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What Can Foucault Tell Us About the Future of the University?

Published in Governance, Theory by on January 23, 2013

[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

Retrato del filósofo francés Michel Foucault

Retrato del filósofo francés Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

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About the author /

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

1 Comment

  1. Ansgar Allen
    Ansgar Allen

    The political future of Foucauldian critique is very much in the balance. It is threatened by the prospect of its own reduction to little more than one mode of analysis in a wider theoretical toolbox. It will degenerate (if it has not already done so) to become a species of theoretical cleverness, divorced from any meaningful political commitment, and rendered subservient to the dominant frameworks of the day. This would be deeply ironic. Foucauldian critique was devised specifically to combat those features of contemporary existence that we most take for granted.

    Care should, nevertheless, be taken in attempting to protect Foucauldian critique from its current tendency to political acquiescence. If we were to graft onto it an explicit political commitment animated by some utopia or other, we would be making a profound mistake. As I argue in ‘The idea of a world university’, the apparently easy addition of an animating vision would risk removing those advantages, those sensitivities to power, that Foucauldian critique was once able to offer.

    Though it is often difficult to extract and codify what Foucault was seeking to achieve in political terms –because he diligently avoided normative statements in his pursuit of power– he was no stranger to protest, direct action, arrest, deportation and even police brutality. Foucault’s analytic caution, his avoidance of grand theory and grander visions, was not symptomatic of his preference for academic reserve. Foucault promoted a form of intellectual labour that was never to be separated from political praxis. It is here, perhaps, that utopia may have a role to play in the form of shifting spectres of alternative lives, a visionary process that is brought to earth and muddied as it is tied to bitter struggles against the governing effects and the domesticating influences of power. It may well be that utopian thought must dirty itself to become connected to Foucauldian critique, and Foucauldian critique must entertain the possibility of risk and embarrassment, by its association with dreams.

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