Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 25 Feb 2003

More signs of the panopticon singularity ...

From today's Guardian:

Schoolchildren in Manchester may be filmed during lessons in an attempt to curb unruly behaviour in the classroom.

Cameras could be installed in up to five schools in the city by Easter under the scheme proposed by education officials.

The city's chief education officer, Mick Waters, said he had approached the Department for Education to fund what the council describes as discreet webcams. The department launched a behaviour improvement programme last summer, working with 34 local education authorities.

I barely know where to begin on this one. It's over twenty years since I was in school, and I do not have children of my own, so I'm not well-informed on the subject; but I've got a distinct impression that the way educational institutions are run has changed just a little bit in the past decade. (Teachers forbidden from touching pupils under any circumstances, for fear of a lawsuit alleging sexual molestation? Security guards and police cameras? What the hell is going on?) However, I can't help wondering ...

Ivan Illich came up with some interesting and challenging observations on education (as well as some outright rubbish). One of his points that struck me as probably valid was that the social structure imposed by a school (circa 1960-1980) was designed to habituate the inmates to the conditions of working life in an industrial society for the majority of the population. That is, it resembled an abstraction of a factory: you had to be there at a set time, follow meaningless and arbitrary rules, perform tasks set by a supervisor, divide your time by the ringing of a bell, clock in and clock out to order, and so on. The system in this form dates to the 19th century, and after a few years in a school run along these lines the environment of an industrial age factory wouldn't seem so strange.

If we apply Illich's concept to what Manchester City is doing to its classrooms, we get a rather scary picture: unintentionally or otherwise, they are habituating their children to a regime of omnipresent surveillance. Children in the modern classroom may have internet access, but it's censored (by filters that are as good at blocking access to reference sources on biology as they are at blocking access to porn). Physical contact is policed with inappropriate rigour and the full weight of law imposed, so that on occasion children as young as eight have been suspended from school or even prosecuted for "sexual assault" -- playing in the playground with members of the opposite sex. Running and other forms of energetic activity which might result in injury (and a lawsuit) are forbidden. In a heightened atmosphere of social fear over child abductions, the vast majority of parents won't even let a 14-year-old travel across their home town to go to school on their own; they're chaperoned everywhere except among their schoolmates. And now we're adding universal omnipresent surveillance.

What kind of workplace -- or life -- are we socializing these kids to expect?

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posted at: 12:12 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


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