particular forms of reality thinkable and practicable both to practitioners and to the persons to whom their practices are directed. (5) We may think of the "government" of schools, therefore, as the ways in which the conduct of schools, and of individuals through schools, is "rationalized," or what justifications and techniques make such conduct practicable.

The discourses for and against privatization seem hindered by an assumption of sovereignty which locates it either in the state (which has or does not have a duty to regulate schools) or in the market (which promotes autonomy or inequality). Thinking of privatization as an "art of government," however, sidesteps such assumptions and permits us to avoid relying on a legitimate basis for public education, one which neoliberals might ground in rationalities espousing the sanctity or sovereignty of the market, or progressives in similar ideas about democracy or the public good. (6) "Governmentality" pushes us to consider how conduct in and of schools is made practicable. It requires that we attend not only to how power is exercised in schools and by whom and for what ideological purposes, but also to how that exercise is "rationalized," heeding not just the justification for action but also the techniques made possible by such rationalization.

My premise is that public schools are crucial instruments of governmentality. Indeed, the school might now provide the paradigmatic example of governmentality at this point in our history. In this paper, therefore, I will not be adjudicating between the various conceptions of privatization, the public good, or democracy. I want to have readers consider how these concepts make practicable ways of governing individuals--how they illuminate and rationalize particular forms of conduct. …

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