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Who's Afraid of Foucault? History, Theory, and Becoming Subjects

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Roland Sintos Coloma*
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada


According to historian-philosopher Michel Foucault, “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” If each society has a regime of truth, it can be inferred that each scholarly discipline or field of study has its own general politics of truth which regulates its intellectual conditions, boundaries, and memberships. Consequently, Foucault's assertion leads me to ask: What regime of truth operates in the field of history of education? What types of discourse does it accept as true and deem as false? How does it distinguish between and sanction true and false statements? What value and status are conferred upon those charged with saying what counts as true and those considered saying what counts as false or unacceptable? What are the effects of such a regime on the field's analytical and methodological development as well as on its practitioners?

Copyright © 2011 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Foucault, Michel, “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Gordon, Colin “New York: Pantheon, 1980“, 109–33.

2 According to Poster, Mark, “Foucault unmasks the epistemological innocence of the historian. He raises the discomforting question: What does the historian do to the past when he or she traces its continuity and assigns it its causes?…. The historian pretends to recreate the past, in Ranke's phrase, as it really was…. The historian accomplishes this goal without placing himself or herself in question.” See Poster, Mark, Foucault, Marxism, and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information “Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984“, 75.

3 Foucault, Michel, “The Subject and Power,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., ed. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul “Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982“, 208–26.

4 Duggan, Lisa, “The Theory Wars, or, Who's Afraid of Judith Butler?,” Journal of Women's History 10, no. 11998“: 9–10.

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5 See, e.g., Appleby, Joyce, Hunt, Lynn, and Jacob, Margaret, Telling the Truth about History “New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995“; Burke, Peter, History and Social Theory, 2nd ed. “Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005”; Jenkins, Kevin, ed., The Postmodern History Reader “New York: Routledge, 1997”; Poster, Mark, Cultural History and Postmodernity: Disciplinary Readings and Challenges “New York: Columbia University Press, 1997”.

6 The terms and uses of theory are mentioned twice very briefly in the 2000 Educational Researcher special issue, which includes Donato and Lazerson's feature article and subsequent commentaries from Dougherty, Jack, Mahoney, Kathleen, and Tyack, David. Mahoney brings up “theories of modernity and secularization” in relation to religion and education “p. 19”, and Tyack cites “theories of social capital” as “a new way of explaining events” “p. 19, original emphasis”. Neither one of them offers further elaboration of these theories. See, Donato, Rubén and Lazerson, Marvin, “New Directions in American Educational History: Problems and Prospects,” Educational Researcher 29, no. 8 “2000“: 4–15; Dougherty, Jack, “Are Historians of Education ‘Bowling Alone'? Response to Donato and Lazerson,” Educational Researcher 29, no. 8 “2000”: 16–17; Mahoney, Kathleen A., “New Times, New Questions,” Educational Researcher 29, no. 8 “2000”: 18–19; Tyack, David, “Reflections on Histories of U.S. Education,” Educational Researcher 29, no. 8 “2000”: 19–20.

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7 Reese, William J. and Rury, John L., “Introduction: An Evolving and Expanding Field of Study,” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J. and Rury, John L. “New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007“, 1–15.

8 See, e.g., Pierre, Elizabeth St. and Pillow, Wanda, ed., Working the Ruins: Feminist Poststructural Theory and Methods in Education “New York: Routledge, 1999“; Weiler, Kathleen, ed., Feminist Engagements: Reading, Resisting, and Revisioning Male Theorists in Education and Cultural Studies “New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001”; Kumashiro, Kevin K., Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy “New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2002”.

9 Nash, Margaret A., “The Historiography of Education for Girls and Women in the United States,” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J. and Rury, John L. “New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007“, 143–59; Franklin, Barry M., “Curriculum History and Its Revisionist Legacy,” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J. and Rury, John L. “New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007”, 223–43. On Foucautian analysis of the history of gender, see Scott, Joan W., Gender and the Politics of History “New York: Columbia University Press, 1988”. For examples of Foucaultian uses in education and curriculum history, see Popkewitz, Thomas S. and Brennan, Marie, ed., Foucault's Challenge: Discourse, Knowledge, and Power in Education “New York: Teachers College Press, 1997”; Popkewitz, Thomas S., Franklin, Barry M., and Pereyra, Miguel A., ed., Cultural History and Education: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Schooling “New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001”; Baker, Bernadette and Heyning, Katharina E., ed., Dangerous Coagulations? The Uses of Foucault in the Study of Education “New York: Peter Lang, 2004”; and Baker, Bernadette, ed., New Curriculum History “Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2009”.

10 A revised version of that paper presentation was published as Coloma, Roland Sintos, “Disidentifying Nationalism: Camilo Osias and Filipino Education in the Early Twentieth Century,” in Revolution and Pedagogy: Interdisciplinary and Transnational Perspectives on Educational Foundations, ed. Ewing, E. Thomas “New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005“, 19–37.

11 Nevertheless, I am very thankful to Tamura, Eileen and Eick, Caroline whose scholarship, insights, and generous spirit inspire me. To Frey, Christopher, Graves, Karen, MacDonald, Victoria-Maria, Moyer, Diana, Mu$nToz, Laura, and Nash, Margaret, my appreciation for encouraging me to remain engaged with the field of history of education. It has been an enormous privilege to learn with and from Daza, Stephanie, Esmonde, Indigo, Flessa, Joseph, Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén, McCready, Lance, Rhee, Jeong-eun, Subedi, Binaya, and Subreenduth, Sharon, who read and commented on earlier versions of this paper.

12 For discussions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology in relation to research, see Lather, Patti, Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in the Postmodern “New York: Routledge, 1991“ and Lather, Patti, Getting Lost: Feminist Practices Toward a Double(d) Science “Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007”.

13 Rousmaniere, Kate, “Historical Research,” in Foundations for Research: Methods of Inquiry in Education and the Social Sciences, ed. Kathleen, B. deMarrais and Lapan, Stephen D. “New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003“, 38–40.

14 Dehli, Kari, “Women and Early Kindergartens in North America: Uses and Limitations of Post-Structuralism for Feminist History,” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 1, no. 11993“: 11–33.

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15 Armstrong, Derrick, “Historical Voices: Philosophical Idealism and the Methodology of ‘Voice’ in the History of Education,” History of Education 32, no. 22003“: 207–11.

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16 Rowlinson, Michael and Carter, Chris, “Foucault and History in Organization Studies,” Organization 9, no. 42002“: 527–47.

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17 Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History, 73.

18 Foucault, Michel and Deleuze, Gilles, “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, ed. Bouchard, Donald F. “Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980“, 207–8.

19 I draw on Patti Lather's notion of “to be of use” which “involves a focus on how practices often viewed as neutral in effect police, produce, and constitute a field.” Patti Lather, “To Be of Use: The Work of Reviewing,” Review of Educational Research 69, no. 1 “1999”: 2–7.

20 After his comment that theory as practice is not to “awaken consciousness,” Foucault states that “the masses have been aware for some time that consciousness is a form of knowledge; and consciousness as the basis of subjectivity is a prerogative of the bourgeoisie.” Foucault and Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” 208.

21 White, Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe “Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973“; Scott, Joan W., Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man “Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996”; Guha, Ranajit, Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India “Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998”.

22 One major field in history that has generated robust discussions and debates in relation to Foucault and poststructuralism is women and gender history. See, for instance, the special issues and articles in the Journal of Women's History “vol. 15, no. 1, 2003; vol. 16, no. 2, 2004; vol. 16, no. 4, 2004; vol. 20, no. 1, 2008”. By no means extensive, my online search of U.S. historians who mobilize Foucault reveals that “1” few historians use terms like Foucault, poststructuralism, or even social, cultural, or critical theory to describe their work; “2” there are very few U.S. historians who use Foucault and are employed in history departments in the United States, like Gail Bederman at the University of Notre Dame; and “3” most historians of the United States who use Foucault are not employed in history departments, like Lisa Duggan at New York University and Emma Pérez at University of Colorado, Boulder. See, Bederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 “Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996“; Duggan, Lisa, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence and American Modernity “Durham, NC: Duke University Press”.

23 I deeply appreciate the research assistance and insights of Alexander Means and Anna Kim, both doctoral students in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at OISE/UT. Their painstaking work and our discussions helped to shape the content and form of this section.

24 This review is not exhaustive of all history of education journals since other major journals still remain to be examined, such as Paedagogica Historica “based in Europe” and History of Education Review “based in Australia and New Zealand”, journals of education history in other countries and regions, and those that are not written in English. One of the journals in our review, Historical Studies in Education, based in Canada, is a bilingual journal that publishes English and French articles. One of the articles that utilizes Foucault is written in French, and unfortunately neither I nor my graduate students can read French. This review also focuses on the most recent ten years, not accounting for Foucault's impact on history in general and on history of education in particular before 1999. For instance, the English translation of Foucault's first major book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason was initially published in 1971. One of the first historians in the United States to engage Foucault's ideas, Hayden White, published Metahistory in 1973. Hence, there has been a 20 + year period from the 1970s to the 1990s that Foucault's insights have been circulating in the English-speaking academe.

25 In chronological order, the four articles are the following: Mona Gleason, “Disciplining the Student Body: Schooling and the Construction of Canadian Children's Bodies, 1930–1960,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 2 “2001”: 189–215; Petrina, Stephen, “Getting a Purchase on ‘The School of Tomorrow’ and Its Constituent Commodities: Histories and Historiographies of Technologies,” History of Education Quarterly 42, no. 12002“: 75–111; Ryan, Patrick J., “A Case Study in the Cultural Origins of a Superpower: Liberal Individualism, American Nationalism, and the Rise of High School Life: A Study of Cleveland's Central and East Technical High Schools, 1890–1918,” History of Education Quarterly 45, no. 1 “2005”: 66–95; and Trotman, Janina, “Women Teachers in Western Australian ‘Bush’ Schools, 1900–1939: Passive Victims of Oppressive Structures?,” History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 2 “2006”: 249–73.

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26 Gleason, “Disciplining the Student Body,” 191; Petrina, “Getting a Purchase.”

27 Trotman, “Women Teachers in Western Australian ‘Bush’ Schools,” 273.

28 Simola, Hannu, “From Exclusion to Self-Selection: Examination of Behaviour in Finnish Primary and Comprehensive Schooling from the 1860s to the 1990s,” History of Education 31, no. 32002“: 207–26; Barman, Jean, “Encounters with Sexuality: The Management of Inappropriate Body Behaviour in Late-Nineteenth-Century British Columbia Schools,” Historical Studies in Education 16, no. 1 “2004”: 85–114, footnote 3.

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29 Thyssen, Geert, “Visualizing Discipline of the Body in a German Open-Air School “1923–1939”: Retrospection and Introspection,” History of Education 36, no. 22007“: 247–64; Margolis, Eric and Fram, Sheila, “Caught Napping: Images of Surveillance, Discipline and Punishment on the Body of the Schoolchild,” History of Education 36, no. 2 “2007”: 191–211. See, also, Rousmaniere, Kate, Dehli, Kari, and de Coninck-Smith, Ning, ed., Discipline, Moral Regulation, and Schooling: A Social History “New York: Taylor and Francis, 1997”.

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30 See, e.g., Grosvenor, Ian, Lawn, Martin, and Rousmaniere, Kate, ed., Silences and Images: The Social History of the Classroom “New York: Peter Lang, 1999“; Mietzner, Ulrike and Myers, Kevin, ed., Visual History: Images of Education “New York: Peter Lang, 2005”.

31 The six articles are listed in chronological order: Copeland, Ian, “Pragmatism: Past Examples Concerning Pupils with Learning Difficulties,” History of Education 30, no. 12001“: 1–12; Armstrong, Felicity, “The Historical Development of Special Education: Humanitarian Rationality or ‘Wild Profusion of Entangled Events'?,” History of Education 31, no. 5 “2002”: 437–56; Verstraete, Pieter, “The Taming of Disability: Phrenology and Bio-power on the Road to the Destruction of Otherness in France “1800–1860”,” History of Education 34, no. 2 “2005”: 119–34; van Drenth, Annemieke, “Van Koetsveld and his ‘School for Idiots’ in The Hague “1855–1920”: Gender and the History of Special Education in the Netherlands,” History of Education 34, no. 2 “2005”: 151–69; Oliphant, John, “Empowerment and Debilitation in the Educational Experience of the Blind in Nineteenth-century England and Scotland,” History of Education 35, no. 1 “2006”: 47–68; Armstrong, Felicity, “Disability, Education and Social Change in England since 1960,” History of Education 36, nos. 4–5 “2007”: 551–68.

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32 Armstrong, Felicity, “Disability, Education and Social Change,” 565–66.

33 Peim, Nick, “The History of the Present: Towards a Contemporary Phenomenology of the School,” History of Education 30, no. 22001“: 177–90; Patrice Milewski, “‘The Little Gray Book’: Pedagogy, Discourse and Rupture in 1937,” History of Education 37, no. 1 “2008”: 91–111; Götselius, Thomas, “The Vivid Alphabet: Media and Mass Literacy in the Early Modern Military State,” Historical Studies in Education 19, no. 2 “2007”: 53–81.

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34 According to Foucault, “The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said… are grouped together in district figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities…. [It] defines at the outset the system of its enunciability… [and] the system of its functioning.” Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language “New York: Pantheon, 1972”, 129.

35 The article is written by Margolis, Eric and Fram, Sheila2007“, and published in History of Education, based in the United Kingdom.

36 Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History, 73.

37 Foucault, Michel1982“, 208.

38 Foucault, Michel, “The Concern for Truth,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984, ed. Kritzman, Lawrence “New York: Routledge, 1990“, 255–67.

39 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison “New York: Vintage, 1979“, 25–26.

40 Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul, “Introduction,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., ed. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul “Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982“, xvii–xxvii.

41 Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul, “Foucault's Interpretive Analytic of Ethics,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. “Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982“.

42 The working title of my book project is Empire and Education: School Subjects in American Philippines.

43 Here, I draw on Spivak's notion of “setting to work” in Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Appendix: The Setting to Work of Deconstruction,” in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present “Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999“, 423–31.

44 Pérez, Emma, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History “Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999“, 27.

45 Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language “New York: Pantheon, 1972“, 28, 49, 74.

46 Coloma, Roland Sintos, “'Destiny has thrown the Negro and the Filipino under the tutelage of America': Race and Curriculum in the Age of Empire,” Curriculum Inquiry 39, no. 42009“: 495–519.

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47 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish, 170–71, 178, 183, 187, 189, 191, 192.

48 Coloma, Roland Sintos, “White Gazes, Brown Breasts: Imperial Feminism and Disciplining Desires and Bodies in Colonial Encounters,” in Paedagogica Historica “2011, First article”: 1–19. “forthcoming, 2012“.

49 Foucault, Michel, “Introduction,” in History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure “New York: Vintage, 1990“, 3–13.

50 Foucault, Michel, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., ed. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul “Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982“, 237–39.

51 Coloma, Roland Sintos, “Nationalism under Imperialism: Citizenship, Literacy, and The Philippine Readers“ “in preparation”.

52 Gleason, Mona, “Beyond Disciplined Questions: Interdisciplinarity and the Promise of Educational Histories,” Historical Studies in Education 17, no. 12005“: 169–78.

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