College Quarterly
Summer 2009 - Volume 12 Number 3
Reviews Schools under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education.
Critical Issues in Crime and Society Series.
Torin Monahan & Rodolfo D. Torres, eds.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The past decade has transformed social thinking about surveillance. Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, law enforcement and “intelligence” agencies in Western democracies have seen their mandates expanded, their capital and operating budgets increased and their capacity to play fast and loose with individual liberties grow almost exponentially. Few of us complain. To do so is to risk missing our plane or to find ourselves on a list we do not want to be on. Casually aware that we are being filmed as we shop, that our every financial transaction is being monitored and that our dental, medical, financial, educational, library, motor vehicle, consumer, psychiatric and criminal records are stored where correlations are a press of a keyboard away. What’s more: we (or the younger and perhaps less paranoid among us) cheerfully give up our most intimate secrets on Facebook and happily send our credit card, banking and income tax information over the net to waiting officials and potential hackers. So pervasive is the snoop culture that we no longer seem to notice it.

What goes for what passes as real life goes for schools as well. Worried about issues of classroom management, fearful of violence in the cafeteria, worried about bullying-out-of-control, anxious about becoming the next Columbine or West Virginia Tech, we not only tolerate but actively seek the ubiquitous prying eyes of the authorities.

In Schools under Surveillance, Torin Monahan and Rodolfo D. Torres and their contributors examine police and military activities in public schools, the role of schools as consumers of surveillance equipment, the psycho-social groundwork for the new security culture, the relationship of the foregoing to hegemonic neoliberal ideology and, finally, some thoughts on student resistance to being closely monitored both in and outside of the classroom.

The influence of Michel Foucault is apparent, evident and fully acknowledged throughout, as the authors examine such matters as the false sense of security that comes with large outlays of cash for metal detectors and off-duty police officers to patrol the corridors of education. More concerning than the commitment to invasive high-tech security programs is the way in which ubiquitous safety measures insinuate themselves in the political culture of aspirant citizens who come to regard themselves as constantly under suspicion. The old bromide that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear evaporates practically in the inevitable human errors in applying the close watch technology and theoretically in the extermination of rights of privacy and participation without fear of retribution from the users of the electronic panopticons.

Most telling for me is the connection between all-day, everywhere surveillance and neoliberalism. The enthusiasm with which governmental authorities from George W. Bush to Barack Obama endorse the privatization of education is distressing, but the discomfort is amplified immensely by the way in which schools are targeted by private sector security firms as an almost unimaginably profitable market for anyone able to ratchet up parental and political anxiety about hazards in and out of the classroom.

What Michael Apple, for one, calls the prevalence of the “audit culture” brings every aspect of schooling from production line “learning outcomes” to “public safety” programs under the rubric of metrics, part of the fetish of quantification that accompanies the imposition of the punitive business model. Apple is particularly good on the real purpose of education under late capitalism. Unlike in the past, when schools had the main task of separating children into streams destined for their allocation to occupational categories associated with specific class destinations in the mode of production and distribution, today’s militarization of the school adds another dimension. It is the “school-to-prison pipeline” which provides a speedy way to move from the level of institutionalization to incarceration for those resistant to the imposition of corporate values. In the past, poverty was criminalized; it still is, but intellectual poverty is now added to the list of crimes.

A possible source of hope is nonetheless provided. We are constantly informed that the current generation of pupils is the most tech-savvy in history. That is as may be, but it cannot be denied that they include the most proficient users of social networking and some take this skill to a different level. Many are adept at turning the instruments of oppression, repression and suppression back upon those who initially deployed them. A clever term, “souveillance,” is used to describe the capacity of the observed to observe the observers. Student hackers seem adroit in plebian responses to patrician oversight. Kids, that is to say, can break into official school networks and data storage. They know how to eavesdrop on their teachers. One author refers to at least a potential “digital arms race.” This may be wishful (or terrifying) thinking, reminiscent of the days when many imagined that electronic gadgetry would provoke a massive rush to democracy through electronic plebiscites or highly mobilized movements of political dissent organized by the Internet. Whether texting, twittering or old-fashioned e-mailing will move the public with as much as the invention of the penny post enabled the organization of Chartist resistance in the mid-nineteenth century is uncertain at the moment. What is not uncertain is the direction in which school surveillance is pushing (or following in the wake) of the larger culture.

What the editors would no doubt regard as the “corporate lackeys” among us, of course, will find all of this a little much—leftist hyperbole of a potentially subversive sort, or just garden-variety, irresponsible dissent. So, spreading the view, for example, that the likes of Arne Duncan (President Obama’s education “czar”) may be a single-minded warrior in the army of standardization, privatization and commodification of both the curricula and the students in school settings will surely win few friends among those already inclined to accept the corporate agenda. And, of course, for many, minor inconveniences and occasional miscreancy of those holding the responsibility to maintain law and order among our children may seem worth the price. Nonetheless, Monahan and Torres are certainly on to something. Their intimations of domination, coercion and subjugation are not theirs alone. Anyone who finds this anthology to be of interest, would likely find additional food for thought in the work of Henry A. Giroux—notably in recent books such as Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (2009) and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (2007).



Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2009 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology