[image (c) Gerard van Schagen]
In his paper “The idea of a world university: Can Foucauldian research offer a vision of educational futures?” (published originally in Pedagogy, Culture and Society), Ansgar Allen provides a critique of both Foucault and also other authors who have pursued the notion of a world university via a Foucauldian framework – namely Maarten Simons and Jan Masschelein. Put simply, Allen’s take on this proposal for a world university is that the authors want to be able to ‘have their cake and eat it’, using a theoretical critique of modern universities that explicitly avoids future visions to propose a future vision of what the university should look like. A critique, therefore, that chimes with numerous other reflections on the work of Foucault over the years and of those who have applied his work in different settings.
Referring to Foucault’s disavowal of prescriptive thought, Allen argues that the world university proposed by Simons and Masschelein “is a little eccentric in this respect offering an alternative blue-print of sorts, yet it fails to escape the limitations of Foucauldian thought”. You need to read the article to see how Allen deals with the two problems he identifies as traps for Simons and Masschelein’s Foucault-inspired world university – the problem of underestimation and the problem of further immunisation. But I think he gets to the heart of the problematic when he ponders whether or not the kind of future academic Simons and Masschelein have in mind, “is not always condemned to halt mid-breath?” – i.e., that pointing out problems can only get you so far…
That translation of Allen’s argument of course is mine, but I have always wondered this myself, given that the
potential of Foucault’s work as an applied theory is vast and arguably still to be mined effectively – especially as a mechanism for the consideration of alternatives (in whatever education sector). This is why I especially appreciated Allen’s asking of the question in his final paragraph:“how can one of the most influential diagnostic tools currently in use be tied to future-oriented thought?” AND “how can this be done without denying the very insights and strengths of the Foucauldian approach that have generated this problem?”
This is a significant set of questions that call for a thoughtful set of responses, and Allen himself acknowledges the complex nature of this task – but his own concluding comments may help somewhat to steer such a response:
“… it is necessary to deal with the problem of utopia head on if research dominated by Foucauldian perspectives can hope to offer alternative visions. Only then will we be able to combine a detailed critique of what the university is becoming with a worthwhile vision of what it might otherwise be. As a mode of critique the Foucauldian approach has already proved itself, as a source of invention it remains untapped”.
The question I have for Ansgar Allen and other education researchers is then, how DO we deal with the problem of utopia when it comes to Foucauldian-inspired education research? How do we flip the intellectual switch from critique to vision?